The Chicago Bulls hope Taj Gibson’s return marks the start of healthier days as they attempt to chase down the Eastern Conference’s second seed as well as the Central Division title.
Leading scorer Jimmy Butler could be the next key player back in the lineup as the visiting Bulls seek their longest winning streak in five weeks Saturday night against the fading Detroit Pistons.
Chicago (42-28) fell behind Cleveland in the division race during a recent 1-5 stretch while it played without Derrick Rose, Butler and Gibson. The club, however, has since gotten a little healthier in back-to-back victories.
Gibson finished with six points in 10 minutes as the Bulls routed visiting Toronto 108-92 on Friday to move past the Raptors into third place in the conference race. They haven’t won three in a row since a four-game run from Feb. 7-12.
Gibson, who had missed the previous 10 games with a sprained left ankle, has averaged 20.0 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 69.0 percent in his last three road games versus Detroit (24-44).
Despite the reserve forward’s return, Nikola Mirotic has likely earned the right to keep substantial playing time. The rookie forward is averaging 21.5 points in 11 games this month after scoring a career high-tying 29 against the Raptors.
Now Chicago is hoping to get Butler back after he’s been sidelined the last 10 games due to a left elbow injury. The Bulls have gone 9-6 without the first-time All-Star guard, who is averaging a career-high 20.2 points.
”He’s pretty close, but we just want to make sure,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of Butler, who will be a game-time decision.
Butler has averaged 24.5 points in two meetings against the Pistons this season, scoring 30 in a 100-91 road defeat Feb. 20.
Gibson contributed 15 points and nine boards in that contest, but the Bulls lost for the second time in 12 road meetings.
The Pistons were just 1 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot Feb. 22, but they’ve since dropped 11 of 12 – including Wednesday’s 94-83 loss at lowly Philadelphia – to fall six back with just 14 to play.
Reggie Jackson posted his first career triple-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists despite shooting 4 for 17 from the field. Jackson was coming off a 23-point, 20-assist performance in Tuesday’s home win over Memphis.
The Pistons, who shot 33.0 percent Wednesday, rank near the bottom of the NBA with a 42.5 mark.
‘When you don’t throw the ball to open people and continue to force shots in the paint," coach Stan Van Gundy said. "If we continue to take those shots against anybody, we’re going to shoot in the 30 percent range."
Van Gundy’s club was outscored 40-20 in paint points Wednesday without Greg Monroe, who is averaging a team-high 16.0 points and 10.4 rebounds. The veteran big man is also doubtful for Saturday because of a strained right knee.
Andre Drummond will try to step up after he had 18 points and 20 rebounds in last month’s meeting.
Chicago’s Joakim Noah has averaged 12.8 boards and 7.8 assists in the last four matchups. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year had a career high-tying 14 assists to go along with 10 rebounds Friday.