By Mike McGraw
When veteran center Nazr Mohammed decided to come home and join a winning program last summer, this wasn’t quite what he had in mind.
The playing time has come sparingly this season, as coach Tom Thibodeau chose more often to go with a smaller lineup.
Mohammed finally had a breakthrough this week. With power forward Taj Gibson nursing a sprained left knee, Mohammed has averaged 16 minutes over the last three games.
Before this stretch, the Chicago native had seen just nine games of double-figure minutes all season.
“Of course, we all want to play,” he said after Friday’s win over Utah. “So I’m happy to be out there and I’m definitely happy to contribute in positive ways. Just trying to keep it going, keep trying to earn coach’s trust in me.”
Mohammed admitted he didn’t think earning Thibodeau’s trust would be high on his priority list this season. But he has kept a good attitude about being stuck to the bench.
“It’s tough when you have one set of expectations and you’re not playing well and not playing much,” Mohammed said. “At the same time, coach constantly told me, ‘Just keep working and the opportunity’s going to come. We’re going to use everybody.’
“So I tried to keep that mindset and keep up(beat), hoping an opportunity would come. It came the last couple games. It’s about the wins this time of year.”
This is Mohammed’s 15th NBA season and the Bulls are his eighth team. He has played for many of the best coaches of this era, from Gregg Popovich in San Antonio to Larry Brown in Charlotte.
“I’ve played for Lenny Wilkens, Paul Silas, Scott Brooks,” he said. “I’ve played for some really good coaches. I’ve learned a lot and had to adjust a lot.
“(Playing for Thibodeau) has been good. Of course, I didn’t play that much, but overall, I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a coach. He works extremely hard, great coach.”
Thibodeau has often said he prefers to match Mohammed against taller centers. So even though Gibson is out, the recent opponents also have been conducive to Mohammed’s style, including Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter.
Against Utah’s front wall of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, the Bulls used Mohammed and Joakim Noah together at times.
“I thought Nazr was terrific, I really did,” Thibodeau said after the Utah game. “It’s not easy to do what he’s doing. He gets there early, he stays late, he works hard, he concentrates. He has a big body, sets great screens, can hit an open shot, active on the board, protects the rim. I’m very pleased with the way he’s playing.”
Mohammed set a season high with 9 points against the Jazz. With more playing time this week, he looks more like the confident veteran from the preseason, when he averaged 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds.
“I was the same person, same player,” he said. “A couple shots didn’t go down. Coach wasn’t as comfortable putting me in in certain situations.
“Sometimes you forget, just because you’ve been in the league awhile, that people (don’t) know everything you can do. You’ve got to kind of prove yourself, and I’m just trying to prove myself to him.
“Whatever opportunity he gives me, even if it’s two minutes, I’m going to try to make the best out of those two minutes. If it’s more, I’m glad to take them.”
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