Bulls look to continue dominance over Pacers


Bulls look to continue dominance over Pacers

Monday, Dec. 13, 2010
12:12 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam

Before the season started, it was assumed that the Bulls and Bucks would be the class of the Central Division. Through the first quarter of the 2010-11 campaign, however, it's been Indiana--Chicago's neighbor to the east, instead of the north--that has been the Bulls' main divisional competition.

Judging from the Bulls' 102-74 preseason rout of the Pacers, as well as their dismal season a year ago, hopes were dim for Indiana to recover anytime soon from the downhill spiral the franchise has been in since the infamous "Malice in the Palace," the 2004 brawl with the Detroit Pistons that occurred when the Pacers were last a legitimate contender. While the young team, at 11-11, isn't exactly a juggernaut, it has surprised observers around the league and in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, Indiana could sneak into one of the bottom playoff seeds if it maintains its strong play.

Many expect Milwaukee to rebound from its disappointing start and regain the magic of last season's "Fear the Deer" run to the playoffs, although much of that hinges upon whether star center Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and return to form. Regardless, Indiana's up-tempo style under head coach Jim O'Brien--seemingly on the hot seat every season for the past couple years--has started to click, as evidenced by games like their 144-113 shellacking of Denver (admittedly an anomaly), in which the Pacers benefited from a team-record 54-point third quarter; they shot 20-for-21 from the field in the period, with the lone miss a last-second heave from forward Josh McRoberts.

Star small forward Danny Granger has been the catalyst, bouncing back from a subpar, injury-plagued season--a year after his initial All-Star appearance--to score 21.1 points per game. The numbers aren't the most impressive of Granger's career and he isn't as efficient as he's been in the past, but league observers note that he's playing more unselfishly and has recommitted to the all-around game that first won him accolades in the league, following a humbling summer where he played limited minutes on the gold medal-winning FIBA World Championships USA Basketball squad.

Third-year center Roy Hibbert has been one of the league's most improved players in the early season. After losing weight and working with Hall of Famer Bill Walton in the offseason, the Georgetown product is averaging 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per contest, developing into one of the NBA's better young centers. Hibbert's uncanny shooting range and passing ability belie his 7-foot-2 size, as he often operates in the high post, but has displayed improved post moves, strength, mobility and stamina.

Perhaps most significant about the Pacers is the offseason addition of Darren Collison. A true point guard, the second-year former UCLA star was acquired via trade (along with veteran James Posey) and despite losing productive power forward Troy Murphy in the late-summer four-team deal, the organization now has their floor general of the future. After a first-team NBA all-rookie campaign with the Hornets a year ago, starting for New Orleans when superstar Chris Paul was sidelined, Collison is scoring 13.5 points and handing out 4.2 assists an outing as a full-time starter.

Add in the good health of oft-injured sharpshooters Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy, and the Pacers are actually competitive again on most nights. Taking all that into consideration, though, it still might not be enough to derail a focused Bulls team on a current five-game winning streak Monday evening at the United Center.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Holy cow: Cubs advance to World Series for first time since 1945

Holy cow: Cubs advance to World Series for first time since 1945

The Cubs are going to the World Series.

Yes, you read that right.

The Cubs are going to the World Series.

The Curse of the Billy Goat is broken. 

The 71-year drought is over. 

The truly once-in-a-lifetime moment has finally come to Chicago.

Holy cow.

The Cubs punched their ticket to the promised land with a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Best Pitcher on the Planet in front of 42,386 fans in the most euphoric moment in Wrigley Field's history.

Theo Epstein's vision is one step closer to coming to fruition.

"History doesn't really weigh on this club," Epstein said before Saturday's Game 6. "Just trying to win tonight's game. 

"These guys - a lot of them are in their early 20s and they're not burdened by that stuff. The organization isn't. It's just about trying to win and keeping it simple."

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

The Cubs drew first blood off Clayton Kershaw, keeping with the tradition of the team that scores first winning the game in this National League Championship Series.

After waiting until two outs in the fifth of Kershaw's Game 2 start to get their first baserunner, the Cubs jumped on him early as Dexter Fowler lined the third pitch down the right field line for a leadoff double.

Kris Bryant followed with an RBI single and then Andrew Toles dropped Anthony Rizzo's fly ball in left field and just like that, the Cubs were up 1-0 and had runners on second and third with nobody out.

Ben Zobrist drilled a sac fly to center field and the Cubs moved to the second with a critical two-run lead.

From there, they added on with a Fowler RBI single in the second, a Willson Contreras homer in the fourth and then a Rizzo solo blast in the fifth.

Kershaw allowed only two singles to the Cubs in seven shutout innings in Game 2, but lasted just five innings in the NLCS clincher, surrendering five runs (four earned) on seven hits.

The Cubs felt they let too many good pitches go by in the early count in the previous Kershaw start, so they vowed to be more aggressive this time around and it paid off.

Kyle Hendricks was brilliant on the mound, allowing only two hits in 7.1 shutout innings.

After getting shut out in back-to-back games and going down 2-1 in the series, the Cubs battled back and scored 23 runs over the final three games to punch a ticket to the World Series.

The Cubs will head to Cleveland to take on the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night.

Games 3, 4 and 5 (if needed) will be back at Wrigley next Friday, Saturday and Sunday for what would figure to be the craziest Halloween weekend the city has ever seen.

Blackhawks rally to beat Maple Leafs in shootout

Blackhawks rally to beat Maple Leafs in shootout

As the clock ticked down to under three minutes remaining in regulation, the Blackhawks were looking at more negatives than positives.

Their power play wasn’t working. Their penalty kill was 1-for-2 and they were trailing 4-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But just when it looked like the Blackhawks were headed for their second consecutive loss, they pulled out a comeback.

Richard Panik scored the game-tying goal against his former team and Artemi Panarin scored the shootout winner as the Blackhawks came back to beat the Leafs 5-4 on Saturday night.

Tyler Motte scored his second goal in as many nights and Artem Anisimov had two goals. Scott Darling stopped 30 of 34 shots through regulation and overtime. The victory didn’t erase some of the issues the Blackhawks still have, some of which showed in this one, too. But it brought some needed relief.

“It was a big win in a lot of different ways,” said Duncan Keith, who had two assists, including the primary one on Panik’s goal. “I know it’s still early but I think we were able to put some pressure on there. And anytime you get big goals like that late in the game when they’re needed, it’s a confidence boost and something we can build off.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

The end looked like it was going to be frustrating, especially after William Nylander’s second goal of the night gave the Leafs a 4-2 lead about five minutes into the third. But Anisimov scored his second goal of the evening with 2:28 remaining to pull the Blackhawks to within 4-3. Just one minute later, Panik scored his sixth of the season to tie it 4-4.

Panarin’s shot in round three of the shootout, coupled with Darling stopping Mitchell Marner’s wrist shot, sealed it.

“Obviously we were down 4-2 and came back against a great team. That helps our confidence,” Panik said. “Everybody’s pumped about a win so that’s a good sign.”

The Blackhawks will take it but they know they had their problems in this one. Their power play went 0-for-6. That included two 4-on-3 opportunities in overtime. They allowed another goal on their penalty kill, although they did snuff out another Toronto power-play opportunity in the third period.

“It’s one,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We need several, several, several to get excited. But certainly that was, we’ll say, timely.”

The Blackhawks still have a long way to go this season. That penalty kill still needs work. They want more consistent play. But considering how this was looking with about three minutes remaining in regulation, they’ll take it.

“We’re certainly fortunate to come back in a game like that,” Quenneville said. “There have been a lot of comebacks in the league this year and we’ve given up some leads ourselves. That was a little different way of going about it. There are some positives but more so how we played in the third period. But we still lose a lot of momentum in the game. That’s what we’ve got to shore up.”