Central Division rival Pacers dealing with their own injured-star woes

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Central Division rival Pacers dealing with their own injured-star woes

Heading into this season, the Pacers were supposed to be the class of the Central Division, capitalizing on Derrick Roses extended absence in Chicago.
However, due to a major injury of their owngo-to scorer Danny Granger, their starting small forward, is out indefinitely with severe knee soreness and reportedly wont return until the next calendar yearIndiana got off to a slow start.
They have since recovered from an early swoon that saw center Roy Hibbert, coming off an All-Star season and a maximum contract extension over the summer, seemingly regress and the teams multiple newcomersan overlooked aspect, as the Pacers have an almost entirely new bench, with the exception of holdover Tyler Hansbrough, a frequent Bulls antagoniststruggle to adjust to their new roles. Indiana is now 8-9, including a buzzer-beating win over the Lakers in Los Angeles, coming into Tuesdays showdown against the Bulls at the United Center.
I think more than anything, I think its just an opportunity for us to get a quality win against a good basketball team, veteran power forward David West told CSNChicago.com at the teams morning shootaround at the United Center. We know theyre not at full strength either, but again, theyre very capable. Were fighting for the division and its just a game thats on our schedule, that we have to do all we can to come out and try to get a win.
Were trying to fill in the gaps where we can, get some guys in positions, get them some experience that they havent had and guys get an opportunity to play. Thats what happens in the league when one of your main guys goes down. Other guys get an opportunity to play, step up and again, we started off rough, but I think guys are doing a better job getting into a flow. Weve had to adjust the offense to make some inroads, in terms of being able to compete and get wins, he continued.
Again, anytime you bring guys into a system, theres always an adjustment period, but its still early and we know what type of talent and capability we have on this basketball team, and we feel like well get in the right flow as the year wears on and obviously, you dont want to be playing your best basketball right now. You want to be playing your best ball later in the year. We feel like we have the team thats built to do that and hopefully we can pick ups wins when we go out, play the game the right way, but as the year wears on, get better.
Obviously you want to do better than you did the year before. I thought a key to our success last year was that we were just healthy. We didnt have any guys miss games. Obviously thats not the case this year, but were building toward the end goal and thats to be full strength as the year wears on, and hopefully fight for one of the top playoff spots. We dont feel like thats out of the grasp or out of the realm of reality for us.
West was an All-Star with his previous team, New Orleans, and appears headed back to that form early in the season, as well as taking over a more vocal leadership following a season in which he was still recovering from an ACL injury with the Hornets. Now in a contract yearhe signed a two-year deal after the lockout and is now poised to be one of the better free agents on the market next summerhes been able to put his stamp on the young Pacers.
I wasnt really healthy, in terms of being able to do what I wanted to do last year, really until the last month of the season. Having an opportunity to have a full summer to just work out, play, improve and then have a full training camp, full preseason, it just helps, he explained. Obviously just feeling more confident in my leg, confident in what I can do, thats contributed to some of the success that Ive had early on.
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, who was just the interim coach when Indiana faced off with the Bulls in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs two years ago, now has experience to go with his youthful enthusiasm on the sidelines. Vogel understands that meshing together a retooled roster and continuing to develop young talent, including athletic swingman Paul George, is crucial, even as Indiana deals with preseason expectations.
Even the end of last year, we got to a point where we sort of the hunted because we were playing so well, so I think we got used to it, got a taste of it at the end of last year. Coming into this year, its a double-edged sword. Youve got the expectations and then, youve got to deal with readjusting with Danny being out, so its been a little bit of a struggle, but I feel good about the fact that were remaking our identity and I think that weve got some good basketball ahead of us, he told CSNChicago.com. Guys are just trying to play the team approach. No one guy can make up for Danny Grangers absence. Weve just got to move the basketball, share it and make up for it as a team.
Vogel believes that the Central Division will be a hard-fought race until the end, with the Bucks also factoring in, as the Bulls and Pacers try to hold down the fort without their injured stars.
Milwaukees playing great basketball, too. Theyre right up there, he said. Obviously us and Chicago are right around that .500 mark. Its going to be an interesting fight.

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

[MORE BEARS: Back from scary concussion, Leonard Floyd playing like franchise pass rusher Bears craved]

Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”