Bulls need Boozer to get act together

 After Carlos Boozer‘s introductory news conference ended last July, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau stood in a Berto Center corner and feigned mock exasperation.

“You had to bring that up, didn’t you?” Thibodeau said.

The subject was Boozer’s ridiculously dominant 35-point, 14-rebound, five-assist performance in the Jazz‘s Game 7 road victory over a Jeff Van Gundy/Thibodeau-coached Rockets team May 5, 2007. Boozer’s Jazz marched on to an eventual Western Conference finals berth. The Rockets went home.

“One of his great strengths in Utah was his ability to sprint up the floor,” Thibodeau said last July. “Often, he would seal guys before the defense could get set and he would have a paint catch. So we’ll stress that.”

There are many things the Bulls are stressing for Boozer as they await their second-round opponent for an Eastern Conference semifinal series that will begin Monday at the United Center. But none of them involve dominance.

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Get healthy. Avoid foul trouble. Find an offensive rhythm. Play defense.

Boozer, who suffered turf toe on his right big toe in Tuesday night’s clinching Game 5 against the Pacers, somehow averaged a double-double of 10 points and 10.2 rebounds in the series. Those numbers pale in comparison to his career playoff averages of 20.3 points and 12.5 rebounds in 44 games entering the 2011 playoffs.

They also fail to capture fully how little impact Boozer made save for a dominant double-double in Game 2. Early foul trouble plagued him throughout. And the painful turf toe, which Boozer said he never had experienced before, clouded his future.

“One thing leads to the other,” Thibodeau said. “Once you pick up fouls, then you’re trying to avoid fouls. We have to get him back to who he is, which is aggressive, attacking, scoring, rebounding. The foul trouble is really holding him back right now.”

Late Tuesday, Boozer admitted for the first time a minor frustration over his struggles. Nevertheless, he has maintained a positive attitude and has pointed to the team’s success. Asked how he can jump-start his offensive game, Boozer played coy.

“We’ll have to see who we’re playing and what the matchups look like,” he said.

Neither possibility looks great. The Hawks start Jason Collins and Al Horford at center and power forward now, while the Magic counter with the more traditional Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson in place of Bass to stretch the floor. Anderson presents a challenge with which Boozer typically struggles.

When Boozer is in an unfavorable matchup, Thibodeau often switches Joakim Noah onto the more mobile, athletic player and hides Boozer’s defense at center. However, that isn’t an option against Dwight Howard if the Magic advance. Boozer likely would be on Collins against the Hawks.

Still, Thibodeau has no plans to start Taj Gibson over Boozer.

“We have a set rotation,” Thibodeau said. “We’ll stay with that. We’re not afraid to play any of our bench guys. They have shown us all year they’re capable. Whenever they have been given extended minutes, they have handled them well and performed. This is a team game. Winning is the most important thing. Whatever will help us the most, that’s what we’ll go with.”

Translated: If Boozer continues to struggle and Gibson plays as actively as he did in Game 5, Gibson’s minutes will increase.

“Booz has done a phenomenal job all year,” Gibson said. “I come in behind him and feed off him. (Tuesday), it was a slow night. But he’s one of the leaders on this team and I’m behind him 100 percent.

“We’re not going to change anything. Thibs said we have the same habits all year, including the playoffs. I know Booz is going to step back up. He’s an All-Star.”

Boozer at least still commands a defensive decision on whether to double-team him.

“Whoever we play next, I assure you they’ll plan a lot to stop Carlos,” Luol Deng said. “He’s one of the best low-post scorers in this league. He rebounds, gets teammates into it. I’m not worried about Carlos. He’ll be fine.”

The Bulls need him to be.

“I’ll get better,” Boozer said.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, he was talking about his turf toe.

Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein contributed.


Twitter @kcjhoop

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