When I think of the most dull game in an NBA season, I think of a Bulls-Pacers game at the end of January. Tonight the stakes were even lower than usual, with the Bulls thirteen games ahead of the nearest competition in the Central Division, and 14.5 ahead of the Pacers. Needing something to watch besides Josh McRoberts weirdly skinny elbows, I decided to keep tabs on Luol Deng throughout the game. The stakeout paid off, as Deng posted a well-rounded line: 19 points, 6 boards, and 8 assists. That shouldn’t have surprised me, considering I was watching him every second he was on the court – but it did. Here’s how Deng went about quietly compiling that line, as well as a look at the plays which don’t show up in the stat sheet
10:49 Deng gets the Bulls on the board with a jumper.
8:43 Danny Granger is not making Deng work at all on defense. He starts the game floating around the perimeter, and Indiana makes no effort to get him the ball. This stress-free assignment allows Deng to be aggressive in transition. He takes two long strides and dunks.
6:55 Bad sequence here. Plays hot potato late in the shot clock, leading to the 24 second violation, even though he had a reasonable look. He then bites badly on a Granger pump fake. On the other end, he commits the charge. Deng slashes in slow, wide arcs to the hoop. The angle of these drives allow defenders to keep up by taking one step to his two -- they also let defenders intercept him in the key to take charges, since Deng's turn radius doesn't let him change direction quickly.
6:38 Finds Bogans for the three. Deng's conscientious about rotating the ball that one extra time, and as a result Bogans gets a handful of easy looks in this game.
5:42 Another wide arc drive (WAD) gets Thomas an open 20-footer. This one works because Granger stumbles through the pick, leaving McRoberts to cover. But McRoberts does, because Deng is tracing the 3 point arc instead of driving at the hoop. Still a good find once forced baseline.
5:22 Deng is not quicker than McRoberts. Finds Boozer from underneath the hoop. If Deng had more burst, these would be layups for him instead of assists, but it all comes out to two points in the end.
4:30 The broadcasters compliment Deng while he grabs his knees and sucks wind, watching Rose dribble.
3:30 Deng looks gassed. 20 second timeout.
3:00 Deng's the lone man back on a 2 on 1 fast break. He gets to the top of the arc and turns his body to face a charging Collison -- why? This lets Paul George slip backdoor for a layup Deng can't contest.
2:53 Comes off the curl and short arms a jumper. Considering how tired he looks, I'm going to keep an eye on how much lift he gets on his jumpers.
2:25 Mike Dunleavy plays some absolutely awful defense and Deng hits a wide open three.
2:10 The Pacers run a two man game in the corner of the floor. Paul George handles the ball, Deng is on him. McRoberts comes to set the pick, and Deng hops towards him to keep up with George... only George hasn't even moved yet. Instead he moves into the space Deng just evacuated for no reason, forcing Taj to help. George scores it.
1:38 Deng turns his head as the ball comes up the court, allowing George to leak to the corner without his knowledge. Foster then back picks a startled Deng, ensuring a wide open jumper. George misses.
1:21 Rose penetrates and gets Deng an open three from the wing. Short again. Deng hustles back and gets his arms up to bother George's transition layup, then gets right back on a counter break -- finds Ronnie Brewer for the reverse.
0:47 Off an Indiana miss, Rose receives the outlet. Deng, on the other side of the floor, keeps pace with him, then receives the cross-court pass and dives at the hoop. He catches at the three point line, takes one dribble, then goes up and gets fouled. Short on first free throw. Hands on hips between shots. Misses second.
0:30 Watching the ball again, gets back picked again: only gives Granger good rebound position.
11:38 Deng hasn't come out of the game yet. Gets Price on a switch, and feeds it right back to C.J. Watson for a three.
11:30 Granger brings it up. Again, Deng sells out his help man by hopping to cut off a drive which hasn't happened yet. Granger goes at Omer for an easy and-one.
10:51 Turns it over.
10:28 Nicely contests a Granger three.
10:15 Gets tied up trying to turn the corner on Granger. Even with the low-motor game Granger is playing tonight, that just won't be happening.
9:24 Ah, his long-lost love: the long two. Not short on that one.
8:45-2:45 Deng gets his first rest of the night.
1:42 Deng run downs a loose ball. At the moment he gathers it, his defender (Dunleavy) is on one knee, getting up. Even so, Dunleavy recovers and cuts him off in the key, leading Deng to take and miss a wild euro-step layup. Once again Deng's rounded drives are costing him looks.
1:12 Another open three -- no good. Little long, this time. Off the miss the Pacers get out and run, and Deng has no chance of catching up with his assignment, Granger, because he's on the other side of the floor. Deng doesn't tell Korver he needs help until Granger is already spotting up for a three that he hits despite a good close from Korver. After that make, Deng looks for revenge and takes it at Granger. He attempts some kind of shoulder shimmy to get around Granger, but he's not impressed and pokes the ball loose. Deng gets bailed out by the refs, who blow the whistle.
0:21 Hey, Deng manages to get by somebody! It's the lumbering seven-footer Roy Hibbert, but still!
10:35 Cut off by Granger again.
9:55 Long on a wide open three.
9:28 Finds Bogans for a made three.
8:05 Deng jumps the pass, forcing a turnover.
6:31 Looks like another WAD is snuffed out along the baseline, only Deng wraps it to Boozer for an easy two. Deng's eight assists have mostly come on rudimentary passes, but this is a nifty find.
5:22 So open he gets a little agoraphobic and misses a long two.
3:39 Draws a borderline foul on Jeff Foster after Granger inexplicably quits defending midway through the sequence.
0:42 Deng has been playing some nice on-ball D on Granger. Here he abandons Granger to help on a Foster roll, but recovers well to contest the three. Granger misses. He's not pressuring Deng -- Luol sold out to contest that, and Granger had a driving lane as a result.
10:25 Paul George absolutely shakes Deng on a jab step before going baseline. Luckily Kurt draws the charge -- it's a nice birthday present for Stacey King, who hisses "Give it to me big sexay."
9:17 Hits a long two. Deng is never a threat to roll in the pick and roll, he just pops. I think he could put more pressure on the defense if he went at the basket more often. Plus, good things seem to happen when he's moving towards the hoop.
8:59 Granger gets rid of him with a screen, but Deng matches him step for step into the lane. Korver fouls.
7:50 Deng gets screened, recovers, and is facing Granger in the triple threat. Granger jabs right -- Deng bites -- then goes left. A back pick from Foster takes Deng completely out of the play, but it was really that jab step which decided it. Granger gets two free throws.
7:05 In space versus a driving Price, Deng uses his length to keep with him. Deng is good at defending the same kinds of drives he likes to make. His top speed isn't terrible, it's just his quickness. So if the ball handler isn't changing direction, Deng's fine.
5:31 WAD #4. This time, Foster funnels him towards George. In football, there's such a thing as an east-west runner; these are guys who run ten yards to the sideline but only go upfield two. Deng's like that with his dribbling. Rose, on the other hand, runs north & south & always downhill.
4:08 Misses a wide open three, but swats Collison on the other end.
3:23 Deng finds Brewer for a huge slam that effectively ends the game. A pass fake to Boozer set it up.
Tonight, Deng got five wide open looks from behind the arc and hit just one. He's connecting on 35% of his threes this season, down 3% from last. (But this year he's taking 4.1 per game, up 1.2.) It's not a bad percentage -- until you factor in the quality of the looks he's getting. Deng does not have a light trigger, so he's only taking open threes. Put it this way: if Ray Allen were getting Luol Deng's looks, he'd be shooting 70% from deep.
In watching Deng, I got a good look at his two matchups, Granger and George. Granger was completely unimpressive and uninterested. When he caught the ball on the move, or used a screen to separate Deng and then got it, good things happened. But mostly he floated around and didn't assert himself. Paul George had a bad night scoring, but that's not for a lack of tools. I get the T-Mac comparisons. He's athletic, smooth, and has a nice handle. Lot of potential once he figures out his decision-making.
Thibodeau’s half-court offense doesn’t demand much of Deng. He recognizes Deng isn’t able to create his own shot against most defenders, and so he’s mostly asked to stand on the wing or corner opposite to Derrick Rose. Deng occasionally got involved in the P&R game (to no great effect) and didn’t do much in the way of basket cuts. Even when he misses four of them, it’s nice to see him take five threes; if only because they would have been long twos last year. He showed nice chemistry with C.J. Watson, and didn’t interact much with Rose. I know this because I hardly remember seeing Rose tonight, except in the replays of a few amazing moves.
Defensively, Deng's not bad. When his man has the ball and is going at the hoop, Deng makes good use of his wingspan to contest without fouling. Still, I think Deng knows he doesn't have the first step to simply react to the ball handler’s moves. So he tries to anticipate, which leaves him vulnerable to jab steps. He watches the ball too much, as well. This wasn't a big deal against Granger, but if he were matched up against a more active SF who worked off the ball, it would be. Considering the heavy minutes Deng plays and his not great stamina, I think an opposing coach could shut down Deng's best attribute -- his aggression in transition -- by making him chase somebody around screens. This was not a concern tonight, however, and Deng used that energy he saved to make an impact throughout his forty minutes.