Bulls

Was Bulls' secondary scorer there all along?

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Was Bulls' secondary scorer there all along?

SAN FRANCISCOWhile Derrick Rose was busy adding a new chapter to his legacy Sunday at the Staples Center, Luol Deng was erasing a page of his own.

For too long now, Deng has been unfairly considered everything from an overpaid choke artist to simply a player incapable of being a teams leading man, let alone a legitimate sidekick.

Its time for that perception to end.

Now, the jury is still out on whether Carlos Boozer will ever justify his own massive contractkeep in mind that its still very early in the season, but from getting torched by Tyler Hansbrough in the preseason to displaying an inability to elevate, finish around the basket or score, despite his offseason weight loss, Boozers mission for redemption has gotten off to a rocky startand Rip Hamilton is still fitting in after only a handful of practices with his new team, but theres no reason to believe that Deng cant approximate his Christmas Day performance on a regular basis.

Because hes done it before. Maybe nothing as dramatic as his run of clutch plays down the stretch against the Lakersa fast-break dunk to quietly start the eventual comeback, a traditional three-point play after snaring his own missed shot, knocking down pressure-packed free throws and of course, stealing Kobe Bryants pass that led to Roses go-ahead floater, then continuing his tough defense on the Lakers superstar in the waning moments of the game and blocking the attempted game-winnerbut look back to last season and its evident that Dengs reputation of disappearing when it counts is a falsehood.

His defense on Bryant, ailing wrist or not, shouldnt surprise anyone who closely watched him battle LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sure, James was dominant against the Bulls (Chicago fans probably wish whatever overcame him in the Finals against Dallas had afflicted him one playoff round earlier), but Deng made him work for every bucket, unlike most defenders, who get demoralized when the Heat star makes one of his typical game-changing plays.

In fact, outside of James, is there a better two-way player at small forward in the league than Deng?

No, Deng isnt the most prolific scorer at his position, but his versatility should move him up a few notches in the unofficial rankings, past non-elite talents who somehow garner more recognition.

Take a guy like Indianas Danny Granger. Not to pick on the Pacers small forwardwho Deng regularly makes life miserable forbut if Deng was the go-to scorer on that team, is there any doubt hed put up similar scoring numbers, as well as contribute more in other facets of the game?

When Deng was in that situationthough he shared the primary-scoring role with Ben Gordon, who usually had the ball in his hands when the game mattered, adding to the idea that Deng wasnt clutchboth he and the Bulls had their ups and downs, but at least they made the playoffs multiple times, even advancing to the second round.

Obviously, he doesnt have to worry about that these days, with Rose clearly established as the teams alpha dog (remember when, in Roses second season, then-Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro seemed to be unsure of whether Rose was ready to take on that burden?), but as a secondary scorer, the Bulls could do a lot worse.

With Boozer and Hamilton in tow, opponents have to at least respect the abilities of the pair of proven veterans, deflecting even more attention from Deng.

The strength of his game isnt necessarily breaking down his man in isolation and creating off the dribble, but instead his efficient mid-range shooting, using his size to his advantage, running with Rose in transition, cutting without the ball for easy baskets and knocking down open shots from beyond the arc -- something much improved from the early days of his career -- are his hallmarks.

However, a summer with Great Britains national team, where he was the squads offensive focal pointand only legitimate scoring optionin the FIBA EuroBasket tournament forced him to handle the ball more and create offense for himself, a trait that should help him and the Bulls down the road.

Reporting back to the Berto Center in great shape after playing in every game of last season and ranking third in the league in minutes per game, the Mohawk-sporting Deng appears to be picking up where he left off last season and unlike some of his teammates, the season didnt end, at least for him personally, on a low note, as he battled through postseason aches and pains and didnt cower in the spotlight.

If fans expect himor Boozer or Hamilton, for that matterto score 20-plus points a night, that probably wont happen, as Rose will get his numbers and the supporting cast will fall in line, with the three other proven veteran scorers routinely rotating who picks up the slack on a given night.

But all-around performances like Sundaysin addition to his 21 points, he also grabbed seven rebounds, swiped four steals and dished out three assistswill again be the norm for the longest-tenured member of the team, as will sparking the Bench Mob when hes in the game with the second unit and making plays at the right time, something both Rose and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau undoubtedly appreciate more than gaudy scoring numbers.

In other words, while Boozer is being counted on to be a low-post presence, Hamilton will be relied upon to help extend the defense and Noahs energy and offensive development is vital to the teams success, the Bulls already have a clear-cut No. 2 to Rose in Deng.

If you didnt recognize that, then maybe you havent been paying attention. With all the criticism hes faced over the course of his career, its unlikely he cares; after all, hes trying to win a championship.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are the playoffs in sight for the Bulls?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are the playoffs in sight for the Bulls?

On this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Seth Gruen and Ben Finfer join Chuck Garfien on the panel.

The Bulls win again. Do they dare think playoffs? Vincent Goodwill joins the guys to discuss.

Plus, they debate where the “Minneapolis Miracle” ranks amongst the greatest plays in NFL playoff history and if Tom Ricketts is right to say that Sammy Sosa needs to put everything on the table to rejoin the Cubs family.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

The time goes by fast for Zach LaVine, from tip-off to the time he’s subbed out for Denzel Valentine as part of his minute-restriction plan.

“It goes by really quick. I look up, I’m like man, it’s already seven minutes,” LaVine said. “But that’s why I’m trying to make the most of the 20 minutes, think I’m doing a good job so far. I set out to help in every way I can.”

For the damage he does in his limited time, it’s making the Bulls and their winning-restriction plan go to mush, as he put up 18 points with five rebounds, five assists and more importantly, more minutes will be on the horizon sooner rather than later. After the Bulls’ 119-111 win over the Miami Heat Monday at the United Center, one has to wonder if the Bulls are approaching a crossroads for the season—or if unfortunately for the front office, the checkpoint on the long-term plan has already been unwillingly passed to the point of no return.

At 17-27, the Bulls are, in a sense, where they didn’t want to be—straddling the line between going for a playoff spot or getting as bad as possible to get in the best possible position for the lottery.

They’re here because Kris Dunn is playing like a top-half point guard and Lauri Markkanen is performing like a top-three rookie, shooting the three with a volume that would be the best for a first-year player in NBA history—a perfect fit for Hoiberg’s system.

Markkanen is growing perhaps into the superstar they hope to draft in June while LaVine will do everything he can to prove he’s more than a max player but a legit superstar who can play winning basketball along with filling up a box score.

And they’re managing to win close games at a rate experienced teams usually do, playing with a poise and freedom that stemmed from low expectations and a 3-20 start.

“We knew they were on a winning streak and just tried to play hard,” Markkanen said after a 17-point, nine-rebound night. “And play unselfish like we always do. And we had much success, so that tells a lot.”

The Heat was in a similar position last season, starting out 10-31 before making a charge so strong the Bulls had to win every game down the stretch to secure the final playoff spot.

After a so-so start, the Heat are nearly on a 50-win pace with a similar roster and no one with the ceiling of LaVine or Markkanen—along with having to replace Dion Waiters’ scoring and swagger, as he’s out for the season with ankle surgery.

John Paxson took the reins this offseason and firmly made the decision to begin a painful and possibly long, rebuild. But when affordable acquisitions like Justin Holiday starts shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and torches the Heat for seven triples and 25 points, it makes then plan harder to execute.

When Nikola Mirotic sprinkles some pixie dust on his game before the start of the fourth quarter to go from being scoreless to scoring 18 in the last 12 minutes to close out their third straight win, it puts the pressure firmly on the front office to make a big decision, yet again.

“The thing we’re chasing is that we’re trying to continue to grow and get better,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Take steps in the right direction. That’s all we talk about. We’re not talking about what’s at stake.”

Hoiberg is keeping his eyes and ears away from the front office's plans, as it does him no good but to bunker down with his locker room and peck away at this record.

He may not be discussing it with his team, but LaVine said the team is watching the Eastern Conference standings, game-by-game. At six games behind eighth-seeded Detroit, there’s four teams between the Bulls and a playoff spot—while being four-and-a-half games behind the Orlando Magic at the cellar.

And with the Magic rumored to be going all-in on selling before the trade deadline, willing to unload Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, according to the New York Times, it’s clear they’re trying to cement themselves at the top of the lottery.

The Golden State Warriors are coming to the United Center in two days, and it’s likely the requisite beating will take place to quell some of the immediate optimism. But after that, the Bulls have some winnable contests that will likely have them right about where they are now, with each passing game lessening the likelihood of plummeting to the bottom.

It leaves Paxson and the front office in a precarious position, as the team is playing with more spirit and togetherness thus leading to praise the front office for its roster construction.

Trading a fourth-quarter performer like Mirotic would go over well in most circles, and although Mirotic is saying all the right things about having the most fun in his NBA career and wanting to play more with Markkanen, he still wants out and he prefers to go West.

One could see the Bulls taking a deal from the Utah Jazz in the form of expiring contract Joe Johnson and a protected first-round pick, then possibly buying out Johnson and letting him go to a contender with the pick being the crown jewel of the deal.

The longer he stays, the more games the Bulls win, the harder this becomes—and one has to ask about the futures of Robin Lopez and Holiday—who would be valuable as a reserve for a playoff team.

But would the Bulls trade anybody for the sole purpose of getting worse in the meantime? Hard to say but hard to envision Paxson doing anything less than what he deems equal value.

This season started with drama, proceeded as planned but took a turn towards something unexpected—and rather quickly.

And like LaVine’s minutes, the Bulls will have to make another decision because deadlines are approaching faster than even they could foresee.