DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP)—On the night of the big “Decision” last summer, Luol Deng(notes) was at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya with no TV, and no one was asking if LeBron James(notes) would sign with the Chicago Bulls.
Deng wasn’t paying attention to the soap opera. No one there was.
“They didn’t really care,” Deng said.
Deng will be paying close attention to James starting Sunday, when the Bulls meet the Miami Heat in an Eastern Conference finals that could have been ripped out of a Hollywood script.
On one side is a team led by MVP Derrick Rose(notes) that stormed to the league’s best record. On the other is a squad led by a superstar trio that decided to unite in Miami after meeting with Chicago.
“Everyone has the right to make the decision that they want,” Deng said. “They got what they wanted. We’re happy with the team that we have.”
The Bulls wound up with one of the deepest teams after failing to reel in the “Big Three” and are back in the conference finals for the first time since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were completing their second championship three-peat in 1998. Along with Rose, they have the Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau, a league-leading 62 wins and homecourt advantage.
As consolations go, that’s not bad.
Beating the Heat would be even better.
With enough cap room to lure two star free agents, the Bulls made it clear they were going to be big spenders last summer and were looking for more after winning 41 games and losing in the first round each of the past two years.
They fired Vinny Del Negro and replaced him with Thibodeau, the first in a series of major moves that vaulted them into the championship picture. When the Big Three decided to unit in South Beach, Chicago acquired Carlos Boozer(notes) and role players like Kyle Korver(notes).
“It was a great meeting that I had with that team and that franchise, knowing the history,” James said. “There was some great things that they said, but at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best opportunity for me to win a championship.
“But it was a great team,” he added. “I definitely had one or two mornings where I woke up thinking I would be a Bull, too, but ultimately I decided to come here.”
Wade joked that “it was like two mornings” he woke up thinking he would sign with Chicago.
“I grew up in the city, I grew up with my dreams of wanting to become an NBA player from the Chicago Bulls,” Wade said. “It was flattering from that standpoint and they gave a great presentation, great opportunity. Just felt that the Miami opportunity was better.”
But what if? What if James and Wade had signed with Chicago? Or if one of them joined Bosh with the Bulls? Would Rose have shown up for training camp wondering why he couldn’t be the MVP—and gone on to win it, ending James’ two-year reign? Or would he have settled into more of a traditional point guard role, setting up his high-profile teammates?
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I’m too caught up into this year and too caught up in my teammates to even comment about it because I’m fine with the teammates I have now.”
At 62-20, the Bulls matched their best record since the 1997-98 championship season and swept three regular-season games from Miami, albeit by a combined eight points. That was apparently enough to make the Heat break down, with coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledging there were “a couple of guys crying in the locker room” after Chicago’s 87-86 victory on March 26.
The Heat eventually regrouped and won 15 of 18 down the stretch to finish with 58 wins and the second seed. They took out Philadelphia and Boston in five games each, and they come into this series with James and Wade on a roll.
Wade averaged 30.2 points in the Boston series. James scored 35 and 33 in the final two games against the Celtics.
When they take the court on Sunday, Deng will certainly be paying attention.
Afterall, he’ll be trying to contain him.
Deng didn’t have much luck in the playoffs last year against Cleveland, when James averaged 31.8 points, but the Bulls emerged as one of the league’s best defensive teams under Thibodeau.
Then again, James now has plenty of help, with Wade and Bosh.
“I think a lot of people are looking forward to this series,” James said. “Honestly, a lot of people didn’t think we’d get past Boston. So we’re moving on and we’re looking forward to the challenge. Two good teams, two great defensive teams, so it’s going to be a struggle for both teams offensively at times. May the best man win.”