Luol Deng knew exactly how many assists he had when head coach Tom Thibodeau signaled for him to come out of the game with six minutes remaining and the Bulls’ lead over the Jazz nearing 25 points.
One. One assist away from his first career triple-double.
He’ll take the win anyways.
“If I would have gotten it, it would have been great,” Deng said after the Bulls’ 97-73 win at home Friday night. “But the biggest thing is we got the win. It was just good to see us play well, and now we can keep focusing on winning. I know people are talking about how I was close, but to be honest I’m just glad that I had a good game, we had a good game and now we move on.”
His near-miss –- Deng finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and the nine assists –- wasn’t for a lack of trying on his or his teammates’ end, either. Deng tallied his ninth assist on a fast-break pass to Mike Dunleavy that put the Bulls up 89-60. And on the next three Bulls possessions, with the bench actively cheering on the edges of their respective seats, Deng caught the ball and made a quick pass (one to Kirk Hinrich, two to Nazr Mohammed) before the shot was hoisted up. All three times the Bulls were off the mark, leaving Deng just short of his milestone and a few select fans who hung around for the blowout upset.
[BULL PGL: Luol Deng did a little bit of everything in win]
“We were trying bad,” Rose said of his teammates trying to get Deng to 10 assists. “I think we tried, like, five times but it didn’t work out. But (Thibodeau) brought him out and the fans got kind of upset. But if anything, I’m super-proud of his performance tonight.”
Rose had reason to be proud of the way Deng played Friday night. The 6-foot-7 wing rebounded from an ugly performance in Indiana, where he shot just 6-of-18, grabbed only three rebounds and handed out a lone assist in the Bulls’ 17-point loss.
But with the Bulls playing at their own pace in their own arena, Deng was masterful leading the charge against a clearly overmanned Utah group.
In the first quarter alone he tallied seven points and five assists, the latter equaling his total from the past two games combined. He found Noah for a dunk on the game’s first possession, Rose on a corner 3-pointer the next trip down, Noah again later in the quarter and handed out two helpers to Carlos Boozer, who double-doubled with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“I never try to change my game,” Deng said. “One thing I learned being in the league for so long is just (to) be who I am, and try to do the things that I can do. Once you start doing too much, you’re not trusting in your teammates and you get out of character. In this system, I know what my role is and I try to play that every night.”
Deng wasn’t exempt from an ugly second quarter in which the Bulls turned the ball over 10 times – two coming from the South Sudan native – but he did come out aggressive in the third quarter, scoring five points and grabbing four big rebounds as part of the Bulls’ overall dominance on the glass over the usually sure-handed Jazz.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls get back on track with rout of Jazz]
The Bulls were able to put away a pesky and, in Deng’s words “desperate,” Utah team, something that made him happier than a triple-double would have.
“I thought tonight we came in focused and all we focused on was really playing the whole 48 minutes,” he said. “That’s a desperate team and they’ve had some close games, and when you’re playing a desperate team they’re going to play hard.”
Deng may have another chance at his first career triple-double, although after 619 career games he’s able to laugh off the irony of making such a big deal over an individual accomplishment.
“There’s two sides to it. There’s one side: it took him 10 years to get it,” Deng said, laughing, “and then the other side is, I’ve been close many times, so that’s the other side of the story. But it’s cool. I’m really not worried about it at all.”