After losing three consecutive times to the Indiana Pacers in rough, physical games, the Chicago Bulls, despite not playing with Joakim Noah, arguably their best player this season, found a way to beat a team that’s very similar to them, only better in almost every aspect. How? Luol Deng actually showed up offensively, as the idea of playing without a point guard has to be crossing the mind of Tom Thibodeau.
Positions are a thing of the past. You need players who can do certain things, regardless if they’re a point guard, small forward or center. If someone can play the post and grab 12-13 rebounds a night, why should the coach care if he’s listed at 6’5 and playing shooting guard in high school? Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls are very limited at point guard, and actually looked at their best during the 87-84 win over the Pacers when no point guard touched the ball.
Kirk Hinrich used to be able to lead a team every game, but he’s much more useful as a spot up shooter these days, with the ball mostly spending time in someone else’s hands. Nate Robinson can do a lot of things, but being a point guard who knows how to push and how slow down, spread the ball around and do things that have nothing to do with energy spurts aren’t among them. He didn’t even finish the game, getting ejected in the third quarter for a very hard foul on Lance Stephenson.
And then there’s Luol Deng. A guy who can guard anyone on the floor, but sometimes struggles to comprehend or embrace his importance to the Bulls’ offense, especially with Rose not showing any signs of wanting to comeback. Deng has shot under 40% from the field in 7 of the Bulls’ last 11 games. No wonder they came up with a record of 5-6 in them, as too many teams calling the Bulls’ offense stagnant and lacking of ideas was a compliment.
So they dug deeper into their hustle and defense attitude, but also came up with something else – being bad, which has been missing this season when Joakim Noah wasn’t involved. This time, with him off the floor, the Bulls found their identity again, hopefully lasting more than a fortnight. Deng scored 20 points on 7-14 from the field, adding 7 rebounds. Carlos Boozer, who has been better than the rumors about using the amnesty clause on his contract suggest, finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Nazr Mohammed, who played 31 minutes for Noah as the starting center, finished with a surprising 11 points.
The Pacers don’t have a superstar – Paul George isn’t there yet, and they suffer from similar problems the Bulls do to. They just have a bit more talent on most days. But David West is injured; playing with Tyler Hansbrough isn’t going to fill that void. Roy Hibbert is a big body and terrific rebounder, but until he becomes a more consistent figure offensively (did finish with 18 points), it’s going to be hard to expect the Pacers to win games on length of arms alone.
At the current state of affairs, Luol Deng might not like the idea, but he’s the Bulls’ go-to-guy, their most important player on offense; their leader. Without him embracing that role – his scoring and passing duties, the Bulls won’t make it past the first round of the postseason for a second consecutive year.