Short-handed Bulls can't fight off Sixers

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Short-handed Bulls can't fight off Sixers

PHILADELPHIAWith injured center Joakim Noah on the bench in street clothes, the physically and emotionally weary Bulls put forth a game effort in Sundays Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the 76ers, but simply didnt have enough left in the tank, leading to an 89-82 loss at the Wells Fargo Center. The effort was there and although the execution lacked at certain junctures, it became clear that despite giving it their all, the Bulls just didnt have the personnel or energy to move forward, meaning that Tuesdays Game 5 could mark the end of their 2011-12 campaign.

An aggressive Sixers squad beat the Bulls to the punch from the outset, relentlessly penetrating to the basket, getting out in transition and swarming their guests on defense. To make matters worse, Carlos Boozer (23 points, 11 rebounds), one of the visitors primary scoring options, picked up two quick fouls and was forced to sitprompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to reinsert fill-in starting center Omer Asik, who was torched by Philadelphia counterpart Spencer Hawes (22 points, eight rebounds)which contributed to a double-digit hole.

Then, Bulls All-Star Luol Deng (11 points, five rebounds) took a hard spill while driving to the basket and got up clutching his already-injured left wrist, though he would battle through the pain and bounce back to have a solid opening period. Still, after a period of play, Chicago trailed, 24-15, not surprising considering their disadvantage on the glass and 28-percent shooting from the field.

Reserve Taj Gibson (14 points, 12 rebounds) sparked the Bulls in the second stanza, as his boundless energy, rebounding and overall productivityhe scored 10 consecutive points to bring the Bulls back within striking distancematched Philadelphias quickness and athleticism. Gibson and a modified Bench Mob, including swingman Ronnie Brewer, who didnt play a single minute in Fridays Game 3 loss, closed the gap with improved defensive intensity and an offense consisting mostly of Gibson scoring in a variety of fashions, from face-up dribble moves to tough interior finishes.

While the score remained close, it wasnt due to the Bulls offensive proficiency, and while it would dovetail well with the games statistics to call the contest a defensive battle, in reality, neither team was very capable of producing points, with notable exceptions being Boozer and Hawes. Despite starting wings Deng and Rip Hamilton playing limited minutes in the quarterDeng exited the period early in favor of sharpshooter Kyle Korver, while Hamilton didnt touch the floor at all after starting the gamethe visitors, after briefly taking a lead, were behind, 44-42, at the intermission, after a Hawes corner three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer.

Boozer got off to a strong start after the break and thanks to solid Bulls ball movementa hallmark of the team during the regular season when it was without All-Star Derrick Rose in the lineup to make playsthat included the starting perimeter trio of Deng, Hamilton and even C.J. Watson (17 points, four assists, six rebounds), in the midst of a miserable series shooting the ball, knocking down outside jumpers. However, behind the scoring of Hawes and the all-around contributions of the young backcourt of Jrue Holiday (20 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Evan Turner, as well as All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala (14 points, 11 rebounds), the Sixers hung tough, making it a back-and-forth affair.

Boozer and Watson ended up shouldering Chicagos offensive load as the period waned on, but the frames emphasis was less on scoring than physical, hard-nosed play on both ends of the floor, as scoring was at a premium for either team. Philadelphia was unable to unleash its transition game, but heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were still behind, 64-63.

The ragged contest didnt get any prettier in the fourth quarter, reflected by the gritty approach of both squadsas well as the crowd, as one member of the audience ambled on to the court, screaming at a game official, which led to his ejection from the arenaone fighting for survival, the other to put its opponent on the ropes. Along with continued, if sporadic contributions from Boozer and Gibson, Watson, consistently described by Thibodeau as nicked up, fought through physical defense and mustered up some clutch buckets, as did opposing point guard Holiday, whose back-to-back dagger jumpers gave the Sixers a three-possession cushion, 80-73, with 3:34 to go.

Following a timeout, a Boozer traditional three-point play and a Watson jumper cut the deficit to two points, then after Hawes and Watson exchanged buckets, the Bulls had a chance to tie the game, but whistles remained silent when Boozer drew contact going to the basket, while on the other end, Holiday was fouled with 51.5 seconds left and knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 84-80 in Philadelphias favor. After a timeout, the Bulls turned over the ensuing inbounds pass and after the Sixers bled away the clock and knocked down clutch free throws, what could be the final game of the season looms Tuesday night at the United Center.

Rookie class making much-needed impact from Bears

Rookie class making much-needed impact from Bears

Preseason games are about evaluations as well as fusing together the component parts of offense, defense and special teams. But for a handful of Bears, a little more is at stake, for the franchise itself, not just for themselves.

The foundation of any franchise ultimately is the draft, and the Bears are seeing at least preliminary impact from key members of this draft class, and not simply down in the lower third of the projected roster. Why that becomes particularly relevant this weekend is that preseason game No. 3 is when starters and key rotational players, and the top picks in this year’s draft are in fact already firmly ensconced in roles at the top of the depth charts.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Among the most significant:

No. 1 - OLB Leonard Floyd

The No. 9-overall pick has not dominated through two games but insiders told CSNChicago.com that Floyd has not only played the run very well, but also delivered impact pass rushes even if only netting him a half-sack on stat sheets. Floyd has played 68 of opponents’ 126 presesaon snaps already and is a critical part of the current edge rotation with Sam Acho, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young as well of the future Bears defenses.

Floyd has missed practice time with three separate issues but “we've been very, very pleased with his progress,” coach John Fox said, an extra “very” always being noteworthy.

No. 2 - LG Cody Whitehair

After a brief flirtation with him replacing injured Hroniss Grasu at center, Whitehair has resumed his upward-trending at left guard. He has been the starter there since the opening of training camp, given an opportunity with an injury to Ted Larsen, and Whitehair has never given the job up.

“He’s done well,” said quarterback Jay Cutler. “He’s a smart kid. He’s quiet, he kind of fits in with that group and he’s doing exactly what we ask him to do. He’s really talented. You can see some stuff he does, the way he passes things off, it comes natural to him.”

No. 3 - DE Jonathan Bullard

Bullard has been given significant playing time (71 of opponents’ 126 snaps) and has produced four tackles, one for loss, and a half sack. He is part of a rotation with Mitch Unrein primarily and has demonstrated starter-grade impact already. “Our expectations are big,” said Fox. “My experience has been, you don’t expect much, you don’t get much. I think he’s lived up to expectations so far.”

No. 4’s - S Deon Bush/CB Deiondre’ Hall

The Bears selected safety Deon Bush three picks ahead of Hall in the fourth round; Bush did play 44 snaps and make two solo tackles against New England but has been out with an injury this week. 

Hall tied for team high with five tackles vs. Denver, plus two pass breakups, and followed that with two tackles at New England as he took over when starter Jacoby Glenn went out with a concussion.

“[Hall] has improved,” Fox said. “When you bring in rookies you don’t really know. You get them out there, they play. He’s played a lot. He’s actually shown up pretty good. We’ll see where that takes us.”

No. 5 - RB Jordan Howard

Howard was given the ball 11 times during his 31 snaps at New England and netted 46 yards along with rave reviews from scouts. His workload may diminish against Kansas City with Ka’Deem Carey back from injury and Jeremy Langford and Jaquizz Rodgers doing heavy time with the No. 1 offense. But he has already made a strong impression.

“Howard, the rookie, has kind of followed along, picked it up as he goes,” Cutler said. “So with those four guys, you’ve got a lot of options.”

Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (No. 6) and wideout Daniel Braverman (No. 7) have played but their main work will come next Thursday in the game four at Cleveland.

Fantasy Football: 2016 wide receiver sleepers and busts

Fantasy Football: 2016 wide receiver sleepers and busts

Throw the names Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. all in a hat and pick one. It doesn't matter which name you pull out. They're all studs.

Anybody who plays fantasy football should know who the top wide receivers in the game are.

Check out that parity. Only one player that we disagree on.

Analyzing the top guys and telling you which one to draft isn't rocket science. That's why we're here to give you advice on who to target, which sleepers to keep an eye on and the busts for the 2016 season.

Top Targets

Eric Decker, NYJ: When will Decker get his due?? Dude's had his own TV show, has a celebrity wife, played with Peyton Manning and now plays in the biggest city in the U.S. and yet he's still an afterthought in fantasy. Decker has proven to be one of the most consistent players in the league over the last few seasons and there's no indication that will change anytime soon. He's had four straight years of at least 74 catches and 962 yards and scored double digit TDs in three of those four seasons. Last year, he scored 12 TDs in 12 different games, earning double digit fantasy points in nine of his final 10 games. For a guy that's going in the fifth round as the No. 24 WR, that's incredible value. — Tony Andracki

A.J Green, CIN: I know it's a little bit of a "Captain Obvious" moment to tell you that you should target Green, but I'm going to explain why anyway. Currently, Green has an ADP of 13, which has him falling out of the first round in many leagues. Outside of the "Big 3" Green is arguably the safest wide receiver to target in your draft and should be snatched up if he's available anywhere close to the end of the first or the start of the second round. Gone from the Bengals are wide receivers Marvin Jones and Muhamed Sanu, meaning the target burden is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of Green in 2016. He should easily blow his 2015 targets (132) out of the water with only Brandon LaFell, Tyler Eifert and the Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard tandem as the only trusted targets for quarterback Andy Dalton. As a WR1, Green is an excellent piece to build your team around. — Scott Krinch

Sleepers

Donte Moncrief, IND: Moncrief is a sixth-round pick right now, but count on a higher return on your investment than that. The third-year wideout has a rather high floor considering he's not yet an established name and his ceiling could eclipse that of teammate TY Hilton. Moncrief has a great rapport with Andrew Luck, who should be happy, healthy and back to his dominant self in 2016. Everything here spells breakout this season. — TA

Kevin White, CHI: The wait is over. Bears fans and fantasy players alike are happy to finally see White return to full health. White, the 7th overall selection in 2015 who missed all of his rookie season with a stress fracture in his shin, has been drawing rave reviews throughout the preseason, being compared to Andre Johnson/Reggie Wayne by Bears' wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson. White heads into the 2016 season as the Bears' No. 2 wide receiver opposite Alshon Jeffery. Equipped with off the charts athleticism and speed for his 6-foot-3 frame, White is expected to play a significant role in the Bears offense. His 8th/9th round ADP puts him behind wideouts like DeVante Parker, Jordan Matthews and Torrey Smith, all players that may have a higher floor than White, but don't possess the type of ceiling that he does. If you want a high upside guy in the later rounds, White is your man. — SK

Busts

Allen Hurns, JAX: I hate to label Hurns as a bust heading into the 2016 season because I really like him as a player on the upstart Jaguars offense. However, the problem I have with Hurns is the fact that he's going off the board before the likes of Tyler Lockett, Sterling Shepard and Kevin White. The three aforementioned wide receivers all have massive ceilings next season, while Hurns will undoubtedly see a decline in last season's numbers. I can't see Hurns repeating his 2015 stretch where he went seven straight weeks with a receiving touchdown. Blake Bortles is going to spread the wealth between Allen Robinson, Rashad Greene, Marqise Lee and Hurns, in addition to having a full season of Julius Thomas. If you're expecting another big year from Hurns, temper your enthusiasm. There are too many targets to go around in Jacksonville. — SK

Sammy Watkins, BUF: This isn't about Watkins' talent level. He is one of the most physically gifted receivers in the NFL. But he's being drafted in the third round and I simply don't think he will provide that kind of value. From the No. 12 WR on the board, you'd expect him to be a guy you set and forget in your lineup every week and Watkins is not that. For starters, there is his injury history (he missed three full games last season and was limited for a few others) and he already has a foot issue this season. Then factor in the fact the Bills offense under Tyrod Taylor is not a passing offense and more about ball control and letting Taylor improve or use his legs. Watkins will have some big games, but he won't be consistent enough to warrant such an investment. — TA

Michigan-Michigan State rivalry moves to Twitter with play on Wolverine's slogan

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Michigan-Michigan State rivalry moves to Twitter with play on Wolverine's slogan

"Those who stay will be champions."

That's the familiar motto of Michigan football.

Well, consider that motto co-opted by the Wolverines' in-state rival.

Michigan State's director of college advancement and performance, Curtis Blackwell, tweeted out this image Thursday. Check out the slogan on the right.

Whoa!

Now, this is certainly nothing new, social-media flaps between the two programs. Jim Harbaugh makes a habit of going after people on Twitter, and Mark Dantonio has had his own veiled Twitter shots at Harbaugh & Co. in the past, too.

And, truthfully, Michigan State has reason to boast, as it's the program that's done the most winning in the Great Lakes State in recent seasons. Dantonio has led the Spartans to a trio of conference championships, in 2010, 2013 and 2015. In the past three seasons alone, the Spartans are 36-5 with two conference titles, wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Meanwhile, Michigan has won double-digit games in a single season just twice since 2006.

So while riffing on the Wolverines' motto raised a few eyebrows, the Spartans aren't wrong.