CLEVELAND -- After all the pregame hugs and handshakes were over and the well-wishes and deserved praise for Luol Deng ceased, Tom Thibodeau offered up another clinic as to why the Chicago Bulls will always be all right no matter which players he has on his roster.
Wednesday's win over Deng and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls' ninth in their past 11 games, was another reminder as to why Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the league.
The Bulls still miss Deng's presence on and off the floor and will surely miss him down the stretch of the 82-game season. But the void he left after being dealt to Cleveland earlier this month isn't nearly as big as it could have been, thanks in large part to Thibodeau.
The coach was the one who devised the game plan that made Deng basically irrelevant on Wednesday, allowing him just two makes on 11 attempts. He's the one who made the adjustments that slowed down Kyrie Irving to the tune of just eight second-half points after scoring 18 in the first half.
Most of all, Thibodeau is the man who got players such as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to believe in the fact they could still win games after Deng left. Thibodeau made his leaders believe the season wasn't over when many others had given up hope.
"There's a resolve to our team," Thibodeau said. "There's a great fighting spirit, and there's a great will. I think if you have those things, you have a chance."
If you have a great scheme, the chances to win are even greater. Having been around Deng for so many years, Thibodeau and his players knew exactly what they wanted to do when they saw their former teammate on the floor.
"We tried to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "Put a lot of pressure on him. We know both their bigs are rolling to the basket, so we were able to be more aggressive on Lu and put more pressure on him."
Bulls forward Gibson, who tied a career high with 26 points, knew what Deng's plan was and tried to keep him out of his comfort zone when he saw him on the floor.
"At times we just had to switch different guys on him," Gibson said. "At one point, he was getting a lot of foul calls, especially offensively. He got himself going at the foul line. I know Lu, too. That’s how he gets himself going. If he can’t hit a shot early, he attacks the rim and looks to get fouls. We looked to take that away from him. No long-range 3s; we were on his 3-point game. We just tried to make him frustrated. Because once he gets in his rhythm, it’s really tough to slow him down. We did a good job. D.J. [Augustin] even chipped in and guarded him some. It was a team effort."
For his part, Deng admitted what his former teammates knew going in: The entire experience was weird. Seeing Deng in a Cavs jersey, after spending nine years in Bulls jersey, was a little bizarre.
"It was strange," Deng said. "But it's the Cavs versus the Bulls. It's not so much about me. We could have played better."
This game was about Deng, though. His old teammates knew it, and his old coach definitely knew it. In order to win, the Bulls had to shut down Deng -- and that's exactly what they did.
"It felt weird because it was tension even before the game," Gibson said. "We wasn’t talking or nothing. It was exactly like how Thibs said: 'We love him but we’re going to go knock him on his butt when he tries to score. After the game, we can be friends.'
"But I felt like everybody stepped in and did a good job guarding him, taking him out of the game early, making it tough on him. And that was big because he’s been playing very well lately."
After it was over, the All-Star forward said he didn't believe he was trying to force looks against his old team.
"If I was forcing things, I would've shot 30 shots," Deng said. "I really try to play the game within myself. [Chicago] played good [defense] and I just missed shots. I'm not happy with my performance, but that's a good defensive team."
Deng knows better than anyone the Bulls are a good defensive team because of the effort their players show on a nightly basis, but mostly because of Thibodeau's will. He has the ability to get the most out of his team each and every night, and he proved again on Wednesday against one of his favorite former players.
"We're just going out there believing," Bulls guard D.J. Augustin said. "Whoever we have playing that night, we believe we can win. And that's the way we're playing, with that edge. And we're just going after every team we're playing against."