Frustrated Thibodeau wants Bulls to stay the course

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Frustrated Thibodeau wants Bulls to stay the course

HOUSTONBulls' head coach Tom Thibodeau is between a rock and a hard place. For all of his coaching mastery and motivational ability, Thibs cant simply conjure up a recipe for success for his team right now.
Faced with the first three-game losing streak of his young, brilliant head-coaching career, while the Bulls played at least a semblance of the defense that has made them so successful over the previous two seasons, it broke down late and on top of that, the turnover issues, lack of chemistry and inability to execute in late-game situations plagued them once again in Wednesdays 93-89 loss to Houston, which snapped its own three-game skid. For this group, its not about not wanting it bad enough, but clearly theres a disconnect between the discipline Thibodeau attempts to impart on a daily basis and what occurs on the court.
Hard-fought game, came down the stretch. Couldnt get key stops and had some turnovers late. Hurt us, a frustrated Thibodeau curtly explained afterwards in the bowels of the Toyota Center, his old stomping grounds as a former Rockets assistant coach. I thought we did some good things for most of the game and then, our defensive discipline got us at the end of the game.
Thibodeau didnt single any one player outone of his most admirable qualities is that he refuses to publicly throw any of his players under the busbut a couple of hours before it officially became Thanksgiving, it was obvious that he was most thankful for a flight back to Chicago, so he could retreat to his lair at the Berto Center (in his pregame availability, Thibodeau stated this himself) to study, prepare and devise a way to cure whatevers currently ailing his team.
But then, he listed, in true basketball-purist fashion, the litany of woes that ail his team.
Everyone has a responsibility in your team scheme, pick-and-roll defense, so we have to stay disciplined and we have to stay attached, and we cant make things up and so, the fourth quarters different. Your intensity is higher and we have to stay disciplined on the defensive end, and understand on the offensive end, everythings going to happen quicker, so you cant try to thread the needle in those situations. Youve got to make the first, simple pass. We have to know what our looks are in order, okay? And thats something weve got to work on, he said.
"Right now, Im not as concerned with the streakand obviously, I hate the losing part of itIm more concerned with us doing things the right way and focusing in on our improvement, so theres a lot of things that go into winning and you have to do things the right way, and thats what we have to understand and we have to be able to do that for 48 minutes. We cant pick and choose. We have to be tied together the entire time. We have to be aware, we have to be alert, we have to make multiple effort, we have to stay on bodies, okay? We cant do the easy thing. Weve got to do the tough thing," he added.
When you look at it, these games are hard-fought and theyre going to be one or two possessions down at the end, and youve got to make tough plays. Got to make tough plays and usually, its hard to win on the road and the first thing you have to do is eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourself, so you start right with your defense. The rebounding is okay, its average at best. The turnovers are high. Its difficult to win, particularly when youre short-handed. We have to play real hard, we have to play real smart and weve got to be tied together.
"And I think you have to understand how the game is going, and whats a good three, whats a bad three, okay. The rhythm of the offense. Is it coming off a quick swing, is it coming off inside-out, okay? When is it coming? And I think thats a big part of understanding your teammates, the offense and what youre trying to get accomplished. I think, as the ball moves, you have to understand what your looks are, in order. Everyone has to fulfill their responsibilities, you have to stay disciplined, you have to be able to sustain your spacing through a second or third option, particularly late in the game, okay? So, thats when your decision-making is critical and all those things go into winning, he added.
It doesnt take a basketball mad scientist like Thibodeau to break down things that go into losing, something the Bulls were previously not accustomed to, at least on this recent skid and to be honest, even before the team left for the Circus Trip. Its easy to get seduced into thinking that simply because previous editions of the Bulls gutted out ugly wins and overcame supposed deficiencies, that this seasons squad could do the same.
The aforementioned intricacies Thibodeau mentioned are indeed accurate, but its also simpler than that, as a lack of outside shooting, poor decision-making, less than dominant rebounding and shaky chemistry on both ends of the floor stand out in both Bulls wins and losses. The good news is that like those past teams, this group also has a burning desire to win games.
The bad news is that, at the moment, they havent learned how to transform that into the consistent collective approach that made the Bulls so successful in the past. However, the season is still young and with a returning core of players who have witnessed Thibodeau work his magic, it isnt too late for the buy-in process to startalthough it better happen quicklyand make this current three-game losing streak a distant memory.

Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”

Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

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Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

Three hours after being ejected, Dexter Fowler was still fuming.

Fowler - who leads Major League Baseball in on-base percentage - only got two at-bats Thursday night against the Washington Nationals before he was directed to hit the showers by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Fowler struck out looking in his first two times to the plate and expressed his frustration with Carapazza on the field after his third-inning at-bat.

It didn't take long for Carapazza to give Fowler the boot.

Here's the rundown of the conversation, according to the Cubs's leadoff hitter:

Fowler: Was that pitch at the top of the zone?
Carapazza: Yes.
Fowler: Are you going to call them away, too, and down? What are we doing? I wanna know the strike zone.
Carapazza: That's enough.
Fowler: Enough of what? I'm asking you a question.

"And he threw me out," Fowler said. "I was surprised he didn't answer the question. He just walked away and said, 'That's enough.' I said, 'You're not gonna answer my question?' And he threw me out.

"I figure I got two more at-bats; I wanted to know the strike zone. Are you gonna call them up? Are you gonna call them away? Whatever. Just let me know. That's all."

Fowler said he has never been ejected from a game in his life at any level.

He admits he's said more than that before and hasn't gotten tossed. And he's also occasionally asked umpires where their strike zone is.

"People have answered my questions and I walked off," Fowler said. "That's all you want is an answer. ... Everybody knows I'm respectful. I wasn't being disrespectful at all. I just asked a question. It sucks I got thrown out of the game."

Fowler has been the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season, but his teammates still found a way to earn a 5-2 victory over the Nationals in his absence.

Joe Maddon was on his way out to argue when Fowler was tossed, but the Cubs manager wasn't as interested in getting into the whole ordeal after the game like his centerfielder was.

"I was arguing that we are a team that does not expand our strike zone," Maddon said. "That was my argument."

Why Dusty Baker believes these Cubs are better positioned than his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior teams

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Why Dusty Baker believes these Cubs are better positioned than his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior teams

The Washington Nationals PR guy made sure a red backdrop spelling out the team’s website and Twitter handle framed Dusty Baker’s pregame media session for the TV cameras. But you could still see an even bigger blue screen covered with Cubs logos and Wintrust advertising inside this corporate conference center.  

There are so many layers to Baker, so much history with a guy who’s spent almost 50 years in professional baseball, building a resume that’s probably one bullet point away from the Hall of Fame and shouldn’t be defined by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.   

“Boy, this is different than the old interview room,” Baker said Thursday at Wrigley Field. “Look at this place. Before, I was in kind of like the dungeon over there around the corner. And then I walked in here and I saw the lights and stuff and I was ready to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’”

Inside their state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs now have a Celebration Room, which they got to use after a 5-2 victory over the Nationals that pushed their best-in-baseball record to 21-6 with an absurd plus-96 run differential.  

Back managing a star-studded first-place team after two seasons away from the game, Baker knows all about huge expectations after guiding the 2003 Cubs to five outs away from the World Series, and then missing the playoffs with a 2004 team that won 89 games and might have been even better on paper.

So far, the 2016 Cubs are even better than the hype, and Baker believes they will be better positioned to withstand the attrition that wrecked what once looked like a great foundation.   

“I know they have more depth than we had,” Baker said. “They have a better bullpen than we had then, which is no consolation, but that’s why I had to stretch out my starters longer than I even wanted to, because we didn’t have the bullpen. Not to say we didn’t have a good bullpen, but at that time we had to make a big trade in order to make that push.”

A media/fan-driven narrative unfairly labeled Baker as a bad caretaker for young pitchers, and the way it ended with a last-place finish in 2006 probably helps explain the occasional shouting from the stands on Thursday night: “Dusty sucks!”  

“What kind of upset me a little bit is how much money they spent as soon as I left,” Baker said. “But I had to also realize that the Cubs weren’t spending money then because we were in the middle of the transition for the Tribune Company to be sold. 

“When you look back on things, ‘How come you didn’t do this?’ Or, ‘How come we didn’t do that?’ And then again, baseball takes a backseat to baseball business.”        

Baker is a three-time Manager of the Year who has won 1,690 games and already guided three different franchises to the playoffs. Cubs-Nationals would be a fascinating matchup in October.   

“Sometimes people appreciate you more when you’re gone than when you’re there,” Baker said. “On the other hand, I think many times about how I wanted to be the guy that won it in Chicago. We were close. 

“Now I’m in a similar situation in D.C. (The Nationals) haven’t been in existence that long. But baseball’s been in D.C. for a long period of time. This is the third try at baseball in D.C. since I’ve been alive. So now I got a new goal – to be the first guy to manage a team, take it to the World Series and win in D.C.”