NEW YORK -- Luol Deng sat in front of his locker late Saturday night icing his aching feet in a red cooler. He exchanged whispers with Joakim Noah as the crowded Chicago Bulls locker room began to fill with reporters.
As Noah stood up and hobbled off to the shower, Deng said: "Stay up buddy," to his teammate.
After shooting just 3-for-11 from the field and scoring six points while getting run around by Brooklyn Nets forward Gerald Wallace, Deng should take a piece of his own advice and repeat his mantra into a mirror over and over before Game 2.
Deng didn't just have his worst game of the season in the Nets' 106-89 destruction of the Bulls in Game 1, he had his worst game in several years. He missed several looks early, got frustrated, and for the first time in recent memory, got thoroughly outplayed by his counterpart, Wallace, who scored 14 points.
"He's a good player," Deng said. "He had a good night tonight, but it's one of those things. I play hard, I battle, so I'm just looking at it as I had a bad game tonight. We lost one, but we'll bounce back next game."
Obviously, everyone is entitled to a bad night, and Deng has built up so much credibility and goodwill over the past two seasons by playing through so many different injuries that it would be easy to chalk this one up as a blip on the radar. As a team, the Bulls were awful in all facets against the Nets, and got dominated up and down the floor.
But the truth is that if the Bulls want to have any chance to win this series, Deng can't play as poorly as he did on Saturday. Without Derrick Rose on the floor and with Noah rendered ineffective because of plantar fasciitis, Deng and Carlos Boozer have to do their part and serve as stabilizing influences for a team still trying to find its offensive identity 83 games into the season.
Boozer did his part against the Nets with a game-high 25 points, but Deng was a no-show in the biggest game of the season to date. Whether it's all the minutes that have finally caught up to Deng, or the fact that the Bulls' lineup has been repeatedly switched all season because of various injuries, he has to do better.
"I think at times it affects you," Deng said of the lineup roulette that had Jimmy Butler starting at shooting guard for Richard Hamilton. "It's hard to be consistent, but we've been through that all year. Personally, early in the game I kind of looked to set everyone up, and the game kind of got out of hand and we started rushing shots, and it affects all of us when we start playing that way. We just got to do a better job of making sure it's a closer game, and I feel we'll shoot the ball a lot better."
Therein lies the problem for Deng and the Bulls. Without Rose on the floor, they have to run their offense methodically and find the right shots. They have to play solid defense and stay tied together on all fronts. When one part of that plan goes awry, the game plan flies out the window and the game gets out of hand quickly, as it did on Saturday.
The Bulls don't have the type of quick strike offense to run back into a game, and Deng doesn't have the type of skill set that lends itself to playing that type of style. Without Rose, Deng has to be more aggressive in his movements and has to find a way to play off other people more, something that no Bull did with any consistency except for Boozer.
"We played so poorly," Noah said. "We didn't play well offensively. We didn't execute; playoffs is all about executing. We didn't execute the defensive game plan, we didn't execute the offensive game plan. We'll watch film (Sunday) and we'll definitely come out with a better effort on Monday."
The effort and execution can be there, but ultimately, as the Bulls have learned the hard way over the past few years, the talent has to be there as well. Talent wins out in the playoffs and without their All-Star forward playing at a high level, the Bulls just don't have enough. When asked what they could do to get Deng going offensively in Game 2, a frustrated Kirk Hinrich stated the obvious.
"Share the ball," he said. "That would help. It seemed like we got away from everything we've been doing that got us here."
When a team gets beaten the way the Bulls did, it's not just one player's fault for the flaws, a point coach Tom Thibodeau tried to drive home in his postgame press conference. But the Bulls have relied so much on Deng over the past two years that they can't afford for him to play so badly when they're already so short-handed.
Deng is too proud of a player and a leader to think that he will have the same kind of output Monday night in Game 2 -- but on the biggest stage of the season and with all his teammates counting on him, Deng's performance served as a microcosm for the Bulls during a night they'd like to forget.