Of all the sound strategic decisions Tom Thibodeau has made in Chicago, one of the best came before he had coached a game.
It was in a meeting in July when Thibodeau basically diagrammed a new career path for Luol Deng that directly affected the course of this potentially special Bulls season.
"The conversation I had with Thibs was he said, 'I know you can shoot 3s and I want you to shoot them in my system,' and that was really it," Deng said. "He just said, 'You're going to be open to shoot 3s in different spots,' so I really focused on that."
The Bulls signed long-distance shooter Kyle Korver to space the floor to give Derrick Rose more room to operate, and Korver has done so in spurts off the bench. But the way Deng has done the same as a consistent perimeter threat surprised everybody but Thibodeau.
All the focus on Rose's improved three-point shooting overshadows Deng's progress beyond the arc. Consider that before Thibodeau's talk, Deng never had hit more than 32 three-pointers in six previous NBA seasons. He headed into Saturday's game having made 103 at a 34.5 percent rate.
"I keep telling people after I had wrist surgery my rookie year it set me back and I changed my game, but when Thibs told me to shoot more 3s I knew I could," Deng said. "Derrick does such a good job of getting attention it's just a matter of locking in."
When Deng locks in, Bulls opponents often have no escape.
If it's OK with Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, I would like to nominate Deng for the league's unofficial Most Underrated Player. Rose will run away with the MVP award -- much to the chagrin of a whiny Van Gundy -- but Deng deserves MUP.
When anybody mentions the Bulls' Big 3, they usually mean Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. But without the consistency of Deng the Bulls would find themselves fighting for playoff position in the East with the Hawks and Magic in the middle rather than leading the Celtics at the top.
After the Bulls added seven new players last offseason, most notably Boozer, perception grew that Deng would take on a lesser role. The reality is that the less the Bulls have needed to depend on Deng, the more indispensable he became holding things together on both ends of the floor.
"There's no way we would be in this position if not for the year he's having and all the things he does for our team," Thibodeau said.
There's no way the Bulls will get to the conference finals they need to reach to meet rising expectations without Deng continuing to play at the elite level that has become the norm this season.
Boozer and Noah were to play in only their 22nd game together Saturday night against the Bucks. Deng has started every game and entered the weekend tied for fourth in the league in minutes played. The only thing Thibodeau might rely on more often than Deng is room service.
"I just know we're better with him on the floor," Thibodeau said.
The reasons go well beyond Deng's improved range and averages of 17.8 points and 5.8 rebounds. As the Bulls' best individual and team defender, Thibodeau regularly asks Deng to guard the opponent's biggest scoring threat whether it's a shooting guard, small forward or power forward. Thibodeau's defensive emphasis immediately enhanced Deng's value.
It also finally quieted critics who have wondered whether Deng was worth the six-year, $71 million contract extension he signed in the summer of 2008.
"The big thing about Lu is he can follow a game plan defensively," said Thibodeau, known for working tirelessly to devise them. "Once he has a game plan, you can count on him executing it."
Offensively, you always could count on Deng supplying statistics similar to this season's. Yes, he still makes an impact running in transition, slashing and using the pick-and-roll game the way he always has. But the more teams focus on Rose, the more opportunities Deng will get to display the refined touch that causes teammates to call him "Big Shot Lu."
"If you think you're going to just stop Derrick Rose and beat the Bulls, you're not going to do that," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said Friday, when Deng shot 3 of 4 from three-point range in scoring 23 points. "If stopping Derrick is No. 1 on your list, then Deng is 1-A."
It's not any one thing with Deng. And that usually creates many problems for defenders.
"You can find a favorable mismatch and use him in so many different ways," Thibodeau said.
Deciding last summer how to use Deng never has worked better for him or the Bulls.