First, there’s a slight pause. There’s always that slight pause.
Then the reply comes with a preface, something along the lines of: “We all love Luol . . .’’
Followed by a ubiquitous “but’’ before an attempted vague explanation.
That’s how the Bulls handle being asked about life without Luol Deng these days and becoming a better team without him.
Deng, a two-time All-Star, was traded Jan. 7 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and words such as “tanking’’ and “lottery’’ were being thrown around in the immediate aftermath. And why not? Derrick Rose (right knee) was lost for the season, the team was 14-18 and while Deng was still “the glue,’’ he had said no to a last-minute extension of three years and $30 million.
That’s some expensive “glue.’’
So he was dealt.
All the Bulls have done since is go 32-14, move into a tie for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and earn the label ‘‘the team no one wants to face in the playoffs.’’
There’s your tanking.
“I feel like answering that question about why we’ve played better without Lu could lead to a lot of bad things,’’ swingman Jimmy Butler said. “But I feel like the simple answer is, we just kept playing. We didn’t give up. Even today, look where we are. People still don’t expect us to win, but somehow, someway we find a way to do just that.’’
Well, there’s more to it than just that.
With Deng this season, the Bulls’ defense was holding opponents to 92.2 points per game. Since his exit, opponents are down to 91.2 points, not a huge difference but still a better defensive effort.
The big change is offensively. The Bulls were averaging 91.3 points with Deng and are averaging about 95 points without him.
“Guys are just stepping up, guys are getting more playing time, more shots,’’ backup big man Taj Gibson said. “Guys are taking advantage of it. Early on, we just learned from our mistakes, learned how to play without players, and our confidence has just been growing. Guys have been developing into their own great players.’’
Call it the Mike Dunleavy effect.
“No one is going to leave Mike Dunleavy unguarded from the outside,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said.
That has been huge for the starting unit’s spacing, meaning power forward Carlos Boozer and center Joakim Noah have less resistance in the paint.
Defensively, Butler can do what Deng did — guard the opposition’s best scorer — and he might be an even better one-on-one defender.
But Noah has been the most affected and effective without Deng. Thibodeau has been closing games with Butler, Gibson and Noah and the two-point-guard attack of D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich. That means a lot of pick-and-rolls with Noah, who makes teams pay with his passing.
As opposed to making sure Deng was getting his touches, this offense is simply more efficient.
Dunleavy, Gibson and Butler also have gotten more minutes. All three grabbed the opportunity and haven’t looked back.
“We had guys just step up, not make excuses,’’ Butler said. “Everybody just fell into a new role, and it happened so quick that you just had to adjust to it. It wasn’t something you had time to sit and think about.
“But we love Lu.’’
And there it is. There’s always that but.
NOTE: The Bulls announced that Mike James and Lou Amundson were signed for the rest of the season.