Luol Deng, Bulls must find answers in the clutch

Luol Deng, Bulls must find answers in the clutch
December 2, 2013, 1:15 pm
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Mark Strotman

On the night Derrick Rose suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee against the Portland Trail Blazers, Luol Deng, when asked what potentially playing without Rose would mean for the Bulls, said that the team learned last season how to play without the former MVP and would have to do so again.

"We've been there before," he said. "Obviously it'll be a setback not having him, but we've been there before, so we've just got to play together."

The Bulls have gone 1-3 since Rose's injury, a record that is somewhat tainted by the fact that the Bulls had suffered an emotional and physical loss in Rose, and were on the tail-end of a six-game road trip in 10 days.

But while the record may not be indicative of where the Bulls go from here -- six of their next eight opponents currently have a record under .500 -- there's no doubting that they, specifically Deng, must be better down the stretch.

Tom Thibodeau's group has played eight games in which the score was within five points with five minutes remaining. In those games, the Bulls are 3-4 and have not won in two such contests without Rose.

And Deng has been at the forefront of those struggles.

The 28-year-old forward arguably is having his best statistical season. His 18.2 points on 45 percent shooting are his best numbers since the 2006-07 season, and his 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 85.3 free throw percentage are all career-best marks -- his 7.1 rebounds per game are 0.2 off high career-high, completed in 2009-10.

The Bulls' leading scorer is performing better than last season, when he was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the first time, all without Rose.

And in that season, Deng was an elite performer down the stretch.

The Bulls went 29-20 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes -- the seventh best record in the NBA -- and in the 43 games Deng played in, his numbers were among the best in the NBA.

Of players who attempted at least one field goal attempt and played in at least 40 such games, Deng ranked 23rd in the league in field-goal percentage "down the stretch."

Deng made 41 percent of his attempts, and his 1.8 points were 32nd in the NBA.

Fast forward a year, and Deng has all of a sudden struggled in the game's final minutes.

Though he's averaging 1.7 points down the stretch, he is shooting just 20 percent from the floor, 131st in the NBA.

YEAR (games) FG% (rank) POINTS (rank)
2012-13 (43) 41.o% (23) 1.8 (35)
2013-14 (7) 20.0% (131) 1.7 (63)


It shouldn't come as a surprise that Rose was the Bulls' best performer in the final five minutes of games, with the margin of score plus-or-minus five points.

He shot 50 percent from the field and scored 2.8 points, 26th best in the NBA.

Deng was the Bulls' go-to player in the clutch last year, including his game-winner against the Raptors in January.

He has been the primary reason the Bulls have stayed afloat through a rough start to the season, and if he can improve his clutch numbers the effects will be seen directly in the standings.