Time and again during his nine-year NBA career — but perhaps never more than in this, his first season with the Timberwolves — Taj Gibson has proved himself no fool to do the dirty work.
Even if he’s not really sure it’s true.
“Everybody says ‘dirty work,’ ” he said. “It just comes to me naturally. People telling me how much they like how I play, it’s just natural. I can’t even tell you how I play hard like that. It comes easy to me.”
The other summertime acquisitions of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and perhaps three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford all drew more attention and expectations than Gibson did when he signed a two-year, $28 million deal.
But none have provided quite the unsung intellect, consistency and what teammate Karl-Anthony Towns calls a “grittiness” that binds a Wolves team off to a 12-8 season start for the first time since 2005.
According to the coach who knows him so well, Gibson also has added a quality that no Wolves team in the past decade or more has been accused of possessing.
“There’s just a lot of toughness to him,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said of the free-agent acquisition.
Gibson, 32, has done so by perhaps playing the best basketball of his career these first 20 games, at age 32 no less. He has done it with his rebounding, positioning, persistence, versatility defending both on the perimeter and with the big boys and some nights even with his scoring.
He is averaging 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field and 10.3 rebounds in the first three games of a four-game home stand that ends Tuesday against Washington. He has six double-double games in November so far.
“Taj can put the ball in the basket with the best of them,” said Butler, who played with Gibson in Chicago as well. “But Taj understands what we need from him on this team. That’s why we all love Taj. He’s an incredible teammate. He guards. He shoots the ball when he’s open. He dives for loose balls, blocks shots. He does all that stuff that really gets the crowd going and gets our team going and we love him for that.”
Brooklyn forged and NBA raised for his first five seasons in Chicago by Thibodeau himself, Gibson as the Wolves’ new starting power forward is playing a career-high 31.8 minutes a game for a new team that in some ways doesn’t feel new at all.
“I just knew I knew the system,” Gibson said. “I’m comfortable with the system, knowing what he wanted from me after being in it for so many years. It just came easy to me.”
He is doing so now that he has been reunited with a coach who mostly brought him off the bench but often used him to finish games during those first five seasons together.
“That’s what I loved about him,” Thibodeau said. “He’s team-first. It didn’t matter if he was starting — we finished most of the time with him — he just stars in whatever role you ask him to play. That’s what makes him so valuable. You win with guys like that.”
Gibson learned to change a game quickly those seasons in Chicago when Thibodeau brought him off the bench. Now that skill serves him well as a starter beside Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins in the Wolves’ frontcourt.
It sure did in Sunday’s 119-108 home victory over Phoenix, when he had 10 points and eight rebounds in the first quarter alone on his way to a 16-point and season-high 14-rebound afternoon.
“One thing you’ll find with Taj is this: Whether he started or he’s coming off the bench, it doesn’t take him long to get going,” Thibodeau said. “Some guys have to work their way into the game. That was never the case from the day he came into the league until now. His motor is great. As soon as it starts, he’s ready to go. You see that every day.
“It’s great energy. The team can feed off that energy.”
Gibson does the things that statistics that quantify and that younger players such as Towns and Wiggins haven’t through experience and sacrifice yet mastered.
“He does a lot of things that don’t show up in a boxscore,” Towns said. “That’s what makes him so valuable. An amazing teammate, an amazing player. We’re very fortunate to have him. When you have a person like him who’s willing to lay it all on the line to win, you need people like that.
Gibson said his biggest adjustment — and joy — has been integrating himself with new, younger teammates now that he’s this team’s second-oldest player.
“I don’t feel age, I feel great,” Gibson said. “I’m guarding 1s, 2s and 3s (point guards, shooting guards, small forwards), so I feel pretty good … I’m still fresh, I take good care of my body. I was just teasing the coaches that I can still dunk, I can still do a lot of the things they can’t do anymore.
“I’m just having fun. These guys keep me active.”