Deng, Boozer find ways to lead

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- Luol Deng is a victim of his own success. The veteran forward is so consistent that when he has a bad game, as he did in Game 1, it's hard for the Bulls to recover. He has become so crucial to the Bulls' success that when he doesn't live up to the lofty standards, the performance is easy to spot.

When he does play well, as he did during Game 3 Thursday night, he just kind of mixes in with the rest of the players on the floor. Deng's game may not stand out, but his consistency does to his teammates. They always knew Deng would bounce back and deliver after Saturday's poor showing, and that's exactly what he did -- to the tune of 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in a 79-76 win over the Nets. Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly called Deng the 'glue' of his team, but his teammates just view Deng as a winner. His game isn't flashy but his teammates know that his steadiness sets him apart.

"I don't really view him as glue," Noah said. "I view him as a big piece of what we do. He played huge for us tonight, he carried us offensively, defensively, he just does everything. He's definitely a huge part of what we do."

So is Carlos Boozer -- but he doesn't have the same luxury of getting lost in the shuffle like his fellow Duke alum. Boozer is the Thibodeau-described lightning rod of the Bulls. He has the ability to take over games offensively, but he also has the ability to disappear at certain times. His enormous contract and inconsistent production during big games over the last two seasons has made him an easy target for angry fans who are always expecting more. Boozer has been mostly consistent for the Bulls this season, but there's always a fear among some in the fan base that the veteran power forward will float away in the midst of an important game. While Deng gets the benefit of the doubt because of his consistency, Boozer gets the brunt of the criticism because of his lack of it during the last two playoff runs.

The intriguing aspect of this pair is that without Derrick Rose and with Joakim Noah playing on one foot, they need Boozer and Deng to produce -- together -- more than ever. Boozer has done his part throughout the series, and was dominant at times again Thursday night scoring 22 points and pulling down 16 rebounds. He has proven that against Brooklyn he can be counted on and Thibodeau even acknowledged after the victory that the Bulls need to search him out even more and get him the ball.

"One thing about Carlos that people don't understand (is) that he does his job every day," Gibson said. "He's there early, a great teammate, he's always going to give you 110 percent in practice and he understands what it takes. He did a phenomenal job late. Like Thibs said, when we watch film, Thibs was really calling guys out and one thing about Carlos -- he responded. Thibs told him to (play more) help-side defense, step up on defense, and give support towards the point guard and he's been doing that. I think that's one of things people don't understand (about him). It's a small thing but on our team that's big for us."

With the Bulls fighting for their playoff lives, they have to count on Boozer and Deng to provide that leadership on both ends every night. Both men have risen to the occasion and they know they must continue to play at the same high level to close out this series.

"I thought Carlos hit some big shots," Deng said. "They made some runs and he just kept coming up huge. He was big for us. Carlos has been playing great and we just got to keep going to him and giving him looks. He's playing so well right now and the baskets he hit tonight were really huge. (The Nets) kind of felt like they got momentum and Carlos would come back and answer."

The same could be said of Deng's performance in the third quarter. He went on a one-man 12-0 run during the first four minutes of the second half and set the type of tone that the rest of his teammates followed.

"We just ran the same stuff," he said. "I was more aggressive coming off the pick and roll. I just hit shots. It was pretty much the same play we kept running and I just kept coming off and taking a look."

Now the Bulls head into Game 4 on Saturday with a legitimate chance to take control of the series. If they do so, everyone in the Bulls locker room knows that it will be Boozer and Deng leading the way. The two men aren't viewed the same way by the fans who cheer for them -- but they are viewed as equals at this point in the Bulls season. That's because in order for Thibodeau's team to have a chance to win, both men have to play at a high level every night. They also have to play with the type of passion that has become a staple of this Bulls' playoff run.

"Emotion, that's a big part of leadership as a whole," Bulls guard Jimmy Butler said. "So when your leaders show the most emotion, it's easy to go after and follow those guys because they give it their all, every day, every night, every possession. So I feel like when they're showing a lot of emotion it's just showing how much of a leader they are."