Belinelli, Bulls hold off Nets in nail-biter

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Belinelli, Bulls hold off Nets in nail-biter

Saturday nights 83-82 Bulls (13-9) win over the Nets (13-10) at the United Center was a story weve seen before: The undermanned squad, playing an opponent with supposedly more talent on paper and featuring a former player, this time C.J. Watson used a formula of offensive balance, timely contributions from an unexpected source, determination to fight back with the odds against them and of course, Tom Thibodeaus vaunted defense, to earn a hard-fought victory.

Two Joakim Noah (12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) dunks the second of which, over Brooklyn counterpart Brook Lopez (18 points, 10 rebounds), was highlight-worthy started the Bulls off on a positive note, as the hosts scored the games first six points and hit their first five shots from the field. In addition to Noah, fellow starters Carlos Boozer (15 points, six rebounds) and Marco Belinelli (19 points) also had good starts, enabling the Bulls to build a cushion in the early going.

While Lopez, whos dealing with health issues, found his groove as a scorer early, as did point guard Deron Williams (24 points, five assists), half of Brooklyns All-Star backcourt Joe Johnson (16 points), the Nets marquee offseason acquisition, picked up two quick fouls and took a seat on the bench the visitors looked sluggish overall, perhaps a byproduct of playing a double-overtime game the previous evening. That changed as the opening period waned on, as Williams outside marksmanship made it a close-knit affair and at the end of the first quarter, the Bulls trailed, 24-23, despite Boozer carrying the offensive load.

The game remained tight in the second frame, as backup point guards Marquis Teague in for Nate Robinson, who started in place of the injured Kirk Hinrich, but picked up two quick fouls and Watson, the former Bull in his first game back in Chicago, went at it. Teagues speed and ability to score in transition, were immediately evident and matched up with an elite player at his position in Williams, he held his own on the defensive end.

The tenor of the contest suited the home teams defensive sensibilities, even as their field-goal percentage dropped on the other side of the ball, necessitating putting the clamps on their guests offensive intentions. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 46-41 advantage, with Nets backup big man Andray Blatche making an impact for the guests.

After the break, Belinellis efficient scoring and underrated playmaking helped the Bulls start the third quarter positively, but after flirting with acquiring a double-digit lead, the hosts allowed Brooklyn to get back into the game. Behind the play of Lopez, Williams, Johnson and veteran Gerald Wallace, the Nets significantly cut into the deficit, eventually overtaking their hosts.

In what evolved into a defensive struggle, the Bulls took control late in the frame to once again build some breathing room, with Belinelli, Luol Deng (17 points, seven rebounds) and reserve Taj Gibson serving as catalysts. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls held a 67-62 lead, following a Deng jumper with 2.9 seconds left in the frame.

The Bulls lead proved to be tenuous as the fourth quarter began, as the visitors quickly regained the momentum in the contest, buoyed by the point production of Johnson. Put into the position of playing from behind after the Nets built a slim cushion, but led by the play of Teague, who continued to display poise beyond his 19 years, the Bulls made it a nip-and-tuck game heading into the stretch run.

Critical unforced errors appeared to be the hosts ultimate undoing late in the contest, but after a Belinelli fast-break layup cut it to 79-77, in Brooklyns favor, with 1:26 remaining, the Bulls tied the game at 79 with 1:01 left, on a Deng dunk in transition from a slick Teague assist after a Nets turnover.

Following a defensive stop on the other end, a Belinelli driving layup gave the Bulls an 81-79 advantage with 22.1 seconds to go, leading to yet another clutch defensive stop and two free throws by Belinelli to seal the deal, which ended up being necessary for the winning margin, as Williams hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Fire lose Open Cup epic in Cincinnati after penalties

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AP

Fire lose Open Cup epic in Cincinnati after penalties

CINCINNATI —

A crowd of 32,287 in Cincinnati waited and waited and waited some more, but finally got what they wanted.

The host FC Cincinnati downed the Chicago Fire in penalty kicks after 120 minutes of goalless soccer.

It was all about the goalkeepers before penalty kicks with the Fire’s Matt Lampson and Cincinnati’s Mitch Hildebrandt combining for 17 saves. Hildebrandt improved on his crazy good night by denying Nemanja Nikolic, Arturo Alvarez and Juninho. Bastian Schweinsteiger was the only Fire player to convert a penalty in four rounds. Cincinnati missed its first penalty, but finished the next three.

In regulation, the Fire huffed and puffed in the first half, but didn’t really create much danger in front of Cincinnati’s goal. At halftime, the Fire had 78 percent of the possession, but couldn’t manage a shot on target.

Cincinnati’s game plan to defend deep and counter was stifling the Fire’s attack. The Fire only managed shots from outside the box that all missed the target. Matt Polster had an open shot in the box following a corner kick, but it was deflected wide by a sliding defender.

The home crowd of 32,287, which is the second biggest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history, didn’t have much to cheer in the first half, but Matt Lampson made the only save of the half when he came off his line to deny Danni Konig who got free down the left side.

Both the atmosphere and the game livened up in the second half. Both teams had multiple quality chances and both keepers, Lampson and Cincinnati’s Mitch Hildebrandt came up with big saves.

Lampson saved the game to deny a breakaway for Jimmy McLaughlin in added time just before regulation ended.

In extra time, Cincinnati thought it had the go-ahead goal from Andrew Wiedeman in the 110th minute, but it was called back for a close offside call. Hildebrandt and Lampson both came up with huge saves in the final minute of extra time to send the match to penalties.

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

WASHINGTON – Cubs president Theo Epstein watched the Washington Nationals run wild on his iPad on Tuesday while visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. As Epstein did some work in his hotel room later that night, he got a text message from general manager Jed Hoyer alerting him to Miguel Montero’s explosive comments.  

Epstein’s management style is to not overreact or worry about the next day’s headlines. He generally believes in second chances, tries to keep an open mind and looks at the problem from every angle, occasionally to the point of paralysis by analysis.

But Epstein said it took “probably 10 seconds” before he realized the Cubs needed to designate Montero for assignment after the veteran catcher pointed the finger at Jake Arrieta – a Cy Young Award-winning, All-Star pitcher – for Washington’s seven stolen bases.    

“It screamed out as something that we should do,” Epstein said.     

As Montero’s rant caught fire on Twitter, Epstein called Hoyer and spoke to Montero on the phone, but he wanted to sleep on it and consult with some players before making Wednesday’s final decision, which could cost approximately $7 million. Epstein could not envision this as a team-building moment after Montero’s mea culpa and clearing the air with Arrieta.

“That was not my read on it, knowing the dynamics, present and past,” Epstein said. “This was not something that we would benefit from – trying to pursue a path of putting it all back together again.”

The Cubs pursued Aroldis Chapman after the New York Yankees closer began last season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs cautiously didn’t judge or unconditionally support Addison Russell after a third-party abuse accusation on social media triggered an MLB investigation this month. The Cubs tolerated Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer, allowing him to chill out at home in New Jersey.

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But Montero doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball. Montero isn’t an All-Star shortstop. Montero isn’t being preserved for one hypothetical pinch-hit at-bat in the playoffs. The Cubs are hovering around .500 now – no longer the World Series favorite – and all those variables become part of the calculus.   

“I just came to the conclusion that now more than ever we really need to be a team,” Epstein said. “This was an example of someone being a bad teammate publicly, and that we’d be better off moving on and not standing for it, because we do hold our players to a higher standard than that.

“In our role as the front office, we can’t always be in the clubhouse and push the right buttons to help everyone come together as a team. But we certainly are in a position – when we see something that could fracture the group – to try to fix the situation and remove that issue.

“Miggy’s not to blame at all for the issues that we have as a team right now. He should not be a scapegoat for what’s going on. This was just an example of someone publicly not being a good teammate and making comments that weren’t accountable and weren’t supportive and weren’t in furtherance of the team concept. And we felt we had to act on it.”

There is a chicken-or-the-egg mystery to clubhouse cohesion. But Montero probably would have had a longer fuse – and the bosses would have had a longer leash – if the Cubs were 24 games above .500 the way they were at this time last year. Montero could also get away with a lot more when he was a two-time All-Star for the Arizona Diamondbacks and playing in a sleepy market. 

“Had we been in a spot where this group had already formed its identity and was clicking on all cylinders,” Epstein said, “and had already overcome adversity together and come together completely as a team and we’re rolling in those respects, maybe it could have been handled differently by the group without sort of action from above.

“But I think you have to factor in where the team is and what the team needs and how close we are to reaching our ideal and how close we are to living up to all the values that we have as an organization.”

The Cubs Way isn’t exactly making it up as they go along. But there are always double standards and rationalizations in a bottom-line business. It sounds like Epstein did his due diligence without giving it a second thought: Montero wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. 

“There aren’t that many opportunities for people out of uniform to positively impact the group or nudge it in the right direction,” Epstein said, “or underscore the importance of team or emphasize the values that we try to embody as a group.

“This was one that made sense, given the history, the group dynamics, all the factors involved.”