DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Taj Gibson flashed back to the grueling workouts in the searing Southern California heat last summer.
There he was with Derrick Rose, running and jumping and trying to take his game to another level for the Chicago Bulls while their superstar point guard worked his way back from a left knee injury.
It was intense," Gibson said. "It was out in the hot sun every day, every morning, it was burning up, hot. Running, pushing your body to limits you didn't know you could push your body to. It was really hard every day."
Rose's comeback came screeching to a halt in November, this time because of an injury to his right knee.
Gibson's ascent continues.
He has played a big role off the bench while assuming more responsibilities on a team that again lost its cornerstone and traded away another top player in Luol Deng. The Bulls won 48 games to grab the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and homecourt advantage in their first-round series against the Washington Wizards despite some big obstacles.
While Joakim Noah, D.J. Augustin and coach Tom Thibodeau have all played big roles in that, so has Gibson.
He averaged a career-high 13 points and emerged as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his fifth season as well as their No. 1 power forward in crunch time. While Carlos Boozer starts, Gibson finishes. He plays in the fourth quarter, with Boozer on the sideline.
A big reason for that is his ability to defend, to block shots and switch on the pick-and-roll. But he's also emerged as more of a force on offense, after averaging 8 points a year ago.
"He's gotten better every year in the league," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "He works really hard."
He believes more in his mid-range jumper, something he worked on in the offseason, and his post game. He's more confident, period, and Gibson credits a nudge from Thibodeau along with the work he did in the summer for that.
"I sacrificed my whole summer — not going out, not hanging out with my friends," Gibson said. "Just really devoted to go to the gym. Thibs told me if you want success, you've got to put the work in."
Five days a week he'd shoot in the morning, then lift weights, run on the track and work on his agility. At night, he'd go back to the gym. The next day, he'd repeat the cycle.
Now, he and the Bulls are staring at a team that could be a handful. The to-do list starts with keeping the paint free of John Wall, the star point guard who led the Wizards to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but it doesn't end there.
Bradley Beal averaged 17.1 points, and even though the Wizards haven't been to the playoffs since 2008, they have their share of veterans, such as Nene, Al Harrington, Martell Webster and Andre Miller.
"You can't overlook the importance of having veterans on your team," Thibodeau said. "When you look at their second unit, you're looking at Andre Miller, Webster, Harrington, Nene — those guys have started for a lot of teams."
Gibson probably could, too. He might get the chance next season if the Bulls decide to amnesty Boozer. For now, he's giving them a big boost off the bench and when the game's on the line. And he's hearing the Sixth Man chatter.
The Los Angeles Clippers' Jamal Crawford, San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson all have solid cases, too. Gibson is glad to be in the discussion.
"It's great for myself, it's great for the Bulls," he said. "I try not to focus on it. I try to just focus on the task at hand. If they're going to pick me, they're going to pick me. But at the end of the day, I'm happy just having my teammates really believe in me this year, and the turnout has been great."
NOTE: Thibodeau said Noah missed Friday's practice for bereavement and was in New York tending to a personal matter. Thibodeau hoped to have him back at practice on Saturday.