Bulls stunned by Bobcats on New Year's Eve

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Bulls stunned by Bobcats on New Year's Eve

On the bright side, the Bulls (16-13) can regard Mondays 91-81 loss to the Bobcats (8-23) at the United Center as a thing of the past, something to be forgotten when the ball drops at midnight. But in the here and now, it was a defeat at the hands of one of the NBAs worst teams, losers of 18 straight games when they arrived in Chicago and even without the services of starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, thats the type stain that doesnt just wash away in the laundry.

A sluggish start put the Bulls in an hole in the early going, as the young Bobcats played with energy to make up for any perceived talent disparity, similar to the way the Wizards made it competitive in the hosts last outing. Beginning contests slowly isnt something new for the Bulls, but surprisingly, they didnt bounce back immediately against the downtrodden visitors, who built a double-digit lead.

Behind balanced scoring and superior rebounding, the Bobcats controlled the games pace against the poor-shooting Bulls, who struggled to scoreRip Hamilton (11 points), in his second game back from injury, was effective before picking up two quick foulslet alone defend up to their usual standards. Despite determined, if inefficient, play from forwards Luol Deng (20 points, 12 rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (19 points, 14 rebounds), after a quarter of play, the home team trailed, 28-18, much to the dismay of the matinee-going audience.

When things didnt change early in the second quarter, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau went with a rarely-used all-reserve lineup, though the backup Bobcats backcourt of Ramon Sessions (15 points) and former Bulls sixth-man extraordinaire Ben Gordon (15 points) wreaked havoc with their scoring ability. The burden fell upon Taj Gibson (eight points, nine rebounds) and Marco Belinelli to deliver and they helped the second unit make the Bulls deficit more manageable.

Gibsons energy on both ends, the solid interior play of backup center Nazr Mohammedin the game early for starter Joakim Noah for the second straight game, but not due to foul trouble this time aroundand poised minutes from rookie point guard Marquis Teague helped the Bulls stay within striking distance as the period waned on. Still, at the intermission, the Bulls were behind, 47-42.

After the break, Charlotte went on a 6-0 run to make it a double-digit affair again, prompting a Thibodeau timeout to restore order. While that didnt happen immediately, the Bulls, who, with the exception of Boozer, were mostly unable to score proficiently against their guests set defensewhile Nate Robinson (seven assists), starting in place of the sidelined Hinrich, made a concerted effort to get others involved, his strength is being a scoring point guard for the more offensively-challenged benchpushed the pace and manufactured scoring opportunities in transition.

Toward the end of the third quarter, the Bulls finally made more of an inroads and though they occasionally impeded their own progress with shaky free-throw shooting and inattentive defensive rebounding, the contest morphed into a close-knit affair late in the period. Propelled by the wing duo of Hamilton and Deng, the Bulls headed into the final stanza with the game knotted up at 65 apiece.

Charlotte upped the ante at the outset of the fourth quarter, this time going on a 10-0 run to create separation from the listless hosts, whose fans made their displeasure felt. The likes of Gordon, undersized big men Bismack Biyombo (11 rebounds) and Jeff Adrien (nine points, 10 rebounds) and the starting backcourt of Kemba Walker (18 points) and Gerald Henderson (16 points) were all part of the cast of characters that helped stake the Bobcats to a comfortable lead, as the Bulls struggled with ball-security issues, rebounding deficiency, lack of defensive intensity and overall malaise, made evident by Thibodeaus myriad substitutions, in search of an all-encompassing answer.

Despite implementing different lineups and the players on the court ratcheting up their collective sense of urgency, shots simply wouldnt drop and the defense couldnt get key stops against the Bobcats, as the Bulls once again faced a double-digit deficit, but with the game entering the stretch run, there wasnt enough time for a miraculous comeback run, even if they somehow managed to build the momentum. Incredibly, things got even worse as time ran out on the hosts, who were in the penalty and forced to send their guests to the foul line in an effort to stop the clock, but the damage had already been done early and the only positive that can be taken from the whole sordid affair is that perhaps things will be different in 2013.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

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AP

Cubs, White Sox react to tragic deaths of Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

The sports world woke up to some tragic news on Sunday morning.

Former major leaguer Andy Marte and Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura were both killed in separate car accidents in the Dominican Republic within an hour of each other, according to multiple reports. A Royals representative confirmed the death of 25-year-old Ventura.

The Cubs and White Sox took to Twitter to give their condolences:

Ventura was a member of the Royals from 2013-16 and won a World Series title in 2015 with Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis, who the Cubs acquired this offseason for Jorge Soler. Ventura also played with White Sox pitcher James Shields in 2013-14.

Marte, 33, played a majority of his seven-year career with the Cleveland Indians. He was teammates with Todd Hollandsworth (Atlanta 2005), Kerry Wood (Cleveland 2009-10), and Miguel Montero (Arizona 2014).