Quick show of hands: Who loves predictions? Prognosticating the playoffs in advance might be an easier task than predicting the end result before the season even begins, but the NBA postseason is always unpredictable and with fears of ragged play after the lockout being unfounded, it's shaping up to be, as Joakim Noah likes to say, "an exciting time."Speaking of Noah's Bulls, before getting into league-wide predictions, it's an all-or-nothing proposition, as fans want to know if this is the year the team breaks the title drought that's plagued it since the Jordan era. Well, Derrick Rose's return and a fully-intact roster certainly help, but the added motivation of Sixers swingman Evan Turner's comments -- in case you've been living under a rock, the second-year pro and Chicago native said Philadelphia is "dodging the tougher team" by taking on the Bulls, instead of the Heat -- is what could push them over the edge.Not that the Bulls are undergoing some kind of internal team turmoil, but with their relative struggles in April, it appeared that they were in a bit of a malaise, at least for them, and needed a fire lit under them. Now, they'll claim they don't need any outside motivation, but after being informed of Turner's comments, to a man, it was evident that the perceived disrespect touched a nerve.Expect the Bulls to dispatch the Sixers in quick fashion. If Rose uses that series to get in rhythm, it should carry over to a potential second-round series with the Celtics, who are playing well at the right time, but struggle with the Bulls' size and frankly, can't beat the Bulls in a seven-game series if Rose is even a semblance of his former self, despite their championship experience, as Rip Hamilton's recent groove, as well as the Bulls' lack of fear -- stemming from their epic first-round series of a few years back -- make the aging squad bait. Then, unless Central Division rival Indiana pulls a shocker and upsets the Heat in an expected second-round matchup, comes Miami.After last week's road loss, in which the Heat played a surprisingly physical brand of basketball, many gave Miami an edge over the Bulls, seeing it as a foreshadowing of the future. However, examining the Bulls on a nightly basis in Tom Thibodeau's two-year tenure as head coach, that performance was an aberration and after receiving so much scrutiny for their passivity, it's unlikely that recent history repeat itself.Therefore, ditto for the potential series in general, as the two insults -- Turner's verbal slight and the perception that the Bulls are somehow a soft team -- will ramp up their intensity even further, resulting in no more uncontested drives for MVP frontrunner LeBron James or All-Star sidekick Dwyane Wade. It won't be easy, but if Rose is back in the swing of things by then, which will be needed to advance to that point anyway, and his supporting cast utilizes the confidence gained from posting an 18-9 record without him this season, vengeance will be Chicago's.In the NBA Finals, the wide-open West is hard to predict. UnlessThunder guard James Harden, the NBA's likely Sixth Man of the Year award winner, doesn't recover effectively from a concussion suffered after the elbow heard around the world from Lakers forward Ron Artest, Oklahoma City should make it to the championship round. The top-seeded Spurs, regardless of how impressive they've been all season -- if they manage to get by the Clippers or Grizzlies, who ousted them a year ago, in the second round -- might not be able to contend with the younger team's combination of interior size and two-headed scoring duo of All-Star point guard Ruseell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who recently won an unprecedented third consecutive league scoring title. If that plays out, the Bulls will again have revenge on their minds after being throttled at Oklahoma City, sans Rose, earlier this month and while the Thunder are indeed talented, the Bulls' defensive mentality should prove the old adage, "defense wins championships" to be correct.So while nothing's guaranteed, if the Bulls win it all, one thing is for sure: Turner should be lauded in his hometown for providing the Bulls with an added boost that should serve them well as the playoffs begin. He just won't feel the love come Saturday, when the series opens.Predictions:No. 1 Bulls vs. No. 8 76ers: Bulls in five games.Why? All of the above.No. 2 Heat vs. No. 7 Knicks: Heat in six.Why? Miami certainly drew the short end of the stick by having to face New York, but while Carmelo Anthony, a much-improved defense and the Knicks' overall offensive firepower -- Amar'e Stoudemire looked good in the season finale -- will be issues, the Heat's overall talent reigns supreme. Also, LeBron James loves playing at Madison Square Garden.No. 3 Pacers vs. No. 6 Magic: Pacers in five.Why? Indiana's burgeoning confidence and playoff experience from a year ago will come into play against a reeling, short-handed Orlando team that simply doesn't match up well with them. Expect the Pacers to pound the Magic inside with the absence of All-Star center Dwight Howard.No. 4 Hawks vs. No. 5 Celtics: Celtics in five.Why? Boston ended the regular season on a roll and although future Hall of Famer Ray Allen is currently banged up, Atlanta just doesn't have enough weapons, especially with star big man Al Horford still on the shelf. Look for superstar point guard Rajon Rondo and the remaining "Big Two" of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to dominate.No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 8 Jazz: Spurs in five.Why? San Antonio's additions have made them a much deeper team, but it's the veteran core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginbili and Tim Duncan that will be the key against a young Utah squad. While the Jazz have a nice collection of size and young talent, the Spurs will be too much for them.No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 7 Mavericks: Thunder in five.Why? Oklahoma City has something to prove and opening the playoffs against defending-champion Dallas, the team that ousted them last postseason, will get them off to a strong start. The Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is a less than ideal dilemma for the Mavericks to handle without Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense.No. 3 Lakers vs. No. 6 Nuggets: Lakers in seven.Why? This series is a bit of a toss-up, but the Lakers' experience should prevail against a young, deep and talented Nuggets team. If Denver can get the Lakers into a transition game, that spells trouble, but Kobe Bryant seems determined not to let his team get embarrassed two springs in a row.No. 4 Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Clippers: Grizzlies in six.Why? Memphis getting home-court advantage was significant, as it will be tough for the Clippers to win in the "Grind House," and as much as Chris Paul has turned the franchise's fortunes around, the size and physical style of the Grizzlies will take a toll on high-flying Blake Griffin. Paul will have to be at his absolute best for the Clippers to have a chance.Eastern Conference semifinals:Bulls vs. Celtics: Bulls in six.Why? To paraphrase Bulls announcer Stacey King, the Bulls are too big, too strong, too deep and too good for the Celtics. Now equipped with the experience of a deep playoff run and Rip Hamilton to counter longtime nemesis Ray Allen, Boston just doesn't have any advantages over Chicago, and if Rose has found his stride, it might get ugly.Heat vs. Pacers: Heat in seven.Why? This series will be tougher than expected for the Heat, as the Pacers have a significant advantage at center with All-Star Roy Hibbert and match up at other positions -- Danny Granger and Paul George on the wing, David West and Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, the guard trio of George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa -- but Miami's star power should pull it out. James and Dwyane Wade will need to play at a high level, but Chris Bosh's role might be even more important.Western Conference semifinals:Spurs vs. Grizzlies: Spurs in seven.Why? On paper, the Grizzlies should win this series, since like last year, their combination of size, athleticism and defensive-minded style of play is a tough matchup for the Spurs, particularly with Zach Randolph back in the lineup. However, after getting upset by Memphis last spring, and having a healthy Ginobili to counter Rudy Gay being back in the fold, San Antonio will be desperate to avoid getting stunned again, meaning Parker will have to decisively win his battle with Mike Conley.Thunder vs. Lakers: Thunder in six.Why? This might be the best series of the round, especially if Metta World Peace is back from his suspension for elbowing Thunder sixth man James Harden. The Bryant-Durant scoring battle will also be closely scrutinized, but the Lakers' hopes depend on the effectiveness of point-guard acquisition Ramon Sessions against Westbrook, as well as how Oklahoma City interior defenders Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka fare against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.Eastern Conference finals:Bulls vs. Heat: Bulls in seven.Why? The Bulls' fate might actually depend on the previous round, as they would gain an edge if they can dispatch a smallish Celtics team quickly and a more physical Pacers squad beats up the Heat. Both teams have plenty of motivation -- Miami to win the first of many titles promised two summers ago and Chicago simply vanquishing a villain--but the confidence the Bulls gained from beating the Heat twice while short-handed in the regular season should pay off and Rose has been anticipating this moment for nearly a year now.Western Conference finals:Spurs vs. Thunder: Thunder in seven.Why? A tough series with the Grizzlies could truly take a toll on on aging Spurs team and the youthful Thunder are far from the elixir they need to recover. Durant is virtually unguardable in general, but San Antonio doesn't have anyone who matches up remotely well with the league scoring champ and after Oklahoma City advanced to the same point last postseason, their veteran experience against superior talent might not matter this time around.NBA Finals:Bulls vs. Thunder: Bulls in six.Why? After being demolished at Oklahoma City early this month, the Bulls will still have a sour taste in their mouths and with Rose back in the lineup to match up with his close friend Westbrook, the odds will be evened. However, expect Chicago's defense to clamp down on Durant much more and the Thunder's lack of balanced scoring might finally catch up to them, leading to another parade in Grant Park.
MIAMI – The Cubs factored Ian Happ into their preseason plans, hoping he could give the team a shot of adrenaline at some point and play well enough to be marketed as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching.
But the Cubs couldn’t have projected this for late June: Happ batting third behind Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the switch-hitting presence and middle-of-the-order force needed with Ben Zobrist on the disabled list and Kyle Schwarber about to get a mental reset at Triple-A Iowa.
“Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen, when you look at the size and how far the ball goes,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Marlins Park. “It’s a unique combination of size and strength. You normally see a bigger guy with that kind of juice."
Happ (6-foot, 205 pounds) also patrolled right field that night – one of four different positions the rookie has handled so far – with Gold Glove defender Jason Heyward also on the disabled list and the Cubs in scramble mode.
The Schwarber demotion is a reminder of how hard this game is, how quickly it can spin out of control and how small sample sizes can be misleading, even on the biggest stages against some of the best pitchers on the planet.
But check out Happ’s first six weeks in The Show projected as a 162-game average on Baseball-Reference.com: 46 homers, 97 RBI, .916 OPS and 199 strikeouts.
“He’s just really interesting,” Maddon said. “Now you’re seeing him hit better from the right side, too, which is really going to matter. That really makes him a threat. You put him in the lineup based on that.”
The shorthanded Cubs have needed Happ – at the age of 22 – to protect Bryzzo Souvenir Co., add another layer of Zobrist versatility and learn it all on the fly for a team with World Series expectations.
“He’s pretty self-confident,” Maddon said. “There’s times I can tell when it’s beating him up a little bit when he goes through some of those funks where maybe he’s chasing pitches out of the zone. But he seems to rebound very quickly. Strong-minded. Strong-willed. Very confident individual.”
Two weeks into Happ’s big-league career, Maddon got questions about how long the Cubs will be patient and what they would need to see out of him before thinking about a return trip to Des Moines.
Though Happ was hitting .207 as recently as last week, his average has jumped roughly 40 points. He’s homered eight times in his last 13 starts. Fifteen of his 21 RBI have come with two outs. His OPS hasn’t fallen below .741 at any point this season.
“That’s adjusting,” Maddon said. “You get here, nobody really knows you, they throw you pitches, you hit ‘em well. And all of a sudden, you stop seeing those pitches. You’re not going to see them again until you stop swinging at the stuff that they want you to swing at.
“He’s done a pretty good job of laying off the bad stuff. That’s why it’s coming back to him. He’s really reorganized the strike zone here.”
That whole process sped up on Schwarber, who lost the swagger and the ability to crush fastballs that made him such a dangerous hitter. Happ doesn’t have it all figured out, but by the look on his face and the sound of his voice, you would have no idea whether or not he’s hitting.
“Unbelievable guy,” said Happ, who’s tight with Schwarber. “He’ll go down, rake, be back soon and do what he’s capable of doing, which is hitting the ball hard all over the ballpark. He’s done it his whole life. And he’ll continue to do it.”
On the latest edition of the Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Tracey Myers and Charlie Roumeliotis break down the Blackhawks' blockbuster deals involving Niklas Hjalmarsson being dealt to Arizona and re-acquiring Brandon Saad from Columbus in exchange for Artemi Panarin.
They also discuss what it means for the team going forward, and whether it's a precursor to bigger deals to come.
Listen to the latest episode of the Hawks Talk Podcast below.