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.

RELATED: Bulls battle, but Clippers close curtain on Chicago win streak

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.

Breaking down the Bears' 2016 draft class on 'Draft Central'

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Breaking down the Bears' 2016 draft class on 'Draft Central'

With the 2016 NFL Draft in the books, the 2016 Bears are coming into focus.

Sunday night, CSN broke down the weekend that was — a busy one for the Bears, featuring not just the draft but also the addition of a backup quarterback and the subtraction of veterans Matt Slauson and Antrel Rolle.

So where do the Bears stand? Click on the links below to hear from Chris Boden, Jim Miller, Dave Wannstedt and Hub Arkush as they recap the draft and the rest of the Bears' offseason.

— Draft Central: Initial impressions of Bears' draft class

— Draft Central: Scouting first-round pick Leonard Floyd

— Draft Central: Bears move around in Round 2

— Draft Central: A look at the Bears' post-draft depth chart

— Draft Central: Bears release Matt Slauson, Antrel Rolle

— Draft Central: Bears add Brian Hoyer as Jay Cutler backup

Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

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Five things we learned about the Cubs in the first month of 2016

Addison Russell strolled out of the Cubs locker room wearing a baggy pinstriped suit with a smile plastered across his face.

He paused for a second and looked back to see Kris Bryant in his American flag suit (complete with American flag shoes) and the rest of his teammates and coaches following suit.

Russell smiled wider and continued the march toward the team bus to the airport.

This was only hours after the sophomore shortstop committed the costly error that led to the worst team in baseball (Atlanta Braves) notching a series split with the best team in the game at Wrigley Field.

Forget the loss. Move on.

Yeah, the Cubs are feeling good about themselves right now.

As they should.

The Cubs ended April with the best record in baseball (17-5), living up to the hype they created after a wild offseason and throughout a wacky spring training.

Things would have been so much difficult if the Cubs had not gotten off to a hot start in a city that watched the Bulls crash and burn and miss the playoffs while the Blackhawks were knocked out in the first round.

Imagine how the city and its sports fans would have responded if the red-hot White Sox was the only baseball team looking like a contender 1/6 of the way through the season.

As the Cubs face their toughest test of the season to date with seven straight games against two of the best teams in the league (Pirates, Nationals), let's look back at the five biggest takeaways from the campaign to date:

1. Jake Arrieta has picked up right where he left off.

Everybody wanted to know what Arrieta would do as an encore to follow up his 2015 Cy Young season in which he put up the best second half the game has ever seen.

How about 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP and a no-hitter? It's crazy to think Arrieta could be better than he was last season, but he's making it true with each outing. 

At the very least, Arrieta has picked up right where he left off and might well be the best pitcher in the game (though Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale would surely have something to say about that).

2. The pitching staff has carried the Cubs.

Even beyond Arrieta, the Cubs pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic. Only the Washington Nationals have a better team ERA entering play Monday. Cubs pitchers also have a batting average against of under .200, tops in the big leagues.

It helps when Arrieta, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel have combined to allow just 13 earned runs in 94 1/3 innings. John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks haven't been bad, either, as the rotation has recorded 18 quality starts in 23 tries.

The back end of the bullpen has been clicking, too, as Hector Rondon allowed his first run of the season Sunday, while Adam Warren still hasn't given up an earned run in eight innings and Pedro Strop is locked in (2.89 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 13 Ks in 9 1/3 innings).

The Cubs pitching staff has also gotten it done at the plate, driving in eight runs on 10 hits.

"This month was the pitcher," Bryant said. "They were unbelievable and they hit pretty good, too, so they kinda picked themselves up at times. ... The pitchers have carried us the whole month."

3. This team is much improved defensively.

Theo Epstein's front office identified the weaknesses of last year's team that ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and one of the main issues was defense — particularly outfield defense.

Gold Glover Jason Heyward's defense has been as good as advertised, with the big free agent acquisition gunning down baserunners and diving all over the outfield.

Dexter Fowler has earned positive grades defensively, too, as the Cubs forced him to play a little deeper in center field.

Bryant has looked solid in left field and at third base, and Ben Zobrist's steady glove at second has been a welcome addition in an infield that already boasts elite defenders in Russell and Anthony Rizzo.

"Defensively, we've caught the ball," Joe Maddon said. "We've played catch well. Everybody's talking about the offense, but primarily, it's been pitching and the defense that's set this whole thing up."

4. This team doesn't wilt in the face of adversity.

The Cubs had remarkably good luck on the injury front in 2015, but it took until only the second inning of the third game in 2016 for the first major blow.

Kyle Schwarber is lost for the season, yet the Cubs had just one letdown game after that news before righting the ship and marching forward without "Fast Hulk" in the lineup.

If somebody predicted the Cubs would be 17-5 in the first month of the season without Schwarber even collecting a hit, they would've been laughed off the internet.

Maddon and his coaching staff have seen just about everything there is to see in this game, and they have a stable of veterans like David Ross, Lester, Lackey and Zobrist who know what it takes to rise above adversity and keep everybody pulling on the same rope.

5. The Cubs haven't reached their peak.

Everybody is talking about a Cubs offense that ended the weekend with the second-most runs scored in baseball.

But the reality is, this lineup really hasn't hit its groove yet, scoring most of their runs with timely hitting and an insanely patient approach that keeps the conga line moving on the basepaths.

Yet Zobrist, Rizzo, Russell, Heyward, Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler are all hitting .250 or below, and Schwarber notched just four at-bats before tragedy struck.

Imagine what this offense will do when everything gets clicking and the weather starts to warm up.

"A lot of us are just getting going," Bryant said. "It'll be fun to see when things are clicking when the pitching's going good and the hitting's going good."

That feeling is mutual around the clubhouse.

"We have some work to do in general," Heyward said. "We're not hitting on all cylinders right now. We're not clicking consistently."

So does that mean the Cubs are expecting months where they finish with a better record than April's 17-5?

"I'd love to just keep doing that every month," Maddon said. "I'd be happy with that. We've played pretty well this entire month. It's hard to knock our guys right now.

"Offensively, defensively, pitching — the baserunning's been really good. To be able to sustain all those components would be great. I think you're gonna see guys actually hit better. A lot of our offense has been just based on some really good at-bats, some timely hitting.

"But just to purely go out there and just literally knock the cover off the ball, we haven't done that yet. So I think there's an offensive push that we're capable of.

"You just look at the numbers in general, and there are guys that are capable of more, numerically speaking. You probably will see more come from the offense."

Preview: Cubs, Pirates do battle Monday night on CSN

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Preview: Cubs, Pirates do battle Monday night on CSN

The Cubs take on the Pirates on Monday night, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies live from Pittsburgh for first pitch at 6 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today's starting pitching matchup: Jason Hammel (3-0, 0.75 ERA) vs. Gerrit Cole (2-2, 2.78 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you're ready for the action.

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