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Ball Don't Lie

Taj Gibson blames his most recent knee strain on his ‘rush back’ to action, as Chicago limps around

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Taj Gibson girds those knees for game action (Getty Images)

If you’ve followed my coverage from afar of the Chicago Bulls through the years, you know where this is going. The team has a well-earned reputation for allowing players to come back from injury whenever they want. And in the case of seemingly everyone but star Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, this results in players attempting to “gut” through injuries, because guts are much, much dumber than brains.

From various members of last year’s famed Bench Mob to current rotation types like Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, and especially Luol Deng; it’s clearly obvious that these workers aren’t at full strength and can use further time off, and yet the Bulls have given these players clearance to do what they want. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s insistence in keeping starters on the floor deep into one-sided games does not help things, either.

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Forward Taj Gibson did not sit out a month with an MCL sprain, as some in and outside the Bulls organization have reported. He took in 24 days of rest for an injury that can either be given a “two to four week” or “indefinite” time frame for return. And, after a week of playing on that left knee, Gibson likely re-sprained the MCL in a loss to the Wizards on Tuesday. Afterwards, he credited coming back too early for the setback. From ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell:

"That's what happens when you rush back and try to help your team win," a frustrated Gibson said after the Bulls' 90-86 loss to the Wizards.

[…]

"I just did a basic rotation," Gibson said. "Tried to slide, and it just buckled on me. It was real painful. I tried to just play through it because I kind of got nicked up the last couple games and kept playing. I came down the court and just told [coach Tom Thibodeau] to take me out and just went to the back. I just knew it was real painful, I just couldn't keep going. I didn't want to hurt my teammates."

That last statement speaks to the best and worst aspects of a Chicago team that has played inspired and at times dominating basketball since Thibodeau took over during the summer of 2010.

Even with last summer’s major roster overhaul – a depth killing maneuver inspired by payroll concerns that managed to still hamstring the team’s ability to work around the salary cap – this remains a group of hard workers that genuinely don’t want to let each other down. And even for each frustrating Carlos Boozer defensive misstep or poorly-conceived Nate Robinson jumper, this remains a squad that seems uniquely tight, amongst 29 other NBA teams.

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And now it’s time to somehow find a way to give this group what it needs. Rest. Because this season is going absolutely nowhere, in ways that were both inspired by Rose’s torn ACL, and the front office’s decision to work around the team’s rotation replacements in curious ways last summer.

Chicago is a game and a half up on the Boston Celtics for the East’s sixth seed, and a game in back of the Atlanta Hawks for the fifth seed in the first round. The Celtics going to be without Kevin Garnett until the last few games of the season, and they’re taking this long view mainly because the team knows that the eight-seeded Milwaukee Bucks still probably won’t win enough games to overtake the one and a half games that separate the Bucks and Boston, even though Boston has lost seven of 10.

Atlanta is a flaky squad, to say the least, but it would still be a tough road toward grabbing that fifth seed for Chicago. And even if the team did kill itself to pass the Hawks, what’s the point? The Bulls would be in just as much danger taking offense-first squads from New York or Brooklyn in the first round, so it’s better to stink it up with the end of the bench over the next two weeks then to squeeze this rotation even more just for the luxury of taking on the Nets. Full-strength Chicago, minus Rose, would have just as good a chance at either team; and I say that with all due respected pointed toward New York’s current nine-game winning streak.

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Tom Thibodeau looks down the bench, and doesn't see much (Getty Images)

Of course, with players sitting out the team will be forced into pulling more out of the players that can show up to work. Luol Deng played 42 minutes on Tuesday and averaged nearly 39 minutes a game in March, and no amount of rest between now and the playoffs will bring him back to full strength. The same goes for Kirk Hinrich, who has battled through infection, fears of a stress fracture, and five other injuries this season. Kirk is beat to hell, by this point, and he can’t be helped either despite his inspiring efforts.

Boston won’t be moved much, though. And with the Bulls set to take on an easy schedule (three current playoff teams, six lottery squads to close out the year) that may be made all the more palatable if teams in New York or Miami sit out their stars, killing what little this team has left in order to grab a 45-37 record that nobody will remember this time next season seems completely unnecessary.

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To his credit, coach Tom Thibodeau seems to have come around on Noah and Marco Belinelli’s soft tissue and abdominal strain injuries, painful ailments that often take into the offseason to fully repair even with a few weeks off midseason. From Nick’s pregame report on Tuesday:

"They're both better," Thibodeau said. "But they both have the type of injury where you don't want it to linger so we're just going to be patient. Plus where we are in the season, you're winding down right now so we just want to make sure that they're completely healthy."

This is why Nazr Mohammed, who was a bit player until one month ago, needs to play quite a bit to close out the season. This is why Jimmy Butler, who also played 42 minutes on Tuesday and seems to have the freshest legs off all, needs to stay on the court. This is why Vladimir Radmanovic, whose defensive work can be downright Boozer-y at times, needs to be trusted by Thibodeau to step up for spot minutes with Gibson possibly out until (yikes) the middle of the first round of the playoffs.

And in a lost season like this? This is where you give the ball to Nate Robinson. It’s not as if you’re going anywhere, anyway, and it’s not as if Nate’s dodgy decision-making is going to rub off on these vets.

It’s not pretty, but this is where the Bulls should expect to be.

When you trot out Joakim Noah -- past plantar fasciitis-sufferer -- for the second most minutes per game for the first few months of the season, the expected (two extended stints on the bench) happens. When you sign Kirk Hinrich, who has led the NBA in injury accessories per-limb for the past three seasons, to a cap-stalling and poorly-conceived contract, he’s probably going to continue to breakdown in unfair ways. Taj Gibson continually goes all out, and he was bound to tweak something eventually.

And Derrick Rose, watching it from afar until recently, understandably isn’t keen to rush back just so the team could maybe make the fifth seed.

This where you stop the squeezing, and start the saving. Running up 40 wins in 73 games so far with this crew is an admirable accomplishment, but Chicago badly needs to find a way to dial it back for the next two weeks. Boston’s not breathing down anyone’s neck – they’re limping, just as the Bulls are.

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