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.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”