Luol Deng can’t say he “held” LeBron James to a 32-point outing in Wednesday night’s 101-97 Bulls win over Miami, but he can certainly take a measure of pride in how he performed.
Facing off with the reigning league MVP, the All-Star poured in a team-high 28 points, to go along with seven rebounds and five assists on the evening, but beyond his impressive numbers was an understanding of how to at least hold his own.
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“I take great pride in the whole 48 minutes. I play as hard as I can and he’s going to make some unbelievable shots, and the whole time I’m playing him, I just know it’s going to be a marathon, the whole 48 minutes and no matter what, my whole mindset is I’m just going to keep going, I’m going to fight every play and the guy is good. You just have to focus the whole game,” Deng said about his defensive philosophy against James, before delving into how he attacks him on the offensive end of the floor. “You’ve got to keep moving, especially against him. I don’t want to get the ball in an iso—he’s so big and good defensively—but every great player, whatever their strength is, there’s a weakness and my a lot of time he wants the blocked shot and help his teammates, so my whole mindset is just movement and finding gaps.”
After suffering through a slump after the All-Star break, Deng is rounding back into form as of late and believes that he's hitting his groove at the right time, with the regular season winding down.
"With the exception of the Portland game, I felt like the past five or six games, I feel like I’ve been playing great and I’ve just got to stick with it, stick with my rhythm," he explained. "I know I’ve had a few games where I didn’t play great, but I’m starting to feel great again and my shot is coming back."
Deng eschews the idea of a head-to-head matchup, but after battling James for his entire career—the two were the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked high school players in the nation their senior years, prior to James making the prep-to-pros leap and Deng having a one-and-done career at Duke—but playing the same position and playing for two rival teams, whether James is in Cleveland or Miami, the longest-tenured Bull has a great appreciation and understanding for his counterpart’s game.
“You can’t pick and choose with him. He can beat a team with his passing. The whole thing was not letting him get easy baskets. I thought he made some unbelievable shots and he’s been doing it all year,” Deng gushed. “I feel like this has been his best year. For a guy that’s guarded him throughout my career, I think he’s a lot better now than he was before.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau gave James a lot of credit, but also again chided the media for not seeing the totality of Deng’s game on nights when he doesn’t put up such gaudy statistics.
“LeBron has great decision-making ability and great vision. His size, he sees over things. I don’t think you can give him a steady diet of anything…you have to decide what you’re willing to live with,” he said. “You guys measure Luol by how many points he scores or how many shots he’s made. He does that every night. He had a great floor game, played great defense, gives you every night. Does it in practice; he’s a great leader. The best leadership you can have is when a guy does it every day. He doesn’t skip any steps, gives you everything he has.”
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And while that’s not enough to shut James down—something that’s virtually impossible these days—it’s enough to lead the Bulls to a historic win.