DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bulls saw it all year from Luol Deng, so what he did against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals hardly shocked them.
Hit big shots? Hit the boards? Limit the game’s most talented player? Check, check and huge check.
The Bulls lead the Heat 1-0 after a 103-82 victory on Sunday, and a big reason for that is Deng. All he did was score 21 points, grab seven rebounds and contribute four steals while neutralizing James in an all-around performance that helped lift Chicago to an impressive victory.
Yes, Derrick Rose was up to his usual MVP tricks, scoring 28 points, but it was Deng providing a big assist whether he was scoring or clamping down on The King.
“That’s Luol Deng,” Chicago’s Carlos Boozer said. “He’s an unsung hero for us. He should have been an All-Star this season. It’s a normal game for Lu. He plays most of the other teams’ best player — or second-best player, whatever the case may be. He scores for us, hits big shots in the clutch for us, rebounds the ball, is a great leader out there, always inspiring us. Luol needs to get more love.”
If he keeps this up, that won’t be a problem. Game 2 is Wednesday at the United Center, but the Bulls are certainly not writing off Miami.
“They’ve lost big games and come out aggressive the next day,” Deng said.
It might help if the Heat moved the ball rather than try to beat the Bulls off the dribble, an approach that did not work. They also got hammered on the glass, with Chicago outrebounding them 45-33 and outscoring them 31-8 on second-chance points.
Now, they’re in a hole.
“Everybody understands that we are disappointed about last night’s game, and we still have an opportunity and sometimes you have to have amnesia going into Game 2,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can’t just let it go, the next 2½ days we’re going to work to fix some of these challenges that we had last night. But we still have to understand Wednesday is a golden opportunity for us. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes there are good performances, bad performances in the playoffs. That’s really irrelevant, it really just comes down to a win and a loss.”
Their chances would certainly be better if James performed like he is capable.
He scored just 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Whether it was Deng sticking to him or the big men helping out, he simply had no room to operate and was basically a non-factor in the game.
He looked good enough in the early going when he blocked Deng’s layup in the opening seconds and fed Dwyane Wade for a fastbreak slam.
Then, he picked off a pass by Rose and broke for dunk, and he did all that in the first 40 seconds. He also picked up two fouls in the first quarter and committed two of his four turnovers, with Joakim Noah stripping him and Deng picking off a pass, and he was nowhere to be found in the second half.
In the third quarter, when the Bulls outscored Miami 24-15, James scored just two points and attempted four shots. At one point, he lost the ball near the Chicago bench and got blocked seconds later trying to go one-on-one against Taj Gibson.
James hit a 3 early in the fourth, but didn’t score another point. Deng was a big reason — but not the only reason — he struggled.
He had help from Gibson, Noah and even Omer Asik. The Bulls were quick to rotate and plug any gaps, making it tough for James and Wade to get to the rim.
“(Deng is) very active and long,” said James, who averaged nearly 32 points for Cleveland in the first round against Chicago last year. “I think (coach Tom Thibodeau) has definitely helped him a lot with their defensive schemes. It’s not ever one guy that you have to worry about.
“Just put me out with any individual, I feel like I can get around them. When you have a guy that has the backups that they have behind him with Taj Gibson and Noah and guys that are helping him out, also, it definitely helps him a lot. He’s very active.”
Deng is also a big reason why the Bulls led the league with 62 wins and matched their best record since the 1997-98 championship season.
Hailed as a budding star four years ago when he averaged 18.8 points, he signed a six-year extension that summer, but two injury-riddled seasons left many wondering if he was worth it.
He’s been healthy the past two years and is a key piece for Thibodeau on both ends, averaging 17.4 points while often guarding one of the opponent’s best players.
Thibodeau, in fact, openly endorsed him for NBA’s All-Defensive Team. Deng received votes from the coaches but did not get first- or second-team recognition.