Deng on Rose and the Game 1 loss


Apr 21

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It was the first round of the playoffs, the Bulls on the road and with a chance to get on an underdog run in the playoffs despite losing the opening game. It seems if they just had that one more guy who was sitting there on the team bench, looking pretty good, but still not playing. If only get could get in there. Why wasn’t he?

“I had a broken leg,” recalled Luol Deng of the stress fracture that many questioned at the time and which kept him out of the thrilling 2009 playoff series with the Boston Celtics. “That’s the bottom line. I had a broken leg. But no one, excuse my language, gave (a darn). To me, there was nothing like that (I ever experienced). I don’t think I can go through anything for the rest of my career that’s going to affect me as much as that did.”

Deng, as we know, has gone on to become a two-time NBA All-Star selected by the Eastern Conference coaches, arguably the team’s MVP and one of the NBA’s ironman in leading the league in minutes played for most of the last three years. He plays now without mention of a left wrist injury so severe surgery was contemplated last summer. Many said he should skip the Olympics. Now he plays and there never is a mention.

Luol Deng

Yet, just a few years ago, Deng was missing late season and playoff games amidst questions about why he wasn’t playing. There were indications he could or should at least try. But he knew his body wasn’t right. He stayed out after the lowest scoring season since his rookie year. But he returned to become the rock of the Bulls rotation. So he winces as he hears grumbles from outside about his teammate Derrick Rose, that Rose should be playing after major reconstructive knee surgery less than a year ago, that Rose is letting the team down, that he can play. Perhaps no one understands like Deng, who was there, and it left a mark.

“It’s been bothering me all year,” Deng said about many questioning Rose. “It’s, ‘We love him, we love him. MVP.’ Then it’s why isn’t he coming back? It’s how it is. You don’t think you are being selfish. But somehow you are in wanting him to come back. It’s his decision.”

It’s not like Deng doesn’t understand the fans desire what’s best for the team, as he does. He loves the support he and the Bulls have received. But Deng also understands it’s your life and your livelihood, and how difficult it is to insist you care when everyone believes you don’t.

“If you’re living your life and not on TV and everyone doesn’t know your life, you don’t want someone to come in you don’t know and tell you what to do,” says Deng. “And when you are a competitor the last thing you want to hear (is you don’t want to play).”

It’s why Rose has long had the support of his teammates and the staff. Not that it’s a separate world that no one else can understand, but it also helps to be there. Which Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau addressed again Sunday after a Bulls team meeting when asked about adverse public reaction to Rose not playing.

“It’s not bothersome because I know all he’s putting into it,” said Thibodeau. “I know who he is. I know his character. And he’s done amazing things for our organization. He’s doing all he can. That’s all you can ever ask a guy to do. There’s always going to be some negativity. I think the vast majority is very positive.

“Dr. (Brian) Cole said from Day 1 it was going to be eight months to a year (until Rose might be able to get on the court),” reminded Thibodeau. “You hope for the best, plan for the worst. The thing is we don’t want him out there until he’s completely comfortable. He’s not comfortable yet. That’s part of what’s expected. As long as he continues to work the way he has I’m good with it. I know how important he is. Not just him. That would apply to any other guy. If a guy gets injured like that, you have to be patient. Everyone’s recovery is different. You don’t want someone out there who is not comfortable. And if they’re still injured you don’t want them out there. When he’s healthy and he’s ready to go he’ll play.”

Which is the part that has most frustrated Deng and teammates. They all on various levels have gone through somewhat similar situations. And there’s nothing worse than your character and competitiveness being questioned when there is nothing you can do.

“It will make you a better player,” said Deng, “but you will never forget. I became a two-time All Star. But I will never forget how I was treated. It’s something you put behind you. But you don’t forget it.

“I think Derrick is doing the right thing,” said Deng. “A lot of times people don’t really think about how he feels. Because the guys is getting paid doesn’t mean it’s the smart decision to just come back.

“Sometimes you question the character of the wrong guy,” said Deng. “If you know the guy and you know his character you wouldn’t question it. Because you are from far distant and you are watching it, it is very easy to say he should come back. But as an athlete if you don’t feel comfortable it’s gong to affect your game and your future.”

And Deng knows this Bulls team and season isn’t built for just now. He knows Rose will return and the belief is the group can be championship material, as they were convinced they were last season before Rose’s injury. So it’s a bit of a detour, even if they are hardly giving up on this season even after Saturday’s disappointing 106-89 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of the playoffs.

The Bulls are in Brooklyn for Game 2 Monday, and Deng believes and is confident it will be a different Bulls team than the one that gave up 56 inside points, 40 in the first half when they trailed by 25 points at halftime.

“The next game will be a different game,” predicts Deng, who admits he had a poor outing with six points on three of 11 shooting against Gerald Wallace. “You see things you can do better. It’s how many things you can do better. There’s a lot of things in that tape we watched we can improve on.”

Though the biggest one is the effort, the rebounding, the physical play the Bulls have prided themselves on. The intangible desire that has become routine for them was curiously absent. That, Deng and the other players who met with reporters Sunday, insisted will change. It’s not unusual after a first playoff game like that. Not to make excuses, but Joakim Noah was a surprise starter, though he played only about six minutes in each half. That changed the rotation again as Nazr Mohammed played just six minutes.

Thibodeau said Sunday Noah’s foot problem was improved and he would start assuming there were no setbacks and presumably play more. Though there were some saying to go more with Mohammed to provide a bigger look against Brook Lopez, whose fast starts have hurt the Bulls in recent games with the Nets. Though Jimmy Butler got the start for defensive purposes against Joe Johnson and had 13 points, there was some thought about having the versatile and more athletic Butler come off the bench because Butler can be a reluctant outside shooter.

Thibodeau clearly was searching for perimeter scoring after a slow start as Butler, Deng and Kirk Hinrich all were missing shots. He went with Nate Robinson, which reduced the ball movement, and a smaller front line with Carlos Boozer at center and Deng at power forward, and the Nets took advantage and ran away with the game. Thibodeau indicated it was possible Richard Hamilton or Marco Belinelli could return to the starting lineup for an offensive boost to also spread the court, though, of course, Thibodeau left any potential changes uncertain.

“This has been our team all year,” Deng said about the injuries and disruptions and changing rotations. “We’ve done well with guys out, guys in. We’ve been able to deal with that. It’s us against them.

“I’ve had bad games before,” he said. “It’s nothing new. It happens. You never go out and try to have a bad game on purpose. I thought the game got out of hand early. We should have stayed aggressive. We tried to play our way back in, but it’s one game. They won the first game at home. It doesn’t really matter how they won. It’s the corrections we make. We know we can be a lot better and we will be.

“We’ve played them in the regular season and we were able to beat them,” noted Deng of the Bulls 3-1 edge on Brooklyn. “I just think defensively we didn’t play well. We didn’t help eachother. They got what they wanted. When you get a lead like that anybody will tell you that you play with a lot more confidence. As the game got out of hand they got more confident in what they wanted to do. When it’s a close game it’s a different mentality for everybody.”

In other words, the Nets have gotten their attention. Fortunately for the Bulls, just on the road in Game 1.

“We’ve had a lot of guys out (of the lineup), a lot of guys back in the lineup,” Deng noted about a full house other than Rose for Game 1 that backfired a bit. “You tend to relax a lot thinking guys are back and you are deeper. Sometimes when you have guys out you play harder knowing that they are out. We’ve got to have the mindset of playing like how we’ve been.”

Though Deng did bristle a little when asked a bit unthinkingly whether it was Noah playing through his plantar fasciitis who was the real competitor.

“We all have heart,” Deng said. “Everybody on this team does.”

Deng said rebounding will be vital, swarming the boards against the Nets as they’ve done so much this season. Though that routine has suffered a bit late in the season with Noah and Taj Gibson out.

“It’s really manning up and playing hard,” said Deng. “Defensively, we’ve got to do a better job of helping guys. It’s about manning up on who you are guarding.”

Because they’re all men who are great competitors. As anyone who has watched them these last several years should know.

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