While the Cleveland Cavaliers were hoping to make a push after acquiring Luol Deng earlier this month, they have only played .500 basketball with him on board.
The Chicago Bulls are surprisingly enjoying one of their best stretches of the season since the trade.
Deng tries to lead the Cavaliers to a rare win over Chicago as he faces his former club for the first time Wednesday night in Cleveland.
After spending the first nine-plus seasons of his career with the Bulls, Deng was shipped to the Cavaliers on Jan. 6 in exchange for Andrew Bynum - who was waved the following day - and a package of draft picks.
"It will be a little weird, but it's a big game for us that we want to get," Deng said of Wednesday's showdown. "It will be good to see the guys and everything, (but) honestly it's another game."
An All-Star the past two years, Deng has averaged 22.5 points in the last four games, but his new team has only managed to alternate wins and losses in six games since he joined Cleveland (15-26).
"We're still learning ourselves," said coach Mike Brown, whose team is two games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. "We're not sitting where we want to sit record-wise but even after all the ups and downs and adding Luol, you like the direction that we're going."
Despite losing their top scorer, the Bulls do, too. They've gone 8-2 this month, including 6-2 since the trade.
The Bulls (20-20) got back to .500 for the first time since they were 7-7 on Nov. 27 with Monday's 102-100 overtime win over the Lakers. D.J. Augustin stayed hot with a season-high 27 points off the bench, Joakim Noah added 17 and a season-best 21 rebounds, and Taj Gibson hit the game-winning layup as time expired.
"I know a lot of people talk about us and wanting us to tank and all that," Gibson told the team's official website. "We've got too much pride in this locker room.
"We've got guys who came from being a No. 1 seed, who went deep into the playoffs despite numerous things going against us. We have guys with high character. (Coach Tom Thibodeau) always says it's all about what's in the locker room and we believe that. We believe we can beat anybody."
Augustin, who signed with the team Dec. 13, has posted 20.3 points per game over the last four. Noah has averaged 18.3 over that stretch, well above his season mark of 11.8.
Noah has also pulled down at least 10 rebounds in a career-best 13 straight contests. The last Bulls player to post double figures in 14 consecutive games was Dennis Rodman in 1997-98.
"I just want to help this team win," said Noah, averaging 16.8 boards in the last five.
Noah grabbed 18 rebounds while Augustin had 18 points and 10 assists in a 110-84 win over Cleveland on Dec. 21, the Bulls' 13th in the last 15 meetings.
Cavs star Kyrie Irving has been held to 30.4 percent from the field in three matchups this season.
Irving scored 26 in his latest game, but Cleveland lost 102-97 to Dallas on Monday. Deng scored 20 and Anderson Varejao finished with a season high-tying 18 and 21 rebounds.
After falling behind by as many as 24 in the first half, the Cavaliers had a chance to tie things up with 2.8 seconds left but were called for a five-second violation when Jarrett Jack failed to inbound the ball.
"We all hopefully realize the way we played in the second half, with a lot more energy, that's who we have to be," Deng said. "We have to come together and realize who we want to be."
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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