By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – For all the season-long preaching that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has done about the importance of continuity and for all the worry about how this team would mesh given its injury troubles, a quirky reality came to be in Chicago’s 99-96 win against Cleveland in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Friday night at the United Center.
In their biggest game of the season, trying to overcome the LeBron James hurdle that’s long stood in their way, the Bulls closed in the fourth quarter for nearly seven minutes with a five-man unit that had not played together once during the regular season.
From the 7:33 mark of the fourth quarter until the 0:41 mark, the Bulls rode with Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt and the undersized frontcourt of Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy and Jimmy Butler. It was their first playing time of the season together, according to NBA.com. The small lineup was necessitated in large part because Pau Gasol left with a strained left hamstring and because Joakim Noah had another nightmarish offensive game in shooting 1-for-8 from the field.
As the Cavs went small with Tristan Thompson at center, James at power forward and three guards, Thibodeau countered with Gibson at center and Dunleavy at power forward, which he rarely does.
The lineup didn’t work miracles, but it was effective enough, holding the lead until the final minute. Thibodeau then made the Nikola Mirotic/Hinrich offense/defense substitutions down the stretch, and Rose worked the miracle by banking in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
In the second quarter, the Bulls didn’t go small but did go with Mirotic as the stretch four, another adjustment that paid dividends as he sparked Chicago by scoring 11 of his 12 points in the frame.
“We have a lot of different options,” Gibson said. “We just never really had the amount of guys really just healthy to really get in that kind of rhythm.
“Thibs is just one of those guys, you never know who he’s going to throw at you. Just got to be ready. I think defense was the main key in that. He felt like our smaller unit could really move with their unit, and it was just one those quick decisions that the coach made.”
With Gasol officially listed as questionable for Sunday after an MRI revealed a strained left hamstring – he didn’t practice Saturday – the Bulls could again look to play small in Game 4 as they attempt to build on their 2-1 series lead.
“We’ve used it throughout the course of the season,” Thibodeau said. “There’s plusses and minuses to it. If needed, we’re going to use it.”
Adding intrigue and debate to the small-ball lineup question, of course, is Noah’s continued offensive struggles and Thibodeau’s continued trust in him. Even though Noah’s averaging just 5.2 points on 39 percent shooting in the postseason, Thibodeau had been devoted to giving him regular starter’s minutes.
Until Friday, when in a telling move, Noah played just 22 minutes, his fewest since Feb. 10, and sat for the final 17:48. Gibson took over the center position, playing the game’s final 18:49 and finishing with nine points and nine rebounds.
Gibson’s ready to start Sunday, if need be, after a Game 3 that left his coach impressed.
“He’s in a battle, was covering a lot of ground,” Thibodeau said. “His defense, shot-blocking, rebounding, affecting shots – that’s who he is. He plays with high energy. He sprints around into pick-and-rolls, and we need that.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.