At Tuesday’s morning shootaround at the United Center, players were clearly stunned and despondent over the unexpected trade of Luol Deng.
By the time fans trudged out into icy darkness, the Bulls had channeled that emotion into an energetic performance, downing the Suns 92-87 for their third straight victory, and sixth in their last eight games.
Of course, this marked the Bulls’ first effort without Deng, the longest-tenured Bull and one of the most well-liked and respected teammates. The Bulls responded with an against-all-odds performance that defined last season.
With Derrick Rose out for the season, Carlos Boozer missing his second straight game with a sore right knee, and Marquis Teague still on a Development League assignment, the Bulls dressed just nine players. When Mike Dunleavy hyperextended his right elbow and retreated to the locker room in the third quarter, Benny the Bull could’ve started warming up.
Instead, Taj Gibson’s 19 points led five players in double figures, and the Bulls cooled off a hot Suns team that was forced to fly from Phoenix on Tuesday because they couldn’t secure a charter plane on Monday.
“I think the one thing our team does well is they play for each other,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That can’t change. We have core beliefs. We value work. We value togetherness, and we value performance. So the challenge for everyone is to lock into chasing excellence.”
Gibson added 10 rebounds as the Bulls enjoyed a 50-41 rebounding edge. Joakim Noah contributed 14 points and 16 rebounds.
Dunleavy started for Deng and flirted with a double-double in just 29 minutes. The big beneficiary from Deng’s absence was rookie Tony Snell, whose 12 points featured back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth for a 13-point lead.
“I told Tony that it’s time to learn, and to use what Lu taught you before he left, and be ready to step in and play,” Gibson said.
The Suns, led by Goran Dragic’s 21 points, rallied to pull within four. But Kirk Hinrich sank a huge 3-pointer with just over 2 minutes left for an 88-81 lead.
“Nothing really changes,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve already gone through a number of games this season without [Deng]. We’ve dealt with Derrick being out, Jo [Noah] being out, Lu being out before. How quickly can we adapt? We can’t feel sorry ourselves. This is all part of it. We have good players. We have to get it done.”
The Bulls again got it done defensively, allowing just 40.2 percent shooting.
“It’s very rare in this business that any player stays with one team for so long,” Gibson said of Deng’s nine-plus seasons in Chicago. “It was just so tough, because you went through so many battles with that guy. It’s going to be tough, but you keep pushing on.”
Bulls 92, Suns 87
Star of the game: Taj Gibson, Bulls, 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists
Key performers: Joakim Noah, Bulls, 14 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists; Jimmy Butler, Bulls, 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals; D.J. Augustin, Bulls, 13 points, 9 assists
Up next: Bulls at Bucks, 7:30 p.m. Friday
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