Bulls can't match Conley-Gasol combo in loss to Grizzlies

Bulls can't match Conley-Gasol combo in loss to Grizzlies

It's the simplest play in basketball but when players run it to perfection the pick and roll is almost impossible to stop, as evidenced by the Memphis Grizzlies duo of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.

They bludgeoned the Bulls with consistency, the same way they've done to the league since adopting the "grit and grind" mantra at the start of the decade, hitting just enough jumpers late to stymie the Bulls with a 98-91 win at the United Center, making it six of seven losses for the Bulls.

The unheralded center and suddenly well-paid point guard each scored 27 by way of slow death and execution, as they both hit critical triples in the final minutes to help the Grizzlies pull away and hold off the competitive Bulls, who needed one of their stars to step up late.

"They have two great players," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "They made huge shots, big plays. They slowed it down, took away rhythm from us."

Jimmy Butler certainly didn't look like his usual self, struggling to a 14-point night on just four of 16 shooting, missing all his 3-point attempts. Dwyane Wade took a hard fall in the second half on his right elbow and didn't play in the fourth quarter, leaving the team without their top playmakers being at optimal efficiency.

He'll have an MRI Thursday but it could be similar to Butler's 2015 left elbow injury that had him miss a month before the playoffs.

"He asked me how long I was out, I told him and he was like wow," Butler said. "It is what it is. Hopefully it's not what I had. But I know it's pain, I know that much. I know how it feels."

Rajon Rondo led the Bulls with 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds as he kept Conley reasonably in check before Conley found his rhythm against other Bulls defenders.

Conley kept exploiting the Bulls' pick-and-roll strategy where they challenged him to hit perimeter shots and he beat them nearly every time they went under screens as opposed to chasing him over the top.

Hitting critical triples on his way to a 27-point, nine-rebound and seven-assist night, he helped the Grizzlies get critical rebounds and loose balls when it seemed like they were there for the taking.

"They got to all the loose balls. We missed shots, we didn't rebound when we needed to," Butler said. "But we've been up and down all year. And it seems like we're down right now."

One small revelation Hoiberg has probably come upon is that with starting Rondo—despite him hitting three of four triples—he doesn't space the floor enough for Butler and Wade to work their magic, although that didn't contribute wholly to their struggles.

The Grizzlies suffocate even the best teams, so it wasn't much of a surprise to see the Bulls struggle offensively.

"They're tough to score against in the half court. Our pace was really good early," Hoiberg said. "The halfcourt wasn't as efficient as it was the other night. The movement wasn't as good."

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And if Nikola Mirotic is going to play definitively, he has to start over Bobby Portis, just to space the floor.

Mirotic, probably worn down after battling Zach Randolph on the blocks for the majority of his minutes and getting a few pounds of flesh defensively, hit back to back triples to keep pace with the Grizzlies, tying it at 83 with under five minutes remaining.

If not for the Bulls' 3-point shooting, they wouldn't have been able to keep up with the Grizzlies, particularly late as Wade was hobbled and didn't play in the fourth. 

They matched the Grizzlies with 11 triples, with Mirotic and Denzel Valentine each hitting three.

But the Bulls could only muster 37 percent shooting overall as the Grizzlies still had more than enough grit and grind to keep the Bulls at bay, adding one more loss to a ledger that has too many as is with 14 games remaining.

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.