Short-handed Bulls can't fight off Sixers

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Short-handed Bulls can't fight off Sixers

PHILADELPHIAWith injured center Joakim Noah on the bench in street clothes, the physically and emotionally weary Bulls put forth a game effort in Sundays Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the 76ers, but simply didnt have enough left in the tank, leading to an 89-82 loss at the Wells Fargo Center. The effort was there and although the execution lacked at certain junctures, it became clear that despite giving it their all, the Bulls just didnt have the personnel or energy to move forward, meaning that Tuesdays Game 5 could mark the end of their 2011-12 campaign.

An aggressive Sixers squad beat the Bulls to the punch from the outset, relentlessly penetrating to the basket, getting out in transition and swarming their guests on defense. To make matters worse, Carlos Boozer (23 points, 11 rebounds), one of the visitors primary scoring options, picked up two quick fouls and was forced to sitprompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to reinsert fill-in starting center Omer Asik, who was torched by Philadelphia counterpart Spencer Hawes (22 points, eight rebounds)which contributed to a double-digit hole.

Then, Bulls All-Star Luol Deng (11 points, five rebounds) took a hard spill while driving to the basket and got up clutching his already-injured left wrist, though he would battle through the pain and bounce back to have a solid opening period. Still, after a period of play, Chicago trailed, 24-15, not surprising considering their disadvantage on the glass and 28-percent shooting from the field.

Reserve Taj Gibson (14 points, 12 rebounds) sparked the Bulls in the second stanza, as his boundless energy, rebounding and overall productivityhe scored 10 consecutive points to bring the Bulls back within striking distancematched Philadelphias quickness and athleticism. Gibson and a modified Bench Mob, including swingman Ronnie Brewer, who didnt play a single minute in Fridays Game 3 loss, closed the gap with improved defensive intensity and an offense consisting mostly of Gibson scoring in a variety of fashions, from face-up dribble moves to tough interior finishes.

While the score remained close, it wasnt due to the Bulls offensive proficiency, and while it would dovetail well with the games statistics to call the contest a defensive battle, in reality, neither team was very capable of producing points, with notable exceptions being Boozer and Hawes. Despite starting wings Deng and Rip Hamilton playing limited minutes in the quarterDeng exited the period early in favor of sharpshooter Kyle Korver, while Hamilton didnt touch the floor at all after starting the gamethe visitors, after briefly taking a lead, were behind, 44-42, at the intermission, after a Hawes corner three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer.

Boozer got off to a strong start after the break and thanks to solid Bulls ball movementa hallmark of the team during the regular season when it was without All-Star Derrick Rose in the lineup to make playsthat included the starting perimeter trio of Deng, Hamilton and even C.J. Watson (17 points, four assists, six rebounds), in the midst of a miserable series shooting the ball, knocking down outside jumpers. However, behind the scoring of Hawes and the all-around contributions of the young backcourt of Jrue Holiday (20 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Evan Turner, as well as All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala (14 points, 11 rebounds), the Sixers hung tough, making it a back-and-forth affair.

Boozer and Watson ended up shouldering Chicagos offensive load as the period waned on, but the frames emphasis was less on scoring than physical, hard-nosed play on both ends of the floor, as scoring was at a premium for either team. Philadelphia was unable to unleash its transition game, but heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were still behind, 64-63.

The ragged contest didnt get any prettier in the fourth quarter, reflected by the gritty approach of both squadsas well as the crowd, as one member of the audience ambled on to the court, screaming at a game official, which led to his ejection from the arenaone fighting for survival, the other to put its opponent on the ropes. Along with continued, if sporadic contributions from Boozer and Gibson, Watson, consistently described by Thibodeau as nicked up, fought through physical defense and mustered up some clutch buckets, as did opposing point guard Holiday, whose back-to-back dagger jumpers gave the Sixers a three-possession cushion, 80-73, with 3:34 to go.

Following a timeout, a Boozer traditional three-point play and a Watson jumper cut the deficit to two points, then after Hawes and Watson exchanged buckets, the Bulls had a chance to tie the game, but whistles remained silent when Boozer drew contact going to the basket, while on the other end, Holiday was fouled with 51.5 seconds left and knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 84-80 in Philadelphias favor. After a timeout, the Bulls turned over the ensuing inbounds pass and after the Sixers bled away the clock and knocked down clutch free throws, what could be the final game of the season looms Tuesday night at the United Center.

Fire lose Open Cup epic in Cincinnati after penalties

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AP

Fire lose Open Cup epic in Cincinnati after penalties

CINCINNATI —

A crowd of 32,287 in Cincinnati waited and waited and waited some more, but finally got what they wanted.

The host FC Cincinnati downed the Chicago Fire in penalty kicks after 120 minutes of goalless soccer.

It was all about the goalkeepers before penalty kicks with the Fire’s Matt Lampson and Cincinnati’s Mitch Hildebrandt combining for 17 saves. Hildebrandt improved on his crazy good night by denying Nemanja Nikolic, Arturo Alvarez and Juninho. Bastian Schweinsteiger was the only Fire player to convert a penalty in four rounds. Cincinnati missed its first penalty, but finished the next three.

In regulation, the Fire huffed and puffed in the first half, but didn’t really create much danger in front of Cincinnati’s goal. At halftime, the Fire had 78 percent of the possession, but couldn’t manage a shot on target.

Cincinnati’s game plan to defend deep and counter was stifling the Fire’s attack. The Fire only managed shots from outside the box that all missed the target. Matt Polster had an open shot in the box following a corner kick, but it was deflected wide by a sliding defender.

The home crowd of 32,287, which is the second biggest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history, didn’t have much to cheer in the first half, but Matt Lampson made the only save of the half when he came off his line to deny Danni Konig who got free down the left side.

Both the atmosphere and the game livened up in the second half. Both teams had multiple quality chances and both keepers, Lampson and Cincinnati’s Mitch Hildebrandt came up with big saves.

Lampson saved the game to deny a breakaway for Jimmy McLaughlin in added time just before regulation ended.

In extra time, Cincinnati thought it had the go-ahead goal from Andrew Wiedeman in the 110th minute, but it was called back for a close offside call. Hildebrandt and Lampson both came up with huge saves in the final minute of extra time to send the match to penalties.

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

What pushed Theo Epstein over the edge in making Miguel Montero decision: ‘It screamed out’

WASHINGTON – Cubs president Theo Epstein watched the Washington Nationals run wild on his iPad on Tuesday while visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. As Epstein did some work in his hotel room later that night, he got a text message from general manager Jed Hoyer alerting him to Miguel Montero’s explosive comments.  

Epstein’s management style is to not overreact or worry about the next day’s headlines. He generally believes in second chances, tries to keep an open mind and looks at the problem from every angle, occasionally to the point of paralysis by analysis.

But Epstein said it took “probably 10 seconds” before he realized the Cubs needed to designate Montero for assignment after the veteran catcher pointed the finger at Jake Arrieta – a Cy Young Award-winning, All-Star pitcher – for Washington’s seven stolen bases.    

“It screamed out as something that we should do,” Epstein said.     

As Montero’s rant caught fire on Twitter, Epstein called Hoyer and spoke to Montero on the phone, but he wanted to sleep on it and consult with some players before making Wednesday’s final decision, which could cost approximately $7 million. Epstein could not envision this as a team-building moment after Montero’s mea culpa and clearing the air with Arrieta.

“That was not my read on it, knowing the dynamics, present and past,” Epstein said. “This was not something that we would benefit from – trying to pursue a path of putting it all back together again.”

The Cubs pursued Aroldis Chapman after the New York Yankees closer began last season serving a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy. The Cubs cautiously didn’t judge or unconditionally support Addison Russell after a third-party abuse accusation on social media triggered an MLB investigation this month. The Cubs tolerated Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa last summer, allowing him to chill out at home in New Jersey.

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But Montero doesn’t have a 100-mph fastball. Montero isn’t an All-Star shortstop. Montero isn’t being preserved for one hypothetical pinch-hit at-bat in the playoffs. The Cubs are hovering around .500 now – no longer the World Series favorite – and all those variables become part of the calculus.   

“I just came to the conclusion that now more than ever we really need to be a team,” Epstein said. “This was an example of someone being a bad teammate publicly, and that we’d be better off moving on and not standing for it, because we do hold our players to a higher standard than that.

“In our role as the front office, we can’t always be in the clubhouse and push the right buttons to help everyone come together as a team. But we certainly are in a position – when we see something that could fracture the group – to try to fix the situation and remove that issue.

“Miggy’s not to blame at all for the issues that we have as a team right now. He should not be a scapegoat for what’s going on. This was just an example of someone publicly not being a good teammate and making comments that weren’t accountable and weren’t supportive and weren’t in furtherance of the team concept. And we felt we had to act on it.”

There is a chicken-or-the-egg mystery to clubhouse cohesion. But Montero probably would have had a longer fuse – and the bosses would have had a longer leash – if the Cubs were 24 games above .500 the way they were at this time last year. Montero could also get away with a lot more when he was a two-time All-Star for the Arizona Diamondbacks and playing in a sleepy market. 

“Had we been in a spot where this group had already formed its identity and was clicking on all cylinders,” Epstein said, “and had already overcome adversity together and come together completely as a team and we’re rolling in those respects, maybe it could have been handled differently by the group without sort of action from above.

“But I think you have to factor in where the team is and what the team needs and how close we are to reaching our ideal and how close we are to living up to all the values that we have as an organization.”

The Cubs Way isn’t exactly making it up as they go along. But there are always double standards and rationalizations in a bottom-line business. It sounds like Epstein did his due diligence without giving it a second thought: Montero wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. 

“There aren’t that many opportunities for people out of uniform to positively impact the group or nudge it in the right direction,” Epstein said, “or underscore the importance of team or emphasize the values that we try to embody as a group.

“This was one that made sense, given the history, the group dynamics, all the factors involved.”