Bulls drop third straight in loss to Houston


Bulls drop third straight in loss to Houston

HOUSTONMaybe in a few months, if and when the Bulls (5-6) cement their previous status as one of the Easts upper-echelon teams, Wednesday nights 93-89 loss to the Rockets (5-7) will be something to laugh about. But now, as losers of three consecutive games for the first time in the Tom Thibodeau era, nothing seems like a laughing matter.
The defensive tone Thibodeau had basically been pleading for the duration of the Circus Tripand the entirety of the young seasonwas evident in the early going, as there was less emphasis on pushing the tempo and more focus on getting stops. Kirk Hinrich came out aggressively on offense, knocking down his first two shots from the field, but the Bulls played balanced basketball, with each of the five starters getting on the board.
For Houston, starting wings James Harden (28 points) and Chandler Parsons (18 points, 13 rebounds) were the focus of the hosts attack, but power forward Patrick Patterson (20 points, eight rebounds) was also effective from the outset and gave them an inside scoring presence. At the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls held a 22-20 edge.
It appeared the visitors would continue their recent trend of second-quarter lulls to begin the frame, as they struggled on offense initially and both Harden and Patterson made major impacts, along with rugged young big man Greg Smith. However, Luol Deng (19 points, 10 rebounds) began to assert himself as a scorer, as did Joakim Noah (11 points, seven rebounds).
Thibodeau made a slight change in his rotation, playing second-year swingman Jimmy Butler (eight points) earlier than usualfirst alongside Deng, at shooting guard, then at small forward, when the at least temporarily demoted Marco Belinelli entered the contestand it seemed to pay off, as the Bulls regained the lead from Houston, with reserves Nate Robinson (21 points, five rebounds, five assists) and Taj Gibson (nine points, six rebounds) also providing a lift. Still, the Rockets stayed in close contact behind the play of Harden, and at the intermission, the Bulls maintained a narrow, 46-42 lead.
Another ongoing issue for the Bulls, slippage at the beginning of the third quarter, briefly reared its ugly head immediately after the break, as the Rockets surged out of the gates with a 9-2 run. While the guests eventually regained their composure, the contest became a close-knit affair, with Harden, Patterson and Parsons continuing to do damage and the Rockets capitalizing off yet another Bulls issue this season, turnovers.
Houston built a slim cushion as the third period waned on, as miscues by the visitors piled up and the Bulls struggled to find an offensive rhythm. Deng remained their primary source of scoring, but received ample assistance from Carlos Boozer (13 points, 15 rebounds), who play inspired basketball as a scorer and rebounder to close out the quarter, though the Bulls still trailed, 66-65, heading into the final stanza.
It remained a back-and-forth contest in the fourth quarter and while the familiar trio of Harden, Patterson and Parsons were still the catalysts for Houston, Robinson became the Bulls top option. The diminutive scorer delivered time again, either with fearless drives and finishes at the rim, seemingly ill-advised deep jumpers or clever floaters over the tall trees.
When it counted, the visitors made huge hustle plays, particularly on defense, but a series of controversial whistlesfirst, an out-of-bounds call awarded to the Bulls was overturned, then a block-charge call went the Rockets wayand some clutch baskets by Houston, as well as untimely Bulls miscues, gave the hosts both the lead and momentum. Harden and reserve point guard Toney Douglas (11 points) salted things away at the charity stripe for the hosts, and while the Bulls, as always, fought until the bitter end, the night ended with Thibodeaus squad marking an unwanted first.

The new Cubs are out to write their own history

The new Cubs are out to write their own history

The Cubs felt so nervous just before a 7:09 first pitch on Saturday night that Javier Baez found the camera looking into the home dugout, waved with a big smile and started pumping his fist, hamming it up for the video board as Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” blasted through the Wrigley Field sound system.

The Cubs then ran out onto the field and systematically destroyed the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending this National League Championship Series in six games with a 5-0 win that featured almost no tension or suspense, obliterating for now the narrative around this franchise.

The old stadium still kept shaking, from Kris Bryant’s RBI single in the first inning to the clapping to Anthony Rizzo’s “Intoxicated” walk-up music to a standing ovation for Kyle Hendricks, who outpitched the supposed best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw.

“We don’t care about history,” Bryant said. “This is a completely different team, different people all around. It doesn’t matter. This is a new Chicago Cubs team. And we are certainly a very confident group.”

Sure, 1908 will hover over the entire World Series, which begins Tuesday night against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. But this is the new normal for Bryant, who within two years has won 200 games, four playoff rounds, a Rookie of the Year award and probably MVP hardware.

This team isn’t going away, either. With a chance to win the pennant for the first time since the Truman administration, the Cubs started two rookies who began this season at Triple-A Iowa – catcher Willson Contreras and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. – in a lineup that featured Bryant (24), Rizzo (27), Baez (23), Addison Russell (22) and Hendricks (26).

Contreras caught a shutout and posed for a moment at home plate watching his line-drive homer off Kershaw fly into the left-field bleachers in the fourth inning. Rizzo – who had looked overmatched earlier in the playoffs – became the first left-handed hitter to homer off Kershaw during this calendar year.

And when Rizzo tried to wave off Baez for the ball Josh Reddick popped up to the right side of the infield in the fifth inning, Baez cut right in front of Rizzo to catch it, continuing a long-running gag among the Cubs infielders.

“I don’t think they’re oblivious, because that’s sort of insulting in some ways,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They know the history. I just don’t think they care. They think they’re a good team and they love to play. And we have some guys that definitely shine on the big stage.”

Baez – a September call-up last year who couldn’t get an everyday spot during the regular season – showed off his bat speed and unbelievable defensive instincts and emerged as the NLCS co-MVP along with big-game pitcher Jon Lester. Sold on the idea of all this young talent someday coming together, Lester joined a last-place team after the 2014 season, taking a leap of faith, even at $155 million.

“I don’t feel like there’s pressure at all in our clubhouse,” said Almora, the first player Theo Epstein’s front office drafted here in 2012. “There’s just hunger and excitement and desire to win.

“None of us were around in 1945…so we just got to write our own history.”

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This is what the Cubs have been talking about since the New York Mets swept them out of last year’s NLCS, since the Ricketts family invested almost $290 million more in free agents, since unconventional manager Joe Maddon made “Embrace The Target” the theme of spring training.

Whatever your preconceived notions of the old Cubs are, know that this group has an amazing sense of balance. They are youthful and experienced. They play as a team and with individual flair. They have style and get dirty. They are analytical and sort of oblivious. They are loose and intense. And the ending hasn’t been written yet.

“We still got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “We’ll enjoy tonight – don’t get me wrong – we’ll have a celebration. We’ll have a good time. We’ll smile, we’ll hug each other, probably get drunk a little bit…but we got some work to do.”

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.”