The Gibson-Mirotic battle for a starting job sounds decided

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MILWAUKEE – The game of lineup cat and mouse started to play out Saturday night.

While the Bulls’ Fred Hoiberg is yet to come out and name his starting five for the regular-season tip-off in less than two weeks, his hand seemed to tip a bit before the game in Milwaukee, with the second-year coach sounding like he’s leaning toward starting Taj Gibson over Nikola Mirotic in the No. 4 spot.

Gibson, like Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, was held out of the fifth game of the preseason, but Hoiberg cautioned that Gibson’s night off along with three other starters shouldn’t be over examined.

What did get a closer look, however, was the rotations that Hoiberg was kicking around and how he wanted to stagger minutes with several starters working with the second unit.

What he’s already shown through the first four preseason games is how he wants to stagger Butler and Wade. Butler has been eating up most of the first quarter, while Wade starts and is pulled midway through the first so that he can start the second with the reserves.

Call it the ultimate life preserver for a second team still looking to find and identity and some consistency.

“He’s a guy who can help stabilize that second group,’’ Hoiberg said of Wade.

Hoiberg then brought up the idea of how Mirotic’s shooting teamed with Doug McDermott as an outside threat, would fit perfectly with Wade when he does hold down the fort in the second quarter.

Even Hoiberg had trouble keeping a straight face when then asked so that means Gibson’s starting.

“Not sure yet,’’ the coach said with a smirk. “It’s not only starting. It’s getting guys out at the right time and putting them back in with the right groups so we can take advantage of some matchups.’’

In other words, Hoiberg doesn’t want outsiders falling in love with the eye test.

Through the first few weeks of practice and the preseason games, the Mirotic-Gibson battle would have been stopped just a few rounds in.

While Hoiberg swears that Mirotic has been great in practice, come game time it really hasn’t been much of a competition.

Through the first four games, Gibson was leading the team in scoring with 14.8 points per contest, while snagging a team high 7.8 rebounds per game. By the way, go ahead and throw in the fact that he’s shooting just over 70 percent (26-for-37) from the field.

Mirotic’s first four games were very different, as the third-year player was shooting 33 percent from the field (10-for-30), averaging 7.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

The good news for Hoiberg is that neither player seems like they will pout with his decision. That in itself is a change from last season, when Joakim Noah was never happy with his benching and the way it went down.

And it isn’t like Mirotic and Gibson don’t have something at stake this season, either. Both are soon-to-be free agents in a market where the payroll will jump up for a second consecutive offseason.

“I understand the salary cap’s going to jump regardless, so there’s going to be a lot of money out there,’’ Gibson said about his walk season. “I can’t really think about that. I have to just go out there and play the game, get a clear understanding of my teammates.

“I care about my teammates around me, trying to make them better. At the end of the day, the more we win, the more success everyone will get in the big pot.’’

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