Belinelli, Bulls hold off Nets in nail-biter


Belinelli, Bulls hold off Nets in nail-biter

Saturday nights 83-82 Bulls (13-9) win over the Nets (13-10) at the United Center was a story weve seen before: The undermanned squad, playing an opponent with supposedly more talent on paper and featuring a former player, this time C.J. Watson used a formula of offensive balance, timely contributions from an unexpected source, determination to fight back with the odds against them and of course, Tom Thibodeaus vaunted defense, to earn a hard-fought victory.

Two Joakim Noah (12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) dunks the second of which, over Brooklyn counterpart Brook Lopez (18 points, 10 rebounds), was highlight-worthy started the Bulls off on a positive note, as the hosts scored the games first six points and hit their first five shots from the field. In addition to Noah, fellow starters Carlos Boozer (15 points, six rebounds) and Marco Belinelli (19 points) also had good starts, enabling the Bulls to build a cushion in the early going.

While Lopez, whos dealing with health issues, found his groove as a scorer early, as did point guard Deron Williams (24 points, five assists), half of Brooklyns All-Star backcourt Joe Johnson (16 points), the Nets marquee offseason acquisition, picked up two quick fouls and took a seat on the bench the visitors looked sluggish overall, perhaps a byproduct of playing a double-overtime game the previous evening. That changed as the opening period waned on, as Williams outside marksmanship made it a close-knit affair and at the end of the first quarter, the Bulls trailed, 24-23, despite Boozer carrying the offensive load.

The game remained tight in the second frame, as backup point guards Marquis Teague in for Nate Robinson, who started in place of the injured Kirk Hinrich, but picked up two quick fouls and Watson, the former Bull in his first game back in Chicago, went at it. Teagues speed and ability to score in transition, were immediately evident and matched up with an elite player at his position in Williams, he held his own on the defensive end.

The tenor of the contest suited the home teams defensive sensibilities, even as their field-goal percentage dropped on the other side of the ball, necessitating putting the clamps on their guests offensive intentions. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 46-41 advantage, with Nets backup big man Andray Blatche making an impact for the guests.

After the break, Belinellis efficient scoring and underrated playmaking helped the Bulls start the third quarter positively, but after flirting with acquiring a double-digit lead, the hosts allowed Brooklyn to get back into the game. Behind the play of Lopez, Williams, Johnson and veteran Gerald Wallace, the Nets significantly cut into the deficit, eventually overtaking their hosts.

In what evolved into a defensive struggle, the Bulls took control late in the frame to once again build some breathing room, with Belinelli, Luol Deng (17 points, seven rebounds) and reserve Taj Gibson serving as catalysts. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls held a 67-62 lead, following a Deng jumper with 2.9 seconds left in the frame.

The Bulls lead proved to be tenuous as the fourth quarter began, as the visitors quickly regained the momentum in the contest, buoyed by the point production of Johnson. Put into the position of playing from behind after the Nets built a slim cushion, but led by the play of Teague, who continued to display poise beyond his 19 years, the Bulls made it a nip-and-tuck game heading into the stretch run.

Critical unforced errors appeared to be the hosts ultimate undoing late in the contest, but after a Belinelli fast-break layup cut it to 79-77, in Brooklyns favor, with 1:26 remaining, the Bulls tied the game at 79 with 1:01 left, on a Deng dunk in transition from a slick Teague assist after a Nets turnover.

Following a defensive stop on the other end, a Belinelli driving layup gave the Bulls an 81-79 advantage with 22.1 seconds to go, leading to yet another clutch defensive stop and two free throws by Belinelli to seal the deal, which ended up being necessary for the winning margin, as Williams hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

John Hendricks sent a text message to his son at 11:24 a.m. on Saturday: “Good luck tonight!! Remember, great mechanics and preparation will prevail. Just let it go!!” It ended with three emoji: a smiley face with sunglasses, the thumbs-up sign and a flexed biceps.

The Cubs have bonded fathers and sons for generations, and Hendricks immediately understood what it meant for his boy when the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, telling Kyle: “You win in this city, you will be a legend. There is no doubt about it. This is the greatest sports town in the United States.”

This is the intoxicating lure of the Cubs. It didn’t matter that Kyle had been an eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth College, and hadn’t yet finished his first full season in professional baseball, and would be joining an organization enduring a 101-loss season, the third of five straight fifth-place finishes.

Kyle’s low-key personality will never get him confused with an ’85 Bear, but he delivered a legendary performance in Game 6, outpitching Clayton Kershaw at the end of this National League Championship Series and leading the Cubs to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.

Five outs away from the pennant, a raucous crowd of 42,386 at Wrigley Field actually booed star manager Joe Maddon when he walked out to the mound to take the ball from Kyle and bring in closer Aroldis Chapman. Kyle, the silent assassin, did briefly raise his hand to acknowledge the standing ovation before descending the dugout steps. 

After a 5-0 win, Kyle stood in roughly the same spot with Nike goggles on his head and finally looked a little rattled, his body shivering and teeth chattering in the cold, his Cubs gear soaked from the champagne-and-beer celebration.

“It’s always been an uphill climb for me, honestly,” Kyle said. “But that really has nothing to do with getting guys out. My focus from Day 1 – even when I was young, high school, college, all the way up until now – all it’s been is trying to make good pitches. 

“And as we moved up, you just saw that good pitches get good hitters out.” 

At a time when the game is obsessed with velocity and showing off for the radar gun, Kyle knows how to pitch, putting the ball where he wants when he wants, avoiding the hot zones that lead to trouble, mixing his changeups, fastballs and curveball in an unpredictable way that takes advantage of the team’s intricate scouting system and keeps hitters completely off-balance.

“Kyle didn’t even give them any air or any hope,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Amid the celebration, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod spotted Kyle’s dad and yelled at John: “You f------ called it!” John – who once worked in the Angels ticket office and as a golf pro in Southern California – had moved to Chicago two years ago to work for his good friend’s limo company and watch his son pitch at Wrigley Field. John had told McLeod that Kyle would one day help the Cubs win a championship.

“That was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen,” McLeod said. “Ever.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities] 

The media framed Kyle as The Other Pitcher, even though he won the ERA title this season, with all the pregame buzz surrounding Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. Except Kershaw gave up five runs and got knocked out after five innings, while Kyle only gave up two singles to the 23 batters he faced, finishing with six strikeouts against zero walks and looking like he had even more left in the tank at 88 pitches.

“It was incredible,” Ben Zobrist said. “That was the easiest postseason game we’ve had yet and it was the clincher to go to the World Series. 

“He’s just so good, so mature for his age. He just has a knack to put the ball where he needs to. He’s smart and he’s clutch. He deserves to win the Cy Young this year.”

Where Kershaw’s presence loomed over the entire playoffs, Kyle has always been underestimated, coming into this season as a fourth or fifth starter with something to prove, and even he didn’t see all this coming. But big-game pitchers can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to throw 97 mph. 

“He wants the ball,” John said. “Every big game – I don’t care if it was Little League or wherever – he wants the ball. Plain and simple, (he’ll) get the job done.”

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