Quick show of hands: Who loves predictions? Prognosticating the playoffs in advance might be an easier task than predicting the end result before the season even begins, but the NBA postseason is always unpredictable and with fears of ragged play after the lockout being unfounded, it's shaping up to be, as Joakim Noah likes to say, "an exciting time."Speaking of Noah's Bulls, before getting into league-wide predictions, it's an all-or-nothing proposition, as fans want to know if this is the year the team breaks the title drought that's plagued it since the Jordan era. Well, Derrick Rose's return and a fully-intact roster certainly help, but the added motivation of Sixers swingman Evan Turner's comments -- in case you've been living under a rock, the second-year pro and Chicago native said Philadelphia is "dodging the tougher team" by taking on the Bulls, instead of the Heat -- is what could push them over the edge.Not that the Bulls are undergoing some kind of internal team turmoil, but with their relative struggles in April, it appeared that they were in a bit of a malaise, at least for them, and needed a fire lit under them. Now, they'll claim they don't need any outside motivation, but after being informed of Turner's comments, to a man, it was evident that the perceived disrespect touched a nerve.Expect the Bulls to dispatch the Sixers in quick fashion. If Rose uses that series to get in rhythm, it should carry over to a potential second-round series with the Celtics, who are playing well at the right time, but struggle with the Bulls' size and frankly, can't beat the Bulls in a seven-game series if Rose is even a semblance of his former self, despite their championship experience, as Rip Hamilton's recent groove, as well as the Bulls' lack of fear -- stemming from their epic first-round series of a few years back -- make the aging squad bait. Then, unless Central Division rival Indiana pulls a shocker and upsets the Heat in an expected second-round matchup, comes Miami.After last week's road loss, in which the Heat played a surprisingly physical brand of basketball, many gave Miami an edge over the Bulls, seeing it as a foreshadowing of the future. However, examining the Bulls on a nightly basis in Tom Thibodeau's two-year tenure as head coach, that performance was an aberration and after receiving so much scrutiny for their passivity, it's unlikely that recent history repeat itself.Therefore, ditto for the potential series in general, as the two insults -- Turner's verbal slight and the perception that the Bulls are somehow a soft team -- will ramp up their intensity even further, resulting in no more uncontested drives for MVP frontrunner LeBron James or All-Star sidekick Dwyane Wade. It won't be easy, but if Rose is back in the swing of things by then, which will be needed to advance to that point anyway, and his supporting cast utilizes the confidence gained from posting an 18-9 record without him this season, vengeance will be Chicago's.In the NBA Finals, the wide-open West is hard to predict. UnlessThunder guard James Harden, the NBA's likely Sixth Man of the Year award winner, doesn't recover effectively from a concussion suffered after the elbow heard around the world from Lakers forward Ron Artest, Oklahoma City should make it to the championship round. The top-seeded Spurs, regardless of how impressive they've been all season -- if they manage to get by the Clippers or Grizzlies, who ousted them a year ago, in the second round -- might not be able to contend with the younger team's combination of interior size and two-headed scoring duo of All-Star point guard Ruseell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who recently won an unprecedented third consecutive league scoring title. If that plays out, the Bulls will again have revenge on their minds after being throttled at Oklahoma City, sans Rose, earlier this month and while the Thunder are indeed talented, the Bulls' defensive mentality should prove the old adage, "defense wins championships" to be correct.So while nothing's guaranteed, if the Bulls win it all, one thing is for sure: Turner should be lauded in his hometown for providing the Bulls with an added boost that should serve them well as the playoffs begin. He just won't feel the love come Saturday, when the series opens.Predictions:No. 1 Bulls vs. No. 8 76ers: Bulls in five games.Why? All of the above.No. 2 Heat vs. No. 7 Knicks: Heat in six.Why? Miami certainly drew the short end of the stick by having to face New York, but while Carmelo Anthony, a much-improved defense and the Knicks' overall offensive firepower -- Amar'e Stoudemire looked good in the season finale -- will be issues, the Heat's overall talent reigns supreme. Also, LeBron James loves playing at Madison Square Garden.No. 3 Pacers vs. No. 6 Magic: Pacers in five.Why? Indiana's burgeoning confidence and playoff experience from a year ago will come into play against a reeling, short-handed Orlando team that simply doesn't match up well with them. Expect the Pacers to pound the Magic inside with the absence of All-Star center Dwight Howard.No. 4 Hawks vs. No. 5 Celtics: Celtics in five.Why? Boston ended the regular season on a roll and although future Hall of Famer Ray Allen is currently banged up, Atlanta just doesn't have enough weapons, especially with star big man Al Horford still on the shelf. Look for superstar point guard Rajon Rondo and the remaining "Big Two" of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to dominate.No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 8 Jazz: Spurs in five.Why? San Antonio's additions have made them a much deeper team, but it's the veteran core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginbili and Tim Duncan that will be the key against a young Utah squad. While the Jazz have a nice collection of size and young talent, the Spurs will be too much for them.No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 7 Mavericks: Thunder in five.Why? Oklahoma City has something to prove and opening the playoffs against defending-champion Dallas, the team that ousted them last postseason, will get them off to a strong start. The Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is a less than ideal dilemma for the Mavericks to handle without Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense.No. 3 Lakers vs. No. 6 Nuggets: Lakers in seven.Why? This series is a bit of a toss-up, but the Lakers' experience should prevail against a young, deep and talented Nuggets team. If Denver can get the Lakers into a transition game, that spells trouble, but Kobe Bryant seems determined not to let his team get embarrassed two springs in a row.No. 4 Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Clippers: Grizzlies in six.Why? Memphis getting home-court advantage was significant, as it will be tough for the Clippers to win in the "Grind House," and as much as Chris Paul has turned the franchise's fortunes around, the size and physical style of the Grizzlies will take a toll on high-flying Blake Griffin. Paul will have to be at his absolute best for the Clippers to have a chance.Eastern Conference semifinals:Bulls vs. Celtics: Bulls in six.Why? To paraphrase Bulls announcer Stacey King, the Bulls are too big, too strong, too deep and too good for the Celtics. Now equipped with the experience of a deep playoff run and Rip Hamilton to counter longtime nemesis Ray Allen, Boston just doesn't have any advantages over Chicago, and if Rose has found his stride, it might get ugly.Heat vs. Pacers: Heat in seven.Why? This series will be tougher than expected for the Heat, as the Pacers have a significant advantage at center with All-Star Roy Hibbert and match up at other positions -- Danny Granger and Paul George on the wing, David West and Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, the guard trio of George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa -- but Miami's star power should pull it out. James and Dwyane Wade will need to play at a high level, but Chris Bosh's role might be even more important.Western Conference semifinals:Spurs vs. Grizzlies: Spurs in seven.Why? On paper, the Grizzlies should win this series, since like last year, their combination of size, athleticism and defensive-minded style of play is a tough matchup for the Spurs, particularly with Zach Randolph back in the lineup. However, after getting upset by Memphis last spring, and having a healthy Ginobili to counter Rudy Gay being back in the fold, San Antonio will be desperate to avoid getting stunned again, meaning Parker will have to decisively win his battle with Mike Conley.Thunder vs. Lakers: Thunder in six.Why? This might be the best series of the round, especially if Metta World Peace is back from his suspension for elbowing Thunder sixth man James Harden. The Bryant-Durant scoring battle will also be closely scrutinized, but the Lakers' hopes depend on the effectiveness of point-guard acquisition Ramon Sessions against Westbrook, as well as how Oklahoma City interior defenders Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka fare against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.Eastern Conference finals:Bulls vs. Heat: Bulls in seven.Why? The Bulls' fate might actually depend on the previous round, as they would gain an edge if they can dispatch a smallish Celtics team quickly and a more physical Pacers squad beats up the Heat. Both teams have plenty of motivation -- Miami to win the first of many titles promised two summers ago and Chicago simply vanquishing a villain--but the confidence the Bulls gained from beating the Heat twice while short-handed in the regular season should pay off and Rose has been anticipating this moment for nearly a year now.Western Conference finals:Spurs vs. Thunder: Thunder in seven.Why? A tough series with the Grizzlies could truly take a toll on on aging Spurs team and the youthful Thunder are far from the elixir they need to recover. Durant is virtually unguardable in general, but San Antonio doesn't have anyone who matches up remotely well with the league scoring champ and after Oklahoma City advanced to the same point last postseason, their veteran experience against superior talent might not matter this time around.NBA Finals:Bulls vs. Thunder: Bulls in six.Why? After being demolished at Oklahoma City early this month, the Bulls will still have a sour taste in their mouths and with Rose back in the lineup to match up with his close friend Westbrook, the odds will be evened. However, expect Chicago's defense to clamp down on Durant much more and the Thunder's lack of balanced scoring might finally catch up to them, leading to another parade in Grant Park.
It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.
That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.
This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?
Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.
Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.
The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.
Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.
The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.
The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.
Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.
"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."
Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.
The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.
"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."
[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]
One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.
"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.
Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.
“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”