The more Deng brings Bulls’ culture to Cavs, the better
Cleveland Cavaliers (15-26) vs. Chicago Bulls (20-20)
Venue: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland.
TV: 7 p.m., FOX Sports Ohio (Cavaliers Live pre-game at 6:30)
CHICAGO: C Joakim Noah; PF Carlos Boozer; SF Mike Dunleavy; SG Jimmy Butler; PG Kirk Hinrich.
CLEVELAND: C Anderson Varejao; PF Tristan Thompson; SF Luol Deng; SG C.J. Miles; PG Kyrie Irving.
* Luol Deng says this is just another game, and it’s probably a good idea for him to convince himself of that. But it’s probably not true. It can’t be.
* Anyone who’s played pickup basketball knows the feeling of winning four, five or six straight games. Then all of a sudden someone on the team has to leave for dinner. Another guy has to go see his girlfriend. Squads are broken up and you’re surrounded by new teammates. Kind of stinks, doesn’t it? Now imagine playing with that first group for 82 games for nine straight years. And that doesn’t even include some intense playoff battles. That’s what Deng did as a member of the Bulls.
* So yes, it’s going to be strange for Deng to face his former team. He’s tight with Noah, Boozer, Hinrich and several others. He enjoyed playing for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Even when times got tough, the Bulls fared well thanks to their strong culture. They rubbed some dirt on their wounds and stuck together. There was never any doubt about how hard they played (and continue to play).
* While the Bulls struggled after losing Derrick Rose to another season-ending knee injury, it was still a winning environment. The Bulls are veteran club. They don’t do drama. They play very much like Mike Brown would like the Cavs to play. They buckle down on defense. They never try to get too cute with the ball. They make the smart, simple pass. If they lose, it’s only because they’re overmatched or have an off night. It’s never because of a lack of effort or sense of urgency.
* Let’s be honest, the Cavs don’t play with that type of mindset consistently. Their culture, while improving, is iffy. Their effort is uneven, as is their chemistry. This isn’t intended to bury the Cavs. They’re better than the mess they were at the start, and Deng has a lot to do with that. But after playing for a grounded organization like the Bulls, it had to be a bit of an adjustment for Deng to come to a team that sometimes can’t get out of its own way.
* Regardless, Deng is in Cleveland now and he’s been just as professional as ever. Actually, you could say he’s been more professional, because he’s had to take on a more vocal leadership role. That wasn’t his function with the Bulls. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do, and they went out and did it. The Cavs are considerably less experienced. They haven’t made the playoffs or tasted much success. They’re still trying to find their way. And when they have a meltdown, they tend to do it right. Or really wrong.
* A lot of folks are looking at this as a gimme for the Cavs. But as Brown has cautioned, they aren’t good enough to ever think that way. Interestingly, former coach Byron Scott said the same thing last season. It’s not just coach-speak, either. It’s more a result of the coaches not knowing what type of mindset the players possess entering a game. Brown wants his guys to treat everyone like the Miami Heat. The Cavs need to be energized — or they’re liable to do things like trail the Washington Wizards by 27 points at home or lose to the Sacramento Kings by 44.
* Brown doesn’t need to worry about Deng. The Cavs’ forward knows what to expect. "I’m sure they’re going to go after me," Deng said. "They’re guys I’m close with and are friends, but when the ball goes up, there’s going to be nothing better for them than to beat me and vice versa. I can’t wait to beat them. It will be interesting."
* Said Noah after Monday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers: "It will probably be strange, but I still want to kick his (butt) right now. … I love Luol. He’s my brother. But when that ball goes up, he’s not going to be my brother."
* The Bulls have tried to replace Deng by committee. Dunleavy has been starting. Rookie Tony Snell plays small forward too, and he’s had some big moments against the Cavs. Butler and Taj Gibson fill in there as well.
* Either way, the Cavs had better be ready. They’re more talented than the Bulls. But the Bulls play harder. They know what Thibodeau expects and they’ll be darned if they don’t try to please the coach. It’s a proven approach.
* Meanwhile, the Cavs have a great opportunity to gain some ground. They still have three straight at home after this. Win all four, and fans will start rallying around them again. But it’s going to take sacrifice, smarts and hustle. Deng knows all about those things from his time with the Bulls. Hopefully, he’ll continue to rub off on the Cavs, because when the Cavs give it their all, they have some pretty serious promise.