CHICAGO – The Miami Heat kept coming for these Chicago Bulls, for a title that the champs were desperately trying to hold onto, and perhaps the time had passed for Luol Deng to be that deferring, developing star. The big noise tumbled down into the United Center in Game 1, and before everyone's eyes, Deng had demonstrated the disposition to dominate.
Something's clicked, someone's blossomed, and there were Deng's 33 points rising over everyone in the Bulls' 96-91 victory over the Heat on Saturday. He had a terrific season for Chicago, a breakthrough to be sure, but no one could be completely convinced of his climb closer to greatness until he had made his move in these playoffs.
This season, it won't be enough to just challenge Miami in the opening round. It won't be enough to hang with Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade in these Eastern Conference playoffs. They're still going to get bigger and better performances out of Shaq and Wade, but Deng is the reason to believe in the Bulls. As much as any player in these playoffs, he can transform his standing in stature. Here's his and these Bulls' chance to elevate into the elite.
The Heat are validation for these Bulls, a threshold that Chicago needs to cross to push past potential, past possibility, and into actual accomplishment.
O'Neal was busy blaming the officials, insisting after fouling out that, "I was derailed by Eddie Rush," but Deng derailed Miami. Deep down, Shaq knows it, too. The Heat played poorly, deserving the fate of going down 1-0 in the best-of-seven series.
When Game 1 was gone, Wade called Deng "one of the best finishers in the game," and that's a truth that Deng had struggled to show Miami in the regular season. But in the final, frantic minutes Saturday, Wade tried to further his legacy as the sport's greatest finisher, but he couldn't deliver a three-pointer with 11 seconds left to make it 94-94.
For most of the game, Wade struggled to find space and his shot, especially with that long-armed rookie, Thabo Sefolosha, chasing him everywhere. Wade is still fighting his way back from a separated shoulder, playing with that protective sleeve, and the worst part of his return to the playoffs wasn't with the ball. It was Deng with the ball.
The Bulls understood that they had to make Wade work on Deng, and they were relentless in running the Heat's star through Chicago's muscle. To test that shoulder, the Bulls constantly ran him through screens.
"D-Wade is real tough when he doesn't have to play much defense," said Ben Gordon, who had 24 points and 11 assists. "That way, he can save it for offense."
So, Shaq had 19 points but fouled out with 3:19 left in the game. Besides ripping Rush – guaranteeing himself a league fine – he had insisted that Chicago "had a lot of help out there. … The inconsistency is just very frustrating."
Did he think the Bulls were good actors?
"Yeah," he said.
So far, Deng is playing the part of an NBA star. As Miami coach Pat Riley said, "He had a monster game. Anytime they needed something, he was making jumpers or slashing."
Deng didn't go chasing his 14-for-22 shooting performance, instead finding his makes and misses in the flow without forcing himself onto the game. That's part of the maturity of these Bulls, the reason they can take the Heat out now. Nevertheless, this promises to be a long series. Shaq has bounce, and Wade's nine points in the fourth quarter exhibited evidence that he's finding his way back from injury. But what Chicago keeps challenging Miami with are these fearless and ferocious young players, bringing to these playoffs a resoluteness that this is the time for them.
Most of all, this is the truth for Deng. All season, he had shown distinct development. He stopped shooting three-pointers and stuck to a mid-range game and to taking the ball to the rim. Thus, his field-goal percentage rose from 46 percent to almost 52 percent this year by playing a tight, efficient brand of ball.
Three years ago, he was a kid coming out of Duke, a 19-year-old still learning the game. Things have changed.
"He has come a long ways in the past year," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. "You know that Luol's ceiling was really high. He's young, and he wants to be good."
This was one of those afternoons when the acumen of general manger John Paxson illuminated the United Center. There had been discussions of including Deng in a trade to Memphis for Pau Gasol earlier in the season, but Paxson didn't dare do it. He believed his young forward was on the cusp of becoming a cornerstone star for this franchise, and suddenly, with the defending champs here, with the big noise tumbling down in the playoffs, it's happening before everyone's eyes.