OAKLAND, Calif. --- Derrick Rose was the defending MVP and signed a lucrative new contract. Carlos Boozer became a lightning rod last season and reported to the Bulls' abbreviated training camp 20 pounds lighter. Then Rip Hamilton was acquired and the focus shifted to what the Bulls were missing last season.
But there was the overlooked Luol Deng making game-turning plays on both ends of the court during crunch time against the Lakers in the season opener.
"For the people that know the game of basketball he does not get overlooked," said former longtime NBA TV analyst and current Warriors coach Mark Jackson. "He gives them a post presence at times, also stretches the floor defensively with his ability to knock down the long ball and he takes a challenge on the defensive end. I thought he did an outstanding job [Sunday night]. He's long, active and was disrupting what Kobe [Bryant] was trying to do. Everybody understands basketball understands the importance of Luol Deng for the Chicago Bulls."
The second most valuable player for the Bulls last season is also the players who has been with the team the longest. It was Deng's emergence as a steady scoring threat that had almost as much to do with the team's success as Rose elevating his game to MVP level in just his third season.
But it's not just what Deng does offensively. As he proved against the Lakers with a late steal and by blocking Bryant's potential game-winner in the final seconds, he also excels on defense. Thibodeau believes he not only can be an all-league defender this season but deserved the honor last season.
"He's so consistent," Thibodeau said. "You can count on him to do whatever is necessary. He had the big three-point play. He came up with a big steal, the blocked shot at the end. He never gets too excited. He stays the same. He's never too up or too down. He keeps working the game, makes tough plays for you. He just gives your team a lot of toughness. That's what he does."
He also made two key free throws during the Bulls frantic rally.
"The game just happened," Deng said of the season opener. "Just playing hard the whole game, sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. As a whole team, we felt like we didn't play well but we were still able to win the game. With about three minutes to go we really felt like our defense was solid and let's just keep playing until the end. I remember right before we walked out onto the floor we talked about that. Play hard until the end and you never know what's going to happen and the game really turned around."
Rose has received a lot of credit for motivating his teammates down the stretch against the Lakers. But he never has to prod Deng, who said he learned years ago that learning to play hard the entire game is the key between good teams and everybody else. He a lot of teams quit playing hard midway through the season.
"We know the kind of team we are," Deng said. "If teams are going to come out and play ugly basketball and not shoot well, we can play that game. If they're going to come out and shoot the ball well and play well we can play that game. That's what makes us unique. We play hard. Those kind of games, when games look a little rough if you're watching, most of the time those are going to favor us because we have a lot of guys that play that way. It's fine with us."