Deng thriving as a leading man

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose was in sweatpants as Carlos Boozer and Kevin Garnett competed for a spot in the Diet Faygo Missed Slam Dunk Competition, and Mike James (Who? Mike James!) was the Chicago Bulls' best option at point guard in the fourth quarter of a close game against a hated foe.

Not exactly what the casual fan wants out of a nationally televised game against top Eastern Conference rivals. But as Tom Thibodeau, the bard of the backcut, is wont to say lately: "We'll take 'em any way we can get 'em."

Buoyed by a monster second quarter, the Bulls happily took a 89-80 win over the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, especially after losing in Boston to end their nine-game road trip last weekend. Chicago is now 25-7 and, amazingly enough, 7-2 without Rose, who has now missed four straight games with back spasms.

Perhaps it's just a function of the schedule, but it's fascinating that the Bulls' previous 17 wins came against teams with losing records (including a pre-Linsanity Knicks team and a then-4-6 Boston team). Before Thursday, the last time Chicago beat a winning team was Jan. 6 against Orlando, while losing to Indiana, Miami, Philadelphia and Boston. You know, the Eastern Conference contenders.

"Every game is the same," Luol Deng said in what's become a daily refutation of our beloved storylines. "But it's always you guys. We haven't been winning, we haven't beat a .500 team. We read, we see all that stuff. But it's a good win, it's another win. The Celtics are a great team and it's good for our team."

Winning teams, Linning teams, whatever. I'm not sure there are any marquee regular-season wins left to claim for the first-place Bulls -- it's all about Miami in May -- but there are games left to play, some better than others.

And thankfully for the Bulls, Deng is playing them. With Rose out and Carlos Boozer's hair "situation" seemingly calmed down, it's Deng's time to shine.

OK, that's a cheap shot at Boozer, who drew the fans' ire when he whiffed on a fast-break dunk. But he and Joakim Noah were a tough load to handle. Boozer had 23 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, while Noah had 15 points and 16 boards.

But Deng was the key, hitting big shots and running the offense. Deng's player efficiency rating might still belie his trip to Orlando next week, but he sure looks like an All-Star to me, setting a career-high for the second straight game.

Now, I try not to write too many laudatory columns focusing on Deng. Two years ago, I wrote an ode to his toughness after he missed the first game of the season in March and then immediately returned to the lineup. Two games later, he was injured and missed three weeks.

Deng's bad luck with injuries precedes him, so most fans probably wake up in cold sweats thinking about the left wrist injury he's playing through. Deng doesn't want to talk about the wrist, and he's playing like it's a nonfactor.

He scored a season-high 23 points for the second straight game, and hit a career-high six 3-pointers -- his previous high was four, and in one season, 82 games in 2006-07, he hit only one.

"Luck was on my side today," Deng said. "I've been working on my jump shot a lot when I was hurt, and today they were going in."

On Tuesday, he had a career-high 11 assists. On Thursday, he managed only 10. Toni Kukoc was the last Bulls forward to have double-digit assists in back-to-back games back in 1997. Can Deng claim "The Waiter" nickname? Maybe not.

"Guys are doing a good job of finishing," Deng said. "We're moving the ball. Last game, guys were finishing. Today, guys were hitting jump shots, and Jo was finishing, Boozer was finishing in there. Just fun the way we're moving the ball."

Between the assists and the microphone modesty, we'll be saying "Derrick who?" pretty soon.

OK, not really.

"You see, with Derrick, we're a lot better team," Deng said. "It's a lot easier game for everyone out there. Without him, we've just got guys that are ready to play."

Thibodeau has made a conscious effort of running some offense through Deng as a point forward.

"Luol is a much better pick-and-roll player than you realize," Thibodeau said. "He has good size, he has vision and he can score on the drive. I like having the ball in his hands."

"It's just another look," Deng said. "I'm being patient out there, finding guys, moving the ball. And guys are doing the same thing. Everyone's moving it, and it's contagious when you move the ball like that."

That included James, who is back for his second stint with the club out of the Erie Bayhawks.

James played 17 minutes, including 9:09 in the fourth quarter, and was a team-best plus-15, playing big minutes in the second and fourth quarters.

James finished with eight points, four assists and six fouls -- the latter a sign of his tough defense on Rajon Rondo. James, the journeyman's journeyman, took umbrage at Rondo asking for post-ups on him.

"I'm not going to let no one smaller than me post me up," James said. "I take pride in my defense."

"Mike is a pro," Deng said. "We all told him we were happy to see him back."

Bulls basketball isn't always must-see TV when Rose is out, but the Bulls aren't worried about style points. They'll take any win they can get.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.