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Bulls’ Carlos Boozer driven by criticism

Carlos Boozer’s productideclined dramatically playoffs partly because turf toe. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Carlos Boozer’s production declined dramatically in the playoffs, partly because of turf toe. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 9, 2012 10:13AM

It’s not easy for athletes to avoid labels in this town. Once an impression has been made, good or bad, it can be as difficult to shed as a childhood nickname.

While Derrick Rose became “MVP” last season, Carlos Boozer’s brand was less flattering.

If the Bulls forward can’t shake it this year, he might never.

“At the end of the day, some people take criticism the wrong way,” Boozer said after a workout Wednesday at the Berto Center. “I take it as motivation. Criticism motivates you. That’s how I’ve been my entire career. I’m very motivated, to say the least.”

The way Boozer raised his eyebrows to emphasize “very” made it clear he was aware of his chorus of naysayers. He also knows the best way for him to re-brand himself is to help the Bulls eliminate the Miami Heat and reach the NBA Finals.

“I want to win,” he said when asked what he hopes to accomplish this season. “The biggest thing from last year is having that loss lingering in our minds and our thoughts. Knowing we came close and were good [but] not good enough, that’s what motivated all of us.”

His Bulls career began with him tripping over a gym bag, resulting in a broken hand that forced him to miss the first 15 games of last season. He sat out eight more with a sprained ankle. During the playoffs, turf toe prevented him from making plays around the rim, contributing to a disappointing performance.

How much the injury affected his play has been the subject of debate.

“First I was resting the toe,” a trimmed-down Boozer said when asked how he spent his offseason. “Getting the toe healthy was a big deal. During that time, I was just spending time with the family. After my toe felt much better, I started cranking up my workouts, my basketball. I was watching tape, trying to improve on the things I didn’t do so well last year.”

He spoke in generalities when asked how he wanted to improve when training camp opens Friday.

“I was able to look at some of the things I didn’t do well and go in the gym and work on it and get ready for next year,” he said. “I’ll leave it broad like that. This year, I just want to play better ‘D,’ be more efficient offensively, be a better leader, a better teammate and do whatever it takes for our team to win. Our motto is, ‘Whatever it takes.’ ”

Boozer alone might be able to boost his team past the Heat by maintaining the level of play that made the Bulls acquire him before last season. He remains a standout defensive rebounder and the team’s best low-post scoring threat.

It was defense and an occasionally maddening inability to finish inside that led to him spending the fourth quarter of the deciding Game 5 against the Heat on the bench.

“Honestly, the turf toe limited me, but I did the best I could with it,” he said. “I’m not worried about it now. I’m looking forward to a new year, and I’m excited.”

Not that Boozer didn’t have his moments. In 59 games, he led the Bulls in scoring 14 times, in rebounding 31 times and in assists six times. He averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds while shooting 51 percent from the floor. Those numbers slipped to 12.6, 5.3 and 43.3 percent in the postseason.

If there’s one advantage to knowing precisely where you stand — in this case, behind the Heat in the Eastern Conference — it’s that the path to redemption is clear, both individually and collectively.

“We’ve grown. They’ve grown, too, from the experiences they’ve had,” Boozer said of the two teams. “That’s history. All we can do now is take what we learned from that series and what we learned from the playoffs in general and use the criticism to grow, use the failure to grow.”

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