Deng answers his own questions with huge Game 5 effort


Deng answers his own questions with huge Game 5 effort

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.

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

The big red button was pressed and Jimmy Butler was ejected from the Chicago Bulls’ present and future as they finally made the decision to rebuild after two years of resisting.

Trading Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the ability to draft Lauri Markkanen represents the Bulls committing to the draft lottery and fully going in on the Fred Hoiberg experience for the foreseeable future, as the prospect of trying to improve through shrewd moves in the East while also facing the likelihood of Butler commanding a $200 million contract wasn’t palatable to their pocketbook or their sensibilities.

On one hand, making a decision — any decision — can be applauded on some levels after years of their relationship with Butler being complicated at best. But the idea of rebuilding and the application of it are often two separate ideals, because the evaluation of a rebuild can often be as murky as the land the Bulls just left.

“What we’ve done tonight is set a direction,” Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson said. “We’ve gone to the past where we make the playoffs, but not at the level we wanted to. You know in this league, success is not determined that way. We’ve decided to make the change and rebuild this roster.”

“We’re gonna remain patient and disciplined. The development of our young players is important. The coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. We’re gonna continue down that path. We’re not gonna throw huge money at people.”

The Bulls aren’t exclusive to this territory, the land in which they’ve inhibited for the last couple seasons, which makes the Butler trade about more than one thing.

Not equal parts but part basketball, part fiscal, part narrative and finally, masking some mistakes that have been made over the years but are not as easily rectified. Trading Butler seemed to be the easiest vessel used as an elixir to wash away missteps. Trading a star in Butler is also the easiest way to get heat off a coach or front office in today’s NBA, because few franchises like to make wholesale changes midstream or early in it.

Trading Butler — along with shipping their second-round pick in a box marked for the Bay Area — was also financial, considering many felt if he made it through the tumultuous evening that he would finish his career as a Bull, raking in a hefty sum of cash on the back end.

It’s because of these factors that the evaluation of this trade and subsequently, a painful rebuild, cannot be in a vacuum. (Note: No rebuild is painless, it’s the size of the migraine a team can endure that determines the type of aspirin necessary).

Just taking a look at the players the Bulls got back in the Butler trade illustrates the gray area they’ve now immersed themselves into. The Bulls fell in love with Dunn before he came to the NBA, and aren’t as bothered by him being a 23-year old second-year player who struggled mightily in his rookie year.

Zach LaVine is an explosive athlete who can put up 20 every night — when he’s on the floor. Recovering from an ACL injury is no given, as evidenced by a young phenom who once graced the United Center hardwood before his body betrayed him.

And Lauri Markkanen is a rookie with promise, but nobody can make any promises on what type of career he’ll have, or if he’ll fulfill that promise with this franchise in the requisite time.

“There’s always risk in anything,” Paxson said. “But here’s a guy that’s 22 years old and averages 20 a game (LaVine). He can score the basketball, he can run. He can shoot the basketball. He shot over 40 percent from three. That’s an area we’re deficient in. Markkanen shot over 40 from three in college. Again, it’s an area where we’re deficient. It’s trying to find the type of player that fits the way that we want to play going forward.”

[RELATED: Jimmy Butler bids emotional farewell to Chicago]

General Manager Gar Forman stated after the announcement of the trade that the Bulls would have to hit on their next few draft picks to stop this rebuild from being elongated, but even then there’s no guarantee.

The Sacramento Kings drafted a rookie of the year, then two future max contract players in the same year, followed by another player who’ll command close to max money very soon. But nobody remembers Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Isaiah Thomas leading the Kings from the wilderness and into glory, unless recent memory has been scrubbed away from everyone.

Inconsistencies in organizational structure combined with multiple coaching changes and an inability to develop the right young players kept the Kings on the dais of the draft lottery every April.

The Timberwolves, heck, nobody could say they missed when selecting LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and getting Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love. It’s because it takes more than the right draft picks, or in the Sacramento Kings’ case, the right infrastructure and environment, to foster an atmosphere of winning.

The Bulls were ready, despite their claims that this was a decision that came across their table right before the draft, because common sense has to be applied. No team makes knee-jerk, franchise-altering decisions that will have reverberations for years to come on the whim of a trade offer from Tom Thibodeau. This was likely decided when the Bulls went out with a whimper in the first-round after shocking the NBA world in the first two games against the Boston Celtics, when their fortunes changed on the trifle of Rajon Rondo’s broken wrist.

It was decided that Hoiberg, the man who endured chants calling for his firing in the second half of the decisive Game 6 loss, needed to have the right type of roster to be accurately judged as a successful hire or failure, and Butler couldn’t be part of those plans.

And just as Hoiberg has been dealt an uneven hand, Butler wasn’t given the type of roster that would accurately judge how he could flourish as a leader, max player and face of the franchise — and probably had less time to show one way or the other relative to his coach.

The longer Butler stayed, the more empowered he would become as his individual accomplishments would rack up because of the dedication he applied to game, the drive he had to place himself in the upper echelon of NBA players.

The better Butler got, the more pressure Hoiberg would be under to mix and match his roster and to foster a relationship with Butler he might’ve been ill-suited to fix. The better Butler got, the more pressure the front office would be under to maximize a prime it didn’t see coming, a prime they can’t truly figure when there’s an expiration date on given Butler’s unlikely rise to stardom.

So getting rid of Butler was the solution and the Bulls have now chosen their path, definitively and with confidence. Emerging from a ball of confusion to parts unknown, from one land of uncertainty to another.

Watch some of new Bull Zach LaVine's best dunks

Watch some of new Bull Zach LaVine's best dunks

Zach LaVine quickly made a name for himself as a prolific, epic dunker.

The recently acquired Bull won both the 2015 and 2016 Slam Dunk Contests and has plenty of awe-inspiring in-game dunks as well.

The video above has a few of LaVine's best efforts.

His signature dunks in the dunk contests were the 2015 dazzler when he caught the ball from behind the backboard and went through his legs before slamming it and the through the legs from just inside the free throw line dunk in 2016.

For in-game dunks, the time he posterized Alex Len in November was an instant-classic. It's not everyday a 7-footer gets dismissed with such authority.

Of course, LaVine's ability to dunk at this prodigious level is in question after he tore his ACL this past season. If LaVine can come back to anywhere near full strength, look for some impressive highlights from the former dunk champ in a Bulls uniform.