Even though Luol Deng knocked down two clutch three-pointers late in Wednesday night's 96-89 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, he missed 5-of-8 shots overall and never really found his shooting rhythm. Although the veteran small forward didn't hang his head afterward, he was well aware of his shooting struggles, which are compounded by the fact that he shot a paltry 39.8 percent from the field in February.
Vowing to play much more aggressive right out of the gate, Deng dropped a season-high 24 points, six rebounds and four assists -- his best overall outing since Feb. 16 -- in a 112-91 rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night. He poured in 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting in the first quarter and the Cavs had no answer for him, despite putting the long-armed Omri Casspi on the Bulls' All-Star. Deng scored two baskets in the paint in the opening frame but did most of his damage from the outside, connecting on a 15-foot baseline jumper and three of his four three-pointers.
On a night when the Bulls coasted to an easy win, Deng was the tone-setter to start each half. He drained two straight jumpers to start the third quarter and made one from beyond the arc with 11 seconds left to give the Bulls a 94-70 lead heading into the fourth. He didn't score in the second or final period, the latter of which he sat out, but in his two stellar quarters the Bulls put up a combined 68 points. Deng made a concerted effort to begin the game looking to playmake, either for himself or teammates, and it showed.
"I was just more aggressive," Deng told reporters after the game. "I felt like [in the] San Antonio game I wasn't as aggressive early in the game. Guys have confidence in me, so today I wanted to come out in the first quarter and be aggressive."
That's in stark contrast to the San Antonio contest Deng alluded to. He attempted just three shots in the first two quarters Wednesday and was headed toward his worst showing of the season before making a pair of critical fourth-quarter jumpers. The 26-year-old has tried to avoid talking about the torn ligament in his left wrist by simply stating he's fine. But the threat of him slashing and cutting has seemingly taken a hit because of the injury.
Still, Deng, as usual, has found numerous ways to help his team. Since returning from a seven-game absence on Feb. 4, he is averaging six rebounds, four assists and has made 30-of-61 (49.1 percent) three-pointers. And he gives Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau a strong defensive presence night in and night out -- not to mention the fact that he's one of the leaders whom players in the locker room look up to.
Deng is the Bulls' glue player, as Thibodeau has repeatedly called him over the past couple years, and a vital piece to a squad that has championship aspirations. He has solidified himself as the second offensive option on this team -- behind Derrick Rose, of course -- which is why the Bulls didn't mince words when asked about his slump-busting performance.
"Shooting with confidence," Rose told the assembled media when asked about the key to Deng's outing. "There were some shots he passed up. I got on him about [it]. We need him to shoot it."
Added Thibodeau: "[He is] a good, winning veteran. The nights in which you don't shoot the ball well, you can still help your team win. And Lu has shown that. You want all your guys to be like that. Tonight I thought he was very aggressive right from the start. He spaced the floor great."
Obviously, Deng is an important cog on both ends of the court for the Bulls. He has provided steady defense on a game-to-game basis but has been on a roller-coaster ride offensively over the past two weeks. For his part, Deng's confident that he can build on Friday night, when the Bulls dominated all facets of the game like a well-oiled machine -- and his teammates are in the same boat, knowing that the offense simply doesn't look as crisp as it will need to come postseason action when he's off his game and hesitant to shoot.
"If he doesn't shoot it, our offense is stagnant," Rose said. "[His performance] is something that we can look forward to."