Saw this before the Raptors game, and: INDEED
All four bigs healthy and playing tonight. Will be interesting to see how minutes get distributed.— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) March 25, 2015
This was a 'concern' even before the season, though I think it was pretty obvious that between Noah, Gasol, Gibson, and Mirotic there'd be enough injuries to where eventually some would get playing time. And that's pretty much what happened, especially in March where Nikola Mirotic has (to put it lightly) stepped up in correlation with increased playing time.
But while Taj did play 10 minutes in his first game back last week, Wednesday's victory in Toronto was the first time we've seen all 4 available in over a month. And it's a delicate balancing act for Thibs. Here's how it looked.
Now, implementing a rotation may be difficult, but second-guessing one easy!
Nobody's minutes are what you'd categorize as overuse, but it's still strange to see Gasol play so much when he simply doesn't have to. Especially for entire first and third quarters, the kind of extended run you'd figure the oldest member of the group would be the one to avoid. Thibs's reliance on Gasol has been suspect all season, but he hasn't broken down yet, which is all anybody can say until he does, and then they say well you can't predict such things.
In terms of pairings, I think it's clear that Noah+Mirotic has been the best, leaving Gasol+Gibson a more natural pair (though not the one you'd necessarily go to next). A change to the starting lineup isn't going to happen (Boozer in the Wizards series proved that), but Thibs could certainly stagger out the Noah+Gasol pairing a bit more.
And that includes in the closing minutes, which is really intriguing. It's been heartening to see Thibs reward Mirotic's play with increased trust to get that call late in games. And how intriguing was it that in this first instance of having all 4 at his disposal, Thibs went with offense over his old favorites in Noah+Gibson.
Mirotic is just playing bonkers, and I definitely have no problem with riding him in these 4th quarters where he only seems to get better. But Gasol is seemingly locked in there too, and has been all season, and it's a bit concerning. With a tie game and 5 minutes to go against Toronto, Gasol was subbed in for Noah, and...the Bulls went +13 and blew them out. Maybe it's years of ThibsBall being drilled into me, but I can't help but see Gasol's lack of defensive movement and overmatched rebounding position costing them at some point. It looked like it may happen in the win over Charlotte, but the Hornets missed their 2nd chances and Mirotic hit shots. Tom D'Antoni over here, right?
Thibs going with offense is scary, but also kind of cool. But we'll see what happens when it doesn't work. Had Toronto pulled away instead last night, would we hear like we did last week about Noah watching the stretch run and the excuse of a minutes restriction? Noah was under 30 minutes in that game, but had just missed the prior one for 'general soreness', so maybe that was the reason again. But you'd have to think Noah may start really wanting out there when it gets to the real season, and that actually works out nicely since him and Mirotic are a dynamite combination as it is. But then would Gasol really be the one who's benched? As stated before, he's been the only guy to have a consistent presence late in games all season, and that's not even getting to the offseason talk of his desire to close games.
And that last bit brings up Taj Gibson, who also has spoken of his sacrifice in playing time this year and was the low man Wednesday with under 14 minutes. I think Taj is someone we're going to need in the playoffs, even if he's now the least likely to close a game for them. In a kind of perverse convenience, It simply makes the most sense to limit his minutes most given his recurring injuries this season. I got really bummed when I noticed this on Monday:
As we saw for more than a bit against Toronto, Thibs also got Mirotic playing time by getting him out there at small forward. While this definitely doesn't kill the team or anything, I just don't think it does much besides mitigate Mirotic's strengths. The Bulls were +1 in 7 minutes where Niko was at SF, but +23 in his PF minutes (hat-tip to the comments to let me steal that math).
Mirotic has the skills to shoot over taller defenders, but it seems like an unnecessary chore to make him chase around wings. There is some SF depth on this team too (on the nights good Tony Snell shows up, which was definitely the case Wednesday), so to me it really is a 'forcing' situation when it's done.
But that it is even possible is a credit to the improvement Niko has made on defense (memba this?), and also to Thibs for bringing Niko along on that end of the floor this season.
And as a sort of commendation, this whole post is a lot to say that I don't have a true solution for this 'problem', and that Thibs job really isn't easy. We thought that there was little chance Niko would play as much in the playoffs, but this Toronto game was some evidence otherwise. It's going to be real interesting to watch.