- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It's getting to be that time, so if you're looking for a playoff slogan for the Chicago Bulls, how about this one:
All ball, no calls.
Because coach Tom Thibodeau is this close to sequestering his team in its new practice facility and confiscating his players' phones.
"We understand the playoffs are right around the corner," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said after practice Tuesday. "Thibs is telling us, around this time, we have to shut everybody out. We have to even probably, possibly change our numbers because right now, it's all about team and nobody else."
Change your numbers? Seriously?
"That's basically what he's preaching," Gibson said. "To put yourself in a box. Just you and your teammates. If you've got distractions, tell them to call him and he'll tell them no for you. Because it's that time of the year. He doesn't want any distractions."
I can just imagine a Bulls player telling his girlfriend, "Listen, baby, here's Thibs' number. Tell him about your day. I gotta focus on the Bucks."
Given how the Bulls have survived distractions, injuries, turmoil, chemistry problems, defensive breakdowns, not to mention the regular old NBA grind that turns athletes into crutch models, it's now not outlandish to think this team can beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks and make the NBA Finals.
A few weeks ago, I would've said you're crazy. Maybe this newfound optimism inside the Advocate Center is rubbing off on me. Maybe I think Derrick Rose is going to come back hungry for a return to the postseason.
The Bulls are 45-29 going into Wednesday's game at Milwaukee, a pretty good record considering everything that has gone on this season, from minutes restrictions to meniscectomies.
Gibson, the lone Bull to meet with the media Tuesday, embodies the team's chances. I've always thought of Gibson as the soul of the Bulls, a team of millionaires who still consider themselves scrappy underdogs.
If he's spry and healthy, anything is impossible. If his ankles are limiting him -- he missed nearly a month from late February through late March -- it's nothing but frustration.
So,how you feeling, Taj?
"[The ankle] is getting better and better," he said. "I'm having fun, my teammates are throwing the lob to me. I'm looking more for the lob. I'm having fun, just feeding off my teammates. Niko's [Nikola Mirotic] playing extremely well. It's fun out there. I just don't wanna come out there, rush and overdo things. I'm basically letting the game come to me. As long as we continue to get wins, I'm happy."
Gibson played only five games in March, the last five. In those games, he played less than 20 minutes three times, 24 once and 32 another. The Bulls were 4-1 in that stretch.
The guy who picked up his minutes while he was resting his troublesome ankle is first-year phenom Mirotic, who averaged 20.8 points in 15 games in March, playing nearly 31 minutes a game.
Thibodeau talks a lot about his players needing to sacrifice, but Gibson doesn't seem to need convincing, at least not at this time of the season.
"I don't really think we really need to hear it much," Gibson said. "We've already got an unselfish group as it is. If you look at our front line, we've got a bunch of guys who can basically start anywhere, and we understand what it takes. We understand that we're trying to go deep [in the postseason]. We understand that we're trying to win a championship, so sacrifices are going to be made on our team top to bottom. It's all about the ultimate goal, and that's winning."
Gibson's sacrifices started before the season, when the Bulls signed Pau Gasol to start alongside Joakim Noah. That meant Gibson would stick to his sixth-man role. Now, with the playoffs coming and his role diminished (down about 10 minutes per game from his peak this season), Gibson surely still wants to close games but understands that the Bulls will have to lean on Mirotic and Gasol, too.
"At the beginning of the year, Niko did the same thing," he said. "Pau did it at times, Joakim did it at times. It's just one of those things. You have to understand you're playing for a great team. You can't be worrying about the 'me' aspect in a basketball frame of mind. You have to be worried about the team. Basketball is a team sport. I've been around for a while. I'm happy to see guys doing well, and I'm happy to be a part of it each and every day on the court."
All season long, we've been waiting for the Bulls to get healthy, for the defense to coalesce, for Rose to get his game together and now for him just to get back on the court.
While we were waiting, the Bulls were getting their act together, with or without their star. For all the debates about minutes restrictions and Thibodeau's style, the team looks relatively frisky. See what happens when everyone works together?
"I think right now we're healthy. Guys are coming back from injuries," Gibson said. "Our younger guys are a lot better, pushing our veterans. It's taking a whole collective group. Just coming together. It's what happened this year rather than last year, where we had a lot of ups and downs and injuries and not enough recovery time."
The big news Tuesday was that Rose was "full contact" for the team's second practice in as many days, participating in a full, 5-on-5 scrimmage for the first time since getting his right meniscus trimmed in late February.
"It's a big morale boost," Gibson said. "It's up there with watching a rookie who overcame so much adversity. Now you see Joakim out there, and then you see Derrick coming in there and just that old attacking personality, how he is. He's back in the hunt, talking trash, hitting 3s, running back up and down the court. And it's good to know that even while he was hurt he was still paying attention to detail. It's only a matter of time before he's back out there going up and down the way he normally is."
The Bulls are 11-8 since Rose reported knee soreness after a 1-for-13 shooting night in an 87-71 win over Milwaukee. You figure he'll miss another three to four games and get four or five to get ready for the postseason. As of now, the Bulls would face the Bucks in the first round.
Last season, the Bulls quickly faded in their first-round loss against the Washington Wizards. Noah's knee wound up needing surgery that wiped out his entire summer.
This season, the team's health is trending up. For once. Maybe.
No one can predict the future, as Rose can tell you, but the slog of a long season is almost history. What's in front of the Bulls is everything that matters.
"Like Thibs said, 'It's our time,' " Gibson said. "We're gonna walk through the fire together, and we're excited about it."
Taj Gibson is the Bulls' heart and soul, and he embodies the team's postseason chances, Jon Greenberg writes.