Fire seeking consistency heading into Columbus

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Fire seeking consistency heading into Columbus

The Fires record (5-3-3) isnt bad, but the club has been inconsistent in the first third of the Major League Soccer season.

While the Fire are coming off a 2-1 home win over FC Dallas, Saturdays road match against the Columbus Crew would be a good place for consistency to kick in. The Fire are fourth and the Crew (4-4-3) fifth in the Eastern Conference so this amounts to an early-season meeting of teams on the playoff bubble, and a Crew victory will pull Columbus into a tie with the Fire with 18 points. This will also be the first match in Fire history carried on NBC5, and the club is paying for 10 busloads (600 fans) to attend the game.

The Fires visit to Columbus last season was encouraging. A late goal by the now-departed Christian Nazarit gave the Fire a 1-0 victory, and it was also Frank Klopas first win as the clubs interim head coach. The Fire, of course, played well after that and Klopas interim tag was dropped by owner Andrew Hauptman in the offseason.

Wednesdays home win over FC Dallas was encouraging as well. It marked the first time the Fire could beat FC Dallas at Toyota Park. FC Dallas was 5-0-1 there until goals by Marco Pappa and Sebastian Grazzini and a big save by goalkeeper Sean Johnson finally enabled the Fire to break that strange hex.

That win could also mean the Fire finally won the Brimstone Cup, which is symbolic of the superiority of one club over the other each season. It has become a silly competition anyway. The Cup rivalry was established when FC Dallas was known as the Dallas Burn, meaning the Fire would meet the Burn. Cute, eh?

The rivalry never was given much more meaning than any other regular season MLS match by either team, and when the Burn was no longer part of the equation the whole rivalry aspect diminished still further. Still, the Dallas franchise held possession of the Brimstone Cup every year since 2001, but Wednesdays match was their only MLS matchup of this season.

Rivalry or not, the win was big as far as Klopas was concerned.

"It was just a huge win. We scored from behind again, which shows a lot of character for this group," he said.

Once again the Fire gave up the games first goal. Then Grazzini tied it before halftime with what Klopas described as "fantastic.a world-class goal." Marco Pappa got the game-winner in the second half and Johnsons save on a penalty kick was also critical to the Fire rebounding from a 2-1 road loss to the lowly Portland Timbers on Sunday.

"Its sometimes difficult with road trips," said Klopas. "We came back from Portland, and we had a great response from the group."

The Crew is coming into this match unbeaten (2-0-2) in March, and a 2-0 road win over the Seattle Sounders in Columbus' last outing was especially impressive.

This road trip to Columbus wont be as long mileage-wise for the Fire, but itll lead into another important match Tuesdays first in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The Fire will face a minor league club, the Michigan Bucks, on Tuesday at Pontiac, Mich. The Open Cup is more important to the Fire than it is to many MLS clubs. The team has won it four times and fell 2-0 in Seattle in last years final.

On the injury front the Fire came through the Dallas match relatively unscathed and striker Chris Rolfe resumed training with the full squad after nursing a sprained left ankle. Whether hell be available against the Crew, however, is still yet to be determined.

The Fire will lose Pappa for the Open Cup match. Hell be with Guatemalas national team for a match against Costa Rica in Guatemala City.

Doug McDermott cleared for contact; could return at end of next week

Doug McDermott cleared for contact; could return at end of next week

Reinforcements are on the way for the Bulls bench as Doug McDermott could be back late next week, passing the next step in the concussion protocol before Friday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and being cleared for contact practices.

He’ll probably miss the stretch of four games in five nights that started Friday, but it’s a possibility he can play next Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs at the United Center if he can get his conditioning under control and not suffer any setbacks.

McDermott missed his eighth straight game Friday after suffering a concussion from a fall against the Wizards on Nov. 12. It’s his second concussion of the season and it was clear the Bulls and team doctors were being careful with the third-year forward.

“He’s gotta go through some practices before he’s fully cleared, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg before Friday’s game.

The bench has suffered mightily with McDermott and Michael Carter-Williams out, and there’s a chance he could get back on the floor late next week too if all things work out.

With McDermott, who’s averaged 10.6 points and shot 36 percent from 3 this season (43 percent last year), his return will push other players into more natural positions and presumably, lessen the pressure the bench has been under considering the way its underwhelmed recently.

The Bulls won’t have a practice day until after Thursday’s game, so he may go to Hoffman Estates to get some run before getting back to real action.

And considering he’s had two concussions, he’s gotta feel confident in playing again and secure enough that he won’t be afraid of another concussion occurring.

“It’s gonna take him at least a couple days to have full practices. He may practice with the Windy City (D-League team), contact,” Hoiberg said. “The big thing for him is the mental hurdle of going out and getting hit. The physicality this game presents. That’s as big as anything for Doug to clear that final hurdle.”

The Bulls went 3-for-18 against the Cavaliers from three-point range despite their 111-105 win, and those numbers have been more commonplace recently, especially with the struggles of Nikola Mirotic and Isaiah Canaan off the bench.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Canaan is shooting 29 percent from three and Mirotic is at 28 percent. The space has been limited and Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler have been more aggressively double-teamed as the shooting has gotten more scarce.

“Doug’s a guy, he had a 25-point game. He’s a guy the other team talks a lot about in their scouting report,” Hoiberg said. “Anytime you have a knockdown shooter, One of the top guys in the game, you have to gameplan for that. He’s missed, no doubt about that. It’s an opportuniuty for our young guys, no doubt about that. Doug’s got experience and our players look for. We run plays to get Doug shots.”

 

Dwyane Wade, Bulls take first blood with LeBron James, Cavs

Dwyane Wade, Bulls take first blood with LeBron James, Cavs

Dwyane Wade gathered the ball after losing the dribble and bearing down on him was the man who refused to switch off him, LeBron James.

James prepared to block Wade’s layup but a little craftiness beat James’ athleticism on the way to the basket, rolling in for Wade’s 21st and 22nd points with 2:30 left in the fourth.

Wade was the one who made sure to let everyone know this game wasn’t just any old game, and for 37 minutes (season-high) he played like it. Moments later he forced James into a turnover, then another as he sandwiched an offensive rebound and layup between the two possessions.

The layup gave the Bulls an eight-point lead with 2:30 left as the Bulls took first blood in their season series with the NBA champions with a 111-105 win at the United Center Friday — a game that was more anticipated for pregame activities than what was to be expected on the floor.

The Bulls expected to take the Cavaliers’ best shot after two poor performances, and one wouldn’t have been surprised to see a blowout from the champs looking to refocus.

What occurred was an aroused Bulls team, taking advantage of the national stage, a reeling opponent and a frisky leader in Wade, who finished with 24 points, five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes.

Jimmy Butler shook off a unusual shooting night (eight for 20), partially due to the energy exerted from guarding James most of the night, scoring 26 points with eight boards and six assists.

“Wade, Jimmy and Taj were all beasts,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

It was pretty early and grimy late, which is the way playoff basketball is to be played. Speaking of grimy, Taj Gibson was a leader early and throughout, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds and five assists, making his first nine field goals.

“That was something we talked about,” said Hoiberg of Gibson’s early offensive explosion. “I thought Taj’s aggressiveness and our guys’ willingness and ability to find them early in the possession before the defense got set and the floor space.”

The Cavs led by seven on two occasions in the first half, with pinpoint offensive execution led by James, and it didn’t appear like the Bulls had the manpower to keep up for 48 minutes, especially as their bench was again inconsistent.

“I thought we did a good job of staying in the game and withstanding their run,” Hoiberg said. “As fast as they were coming out of the gate, a couple things stood out to me, one was the rebounding.”

They dominated the Cavs inside, exposing their lack of interior defense as the Cavs have sacrificed rim protection in place of more perimeter shooting, scoring 78 points in the paint and outrebounding them 49-33.

Gibson started off going 5-for-5 in the first quarter, taking it straight to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Even his imperfections were forgiven early, as a missed dunk was wiped out by a foul called on Love when it appeared Love barely blew on him.

By the time halftime came around, the Bulls were down one and despite the Cavs shooting 56 percent, they couldn’t shake their opponents. It set the stage for the Bulls to jump on a team playing three games in four nights as well as having played the night before, and the Bulls took an eight-point lead in the first six minutes of the third.

They had the Cavs playing uphill the rest of the night.

“That’s a testament to how we work,” Gibson said. “We like to get out and run. Rondo is the catalyst, pushing us, getting the ball out and we’re capable of running. We can finish around the basket with myself and Robin but we have other guys (too).”

At times, Wade guarded James and vice-versa, leading to some competitive theatre and playful banter. It was no less competitive, though, as James’ pinpoint passing and drives to the basket were often a beauty to behold, scoring 27 points with 13 assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes after his walk of shame through the bowels of the United Center wearing Chicago Cubs regalia after losing a World Series bet to Wade.

Rajon Rondo, a man who is no stranger to bouts with James’ teams, put together his most impactful game as a Bull with 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes.

Kyrie Irving scored 20 for the Cavaliers but took 21 shots and Love scored 15 with nine boards but was a liability defensively.

James was frustrated with his teammates, often rolling his eyes for forgetting to get back on defense. But the Bulls failed to shut the door when the Cavs were reeling, and a James layup made it 92-89.

The Bulls didn’t fold, though, with Rondo and Wade making the necessary plays along with Butler doing his best to corral James defensively, leading to a bounceback victory and a message that perhaps they can compete on call.