Deng's valiant season should give him pass for the future

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Deng's valiant season should give him pass for the future

PHILADELPHIA - Fighting back his emotions on the podium when talking about Thursdays Game 6 defeat to the 76ers, playing in pain throughout the season and his teammates, when the subject turned to his injured wrist and the upcoming Summer Olympics in London, Luol Deng turned defiant.

No, he said, voice steady and unwavering. Im going to play in the Olympics.

Before letting his own words explain the reasoning behind it just moments after the his season ended at the hands of an eighth-seeded team think about this: Deng, a native of South Sudan - a nation in its infancy - and his family were exiled when he was a child. After a stint in Egypt, he ended up in London for his formative years, the city where he began to excel at basketball, leading to him coming to a prep school in New Jersey, developing into one of the nations top high school prospects, starring at Duke for a season and then coming to the Bulls, where he reached All-Star status this season. And in his mind, he traces that journey back to emigrating to England.

Its expected that Deng will join Derrick Rose on the injured list to start next season, since hell play for host country Great Britain in the Olympics, meaning that surgery for torn ligaments in his left wrist, something hes played with all season, will be postponed. To some, that might seem selfish, but its not just about the glory of playing on the big stage for the 27-year-old.

I just know that Im looking forward to playing the Olympics. Im excited about it, something I wanted to do since I was a kid and Im going to prepare myself for it, he explained. Ive got to see how my wrist feels throughout the Olympics, how it feels from now going into the Olympics and right after the Olympics, Ill make the decision, whether my wrist is good enough that I dont need the surgery or if I need it, so I havent really ruled out not getting the surgery or getting it. I just havent made that decision. Just know that Ive got the Olympics ahead of me. Since I was a kid growing up, its something I always wanted an opportunity to be a part of and the fact that its in my hometown that I grew up in, in a country that gave me the opportunity to even be here, Im looking forward to it.

But just because he might decline surgery doesnt mean that it isnt still bothering him. However, the sacrifice it took to play through the injury, to Deng, was its own reward.

Honestly, my whole career, its the toughest thing Ive done and I look back at it, and Im glad I did it. I really hope, in the long run, its going to make me a better player, he said. I learned a lot of things to be capable of doing that in the NBA, but Im glad I made the decision. We had the best record and we were going into the playoffs with the best team, so it was definitely a great decision. Unfortunately, other things happened.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, arguably Dengs biggest fan, understands and appreciates the versatile players importance to the team, perhaps even more so after this series, in which, the last two games at least, he did everything humanly possible to give his undermanned squad a chance. Thats what hes not putting any pressure on him to make a decision.

You can never overlook this: Luol is a terrific player. To play a majority of the season with torn ligaments says a lot about him. He couldve chosen to sit out. Hes a great leader with great toughness. He does whatever is necessary to help you win. I thought he improved a lot from last year. Even though his scoring dipped a bit, his all-around game was terrific, said Thibodeau. I really havent talked to him yet about next year. I want to have a chance and sit down and see what his thoughts are. I know he has given us everything that he has. I have a lot of respect for that. Well come up with a plan.

That plan, whatever it is, should be respected.

With Rose already sidelined to start next season, Deng will be missed if hes also shelved at the beginning of the campaign. But what he gave up this season, even if it didnt manifest itself in the teams ultimate goal due to other calamities, gives him the right to make a choice. And if that isnt enough, his significant connection to the country hes representing in the Olympics pushes it over the hump.

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lift Bulls to win over pesky Heat

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lift Bulls to win over pesky Heat

The emotion of playing in Miami may have been missing for Dwyane Wade but it was still the Miami Heat on the other side, the franchise he put it all on the line for before the two sides couldn’t agree on a contract last summer.

So he still had some extra juice on a snowy Saturday night that probably made him yearn for the breeze of South Beach, giving the pesky Heat some of his wrath and little flash in a 105-100 win at the United Center.

Wade scored 28 points on 11 of 24 shooting in 35 minutes to go along with three rebounds, three assists and two blocks against his former team.

Wade got the Bulls off to a better second half start while Jimmy Butler, all too happy to lurk in the wings while Wade got his shots up, had his say late in the fourth when the Heat hung around longer than expected.

Butler and Wade combined to strip Goran Dragic on a weave play that could’ve tied the game for the Heat with seven seconds left and the Bulls leading by three, as Butler sealed the game with two free throws, finishing his 31-point, seven-rebound and five-assist night.

“We got a win. We found a way to win,” Wade said. “We lost a game like this earlier this year (Lakers). We weren’t playing great and they found a way to beat us. In this league, there’s gonna be some nights where you play amazing and some where you play just well enough to get a win. Never begrudge a win.”

Saying that in the aftermath of a win came because the Bulls’ fourth-quarter offense again came to a crawl, a deal one would have to negotiate when having players like Wade and Butler on the floor who can dominate the ball for stretches to make plays.

But the Bulls shot just 40 percent on six of 15 shooting as Wade and Butler combined to score 16 of their 22 points.

“That will be the big emphasis and focus in practice on Monday, we’ll really work on our fourth-quarter execution,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

Butler was bullying the smaller and slightly-built Heat defenders, he got to the basket at will and kept the pressure on the interior defense of Hassan Whiteside. Most of his production came from the midrange or the paint, as the Bulls took just eight 3-pointers and committed just 11 turnovers—making for a clean if not old-fashioned game.

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“I’m confident we’ll hit double digit 3-pointers again,” said Hoiberg in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. “You shoot eight of them, you take what the defense gives you. I thought the rhythm and flow was good for three quarters.”

They seemed to follow Wade’s lead, at least in style, as he probed and spun and danced his way to the rim for as many shots in the paint as he’s taken all season despite leaving more than a few on the lip of the rim or giving the officials sideways looks after not getting what he felt were rightful foul calls.

Wade scored 11 third after the Bulls were sleepwalking on one end of the floor for the first half, leading to a 55-all game, the type of performance that Gregg Popovich would’ve given a media lashing to afterwards.

“I thought we were going through the motions a little bit, picked it up in the second half,” Hoiberg said.

Dragic owned his matchup against Rajon Rondo, getting to the paint at will, forcing switches and attacking the rim relentlessly whenever the Bulls left a sliver of an opening, scoring 21 with 11 assists before his unfortunate turnover.

One can say Dragic essentially kept the Heat in it for the first half as the Bulls’ defense hadn’t received its wake-up call, but it came in the form of Wade’s aggressiveness to start the half.

“He was pretty much going where he wanted in that first half and we struggled with it,” Hoiberg said.

A sweeping hook shot was followed by the 34-year old splitting the defense on a fast break for a dunk and 3-point play, and he finished the spurt with a baseline spin and layup to put the Bulls up double-digits.

“I thought he had a lot of pop and good legs, and one dunk he looked like a young 22-year old Dwyane Wade,” Hoiberg said. “They had good matchups, Dwyane obviously had it going tonight.”

But the Heat wouldn’t go away—or the Bulls wouldn’t put a team playing its fourth game in five nights away—as the energetic Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson came off the bench to give an ailing team a boost, combining for 26 points.

Whiteside was swatting away more than his share of shots and changing a few others, as he scored 18 with eight rebounds and three blocks but went scoreless in the fourth until his basket that brought the Bulls’ lead to one with a little over 10 seconds left.

It wasn’t pretty but it was effective enough for the Bulls to settle themselves and reverse a too-common trend of a big letdown after a big win.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”