Bulls playoffs: A test all around


Bulls playoffs: A test all around

There will be no grades handed out for this year's playoffs--it will only be passfail for the Bulls. Anything less than an Eastern Conference title will be considered a failure. But, the test doesn't extend just to the players and whether or not they have what it takes to win it all. This will be a test for coach Tom Thibodeau who, despite being in the running for his second straight Coach of the Year award, may be feeling the most pressure. His intensity has helped the Bulls to the top overall seed two years running, but the question remains if his approach translates into championships, and at this point, that's all that matters.

A story surfaced last month that the second year Bulls coach was unhappy the team hadn't offered him a contract extention yet. Thibodeau's current deal includes a team option for 2012-2013. While the report was downplayed, don't think Thibs is a lock to return, this year's playoffs could be his passfail test.

As for the players, Derrick Rose's increasing unhappiness may be amplified depending on how the Bulls perform in the playoffs. The effects of that are unknown, but changes could be in store if the Bulls make an early exit.

The test for Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah is to redeem themselves from last year's poor performances. The two have to prove that they not only can be reliable, but they can be difference makers in the playoffs. If not, Bulls GM Gar Forman will be forced to consider his options.

Now that he's healthy, Richard Hamilton has an equal amount of pressure on him since he was brought in as the so-called missing link, the one who was going to make the difference between a series win over the Heat or another disappointing ending. If Rip can't shine the way the Bulls expected him to when they signed the former Piston over the winter, the passfail falls to Forman and his ability to upgrade the team from last year.

The fates of CJ Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver could all ride on the postseason. All three have team options for next year, and all three could be gone.

So, as college students across the country cram for final exams in the month of May, the Bulls will be taking their test every other night with the stakes arguably higher.

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

Kyle Hendricks outduels Clayton Kershaw and delivers legendary performance that puts Cubs in World Series

John Hendricks sent a text message to his son at 11:24 a.m. on Saturday: “Good luck tonight!! Remember, great mechanics and preparation will prevail. Just let it go!!” It ended with three emoji: a smiley face with sunglasses, the thumbs-up sign and a flexed biceps.

The Cubs have bonded fathers and sons for generations, and Hendricks immediately understood what it meant for his boy when the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline on July 31, 2012, telling Kyle: “You win in this city, you will be a legend. There is no doubt about it. This is the greatest sports town in the United States.”

This is the intoxicating lure of the Cubs. It didn’t matter that Kyle had been an eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth College, and hadn’t yet finished his first full season in professional baseball, and would be joining an organization enduring a 101-loss season, the third of five straight fifth-place finishes.

Kyle’s low-key personality will never get him confused with an ’85 Bear, but he delivered a legendary performance in Game 6, outpitching Clayton Kershaw at the end of this National League Championship Series and leading the Cubs to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.

Five outs away from the pennant, a raucous crowd of 42,386 at Wrigley Field actually booed star manager Joe Maddon when he walked out to the mound to take the ball from Kyle and bring in closer Aroldis Chapman. Kyle, the silent assassin, did briefly raise his hand to acknowledge the standing ovation before descending the dugout steps. 

After a 5-0 win, Kyle stood in roughly the same spot with Nike goggles on his head and finally looked a little rattled, his body shivering and teeth chattering in the cold, his Cubs gear soaked from the champagne-and-beer celebration.

“It’s always been an uphill climb for me, honestly,” Kyle said. “But that really has nothing to do with getting guys out. My focus from Day 1 – even when I was young, high school, college, all the way up until now – all it’s been is trying to make good pitches. 

“And as we moved up, you just saw that good pitches get good hitters out.” 

At a time when the game is obsessed with velocity and showing off for the radar gun, Kyle knows how to pitch, putting the ball where he wants when he wants, avoiding the hot zones that lead to trouble, mixing his changeups, fastballs and curveball in an unpredictable way that takes advantage of the team’s intricate scouting system and keeps hitters completely off-balance.

“Kyle didn’t even give them any air or any hope,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Amid the celebration, scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod spotted Kyle’s dad and yelled at John: “You f------ called it!” John – who once worked in the Angels ticket office and as a golf pro in Southern California – had moved to Chicago two years ago to work for his good friend’s limo company and watch his son pitch at Wrigley Field. John had told McLeod that Kyle would one day help the Cubs win a championship.

“That was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen,” McLeod said. “Ever.”

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

The media framed Kyle as The Other Pitcher, even though he won the ERA title this season, with all the pregame buzz surrounding Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. Except Kershaw gave up five runs and got knocked out after five innings, while Kyle only gave up two singles to the 23 batters he faced, finishing with six strikeouts against zero walks and looking like he had even more left in the tank at 88 pitches.

“It was incredible,” Ben Zobrist said. “That was the easiest postseason game we’ve had yet and it was the clincher to go to the World Series. 

“He’s just so good, so mature for his age. He just has a knack to put the ball where he needs to. He’s smart and he’s clutch. He deserves to win the Cy Young this year.”

Where Kershaw’s presence loomed over the entire playoffs, Kyle has always been underestimated, coming into this season as a fourth or fifth starter with something to prove, and even he didn’t see all this coming. But big-game pitchers can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to throw 97 mph. 

“He wants the ball,” John said. “Every big game – I don’t care if it was Little League or wherever – he wants the ball. Plain and simple, (he’ll) get the job done.”

Morning Update: Cubs win NL pennant for first time since 1945

Morning Update: Cubs win NL pennant for first time since 1945

Fire try to 'escape from the bottom' in season finale at Toronto Sunday on CSN

Holy cow: Cubs advance to World Series for first time since 1945


How Cubs beat Clayton Kershaw to move on to World Series

Blackhawks rally to beat Maple Leafs in shootout

Javier Baez’s surge of playoff highlights, and co-NLCS MVP honors, no surprise to Cubs teammates

Complete Cubs-Indians World Series schedule

Cubs hoping Kyle Schwarber can make World Series comeback

Five Things from Blackhawks-Maple Leafs: Richard Panik stays hot

WATCH: Kyle Schwarber sprayed with champagne by Fall League teammates after Cubs win NL Pennant