Bulls need to follow the yellow brick road

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Bulls need to follow the yellow brick road

It's not enough that the Bulls are losing in the playoffs to a bad team. It's insulting, in fact. Especially when Coach Tom Thibodeau still insists on saying "we have more than enough to win" after Friday night's Game 3 loss to the Sixers.

But, to add another devastating injury to the mix is utterly disheartening.

Joakim Noah left the game in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle. He tried to return to game action and played briefly but hobbled so badly it was brutal to watch. It will go down as either the gutsiest moment of the playoffs or the dumbest move ever as he risked further injury to the ankle.

It's just the latest blow to the Bulls who have dealt with one bad injury after another this season. If Derrick Rose is the soul of the team, Noah is it's heart. Now, down 2-1 in the series, the Bulls resemble characters from the "Wizard of Oz."

The entire team seems to be looking for courage and heart to somehow fight their way back in this series. But they don't need to go all the way to Oz. Maybe they need only look to the other end of the floor. The Sixers seem to have stolen much of the strength and will to win that have been a familiar part of the Bulls modus operandi, but seems to have completely disappeared.

Thibodeau is the brains behind the team. The Wizard has nothing on Thibs who won Coach of the Year honors last season and finished runner-up in the voting this year. Why, then, didn't he know better than to put Noah back in the game, and why can't he find the right rotation in the fourth quarter to close it out?

Nobody wants to be Dorothy here. Nobody wants to go home after Round 1.

With this latest collapse and the injury to Noah, I can't help but think there's a wicked witch out there messing with the Bulls' playoff hopes. Like Glinda advises in 'Oz, you have to find it within yourself to get what you want. The Bulls need to dig deep now, follow the yellow brick road or risk staying on this path that leads them nowhere.

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

[MORE BEARS: Back from scary concussion, Leonard Floyd playing like franchise pass rusher Bears craved]

Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”