Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button

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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.

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”