CLEVELAND -- Tom Thibodeau loved Luol Deng because he embodied all the things the coach stands for. He played hard, he played through pain and he did everything that was asked to him. He didn't complain and he set a solid example for the rest of his teammates to follow.
That's what Thibodeau misses most as he and the Bulls get set to face off against the Cavaliers on Wednesday night for the first time since Deng was traded to Cleveland.
"He was a great leader because of the things he did on the floor," Thibodeau said. "The way he practiced, the way he played, the way he competed, and to me a lot of guys say all the right things and do none of them. He was probably the opposite. When he spoke people listened because he didn't just talk to talk. His actions were the great leadership each and every day, and he did it year round.
"The way he took care of his body, the way he stayed in great shape, and that says everything you need to know about him. The type of person he is, I think you guys all know the things that he's gone through, the goodness in him. He did a lot in the community in Chicago, and everywhere for that matter. That's just who he is. And he's not one of those guys that did it for attention. He did it because it was the right thing to do."
Deng earned respect in the Bulls locker room because of the way he produced and the way he carried himself. Several players have referred to Deng as an older brother to them and they still can't believe he'll be playing against them on Wednesday night.
Bulls center Joakim Noah said he went out with Deng on Tuesday night and caught up with his old friend.
"I know he'll be ready to go," Noah said. "We'll be ready to go. It should be a good game. ... I think he's a competitive guy. He'll definitely be ready to go. And I'm just focused on trying to win a basketball game. It's always awkward and weird playing against people you consider family, but at the end of the day I know he wants to win, and I want to win so I know it will be competitive."
Thibodeau wants to keep his team focused on the business trip at hand, but it's clear that Deng will always be a special player to him.
"He embodied all the things that we certainly value," Thibodeau said. "You know, hard work, smart play, played for the team, unselfish. Those things go a long way. When you look at his career, and it's more than just I was there, when he first arrived they were in a big hole. They were basically in the lottery every year. So that group lifted that team out of that. And then with us he took us to another level. The one thing I liked about him is you could count on him every game. You knew what you were going to get. You're never going to out-compete him, he's a great competitor."
Thibodeau doesn't want to lose sight of the fact that the Bulls, who are 6-2 since the Deng trade, will be looking for their ninth win in 11 games. It might be strange to face Deng, but he hopes the shock of seeing Deng wearing a different jersey will wear off quickly.
"We know what a fierce competitor he is," Thibodeau said. "And we know what he's going to try and do, and we want to do the same things to him. We want to go after him, and then after the game we'll exchange pleasantries."