Despite loss, Deng fares well in head-to-head matchup with Durant

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Despite loss, Deng fares well in head-to-head matchup with Durant

Luol Deng sat in the Bulls locker room in the United Center, his face buried in his hands, his legs submerged in ice water. The All-Star small forward appeared to be a combination of tired and dejected, a byproduct of not only matching up with Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant, but his teams frustrating defeat at the hands of the Thunder.

Deng, thrust into the role of the Bulls go-to playerand not just from a scoring perspectiveactually outscored the three-time defending NBA scoring champion, 27-24, Thursday night, but as he always says, basketball isnt about individual battles. Still, he blamed himself for Durants array of near-impossible shotsincluding a one-legged fadeaway, a la Dirk Nowitzkidown the stretch, which led to the Thunders win.

Fourth quarter, he said. Weve got to do a better job of getting stops. Ive got to do a better job of stopping Kevin.

I thought I was on him. Hes a great player and won the game for his team, Deng continued. He hit tough shots at the end. Give him all the credit.

They did a good job, but we were right there. It was just making plays, getting stops. We were in the game, though. Even when they went up four, we came down and scored, and we were a stop away, and Durant hit that tough shot, fading away off one legboth teams were making plays. I cant say they stopped us. We were just trading baskets. We cant do that.

Deng is the ultimate team player, just as content when he struggles with his shot and the Bulls win as he is when he leads them in scoring Thursday, as long as they win that game, too. After making his first All-Star Game last season and Derrick Rose currently sidelined, its only logical that he sees increased defensive attention and when he doesnt or has a mismatchsuch as when newly-acquired Thunder shooting guard Kevin Martin had to defend him in the postBulls head coach Tom Thibodeau will go to him early and often.

But while hell be more aggressive this season without Rose to shoulder the offensive load, dont expect Deng to change his approach. He insists that the only way the Bulls will be successful is through an offense-by-committee philosophy

Im never going to change the way I play. Im just going to take the game as it comes. Tonight I had it going and I hit some shots. Coach was calling my number in a mismatch and we just went with it, but every night is going to be different, he explained. Weve got so many guys on this team that can score and some nights, Boozers going to have it going and were going to go to him. Its going to be Rip, its going to be Jo, its going to be someone else and thats our team right now. No one has to change the way they play. Weve just got to keep playing.

Whether or not Deng wants to be singled out for his individual efforts, his teammates and coaches recognize and appreciate his contributions. Now more than just a glue guy, hes the player the Bulls need to come up big in big situationsas a scorer, defender, playmaker or rebounder and sometimes all of them simultaneouslyin order to keep up with the leagues elite teams.

I love playing with Lu. Hes a hell of a competitor and he can do a lot of things out there on the court. He can score, he can rebound, he plays great defense. I thought Lu played a great game, man, Joakim Noah proclaimed about his long-time teammate. Those guys were going a little bit, so Thibs was calling their names and their plays a lot tonight, and when those guys are scoring that way, it opens up the floor a lot. It gives us a lot of easy opportunities.

Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: Lu provides whatever you need. If you need more scoring, he can do that.

And whatever else the team needs, Thibodeau would have said, if he was in a better mood. While neither player nor coach believes in moral victories, one thing the Bulls should know moving forward, if they didnt already: Deng is the one player, in the absence of Rose, that has the ability to singlehandedly keep them competitive on nights when others dont have it going and when they do, hes the rare star who doesnt mind playing a background role.

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

SAN DIEGO – West Coast atmosphere, late August, almost no-hitter stuff for a Cubs team riding a wave of momentum. Jake Arrieta might be reentering the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. Get your onesies ready.

It felt that way on Tuesday night at Petco Park, where Arrieta shut down the San Diego Padres, allowing only two hits across eight scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory, making another statement in his Cy Young Award defense.

For all the questions about Arrieta’s fastball control and mechanical tweaks – and times where he’s admitted he’s felt a click off – this is still a top-of-the-rotation guy who leads the league with 16 wins and has a 2.62 ERA.

“He should be” in the Cy Young discussion, manager Joe Maddon said. “The only thing that’s been amiss is a little bit of command issues on occasion. Otherwise, stuff is the same. Numbers are fabulous. It’s hard to replicate what he had done last year, because he just nailed it.

“If he gets hot over these last couple weeks…”

It will be up to Arrieta to complete that thought in a World Series-or-bust season for baseball’s first team to 80 wins this year, one that’s now 35 games over .500.  

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This didn’t feel like a perfect game or create any no-hitter drama. The Padres are already 20 games under .500 and years away from being a serious contender. And Arrieta had to bounce back from last week’s ugly win over the Milwaukee Brewers – when he walked a career-high seven batters – and work around a first-inning walk to San Diego leadoff guy Travis Jankowski.

But the Cubs played spectacular defense behind Arrieta, with catcher Willson Contreras make a lightning-quick throw to pick off Jankowski at third base. The Cubs turned three double plays while a thunderous lineup led by Kris Bryant (33rd home run) and Addison Russell (fifth home run in his last five games) lowered the stress level. After Alex Dickerson’s single leading off the second inning, the Padres didn’t get another hit until Christian Bethancourt’s double with two outs in the eighth.

“I really wanted to let my defense work,” said Arrieta, who finished with six strikeouts against three walks. “When you have Addison and (Javier) Baez in the middle of the infield – two of the best athletes in all of baseball – you want the ball to go to those guys.”

At a time when Clayton Kershaw (back) and Stephen Strasburg (elbow) are on the disabled list, leaving potential playoff opponents like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals in scramble mode, the Cubs can see Arrieta building toward October.

The way Arrieta did with that Aug. 30 no-hitter last year at Dodger Stadium on national TV, walking into the press conference in a moustache-covered onesie, Maddon going with the pajama theme again for the flight home after this weekend’s series in Los Angeles.

But the Cubs ultimately paid the price for all that effort poured into the wild-card chase, which explains why Maddon pulled Arrieta after 99 pitches with a five-run lead (leaving Aroldis Chapman to clean up Felix Pena’s mess in the ninth inning and get the final two outs, giving him eight saves in a Cubs uniform).

“Yeah, I was mad at Joe taking me out,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, he came over to me and he said: ‘Hey, just remember last year and let’s conserve some things for October.’

“That’s our game plan. We want to be as strong and as dominant as we can be, but still in the back of our mind understanding that late September, early October, mid-October is really the most important time for us.

“Could I have finished the game? Yes. Does it play in our favor to maybe conserve that for later? Yeah. Joe’s a really smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. I feel like he makes the right moves in the right situations. And that’s why we’ve been playing as well as we have.”

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

SAN DIEGO – On a team bursting with MVP frontrunners and Cy Young Award candidates – and in a clubhouse with louder, flashier personalities – Addison Russell can emerge as an All-Star shortstop and not become the center of attention.

But here at Petco Park last month, Russell drew scrutiny for his spot in the all-Cub infield, patiently answering questions from reporters about whether or not he deserved to be the National League starter the fans voted for in that popularity contest.

Russell might actually be developing into a superstar now, a Gold Glove-caliber defender with legitimate middle-of-the-order power, someone absolutely essential to what the Cubs are doing now. Russell crushed the San Diego Padres again on Tuesday night, opening up a two-run game with a two-run homer in the fifth inning of a 5-3 victory.

“Just watch me over the course of a year,” Russell said. “My numbers may not be great or whatever, but I contribute to my team every single day. I play my heart out for my team.”

Super-agent Scott Boras, posted up at Petco Park to see clients and watch Jake Arrieta pitch, pointed out that Russell is now only one of five shortstops within the last 40 years to have at least 19 homers during his age-22 season, joining Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki and Corey Seager.

Russell is the first Cubs shortstop to reach the 80-RBI mark since Ernie Banks did it in 1961. For all the comparisons to Barry Larkin, he didn’t make his big-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds until the age of 22, and didn’t exceed 12 homers in a season until five years later.

Russell has homered five times in his last five games, leads the best team in baseball with 23 multi-RBI games and exemplifies a no-panic approach that should translate in October.

“I’ve said all year, we have guys on our team that get on base and it’s my job to get them over or get them in,” Russell said. “I’ve taken that role to heart. It’s a lot of fun out there. I challenge myself whenever I’m in that situation.”

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Russell’s highlight-reel play during Monday night’s victory inspired manager Joe Maddon to give him a bottle of Justin Isosceles wine with a “6-3” written on it. Imagine the reward if Russell wins a Gold Glove.  

“Defensively, it’s as good as there is being played right now,” Maddon said. “It’s getting to the point where there’s nobody else like that right now.”

Whether or not Russell can stay healthy and remain productive enough to become another Mr. Cub – or come close to matching Larkin’s Hall of Fame numbers – you don’t get the sense he will be a one-time All-Star.

“I’m very happy for him, because I know prior to being selected, that was an issue,” Maddon said. “I’m so proud of him, how he came out and confronted it in his own way, very quietly, but in a distinguished manner. That’s who he is.

“Now he’s showing everybody how good he is. And I also believe that event has pretty much catapulted him to the point he’s at right now (with) the status that he felt by being here. In some ways, there was this negative dialogue going on. He’s turned it into a very positive one. Good for him.”

Preview: White Sox try to sweep Phillies tonight on CSN

Preview: White Sox try to sweep Phillies tonight on CSN

The White Sox take on the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Wednesday’s starting pitching matchup: James Shields vs. Jerad Eickhoff

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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