Luol Deng sat in the Bulls locker room in the United Center, his face buried in his hands, his legs submerged in ice water. The All-Star small forward appeared to be a combination of tired and dejected, a byproduct of not only matching up with Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant, but his teams frustrating defeat at the hands of the Thunder.
Deng, thrust into the role of the Bulls go-to playerand not just from a scoring perspectiveactually outscored the three-time defending NBA scoring champion, 27-24, Thursday night, but as he always says, basketball isnt about individual battles. Still, he blamed himself for Durants array of near-impossible shotsincluding a one-legged fadeaway, a la Dirk Nowitzkidown the stretch, which led to the Thunders win.
Fourth quarter, he said. Weve got to do a better job of getting stops. Ive got to do a better job of stopping Kevin.
I thought I was on him. Hes a great player and won the game for his team, Deng continued. He hit tough shots at the end. Give him all the credit.
They did a good job, but we were right there. It was just making plays, getting stops. We were in the game, though. Even when they went up four, we came down and scored, and we were a stop away, and Durant hit that tough shot, fading away off one legboth teams were making plays. I cant say they stopped us. We were just trading baskets. We cant do that.
Deng is the ultimate team player, just as content when he struggles with his shot and the Bulls win as he is when he leads them in scoring Thursday, as long as they win that game, too. After making his first All-Star Game last season and Derrick Rose currently sidelined, its only logical that he sees increased defensive attention and when he doesnt or has a mismatchsuch as when newly-acquired Thunder shooting guard Kevin Martin had to defend him in the postBulls head coach Tom Thibodeau will go to him early and often.
But while hell be more aggressive this season without Rose to shoulder the offensive load, dont expect Deng to change his approach. He insists that the only way the Bulls will be successful is through an offense-by-committee philosophy
Im never going to change the way I play. Im just going to take the game as it comes. Tonight I had it going and I hit some shots. Coach was calling my number in a mismatch and we just went with it, but every night is going to be different, he explained. Weve got so many guys on this team that can score and some nights, Boozers going to have it going and were going to go to him. Its going to be Rip, its going to be Jo, its going to be someone else and thats our team right now. No one has to change the way they play. Weve just got to keep playing.
Whether or not Deng wants to be singled out for his individual efforts, his teammates and coaches recognize and appreciate his contributions. Now more than just a glue guy, hes the player the Bulls need to come up big in big situationsas a scorer, defender, playmaker or rebounder and sometimes all of them simultaneouslyin order to keep up with the leagues elite teams.
I love playing with Lu. Hes a hell of a competitor and he can do a lot of things out there on the court. He can score, he can rebound, he plays great defense. I thought Lu played a great game, man, Joakim Noah proclaimed about his long-time teammate. Those guys were going a little bit, so Thibs was calling their names and their plays a lot tonight, and when those guys are scoring that way, it opens up the floor a lot. It gives us a lot of easy opportunities.
Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: Lu provides whatever you need. If you need more scoring, he can do that.
And whatever else the team needs, Thibodeau would have said, if he was in a better mood. While neither player nor coach believes in moral victories, one thing the Bulls should know moving forward, if they didnt already: Deng is the one player, in the absence of Rose, that has the ability to singlehandedly keep them competitive on nights when others dont have it going and when they do, hes the rare star who doesnt mind playing a background role.