It really can't be expressed enough how much Luol Deng's ex-Chicago Bulls teammates respected him. The quotes, tweets and Instagrams showing support for Deng came pouring in following the trade of the veteran forward to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and all of them shared a common theme: Deng was a great teammate who was like a brother to them.
Joakim Noah, who has declined to comment about the trade to the media, had this to say on Twitter:
Taj Gibson offered up this gem on Instagram:
Of course, it wasn't just the players who respected Deng as a teammate. His biggest fan may have been Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who had over the years talked repeatedly about how important Deng was to the team. When asked if Bulls management had sought his opinion on moving Deng, a terse Thibodeau didn't really want to talk about it, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
With Derrick Rose out for the season and now Deng gone for future assets and cap savings, the general consensus is the Bulls should make a play for the lottery. But don't tell that to Thibodeau and his band of scrappy Bulls, who went out and beat the Phoenix Suns 92-87 in their first game of the post-Deng era. Thibodeau only had nine players at his disposal against the Suns, but he'll never make excuses about being shorthanded, according to Johnson:
"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."
While the Bulls came out flat in the immediate wake of Rose's injury, they did the exact opposite on Tuesday night. Joakim Noah was on triple-double watch early and finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. Taj Gibson, filling in for the injured Carlos Boozer, notched a double-double of his own. And rookie Tony Snell, one of Deng's key replacements moving forward, added 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting off the bench.
The Bulls' defense continued to shine, holding the Suns to just 40.2 percent shooting and 6-of-23 from three. Phoenix was without star guard Eric Bledsoe, but that hasn't stopped them from putting up big numbers before.
Kirk Hinrich talked about how much the win meant to the Bulls and how they'll try to keep the momentum going without Deng:
"I feel like we still have a really good group here," Hinrich said. "I really enjoy playing with all these guys. (Tuesday night) was one game but it was pretty rewarding. To go out there with all the stuff that's going on and block it out and play hard and get a win.
"Obviously, (the trade) was a big deal because Lu had been here so long and had such great relationships with everyone on this team and the organization and community. He's sorely missed. But what can we do? We have to move forward. We feel like we're playing good basketball and we have to try to keep it going."
The Bulls have won six of eight on the strength of their elite defense, a staple of Thibodeau's teams. Chicago is giving up just 97.6 points per 100 possessions per NBA.com's stats page, good for second in the NBA behind the Indiana Pacers.
It's that stingy defense that will keep the Bulls competitive nearly every night despite an offense that ranks near the bottom in most major categories. And as long as players like Noah, Gibson and Jimmy Butler are around to anchor Thibodeau's system, the defense will remain elite. The offense will be awful enough to pile up some losses, but in the horrible Eastern Conference, it may not be poor enough to offset the great defense in order to get into the lottery. Chicago currently sits at No. 6 in the East, two games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 3 seed and two games ahead of the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot.
So barring major injuries or perhaps more trades, the Bulls almost seem destined for the playoffs. That might not be best for the long-term, but Thibodeau and his proud Bulls wouldn't have it any other way.