Luol Deng joked that his post-game shower wouldn’t be too long as he knew the still-waiting reporters, assembled by his locker, had deadlines. It would’ve been tough having any hard feelings towards him if he had taken an extended soak after playing a career-high 56 minutes in a grueling 131-128 three overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night.
The small forward continued his strong play, finishing the marathon session with a season-high 37 points to go along with seven assists and eight rebounds. Impressive numbers, but the most glaring were the seven turnovers, two of the three coming at critical junctures in the extra periods.
Up 109-106 with 1:23 remaining in the first overtime, Deng turned the ball over on a bad pass. Down 120-118 in the second overtime, he threw another bad pass that the Pelicans converted into two points at the other end. And ahead 123-122 with 4:26 remaining in the final over time, another bad pass, when the team had a chance to extended their lead. Instead, it was another loss in a game that was to be had.
“I gotta make smart plays. I think I’ll get better with it,” Deng said. “It’s something where lately, we've been going down to the wire. We’re going to be in that position a lot more. Every time I’m in that situation, I try to make the best out of it. At the same time, learn from it and next time, try to make a better play, try to be smarter and get us a better look. Whether I miss or not, or someone else gets the shot; as long as it’s the best look out there.”
In the last five games, the two-time All-Star is averaging 27.4 points on 54 percent shooting, six rebounds, six assists in 42.6 minutes. Not only is he setting the tone on offense with Derrick Rose out for the season and Jimmy Butler still having yet to practice, but he’s also creating opportunities for his teammates on kick-outs from the post – a new wrinkle that he’s worked on extensively the past two seasons with assistant coach Adrian Griffin – and also defend the team’s top perimeter player and sometimes most versatile frontcourt player.
So far, he’s looked good in managing those task, but the most pivotal one, giving how many close games the Bulls could be in this season, is still a work in progress.
Deng has never been the guy expected to take the shot with the clock winding down, or even necessarily be the guy to make the play that gets the shot. He has always been an option or decoy in late-game situations with Rose taking over the closing duties the last few seasons, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli last season and even before them, John Salmons and Ben Gordon.
Creating has never been viewed as one of his strongest attributes. But on this team, he’s going to find himself in similar situations like on Monday night – and also several times during the six-game road trip the Bulls wrapped up on Saturday – where the ball is in his hands and he’s going to be counted on to make the play.
“It’s something that I really have to get better on,” Deng said. “I think so far, I haven’t done well with it. It’s a new experience, but I have to keep working on it and keep working on my game. And every time I’m in a situation like that, try to be smart and make smart plays.
“I work on my game every day. The situation (Rose being out for the season), it happened. I can’t control that. Either way, in that situation or not, I work on my game every day,” he continued. “Whether it’s the last shot, first shot or a shot in the second quarter; I try to make every shot I take. It’s definitely a different situation that I haven’t been in. But at the same time, there’s been times in the past – not as much as now, but there’s times in the past where -- I've been in those situations.”