- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Finally he had a game where he didn't at least score in double-figures or shoot higher than 50 percent from the field. Finally, after an eight-point performance in a preseason victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, things were back to the norm.
The norm. What that used to be for Taj Gibson seems not to exist anymore.
The norm. What Gibson used to do and how he used to approach the game are now history.
An unexpected transformation. Sorta.
See, after last year, many here thought Gibson was done. Over. Finished like the end of a film screened at Cannes. He had finally gotten paid, agreeing to a four-year, $33 million extension early last season, negotiated by his flashes of promise on the court. It was a contract befitting of a player whom an organization would look insane if they were to let go. The Bulls had plans for Taj. Big plans.
Then last year happened. Gibson seemed to vanish in games. His play became apathetic on good days. He was close to being placed in one of those "one of those" categories. As in one of those players who gets paid and checks out. His play indicated nothing to the contrary, and those plans the Bulls had for him seemed to be on the verge of being shelved.
But coach Tom Thibodeau had another plan. Just like he seems to have done with Luol Deng when the coach first came here, Derrick Rose to a degree and Jimmy Butler over the last two offseasons, Thibs forced Gibson to trust him.
Trust him with his life, which equates to his career.
Gibson had no choice. He wasn't playing anywhere close to his capabilities. His mind was messing with him. He'd seen what the finished products of "The Church of Thibs" looked like. What other choice did a brotha have?
Now I lay me down to sleep ...
When Gibson woke up, nothing was the same. The season was over, the initial weight of living up to the contract was gone. The season of "No Rose" was behind them -- behind him -- and the only thing in front of Gibson at the beginning of this season was opportunity and possibility. He was new, he was mad, he was different. There was a chip on his shoulder that had never been a part of his life before. He'd placed it there himself.
Gibson said: "I'm not mad at anyone specifically, nothing directly has happened to make me have this chip (on my shoulder), it's just ..."
It's just there. As Gibson spoke to me privately outside of the Bulls' locker room after a recent shootaround, he was clear and unclear about the new anger-that-really-isn't-real-anger he takes with him now every time he blesses the court.
"I can't really explain it," he said. "I just know I have to be ready. I had to step my game up."
Lost in all of the hysteria of Rose's return, is the "step up" of Gibson. The player who is averaging 13.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and shooting 58.4 percent in the preseason with a legit jumper from 20 feet. The player who is also a shot-blocking presence in the lane.
Gibson is no longer going to settle for anything less than his new expectations of himself and what his coach sees hidden inside him.
"Everything he's told me he wanted me to do is happening so far, paying off," Gibson said of Thibodeau. "He told he wanted me to gain 15-20 pounds, wanted me to have a strong summer just working out, going hard every day, sacrificing my body, and I did that. (Thibs) said everyone has to sacrifice. I didn't do anything but what he asked me to do and work out all offseason and it's shown.
"We talk a lot. It's crazy. Me and Thibs, our relationship has grown so much. (It's) helped my confidence out a lot. Just the way he calls my name every day in practice. Just being on top of it. Telling me that I'm doing a great job but also telling me that they need to count on me more. Which, for me, is great to hear."
That causes the chip to appear. And stay there.
It's reverse psychology at its best. You tell yourself it's you against the world, while the voices outside your head are encouraging you to find greatness. It's how one makes doubt disappear, how one makes himself further believe, how one makes $33 million seem like a bargain.
Carlos Boozer may have summed Gibson up best last week when he said, "Having the weight (of the contract) lifted off of his shoulders, he can just hoop. With that pressure off of him he's flourishing. (Gibson) might be our best player in the preseason."
This coming from the man who is trying to protect his own spot from being taken by the guy he's praising.
The weird thing about change is the time that is so often connected to it.
How long does change last? When is it no longer change? When does "it is what it is" simply take over?
To say Gibson has changed would actually be a lie. To say he's evolved, grown into himself, would be more accurate.
As the "win it all or it's over" season for the Bulls is about to begin, many in the city are going to be waiting to see how long this "change" in Gibson lasts, because with change often comes scrutiny. All expectations entering this season were for Jimmy Butler to be the difference-maker on the squad, the player who added a dimension that wasn't there last season. The new X-factor.
Taj? No one knew what to expect. No one saw this coming. And now that it seems to be here, will it last?
When asked of the greatest difference between him now and at this same time last year, Gibson said: "Just how focused I am on the game plan and how much I am looking forward to different schemes of the game. I'm really understanding different players' games. Being in the league a while now, I know everything as far as players and schemes. I had a great training camp and a great preseason. And it's been going like that so far."
Taj Gibson has a self-imposed chip on his shoulder and a season in front of him that can only be seen as a possibility. How he manages it is on him.
It is something only Gibson can control, yet he doesn't have an answer. But as long as he plays the next 82 games the way he did the preseason, there is a very strong chance that the change we are witnessing in him may now just be who he is.