CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls have needed a veteran to step up and lead the way.
Luol Deng appeared to nominate himself for the job.
Deng fell one assist shy of his first career triple-double in Friday’s 97-73 victory over the Utah Jazz on a night when the Bulls continued to struggle in the turnover department.
His energy was evident early, though, and not just on the offensive end. With the Bulls spitting up turnover after turnover, Deng clamped down on the defensive end and was mainly responsible for holding Richard Jefferson to 3-of-12 from the field for eight points.
“That’s Luol, man -- playing hard and rebounding the ball,” Derrick Rose said. “His assists were up -- just passing the ball, finding the open guy -- and he had a lot of nice passes.”
Earlier in the week, Deng insisted the Bulls’ offensive rhythm will come eventually. With the winless Jazz in town, it was much easier to get into a flow. The Bulls shot 72.2 percent from the field in the first quarter and were at 60.6 percent at halftime. They finished the game at 52.8 percent -- the first time they have shot above 50 percent in a game this season.
Last season, the Bulls were 10-1 when they shot 50 percent or better.
“You just learn being in this league for so long, it takes a while for everything to come together,” Deng said. “It would be great if it happened right away, but we’ve shown we can be good. We just had a few minutes when we haven’t been great and teams get a run on us. We just have to keep working on getting that 48 minutes, and everybody in this locker room is working so hard. That’s why I think it will come together.”
By halftime it appeared as if Deng’s triple-double was on its way. He had 14 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds while not getting much resistance from the Jazz forwards.
With just one assist remaining to reach his milestone, Deng turned into a facilitator -- except his teammates couldn’t convert. Kirk Hinrich missed a long jumper that would have given Deng 10 assists. Nazr Mohammed then missed two separate shots inside off feeds from Deng.
With 6:15 remaining, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau pulled Deng from the game for good, drawing boos from many in the sellout crowd of 21,946.
“I’m super-proud of his performance tonight," Rose said.
Despite the triple-double that got away, Deng was proud, too.
“It’s fine,” said Deng of his 19-point, 11-rebound, 9-assist night. “If I would have got it, it would have been great. The biggest thing is that we got the win. It was good to see us play well and now we can just keep focusing on winning. I know people are talking about me being close, but to be honest I’m just glad that I had a good game; we had a good game and you just move on.”
Moving on might be easier said than done. His close call figures to stick with him for a while.
“It would have been cool, but there’s two sides to it,” Deng said. “There’s one side that it took 10 years to get it and the other side is that I’ve been close many times before. It’s cool. I’m really not worried about it.”