It has been so long that you might not remember, the slashes for layups, the splashes from midrange and, mostly, the maudlin monotone repetition of his name by public address announcer Mike Baiamonte after each score.
“Lu-ol ... Deng.”
“Lu-ol ... Deng.”
“Lu-ol ... Deng.”
It has been so long that you might not remember the significance of what Deng, then a baby Bull, did in that series, scoring 105 points on 58 percent shooting in four games to sweep the defending champion Heat out of the first round and essentially sweep away the Shaquille O’Neal era.
The Heat remembered too well, however, which is one reason why, in 2014, Pat Riley not only swooped in to sign Deng following LeBron James’ departure, but famously labeled it “one of the most important signings in Heat history.”
Dwyane Wade remembered too well, which is why Sunday night, after Deng scored 31 points for his side in Miami’s 123-91 Game 1 rout of Charlotte, Wade said: “I hated Lu for a long time. I think I just started liking him two months ago. Playing against him so many times in Chicago. But Luol, ever since Chris [Bosh] went down, he’s been phenomenal for us.”
You know who else remembered too well, much too well for the Hornets’ tastes?
He remembered his capabilities. That’s something we might have forgotten to properly measure prior to this series, a series that got off to the perfect start for Miami. For all the discussion about Wade’s wealth of playoff experience, and the lack of it for the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson — all of whom acquitted themselves admirably — there wasn’t much talk about all that Deng, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire have done in the postseason.
All have averaged more points than regular season, which isn’t all that common, and speaks to a phrase that coach Erik Spoelstra used again Sunday to describe Deng.
“Emotional stability,” Spoelstra said.
The 12-year veteran has certainly needed it in his two seasons in Miami, needed it to deal with a diminished voice and altered role compared to what he had in Chicago, as the roster construction required him to be a standstill shooter rather than a cutter in constant motion. But Bosh’s latest battle with blood clots, which threatened to unravel the Heat’s season, unlocked Deng in the Heat offense, sliding him to a speed “power” forward spot.
He was last on the team in plus-minus (minus-118) prior to the All-Star break, averaging 10.6 points and 4.7 rebounds on 43.1 percent shooting.
He was first on the team in plus-minus (plus-144) after the All-Star break, averaging 15.2 points and 8.1 rebounds on 48.4 percent shooting.
In doing so, Deng silenced doubters who insisted he’d been run down by all the minutes under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. He had always insisted that he wasn’t old — just turning 31 on Saturday — and hadn’t been run down by all the minutes in Chicago.
He hadn’t changed.
Circumstances had changed on him.
And so here he was Sunday, back on this floor, this floor on which he’d been “booed a lot” as a visitor, this floor on which he sent the Heat into the 2007 offseason, but also this floor that was so far away in 2013, when he was stuck in a Chicago hospital, battling serious complications from a spinal tap.
“That was a tough time for me,” Deng said. “I watched our team lose here in Miami. That was in the back of my mind. I’m just happy to be back in the playoffs.”
That happiness was evident early. So was the energy, the energy that’s always there. He stroked his first jumper from 25 feet from the top, then had a steal, a rebound, a swished turnaround. He made his first six shots before missing right before the halftime buzzer, then made his first five of the second half.
That put him at 31, his second-highest playoff total, second only to the 33 he scored against the Heat in Game 1 of that 2007 series, the most of any Heat player in a playoff debut, one more than Damon Jones or Tim Hardaway.
That set him up for a career high, an open three-pointer from the right corner.
“But if I made it, it would have been more than 31, and I just turned 31,” Deng said. “So I missed it on purpose. I’m kidding, I had no idea what my career high was. I just played the game.”
On Monday, after practice, there will be a more playtime, as he hosts a barbecue for teammates. His close friend, Goran Dragic, won’t bring any food, because “I feed him passes,” passes that Deng turned into points. No grill will cook as hot as he did Sunday.