Rondo's scoring helps keep assist streak alive

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Rondo's scoring helps keep assist streak alive

Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is in the midst of a historic assist streak that has put him in the same category as Magic Johnson and John Stockton. But Monday night at the United Center, it was Rondos early scoring that broke down the Bulls defense, and his passing late that sealed the victory.

Rondo tied a season-high with 20 points and handed out 10 assists -- the 31st straight game he has compiled 10 or more assists -- in the Celtics 101-95 win over the Bulls.

The Celtics lone point guard took advantage of a Bulls defense that desperately needed Kirk Hinrich, who missed the game with a strained hip. Rondo dominated his matchup with starter Nate Robinson, adding nine rebounds and five steals while posting a - of 15. In 30 minutes, Robinson was -15 in the same department.

Rondo looked the part of a franchise point guard Monday night, scoring when open, finding open players when needed and coming up with timely defensive stops on the other end.

I think he's starting to really get comfortable with the players on the floor with what he can call, and you can see that coming on as well, head coach Doc Rivers said.

Rondo is off to the best start of his seven-year NBA career, averaging career-highs in points and assists -- albeit in a small sample size -- that began during last years NBA Playoffs.

In the 24 games he handed out 10 or more assists to end 2011-2012, Rondo averaged 9.8 points on 9.5 field goal attempts per game. He scored in double figures in half of those games.

But in 2012-2013 Rondo has been even more aggressive, scoring double figures in all seven games while averaging 15.4 points on 12.7 field goal attempts per game.

He's getting a lot more opportunities now that we don't have Ray Allen out there in the starting lineup, Paul Pierce said. Usually a lot of those shots would go to him, so he's just taking it upon himself to be more aggressive on the offensive end. His shot attempts are up, his scoring average is up and we need that. He's part of the Big Three now, so he's taken the lead and showing why he's the leader of this ball club.

Rondo was part of the act that had the Celtics race out to an early lead and keep it for most of the first three quarters of the game. Rondo scored all 20 of his points by the start of the fourth, including three on jump shots that may have caught the Bulls off guard.

Pierce, who finished with a quiet 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, said hes happy to see Rondo enjoy offensive successes after putting in time to improve his game in the offseason.

He works hard at his craft, Pierce said. He's developing nicely over the years and I feel like me and Kevin, being around here have been a part of that, seeing his growth as a player.

Rondos growth as a scorer came in handy for the Celtics down the stretch, but it wasnt the point guard doing the scoring.

After a surge by the Bulls to start the fourth quarter, the Celtics lead had been trimmed to four at 93-89 with less than three minutes to play when Rondo drove from the right wing to the left block and, instead of taking a shot, flipped an alley-oop to Kevin Garnett for a dunk.

Inside a minute to go, a Luol Deng layup cut the Celtics lead to two, 95-93, when Rondo and Garnett ran the same play out of a timeout to extend Bostons lead with what would eventually be the game-winner.

Rondo attributed the success of those plays to his offensive game and keeping defenders, specifically center Joakim Noah, honest.

Its just me attacking the hole and trying to draw the big, Rondo said. Noah thought I would shoot it. He contested my shot both times, and I was actually passing it to Kevin and he went up and got it and threw it in.

Rondo just barely got in his 10th assist to keep his record intact, finding Brandon Bass wide open underneath the basket with 23 seconds to play that sealed the game for the Celtics.

Rondo picked the perfect time to have his best game of the season, and as his offensive versatility improves, Pierce believes it will become even harder for opposing defenses to figure out which part of his game to stop.

I consider him the best point guard in the league," Pierce said. "The things he's able to do out there, and when he's scoring the ball out there, you already know what he can do as far as passing and rebounding. He's just unstoppable.

Royals think White Sox have done 'phenomenal job' acquiring young talent

Royals think White Sox have done 'phenomenal job' acquiring young talent

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Only six years after they had the “best farm system of all time,” the Kansas City Royals see a bright future ahead for the upstart White Sox.

Several current Kansas City players who graduated from that farm system and led the Royals to a 2015 World Series title and manager Ned Yost all said they’re intrigued by how quickly the White Sox have built up their minor league talent.

Through four major trades and the signing of international free agent Luis Robert, the White Sox boast a system that features 10 top-10 prospects, according to MLBPipeline.com. Baseball America ranks eight White Sox prospects in their top 100. While the system isn’t yet ready to compete with the 2011 Royals for the unofficial title of best ever, it’s pretty impressive nonetheless.

“Have you seen what they’ve gotten back from tearing it down?” Yost said. “MLB ranks the top 100 prospects. Most teams have one or two. I don’t think we have any. They have 10. They’ve done a phenomenal job of restocking their system with incredibly talented young players.”

Not everything is identical between how these organizations built their farms.

The Royals headed into 2011 with nine top-100 prospects and five in the top 20 alone (Eric Hosmer 8, Mike Moustakas 9, Wil Myers 10, John Lamb 18, Mike Montgomery 19). The Kansas City Star in 2016 reviewed the best-ranked systems of all-time and determined by a point value system (100 points for the No. 1 prospect and one point for the No. 100 prospect) that the 2011 club was better than all others with 574 points.

But that group was the byproduct of a painstaking stretch in which the Royals averaged 96 losses from 2004-12. The slower path taken by Kansas City allowed its young core to develop and learn how to play together in the minors. As pitcher Danny Duffy noted, “we went to the playoffs every year.”

They won at Rookie-Burlington, Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha took home three titles. Working together was a big key to the team’s success at the major league level, said catcher Salvador Perez.

“We didn’t come from different teams,” Perez said. “We all came from here. We had a young team together. We learned how to win and win in the big leagues.

“We learned how to win together, play together and play for the team. It was really important.”

The only time the Royals didn’t win was at Advance-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, Duffy said.

“You learn how success feels and how some failure feels,” Duff said. “We lost in Wilmington and you would have thought the world was coming to an end.”

According to the Star, the Royals haven’t had much recent competition for the best system. Until now.

The 2006 Diamondbacks accrued 541 points and the 2000 Florida Marlins had 472. The 2015 Cubs scored 450 points.

After the addition of Blake Rutherford on Tuesday (the No. 36 prospect on BA’s current top 100 list), the White Sox have 483 points. But the 2017 Atlanta Braves are even better with 532 points, the third-highest total of all-time.

The White Sox farm system has created excitement among the fan base that had wavered in recent years. Not everyone is on board, but the majority seems to be and that can create hysteria.

“We had people at the games who were super excited about the wave of prospects,” Duffy said. “Obviously they have a stacked system over there, very similar to what we had coming up. There was a lot of excitement. It was crazy.”

But excitement didn’t immediately translate into victories. Though a fair amount of the 2011 class graduated to the majors by later that season, the Royals didn’t get on track in the big leagues for a few years.

It wasn’t until the second half of 2013 that the Royals got going. The 2014 club ended a 29-year playoff drought with a wild-card berth that led to an American League pennant. They followed that up with a World Series title in 2015. Had it not been for a Herculean effort by Madison Bumgarner, Kansas City might have had consecutive titles.

Still, getting there takes time.

“The first thing you had to do was get them here,” Yost said. “Experience has taught me that it’s generally 2 1/2 years before they can get to a point where they can compete. They just have to gain that experience at the major league level because it’s definitely a much more difficult style of play up here. The talent is just so incredibly good that it takes a while for talent or players to adjust to where they’re productive. It just takes time then being able to go out and play every single day.”

Even though that means the White Sox will experience difficult times the next few years, Duffy and Co. think it’s worth the wait. While Duffy imagines losing Jose Quintana and David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle and Todd Frazier isn’t fun, he has a good sense what is headed this direction.

“Losing Quintana stings, but they got a king’s ransom back,” Duffy said. “It’s the way of the game. But they’re going to have a really good time in the next few years.”    

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”