After Sunday's Game 4 loss in Philadelphia, Luol Deng pulled me aside and vented. Actually, it was more like him asking rhetorical questions and me hearing him out.
This isn't an uncommon occurrence in sports, where athletes see reporters--especially beat writers, like myself--on a near-daily basis during the season, relationships, both professional and personal are formed, and being that Deng is the longest-tenured Bulls player, I certainly don't think I'm the only member of the media to whom he's shared his off-the-record feelings about a game with, nor is he the only player on the team who has ever voiced his opinions to me and those feelings didn't get published.
Now, I won't share what he told me verbatim, but let's just say he was frustrated about the performance of himself and the team.
Tuesday night, the first-time All-Star rectified the situation, scoring a game-high 24 points--on 10-for-19 shooting, including 4-for-5 from three-point range--along with snatching eight rebounds and decisively winning the small-forward battle with 76ers counterpart Andre Iguodala.
But it wasn't just Deng getting off to a quick offensive start in a game where the first-half scoring was at a high school level or hitting clutch shots, like his improbable three-pointer to beat the shot clock down the stretch, it was the fact that the versatile player, who admittedly describes himself as someone who thrives within the system, went out and seized the moment.
"I came out aggressive from the start of the game. I had good looks, so I kept shooting the ball. I just had good looks with the threes. I knew the shot clock was running down, I got the ball and I had a good look at the rim, so I just let it go," he said afterwards. "I felt like I didnt shoot the ball enough. Tonight, I was more aggressive. Sometimes, having Derrick out, were just playing a little bit differently. When Derrick Rose is in the game, Im less aggressive and tonight, I really wanted to be aggressive from the start. I took more shots than I did the last couple games."
Deng didn't necessarily play out of character, but without Rose and Joakim Noah in the lineup, he acknowledged that he had to make the adjustment to shouldering more of the offensive load, in addition to playing his usual all-around game.
"Great energy, all-around game, got some easy buckets early, good defense, rebounding," praised Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. "Theyre a very good defensive team, so sometimes youve got to give their defense credit and if youre being defended well, your responsibility is to help move the ball, help get your teammate open, screen, cut, keep the ball moving, keep your body moving, run the floor, play great defense. He has to do all those things."
Added teammate Carlos Boozer, who also stepped up with a huge second half, though he's picked his offensive pace quite a bit in the absence of Rose and Noah: "Its awesome. He played great tonight, hit so many big shots. One play, the shot clock was running downthree, two, oneand it looked like he shot the ball from the third row. Just a phenomenal game. He played great."
Deng's matchup with Iguodala is a complicated affair, as both are dinged up--Deng with the torn ligament in his left wrist that he's dealt with most of the season, Iguodala with an Achilles' injury--and are expected to be defensive stoppers, as well as go-to players on the offensive end. However, without Rose's brilliance, as well as Noah's underrated playmaking, Deng is arguably saddled with more of a burden now.
"Weve matched up with each other ever since our rookie yearwe came in togetherso its a lot of fun," Iguodala recently observed. "Going into every game, I get pretty ticked when he scores and Im sure its the same way for him when I score, so thats going to be a key matchup, but at the same time, when they do pick-and-rolls, their bigs do a great job of trying to get the ball out of my hands and when he comes off pin downs, slashing, my bigs help me out when I get hit by a pick, so its kind of like a chess match."
On this particular evening, Deng was Bobby Fischer--no relation to Gail of CSN Chicago fame, at least I don't think so--and fell back into the mode at which he's best, jump-starting the Bulls early, blending in and taking care of his non-scoring duties, then picking up the offensive slack when necessary late.
What made this different, however, was that his effort came when the Bulls were on the brink of elimination, he had no reigning league MVP to deflect attention and instead of waiting for opportunities to present themselves, he went out and took them, answering his own question of how he can change the team's fate and making the role of myself or any other reporter as a sounding board moot for the time being.