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Bulls facing hungry team in Luol Deng’s Cleveland home
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 21
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The Bulls are in Cleveland Wednesday to face the Cavaliers and Luol Deng, the loud, vocal leader, the “guiding hand” for the team’s fortunes as they are referring to him in Cleveland media, the player who can step up and save games with big shots.
So, yes, it seems the Luol Deng whom the Bulls traded to the Cavs earlier this month hasn’t arrived yet.
It’s sure nice to be appreciated.
Not that Deng wasn’t in Chicago, where Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau frequently referred to Deng as the “glue” that held the team together. But in almost 10 seasons with the Bulls, Deng was most often mentioned among fans and media for what he couldn’t do.
Take over a game; beat his man off the dribble; be a legitimate No. 2 star. Even with making two All-Star teams, the cry often in Chicago was the Bulls needed a second star to complement Derrick Rose.
After the Cavs, 3-3 with Deng, suffered a 44-point blowout loss in Sacramento on their recent road trip and were trailing the Lakers at halftime the next game, they went to Deng to bail them out. He responded with three consecutive three-pointers after halftime to regain the lead and finished with five in a two-point win.
In the Cavs’ first home game with Deng Monday, a narrow loss to the Mavs, Deng had six of the team’s last 11 points, including a big three that cut the Dallas lead to two down the stretch. With a chance to tie, the Cavs committed a turnover on the inbounds pass and coach Mike Brown said it was his mistake not to make Deng the inbounder. But Brown indicated he had wanted Deng on the court because he also was the best screener.
When the team won in Denver to close the 3-2 Western Conference trip, Deng was huddling the players on the court during stoppages of play and seen being vocal in huddles down the stretch in that win.
“Luol helps because he brings a lot of poise to our team down the stretch,” Brown told Ohio media. “We’ve got a young team. Guys haven’t been in that situation and had success in that situation a ton. When you have a veteran like Luol who has been in that situation — shoot, forget a regular season game, he’s been in that situation in big-time playoff games — he can help settle us down. He’s a true veteran who has been through the fires.”
When Brown was asked about Deng averaging about 36 minutes after talk of a minutes limit when he arrived and a pair of 20-minute games, Brown cracked: “What minute limit? We’re trying to win, baby. It’s out the window. If I get reprimanded, I’ll think about it later.”
Media has been editorializing if the Cavs are to be serious contenders they must resign Deng.
“He’s a big piece to this team right now,” Anderson Varejao told reporters. “I really think we could make the playoffs (because of Deng). I really believe that.”
It turns out 350 miles can change a lot. Even if Deng still is staring at a frozen Great Lake.
Deng is an unrestricted free agent and hasn’t said anything about his future, though Cavs officials say he’s embraced the team and players. Imagine, a team’s fortunes may rest on the decision of Luol Deng.
Good for him.
Even though there’s no grass in Cleveland, he’s certainly received a sunny and warm welcome.
And now we’ll see how it continues when Deng meets his former teammates for the first time Wednesday.
Amidst talk of an emotional scene, Deng joked with Cleveland reporters Tuesday that, “When the ball goes up, I’m not going to start crying and start hugging guys.
“It will be fun,” Deng continued. “It will definitely be weird. But honestly, I think as soon as the ball goes up, I want to play basketball and I want to win the game. After the game, we can talk again. But when that ball goes up, I’m just focused on winning. I’m just focused on my guys and just trying to win.”
His guys. Sigh.
It pretty much was the attitude expressed by former teammates Monday after the dramatic Taj Gibson winner at the buzzer.
Though the Bulls have their own issues again despite winning eight of their last 10.
Kirk Hinrich, who injured a hamstring during Monday’s game, didn’t go to Cleveland with the team. The injury is not considered serious. But teams always are cautious with hamstring issues because if not allowed to fully heal they can linger all season. So there is no timetable. The Bulls signed regular replacement Mike James to a 10-day contract as a backup to D.J. Augustin, the only other point guard on the roster with the trade of Marquis Teague to Brooklyn. Toko Shengelia, a 6-9 forward, will join the team.
The acquisition of Augustin off waivers after being released by the Raptors has to rank as one of the better pickups of the season around the NBA. Augustin had a season high 27 points Monday and three times in the fourth quarter rallied the Bulls back with three pointers. In the last six games, Augustin is leading the team in scoring at 18 point along with seven assists. He’s become probably the team’s top offensive option with Deng traded.
Augustin is averaging 12.3 points and 6.1 assists in 20 games overall with the Bulls and averaging about 29 minutes per game. With Hinrich’s injury and Augustin’s perimeter shooting, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Augustin take over the starting role the rest of the season as he can space the floor. Mike Dunleavy can then fill that role off the bench.
Though Augustin says everyone shouldn’t be that surprised. He said he was playing like this in Charlotte, but moves to Indiana and Toronto set him back some.
“Coach (Thibodeau) gives me the ultimate confidence,” said Augustin. “He runs a lot of pick and roll stuff I feel comfortable with. It’s what I’ve been known for. I’m just out there playing, not thinking, playing freely and doing what I can.
“All I think about is to go out every night and play hard,” said Augustin. “Whatever plays Thibs runs I do my best. I love it here (with the Bulls), the fans, my teammates, playing for Thibs. I’m just focused on getting better now and not looking too far ahead.”
Spoken already like a true Thibs disciple.
“Confidence is the biggest key in the NBA,” said Augustin. “Everyone who plays in the NBA is good. The confidence (and opportunity) is the difference.”
And being appreciated as well.
Bulls players and Thibodeau talked about Deng Monday, and Thibodeau felt Deng did as much for him as anyone.
“I know how fierce a competitor he is,” said Thibodeau. “I know he will be trying to beat us and we’re going to be trying to beat him and after the game we’re going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him and we know what he did for us and what he did for me personally. But we’re going up there and we’re going to be ready.”
Gibson seemed the most emotional as in the midst of the lighthearted post game banter about his game winning shot, Gibson paused quietly when asked about Deng.
“A lot of emotion,” said Gibson. “That’s the guy I always looked to when I had problems, if I needed something. Lu had the answers. He always gave me advice, picked me up no matter what. Just a lot of emotion.”
Jimmy Butler will likely be defending Deng and said Deng has been an inspiration for Butler’s big playing work load.
“Lu played a million and some minutes and he took care of his body, ate right and I’m starting to do the same,” Butler said. “It will be fun playing against Lu. He’s done so much and had such a great career it will be fun to guard him. But crazy. I’ll have to read the scouting report on him, but I know how to guard him from practice.
“But if Lu goes to the hole I can’t let him,” said Butler. “I’m fouling him. I’m not letting him make the shot. After the game, I’ll say I fouled you kind of hard but you are my guy. I just had to.”
And then there was Joakim Noah, who was the most emotional after the trade and went silent for several days to contemplate.
“It probably will be weird,” Noah said. “Strange. But I still want to kick his (butt). I love Lu. He’s my brother. But the ball goes up, he’s not going to be my brother.”
Just a star player for the Cleveland Cavaliers.