Bulls F Deng enjoying a big week

CHICAGO (Ticker) - Luol Deng has had quite a week.

On Sunday, Deng helped the Chicago Bulls complete a stunning sweep of the defending champion Miami Heat in their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, averaging a team-high 26.2 points.

On Tuesday, he was tabbed for the national team roster for Britain, which is trying to play its way into the 2012 Olympics in London. And on Thursday, he put another feather in his cap as he was handed the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award.

As he prepares to face the rival Detroit Pistons in the conference semifinals starting this weekend, Deng is still shaking his head, trying to take it all in.

“It’s been amazing,” Deng said. “I’m just trying to stay focused, but it’s been an amazing week.”

The 22-year-old Deng is only in his third season but already has emerged as a key member of the young Bulls alongside guards Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich.

“We’re having a great season,” Deng said. “We wanted to get to 50 wins and we came up just a little short. But in the first round of the playoffs we came up against Miami, the defending champions, and did a great job in eliminating them.”

This season, Deng averaged 18.8 points and 7.1 rebounds, huge increases from his 2005-06 numbers of 14.3 and 6.6. His fast-developing skills are clear for all to see.

“I’m getting a lot more comfortable in the NBA and the game is slowing down for me,” he said. “Being in my third year, I know how long the season is and I’ve been able to do a good job of looking after my body.”

And the development should continue. Deng is a self-confessed gym rat who is constantly honing his skills.

“I love this game and I’m going to keep working at it,” he said. “I’ve got to get a lot stronger and work on my ballhandling skills. There is always room for improvement.”

That constant striving is what makes Deng special in the eyes of the Bulls, who were seriously considering a trade for Memphis Grizzlies star forward Pau Gasol this season but pulled out when the Grizzlies demanded Deng be included in any deal.

“It didn’t really affect me,” Deng said. “There was a lot of talk, but I never really thought about it. It didn’t happen, and I’m happy that I’m still here.”

The Bulls are pretty happy about it, too. Deng was outstanding against the Heat and must repeat that form if they are to get past the top-seeded Pistons, who have reached the conference finals four straight years.

Fifth-seeded Chicago won three of four meetings with Detroit during the season, which means nothing now.

“When it comes to the playoffs, that doesn’t matter,” Deng said. “(Detroit) would say they didn’t have everyone healthy for those games. The playoffs are totally different. The odds probably favor them.”

Despite his dominance on the court, Deng will not dominate the headlines going into the series. They will be reserved for Ben Wallace, the Bulls center who is returning to face the team he left as a free agent last summer.

Wallace is not saying much, but Deng and his teammates know how much the series means to him.

“Ben is a very mellow quiet guy,” Deng said. “He’s not going to be talking about his former teammates or saying anything. He’s just going to lead by example with his focus and intensity.”

The triumph over the Heat was the first series victory for the Bulls since the exit of Michael Jordan nine years ago. The Bulls want to continue that success for their fans, who were a bit spoiled by six championships in the 1990s.

“We feel that from the fans,” Deng said. “They have been accustomed to winning, and the last few years in Chicago have been a disappointment. But since I came in with (Gordon, Hinrich and Andres) Nocioni, we’ve been able to get back into the playoffs.

“I don’t think we carry it with us as players because we know we’re a different team. The team that was there with Jordan was a very special team. But we just want to go and do things for ourselves.”

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Updated Thursday, May 3, 2007