CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah loves former teammate Luol Deng like a brother, but the All-Star center knows he's going to have to put that love to the side Wednesday night when the Bulls face off against Deng and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time.
"It will probably be weird," Noah said after Monday night's overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers. "It will probably be strange but I still want to kick his ass right now. I feel like we're working hard in the conference. I love Luol. He's my brother. But when that ball goes up, he's not going to be my brother when the ball goes up."
That was the feeling permeating throughout the Bulls' locker room. Many players still haven't gotten over the fact that Deng was traded to the Cavs in a deal that brought back Andrew Bynum, who was subsequently released, and three draft picks.
"It's going to be a weird feeling, man," Bulls forward Taj Gibson admitted. "I still haven't really gotten over it. It's going to be a weird feeling to see him in that opposite jersey. But then once the ball tips off it's all business. I know it's going to be all laughter and fun and games before the game, but once the ball goes up we're battling. Both teams are battling for playoff [spots]."
Gibson and the Bulls have used the Deng trade as a rallying point as the team has rattled off eight wins in its last ten games. The veteran forward said he hasn't spoken to Deng since the deal went down late on Jan. 6.
"I haven't talked to him because I just really want to talk to him face-to-face," Gibson said. "And hug him and really have a real good talk with my friend."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is looking forward to seeing Deng on Wednesday, but he and his players know they can't let personal feelings get in the way of how they play the game.
"I know how fierce of a competitor he is," Thibodeau said of Deng. "I know he's going to be trying to beat us and we're going to be trying to beat him. And then after the game we're going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him, all the stuff he did for us, what he did for me personally. But friendship aside, we're coming up there, we're going to be ready."
Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler echoed those sentiments. With Deng gone, Butler knows he has had to fill Deng's role as team iron man. But it's a role he's embracing after watching the success that his former mentor had in recent years under Thibodeau.
"Lu taught me a lot," Butler said. "So I feel like there will be a lot of smiles out there on the court, along with business, but this is what we love to do so it's always fun."