Bulls searching for answers on both ends

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Bulls searching for answers on both ends

PORTLANDIf nothing else, the early portion of the annual Circus Trip has clearly illustrated that these arent last seasons Bulls. On paper, that was obvious, with Derrick Rose sidelined and the majority of the Bench Mob dispersed around the league, but the assumption that the team would have the exact same traits, simply because of the holdover players and coaching staff, at least thus far, has been proven otherwise.

Saturday night in Los Angeles, the Bulls lost because they simply laid an egg and while in general, they greatly improved their effort Sunday evening at the Rose Garden, the defensive identity thats been forged during Tom Thibodeaus tenure was largely absent. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that teams are beating them at their own game.

The defense right now, the intensity, weve got to get that part right. Weve got to get that right. The reboundings not good, the turnovers, so there are three thingsthe defense, the rebounding and the turnoversall three are a problem right now. So, weve got to correct that. Those three things put you in position to win and then, the inside-out and sharing the ball. Weve got to correct that, Thibodeau explained afterwards.

Your concentration, preparation and effort is what gives you intensity, so if youre not playing hard enough, you go back to those three things.

Added Luol Deng: Our defense is not where it used to be. Its not where we think it should be. Weve just got a lot of work to do and weve got different lineups out there. Weve got to learn how to play together, just the simple stuff. Making each other better, knowing what our strengths are and just sticking to that.

Its not like were losing where were playing great defense and not shooting the ball well. If the chemistry is just on offense, then thats where you say guys are getting adjusted to each other, but our biggest problem is defense. Its not our chemistry on defense and defense is what we do every day in practice. Weve just got to get that down, he continued.

We play hard and its been a while since we lost two in a row. Even when we have things going on, we always battled our way out and play hard. The last two gamesI thought today we played harder in spurts. In L.A., we didnt play hard and thats really the concern. Even when youre struggling, good things happen when you just play hard and weve got to understand that.

Weve got to learn to put stops together. I dont like comparing teams, but thats what we did well last year. The second unit came in and just got stops in a row. Everyone talked about offense, but its the defense and the stops we got, and thats how we win games. Thats what weve got to get back to, the All-Star went on to say. 

The starting group have played together a lot and were not doing it. Then, the second group is coming in, not doing it. We cant really keep making excuses that were not used to doing it or theres different lineups. Its just playing hard, simple, and I think weve got to get back to that. Weve got to understand thats how we win games.

Were doing it in spurts. Were not doing it the whole time. Theres times when were taking bad shots. Theres times when the floor is not balanced. Theres times when teams make a run and were panicking out there.

Defense, where the Bulls used to be able to hang their hat, hasnt been the teams calling card as of late. Instead, opponents are scoring in a variety of waysin transition, uncontested drives, open jumpers, in the postthat simply didnt used to occur.

The Bulls periodic offensive droughts are one thing; those happened even with Rose on the floor and while they were winning league-high amounts of regular-season games. But theres clearly a letdown defensively when Thibodeau goes to his bench and as Deng alluded to, the strength of the previous reserve group was stringing together multiple stops, something they havent been able to consistently accomplish this season.

Just got to play harder, more solid on defense. Even if we cant score, weve got to recognize our defense. Thats one thing about the last bench we had. Even if we couldnt score, we made sure the other unit couldnt score on us, so thats one of the things we have to adjust to and thats about it, Taj Gibson, the lone Bench Mob holdover, explained.

Sometimes miscommunication and then sometimes, guys are fighting hard enough, but they just make a tough shot. Its tough at times because youve just really got to slow some of the second-unit players down. Like Ronnie Price came in, played big for them tonight and weve just got to recognize where to pick our poison.

Chimed in Rip Hamilton: Guys are still learning each other, especially on the floor. Not just offensively, but defensively. I think at times were good and at times, were bad and weve got to get better at just playing at a high level for 48 minutes and understanding how were going to be great.

It takes a minute, man, he added, speaking from experience, as his injury-plagued debut Bulls campaign gives him some perspective. Its not easy at all because I thought I was great at it, having so many coaches and so many years of playing, when youve got new teammates, too, it makes it kind of tough.

That doesnt excuse their lack of cohesion on offense, leading to turnovers, or seemingly a decreased effort on defense, but since its not a mystery, it does mean the Bulls are capable of being better. The last two seasons, for better or worse, established a set of expectations surrounding the squad and now, no matter what challenges are facing them, theyre being looked at to live up to them.

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

It wasn't pretty, but the Blackhawks found a way to pick up another two points and improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and 18-3-1 over their last 22.

With Minnesota's loss to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks have taken an eight-point lead for first in the Central Division and are only two points away from the Washington Capitals for home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at Quick Hits from the 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night:

What Worked: The finish and shootout. While the Blackhawks scored the game's first goal, it was another slow start by a team that has had a few of those over the last several outings and has preached working on turning in more of a complete effort. They recorded only 14 shots on goal in the first two periods, and it took more than six minutes after Patrick Kane's goal to record their next one.

But they finished on a positive note yet again, and went 2-for-3 in the shootout thanks to Kane and Artemi Panarin, who potted the game winner. Kane said after the game that he tried his move on Scott Darling during morning skate and it worked. So he went with it tonight in an effort to snap a mini shootout drought and he did.

What Didn't Work: Controlling the puck. The Blackhawks seemingly have the puck more than their opponent does almost every game, but it doesn't reflect in the shot department because they often look for the perfect pass or shot and fail to record one at all. They had 50 shot attempts with 26 of them on goal compared to the Stars' 64 attempts with 44 on goal. They know they must get better at that.

Star of the game: Corey Crawford. After allowing four goals on only 10 shots in Tuesday's overtime loss to Vancouver, the Blackhawks netminder bounced back in a huge way. He matched a season-high with 42 saves, and recorded his 30th win of the season.

He Said It: "He played amazing tonight. Reason we won the game. Hats off to him, he's done that a lot this year. For a goalie it's probably tough to show up every night, even the goals he let in last game you can't put all the blame on him, but he was outstanding tonight." — Kane on Crawford's performance

By the Numbers:

167 — Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked one shot in the win, and it was enough to set a new career high in that department, previously established during the 2010-11 campaign (166).

15 — Trevor van Riemsyk assisted on Marian Hossa's goal in the third period, giving him a career-high 15 points on the season in 50 games. He had 14 points in 82 games last year. He also extended his point streak to three games.

6 — With the victory, Crawford has earned at least 30 wins in six of his seven NHL seasons as a full-time starter. The only time he didn't reach that mark was during the lockout-shortened year in 2012-13 when he went 19-5-5.

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young Award winner who won't get the Opening Night assignment. John Lackey is a No. 3 starter already fitted for his third World Series ring. Kyle Hendricks led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and won't start until the fifth game of this season.  

Do you feel like this is the best rotation in baseball?

"We're up there, yeah," Arrieta said after homering off Zack Greinke during Thursday afternoon's 5-5 tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. "I think on paper – and with what we've actually done on the field – it's tough to not say that.

"We like the guys we have. People can rank them, but time will tell. Once we get out there the first four or five times through the rotation, I think you can probably put a stamp on it then, more so than now. 

"But, yeah, we stack up just as well as anybody out there, for sure."  

Arrieta made it through five innings against the Diamondbacks, giving up three runs and eight hits in what figures to be his second-to-last Cactus League tune-up before facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 4. 

The New York Mets blew away Cubs hitters with their power pitching and game-planning during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep. The Washington Nationals are trying to keep Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg healthy and already watched Tanner Roark deliver for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. 

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in a possible elimination game at Wrigley Field last October. The Los Angeles Dodgers almost became a matchup nightmare for the Cubs with lefties Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill during the 2016 NLCS.

But slotting Hendricks at No. 5 – five months after he started a World Series Game 7 – is a luxury few contenders can afford. 

"That just speaks to our length in the rotation," Arrieta said, "and being able to keep relievers out of the game, longer than most teams. That's a big deal, especially when you get into July and August. 

"Obviously, Kyle could be a 1 or 2 just about anywhere. Not that he's not here. We've got several of those, which is a good problem to have. It's going to be favorable for us when there's a No. 4 or No. 5 guy in our rotation going up against somebody else's. Our chances are really good, especially with our lineup." 

Arrieta talked up No. 4 starter Brett Anderson as "a little bit like Hendricks from the left side" in terms of his preparation, cerebral nature and spin rate, a combination that makes him an X-factor for this rotation and an organization starved for pitching beyond 2017. 

The if-healthy disclaimer always comes with Anderson, who played with Arrieta on the 2008 Olympic team and has been on the disabled list nine times since then. Coming out of high school, Arrieta initially signed to play for Anderson's father, Frank, the Oklahoma State University coach at the time, before going in a different direction in a career that wouldn't truly take off until he got to Chicago. 

"We're all looking forward to seeing how we pick up where we left off," Arrieta said. "Judging by what we've done this spring and the shape guys are in and the health – I don't see any reason we can't jump out to an early lead like we did last year and sustain it throughout the entire season."