NEW ORLEANS — Taj Gibson has spent his career adhering to simple rules: Work hard, be ready and play whatever role is asked of you. These principles have forged a relationship with Tom Thibodeau that has prompted the coach to carry Gibson with him through every stop.
But time in the weight room or watching film or scouring the intricacies of a scouting report or game plan could not prepare him for the one obstacle he has had to work through in recent days — the birth of his first child, Taj Gibson Jr.
"I’m getting no sleep," he said, laughing.
Gibson still managed to get the job done Saturday, contributing 14 points and seven rebounds in 21 efficient minutes as the Knicks (5-1) held off the Pelicans, 123-117. And on a night when much of the roster seemed a step slow, even with sleepless nights, Gibson performed his usual workmanlike tasks. He grabbed four offensive rebounds, dived for loose balls and, at 36 years old, provided energy to a team in desperate need of it.
"Taj had a monster game," Thibodeau said. "He gave us a big lift. Just his effort. Those plays do nothing but unite and inspire the team."
Longtime teammate Derrick Rose spoke a few days ago of wanting to "Tom Brady it," extending his career into his 40s if he can stay healthy. With a head start, three years older than Rose, and a still-sculpted physique as he works in the gym alongside younger players every day, Gibson shook his head at the notion.
"Well, we’ll see," he said. "I’ve been blessed to be in this league a while now. Especially becoming a late pick, coming in a lot older than guys. So I’m just happy to still be in this league. I’m just going to ride it until they tell me they don’t want me to play anymore, I guess, but until then, I’m just going to keep playing hard and do what I have to do. But I’m always ready, and I’m ready to be a coach one day."
It’s easy to see that transition. He already has served as a coach in uniform, a disciple of Thibodeau’s methods who helps the younger players and newcomers adapt to what the coach requires.
And while players such as Mitchell Robinson may boast size and athleticism that Gibson can only dream of, at 6-9 and never getting much over the rim, he still serves a vital role on the floor. But he knows that role is ever-changing, and with Robinson healthy again and Nerlens Noel expected back soon, he could find his minutes reduced.
"I’ve been in this league a while now," Gibson said. "So it really doesn’t mean anything to me.
"I’m happy [Noel] is coming back. I’m just holding down the fort until he’s ready to come play. We need him. He’s been really big for us. But like I said before, whenever Thibs calls my name or whenever I get a chance to go in and play, whatever minutes I get, I’m going to go play as hard as I can.
"Right now I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team. When Nerls comes back, I’m going to support him. That’s my young boy and I’m extremely happy because I know the work he puts in on a daily basis, and our big-man group, we work together. We got Jericho [Sims], we got a lot of guys. So I’m happy to see everybody get some reps because I’m old enough."
Gibson still has his moments, though. Last season it came mostly in the postseason, when he was placed in the starting lineup. On Saturday night, it came in the final minutes. He set a strong screen to free up RJ Barrett, who had been carrying the offense. But as his defender went to cut off Barrett, Gibson rolled to the rim. Barrett found him with a pretty wraparound pass and Gibson delivered a dunk to help secure the win.
"Well, you never know," Gibson said. "Like, I’m unselfish, I don’t really care about points or scoring like that. My job is to get open, and if I’m open and they look for me, I got to be ready.
"I was frustrated because Derrick hit me a couple of times and I felt like I bobbled and I messed up. And that’s how resilient our team is. Guys accept it and tell you to keep your head up and then RJ comes in and he just dishes a great pass to me. That’s the resilience of our team."