Back at site of 'lowest point,' Deng now at peace

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Back at site of 'lowest point,' Deng now at peace

BOSTON Back at the site of what could have been, Luol Deng is now at peace. Still, although recently named a first-time All-Star, the Bulls small forward is over the past missing the epic 2009 Bulls-Celtics first-round playoff series due to injury but hell never forget.

I think when I had the stress fracture and had to watch one of the best series Boston against us that Ive ever seen and to know that Im on that team, but I couldnt dress up and play, and then sitting there and reading everything, the papers, the fans and everyone saying that I wasnt really hurt, which is, to me, the lowest point and the craziest thing that I ever had to go through. To hear people saying things like that, he said.

I think thats the first time I really went through something like that and I think it really helped me a lot in bouncing back and just knowing how things were. Before, I felt like I was kind of loved by everyone. Thats how I really felt. Through my whole life, I never really experienced that if you want to call it hate or whatever it was until that point and sitting there for seven games, to me, thats the toughest thing Ive ever done through my whole career.

However, as much as the criticism stung, one thing Deng didnt pay attention to was the constantly swirling trade rumors, instead choosing to focus on improving his game.

Thats the one thing, my whole career, Ive kind of controlled. Ive never really allowed the trade rumors or anything else really get to me. There were times when I wasnt happy, but I always believed things would change somehow, he said. But I was never really caught up in, If I leave, what happens then? Whatever I cant control, I kind of allowed that and just left it alone. I kind of really focused on, How do I get better as a player?

I remember I just spent a lot of time in the gym. Went in the gym in the morning, took my lunch with me, ate there and then worked out again, then went home, Deng recalled when asked how he overcame the criticism and reinvented himself as a player. I really just stayed in the gym because I didnt want to be anywhere else.

It paid off. Chicago was an eighth seed the following season also, but after the ouster of Vinny Del Negro, now with the Clippers, Deng came through with one of his best all-around campaigns last seasons, under the direction of novice NBA head coach Tom Thibodeau.

I think the whole coaching staff Coach (Thibodeau), of course since they came along, I kind of feel like my career turned around. Just believing in me, being in the right role and just the teammates that I had, guys that are really fun to play with, he said. Even when I had the recent wrist injury which sidelined him for seven games, when the injury first happened, I think the toughest was not playing with the guys. It wasnt so much anything else, it was just not being out there with them. It kind of, in a way, felt bad, that it happened and I wanted to be back so bad. So really, its a bunch of things. Coach has been great, but its everything around. Everything around, just making it easier for me to come in and play.

From Thibodeaus perspective, even before he arrived in Chicago, Deng was always a great player.

We always thought he was very difficult to guard, from the standpoint of if you lost track of him, he was going to make you pay, the coach said of his view of Deng from afar, when he was a Celtics assistant. When you look at what hes done in his career, each year its been very good. So, when we were playing against him, we were always concerned about him and I think the thing that probably set him back a little bit was the injuries, and you dont have any control over that. The last two years have been relatively good, been very durable last year and this year you cant say enough about him coming back as quickly as hes done that and hes been terrific for us.

Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, a former teammate of Deng and now the staffer who works with the teams wing players, has marveled at Dengs development, perseverance and now, league-wide recognition.

Im very ecstatic, just to be a former teammate, on the coaching staff and just to see how far hes grown as a player, and hes always been a professional, even at the age of 19, when he came in the league. He always took his craft seriously and hes one of the guys that I work with that I really dont have to monitor because he really self-monitors himself. Just a constant pro, so I was so happy because if anyone deserved it, it was Lu, Griffin told CSNChicago.com.

Hes been overcoming injury. Hes overcome criticism from him, I guess not playing through injuries or whatever people said about him Oh, hes not this type of caliber player and I think this proves everyone wrong, that he is an All-Star in this league. He plays on both ends of the court. Hes definitely, along with Derrick, our MVP of our team. Just the things that hes done he guards the toughest guy every night, runs the floor, defends, scores he does it all for us.

All the credit has to go with Tom Thibodeau and his system, and just with Luol Deng and his constant professionalism. I had very little to do with it. I think if you look at just the progress of everyone since Tom has come here, just the hard work and ethic that hes brought to this team, everyones been able to benefit from it and I think, no more than Luol Deng. Its just a great pleasure to be part of it.

For Deng, going through those difficult times were well worth it, considering the position that him personally and the Bulls as a team are in now. He considers the past two seasons the best of his eight-year career.

The last two years have definitely been that. I think just the record last year, going to the playoffs, the attitude, the mindset that we have, it makes basketball a lot more fun. It makes it really so much easier to be in this locker room, knowing that youve just got to do the little things and youll win. Some nights, you dont do much and you still get credit for it, he explained. It just shows how much depth and the players that we have.

"There are nights that I know that I havent played well, but because of the teams success, you get a lot of credit for it and in the past, theres nights where you give everything and you work so hard, and you go play and you dont get any credit, so its really great to be on this side and this kind of team, where everyone in this locker room kind of give it their all for everyone when we go out there.

Jose Quintana giving White Sox another ace to play as early season success rolls on

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Jose Quintana giving White Sox another ace to play as early season success rolls on

The White Sox newfound brand of crisp, clean baseball is suiting Jose Quintana awfully well. 

The 27-year-old left-hander pitched another gem Tuesday night, firing eight innings of one-run ball to propel the White Sox to a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox in front of 15,025 at U.S. Cellular Field.

Anchored by improved offensive and defensive support, Quintana lowered his season ERA to 1.40. But more jarring — in a positive way — is that in earning the win on Tuesday, Quintana for the first time in his career won three consecutive starts. 

“It’s way better this year,” Quintana said. “The offense is, for me and for everybody, everybody tries to do his job. We’re off to a really good start and we believe this year is a good year for us, and we’ll try to do everything to stay in first place.”

Quintana’s posted consistently solid results since the White Sox plucked him from Double-A Birmingham to start in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians four years ago. His decidedly-not-flashy-but-effective pitching style didn’t make headlines like his prolific teammate Chris Sale, but a 3.46 ERA and an unfairly poor win-loss record landed him on plenty of lists and social media takes focused on the most underrated or overlooked players in baseball. 

That’s changed this year. Before his stellar start Tuesday, Quintana was given 8/1 odds by the sports betting website Bovada to win the American League Cy Young, the third-best of anyone (Sale led the way at 6/5). It’s still early, of course, but these six starts to begin the 2016 season stand is one of the best stretches he’s had in his career. 

Manager Robin Ventura attributed Quintana’s ace-like success in part to pitching with a little less pressure than in the past. 

“There is something to be said for going out there thinking if you give up one you’re going to lose,” Ventura said. “It’s been a few years for him. Right now (with) the feeling going on in there, he knows if he just pitches his game those guys are going to scratch out some runs for him.”

The White Sox continue to show signs of ending a head-scratching inability to support Quintana. 

Jose Abreu’s first-inning RBI triple got the White Sox scoring started and his double in the eighth added two insurance runs (a Todd Frazier groundout in the third inning plated the White Sox other run). For the fifth time in six starts this season, Quintana was supported by four or more runs, and Adam Eaton and Austin Jackson made sparkling defensive plays to keep hard-hit balls from inflicting any damage. 

Having the offense score four or more runs in 83 percent of Quintana’s starts seems unlikely — if he makes 32 starts this year, that’d mean he’d get that support in about 27 of those — but it is an improvement off the last few seasons. The White Sox scored three or fewer runs in 54 percent of Quintana’s starts from 2013-15, a span in which it’s worth noting the club also was rated as having the third-worst defense in baseball by DRS and UZR. 

“There’s more of a confidence level of him knowing he doesn’t have to do an extraordinary thing — and he might do it, like tonight,” Ventura said. “But he doesn’t feel like he has to do it on his own.”

Quintana isn’t throwing harder this year and hasn’t added a new pitch or anything like that. But Ventura’s theory on why the Colombia native is pitching better makes sense — perhaps the next step in Quintana’s career was getting a good, reliable team playing behind him.

“He’s probably one of the best right now in the league,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through a translator. 

That’s not hyperbole. Quintana has a top-10 ERA that’s backed up by a 2.12 FIP, which is a good indicator that his early-season success isn’t necessarily a small sample size-generated mirage. 

Quintana is a shining example of how so much has gone right for the White Sox this season — even on the day in which the team announced it would eat over $11 million to cut ties with veteran left-hander John Danks. Not only is he pitching better, but everyone around him is playing better. And the combination of that, so far, has taken Quintana and the White Sox to another level. 

“Everything changed,” Quintana said. “Everything is going in a good direction this year. We believe in that.”

Today on CSN: Lester, Cubs go for sweep in Pittsburgh

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Today on CSN: Lester, Cubs go for sweep in Pittsburgh

The Cubs look to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates this afternoon, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11 a.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (2-1, 1.83) vs. Juan Nicasio (3-2, 3.33)

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Rick Hahn: Filling fifth spot in White Sox rotation a 'fluid situation'

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Rick Hahn: Filling fifth spot in White Sox rotation a 'fluid situation'

Erik Johnson gets the first chance at the No. 5 spot in the White Sox rotation, but the situation is hardly finalized.

The White Sox announced Tuesday that they would promote Johnson from Triple-A Charlotte in time to make Thursday’s start in place of John Danks, whom they will officially designated for assignment later this week. But just because Johnson gets the first start doesn’t mean he’s here for good, general manager Rick Hahn said.

Hahn and the White Sox have made it clear they want better production from the fifth spot, whether it's from an internal or an external option.

“It’s going to be a bit of a fluid situation,” Hahn said.

Hahn is comfortable with the team’s internal options at Charlotte beyond Johnson.

Miguel Gonzalez, who started last Monday in Toronto, has a solid major league track record. Then there’s Jacob Turner, who has 27 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings with a 3.04 ERA in five starts.

But Hahn also said the White Sox wouldn’t shy away from looking outside the farm system, either. Hahn declined to answer whether or not the White Sox would watch Tim Lincecum’s tryout Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz. before he noted the club has “scouts everywhere.”

The White Sox could also try and use their internal options to get by for several months before adding another pitcher ahead of the trade deadline.

No matter whom they turn to, the expectation is better results than the White Sox received from Danks, who was 0-4 with a 7.25 ER in four starts.

“Obviously, Erik starts on Thursday,” Hahn said. “After that, we may well make another move next week as we try to accomplish two things with that spot -- first and foremost, get greater production than we’ve been receiving thus far this year.”

“We do have a few internal options.

“If it does get to the point where we’re better off going outside the organization, obviously we’ve never been shy about doing that.”