The Bulls' Luol Deng can't seem to shake the lingering effects of a back injury that has plagued him for over a month.
The Bulls ran into an unfortunate cause-and-effect scenario Monday.
After the team spent nearly 2½ hours on the practice court Sunday, leading scorer Luol Deng needed a day off to rest his sore back.
Deng predicted he will play tonight when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers visit the United Center. So maybe the injury isn't a big deal.
But the mere mention of Deng's sore back and the Lakers brings back memories of the Bulls' horrendous three-game stretch in November.
With Deng sidelined, the Bulls lost to the Lakers 106-78, were pounded by Denver 112-91, then scored just 78 points against a Knicks team that has given up an average of 101.7 this season.
And it doesn't get much worse than this: In the second half of that Lakers loss on Nov. 18, the Bulls were outscored 61-32. Two days later, the Nuggets opened up a 72-53 halftime lead. That's four consecutive quarters of being outscored 133-85.
Fans might consider sending their get-well cards via express mail to Deng's attention at the United Center.
"I should be able to play," Deng said. "It's still the same injury. Just had a rough practice (Sunday), it was a little sore, so I took off practice."
Deng's back injury first occurred in a loss to Phoenix on Nov. 15, the first stop on the annual circus road trip. Deng tried to gut it out two days later against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he aggravated the injury and sitting out nearly a week.
"It's definitely not as bad as it was," Deng said. "The last game is the best it's felt. It's just sore from practice. It's just one of those things; it feels great and then my muscles tighten up. Probably the whole season I'll be getting treatment, rehabbing and stuff."
Deng turned in one of his best games of the season Saturday, producing 29 points and 10 rebounds, while hitting 13 of 19 shots, in a win over the Knicks.
That also was the night Deng passed the slumping Ben Gordon for the Bulls' scoring lead. In his last seven games, Gordon has averaged 12.9 points and shot 37 percent from the field.
Deng's health overwhelmed the once-popular story line of Bryant being traded to the Bulls. The high-scoring Lakers star asked out last summer, and there were erroneous reports just before the regular-season opener that Bryant joining the Bulls was imminent.
Now that the Lakers are off to a pleasant 14-9 start, with rapidly developing talents such as center Andrew Bynum and point guard Jordan Farmar, the chances of Bryant being dealt to the Bulls before the February trade deadline lie somewhere between zero and less than zero.
Bryant expressed his happiness with the Lakers in a recent ESPN Magazine article, which is fine with the Bulls, who have gone 6-3 since their disappointing 2-10 start.
"The main fact is just not answering the question every day," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. "Hopefully we're making steps as a team. We've been kind of teetering as of late, but I think we've shown signs that hopefully we're getting this thing turned around."
In the Nov. 18 game, Bryant scored a modest 18 points against the Bulls, but the Lakers managed to place five subs in double figures.
"When playing against a guy like Kobe, you have the mentality that the guy that's guarding him is going to get beat and as a team we have to be there to help him," Gordon said. "Even if that guy is playing great defense, we still just want to be there and try to help as much as we can."
Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers at the United Center, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Channel 26
Radio: WMVP 1000-AM
Update: No wonder Kobe Bryant is happy again in Los Angeles. The Lakers (14-9) have won five of six games while scoring an average of 111.8 points. Bryant is still the team's dominant scorer at 27.2 ppg, but the Lakers' depth has become a strength. Third-year center Andrew Bynum (11.1 points, 10.0 rebounds) is having his best season, while the return of Derek Fisher (11.5 ppg) has been a boost.
Series history: The Bulls have won four of the last six games against the Lakers at the United Center. On Nov. 18 at the Staples Center, the Lakers broke open a close game in the third quarter and won going away 106-78.
Next: Washington Wizards on Wednesday at the Verizon Center, 7 p.m.
-- Mike McGraw