This wasn't what he had in mind. The Bulls will take it, though.
Deng came through with 23 points and a career-high 11 assists, and the Bulls escaped with a 121-115 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night after a 19-point, fourth-quarter lead dwindled to two.
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"Missing Derrick, even though we're winning games, it's huge," Deng said. "He makes the game so much easier. When he's not there, you've got to work extra."
Joakim Noah added 22 points and 11 rebounds. Kyle Korver scored 18, hitting four free throws in the final 17.6 seconds. Carlos Boozer scored 16, Taj Gibson added 15 points, and the Bulls came away with the win -- barely -- even though Rose missed his third straight game with lower back spasms.
The victory clinched the Eastern Conference coaching spot at the All-Star game for the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau.
Two free throws by Evans with 19 seconds left made it 115-112. Korver answered with two of his own, but the drama wasn't over.
Thornton nailed a 3 to make it a two-point game with 14.8 seconds left, but Korver immediately hit two more foul shots to boost the lead to 119-115. Deng then hit two free throws with 8.8 seconds left to seal the win.
"I've yet to fear this team being down," Kings coach Keith Smart said. "This team has shown throughout the year that they have the ability to get back in games."
Winning them is a different story. Sacramento is last in the Pacific Division at 10-18 and is just 3-13 on the road.
This seemed like a mismatch despite Rose's absence, but the Kings hung with the Eastern Conference leaders even when it looked like Chicago had put this one away.
Sacramento was within eight in late in the third when Deng buried a corner 3 with just under a minute left. That started a 12-1 run that bumped Chicago's lead to 97-78, but the Bulls couldn't breathe too easily.
They did, however, let out a big sigh of relief in the end.
"They're a tough team," Evans said. "They play together. They run that high pick-and-roll good with the bigs. They ran it all night on us and got a lot of fouls. That's what killed us."
The dramatic win came on the heels of a 6-3 trip that matched their longest since the 1992-93 season, and they did it without their superstar point guard.
"I think our team has gotten used to guys being out," Thibodeau said. "It happened last year with our big guys and this year, it is more perimeter guys, so we have that all covered. We feel very good about our depth, and when we are down a man, the next guy steps up and does the job."
The question is: Will the injuries take a toll eventually?
Rose didn't have a target date for his return. Boston visits Thursday, and he wasn't sure if he'd be ready to play against Rajon Rondo and the Celtics. One thing was clear, though. Rose was certainly breathing a little easier.
A specialist confirmed Monday that there was no structural damage, and that was a big relief for him and a team eyeing a championship. This hasn't been an easy season for Rose even though he's averaging 22.0 points and 7.8 assists. Between the bad back and a problem with his left big toe, he's missed eight games this season after sitting out six over his first three years.
"I think the best thing you can do is try to get better from it," Deng said. "If we had a choice, we wouldn't want him to be hurt, but that's the situation. We really think that it will help us. Guys are stepping up. Guys are getting playing time. We'd rather have this problem now than later in the year."
|Bulls forward Luol Deng steps up without Derrick Rose in the lineup to score 23 points and add a career-high 11 assists. (Getty Images)|
|Chicago (24-7) «||27||29||32||33||121|
|SAC:D. Cousins 28 Pts
SAC:D. Cousins 17 Reb
SAC:T. Evans 8 Ast
|CHI:L. Deng 23 Pts
CHI:J. Noah 11 Reb
CHI:L. Deng 11 Ast
|Players of the Game|
|T. Evans, PG||42||9-18||8-8||8||8||2||27|
|M. Thornton, SG||39||9-19||2-2||2||2||3||23|
|D. Cousins, C||37||10-20||7-9||17||2||5||28|
|J. Thompson, PF||30||3-6||2-4||11||2||6||8|
|J. Salmons, SF||25||1-8||0-0||1||2||1||3|
|I. Thomas, PG||20||3-4||2-3||0||4||2||9|
|J. Hickson, PF||18||2-4||1-2||2||1||0||5|
|D. Greene, SF||14||4-6||0-0||4||0||0||10|
|C. Hayes, PF||11||1-4||0-0||1||0||1||2|
|F. Garcia, SG||5||0-0||0-0||0||0||1||0|
|T. Outlaw, SF||Did Not Play|
|J. Fredette, PG||Did Not Play|
|T. Honeycutt, SF||Did Not Play|
|H. Whiteside, C||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|L. Deng, SF||42||6-17||9-9||7||11||1||23|
|J. Noah, C||36||7-11||8-9||11||3||5||22|
|C. Watson, PG||31||4-11||0-0||2||2||1||10|
|R. Brewer, SG||28||3-6||0-0||5||1||0||6|
|C. Boozer, PF||24||7-14||2-2||5||2||5||16|
|T. Gibson, PF||24||7-8||1-2||2||2||3||15|
|J. Lucas, PG||22||4-8||0-0||1||9||2||9|
|K. Korver, SG||21||5-7||4-4||0||1||3||18|
|O. Asik, C||12||1-2||0-0||7||2||2||2|
|R. Hamilton, SG||Did Not Play|
|B. Scalabrine, C||Did Not Play|
|D. Rose, PG||Did Not Play|
|J. Butler, SF||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|