Bulls fall to Rockets, first back-to-back losses of season

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Bulls fall to Rockets, first back-to-back losses of season

The stage was set, with the return of half of their starting backcourt, but a second-half collapse led to the Bulls dropping the two games in a row for the first time all season, as they fell to the Rockets, 99-93, Monday night at the United Center.

An atypical defensive showing and the inability to take care of the basketball led to the rare occurrence of the team that entered the evening with the leagues best record losing at home, a day after a disappointing blowout defeat at the hands of the Western Conference-best Thunder in Oklahoma City.

In his return to the lineup after missing 14 games due to a right-shoulder injury, Rip Hamilton (six points on 2-for-7 shooting, three assists in 19 minutes) made an immediate impact, providing the Bulls (42-13) with an aggressive perimeter scoring threat, as well as a capable playmaker.

A beneficiary of the veteran shooting guards underrated playmaking was Joakim Noah (15 points, nine rebounds), who got off to a solid start in general, as evidenced by his activity on the boards, strong finishes at the rim and running the floor in transition.

Houston (29-25), however, was clicking on the offensive end, as the veteran inside duo of Luis Scola (18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) and Marcus Camby (12 points, 11 rebounds) went to work early, as the pair was a force on the glass, rained in jumpers and scored on the interior.

With point guard Goran Dragic (21 points, five assists) also contributing on offense, the Rockets took advantage of the Bulls again playing below their usual standards on defense, putting the hosts behind, 26-22, after a period of play, despite All-Star Luol Deng (24 points, seven rebounds) chipping in with a quietly solid opening quarter.

The always-energetic Taj Gibson came off the bench to spark the Bulls early in the second frame, helping the home team quickly overtake the visitors and seize the lead. The entire Bench Mob gave the Bulls a boostRonnie Brewer, back to being a backup with Hamilton starting, stood out as a passerextending the lead with an all-out defensive effort and sprinkling of transition offense against the Rockets reserves.

Noah continued to thrive on both ends of the floor, finishing with authorityof his first six baskets, five were dunksand providing a defensive presence, both of which aided the Bulls in acquiring a comfortable double-digit advantage.

However, the visitors stormed back toward the end of the first half, as Dragic scored six points in less than 20 secondstwo fast-break layups off Bulls turnovers, then another off an inbounds passto narrow the gap, leaving the hosts with a 51-40 lead at the intermission.

After the break, Deng became the Bulls offensive focal point and delivered as a scorer, but received little help from his teammates throughout the period. For Houston, the opposite was true, as a total team effortgreatly aided by the Bulls ball-security issues, leading to transition baskets on the other end of the courtgot the guests back into the game.

Camby and Scola were instrumental in the comeback, but Dragics scoring and playmaking prowess was key for the Rockets, who also got solid contributions from supporting-cast members, such as starting wings Courtney Lee (13 points) and rookie Chandler Parsons, as well as reserves Chase Budinger (13 points) and recently-signed veteran Earl Boykins.

With the Bulls struggling on both ends of the floor, the visitors surged to take a 71-70 into the fourth quarter.

The Rockets held on to the games momentum early in the final stanza, as Budingers long-range accuracy offset Carlos Boozers (16 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) mid-range shooting, giving the visitors a double-digit cushion to work with.

Familiar fourth-quarter savior John Lucas III and designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver attempted to spark a run, but the balanced visitors continued to get help from a variety of sources, as Boykins and second-year power forward Patrick Patterson came through with timely scoring to keep Houston in firm control midway through the period.

Turnovers and the inability to capitalize on missed Rockets opportunities still plagued the Bulls as the game entered its stretch run, but even after a Deng jumper cut it to a four-point contest, Lee responded to make it 94-88 with 51 seconds remaining.

A Korver turnover and subsequent foul on the next possession virtually sealed the deal, giving the Bulls back-to-back losses for the first time since falling to Golden State and Portland last February.

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

How Cubs are setting the expectations for winter meetings

The billionaire owners and millionaire athletes wisely decided to not stop all that momentum after a World Series that beat the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” in head-to-head TV ratings, attracted more than 40 million viewers for Game 7 and turned the 2016 Cubs into legends.

The owners and the players’ union avoided a foolish labor war, crafting a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that should unleash teams that had been waiting to see the rules of engagement, spur the free-agent market, accelerate trade talks and ignite Major League Baseball’s signature offseason event.

The Cubs can go viral seemingly anywhere now – “Saturday Night Live,” Disney World, “The Tonight Show,” the Latin Grammys, an Indiana-North Carolina basketball game, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” – but don’t expect them to own the winter meetings this time.

As a $10 billion industry begins to descend upon National Harbor in Maryland on Sunday, Cubs officials won’t feel any of the urgency that fueled the spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and helped end the 108-year drought.

“We said at the time that we did two offseasons worth of shopping in one offseason last year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We really liked the talent available to us last offseason. It was a very good free-agent market. We felt like building upon a 97-win team that got to the NLCS but was swept. We wanted to improve some of the deficiencies on that club and really push forward.

“We were really aggressive with what we did last offseason. We told everyone at the time that we felt like we were kind of shopping for two offseasons.

“So with that in mind, I don’t expect nearly the activity we had a year ago.”

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Sensing the pitching market might erupt at that point, the Cubs pushed to close John Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal in early December, before the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Hours after the Lackey news broke, the Arizona Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world when word leaked out that Greinke had agreed to a six-year, $206 million megadeal.

The perfect storm brought Ben Zobrist to Chicago, once the Cubs finally engineered a Starlin Castro trade at the winter meetings, with the New York Yankees being the only team willing to absorb $38 million, give up a useful pitcher (Adam Warren) and take a chance on the former All-Star shortstop. Zobrist turned down $60 million guaranteed from the Giants and New York Mets, taking a four-year, $56 million deal and delivering a World Series MVP performance.

The opt-out clauses within Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million contract don’t seem so inviting anymore – and he said those weren’t important to him anyway – but he provided Gold Glove defense in right field, called that pivotal team meeting during the Game 7 rain delay in Cleveland and should rebound after the worst offensive season of his career.

The Cubs have no expectations that Dexter Fowler’s market will again crater to the point that he will accept a $13 million guarantee in spring training, moving on with a center-field timeshare between Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr.

“The bulk of our heavy lifting is done,” Hoyer said. “But I think that was done 12 months ago. It will be a quieter winter than last offseason.

“We’re always listening. If good ideas come to us – or we come up with good ideas – we’ll share them with other teams. But fans shouldn’t expect a flurry of things, because they got that 12 months ago.” 

Fans also won’t be getting crash courses on labor relations and lockout implications. A game that can be slow, boring and stuck in its ways can’t waste the energy and excitement that created crossover moments like LeBron James showing up at the United Center in a Cubs uniform.

“There’s no doubt that it was an amazing postseason all around,” Hoyer said. “Baseball really showed itself in the best possible light, ending with a Game 7 that we happened to win. But win or lose, that was one of the greatest games ever played. Baseball is certainly going to be on a high going into spring training.

“Baseball is definitely in a great place right now.”  

Rough second period sinks Blackhawks in loss to Flyers

Rough second period sinks Blackhawks in loss to Flyers

PHILADELPHIA — Rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov scored two goals and prevented another to help the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-1 on Saturday.

Provorov, 19, scored 31 seconds apart early in the second period to give the Flyers their fourth straight win. Brayden Schenn also scored and Steve Mason stopped 26 shots.

Artemi Panarin scored his ninth of the season for the Blackhawks, who lost in regulation for the first time in five games, snapping a 3-0-1 streak.

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The Flyers' biggest save of the night might have come from Provorov, who swatted a bouncing puck out of the goal crease with 3:22 remaining in the second period to preserve a two-goal lead.

Chicago backup goalie Scott Darling, pressed into action after projected starter Corey Crawford underwent an emergency appendectomy, finished with 27 saves.