CHICAGO -- Luol Deng was sick of watching the same story play over and over again, so he decided to say something about it.
For the third game in a row, the Chicago Bulls allowed another team to control the tempo of the game. For the first 24 minutes Thursday night, Deng's Bulls languished around the floor and appeared to be headed toward the first regular-season three-game losing streak in the Tom Thibodeau era. The Boston Celtics were playing harder than the Bulls and the veteran forward could see it. His team was tight and he let them know it.
"We just said we've got to play inspired," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "It looked like we were kind of just going through the motions and just playing with our heads down. Lu just said, 'Guys, let's just have fun out there and just give it everything we got,' and that's what we did."
Deng struggled more than anyone in the first half, so his words came with a force behind them.
After two quarters, Deng was 2-for-9 from the floor and had just eight points. He was also having a hard time containing Celtics superstar Paul Pierce, who went off for 17 points in the first half. While Deng tried to downplay his speech after the game, it was clear that he was the one who set the tone both in the locker room and on the floor. He was admittedly more aggressive in the second half, scoring 18 points. He finished with 26 points on 9-of-21 shooting in the Bulls' 93-86 victory. More importantly, he turned up the intensity on Pierce, holding him to just five points in the second half.
"Everyone spoke up," Deng said of the halftime locker-room vibe. "We needed to play hard. A lot of things haven't been going our way and that's because we're thinking too much. And in the second half, we let go and just [didn't] think, just play, and good things happen when you just play hard."
Deng was the walking definition of that Thursday night.
Since Derrick Rose is still out of the lineup, Deng is the man who has to set the tone on both ends each night. He took the responsibility on his shoulders Thursday.
"Tonight he did that," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "First of all, he was guarding a great player on the other side in Paul Pierce, and then at the same time he was going right back at him on the other end. Hitting big shots, step-up, pull-up 3s. He was very aggressive and we need Lu to be that way. When he's aggressive like that we're a better team."
All of his teammates know it. Deng has always led by quiet example in the Bulls' locker room, preferring to deflect the spotlight toward other players. But if the Bulls are going to win a championship this season, it has to be Deng who helps lead the way alongside Rose, whenever he returns. Deng has become too much of a focal point on both ends of the floor to have spells where he doesn't affect the game on both ends.
"He was huge," Noah said. "Lu played great for us. He played with a lot of energy. His defense was great; hit big shots for us. He's one of the most versatile players in the NBA and he showed it on a big stage tonight."