Bulls rout Sixers to open playoffs

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Bulls rout Sixers to open playoffs

Playing the first game of the entire NBA playoffs for the second consecutive postseason, the Bulls didnt experience any of their typical early-start issues they had a 2-6 record in matinee games during the regular season Saturday afternoon at the United Center, easily handling the 76ers 103-91, as Derrick Rose took a major step in returning to his previous form after an injury-plagued season.

However, despite taking a 1-0 first-round series lead in triumphant fashion, the games ending couldnt have been worse, as Rose suffered what was determined to be a season-ending torn ACL with 1:20 remaining in the contest and had to be helped off by the teams medical staff.

After Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday opened the games scoring with a triple, the hosts rattled off 10 unanswered points, as four of the teams five starters got on the board in the early going, led by All-Star Luol Deng. While the Sixers responded behind Elton Brand the veteran power forward is familiar with the confines from his stint with the Bulls, for whom he won Rookie of the Year honors shooting guard Rip Hamilton clearly looked poised for the postseason, as the former champion with the Pistons scored 11 first-quarter points.

Philadelphia was mostly forced to settle for contested outside jumpers, a staple of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus vaunted defense and thusly dug themselves an early hole. However, the insertion of some of Philadelphias dangerous reserves including Chicago native Evan Turner, who was booed by his hometown fans for comments perceived as disparaging the Bulls particularly athletic backup forward Thaddeus Young, sparked the visitors, who closed to within 28-24 at the conclusion of the opening period.

After the Sixers ran off the second quarters first four points to tie the contest, C.J. Watson, Roses understudy at point guard the reigning league MVP struggled with his shot in the previous frame, going 1-for-7, but snatched five rebounds, dished out three assists and most importantly, appeared healthy led a Bulls push to give the home team some breathing room. But the feisty guests stormed back, as Turner, playing in a point-forward role with one of the positions predecessors, Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, watching from courtside, was a major catalyst.

Although Brand continued his solid first-half play, he was countered by his fellow veteran Hamilton, whose ability to get out in transition was a boon for the Bulls with Rose still trying to find his groove, as well as center Joakim Noahs high activity level. Toward the end of the period, the Bulls lead ballooned to double figures, stemming from Roses emergence, as the All-Star point guard started knocking down shots, at one point making three in a row a driving layup, his patented floater and a pull-up jumper leading to the Bulls taking a 53-42 advantage into the intermission.

Turner, who started the second half in place of ineffective shooting guard Jodie Meeks, helped the Sixers cut the deficit to single digits, leading to a Thibodeau timeout for defensive adjustments. His strategy apparently worked, as the Bulls not only clamped down on defense, but the backcourt of Rose and Hamilton started to get off, pushing the hosts lead back to a comfortable double-digit margin and inciting a crowd that had been relatively quiet since the break.

A villain in his own hometown, Turner did nothing to help his image in Chicago, as he fouled Noah on a dunk attempt, got tangled up with Boozer resulting in technical on Rose, Hamilton and Brand after a mild skirmish and on the next possession, fouled Hamilton and briefly exchanged words before Deng pulled his teammate away. Aside from all of the hard feelings, the Bulls headed into the final stanza with a 79-66 edge, despite Philadelphia All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala finally making an impact.

The Bench Mob extended the Bulls lead, as designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver and always-energetic power forward Taj Gibson propelled the squad, holding off a potential Sixers run. Thibodeau would eventually reinsert Deng and Rose who was already flirting with a triple-double and while they both contributed with timely baskets, Korvers shooting, as well as the interior defense of Gibson and tag-team partner Omer Asik was the difference in the hosts advantage ballooning to a 20-point spread midway through the period.

Noah also rejoined the mix and resumed being a dominating force on the glass, while Korver continued to drain jumpers and the Bulls turned the games stretch run into extended garbage time. But with 1:20 on the clock, Rose drove to the basket and his knee buckled, causing him to lay prone on the floor in pain, as the United Center fell to a hush while the Bulls trainers assisted him off the court and he heavily favored his left knee, which would make it his sixth separate injury of difficult campaign, putting a damper on what was previously an afternoon filled with joy.

Bears' makeover continues with salsa dancing ex-Giants WR Victor Cruz

Bears' makeover continues with salsa dancing ex-Giants WR Victor Cruz

The 2017 veteran makeover of the Bears’ wide-receiver position group continued on Thursday with the signing of former New York Giants wideout Victor Cruz to a one-year deal, a fourth move this offseason fitting an intriguing pattern in Bears roster construction.

Cruz “announced” the move on his Instagram account, declaring, “The Giants will forever be family,” Cruz wrote. “But for now, Bear down!!!” He becomes the fourth free-agent wide receiver signed by Bears and coming in with no fewer than four seasons of NFL experience.

The Bears have been about the business of shoring up their receiver group virtually since the 2016 season ended, adding depth in addition to filling in the vacancies created by Alshon Jeffery leaving for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency, and the subsequent release of veteran Eddie Royal.

In their places, the Bears have added Cruz, Rueben Randle (Jan. 10), Markus Wheaton (Mar. 10) and Kendall Wright (Mar. 11), in addition to having Joshua Bellamy, Daniel Braverman, Cameron Meredith, Deonte Thompson and Kevin White in place.

Cruz, whose trademark Salsa dance to celebrate touchdowns has been an NFL staple over his six seasons with the Giants, for whom he started 53 of 70 career games after signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2010. Cruz has caught 303 career passes for 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Giants and earning selection to the 2012 Pro Bowl.

Cruz has not played a full 16-game season since 2012, when he caught a career-best 86 passes for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. He missed all of 2015 after rehabbing from a torn patellar tendon in the 2014 season and then suffering a calf injury that eventually required surgery. The Giants released Cruz in early February this year.

Joe Maddon explains how Cubs young players can handle trade rumors

Joe Maddon explains how Cubs young players can handle trade rumors

Two weeks ago, it seemed Ian Happ was at the top of the list of Cubs potential trade bait.

Now, there are some circles of the fanbase that would rather see Javy Baez or Kyle Schwarber traded than Ian Happ.

Roughly two-and-a-half hours before Eddie Butler started for the Cubs in the series finale with the San Francisco Giants Thursday afternoon, the conversation with Joe Maddon turned to the neverending search for pitching and how young players can handle being a part of trade rumors.

"I think a lot of times when people are mentioned in a trade, sometimes it's perceived that they're not going well, people want to push them to the front of the line," Maddon said. "All of a sudden, [Baez is] going well, so I expect him to go to the back of the line relatively soon."

After a stretch where he went 1-for-18 from May 10-17, Baez entered play Thursday with eight hits in his last 13 at-bats, including two homers and eight RBI. He's raised his OPS 104 points in the process to .798.

[RELATED - Another reminder that Javier Baez is a game-changer — not trade bait — for Cubs]

Happ, meanwhile posted a 1.240 OPS in his first eight games in The Show, including seven extra-base hits (four doubles, two homers and a triple). 

Schwarber's batting average hasn't climbed over .200 since the last day of April.

Of course, part of the discussion with all three is the positional versatility — Baez and Happ can play all over the field while Schwarber is a left fielder and rare catcher.

"Another part of the trade narrative is based on depth, obviously," Maddon said. "So if you have other pieces like that, then you promote somebody within that group. I think Javy's gonna be in that position for a bit regardless — no intent on our part.

"However, he's still going to be mentioned in those moments because of what I just said — he's gonna go good or bad. And when he's going great, you're never gonna trade him. But right now, he's playing really well. That was a good game he had [Wednesday]. He's in the .270s now [average], better at-bats, he's not chasing pitches, the defense is obviously showing up.

"I just think the nature of our team, the young guys, you're gonna hear that. If you're gonna attempt to get pitching, you're gonna hear the typical names mentioned. And just from our players' perspective, I just would hope they won't take it to heart too often.

"But if they hear it enough and they're asked about that question often enough, of course it's gonna leave a mark. But [Baez] is impactful. Listen, none of these guys that you like aren't even nearly as good as they're gonna be in a couple years. Just be patient."

The Cubs are always going to be searching for pitching as their farm system has had much more success producing young hitters than arms.

The Cubs are still looking for some consistency from the fifth starter spot this season and looking further down the road, both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are only under contract through 2017. As of right now, only Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are penciled into the Cubs' 2018 rotation.

Of course, given the surplus of quality, young position players, the Cubs could deal from a position of strength to acquire impact, controllable pitching.

But it's hard to see them ever trading Baez or Schwarber — who are both in the midst of their first full season in the big leagues and will forever be entrenched in Cubs lore with their postseason heroics last fall.

Baez is also particularly important for his impact in the field, as an elite defender at three infield spots and the Cubs' only depth at the shortstop position after Addison Russell.

In Thursday's lineup, Maddon gave Russell a day off and inserted Baez at shortstop, a move that gives the Cubs manager peace of mind from a defensive standpoint — "It's a beautiful thing."

There's no way Happ will keep hitting like he has in his first two weeks in the majors, but his performance after only 91 minor-league games above Class-A ball could serve as a showcase for other teams looking at trade options from the Cubs system.

"I can't emphasize enough—- if you like our kids, just wait a little bit," Maddon said. "Continue to fertilize them, nurture them and they're gonna keep getting better."