Without Rose, Deng the closer for Bulls

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
11:05
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
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TORONTO -- Luol Deng called his shot before he hit the gamer winner in the Chicago Bulls’ thrilling 107-105 overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors late Wednesday night.

With the game tied at 105 and just 8.7 seconds remaining in overtime, Deng walked over to Bulls center Joakim Noah and delivered a message.

"He told me even before he hit the shot. He said, 'Let's go home, man,'" Noah said. "I'm going to hit this shot and let's go home.' Yeah, his swag is crazy."

Deng got the ball and pulled up on the right elbow about 18 feet away from the basket and drained the jumper with 3.3 seconds left. It was exactly the type of ending the Bulls needed after almost blowing a 19-point lead in the second half. But it was also exactly the type of ending they expected with the ball in the veteran forward's hands.

With Derrick Rose still recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, Deng has become the de facto leader of the Bulls, along with Noah, and Deng's the man his teammates trust to take -- and make -- the final shot.

"That's what he does," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Whatever you need. You need great defense? He does that. You need rebounding in traffic? He does that. You need a big shot? He does that. Move well without the ball, run the floor -- to me that's who he is. That's what makes him such a good player."

That's also why Deng's teammates respect him so much. He is the glue that has helped keep the Bulls together this season without Rose on the floor. He was the one who told Noah he was going to take the shot, and he was the one who had the confidence to knock it down. To him, it's all part of being on a team that only cares about success.

"With the team that we have now, there's certain guys that -- we've been together for so long -- and we know coach called a play, and we're all comfortable with what we're running," Deng said. "Before the overtime we called the play for Marco [Belinelli] and we were all comfortable with that. It's the play that coach called and we got to go with that. In overtime he switched the play and he called it for me, and everyone was fine with it. And everyone was just like, hit the shot and get us home, and that's the kind of relationship and confidence we have with each other."

The key for Deng is that he continues to produce within the rhythm of the offense. He plays solid defense, then goes off for almost 20 a game -- a luxury that Thibodeau and his players don't take for granted.

"I think Luol is just playing his game," Noah said. "I think that he's somebody who's great because everything he does is within the system. When we play within the system and we play together, I feel like we're very tough to beat."

In so many ways, the Bulls are tough this season because they follow Deng's example on and off the floor. Without Rose, Deng is the guy that everyone is taking their cues from. And he knows the responsibilities that come with that mantle. He knows who he is and he knows what he's not, and that's why he has been such a focal point for the Bulls this season, especially late in games.

"I think it's just maturing and being in the league for a while now," Deng said. "I know what I can do and what I can't do. When it comes to last minutes in a game, I'm not as nervous or worried about what I'm going to do as I used to [be]. It's a few things that I do well, and I'm going to stick to that.

“At the end of the game, just stick to my game. Never get out of character. Close game or not a close game, just keep staying the same way."

Nick Friedell | email

Chicago Bulls beat reporter
Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jimmy Butler
PTS AST STL MIN
20.5 3.2 1.8 39.8
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 12.0
AssistsD. Rose 4.9
StealsJ. Butler 1.8
BlocksP. Gasol 2.2