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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Deng It! Luol Deng Scores Career-High 32 Points, Bulls Top Cavs, 103-96

The Chicago Bulls gave LeBron James a 22nd birthday gift that he did not want--a 24-0 second half run that proved to be decisive in a 103-96 win over James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Luol Deng led Chicago with a career-high 32 points, shooting 15-19 from the field. He did most of his damage with mid-range jump shots. Ben Wallace's energy, defense and rebounding have been crucial to the Bulls' recent success but he sprained his ankle in the first quarter. He returned to the game but only played a total of 22 minutes, contributing just two points and two rebounds. The Bulls were also without the services of starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who sat out with a groin injury. James finished with 33 points, nine rebounds and three assists but he scored 22 of his points in the first half and his production dropped off dramatically after he suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter; he went through a long scoreless drought that did not end until the last couple minutes of the contest. The loss drops the Cavaliers to 4-9 on the road and 12-7 when Larry Hughes plays (they are 5-5 in games that he has sat out due to injury). The Bulls are now 14-2 at home, 14-1 when they have the halftime lead and 19-12 overall, narrowly edging the Cavs for the second best record in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls played at a faster pace than the Cavs right from the start, jumping out to a 13-6 lead and pushing that advantage to as much as nine in the first quarter. The period ended with Chicago on top 32-27. James scored 12 points, but the man he was guarding, Deng, had 10 points on 5-6 shooting. On several occasions James was late getting around screens or simply lost track of Deng as the Bulls forward moved without the ball. It is important for the team's best player to set the tone defensively. NBA players are good and can erupt for a big scoring night even if you play good defense--but if you don't keep track of your man and don't fight through screens, just letting him shoot uncontested jumpers, then you can pretty much guarantee that he will be very productive. On one of the old NBA Entertainment tapes (before there were DVDs), then Pacers Coach Dick Versace exhorted his team to stop letting their opponents shoot what he called "warm-up jump shots," saying that they must make them put the ball on the floor and do something. Deng spent most of the night burying "warm-up jump shots."

The Cavaliers gained a little ground in the second quarter but still trailed 56-53 at halftime. Deng scored 16 points on 8-10 shooting, while James got his 22 on 11-15 shooting; the difference is that James had to work for his points by driving to the hoop or shooting with a hand in his face, while Deng benefited from a lot of wide open shots. Chicago shot 56% from the field and Cleveland shot 54%.

Cleveland began the third quarter with a 12-2 run, taking a 65-58 lead. The problem with relying primarily on your offense to bail you out is that sometimes shots stop falling. If your defensive effort is not consistent, those droughts can be fatal. After Hughes' jumper at the 7:17 mark made the score 67-60 Cleveland, the Cavs missed their next 15 shots and Chicago went on a 24-0 run that extended into the fourth quarter. James sat out the last :36 of the third quarter and the first 2:19 of the fourth quarter after injuring his ankle when he landed awkwardly after missing a shot. The score was 76-67 when James left, 78-67 at the end of the third quarter and 84-67 when he came back. James had 28 points before he got hurt and did not score again until his layup with 1:46 left cut the lead to 96-89. James' three pointer with 1:21 left got the Cavs to within 96-92 but the Bulls never allowed the Cavs to make it a single possession game, making five of their last six free throws.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:34 PM

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