CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Bulls are going to win games this season, they are going to have to play a lot like they did in Saturday night's 93-88 win over the Philadelphia 76ers and they know it. The game will look ugly at times, the offense will move slowly during others, but when the team needs to make a defensive stop hit a big shot, somehow it will find a way to do it.
In this case, as it has been so many times during the past month, Luol Deng was the guy who rose to the challenge. The veteran forward knocked down several crucial shots and continued his solid defensive play leaving his coach sounding like a proud papa yet again because nobody relies on Deng more than Tom Thibodeau.
"The thing about Luol is he will give you whatever the team needs," Thibodeau said. "You need a little more scoring, he goes that route. If you need great defense, he gives you that. If you need toughness on the boards, he will give you that. I thought his shots were big and timely and clutch for us."
In place of Derrick Rose, somebody has to step up for the Bulls and take charge. Somebody has to make plays when they're in need of one. Through the first up-and-down month of the season, it has been Deng who has delivered most.
"My shot is feeling great, just got to stick with it," Deng said. "We're running different plays than we did last year. Obviously, it has a lot to do with the fact that when Derrick (Rose) is in the game we open the floor so much and for me it's definitely a lot easier with just spotting up and Derrick coming off because so much attention is paid to him. This year, it's kind of similar to last year when Derrick was hurt, we ran a lot of (different sets). Every night we just got to find a way to win."
That is exactly what Deng and his teammates did on this night and in their eyes it's a credit to the system that Thibodeau has in place. They are getting back to doing the simple things that their coach wants them to do.
"I was just happy with the fact that we got back to stopping guys in the fourth quarter," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "We got stops late, that was the main focus of getting stops and understanding when we need to get buckets how to take advantage of it. We see a mismatch, we just went to the mismatch and tonight Luol had a good mismatch late and we kept finding him and guys were just ready."
Then Gibson added the most telling and honest part of all.
"We're just still trying to find ways to close games," he said. "We know that we're going to be in a lot of close games this season, but we're just taking it one game at a time and improving slowly but surely."
It's a mantra that Thibodeau has been preaching to his players all along. Without Rose, they have to grind games out every night. Unlike last season, there are no sure wins on the schedule anymore. The Bulls have to play value each possession to its fullest, a lesson they learned the hard way after blowing a 27-point second-half lead Monday night.
"Every game is different but you got to expect a battle every time you come out," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "I think that when we come with the right mentality, we're all right."
He was always confident his team could grind games out without Rose, like they had done so many times last season. His faith in Thibodeau's system never wavered and it showed.
"In the past three seasons with Thibs, it just shows as the season goes on we get better as a team," Deng said. "I just expect us to keep getting better. It's coming to that point in the season where in the NBA when it's 20 games, teams that really stick with what they do start to show. I think every day in practice we go over the same stuff. We work so hard and it's so many games that guys just get used to what we do and it's just become natural."