Finally at full strength, Bulls making progress

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Finally at full strength, Bulls making progress

AUBURN HILLS, Mich.Now that the Bulls are finally at full strength, its almost as if observersfans and media alikeexpect more from them. Granted, excluding the Easter Sunday overtime loss to the Knicks, after which Derrick Rose missed the home rematch with a sprained right ankle, theres only been a two-game sample size to evaluate.

At the same time, as theyve done all season long, the Bulls are simply finding ways to win, whether its a role player like C.J. Watson coming up big in a high-profile affair like Thursday nights win over the Heat or on the backnot literally, as thats still a sore (again, not literally) subjectof the reigning league MVP against the inferior-caliber Pistons Sunday.

On top of that, theyre starting to jell as a cohesive unit, with Rose back in his scoring and playmaking alpha-dog role and his supporting cast knowing exactly where they fit in, with the added confidence of knowing they can do even more if called upon, due to having enhanced roles during his various absences.

Im not sure how we won that game. Ill be honest with you. Every night, its someone else. C.J. hits it the other night, Derrick hits it tonight obviously. Lots of guys have hit big shots and made big plays for us. That says a lot about our team, but we dont want to keep putting ourselves in this position. The odds arent really in your favor to keep pulling out the wins, said Kyle Korver. Were taking advantage of the opportunities that are given to us, but weve got to play a better 48-minute game.

I dont think were there yet, but I think were getting better. I think were going to need these last two games. A lot of teams are probably going to start resting some guys when their positions are locked in and I dont think thatll really happen with us. Maybe a little bit, but just because weve had so many guys out this year, we kind of need these last few games. I think were getting there, were getting better. I thought out start tonight in the first quarter was great. we havent had a great first quarter in a while. I thought that was a really good sign, he continued.

Its like a walk in the park now. Four in five nights is nothing. Its the nine in 12. Those are tough. Weve got a deep team. Were going to use everybody. It is a tough stretch, but we know that weve got days off coming up, too. So, lets focus in, lock in, take care of these four games in five nights and then weve got a good four or five days before our last back-to-back, and then the playoffs start. I think the beginning of our season was really tough, really a grind, but its been good this last month. Had a few more off days.

Indeed, the fact the Bulls have faced so much adversity between injuries and scheduling this season, yet have still thrived en route to having the leagues best record speaks volumes. Thats why, although they didnt have a great overall performance against Detroit, theyll take the win and move on.

Were coming along good. Kind of rusty a little bit, but trying to smooth out everything, the wrinkles. Passing the ballthats the one thing, the passesthrowing where guys are, where they should go. Just give it to them in the right place, so they can make the right play, said Rose. Its coming along quick. Im not worried about that. Ive got amnesia. This game is done already. Im on to Washington.

Added Joakim Noah: Theyre all tough. We know that we didnt play our best basketball. We gave up a pretty big lead going into the fourth and we know we have to play better, but at this point of the year, every win is important and when Derrick hit that three, that just gave our team new life and we just handled our business in the overtime.

Even Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who examines even blowout victories with a fine-tooth comb, was relatively satisfied with his teams progress.

We struggled most of the game and then in the end, just found a way to win it. I thought Joakim was unbelievable with his activity, offensive rebounding. Derrick, huge shot. We were a step behind on everything, but I thought the defense was pretty good. The rebounding was outstanding. Offensively, we werent as sharp as wed like to be. The turnovers are really hurting us, so weve got to shore that up, he explained.

We know we have to continue to improve and we want to be playing well down the stretch. We want to be healthy and weve had a number of guys that have been out for a good chunk of the season, so were trying to get those guys in rhythm. Thats a priority, but more importantly, having our team play well is something we want to get done.

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

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Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”