CLEVELAND — Luol Deng doesn’t want it to be the storyline, but there’s no avoiding it.
The Cavaliers small forward will be facing the team he spent his first nine-plus seasons with for the first time tonight when Cleveland hosts the Chicago Bulls at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I don’t want this to be a ‘Luol Deng playing his old team’ kind of thing,” Deng said Tuesday following practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “I just want to win.”
The Cavaliers (15-26) are 3-3 since acquiring Deng in the Jan. 6 trade that sent Andrew Bynum to the Bulls, who quickly waived the center in a cost-cutting move.
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Deng is averaging 18.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists since coming to Cleveland. He’s shooting .494 from the field, .500 on 3-pointers and .857 at the line.
There aren’t many secrets between Deng and the Bulls, so both will have to set their emotions aside and work for what they get tonight.
“When the ball goes up, I’m not going to start crying and hugging the guys,” Deng said.
Counting the 23 games he played for Chicago, Deng is averaging 19.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Those numbers give him a chance to be named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team as a reserve, but the Cavs’ poor record might work against him.
At the moment, however, that is taking a backseat to Deng’s first game against the likes of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer.
“I’m sure they’re going to go after me,” Deng said. “They’re guys I’m close with and are friends, but when the ball goes up, there’s going to be nothing better for them than to beat me and vice versa. I can’t wait to beat them. It will be interesting.”
Deng won’t be the only person feeling a little odd tonight. Chicago players and coach Tom Thibodeau will be experiencing much the same thing.
“It will probably be strange, but I still want to kick his (…) right now,” Noah told reporters Monday after a 102-100 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. “I feel like we’re working hard in the conference. I love Luol. He’s my brother. But when that ball goes up, he’s not going to be my brother.”
The Bulls, who floundered a bit after losing point guard Derrick Rose to another knee injury, have won eight of their last 10 games to improve to 20-20. They are 6-2 since trading Deng, who was extremely popular with his now former Chicago teammates.
“I still haven’t really gotten over it,” Gibson said. “It’s going to be a weird feeling to see him in that opposite jersey. But once the game tips off, it’s all business. I know it’s going to be all laughter and fun and games before the game, but once the ball goes up, we’re battling.”
Added Thibodeau: “I know he’s going to be trying to beat us and we’re going to be trying to beat him. Then after the game we’re going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him, all the stuff he did for us, what he did for me personally. But friendship aside, we’re coming up there, we’re going to be ready.”
Cavs shooting guard C.J. Miles, who spent seven seasons with Utah before coming to Cleveland in 2012, knows what Deng will be going through, but is confident the 28-year-old will handle it well.
“It’s probably a little easier to be playing here than playing back at his old building, his old stomping grounds,” Miles said. “He’s got a lot of memories there and a lot of friends on that team.
“It’s going to be emotional for him. You play somewhere that long, you start thinking you’ll never play anywhere else. You don’t think it’s going to happen, but you know it’s a business. He’s a pro. He’ll be OK.”
Deng is looking forward to visiting with his former coaches and teammates — he’s been in contact with a number of them — but vowed to be all business on the court.
“We’re friends before the game, after the game,” he said. “For that 48 minutes when I’m on the court, I’m really just focused on my guys and trying to win.”
For the first time, Cavs coach Mike Brown didn’t rule out the possibility of sending No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett to the NBA Developmental League at some point. Brown said he and general manager Chris Grant have had discussions, “but we’re not at the point where we would send him” to the D-League.
* In addition to Rose, the Bulls might be without point guard Kirk Hinrich tonight. Hinrich injured his hamstring in the second quarter against the Lakers and missed the rest of the game.
* The Cavs recalled rookie Carrick Felix from the Canton Charge of the D-League. Felix had seven points and five rebounds while playing 28 minutes Monday in the Charge’s 99-94 victory over Maine. In six games with Canton, the second-round draft pick is averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 27.7 minutes.