Bulls hold off Kings in opener

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Bulls hold off Kings in opener

Kicking off the regular season on Halloween, the Bulls (1-0) got a scare from the Sacramento Kings (0-1) Wednesday night at the United Center, but managed to pull out a 93-87 victory to start their 2012-13 NBA campaign.

The new-look squad wasnt spectacular in its opener, but the constant of stout defense was an important aspect in their success, coupled with balanced offensive play and the emergence of Joakim Noah as a legitimate scoring threat, Rip Hamiltons return to his previous form and Carlos Boozer embracing big moments down the stretch.

The outset of the game likely featured too many turnovers for either coachs taste, though both squads were effective in pushing the tempo and converting transition opportunities. When the Bulls faced Sacramentos set defense, the veteran duo of Hamilton (19 points) and Boozer (18 points, eight rebounds) carried the offensive load, with Kirk Hinrich (seven assists) setting the table via his playmaking ability and Noahs (23 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, career-high five steals) typically high activity level also sparking the team.

For the Kings, fourth-year guard Tyreke Evans (21 points, eight rebounds) the former Rookie of the Year is in the same boat as Bulls reserve Taj Gibson (four blocks), a fourth-year player who hasnt yet inked a long-term contract extension, for which there is a league-imposed 11 p.m. Central time deadline started off strong, showcasing an improved outside jumper to go along with his driving ability, and received interior help from talented big man DeMarcus Cousins (14 points, seven rebounds).

The score see-sawed back and forth during the opening period, but at the conclusion of the frame, the Bulls held a 25-23 advantage.

In the second quarter, the Bulls clamped down on the defensive end and although the second unit struggled to produce points, the hosts maintained their slight edge.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau provided a glimpse into his rotation for the season, as Luol Deng (12 rebounds) played for approximately a quarter-and-a-half before getting a rest, while Noah was on the court for the games first 15 minutes or so.

As the games pace slowed and the contest settled into more of the grind-it-out affair that the Bulls have thrived in under Thibodeaus watch, with or without the injured Derrick Rose, it became clear that the home team would have to endure periodic offensive droughts and persevere through determined defense and a scoring-by-committee approach.

Sacramento, buoyed by points off turnovers, flirted with overtaking its hosts, but at the intermission, the Bulls clung to a 44-38 lead.

After the break, the Bulls went on a 12-2 run, fueled by Hamilton and Noah, in particular. The volatile Cousins picked up a technical foul during this stretch, but probably more infuriating to the Kings was their hosts stifling defense, as Sacramento struggled to produce offense, leading to a double-digit deficit.

But the Bulls themselves hit their own offensive lull and led by the play of starting guards Evans and diminutive floor general Isaiah Thomas, as well as instant-offense reserve scorer Marcus Thornton (15 points), the guests quickly narrowed the gap and climbed back into the game. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls remained ahead, 69-63.

To start the fourth quarter, the Bulls suddenly found themselves in a barn-burner, as they continued to struggle to contain the potent scoring ability of Thornton and Evans. On the other end, backup point guard Nate Robinson sparked them offensively for a stretch and Carlos Boozer also began to find his rhythm.

Boozer took on the role of closer for the Bulls and either asserted himself as a scorer or used his underrated passing ability to find others for easy opportunities, while on the defensive end, Taj Gibson made his presence felt as a shot-blocker and Deng, who struggled with his shot all game, made key hustle plays and corralled big rebounds late.

But the Kings kept things close down the stretch, with Evans making it a one-possession affair with under a minute to play and after Deng split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 35.6 seconds left, Sacramento was hit with a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds play following a timeout and the hosts, specifically Noah, closed things out with a parade to the foul line.

No deals, but Bulls hardly stagnant on wild first day of free agency

No deals, but Bulls hardly stagnant on wild first day of free agency

The NBA’s new money infused through some lucrative television contracts ushered in a new economic climate and frankly, a different NBA on Day 1 of free agency.

The Bulls have been largely on the outside looking in as far as activity, with numerous nine-figure contracts being handed out and none by the team that plays on the West Side — though it would be a stretch to say they haven’t been affected or that they’ve been stagnant.

Free-agent point guard Rajon Rondo met with the Bulls in Chicago, but there wasn’t a sense a deal is coming, along with various reports of Chicago native Dwyane Wade talking with the Bulls as he appears dissatisfied with the offers he’s received from the Miami Heat — and apparently the Bulls are one of many who are courting the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, according to Yahoo! Sports.

The conversations with Wade — and to a lesser degree, Rondo — signify a deviation from general manager Gar Forman and coach Fred Hoiberg’s recent public declarations that they would like to get younger, faster and more athletic while adding more shooting.

Wade is 34, a career 28-percent 3-point shooter and plays the same position as Jimmy Butler. Rondo led the league in assists last year in Sacramento (11.7 per game) but is 30, a career 29-percent 3-point shooter and has had run-ins with various coaches, including being banished by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle in the 2015 playoffs.

Elite talents to be sure, but one wonders how they fit into the Bulls’ immediate plans given the identity has gone through a jarring change in the last week or so.

[MORE BULLS TALK: E'Twaun Moore signs four-year deal with Pelicans]

Joakim Noah’s exit, while inevitable given the direction of the franchise and the way the last year played out for Noah, still stung as he agreed to a four-year, $72 million deal with the New York Knicks, joining Derrick Rose.

Noah’s energy and voice became the identity of the Bulls after he was drafted in 2007. Arriving before Rose and years before Tom Thibodeau strolled into town, Noah embodied a hard-playing style the Bulls prided themselves on up until recently.

He took advantage of the league’s new economic realities, as did a player the Bulls had hopes of keeping in E’Twaun Moore, a valuable reserve guard who blossomed when given the opportunity.

The Bulls wanted to keep Moore and believed their offer, which took advantage of the franchise owning Moore’s "Early Bird Rights," would be satisfactory in retaining him, despite the courtship of teams like the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks.

Moore accepted a four-year, $34 million deal with the Pelicans, giving him both the average annual salary he was seeking while also securing him that precious fourth year, considering Moore was a late second-round pick in 2011 and played for three teams in his five-year professional career.

According to a source, the Bulls offered Moore a three-year deal around $21 million, the limit given the Bulls wanted to preserve a maximum salary slot with their needs at point guard and small forward. And it was likely the Bulls didn’t want to commit a fourth year to Moore, given the East Chicago, Ind., native just turned 27 in February.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

When players like Matthew Dellavedova (restricted free agent) signed for $38.4 million over four years on an offer sheet from the Bucks a couple hours before Moore’s news came down, it became increasingly difficult to envision Moore in a Bulls uniform next season, though they’ll certainly miss him.

Next to Butler, he was the Bulls’ most rugged and versatile perimeter defender while steadily hitting jumpers to the tune of 45 percent from 3-point range. And given the way the Bulls’ locker room often seemed unhinged last season, Moore was a model of consistency, staying professional and not getting dragged into any drama.

Day 1 of free agency produced some wild numbers, with the roller-coaster just beginning — and at some point, the Bulls will take their turn on it, simply because they have to.

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

Mets hammer Jason Hammel, picking up where they left off against Cubs last October

NEW YORK — Cubs fans created a happy-to-be-here vibe during last year’s surprising playoff ride — and also booed Jason Hammel at Wrigley Field in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

While this didn’t fit John Lackey’s classic definition of a “Big Boy Game,” the New York Mets again crushed Hammel and dominated the Cubs during Friday night’s 10-2 blowout at Citi Field, reopening questions about that breakdown last October.

Hammel gave up 10 runs across four-plus innings in a game that technically ended on Saturday morning and didn’t have any flow with three separate rain delays that lasted one hour and 59 minutes combined. While Cubs Twitter wondered about the possibility of another second-half fade, Hammel shrugged his shoulders after his ERA soared from 2.58 to 3.45 on July 1.

“Where do you start?” Hammel said at his locker. “Always try to get to new levels in your career, you know, set career highs, so got a couple of those taken care of.

“I’m just going to let this one disappear. I’m almost lost for words just because of how bad it was.

“Tomorrow’s a new day, and this game always has a way of basically humoring you and also humbling you at the same time. I’m not even going to sweat it. Obviously, not happy that we lost. But I’m not going to let it beat me up.”

[MORE CUBS TALK: With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs see issues Mets exposed in NLCS]

Hammel wouldn’t use the weather as an excuse for his lack of rhythm — “Mother Nature is Mother Nature” — and pointed out it didn’t disrupt Jacob deGrom (4-4, 2.62 ERA), who allowed one run across five innings and finally got enough offensive support to earn his first win since April 30.

The Mets blasted five homers off Hammel, including back-to-back shots from James Loney (an injury replacement who had been with the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in late May) and Asdrubal Cabrera in the second inning, Brandon Nimmo’s first in The Show and another lightning-quick swing from Yoenis Cespedes.

Against a team desperate for offense, Hammel matched a franchise record — this was only the sixth time in club history that a single Cubs pitcher gave up five home runs in a game.

After an offseason reboot, the Cubs hoped Hammel 2.0 would be a more sustainable model. The sign-and-flip guy had gone 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA through 17 starts in 2014 before getting packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell trade with the Oakland A’s (where he went 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA).

The punctuation to that NLCS sweep — getting four outs in an 8-3 elimination loss to the Mets — seemingly began with a leg injury that messed with Hammel’s mechanics and confidence and divided his season into before (2.86 ERA in 103-plus innings) and after (5.10 ERA in 67 innings) the All-Star break.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Everyone has off nights, Hammel has performed at an All-Star level for long stretches throughout his career and the Cubs (51-28) still have the best record in baseball and a 10-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.

But with all these young power pitchers, Cespedes in the middle of their lineup, lights-out closer Jeurys Familia and a resourceful front office, the Mets (42-37) aren’t going to concede the pennant just because the Cubs won the offseason, lead the league in T-shirts and have an awesome run differential.

“Over the course of 162 games, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Hammel said. “You try to make those few and far between, but they’re going to happen.

“As long as you don’t take it with you for the next day, it’s not going to effect us at all.”

Is there actually reason for optimism with the Fire?

Is there actually reason for optimism with the Fire?

After back-to-back wins suddenly the doom and gloom surrounding the Chicago Fire has been lifted, at least for now.

The Fire played well in a 1-0 win against San Jose. That win came three days after beating Columbus in the U.S. Open Cup.

Granted, Columbus was short a couple key players due to injury and sat a couple more to rest them. Meanwhile, San Jose is so short on centerbacks that when coach Dominic Kinnear was asked about the team's injury problems, Kinnear jokingly asked the reporter if he could play centerback.

Still though, there was something about the Fire's play that showed genuine improvement from the early season games when the team struggled to put shots on goal, let alone get goals or wins. John Goossens nutmegged two players in the first half and scored the game-winning goal. Brazilian right back Rodrigo Ramos lived up to what Brazilian outside backs are known for, a flair on the ball and a desire to go forward at every opportunity.

“I think that’s the way you play when you’re having fun," Goossens said. "You’re doing your job and in the meantime you’re having fun. Rodrigo is a great player who can run 90 minutes and that makes it easier for me. When he’s coming, the defender has to make a decision what to do. Will he stay with me or go with Rodrigo? I think we have a great combination and we have to keep working on that to make it even better, to make it even more difficult for the opposing defenders.”

[RELATED: John Goossens scores first MLS goal in Fire win]

Ramos looked like he is playing with more confidence than he did earlier in the season. The 21-year-old lifted a ball over a defender's head to get around him and on another occasion flicked a ball with his back foot to draw a yellow card from Shaun Francis. In addition he delivered a number of crosses to give the Fire scoring chances.

“That’s one of my strengths, to be strong up top so I’m trying to use that to the team’s advantage," Ramos said through a translator. "The team is lacking assists so I’m hoping to give a lot of assists.”

[SHOP: Buy your Fire jersey here]

The way the season had gone before this week and how the past several years have gone, it's hard to believe multiple good things can line up for the Fire at once. Fire fans will be forgiven for cringing at the thought of optimism because they've been burned so much.

However, on face value, things are legitimately headed in a positive direction, which admittedly isn't tough for a team in last place. David Accam and Goossens are back from injury and producing. Arturo Alvarez and Matt Polster, both regulars in midfield when healthy, should be back from injury soon. Michael de Leeuw is set for his debut in the team's next match. As opposed to having a rail thin roster, which has struggled to fill out its bench due to injuries, coach Veljko Paunovic may now have some tough lineup selection decisions to make.

“We are getting there," Paunovic said. "I still believe there is a long way to go."

Of course, the standings still don't look good for the Fire. At 3-7-5, the Fire are tied for last in the league with Houston, and are six points out of the last playoff spot in the weaker Eastern Conference. This is one of the reasons why Paunovic was quick to emphasize the importance to keep the streak going in Toronto on July 9. That's a Toronto team which will be without injured Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Will Johnson and Clint Irwin.

"Next game we need another win and that’s our message now," Paunovic said. "We just started. We have to take advantage of this momentum, this great period we created in the last two games."