Bulls' Luol Deng a cool customer in time of need

Bulls' Luol Deng a cool customer in time of need

As the Minnesota Timberwolves trailed 59-54 early in the second half, having all but erased the Chicago Bulls' 24-point second-quarter lead, coach Tom Thibodeau's bunch was in desperate need of a player who could step up and knock down a few shots to give them some breathing room.

On a night when the Bulls had four players in double figures, that man was Luol Deng.

With almost all of the momentum in the Wolves' favor, Deng scored nine of the team's next 11 points during a two-minute stretch in which the Bulls captured an eight-point lead. The Bulls small forward made three straight baskets -- nine-, 18- and 22-foot jumpers. After Joakim Noah added a pair of free throws, Deng nailed yet another crucial shot, a three-pointer from the left wing off a dish from Derrick Rose.

The once-maligned Deng hit two more mid-range jumpers in the fourth quarter to cap a 21-point output in 42 minutes of action. He also shot 9-for-17 from the field and grabbed 11 rebounds. While Deng's teammates and veteran coach did not make much of the fact that he had failed to reach double figures in three of the past four games, Bulls fans were a little concerned, given that the 6-foot-9 veteran has racked up 38 minutes per game, and hoped for a bounce-back outing.

"That's going to happen," Thibodeau told reporters Monday. "The thing about Luol is, even when he's not shooting well or scoring, he still helps you in so many ways because of his defense, the way he moves the ball, his hustle, his activity. So I'm not worried about Lu."

Fortunately for the Bulls, Deng delivered in Tuesday night's 111-100 victory and, for the most part, has provided them with a secondary option on offense behind Rose -- no matter the quarter. On the other end of the court, he held his counterparts, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams, to just five points and even spent a brief period defending rookie sensation Ricky Rubio.

"Luol hit some huge, huge shots," Thibodeau said. "When that game was in the balance, I think Luol hit three shots in a row that were just huge for us."

Noah's energy: Noah's high-energy performance on Tuesday was marred because he watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench -- again. The Bulls center's struggles this season have dominated plenty of conversations among fans, especially after he did not attempt a single field-goal in a four-point performance Monday.

Although Noah still hasn't found the offensive rhythm the Bulls expect out of him, the fifth-year big man has increased his activity level the past two games. His offensive repertoire is not elite. But make no mistake: Noah has the ability to impact the Bulls in a variety of ways simply because of his hustle, intangibles and leadership. When he's sluggish to start games, picking up early fouls, it's a safe bet that he will have a long night.

Noah posted eight points, 11 rebounds and one block in 29 minutes against the Wolves, an effort Thibodeau believes the 26-year-old can build on.

"I thought his rebounding was very good," Thibodeau said. "I thought he went after it a lot more, which is a good sign. The more he does that, the more he'll get into rhythm."

Hot sauce provider: After producing double-digit scoring only once through the first seven games, Bulls swingman Kyle Korver has averaged 13 points while shooting 13-for-20 (65 percent) from three-point range during the past four contests, three of which in double figures.

The veteran sharpshooter poured in 13 points on 3-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc on Tuesday and has gradually began to look like the player whom the Bulls relied on time and time again a season ago to take and make clutch shots.

With the addition of Rip Hamilton and improvement of Ronnie Brewer, Korver has accepted his role as the squad's designated shooter. He's a streaky one, at that. It's no coincidence, though, that Rose is averaging a career-best 8.5 assists this season while Korver has improved his outside stroke, shooting over 50 percent from three-point land.

"We know that he's hit a lot of big shots for us," Thibodeau told the assembled media when asked about the possibility of increasing Korver's minutes. "It's more what the game calls for. And when he's on the floor it creates space for Derrick. And with he and Luol shooting the ball well, [Rose] has more space to operate. ... That's critical for us."

NBA's best: Following the Miami Heat's overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors in Oakland Tuesday night, 111-106, the Bulls moved to a tie with the Oklahoma City for the best record in the NBA at 9-2.

Interestingly, both Chicago and Miami have lost to the same clubs: the Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks. The Heat currently hold an 8-2 mark, although they have already played four home games compared to the Bulls' two.

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