Although he is currently in his fifth season in the NBA, it's important to remember that Luol Deng is still working towards reaching his immense potential. After putting together back-to-back solid seasons in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, Deng took a step backwards last season. Injuries hampered Deng throughout the 2008-2009 campaign, limiting him to only 49 games and preventing him from taking part in the Bulls playoff run. However, Deng is back and fully healthy this season, and is averaging an impressive 16.8 points and a career-high 8.5 rebounds. Regardless of the starting lineup the Trail Blazers put on the court, Deng insists that the defensive end is where this game will be decided.
"I don't think it makes any difference. I think either way you are still going to play the same way," Deng said of going against the new starting lineup for Portland. "No matter what their lineup is, the most important thing is defensively. The last two games we have let teams score a lot of points, and we can't let that happen."
With his great length and skill set, Deng presents a very difficult match up for the Trail Blazers. However, Deng has always been the type of player who gets his points in the flow of the offensive sets.
"You can't go into a game thinking like that," Deng said about his individual match up for the game. "You just have to play your game. No matter who is guarding me, I'm going to stick to what we run, and how we play, and how I play. Once you starting getting into the match up and all that stuff, you start taking you team out of what we try to do and start thinking to much. I think there will be times in the game where I might be in the post just because of Martell's height. There might be times when I will be on the perimeter because there is a mismatch or something. Other than that, you really just have to stick to what the game plan is."
Against the elite competition on this road trip, the Bulls have struggled on the defensive end. After allowing 112 points against the Nuggets and 108 against the Lakers, Deng knows that defensive improvement is vital.
"We started this road tip in Sacramento, and I thought we played great defense," Deng explained. "Even though we played two good teams, LA and Denver, they are capable of putting in points and are good playing at home. We have to get back to what we were doing. We weren't necessarily scoring a lot of points but we were holding teams to under 90. So we have to try and do that."
As many fans recognized when the Trail Blazers went on their five game road trip, there will eventually be a time when fatigue sets in. The game tonight will be the Bulls fourth on the road trip, and their third straight against a high caliber opponent.
"We know this is a tough road trip for us, and it has been tough in the past. It kind of catches us when we are still in the learning curve. As a team, sometimes it's ok to lose games if you know you did stuff well. It's tougher to lose when you know you could have done so much better. That's how we feel right now. We know we played two really good teams the last two games, but we feel like we really could have competed better, and that's what we need to do."
One advantage that the Trail Blazers bring to this game is height in the paint. According to Deng, the best way to beat the height is to push the tempo.
"They are definitely a big team, and their big guys help really well," Deng said of the Trail Blazers height advantage. "So what we are going to try and do is try and run. They are a very good team when it comes to the half court and slowing down. So we have to try and play good defense and convert it into fast break points."