Bulls hold off Kings in opener

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Bulls hold off Kings in opener

Kicking off the regular season on Halloween, the Bulls (1-0) got a scare from the Sacramento Kings (0-1) Wednesday night at the United Center, but managed to pull out a 93-87 victory to start their 2012-13 NBA campaign.

The new-look squad wasnt spectacular in its opener, but the constant of stout defense was an important aspect in their success, coupled with balanced offensive play and the emergence of Joakim Noah as a legitimate scoring threat, Rip Hamiltons return to his previous form and Carlos Boozer embracing big moments down the stretch.

The outset of the game likely featured too many turnovers for either coachs taste, though both squads were effective in pushing the tempo and converting transition opportunities. When the Bulls faced Sacramentos set defense, the veteran duo of Hamilton (19 points) and Boozer (18 points, eight rebounds) carried the offensive load, with Kirk Hinrich (seven assists) setting the table via his playmaking ability and Noahs (23 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, career-high five steals) typically high activity level also sparking the team.

For the Kings, fourth-year guard Tyreke Evans (21 points, eight rebounds) the former Rookie of the Year is in the same boat as Bulls reserve Taj Gibson (four blocks), a fourth-year player who hasnt yet inked a long-term contract extension, for which there is a league-imposed 11 p.m. Central time deadline started off strong, showcasing an improved outside jumper to go along with his driving ability, and received interior help from talented big man DeMarcus Cousins (14 points, seven rebounds).

The score see-sawed back and forth during the opening period, but at the conclusion of the frame, the Bulls held a 25-23 advantage.

In the second quarter, the Bulls clamped down on the defensive end and although the second unit struggled to produce points, the hosts maintained their slight edge.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau provided a glimpse into his rotation for the season, as Luol Deng (12 rebounds) played for approximately a quarter-and-a-half before getting a rest, while Noah was on the court for the games first 15 minutes or so.

As the games pace slowed and the contest settled into more of the grind-it-out affair that the Bulls have thrived in under Thibodeaus watch, with or without the injured Derrick Rose, it became clear that the home team would have to endure periodic offensive droughts and persevere through determined defense and a scoring-by-committee approach.

Sacramento, buoyed by points off turnovers, flirted with overtaking its hosts, but at the intermission, the Bulls clung to a 44-38 lead.

After the break, the Bulls went on a 12-2 run, fueled by Hamilton and Noah, in particular. The volatile Cousins picked up a technical foul during this stretch, but probably more infuriating to the Kings was their hosts stifling defense, as Sacramento struggled to produce offense, leading to a double-digit deficit.

But the Bulls themselves hit their own offensive lull and led by the play of starting guards Evans and diminutive floor general Isaiah Thomas, as well as instant-offense reserve scorer Marcus Thornton (15 points), the guests quickly narrowed the gap and climbed back into the game. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls remained ahead, 69-63.

To start the fourth quarter, the Bulls suddenly found themselves in a barn-burner, as they continued to struggle to contain the potent scoring ability of Thornton and Evans. On the other end, backup point guard Nate Robinson sparked them offensively for a stretch and Carlos Boozer also began to find his rhythm.

Boozer took on the role of closer for the Bulls and either asserted himself as a scorer or used his underrated passing ability to find others for easy opportunities, while on the defensive end, Taj Gibson made his presence felt as a shot-blocker and Deng, who struggled with his shot all game, made key hustle plays and corralled big rebounds late.

But the Kings kept things close down the stretch, with Evans making it a one-possession affair with under a minute to play and after Deng split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 35.6 seconds left, Sacramento was hit with a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds play following a timeout and the hosts, specifically Noah, closed things out with a parade to the foul line.

Report: Dexter Fowler closing in on deal with Cardinals

Report: Dexter Fowler closing in on deal with Cardinals

Dexter Fowler won't be making a surprise return to the Cubs next season.

Fowler is closing in on a deal to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale.

The Cubs signed outfielder Jon Jay last week to a one-year deal, pretty much sealing Fowler's future with the Cubs.

In two seasons in Chicago, Fowler batted .261/.367/.427 with 30 home runs and 94 RBI, and a World Series ring.

Blackhawks improve faceoffs in Jonathan Toews’ absence

Blackhawks improve faceoffs in Jonathan Toews’ absence

Yanic Perreault came onto the ice as the Blackhawks wrapped up practice on Thursday.

It’s been a relatively common sight the last few seasons. Most of the time, Perreault has helped out when a particular player is struggling from the faceoff dot. That was true with Artem Anisimov earlier this season. But with Jonathan Toews sidelined the Blackhawks have been even more focused on improving upon and winning faceoffs. Thanks to the extra diligence, they’ve done that.

The Blackhawks’ overall faceoff performance has steadily improved. They’ll see how it goes again on Friday night when they face the New York Rangers, their eighth consecutive game without Toews.

“We’re working almost every practice and trying to get better on faceoffs,” Anisimov said on Thursday. “If we win the faceoff, we start with the puck and it’s pretty good. You can go to the offensive zone or win in the offensive zone you start with the puck and you have the opportunity to shoot the puck all day and get chances. It’s a big part of the game.”

Enter Perreault, who was a great faceoff man during his NHL career. The Blackhawks players say Perreault offers a wealth of information in each session.

“It’s different every day. The whole science behind it, he’s been great since he was brought in,” Marcus Kruger said. “He always has something new he wants us to work on, whether it’s just timing or body-positioning or something like that. It’s a lot of different stuff and we work on new stuff every day.”

Rasmussen agreed.

“It’s a lot of things you can work on,” he said. “You try to work on being in a low position so you get stronger. [There are] a lot of small things on how you can go against other guys that do it certain way, and you have to find your own way, too.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Their first game without Toews, against the Anaheim Ducks, was dismal. Part of that is the Ducks having some tremendous face-off guys. But Toews is the Blackhawks’ best at the dot – he’s won 60.3 percent of the time this season – so that first game without him was rough.

Here’s how things have progressed for the Blackhawks, with faceoffs won and lost and percentage, in Toews’ absence.

Opponent Wins-Losses Percent
Ducks 18-49 27 percent
Kings 21-37 36 percent
Panthers 39-35 53 percent
Devils 22-27 45 percent
Flyers 22-31 42 percent
Jets 31-27 53 percent
Coyotes 30-28 52 percent

So yes, there’s been improvement.

“I think we hold our own,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Yan works well with our center men, they take pride in trying to be the best they can and now they’re taking some important faceoffs and some they probably haven’t taken in the past, whether they’re defensive or special-teams faceoffs. They’ve all won some important faceoffs for us at key times, too.”

The Blackhawks have done their best filling the void left by Toews, especially on faceoffs. There’s been a lot of work put into it, especially with Perreault following practices. But the results have been there.

“We know we’d like to start with the puck, and we had a couple of tough games when Jonny went down initially,” Quenneville said. “But it’s been much better since.”