Against NBA's elite, Bulls must be almost perfect

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Against NBA's elite, Bulls must be almost perfect

It was one of those losses that afterwards, the reasons for it were given in a code of sorts. After his teams 94-89 loss to the Clippers at the United Center, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau talked about dancing with the ball and staying disciplined, the type of thing coaches say about teams that are either mistake-prone or outclassed.

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In the Bulls case its more the latter when facing the leagues elite, such as the Clippers, their opponent Tuesday evening. When the Bulls dont execute to near-perfection on both ends of the floor and key players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have off nights scoring the ball, they face an uphill battle against even moderately talented squads, let alone the high-flying bunch thats attempting to become Los Angeles true glamour team.

Offensively, despite Deng and Noah not giving them much, the Bulls compensated for it with a surprise performance from long range -- one of the NBAs worst three-point shooting teams, they were 10-for-20 from deep Tuesday -- and on the defensive end, mostly fared well against their explosive foes. But a crucial stretch before halftime during which the Clippers Lob City moniker became accurate, as well as fourth-quarter lapses and of course, their season-long ball-security issues rearing its ugly head spelled defeat for the Bulls.

"They just made tough plays," Taj Gibson said. "It seemed like we were in the hunt, we cut it down to a couple points, but Blake and Chris just made tough plays. Matt Barnes played a great game and weve just got to do better closing out quarters and finishing games."

"We were disappointed, especially in that second quarter. The momentum changed, we didnt close out the right way. They got a lot of dunks, got a lot of momentum going, especially in the half-court set.

Every loss is tough to get over, especially at home. But weve got to put it behind us. Weve got a lot of games still to come. Weve got to leave tonight, get on a plane, play Philly Wednesday, then come back, play Brooklyn.

Gibsons sentiments were echoed by his teammates throughout the Bulls locker room. But in reality, while they battled valiantly, this isnt one of the games on the schedule that most observers would pencil in a "W" in the win-loss column.

Coming off Saturdays home win against the Knicks -- sans Carmelo Anthony, though that isnt an excuse because New York defeated defending-champion Miami on the road, without the superstars services -- the Bulls were deservedly flying high and despite the late start to the contest, they hung tough with the Pacific Division leaders all night.

But already missing injured point guard Derrick Rose, as well as a proven veteran scoring presence in sidelined shooting guard Rip Hamilton, maybe its expecting too much to think that these Bulls will come out on top in marquee, primetime showdowns with the leagues best.

Sure, their defense has made great strides as of late -- Noah has elevated his game, Deng has shown that hes capable of being a go-to player, sharpshooter Marco Belinelli has found his groove as a starter and the second unit is starting to come around -- but even with all of that going for them, over the course of an 82-game regular season there will be nights when they execute Thibodeaus game plan to the best of their abilities, enough to beat most opponents, higher-level foes will simply overwhelm them when it counts.

That isnt to say they should take a defeatist approach (as recent examples like the Miami Heat losing to the lowly Washington Wizards show). Instead, the Bulls should take heart in the fact their defense alone can beat truly inferior teams and depending on performance, they have a right to think they can beat middle-of-the-pack clubs. They know from the experience of winning the most regular-season games over the past two seasons that when a superior team, laden with firepower and having designs on bigger fish decides to finally put its foot down, sometimes theres nothing that can be done about it.

Thats what eventually happened Tuesday with the Clippers depth -- another aspect of the loss that could be hauntingly familiar to Thibodeau when he reviews the tape, after having one of the NBAs top benches prior to this season -- putting the visitors over the top.

But as players are fond of saying, the best thing about this league is that the games come so quickly, so Wednesday evening in Philadelphia the Bulls will have a chance to take out their frustrations on the 76ers, the team that ousted them from the postseason last spring, but is likely still smarting over losing in Chicago last week. For the Bulls, despite landing in the wee hours of the morning after departing the Windy City just after midnight, thats a winnable affair -- one which they dont have to be perfect to be victorious.

One of Thibodeau's mantras is "striving for perfection," something that rang hollow the past two seasons, when they could be awful and a tour-de-force effort from Rose or just having a better bench than some team's starting lineups was enough to cement a victory, particularly when backed by the league's best defense.

Now that's no longer the case. And while the Bulls won't be flawless every evening, knowing that they can come close, compete with the best and -- unlike Tuesday -- if they get the right breaks late, they can win games they're not supposed to, is something they should take heart in.

Even if they won't admit it.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't. Tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared," Kruger said. "That's my mindset."

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

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AP

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

The sports world woke up to some tragic news on Sunday morning.

Former major leaguer Andy Marte and Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura were both killed in separate car accidents in the Dominican Republic within an hour of each other, according to multiple reports. A Royals representative confirmed the death of 25-year-old Ventura.

The Cubs and White Sox took to Twitter to give their condolences:

Ventura was a member of the Royals from 2013-16 and won a World Series title in 2015 with Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis, who the Cubs acquired this offseason for Jorge Soler. Ventura also played with White Sox pitcher James Shields in 2013-14.

Marte, 33, played a majority of his seven-year career with the Cleveland Indians. He was teammates with Todd Hollandsworth (Atlanta 2005), Kerry Wood (Cleveland 2009-10), and Miguel Montero (Arizona 2014).