Belinelli starting to find his comfort zone

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Belinelli starting to find his comfort zone

DEERFIELD, ILL.Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was prophetic before his teams home loss Saturday night to New Orleans. Faced with a question about backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli, Thibodeau expressed his confidence in the free-agent acquisition ability, something the hard-driving coach consistently does with the media when asked about a players struggles.
Marcos getting better and better. I think more confident, more comfortable each day. Hes gotten better, more comfortable putting the ball on the floor, making plays for people, he said. I think his defense is coming around. Hes been around a long time. Im confident that hes going to play well.
Belinelli, playing against his old team, the Hornets, responded with his best game of the young season. The native of Bologna, Italy, notched 13 pointson 4-for-10 shooting, including 2-for-6 from three-point rangebut importantly, he played with confidence and like he was sure of himself, something the team needed with starter Rip Hamilton struggling.
Although the contest ended in the Bulls first defeat of the campaign, slowly, but surely, Belinelli is starting to resemble the player the organization expected when they signed him over the summer. A shooter, no doubt, but more than that, a player capable of creating his own shot, making plays for others and offering an offensive boost off the bench, while steadily improving as a defensive player.
Throughout most of the preseason, that player wasnt present, as Belinelli himself readily admitted, his transparency being a trait most professional athletes dont have when talking about their issues on the floor. But hes worked through it and starting with a seven-point in the Bulls preseason finale win over the Pacers in South Bend, Ind., Bellinelli has started to make more overt contributions to the teams success.
He scored six points, to go along with three assists, in the season-opening win over Sacramento, then put up eight points in Fridays blowout victory against Cleveland. But Saturday, while he wasnt perfectlike many of his teammates, Belinellis play tailed off a bit in the second half of the lossBelinelli played with a looseness, freedom and aggressiveness befitting of a six-year pro revered in his home country as one of the best basketball players in recent memory.
Even though we lost one against the Hornets, I played better than the two games before, but I was so mad because we lost that game. Its part of the game, Belinelli said after Mondays practice at the Berto Center. The game against New Orleans, I scored the first layup on a two-on-one fast break, so after that, my confidence was up. So, I started to make three-point shots from the corner, a good pass for Gibson. When its like that, my confidence is up.
Yeah, I think so. I didnt score well against the Hornets, continued Belinelli, who acknowledged that he had some extra motivation in facing his former team. I can be better than that, so I just want to work every day on that and like I said before, I think its important to win games, especially now that weve got four or five home games. So, we need to take advantage of that.
I remember the first couple games of preseason, I was little bit maybe nervous or maybe not ready to play, but thats the past, so I want to be ready for the season. I want to be ready to help this team win games.
Fair or not, Belinelli was widely billed as the successor to the departed Kyle Korver, one of the NBAs elite shooters. While Belinelli has been a relatively high-percentage marksman from beyond the arc during his career, he isnt considered as automatic as Korver, though hes more athletic and possesses better ball skills.
But just as Korver had to adjust to Thibodeaus demands on the defensive end of the floor, Belinelli has also had to change his mindset. Playing for defensive-minded Hornets head coach Monty Williams in New Orleans gave him a bit of a leg up after starting his NBA career with two notoriously bad defensive squads in Golden State and Toronto, but he still has a learning curve.
Yes, sir, he answered, when asked about the Bulls high standards on that end of the court. Last year, with Monty Williams, we played good defense, I think. But I never played defense like here in Chicago. We practice it a lot, especially in training camp. It was like one hour on defense, so it was a little bit tough for me, but at the same time, everybody knows that if you want to play, youve got to play defense, so if you understand that, itll be easier.
Its not the first time for me. Ive changed a lot of teams, added the affable shooting guard, who speaks good English, but sent the assembled media at the Berto Center into gales of laughter when he misunderstood a question about the quality of Chicagos Italian food compared to where it originates, his birthplace. I just need to be ready and be focused on the parts of the game, on offense and defense. Ive started to understand all the players.
As for Thibodeau, now that Belinelli has shown signs of getting back to his old selfof course, a new element of high-intensity defense will have to be incorporated; if Korver can transform himself into a serviceable individual defender and solid as a team defender, so can Belinelli, who moves better than the current Atlanta Hawkhe can now mix in some criticism with his encouragement, though hell continue to give the newcomer every opportunity to succeed, perhaps in part to be able to keep Hamiltons minutes down, in lieu of the veterans injury-plagued campaign a year ago, as well as manufacturing some offensive firepower off the bench and a weapon to stretch opposing defenses for a team lacking multiple long-distance threats.
Its how you play within your group and so, his playmaking has been very good throughout preseason and through the regular season, and his shot will come around and it has, so each game, I think hes gotten more comfortable. Hes a good basketball player, I think his defense is improving and thats what I meant by the nights youre not shooting well, the coach explained Monday. Theres still a number of things you can do to help the team win. I thought our rebounding in the second half against New Orleans was very poor and if youre not shooting well, you certainly should rebound well and you certainly should get back in defensive transition. Those are things that you control with your effort and your concentration, so those are things youve got to take care of.
Chimed in teammate Luol Deng: Right now, hes in here shooting with Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, known around the league as a premier shooting guru. Hes been doing a lot of that. It happens and hes going to come out of that slump or he has already, but hes a good player and he makes plays. Marcos not just a shooter. A lot of people label him as just a catch-and-shoot guy, but hes better at making plays and setting guys up, and you can see that here and there. But I think the more comfortable he gets with the plays and what were trying to do, hell do more of that.
Compounding Belinellis early woes was the fact that for the first time since he arrived in the NBA from Italy, where he experienced team success, hes on a winning team. After only sniffing the postseason oncehis debut season in New Orleans, when the Hornets took the top-seeded Lakers to six games in the first round of the 2011 playoffsthe pressure of playing a key role on a perennial playoff squad gave him some anxiousness.
Maybe, it can be a part of that, but Im not a rookie. I dont want to use that as an excuse. Thats part of the game, he revealed. This is a big team. We want to be big, we want to win. Everybody knows that. I know that, so play hard every game and just win the game.
If he maintains that mentality, hell fit right in on the Bulls. As long as his defensive effort remains consistent, thats all Thibodeau requires.

Wade Davis' impact on Cubs goes far beyond his eye-popping numbers

Wade Davis' impact on Cubs goes far beyond his eye-popping numbers

Wade Davis may not light up the radar gun like Aroldis Chapman, but the veteran closer has still had a similar impact shortening games for the Cubs.

Davis is 10-for-10 in save opportunities in his first year in Chicago, providing Joe Maddon and the Cubs with peace of mind as an anchor in a bullpen that has thrown the eighth-most innings in baseball (and ranks No. 8 in ERA with a 3.45 mark).

Davis just surrendered his first runs of the season Wednesday night on a Mac Williamson homer that snuck into the right-field basket.

Yet Davis still wound up preserving the victory by buckling down and turning away the Giants in the ninth. It was the first homer he's allowed since Sept. 24, 2015 and only the fourth longball he's given up since the start of the 2014 campaign, a span of 201 innings.

Even with Wednesday's outing, Davis boasts a microscopic 0.98 ERA and has allowed just 14 baserunners in 18.1 innings.

With 24 whiffs on the season, Davis is striking out 34.8 percent of the batters he's faced in a Cubs uniform, which would be the second-highest mark of his career (he struck out 39.1 percent of batters in 2014 as the Kansas City Royals setup man).

The 31-year-old nine-year MLB veteran is showing no ill effects from the forearm issue that limited him to only 43.1 innings last season.

[RELATED: How Wade Davis transformed into an elite pitcher by simply not caring]

But his impact isn't restricted to just on-the-field dominance. In spring training, Justin Grimm said he spent as much time as he could around Davis in an attempt to soak up all the knowledge he could.

"It's the stuff that you see — obviously he's really good," Maddon said. "He knows how to pitch, he's a very good closer, he's very successful. But he's a really good mentor to the other guys.

"Oftentimes, I'll walk through the video room and he'll be sitting there with a young relief pitcher or a catcher. There's a lot of respect. A lot of guys come to me and say, 'Listen, Wade's really great to be around.'"

Maddon was the manager with the Tampa Bay Rays when Davis first made his big-league debut in 2009 and the now-Cubs skipper credits the Rays organization with teaching Davis the right habits.

Davis also began his career as a starter before moving to the bullpen full-time in 2014 and reinventing himself as one of the best pitchers on the planet.

"He's grown into this," Maddon said. "He was raised properly. He comes from the organization with the Rays — really good pitching, really good pitching health regarding coaching. And then some of the veteran players that were around him to begin with.

"He's passing it along. The obvious is that he's got a great cutter, slider, fastball, curveball, whatever. He's very good with everybody else around him."

Davis needed 34 pitches to work around a couple jams and get the save Wednesday night. That's his highest pitch count in an outing since June 2, 2015.

Wednesday was also Davis' first time working in a week as the Cubs have not had a save situation in that span.

Maddon said he sees no link between the week off and Davis' struggles in Wednesday's outing and the Cubs manager also has no hesitance going to his closer for more than three outs.

However, Maddon doesn't see a need to extend Davis at this point in the season and would prefer to keep the Cubs' best reliever fresh for the stretch run and what the organization hopes is another shot at a World Series title.

Bears' makeover continues with salsa dancing ex-Giants WR Victor Cruz

Bears' makeover continues with salsa dancing ex-Giants WR Victor Cruz

The 2017 veteran makeover of the Bears’ wide-receiver position group continued on Thursday with the signing of former New York Giants wideout Victor Cruz to a one-year deal, a fourth move this offseason fitting an intriguing pattern in Bears roster construction.

Cruz “announced” the move on his Instagram account, declaring, “The Giants will forever be family,” Cruz wrote. “But for now, Bear down!!!” He becomes the fourth free-agent wide receiver signed by Bears and coming in with no fewer than four seasons of NFL experience.

The Bears have been about the business of shoring up their receiver group virtually since the 2016 season ended, adding depth in addition to filling in the vacancies created by Alshon Jeffery leaving for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency, and the subsequent release of veteran Eddie Royal.

In their places, the Bears have added Cruz, Rueben Randle (Jan. 10), Markus Wheaton (Mar. 10) and Kendall Wright (Mar. 11), in addition to having Joshua Bellamy, Daniel Braverman, Cameron Meredith, Deonte Thompson and Kevin White in place.

Cruz, whose trademark Salsa dance to celebrate touchdowns has been an NFL staple over his six seasons with the Giants, for whom he started 53 of 70 career games after signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2010. Cruz has caught 303 career passes for 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Giants and earning selection to the 2012 Pro Bowl.

Cruz has not played a full 16-game season since 2012, when he caught a career-best 86 passes for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. He missed all of 2015 after rehabbing from a torn patellar tendon in the 2014 season and then suffering a calf injury that eventually required surgery. The Giants released Cruz in early February this year.