DEERFIELD, ILL. (AP) - The Chicago Bulls didn't need to see Taj Gibson dunk on Dwyane Wade in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals or try to carry them late in Game 2.
They already understood his value. He's just showing it on a bigger stage these days.
The Bulls are in the conference finals for the first time in 13 years, tied 1-1 with the Heat as the series shifts to Miami for Game 3, and challenging for their first championship since the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era.
For that, they can thank Derrick Rose's emergence as the league's youngest MVP and an offseason makeover that gave them one of the deepest rotations. A big part of that is Gibson, a starter as a rookie last season.
He didn't complain when management went wooing a star big man over the summer even though that meant a reduced role for him.
Instead, he embraced the arrival of Carlos Boozer and did whatever was asked, whether that meant filling in or providing a spark off the bench.
"That's one thing about being a pro _ you have to learn and understand your job," Gibson said. "That'll be the first step. They taught me how to do that. Whatever they needed from me, I was able to do that. They wanted me to come off the bench and provide a spark off the bench, I did that. They wanted me to start, I did it. It's all about being a pro and understanding what you need to do to get more minutes and play in this league longer."
That's one reason Gibson is the sort of player teams love to have.
"Good guy, good character," guard Ronnie Brewer said. "When you see the guy screaming and yelling and jumping around after he makes a dunk or after he makes a shot, that's the type of guy he is in the locker room. He's a funny guy, exciting guy. I wouldn't say he's goofy, but he's really a good guy."
A first-round pick out of Southern California in 2009, Gibson made 70 starts and averaged 9.0 points and 7.5 rebounds last season. He showed an uncanny knack on defense, averaging 1.3 blocks, and earned first-team, All-Rookie honors.
Then, he watched as the Bulls went shopping.
Along with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, a top-tier big man was at the top of the list. They met with Chris Bosh, David Lee and wound up reeling in Boozer with a five-year, $75 million contract. While all that was going on, Gibson was spending his summer days with such fun-filled activities as ice baths and sound wave therapy to treat plantar fasciitis in both his feet while staring at a reduced role.
One thing he wasn't doing was sulking.
"I'm a team player," Gibson said. "I'm not a guy to point fingers, say 'I'm better than him, give me this.' I looked at the positive. ... The Bulls understood I was ready to do whatever to help the team win."
Early on, that meant filling in as a starter. With Boozer recovering from a fractured fifth metacarpal bone in his right hand, Gibson started 14 of the Bulls' first 15 games and averaged 11.3 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 51.1 percent.
He struggled a little when Boozer came back, but ultimately got through it, averaging 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds on the season.
"He's done a great job all season long, and I think he's gotten a lot healthier," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He had a tough summer with the injury, and then he had some foot problems early in camp."
There was little Gibson could do during the offseason.
He could barely walk, let alone work on his game. He was icing his feet four times a day, and nights were particularly painful.
When training camp started, he was trying to catch up physically while adjusting to a new coach and a new role. He had never been a backup, but he and Boozer connected.
"He's a great teammate. We talk about basketball," Gibson said. "We talk about life. He teaches me different things. He's always encouraging. When I'm doing bad, when I'm doing good, he's always behind me. He's my guy. He always looks for me on the bench (to give) advice, and he's my guy."
Boozer was cheering as loud as anyone on the sideline in Game 1 after that poster dunk on Wade, and he wasn't the only one amazed. Gibson got so many messages afterward that he shut off his phone.
In Game 2, he had the crowd rocking again _ this time in the fourth quarter, when he scored all his eight points, including a tying dunk before the Heat pulled away for an 85-75 victory.
"He's been a huge asset for us," Brewer said. "He's been an asset for this team the entire year. He's been playing huge for us, rebounding the ball on both ends of the floor. He's being more aggressive offensively, which is opening up the floor for everybody else. He's really being a huge factor that the other team has got to scout and pay attention to. He's been a sparkplug."