Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button


Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button

At this early juncture of the regular season, it seems like every other team across the NBA is in panic mode. For a Bucks team feeling like they're experiencing a resurgence and has a chance to sneak up on unsuspecting foes with a new style of play, there's a Bulls squad that believes that right now, not even into the month of December yet, it's do-or-die time.

Elsewhere in the Central Division, Indiana also appears worried, with go-to scorer Danny Granger sidelined indefinitely and up-and-coming youngsters like All-Star center Roy Hibbert and swingman Paul George supposedly struggling under the weight of increased expectations.

Look at Washington, now 0-12 on the campaign, a 76ers team whose notoriously demanding fans are a step away from burning Andrew Bynum in effigy, not to mention teams out West, specifically in Los Angeles, where the Clippers' honeymoon appears to be ending after their hot start, let alone the continuous drama surrounding the Lakers, whose ongoing saga is now focused on Pau Gasol fitting into new head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. Compared to those situations, the 6-7 Bulls, playing in a wide-open Eastern Conference, without Derrick Rose, and not even a third of the way through the season, are living on easy street.

But after such a stunning loss Monday night, a 93-92 defeat on the back end of a home-and-home with Milwaukee, somehow the sky is now falling and Tom Thibodeau, the fastest coach to 100 wins in NBA history and just two seasons removed from winning the league's Coach of the Year award, is incompetent. Nobody took the loss, in which the Bulls surrendered a 27-point lead late in the third quarter, harder than Thibodeau.

To be sure, while he won't openly admit it, he made some mistakes, such as riding his starters against an energized, confident and loose Bucks second unit, instead of perhaps making defensive substitutions to quell Milwaukee's extended run. Let's not forget that for all of Thibodeau's experience as an assistant coach, this is only his third season as a head coach and even the best of his peers--including maybe the top dog of them all, Phil Jackson, a familiar face around these parts, who coached his final game with Lakers in embarrassing fashion, as Dallas ran his team off the court in a playoff upset back in 2011--and while overall, he's already widely regarded as one of the top five coaches in the NBA (behind San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, his former boss, Chicago native Doc Rivers and arguably, one or two others, including Rick Carlisle of the Mavericks, who the Bulls host Wednesday), he'll coach the occasional strategic dud during a regular-season campaign that spans 82 games.

Observers will point to his clear lack of trust in his bench, of which he only used three players--Taj Gibson (18 minutes), Jimmy Butler (12 minutes) and Nate Robinson (10 minutes)--Monday evening. On the other hand, given that the Bulls have seven newcomers to the roster and only the aforementioned trio has truly distinguished themselves on a semi-consistent basis, one can see why Thibodeau would utilize such a short rotation.

Likely to join 19-year-old rookie Marquis Teague (more on him later) and veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who doesn't possess the most sterling defensive reputation, on the nightly DNP-CD list is backup center Nazr Mohammed, who had a stellar preseason, but appears to be slowly grasping Thibodeau's defensive schemes, something that's a death knell for playing time, as well as seemingly having a more score-first mentality than the coach prefers from his experienced big men, such as Kurt Thomas, the former Bulls reserve and league's oldest player, who started Monday evening for New York.

Then, there's reserve shooting guard Marco Belinelli, who still hasn't found his shooting stroke and hasn't shown enough in other aspects of the game to earn Thibodeau's trust, leading to Butler taking his minutes in the rotation, along with backing up iron-man starter Luol Deng, he of the 47 minutes in Monday's contest.

The Bulls also have a point-guard conundrum, as Kirk Hinrich--who had his best game of the season Monday, scoring 17 points and perhaps more significantly, getting to the foul line nine times, making eight of his attempts--while he has the defensive approach and floor-general mindset Thibodeau likes, has struggled mightily with his shot and is no longer the creator off the dribble he was during his original stint with the Bulls.

Meanwhile, Robinson, whose playing time dwindled in the squad's past two outings--coinciding with his ball-security and shot-selection difficulties at the end of last week's loss at Houston, the second of two aborted comebacks he was the catalyst for during the "Circus Trip"--might be the lone Bull with the ability to create for himself, but despite his dynamic scoring ability, his shoot-first tendencies and looseness with the ball are things, that at least in the present, apparently stress out Thibodeau too much to deal with on an extended basis.

This is where Teague comes in. Judging from the way Thibodeau refused to immediately gift Butler playing time after his outstanding offseason, having a professional season under his belt and Ronnie Brewer's departure clearing a way for him to get into the rotation, it's far-fetched that the coach entrusts a teenager with running his offense, but the youngster's quickness off the bounce, surprising defensive acumen and--admittedly, based off a small sample size, the Bulls' home loss to Boston, in which he showed no fear in dueling Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo, arguably the best active point guard in the game--poise might make sense to try, if not now, then after the team eventually gets over its current woes, as Teague can only improve with on-court experience, has more playmaking potential than Hinrich and due to his length, more defensive ability than the diminutive Robinson, let alone possessing more of a pass-first inclination.

Speaking of the aforementioned Butler, the second-year swingman's role as an energy player and defensive specialist seems secure, but while he's proven to be an adept finisher, has the ability to score off offensive rebounds, make hustle plays and thrive in transition, until he exhibits more confidence in his outside jumper, he's not a reliable scoring option, nor is he expected to be. Unfortunately, Gibson is also in that category at the moment, as he's gotten off to a slow start this season offensively and hasn't been the same defensive presence that was the primary basis for him earning a long-term contract extension.

Rip Hamilton, who scored a season-high 30 points Monday, his best outing in a Bulls uniform thus far, obviously still has something left in the tank, his inconsistent usage and the fact that he's an inferior defender to Butler--regardless of him being the Bulls' top perimeter scoring threat, Thibodeau's defensive mindset means the veteran will sometimes get the short end of the stick--puts him in night-to-night limbo, depending on how the game is going. The same goes for Carlos Boozer, as it's been throughout his tenure in Chicago, but without Rose's unique offensive talents, it's more glaring when the much-maligned power forward either isn't having a productive evening or when he's not on the floor, making his playing time even more scrutinized than it was before.

The only two players who are guaranteed locks to play heavy minutes every night are Deng and Joakim Noah, the latter of which has joined his All-Star teammate among the league leaders in minutes per game this season. However, while the two longest-tenured Bulls give a supreme effort defensively each time they step out on the floor and have been, overall consistent scorers early in the campaign, neither of them are the type that measure themselves by their point production.

That all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in a long NBA season, things change: Thibodeau, with all of his years of experience working on sidelines in different cities, knows that players develop, perform the tasks coaches are looking for, step up during times of adversity, play their way out of slumps, jell with their teammates, work to improve various aspects of their games and simply have enough pride to rise to the occasion. Just a couple of years ago, the acclaimed "Bench Mob" appeared to be an underwhelming group--of course, now they've turned into the most celebrated second unit in basketball history--when they first came together and as time went on, morphed into one of the strengths of the squad.

Perception is reality and in no way can the Bulls' current roster be compared to last season's when evaluating players from an individual standpoint, but these players are professionals for a reason and taking into consideration the track record of Thibodeau and the core holdover players, as well as a weak division and conference, it's way too early to be pressing the panic button, even if the minutes-per-game numbers--a statistic needlessly pored over by fans, as perceived overuse of players has only become an issue in the last decade or so, with the advanced-statistic movement giving observers the opportunity to skew numbers as a way to justify performance, for better or worse--are considered alarming.

As much as Monday's loss resembled the notorious home defeat to Sacramento during current head coach Vinny Del Negro's embattled final season in Chicago, let's remember that under Thibodeau, the team's ongoing skid is the worst the team has experienced and in an NBA season in which even the league's elite experience ups and downs, not only is dropping four out of five games a relatively mild downturn, it's not like the Bulls have dug themselves a hole they can't get out of.

All of the aforementioned facts underscore the most basic truth: Chicago is spoiled. With the Michael Jordan championship era only two decades ago and Rose's emergence as a superstar coinciding with Thibodeau's instant success upon arrival, the Windy City is an impatient metropolis when it comes to hoops, as titles are the only thing that really resonate with fans.

But in a season that had low expectations dating back to May--when Rose suffered his devastating ACL injury--there's no reason to jump the gun and assume that, because of disappointing losses in the first month of the campaign, the Bulls are a lost cause, with the exception of hoping for the hometown hero's return. Give both Thibodeau and these Bulls some time to find their stride and it could very well be rewarded in a pleasantly surprising finish, making the rising controversy about something that at best, will be humorous memory and at worst, a long-forgotten issue.

In Game 1, Jon Lester doesn't quite live up to his World Series reputation: 'We got a long ways to go'

In Game 1, Jon Lester doesn't quite live up to his World Series reputation: 'We got a long ways to go'

CLEVELAND – While the Cubs came into this World Series as the heavy favorites, the team with the global following and baseball’s best roster on paper, Jon Lester understood the challenge ahead. The Cleveland Indians would counter with their own Game 1 ace, a dynamic reliever changing the way we think about bullpens and a future Hall of Fame manager.

That’s how it played out in a 6-0 game that felt a lot closer, Corey Kluber pitching like a Cy Young Award winner, Andrew Miller handling the seventh and eighth innings and Terry Francona improving his record to 9-0 in World Series games.     

Welcome to “Believeland,” where the Fourth Street bars on Tuesday were buzzing more than seven hours before first pitch. That night, LeBron James and the Cavaliers would get their championship rings and watch the banner-raising ceremony at Quicken Loans Arena, just up the street from Progressive Field.

By the first inning – when pitching coach Chris Bosio had to walk out to the mound to talk to Lester – the red video ribbons lining the stadium said: “CLEVELAND AGAINST THE WORLD.” With the bases loaded, Lester had just drilled Brandon Guyer with a pitch, forcing in a second run, a sequence set in motion by walks to Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez’s soft infield single up the third-base line.

It didn’t matter that Lester would eventually settle down and pretty much control this Cleveland lineup. (Except for that rocket Roberto Perez launched off the left-field railing for a solo homer and a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning.) Or that the Indians didn’t run all over the bases, with Francisco Lindor going 1-for-2 in stolen bases. (“Whatever, it’s happened all year," Lester said.)

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This is Cleveland’s blueprint for October, maybe its only chance to win its first World Series since 1948.

“It’s always important (to get a lead), no matter what time of year it is,” Lester said. “It makes a manager’s job a lot easier. It makes your job a lot easier. When you give a guy like Kluber – who’s locked in from pitch one – two runs in the first, it makes his job a lot easier. I know the feeling on the other side. You’re just able to attack differently.

“With the bullpens and all that stuff that they’re setting up nowadays, all you got to do is get through six.”

Lester kept it a 3-0 game, but didn’t finish the sixth inning, a rare October night where he didn’t seem to be automatic. Until Tuesday night, he had gone 3-0 in three World Series starts, allowing only one earned run in 21 innings.

Lester won his two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, overlapping with Francona and Miller at different points. This is why the Cubs gave Lester a $155 million contract, to set the tone on the mound and within the clubhouse.

Near the end of a 103-win regular season – and even after winning the franchise’s first pennant in 71 years – Lester has offered colorful versions of: We haven’t done anything yet.

But Lester – the National League Championship Series co-MVP after putting up a 1.38 ERA against the Los Angeles Dodgers and watching the Cubs win both of those starts – also doesn’t do overreactions to losses.

“We got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “If we win tomorrow, we’re right back in it. Just like LA – everybody counted us out after Game 3. They said we were the worst best team in baseball. We’re here. We’re not giving up.

“I know my guys. I know my team. And I know that nobody in this clubhouse is giving anything up.”

Andrew Miller's outstanding postseason continues with escape to beat Cubs

Andrew Miller's outstanding postseason continues with escape to beat Cubs

CLEVELAND — Andrew Miller added another impressive chapter to an already legendary postseason performance on Tuesday night.

The Cleveland Indians reliever pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the seventh inning to preserve a three-run lead and help his team achieve a 6-0 victory over the Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series in front of 38,091 at Progressive Field.

Despite putting four men on base, Miller added two more scoreless innings to his 2016 playoff résumé. Miller also struck out more three batters, giving him 24 in 13 2/3 innings this postseason, the second most by any reliever in playoff history. Critical to the effort was the strikeout of Cubs veteran David Ross with a checked swing on a 3-2 slider to strand the bases loaded in the seventh.

“You’re just trying to see the ball as long as you can and stay up the middle,” Ross said. “The 3-1, that’s the one that kinda messed me up. It didn’t break as much, so now you’re like ‘OK, let’s protect and just battle.’ ... Looking back at it, I wish I just stood there and not swung at all. If I could rewind. If it were that easy. I wish it was. And then he’d throw one right down the middle and America hates me.”

Ross has had his share of success against Miller before, though it all came when the left-hander was still a struggling starting pitcher. The veteran catcher is 3-for-5 with a walk against Miller in his career. But that wasn’t the reason Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to stay with Ross instead of pinch hit for him with either Jorge Soler or Albert Almora Jr. with two outs in the seventh inning and Miller struggling for the first time all postseason.

With a man on and nobody out, Miller took over for Corey Kluber and walked Kyle Schwarber — only Miller’s third free pass of the postseason. Javy Baez followed with a single to load the bases.

But Miller rebounded quickly and retired Willson Contreras on a fly out to shallow center before he struck out Addison Russell. Based on his experience, Maddon thought Ross was the right man for the spot.

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“I thought David could hit him or David would accept his walk more than the other guys,” Maddon said. “David works good at-bats in that moment. So I felt good about him, actually. I felt better about him.

“I think with Soler coming off the bench or Albert they had less of a chance than David because I thought there was a two-fold opportunity to either get the hit or draw the walk.”

Ross worked the count to his favor quickly as he took a fastball for a ball, and after swinging and missing a slider, took two more balls to get ahead 3-1. But Miller dropped a slider in for a called strike and then turned to it once again, getting Ross to commit just enough for the third strike. The strikeout improved the Indians’ chances of winning by 26.5 percent, up to 94.7, according to

“I was trying to throw a really good one because if he hits it, it goes a long way,” Miller said. “That’s David Ross. I think even he would say, you can pitch to him, but if you throw something in his wheelhouse it’s going to go a long way and do some damage. Fortunate that it worked out. I threw a good one that was in a spot that he went after in the situation.”

Miller struggled again in the eighth inning as he walked Kris Bryant and allowed a Ben Zobrist single with two outs. But Miller — who allowed two hits and two walks for the first time all season in 77 appearances — struck out Kyle Schwarber to strand the pair.

The Indians’ key acquisition before the July 31 trade deadline threw 46 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since Sept. 8, 2011, when he was still a starter.

Indians manager Terry Francona wouldn’t commit to whether or not he’d use Miller in Game 2 on Wednesday. Francona cited how Miller bounced back after throwing 40 pitches in a Game 1 victory over Boston in the American League Division Series and would have been ready if needed. But any number of factors could keep Miller from pitching, and Francona is happy to have a 1-0 series lead in his pocket.

“I don’t know,” Francona said. “He was ready to come back and pitch the next night. I just think there’s a lot that can happen.

“But we won tonight. I think when you have a lead, you try to win.”