OKLAHOMA CITY -- Taj Gibson spoke for his teammates, his coaches and many Chicago Bulls fans late Thursday night while trying to put into words how difficult it is for his team to keep playing hard in the face of so many injuries this season.
"It's tough," Gibson admitted after the Bulls' loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"Because these injuries that these guys are having are injuries that you really got to rest them. But the thing about these guys, everybody on this team, guys just keep pushing through injury. Instead of like any other team guys would just sit out, but these guys are still pushing, pushing the limit. No matter how hard it hurts they're still going. It's frustrating but things like that are going to happen. ... we don't know what else we can do, outside of going out there and keep playing hard."
That is the mentality the Bulls have had for the better part of four seasons under Tom Thibodeau. But as recent events show, that mentality, at least with regard to injuries, is slowly starting to change because the expectations surrounding this team have changed.
The players know that they are no longer championship contenders.
When Derrick Rose went down the Bulls' championship aspirations went down with him. After trying to battle through all the adverse circumstances, even the proudest of players see the writing on the wall. Unlike the tunnel vision of Thibodeau, the players know there is a bigger picture in play than what amounts to a relatively meaningless regular-season game in December. That's why it will be so interesting to watch how players deal with lingering injuries throughout the rest of another lost season.
Bulls players up and down the roster have played through various injuries the past few seasons because they knew they were always playing for something more. They were playing for the opportunity to win a championship. Now, unlike before, they are just playing out the string. That's why the past week has been so telling with regard to how proud veterans like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have handled their own lingering injuries.
Noah sat out a game last week because of a knee contusion that he would later say had been getting worse for a while and would eventually have to be drained. Thibodeau, who said Noah had a thigh bruise, said he was caught off-guard that Noah would not be playing when he found out a few hours before the game that the All-Star center would not play.
Deng, who missed four games a couple weeks ago because of an Achilles injury, admitted after Thursday's loss that the same injury has been bothering him for a while and he would not be playing again until Christmas Day at the earliest. Once again, Thibodeau seemed almost surprised before the game when he revealed that Deng would not be playing.
"I hope not," Thibodeau said of the possibility of Deng missing a lot of time. "I think he'll be fine. He just needs a little rest I guess."
The difference now is that Thibodeau can't sell his team on the possibility of that championship. So often over the past three years, players always played through pain because they didn't want to let Thibodeau, or their teammates, down. Thibodeau would never intentionally put a player on the floor if he knew that player were injured -- but as is so often the case in any professional sport -- the veteran coach always made it clear that there's a difference between being hurt and being injured.
Now it appears that players have taken matters into their own hands much more so than they have in the past. Nobody can question the work ethic or determination of Noah or Deng, especially given how much they have done for the Bulls organization since Thibodeau arrived in town. Both men have played through pain and have earned the respect of their teammates and fans alike. But both men, along with the rest of their teammates, know that things have changed this season because of the injury to Rose.
There's always a gray area in regard to playing through pain in professional sports -- every team goes through it -- but maybe this time Chicago's players will decide to look out for themselves and their long-term well-being more than they have in the past. Maybe they'll think a little harder about playing through an injury that they might have tried to grind past a year or two ago.
Rose's injury, along with injuries to Kirk Hinrich (back) and Jimmy Butler (turf toe/ankle), Noah and Deng have made all the players re-evaluate their own situations. They still want what's best for the team, and they are still playing hard for Thibodeau -- but the approach in evaluating their own condition seems to have changed, even if the general mindset has not.
"I don't think we can do that," Noah said of emotionally giving up. "I think that we're in a situation right now where we're losing games, but we still represent the Chicago Bulls, we still represent Chicago. Chicago's a city that deals with a lot of adversity. I think that we're dealing with a lot of adversity. We just got to go there and fight. That's the nature of this city."