CHICAGO — The first time is always the hardest. It was always going to be weird for Luol Deng to play at the United Center for the first time as a member of the other team.
Deng was excellent in his return to Chicago with the Miami Heat, totaling 15 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists as the Beat pulled out a 96-84 win over the franchise Deng spent the first nine-plus seasons of his career with.
“It felt weird, really strange,” Deng said after the game. “Something that I didn’t think would happen. I thought I would play here for my entire career, but it didn’t work out that way. Just definitely strange. A lot of emotion and I’m glad it’s over. For me it was a tough game.”
During a timeout break in the first quarter, the Bulls played a tribute video and Deng received a standing ovation from the United Center crowd.
Not that he noticed.
“I didn’t get a chance to see it,” Deng said. “I got to hear it playing and I didn’t want to look up because I knew I would get emotional. I just kind of looked at what play we were going to be running.”
Last year, after a Derrick Rose knee injury took them out of title contention, the Bulls made a cost-cutting move by trading Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum’s expiring contract and a couple of future draft picks. That move has paid off for Chicago, as they’ve added Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic with the flexibility the move created. But that doesn’t mean anybody has forgotten what he meant to the team while he was there.
“He had a great run here,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He handled himself great. Not only a great player but a great person, and he was great in our community. It’s the type of person that he is.”
“He’s a player we tried to get for 10 years knowing that we would never have a chance to get him,” added Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Just the fabric and the DNA of what he brings to the table we thought would fit with our culture and our organization, and he’s been every bit what we anticipated.”
When Deng signed a two-year, $20 million contract with the Heat this summer, he faced the unenviable task of filling the spot in the lineup left by LeBron James’ departure. But Spoelstra insists they never looked at him as LeBron’s replacement, and so far, he’s doing exactly what they need him to do. He’s still a lockdown defender who can score at times, and he’s beloved in the locker room.
That part is not new. He’s been loved everywhere he’s been, and Deng had more than his share of friends greeting him on Sunday.
“It was a very emotional game for him and you heard it from the fans as well,” said Spoelstra. “There was a great response from the organization. As I got here, people asked me if Lu was on the bus and to wish him well. I’ve never had that. That’s why we recruited him so hard. It’s because of that type of person he is.”