On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets will travel to Boston to play the Boston Celtics, in a return to the former home of current Nets Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, with the latter (who spent his entire 15-year career with the Celtics prior to this season) expected to receive a rousing and pointed re-introduction to the city, possibly peppered by emotion and tears. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN, with Pierce actually sitting out a exhibition contest in Boston last October so as to save the real return for a more proper setting. For Boston fans, the shock of seeing Pierce in another team’s uniform will be cushioned by the fact that the team is set to receive what should be a series of good-to-great draft picks because of the deal.
On Wednesday, the Chicago Bulls will travel to Cleveland to take on the Cavaliers, a squad that features former longtime Bull forward Luol Deng, who was traded to Cleveland earlier in January. The contest will be a locally televised affair pitched early in a massive League Pass scheduling night, and because of the Cleveland setting, there will be no standing ovation for the former Bull. And because the picks Chicago received for Deng aren’t likely to worm their way out of their various protections, it’s possible that all Chicago traded their All-Star for is a pair of second round picks, and luxury and payroll relief for a team that was recently valued at $1 billion dollars.
Needless to say, the buildup will not be the same. That’s not stopping Deng and good friend and former teammate Joakim Noah from using similar terminology when discussing the unexpected reunion. From Mary Schmitt-Boyer at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
"When the ball goes up, I'm not going to start crying and start hugging the guys," Deng said after practice at the Cleveland Clinic Courts on Tuesday.
"It will be fun. It will definitely be weird. But honestly, I think as soon as the ball goes up, I want to play basketball and I want to win the game. It won't really matter after that. I don't think we'll be hugging it out the whole game. After the game, we can talk again. But when that ball goes up I'm just focused on winning. I don't care so much … we're friends before the game, after the game, but for that 48 minutes when I'm on the court I'm just focused on my guys and just trying to win.''
In Chicago, the Bulls took the same tack.
‘‘It will probably be weird," Joakim Noah told reporters after Monday's overtime victory over the Lakers. "It will probably be strange, but I still want to kick his ass. I love Luol. He’s my brother. But when that ball goes up, he’s not going to be my brother any more."
Deng followed up by pointing out that he “can't wait to beat” his former team, and considering Chicago’s injury woes – both Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich are out, to say nothing of Derrick Rose’s ongoing absence and the loss of an All-Star in Deng for no compensation – the Cavs might be in line to pull something like that off. Cleveland is 3-3 since the Deng trade, not exactly a great mark overall but one that is a marked improvement from the 12-23 team Luol was traded to.
Chicago has won six of eight since the deal, and while Hinrich remains one of the worst starters in the NBA and Boozer has his faults, their loss on an already-thin Chicago team will be felt. Per usual, as was much of the case last year when Chicago rolled out to a surprising 45 wins without Rose, this team will rely more than ever on Joakim Noah to do the ass kicking that he discussed prior to the contest. Without Deng, this year’s helpers, last year’s scorers (in Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson), or even the famed Bench Mob that helped circle the wagons without an injured Rose and Deng in 2011-12, that’s going to be a tall task.
Even against Cleveland.
Still, many have fallen after doubting the Chicago Bulls before. Luol Deng, of all people, certainly understands that.
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