CHICAGO // The Chicago Bulls saw it all year from Luol Deng, so what he did against LeBron James in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals hardly shocked them.
Hit big shots? Get big rebounds? Limit the game's most talented player? Check, check and check.
The Bulls lead the Heat 1-0 and a big reason for that is Deng. All he did was score 21 points, grab seven rebounds and contribute four steals while neutralising James in an all-around performance.
"That's Luol Deng," said Carlos Boozer, his teammate. "He's an unsung hero for us. He should have been an All-Star this season. It's a normal game for Lu.
"He plays most of the other teams' best player or second-best player. He scores for us, hits big shots in the clutch for us, rebounds the ball, is a great leader out there, always inspiring us. Luol needs to get more love." If he keeps this up, that will not be a problem. Game 2 is tonight at Chicago's United Center, but the Bulls are certainly not writing off Miami.
"They've lost big games and come out aggressive the next day," Deng said.
It might help if the Heat pass the ball rather than try to beat the Bulls off the dribble, an approach that did not work in the first game. They also got hammered on the glass; Chicago outrebounded them 45-33 and outscored them 31-8 on second-chance points.
"Everybody understands that we are disappointed about last night's game, and we still have an opportunity and sometimes you have to have amnesia going into Game 2," said Erik Spoelstra, the Miami coach. "You can't just let it go, the next two days we're going to work to fix some of these challenges. But we still have to understand that [tonight] is a golden opportunity for us."
Their chances would certainly be better if James performed like James.
He scored only 15 points on five-of-15 shooting. Whether it was Deng hounding him or the big men helping, he had no room to operate and was almost a non-factor.
Deng had help from Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Omer Asik. The Bulls were quick to plug any gaps, making it tough for James and Dwyane Wade to get to the rim.
James averaged nearly 32 points for Cleveland as they ousted Chicago from the play-offs a year ago. He suggested that Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls' first-year coach, has made Deng a better defensive player. "He has definitely helped him a lot with their defensive schemes. It's not ever one guy that you have to worry about.
"Just put me out with any individual, I feel like I can get around them. When you have a guy that has the back-ups that they have behind him with Taj Gibson and Noah and guys that are helping him out, also, it definitely helps him a lot. He's very active."
Deng's play helps explain how the Bulls led the league with 62 wins and matched their best record since 1998.
Hailed as a budding star four years ago when he averaged 18.8 points, he signed a six-year extension that summer, but two injury-riddled seasons left many wondering if he was worth it.
He's been healthy the past two years and is a key piece for Thibodeau, who endorsed him for the NBA's all-defensive team.
"He's always worked at his game," Gar Forman, the Bulls general manager, said. "He's always worked on his body. A week ago, we're in Atlanta and it's 7.30 in the morning after we had played the night before. The team wasn't practicing until 10 or 11. I went down to get a workout at like 7.30, he's down there stretching and taking care of himself. He's a pro."