Despite loss, Deng fares well in head-to-head matchup with Durant

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Despite loss, Deng fares well in head-to-head matchup with Durant

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.

With Dexter Fowler in St. Louis, Cubs see Kyle Schwarber as a potential leadoff answer

With Dexter Fowler in St. Louis, Cubs see Kyle Schwarber as a potential leadoff answer

Dexter Fowler buttoned up a white No. 25 Cardinals jersey and put on a red St. Louis hat, posing for the cameras during Friday morning’s press conference at Busch Stadium.

Fowler stood in between Mike Matheny, the St. Louis manager who now has a new leadoff guy at the top of his lineup card, and John Mozeliak, the general manager who helped structure a five-year, $82.5 million contract that goes against The Cardinal Way.

That visual might be disorienting for Cubs fans who just watched what will probably be the best two seasons of Fowler’s career. But Theo Epstein’s front office understandably wanted to get younger, upgrade defensively and preserve some financial flexibility for the future, planning to go with Albert Almora Jr. and ex-Cardinal Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare.

“I’ll be forever grateful that I was a Cub,” Fowler said. “We made history, won a World Series. But I guess that door is closed, and, you know, I’m a Cardinal now. And we’re trying to make history over here as well.”

Let’s not get carried away with all the talk about Fowler being such a great leader and magnetic clubhouse personality. There were enough questions about him that the draft-pick compensation dragged down his market to the point where he accepted a $13 million guarantee in spring training. But he is a switch-hitter who sees pitches and works at-bats (.366 career on-base percentage) and can ignite an offense when healthy.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

Cubs manager Joe Maddon might not go with a traditional leadoff hitter in 2017. But this lineup should still score 800-plus runs again, factoring in a full season of Kyle Schwarber, projected growth from MVP Kris Bryant and All Stars Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell and an anticipated bounce-back year from Jason Heyward after the $184 million outfielder had been one of the least productive hitters in the majors.

 “Schwarber is not a bad name, Kyle is not a bad name at all,” Maddon said when asked about his leadoff hitter during this week’s winter meetings at National Harbor in Maryland. “(Ben) Zobrist isn’t a bad name. There are different guys to consider right there.

“Actually, a couple years ago, (when) Kyle came up and Dexter was still there, I considered leading Kyle off and putting Dexter second. But I had all the dudes do all the work — all our nerds did all the work — and they really liked Fowler 1 and they liked Schwarber 2, just based on our data.

“So I went with that, and it worked out really, really well. So now all of the sudden, Dexter is not there anymore. It’s not impossible to consider Kyle in that spot, Zobrist in that spot.

“I don’t know if we’re going to do anything differently during the course of this offseason that might cause me to think differently, but there’s not a whole lot of other candidates.”

Fowler bet on himself after the Baltimore Orioles dragged out negotiations over a reported three-year deal in the $30 million range, shocking the baseball world when he showed up in Arizona in late February. It paid off with a staggering contract that will add another level of intrigue to a rivalry that has already seen Heyward and pitcher John Lackey switch sides.

Fowler will be in Cardinal red on Opening Night 2017 when the Cubs begin their World Series title defense at Busch Stadium.

“It’s bittersweet,” Fowler said. “Now they’re the rival. But you still got some boys over there. We’ll always be boys. We won a championship together. But when you get on the field, it’s ‘go time.’ Now we’re playing against each other.”

Dexter Fowler: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry 'almost even'

Dexter Fowler: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry 'almost even'

The Cubs have the World Series trophy, and that's the ultimate in bragging rights.

But new Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler — who helped the Cubs win that first championship since 1908 — thinks there's not too much separating the Central Division rivals.

Fowler officially switched sides in the rivalry Friday, signing a five-year deal with the Cardinals and getting an introduction in St. Louis.

"Playing over there and playing against the Cardinals, you see them and they weren't that far away," Fowler said at his introductory press conference Friday morning. "Obviously they beat up on us, we beat up on them. It was almost even. It was one day or another. I can't put my finger on one thing or another, but we're definitely close."

Even though the Cubs are on top of the baseball world right now — and the Cardinals missed out on the playoffs last season — the numbers back up Fowler's claim.

Only one game separated the two in their regular-season series in 2016, the Cubs taking 10 games and the Cardinals winning nine. The year prior, both teams won more than 97 games and reached the postseason, with the Cubs eliminating the Cardinals in the NLDS. During the regular season, though, the Cardinals won 11 of the 19 matchups and the Cubs won eight.

The two teams have indirectly swapped All-Star outfielders in each of the last two offseasons. Jason Heyward signed a huge deal with the Cubs prior to the 2016 season. And now Fowler will be in the Cardinals' Opening Day lineup in 2017.

That ought to add even more fuel to the fire in this epic rivalry.

But the rings are the thing, of course, so can the Cardinals challenge the Cubs as the North Siders attempt to make it back-to-back championships in 2017?

"I can't tell what the future has in mind, but I feel like this team has a chance to win a World Series," Fowler said.