By Nick Shepkowski –

(CBS) – Despite the heroic effort displayed by Mike James in shutting down Rajon Rondo Thursday night at the United Center, almost all will still tell you that Luol Deng is the Bulls most valuable defender and that he has been for some time.

Deng had a tough first quarter as Paul Pierce went around him for easy layups on multiple occasions before the Bulls All-Star forward found his defensive groove.

“I thought we came out and we were soft in the first quarter,” Tom Thibodeau said of the Bulls struggles in the first quarter when Boston put up 24 points.

Deng stated he was likely who the Bulls head coach was talking about when talking about the “soft start”.

“We started playing ‘d’ and making shots and we got tougher,” Deng said. “Softness; (Thibodeau) is probably talking about me but he’s being nice about it.”

No doubt Deng struggled in the first quarter defensively as Pierce scored 6 points in the games first seven minutes but Deng and company were able to hold the Celtics star to just eight points the rest of the night.

With Derrick Rose again out it was Deng that was perhaps the most key-cog in getting the Bulls offense going as he had a career-night from beyond the arc, hitting 6/9 three-point attempts in route to matching Carlos Boozer with a game-high 23 points. Not only was Deng ferocious from three-point range but for the second game in a row and only second time in his NBA career, Deng found himself with a double-digit assist total at the end of the night.

“(Deng) is a much better pick-and-roll player than you realize,” Thibodeau said. “He can score, he can drive, he can pull up.”

Deng was quick to point out the different role he’s taken on with Derrick Rose out of the lineup.

“Early in the game when Derrick is playing I’m more focused on being aggressive offensively and attacking,” Deng said. “The last two games early I’ve been trying to move the ball more and as the game goes on I get a better rhythm.”

Perhaps Thibodeau wasn’t pleased with Deng’s early defense Wednesday night but there’s no doubt the Bulls head coach values what the first-time All-Star selection has been able to do offensively without the league’s reigning MVP on the floor.

“I like having the ball in his hands.”

In addition to covering the Bulls for, Nick Shepkowski is the associate producer on The McNeil and Spiegel Show, weekdays 9am-1pm on 670 The Score. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @Shep670.

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