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.