Bulls shootaround notes: Bulls prepare to host Thunder

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Bulls shootaround notes: Bulls prepare to host Thunder

With mounting injuries to key players on a handful of teams even before the regular season has begun, many coaches are resting their players as the preseason winds down. But for Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls, improving every day with a fairly new roster means all systems go with two games left in the preseason.

Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, Amare Stoudemire and rookie Austin Rivers are just a few big names who have suffered injuries this preseason, while John Wall, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Rose also will miss the beginning of the regular season. All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard underwent offseason surgeries to ready themselves for the start of the season, and are being brought along slowly.

In one of the most injury-riddled starts to an NBA season in recent memory, Tom Thibodeau said he sees the benefit in playing his starters with little limitations to form chemistry and good habits that will take the team deep into the season.

We want to continue to improve, Thibodeau said. Thats been the whole focus of our camp. Each day get better, just go step-by-step, build the right habits, do the right things and then the results will take care of themselves. I just want us to keep moving forward.

The Bulls host the reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, and coach Scott Brooks has opted to rest Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with two games left until the regular season. And while Thibodeau will be cautious with his group, he said the benefit of playing his roster, to an extent, like he would a regular season game will help.

Youre building your foundation, youre building your habits, and youre trying to get ready to endure a long season, he said. But its important to focus in on exactly whats in front of you. You dont want to look behind, you dont want to look ahead. You want to concentrate on exactly what youre trying to get accomplished right now.

The approach, the attitude, readiness to play, knowing your opponent, all that stuff is important. So I want us to be building the right habits, and well see where we are after the game.

Thibodeau said he is happy with where his team is right now, thanks in part to a full offseason of workouts and training camp that saw six newcomers arrive in Chicago. And while increased preseason repetitions will help that acclimation process, Thibodeau understands his team will have to make adjustments moving forward

Were going to continue to add throughout the season, but you dont get it all in one day, or one week or three weeks, he said. Youre gonna continue to build and then you see how teams are defending certain things, so youll add counters in. Youll see how theyre trying to attack your defense so you may make adjustments to some of your schemes to take certain things away. So youre constantly building and trying to improve.

A healthy Hamilton brings scoring to Bulls offense

The Bulls have averaged 88.4 points in five preseason games, third lowest in the NBA, but a pleasant surprise has been the consistency of shooting guard Richard Hamilton.

The 13-year veteran missed 38 of 66 games last season with various injuries, but has logged at least at least 20 minutes and 10 points in four of the Bulls five preseason games. His 15.2 points per game lead the Bulls, and is shooting better than 51 percent from the field.

I think hes played very well in the preseason and health is critical for him and us, Thibodeau said. So hes got to continue to work on taking care of his body, which hes done. Hes put in a lot of work over the summer so were hopeful that he can endure the whole season.

Hamilton did not have time last summer to mold into a role in Chicago. With the NBA lockout spilling into late November, the 34-year-old Hamilton was thrown into the lineup while battling nagging injuries.

A groin injury forced him out of 10 of the Bulls first 15 games. He played in six games to end January, but missed the next 13 with a thigh injury. Later in March, he missed 15 more games with a shoulder injury. He returned in April and averaged 12.1 points on 45 percent shooting in 12 games to end the season.

With the injuries behind him for now, a healthy Hamilton looks to be a key piece to the Bulls new rotation.

He got hurt so early in the year and he never really got into a rhythm. The first time he got into extended games was April and so it was unfortunate for him and us, Thibodeau said. But hes a lot healthier this year, so sometimes theres not anything you can do about injuries. You deal with them as best you can. Hes healthy now and thats all that matters.

Bulls five-man mentality improves assist, turnover rate

The Bulls have an entirely new look at point guard this season, headed by Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson, while the team awaits the return of Derrick Rose.

Early results in the preseason werent pretty, as the Bulls compiled 45 assists and 63 turnovers through three games. But in the teams past two preseason contests, wins over Milwaukee and Minnesota, they have handed out 51 assists and turned the ball over just 30 times as a team.

Thibodeau attributes the better passing to the Bulls having what he calls a five-man mentality on offense.

Turnovers usually are, at the start of the season, theyre usually up, he said. But you want to get rid of the ones that are a result of being too much 1-on-1 or trying to make home run pass instead of simple plays. Keep the ball moving, make the right decision, make the quick decision, shoot it pass it drive it. Lets make a decision.

Those habits form through repetitions both in practice and in games, one of the reasons Thibodeau wants to keep his rotation in tact leading up to the start of the regular season.

A big thing is sharing the ball, and its a big part of the overall philosophy of the team. If a man is open you hit him. If youre being guarded by two or youre in a crowd, we want you to pass. If youre open and not guarded and its your shot, we want you to take it. Its not hard. Pretty simple, and again youre building those habits right from the start of camp.

Starting point guard Kirk Hinrich leads the team this preseason with 6.5 assists per game, followed by Nate Robinson (4.5), Richard Hamilton (2.2) and Jimmy Butler (2.0).

Jimmy Rollins remains confident despite slow start for White Sox

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Jimmy Rollins remains confident despite slow start for White Sox

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jimmy Rollins isn’t happy with his offensive production so far this season. But a slow start hasn’t made the veteran White Sox shortstop any less confident.

Through 142 plate appearances this season, Rollins is hitting .231/.289/.346 with 10 extra-base hits and eight RBIs. But Rollins -- who has played in 33 games -- said prior to Thursday’s rainout he feels fresh. He also doesn’t see a huge difference between how he has been pitched in his first tour of the American League after 15-plus seasons in the National League.  

“I don’t think I’ve done enough,” Rollins said. “I could be hitting .400 and I’d still be wanting to hit .500. But I’m only .200 and some change. I haven’t done enough to help the team and I’ve had plenty of opportunities. The good thing is, that will change also as the season goes along and I start catching that rhythm again.”

Rollins has a career .825 OPS in 2,232 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

This season he’s hitting at a .417 clip in 30 plate appearances with seven RBIs. Rollins also struggled with RISP in 2015, hitting .464. But he spent part of that season dealing with injuries.

Nearly 30 percent through the campaign, Rollins feels healthy.

He has appeared in 33 games as White Sox manager Robin Ventura has given him routine days off to stay sharp. Rollins likes how Ventura has employed those days off, sometimes two at a time to allow Tyler Saladino to develop a rhythm and get at-bats. So far, Rollins said his playing time is what he expected when he opted to sign with the White Sox instead of the San Francisco Giants and others.

As far as switching leagues, Rollins doesn’t know a lot of the pitchers he’s facing but he does know the hitters, which has helped him line up in good position. He thinks the defensive side is a more important component.

“I don’t think it really makes a tremendous difference (hitting),” Rollins said. “If you’re putting good swings on the ball, no matter what league you’re in, you’re going to get hits.”

He expects those hits will come shortly.

Before Thursday’s game was wiped out, Ventura dropped Rollins from second to sixth in the lineup for the second time in a week. Melky Cabrera was scheduled to start in the No. 2 hole and Jose Abreu hit there several times on the team’s last homestand.

“I’ll be able to contribute more and that’ll make the job easier on everybody,” Rollins said. “It goes down the line. One guy is doing good, hitting becomes contagious. The next guy wants to hit, the next guy wants to hit and that turns into nobody wants to make an out and then you grind out those at-bats and you find a way to execute. You might catch the ball, but I’m not making an out. And that’s the difference. Sometimes when you’re trying to get hits, it’s like pitching --- you’re trying to make the pitch. You’ll do whatever it takes, even if that means going outside your box, and when you do that you’re not going to be successful.”

GM Jed Hoyer on how Cubs were built and where they go from here

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GM Jed Hoyer on how Cubs were built and where they go from here

The St. Louis Cardinals talked about how hard they played until the end against the Cubs, claiming a moral victory, yet another sign of how much this rivalry has changed.

“Do something!” is always the natural reaction when a team struggles, even one with the best record in baseball, even when a three-time Manager of the Year fills out the lineup card, and even coming off a 97-win season and an all-out winter.  

But scoring 21 runs within 23 hours against the Cardinals on Tuesday and Wednesday again showed how the Cubs were built (and how much St. Louis might miss John Lackey). The next time the Cubs fail to hit with runners in scoring position, or get shut out by a Madison Bumgarner, or experience a three-game losing streak, those offensive answers will have to come from within.

“No question,” general manager Jed Hoyer.

Between the final out of the National League Championship Series and getting swept by the New York Mets last October – and their first Cactus League game this spring – the Cubs committed $253 million combined to Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler.

The Cubs have gone 4-for-4 with hitters in their top draft picks – Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ – every year since president Theo Epstein took over baseball operations at Wrigley Field. Plus taking Javier Baez with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft during the final weeks of the Jim Hendry regime.

The Cubs invested $30 million in the Cuban market to sign Jorge Soler and used pitching trade chips (Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija) to acquire half of their infield (Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell) potentially through the 2021 season.   

Rizzo is coming off a 3-for-35 road trip where the Cubs lost series to the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants before closing strong in St. Louis. But Rizzo is also so much more mature and competitive than the overmatched hitter Hoyer rushed to the big leagues in 2011 with the San Diego Padres.

“As he goes, sometimes offensively we go,” Hoyer said. “With Anthony, when he’s good, he can carry you for a week to 10 days. He’ll get it going again. He knows he’s good now. He knows he can do it. When he goes to bed at night, he knows he’s an All-Star first baseman.

“That’s important when a guy’s going through a slump, that they have that confidence in themselves. (Now) it’s just a matter of that one swing that’ll click.”

Imagine what manager Joe Maddon described as “the butterfly effect” on the lineup once Heyward (.596 OPS) starts hitting the ball with authority to augment all the other subtle aspects of his game.

“He’s just a winning player,” Hoyer said. “Our players know that. He has that presence. Offensively, he’s been a slow starter like three of the last four years. There’s no question he’ll get it going.

“Once he (does), I think everyone will see the kind of player he’s been for most of his career. Everyone appreciates the defense and the baserunning. But the offense is a big part of that, too, and it will come here very shortly.”

If Heyward can’t be measured by batting average and RBIs, then the Cubs also dug into Zobrist’s peripheral numbers and underlying performance and found the super-utility guy had actually gotten better with age.

Zobrist turned 35 on Thursday and is hitting .346 and leading the majors with a .453 on-base percentage in the first season of a four-year contract.

“We love youth, (but) having some veterans is important,” Hoyer said. “With Ben, we felt like his skill set matched us perfectly. But we did really dig into the numbers to make sure that was the case.

“One of the things we look at is his ability to hit fastballs – it’s kind of gotten better and better throughout his career. Guys that can still hit a really good fastball don’t show a lot of signs of aging.”

It will be impossible to match the infusion of youth and energy Schwarber brought to the Cubs last summer, when he hit 16 homers in 69 games plus five more during the playoffs. 

The Cubs are 31-14 with Schwarber getting only five plate appearances during the first week of the season and now recovering from major knee surgery. 

Schwarber comparisons are unrealistic/unfair, but the next wave at Triple-A Iowa includes Almora, a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s hitting .326 and top catching prospect Willson Contreras (.933 OPS).

“We knew we were going to miss Kyle,” Hoyer said. “There’s no question about that. You take a guy like Kyle (away) – that’s like taking Michael Conforto out of the Mets’ lineup.

“He’s that good a left-handed hitter. He kills right-handed pitching. We knew we were going to miss it. I think our guys have done a great job of filling that hole.

“As for Contreras and Almora, I look at those two guys and I think there’s a little development left. We know that they’re doing a great job at Triple-A. If the need arises, those are guys that might get forced into action.

“But right now, we want those guys developing. Obviously, if the major-league team needs that player at that moment, (Kyle) will be the precedent. But right now, I think they’re still developing, still learning.”

A 10-game homestand begins Friday afternoon against the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field. As the Cardinals know by now, the Cubs are no longer a franchise that keeps score with minor-league updates or prospect rankings or moral victories.

White Sox opener with Royals postponed by rain

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White Sox opener with Royals postponed by rain

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The White Sox will remain in first place for at least another day.

With the Cleveland Indians off Thursday and their own contest washed away, the White Sox will maintain their half-game lead in the American League Central.

Set to open a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals, the White Sox instead received an unexpected day off as Thursday’s contest was rained out.

No makeup date has been announced, but a Royals spokesperson said the game wouldn’t be made up this weekend. The White Sox make two more trips to Kansas City later this season.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura said he wouldn’t make any changes to his rotation, which means Chris Sale will face the New York Mets on Monday instead of the Royals on Sunday.

Miguel Gonzalez, Carlos Rodon and Mat Latos will instead be pushed back one day, starting Friday with Gonzalez.

The Royals altered their rotation, removing Ian Kennedy from Saturday’s start. Thursday’s scheduled starter, Danny Duffy, will move back one day to Friday and Yordano Ventura will not pitch on Saturday. Edinson Volquez will start on Sunday as previously scheduled and Kennedy will start again on Monday.