Recovering Deng Finds His Stride for Bulls
Tuesday, December 6, 2005; 3:33 PM
When the Chicago Bulls got steam-rolled through the final four games of their first-round series against the Washington Wizards, all they seemingly needed was another offensive option to assist feisty point guard Kirk Hinrich -- especially when the Wizards stopped awarding birthday presents to Argentine forward Andres Nocioni. Center Antonio Davis began to calcify and Ben Gordon slowly morphed from Ben Jordan in Game 1 to Ben Scoreless in Game 6.
Much was made about the absence of center Eddy Curry, but Luol Deng knows that the Bulls could have easily settled for having him back, too. The soft-spoken Deng, an all-rookie first-team performer last season, started 45 of 61 games and averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 rebound before tearing ligaments in his wrist on March 28. He had begun to slash toward the basket with confidence and consistently knocked down the open 15-footer. His long arms had helped contribute to the Bulls stingy scoring defense and he had the versatility to play more than one position. But Deng, a possible difference-maker, was forced to be a spectator when it mattered most.
"It was painful. It was very painful," said Deng, the former Duke standout. "You realize, the playoffs is what you play for, and when the playoff time came, I couldn't help my team. It made me hungrier. As a player, it might've helped me a lot. I never really had to sit back and just watch. It motivated me a lot."
Now that Curry has been traded to the New York Knicks, the Bulls are leaning more on Deng to emerge as a consistent option on offense this season. Deng, a 6-foot-8 forward with a pterodactyl-like 7-foot wingspan, hasn't fully recovered from the injury -- which required surgery and kept him in a cast for 10 weeks -- but that only makes his start for the Bulls (8-8) even more impressive. Deng is averaging 14.8 points (second on the team behind Gordon) and 5.5 rebounds off the bench and gave the Bulls the leverage last week to tell Tim Thomas, the team's highest-paid player at $13.97 million, to stay away for the rest of his time with the club.
Deng appears to be finding his stride and could soon make a return to the starting lineup, possibly in time for the Bulls' playoff rematch in Washington on Saturday. In the past three games, Deng has averaged 23.7 points and 7.7 rebounds. He scored a season-high 28 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter, of the Bulls' 106-102 win against the Boston Celtics last Friday. He had 25 points last night against Dallas, despite being forced to leave the game momentarily after Dirk Nowitzki's elbow knocked out one of his teeth.
During his recovery from the wrist injury, Deng was forced him to learn how to do most of life's chores with left hand and he couldn't begin playing pickup basketball until late September. Deng still has to be cautious with his pre-game workouts. "It's been tough, because I never had an injury that made me sit out. It's the first time I had an injury and it took a while to come back," Deng said last Friday. "Some of the injuries I had in the past -- a sprained ankle -- you come back and you just go, but the wrist, it still challenges me where, you know, tomorrow I wake up and it'll still be sore. I got to keep watching what I do, especially the next two months."
While Deng has impressed, the Bulls remain a work in progress. They are the only team to defeat the San Antonio Spurs at SBC Center but they haven't been able to establish consistency, as teams no longer take them lightly. While their record would be good for first place in the Atlantic Division, the Bulls remain in the cellar of the tough Central Division -- two games out of second place.
Deng said give them time. "It's like last year, we started slow -- 0-9 -- and it's a brand new team. The difference is, we're a more mature team. Even though we are getting to know each other, we know how to win ballgames," Deng said. "I think it's a year where we can take a step ahead. We know how good we are, but we think we can be better than last year."
It isn't nearly as bad as last season, when the New Jersey Nets started the season 4-12 and Alonzo Mourning offered an almost nightly soliloquy about his misery. At least then, the Nets could blame their lousy start on being without Jason Kidd and trading Kenyon Martin to Denver in the offseason. But while they remain tied with Boston and Philadelphia for first place in the (Fell Into the) Atlantic Division, the Nets were not supposed to be 7-9 after 16 games this season. After finishing last season 19-8 to earn the eighth playoff spot, the Nets were expected to easily run away -- and dunk -- with the division title with Kidd back along with all-star Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.
Instead, the Nets have been stumbling over themselves, unable to get much production from their big men and play a consistent four quarters of basketball. The Nets' disappointing start has been largely overlooked with so much attention paid to the saga on the other side of the Hudson River -- but the fact remains, they are only two games better than Larry Brown and the Knicks. Their struggles could no longer be ignored after a disgusting home loss to the 3-15 Toronto Raptors in which they were outscored 15-2 to end the game. Not only did Carter have to absorb losing to his former team, he also suffered a sprained ankle and a knee injury that could keep him out of Wednesday's game against Philadelphia. After the Toronto loss -- the Nets' fifth in seven games -- Jefferson said, "We're not very mentally tough. We're not very physically tough. At some point in time you got to get mad. Excuse my language, but we don't have a screw-you attitude yet."
The Nets are still paying for their inability to bulk up in the offseason. New Jersey traded for Marc Jackson but the team withdrew its offer to forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim over concerns that he had developed an arthritic condition in his knee. Abdur-Rahim signed with Sacramento and helped his struggling team to a win over the Nets. Center Nenad Kristic has shown promise, but he has led the team in rebounds only twice this season. Clifford Robinson is a shell of himself and Jason Collins has been practically non-existent.
Fortunately for the Nets, they still have time and the talent to get it together. And they're in, by far, the weakest division the league. But to turn it around, they will have to get more from Kidd, who is averaging just 6.6 assists per game, the lowest in his career. He may not provide highlight dunks like Carter and Jefferson, and he may be a step slower at age 33 but Kidd is the only player on the roster capable of lifting the Nets, as he proved on Nov. 27, when he exploded for a season-high 35 points with 12 assists and 8 rebounds in a win against the Los Angeles Lakers.