- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Taj Gibson's popularity is soaring in Chicago, and it had little to do with his monster two-point, five-rebound game Wednesday night.
When Gibson replaces Carlos Boozer, the home crowd has started to respond with applause. It's certainly not for Boozer's contributions.
It's Boo season in Chicago, and Joakim Noah, for one, knows they're not chanting "Booz!"
"Sometimes our home crowd is a tough game to play," Noah said pointedly after the Chicago Bulls' 86-73 win over the Atlanta Hawks that tied the Eastern Conference semifinals at 1-1. "We've got a lot of love for our crowd, but through tough times, we got to stick together. I've been in that position before, my rookie year, where I've been booed. It's tough to be booed in your home crowd.
"With Carlos," Noah continued, "people have to understand he's playing through an injury, and he's giving us what he's got. He's somebody who has an unbelievable presence, and he opens up a lot of things for a lot of us. I think sometimes people are quick to bash one player. But this is a team, and we know we need Carlos to get to where we want to go."
Boozer is a veteran, and despite his All-Star appearances and impressive numbers, he didn't always have it easy in Utah. So he's used to negative attention -- he's particularly unpopular in certain road cities -- and while I can't say the boos bother Booz, they bother his teammates. The Bulls are rallying around their hobbled big man, who is playing through a turf toe injury.
"If you know how turf toe is, if you have any injury [like that], anything he can go out and give us is a plus," Ronnie Brewer said. "I think he did a phenomenal job on both ends of the floor."
Phenomenal? Remind me to have Brewer do my next job evaluation. But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has offered a similar party line. To the public, at least.
"Carlos is giving us everything he has," Thibodeau said. "The rebounding is huge. His offense will come around."
Perhaps, but it's surely time to retire the bromide "Boozer is good for 20 and 10 every night." We've learned some hard lessons about this team through seven playoff games, and Boozer hasn't looked comfortable on a nightly basis.
Boozer played just less than 33 minutes and scored eight points on 4-of-12 shooting and added 11 rebounds, three fouls and two defensive three-second violations. He had only one turnover, though, which is kind of a shocker.
Basketball is about more than numbers, to be sure, but Boozer's middling stats through seven playoff games, bum toe and all, tell you everything you need to know about his performance: 10 points and 8.3 rebounds on average. Not awful, but not worth the money he's being paid or the reputation that earned him that money.
I don't think we need to worry about any defensive metrics. The eye test is fine. Boozer was brought in, at high cost, for his offense. When that's not there, on the surface all you get are some rebounds, a lot of chest hair and some screaming.
And when things are going bad, Boozer, who can spin a tale or two, turns concise. And every night at his locker, it's the same awkward story as reporters try to figure out a way to get him to explain why he's so consistently mediocre. It gets old for us, too.
Here's a basic transcript of three straight questions to Boozer:
Q: How's your toe?
A: It's still sore, it's still hurting, but it'll be all right.
Q: Does your toe affect your lift?
A: A lot, a lot.
Q: Would it be better to rest?
A: Nah, I'd rather be out there.
I believe that, but there's no choice for Boozer, he has to play and deal with his limited ability right now. In Thibodeau's world, there are no gray areas. You can see his philosophy on ephemeral ideas like "rest" with how he distributes minutes and brushes off injury questions.
"One thing about this team, we play through injuries," said Gibson, who has fought through his own foot injuries. "Thibs has a saying, 'If you're hurt, you can play. If you're injured, you have to sit down.' There's no such thing about guys being hurt. Guys are pushing through it, everybody from Derrick [Rose] to Joakim, guys are playing with a lot of courage."
Courage is nice, production is better. Rose, who won't even admit his sprained left ankle is affecting him, scored 25 points on Wednesday, albeit on 10-of-27 shooting.
Should fans give Boozer a break? In a perfect world, yes, but there are only so many fumbled passes and rejected shots a fan can take. I know it's frustrating for Boozer, too.
That's why people are clamoring for more Gibson. The second-year forward has been an important role player for the Bulls this season, playing ardent defense and spearheading the "Bench Mob" mentality of the successful second unit that complements the starters. He takes that job seriously off the floor as well.
"Me and [Boozer] are close, so I know when [he's down]," Gibson said. "But that's my job to pick him up, that's Joakim's job. Everybody on the team is going to help him get through it. He's been hurting at times, but he's still playing well, playing solid."
While Thibodeau is unlikely to bench Boozer, he did admit that Gibson, who is averaging about 17 minutes a game, needs more time on the floor. Gibson played 6:34 in the fourth, about a minute more than Boozer. He is certainly a more sure thing on team defense.
"Taj deserves more minutes," Thibodeau said. "He does whatever job we ask him to do. He's done a great job for us in whatever role."
For his part, Boozer said his offensive confidence isn't lacking, despite what we see on the floor.
"Obviously I want to make the shots that I missed," he said, "or the ones that got blocked. But for the most part, I'm just going to keep playing."
I guess that's all that you can ask, even though it seems like we should be able to ask for a lot more.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
The Bulls' Carlos Boozer is finding support from teammates, if not fans.