Deng blocks Kobe, turns in all-around effort

Luol Deng sealed an all-around solid game by blocking Kobe Bryant at the buzzer. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

LOS ANGELES -- In case the rest of the league had forgotten how dominant the Chicago Bulls were defensively throughout most of last season, Luol Deng delivered a personal message on Sunday night.

The veteran forward made several huge plays, including the steal that set up Derrick Rose's game-winning basket and the block on Kobe Bryant that sealed the Bulls' 88-87 victory.

"I think everyone knows by now, we play hard," Deng said. "We play hard, we play together and we stick with it. Whether we're down 30 or down two, we're always going to play until the end."

That's exactly what Deng did on Sunday night and it paid off in a big way for the Bulls. He made the last minute of the game a personal showcase to remind the league that he was an All-Star caliber player hovering in the shadows of Derrick Rose. Deng scored six points and made the two most important defensive plays of the night for the Bulls. The first one came with less than 20 seconds and the Bulls trailing by one. Instead of fouling Kobe Bryant and sending him to the line, Coach Tom Thibodeau decided to have the Bulls trap Bryant and force his hand. The move paid off as Bryant threw a pass which skimmed off Joakim Noah and was picked up by Deng.

"I think it was a great call by Coach Thibs to trap him," Deng said. "We didn't go for the foul, we trapped him. Get it out of his hand. We went for the first trap and he did exactly what we wanted. It was just a great, great plan by Coach."

"We wanted to get one good trap and see if we could pop it loose," Thibodeau added. "And we were fortunate. A lot of guys did a great job. We got a deflection and came up with the steal and got the score. The big thing was not quitting on the game. Just keep fighting, find a way. That's what they did."

As soon as Deng got the ball, he only had one thing on his mind.

"When I got the steal, I dribbled down the side," he said. "My mindset was just looking for Derrick. And I jumped up and he got open [at] the last second and I let it go. But as soon as I got the steal, I just wanted to find him."

Rose dribbled the ball down the floor and dropped home the floater that gave the Bulls the lead with just 4.8 seconds left. Deng promptly made the play of the game a few moments later when he stuffed Bryant's final shot.

Knowing that he had help around him, Deng forced Bryant to drive into traffic and put up a contested shot.

"I trust our defense," Deng said. "I trust our bigs. I wanted to crowd him so he doesn't have the jump shot. And if he drove, I knew our bigs were going to be there, and that's exactly what happened. He drove, our bigs are there, he hesitated a little bit and I was able to come back to the play. Our bigs did a good job of holding him up."

In the final two minutes of the game, Deng and his teammates played the same kind of defense they had throughout all of last season. Noah, who helped defend Bryant on that last play, believes that his team's experience last postseason helped them remain calm in the final moments on Sunday.

"That's where playing in those big games last year definitely helped because you understand what you need to do in those situations," Noah said. "You got to stay extra focused and not get distracted."

Obviously, Deng took that message to heart.

"I really have a lot of confidence in our defense," he reiterated. "No matter who it is in the league, I just feel like I'm confident enough in whoever I'm guarding to know that my guys are right behind me. And we did a good job down the stretch just talking. And as a defender, that gives me a lot of confidence knowing my guys behind me are alert."

Rose grabbed some deserved headlines, but he knows that Deng is one of the biggest reasons why the Bulls were able to sneak out of Staples Center with a victory.

"You know how Lu is," Rose said. "He's going to keep it simple, do what he has to do, play defense, rebound the ball, push it. Play smart. His IQ of the game is very high, that's what I like about him."