Chicago Cubs

Heat, James silence the critics

799198.png

Heat, James silence the critics

Well, that was certainly anti-climactic. After four dramatic contests, well-played on both sides, the villains in black--or white, as worn when in Miami--finally lived up to the hype Thursday night as the Heat ousted the Thunder, 121-106, to win the NBA Finals after winning the last four games of the series, but none as convincingly as the clincher.

League MVP LeBron James continued his sensational postseason run, capping the championship with a triple-double in Game 5 and the Finals MVP award while reshaping his image as a more gracious person as a champion than he was as a loser. Fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were outstanding in complementary roles, but surprisingly, hobbled veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller almost stole the show, knocking down his first five three-pointers en route to seven triples and 23 points.

After two seasons of critics questioning whether the Heat's role players had enough to push their star-studded trio over the top, the supporting cast delivered when it counted most. Mario Chalmers and respected veteran Shane Battier also had their moments in the spotlight, while even rookie point guard Norris Cole made an impact in limited minutes. Whether Miami simply caught lightning in a bottle--Bosh's return to health in the conference finals and playing tough and out of position at center, despite a game that leans more toward finesse than physical; outside shooting, a supposed Miami weakness, suddenly becoming a strength--or just found a winning formula is debatable, but either way, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra earned his stripes.

Under intense scrutiny with his boss, the legendary Pat Riley, supposedly ready to swoop in to take his job at any moment over the past two seasons, Spoelstra has certainly made his missteps, even in this very same postseason, but beyond the video-room narrative of his career, people forget that he managed to get a team featuring Wade and little else to the playoffs in back-to-back years before the advent of the "Big Three." That, as well as his more recent experiences, particularly last season's runner-up finish, counts for something, and it showed in the Finals, as he simply out-coached Thunder counterpart Scott Brooks in Thursday's laugher, the conclusion to an NBA campaign that almost didn't happen.

Speaking of Brooks--who, like Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, still doesn't have a contract extension--it's his turn to be under the microscope, albeit a less probing one. The postgame scene of superstar Kevin Durant crying in his mother's arms after Thursday's defeat was poignant, the series-changing Game 2 non-call of a James foul against Durant will be debated and All-Star sidekick Russell Westbrook's Game 4 43-point virtuoso performance will be remembered, but the inevitable offseason speculation will center on Brooks' adjustments or lack thereof, and therefore, whether he's the man to lead the young Thunder to the promised land.

That's unfortunate, as Oklahoma City's title-contending window is wide open--provided team general manager Sam Presti finds a way to keep both of his prized 22-year-olds (Westbrook and Durant are 23), league-leading shot-blocker Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, who could have damaged his free-agent stock with his no-show of a series, around past next season. The squad appears to have such great chemistry on and off the court. That attribute is reminiscent of another Heat rival, the Bulls, who now have to regard both Finals participants as targets when Derrick Rose returns to full health--as various reports have stated, his recent Alabama trip is simply part of his rehabilitation process, which is going well, and is scheduled to feature a stint in his usual offseason training destination of Southern California later this summer--and whether moves are made this summer or the next, an upgraded supporting cast appears necessary for the franchise to host another parade on Michigan Avenue in the near future.

But now, in the brief window of time prior to next week's NBA Draft and the upcoming Olympics in London, is the Heat's time to bask in the glory. Although James and the team itself will still be regarded as villains in many circles, it's difficult for even their most ardent detractor to quibble with how they got their title and their prospects for winning more down the road.

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”