By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – At a time of year seemingly full of forgettable games for teams on a playoff path just jostling for seeding, there was nothing remarkable about the Bulls’ 91-81 victory against the 76ers on Saturday at the United Center.
It was a typical Chicago performance, the offensively challenged Bulls letting a team that’s now lost 24 straight games hang around all evening. It was a typical Philadelphia performance, the 76ers playing hard (they outrebounded the Bulls) but continuing to lack the sport’s most elemental, crucial skill known as shooting (1-of-20 showing on 3-pointers) that forecasts certain doom.
It was also a customary outing for reserve Bulls forward Taj Gibson, who recorded 16 points on 8-of-16 shooting while adding 10 rebounds off the bench.
There was no flash from Gibson in the form of a thunderous transition dunk on this night, nothing a young fan taking in his first game might remember of him. It was a performance certain to be lost to the ethers, which isn’t to say it lacked meaning.
After all, it’s stringing games like this together that make Gibson most proud and have him in the conversation for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award, an honor he admits would mean the world to him.
“It would mean a lot, it would mean a lot,” said Gibson, who is averaging 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 48 percent.
“To go from a guy that’s just focused on defense and now my teammates are focused on me on offense, it’s just great. Just evaluating my game and the coach staff just believing in me, it’d be a dream come true.”
Oftentimes, the winners of the Sixth Man award have a certain flair to them. In their own way, they’re must see. They rip the warmups off, and the tone of the game changes. Or perhaps they’re just three possessions away from a heat check.
J.R. Smith, James Harden, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry are a few such examples and recent winners during a stretch in which guards have captured the honor eight of the past nine years.
With the low-maintenance Gibson, there’s little flair. He checks in, sometimes with five minutes to play in the first quarter, sometimes not until the start of the second, as he put it. From there Gibson knocks down open mid-range jumpers, rebounds against bigger men, rotates adeptly, closes out on everything and runs his lane in transition.
He doesn’t even have any cool superstitions, just a couple points of emphasis to help his keep focus.
As Gibson sits to open the game, he keeps “a good rhythm going on the sideline – I’m jumping up, I’m cheering, that helps me,” he said.
Then when he gets on the floor, Gibson makes a point to take the first good look he gets, a piece of advice given to him by Derrick Rose.
And that’s about all there is to it.
“I try to be consistent,” said Gibson, stating his case indirectly. “I try to bring energy, defense, scoring. All those put together, we should have a good shot to win.
“I bring scoring, rebounding and defense, and I play in the most crucial point of the game. I play every fourth quarter. It’s totally different from a big man’s aspect (as opposed to guards who specialize in scoring).”
Gibson has some stiff competition for the award from the likes of Thunder guard Reggie Jackson (13.3 ppg, 4.0 apg), Suns forward Markieff Morris (13.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Clipper guard Crawford (18.7 ppg). It’d be hard to call any single person the clear front-runner, but Gibson is certainly in the race.
When asked what he thought his chances of winning the award were, Gibson responded, “Whatever happens, happens.”
What he does know is his contributions don’t go unnoticed by his team, and that’s what matters most him.
“He deserves it, but I don’t think it’s important right now,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said. “I don’t think that’s why he plays the game. I think that Taj is a great competitor. He’s a team-first guy. That’s what makes him so valuable. He sacrifices so much for this team. Whether he’s coming off the bench or starting, it’s always team first, and I think he’s deserving because of that, because he puts the team first.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.