CHICAGO -- At Tuesday's morning shootaround at the United Center, players clearly were stunned and despondent over the unexpected trade of Luol Deng.
By the time fans trudged out into icy darkness, the Bulls had channeled that emotion into an energetic performance, downing the Suns, 92-87, for their third straight victory and sixth in their last eight games.
Of course, this marked the Bulls' first effort without Deng, the longest-tenured Bull and one of the most well-liked and respected teammates. And the Bulls responded with an against-all-odds performance that defined most of last season.
With Derrick Rose out for the season, Carlos Boozer missing his second straight game with a sore right knee and Marquis Teague still on a Development League assignment, the Bulls dressed just nine players. When Mike Dunleavy hyperextended his right elbow and retreated to the locker room in the third quarter, Benny the Bull could have started warming up.
Instead, Taj Gibson's 19 points led five players in double figures and the Bulls cooled off a hot Suns team that was forced to fly from Phoenix on Tuesday because they couldn't secure a charter plane on Monday.
"I think the one thing our team does well is they play for each other," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "That can't change. We have core beliefs. We value work. We value togetherness and we value performance. So the challenge for everyone is to lock into chasing excellence."
Gibson added 10 rebounds as the Bulls enjoyed a 50-41 rebounding edge. Joakim Noah contributed 14 points and 16 rebounds.
Dunleavy started for Deng and flirted with a double-double in just 29 minutes. The big beneficiary from Deng's absence was rookie Tony Snell, whose 12 points featured back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth for a 13-point lead.
"I told Tony that it's time to learn and to use what Lu taught you before he left, and be ready to step in and play," Gibson said.
The Suns, led by Goran Dragic's 21 points, rallied to pull within four. But Kirk Hinrich sank a huge 3-pointer with just over 2 minutes left for an 88-81 lead.
"I feel like we still have a really good group here," Hinrich said. "I really enjoy playing with all these guys. (Tuesday night) was one game but it was pretty rewarding. To go out there with all the stuff that's going on and block it out and play hard and get a win.
"Obviously, (the trade) was a big deal because Lu had been here so long and had such great relationships with everyone on this team and the organization and community. He's sorely missed. But what can we do? We have to move forward. We feel like we're playing good basketball and we have to try to keep it going."
Hinrich said seeing Deng's empty locker felt odd. Deng's absence also was felt in the pregame huddle, where Jimmy Butler took over Deng's typical duty of calling out "1-2-3, Bulls."
Butler said he talked to Deng on the phone on Tuesday.
"Lu is more than just a basketball player like we all are," Butler said. "It was a lot of joking around, and then we got on a serious note. He told me he's going to miss me, and Lu's never told me anything nice throughout his time being here, so that felt good."
Butler also noted how he will likely be guarding Deng when the Bulls travel to Cleveland on Jan. 22. Between now and then, Butler believes the Bulls will continue to overcome long odds to improve.
"I feel like that's the Chicago Bull way and that's what this city loves about us, because we're going to fight," he said. "We're still expected to win games, so we're going to go out there and compete. Nobody can overlook us. That's for sure."
That's what the league has come to expect from a Thibodeau-coached team.
"Nothing really changes," Thibodeau said. "We've already gone through a number of games this season without (Deng). We've dealt with Derrick being out, Jo (Noah) being out, Lu being out before. How quickly can we adapt? We can't feel sorry ourselves. This is all part of it. We have good players. We have to get it done."
The Bulls again got it done defensively, allowing just 40.2 percent shooting.
"It's very rare in this business that any player stays with one team for so long," Gibson said of Deng's nine-plus seasons in Chicago. "It was just so tough because you went through so many battles with that guy. It's going to be tough, but you keep pushing on."
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