After a furious second-half Toronto Raptors comeback erased a 19-point Chicago Bulls lead and turned a laugher into a fun Wednesday night table-setter, the two teams sat tied at 105 with 8.7 seconds left in overtime. You might have expected the Bulls to dial up a last-possession play for power forward Carlos Boozer here, considering he'd dominated the Raptors' front line for most of the night en route to a game-high 36 points on 16 for 24 shooting and 12 rebounds, his Eastern Conference-leading 21st double-double of the season.
But then you remembered that this is the Bulls we're talking about, a team led by coach Tom Thibodeau, and if Thibs has made one thing abundantly clear over the course of his three seasons in the Windy City, it's that he makes Luol Deng do everything:
Bang. I, for one, can't believe that someone wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey got away with what looked like a push-off to create space for a mid-range jumper in the closing seconds of an NBA game. Totally unprecedented behavior.
Deng's 18-foot pull-up splashed through with 3.3 seconds left, putting Chicago up two. On the ensuing Raptors possession, Bulls center Joakim Noah was whistled for a foul on Toronto big man Amir Johnson that sure looked like it could've been called in the act of shooting, but was instead called on the floor and resulted in no free throws, leaving Toronto with just one second to try to make something happen; a Jose Calderon 3-pointer went awry and Chicago escaped with a 107-105 road win.
Deng finished with 19 points on 6 for 14 shooting, seven assists, six rebounds, a steal and a block in nearly 48 minutes of playing time, a steep number even for the NBA's leader in minutes per game (40.2) and especially on a night where he "tweaked" his right hamstring in the first quarter (though playing through injuries is, of course, par for the course in the Deng-Thibodeau relationship). The 27-year-old has earned a reputation as one of the NBA's most versatile all-around players during his nine-year NBA career, and with a chance to win it in overtime, Thibodeau chose — after watching a potential regulation game-winner drawn up for shooting guard Marco Belinelli come up short — to deploy his do-everything forward as a closer.
For his part, Deng seemed confident that he was up to the task, according to ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:
With the game tied at 105 and just 8.7 seconds remaining in overtime, Deng walked over to Bulls center Joakim Noah and delivered a message.
"He told me even before he hit the shot. He said, 'Let's go home, man,'" Noah said. "I'm going to hit this shot and let's go home.' Yeah, his swag is crazy."
The so-called "clutch" numbers — which track a player's performance in games in which his team is either ahead or behind by five points or less with under five minutes remaining — show Deng as Chicago's most frequent crunch-time option this season. In 82 such "clutch" minutes, Deng's scored 44 points (the Bulls' highest number, and tied with Denver Nuggets wing Andre Iguodala for 22nd-most in the NBA) on 14 for 33 shooting (42.4 percent). Boozer has shot a better percentage (16 for 29, 55.2 percent), but as he rarely gets to the line (just 3 for 5); Deng's not as gifted a scorer as Boozer is, but his combination of length, midrange stroke and propensity for heading to the stripe late in tight games (14 for 17, 82.4 percent) has made him a more frequent choice; on Wednesday night, that choice paid off.
Not surprisingly, given the difference in their temperaments, Deng described the moment in more muted tones than his center, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
"It’s just maturing and being in the league for a while now," Deng said. "I know what I can do and what I can’t do. When it comes to the last minutes in a game, I’m not as worried or concerned with what I might do as I used to be. There are a few things I do well, and I’m going to stick with them. I’m not going to get out of character, close game or not a close game."
That approach makes Deng is, in some respects, a sort of talisman for this Bulls team — despite playing nearly three months without injured starting point guard and primary scoring option Derrick Rose, the Bulls have fought to a 22-15 record, currently ranking fourth in the Eastern Conference and sitting just a half-game back of the Central Division-leading Indiana Pacers. They've continued to do it with defense, tying with the San Antonio Spurs for the league's third-fewest points allowed per possession. They've continued to pound teams down low with the likes of Boozer, Noah and Taj Gibson, ranking sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and fifth in the league in second-chance points. And they've continued to take their show on the road, posting a sterling 11-5 mark away from the United Center.
They've continued to stick with what they do well; they haven't gotten out of character. That's put them in position to be a very, very dangerous team if Rose is back near full strength come playoff time, and on Wednesday night, it put them in position to get a win in a game they could've coughed up.