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Taj Gibson steps closer to returning to the court with 13 regular-season games left

The target on Thursday was rookie Cameron Bairstow.

That’s who veteran big man Taj Gibson was going at one-on-one at the end of the Thursday practice.

The target date for a return? That was a bit more unclear for the Bulls key bench player.

He’s listed as questionable for the Friday night game with Toronto, and then comes a back-to-back Saturday in Detroit.

Gibson’s problematic ankles – with the latest setback being the left one – have now cost him close to 20 games this season, so his hope is that when he does come back, he’s back for good. That means the remaining 13 regular-season games, as well as the playoffs.

“One thing about me is the training staff has been doing a great job of really being on top of my conditioning,’’ Gibson said. “I’ve been doing a lot of scrimmaging. I’ve been feeling great with my wind. It’s physical, just getting back into a rhythm, trying not to overdue things. But it’s completely different when you’re trying to guard somebody or be physical with somebody down low. You got to be able to put pressure on your legs and that’s what I’ve been trying to do lately.

“It’s frustrating at times, but you just got to be smart. You’ve got to know your body because you don’t want to come in and hurt yourself, hurt your team doing the same thing.’’

Of the big three currently injured for the Bulls, Gibson seems to be just slightly ahead of Jimmy Butler (left elbow) and weeks ahead of Derrick Rose (right knee), but all three had a presence in the Thursday practice.

Gibson and Butler were full participants, while coach Tom Thibodeau said that Rose went through all the “non-contact stuff.’’

“I think he’s progressing well,’’ Gibson said of Rose. “He’s moving now, he’s out on the court, he’s moving. I think it’s a positive. We went through the same thing with [rookie] Doug McDermott earlier, so I’ve got a lot of positive thoughts about it, and I think he’s doing good.’’

Ideally, Gibson and Butler could both be playing by next Wednesday, when the Bulls have a second important game with the Raptors.

An April 5 game in Cleveland would be the perfect return for Rose, not only a nationally televised game with playoff implications, but would give the often-injured point guard six regular-season games to get ready for the playoffs.

Until then, the Bulls have to continue to try and hold down the fort, sitting in the No. 4 spot of the Eastern Conference playoff seedings.

At least on paper, spots one through three look a lot better for first-round survival, but as Gibson pointed out, the Bulls aren’t in much of a position to worry about where they finish in the standings over their health concerns.

“Right now you don’t really know in the East,’’ Gibson said. “It’s all about just playing games, getting guys a nice rhythm going. Try to get as many wins as possible and wherever the chips fall, they fall. Just gotta know that you have the team fully healthy and guys ready to go.

“As we learned last year, we saw Brooklyn started losing games on purpose to try and get the right kind of matchup, but with us we’re just trying to get healthy right now. We feel like we’re ready to take on anybody in the East. It’s wide open I think, but the main thing is health.’’