Bulls have slight edge in Game 6


Bulls have slight edge in Game 6

It's no longer a stretch to think the Bulls can win Game 6 and go on to win this series even with Taj Gibson less than 100 percent and no Joakim Noah. Coach Tom Thibodeau wants to keep up guessing with Noah by calling him a game time decision, and Noah has indicated he's hopeful to return, but my sources say we won't be seeing Noah on the court again in this series.

Gibson said at Thursday's shoot around that he is definitely going to play. Now the question is whether his conviction is stronger than his sprained right ankle. Playing through pain and being productive through pain are two different things.

Still, there are five key factors in my mind that will determine who will win this Game 6. When I tally up the advantages, the Bulls come out ahead, but only slightly.

1. Luol Deng

Luol Deng has seen the light. Deng played with much more energy and aggressiveness in Game 5, freeing himself a bit from the shadow that has been Andre Iguodala's defense. Iguodala has been stuck to Deng like glue for much of this series. The two had been tied with 41 total points through the first four games, so the matchup has been a wash. But Game 5 changed things and Deng outscored Iguodala 19-11 by hitting four 3-pointers and shooting 10-19 from the field. Maybe Iguodala's sore anchilles tendon is slowing him down, or Deng has finally found a second gear. Whatever the reason, I'll trust that Deng, facing elimination again, can muster the same type of performance on Thursday.

Advantage: Bulls

2. Center court

Despite Coach Tom Thibodeau's 'game time decision' declaration on Joakim Noah, I don't expect to see the Bulls big man back on the court for Thursday's game, or the rest of the series for that matter. The Bulls will have to go without him again, which wasn't a problem in Game 5 given the play by Omar Asik and Taj Gibson. The problem is Gibson may be slowed down by that bum ankle and the Sixers' Spencer Hawes seems to be angry over the physical play from Tuesday night--Hawes got a gash across his face courtesy of Gibson and seems pretty miffed about it. He may be looking for revenge and wanting to redeem himself after scoring just 11 points in Game 5 after three straight 20-point performances. Only because of Asik's inconsistency and Gibson's compromised ankle will I give the edge to Philadelphia here.

Advantage: Sixers

3. Rip Hamilton

The fact that Rip Hamilton has played in more playoff games and has had more playoff success than anyone on the court in this series should give the Bulls a significant advantage, but instead, Rip looks completely lost and has been sitting on the bench during critical points in the game. He's averaging 11.8 points in just under 27 minutes while shooting 40 percent. The Bulls need more from him if they're going to win this series and be competitive in the second round. But it's not all Hamilton's fault, Philadelphia is playing great defense on him. Credit Jrue Holliday for sticking with Rip while he's running and cutting like crazy. There are also a timing issue between Rip and CJ Watson--Watson seems to deliver the ball a bit too late for the quick Hamilton. It's maddening how the Bulls haven't been able to figure this out and correct it. Instead, Thibodeau chooses to sit Hamilton for long stretches. To me this is the "X factor" of the series. I'll go out on a limb and say Hamilton will find a way to be more productive to help this team win. I'm putting faith in Thibodeau that he will use Rip the right way as well. I'm taking a deep breath on this one.

Advantage: Bulls

4. Charity Stripe

The trips to the free throw line have been a huge advantage for the Sixers. Philadelphia has a whopping 134-90 edge in free-throw attempts, good for a 45-point advantage. The disparity is no fluke. You can blame the referees all you want, and they deserve some flak, but the bottom line is the Sixers haven earned it. They've been more active and aggressive and the referees are rewarding them for it. Not only are the Sixers getting more free throws, but they are making more, shooting 75 percent from the line compared to 62 percent for Chicago. Free points will always give you an advantage over your opponent. I don't know if we can expect a fairly officiated game on Thursday, and if Marc Davis is on the crew, then I will definitely say no. Either way, trips to the line have been a major issue in this series and I don't think it's a trend that's going to change.

Advantage: Sixers
5. Mentality

The Bulls stopped the Sixers momentum with a victory in Game 5, but it did more than prolong the series--it cast doubt. The Bulls got in their opponent's head. Philadelphia is a young squad that isn't quite seasoned in handling big time pressure. Instead of being relaxed on their home court, the Sixers may treat Game 6 like it's a Game 7, making the rims at the Wells Fargo Center just a little bit smaller. Even their coach Doug Collins is thinking in a "don't lose way" instead of a going to "close it out way", saying after the loss Tuesday night, "I just don't want to come back to Chicago for a Game 7." Collins even told his team the cautionary tale of Rip Hamilton's '03 Pistons coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Orlando in the first round. Sounds like they're a team that is more concerned about losing than they are confident about knocking off the top seed. Don't get me wrong, the Bulls have plenty of pressure on them, having to win on the road just to get a chance to play one more game. A loss would be not only embarrassing for the Bulls but render the entire 2012 campaign a complete failure. But the Bulls are always up for a challenge and they proved that in Game 5. They don't want to go out like this and they will fight to stay alive. I like the Bulls resolve much more than what I've seen from Philadelphia so far.

Advantage: Bulls

Major League Soccer playoff preview and predictions


Major League Soccer playoff preview and predictions

It’s playoff time in MLS.

The local team may be looking towards the offseason, but 12 of the league’s teams are heading into the postseason.

Two games tonight and two games tomorrow comprise the single-elimination first round. Four more teams are waiting to face those winners in the conference semifinals. Here’s a brief look at each of the four first round games and an MLS Cup prediction. (Fair warning: check out my MLS season preview to see how pointless the exercise of predicting MLS is.)

Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union, Wednesday 6:30 p.m.

Neither team has ever won a playoff game so that will end for one of these two. Both struggled to close the regular season. Philadelphia is winless in seven straight. Meanwhile, Toronto’s only wins in the last seven were two wins against the last-place Fire. Still, with reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco back from injury, Toronto could make a deep run in these playoffs.

Pick: Toronto

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake, Wednesday 9:30 p.m.

The Galaxy finished with a league-leading 16 ties and had a 3-3-8 record in the final 14 matches. Nothing about that says title contender, but LA still has a talented roster. Like Philly, RSL enters the playoffs on a seven-game winless streak. Look for an LA win because they’ve lost at home just once this season.

Pick: LA

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact, Thursday 6:30 p.m.

D.C. closed the regular season on a strong run, winning four in a row before losing its finale. Patrick Mullins has been a huge boost at forward since joining midseason. Montreal is without Didier Drogba, who appears to be leaving the club. This seems like the most unpredictable of the four first round matches, but stick with the hot hand.

Pick: D.C.

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City, Thursday 9:00 p.m.

Seattle enters as the hottest team in the league. The 8-2-4 record since Nicolas Lodeiro’s arrival, which has also been boosted by the return of center back Roman Torres, makes the Sounders a trendy pick for a strong playoff run. Kansas City is never an easy out in the playoffs, but going into a packed crowd in Seattle while the team is playing as well as anyone in the league is a lot to overcome.

Pick: Seattle

MLS Cup prediction

FC Dallas won the Supporters’ Shield in the regular season, but is without MVP candidate Mauro Diaz for the playoffs. That could be enough of a blow to allow a team like Seattle to knock them off in the next round. Colorado, No. 2 seed in the West, is a defensive team that peaked in the first half of the year. LA against the Rapids in a conference semi would be intriguing, but I think Seattle takes either out to go to MLS Cup.

In the Eastern Conference the New York Red Bulls have been the most consistent team in the league since a 1-6 start. The Red Bulls carry a 16-match unbeaten streak into the playoffs and should be able to get by either D.C. or Montreal. In the other semi, New York City FC and Toronto is an enticing potential matchup. Both can be fun teams to watch when things are clicking. That’s a tough one to pick, but the Red Bulls should be the favorite.

Pick: Red Bulls over Sounders

Indians will start Corey Kluber in Game 4 of World Series against Cubs

Indians will start Corey Kluber in Game 4 of World Series against Cubs

CLEVELAND — A day after his ace threw six shutout innings in Game 1 of the World Series, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona confirmed right-hander Corey Kluber will start Game 4 on short rest Saturday at Wrigley Field. 

Kluber only threw 88 pitches in Cleveland’s 6-0 win Tuesday night and is not only lined up to start Game 4, but is also potentially in line to start an if-necessary Game 7 — which also would be on three days’ rest. 

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]  

The 30-year-old right-hander made one start on three days’ rest in the playoffs, in which he allowed two runs on four this with two walks and seven strikeouts against the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Those two runs, which came on an Ezequiel Carrera single and a Josh Donaldson home run, are the only two he’s allowed in 24 1/3 postseason inning. 

Francona said Game 2 starter Trevor Bauer and Game 3 starter Josh Tomlin both are in line to pitch on short rest, too, which could mean the Indians make left-hander Ryan Merritt or right-hander Danny Salazar (who were in the discussion to start Game 4) available out of the bullpen Wednesday night. 

Veteran right-hander John Lackey is in line to start Game 4 for the Cubs.