Bulls-Nets Preview

The Associated Press

Playing with Luol Deng for the first time in two weeks, the Chicago Bulls once again resembled a championship contender.

They looked like a title team even without Deng against the New Jersey Nets last month.

Deng looks to build on an encouraging performance and help the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls send the struggling Nets to their fifth loss in six games Monday night at the Prudential Center.

After missing seven games with a torn ligament in his left wrist, Deng returned in Saturday's 113-90 win over Milwaukee. The starting small forward didn't seem to miss a beat, finishing with 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting and nine rebounds in 41 minutes.

"He got out there and did everything,'' coach Tom Thibodeau said.

Deng, averaging 16.2 points and a career-best 7.6 rebounds, opted against surgery after doctors told him he couldn't make the injury any worse by playing.

"I felt it, (and) I'm going to feel it,'' Deng said. "As the game goes on, I forgot about it."

Led by reigning MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls (20-6) went 4-3 without Deng. In the last two games he missed, Chicago suffered a 98-82 loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday and barely held off sputtering New York a night later in a 105-102 victory.

With Deng on the court against the Bucks, Rose scored 16 of Chicago's first 18 points. He finished with 26 points, 13 assists and no turnovers.

"He makes the game easy,'' Rose said of Deng. "He makes everybody comfortable out there. It feels good when we have all our leaders out there.''

The first game Deng sat out came against the Nets on Jan. 23, but the Bulls didn't seem too fazed. Chicago led by 12 midway through the first quarter and shot a season-best 57.3 percent in a 110-95 victory.

Rose, playing for the first time after sitting out the previous four games with a sprained left big toe, had 22 points and eight assists, while Richard Hamilton had 22 points and 10 assists and Joakim Noah had 16 points and 10 rebounds.

The Bulls' starters outscored New Jersey's 85-45 in leading the team to a third straight win in the series. Chicago's 84-73 victory in a March 17 trip to the Prudential Center was just its second win in its last 18 games in New Jersey.

The Nets (8-17), however, haven't been enjoying much success at the Prudential Center - or any arena, for that matter - this season.

New Jersey, 3-7 at home with victories over Golden State (8-13), Charlotte (3-21) and Detroit (6-20), is coming off Saturday's 99-92 loss at New York, its fourth defeat in five games. Deron Williams finished with 21 points and 11 assists, but was outplayed by Knicks' seldom-used reserve Jeremy Lin, who scored a career-high 25.

"When you have a guy coming off your bench like that and getting 25 points, it's pretty deflating," coach Avery Johnson said.

The Nets were outrebounded by New York 48-39 and could again have trouble on the glass against the Bulls. Chicago is first in the league in rebounding at 44.9 per game, while New Jersey's ranks 28th at 39.5. The Bulls held a 43-32 advantage on the boards in the first meeting.

Williams had 16 points and 10 assists at the United Center two weeks ago, while Anthony Morrow scored 15.

Morrow followed his career-best 42-point performance in Friday's home loss to Minnesota with just 11 against the Knicks, but the Bulls won't have to worry about stopping him Monday. Morrow will miss the game to attend his grandmother's funeral.

MarShon Brooks (toe), Mehmet Okur (back) and DeShawn Stevenson (knee) are also out for the Nets.

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