CLEVELANDIt was more difficult than necessary, but if dragging out a seemingly inevitable, 95-85 Bulls (9-8) victory over the Cavaliers (4-15) at Quicken Loans Arena is what Marco Belinelli needed to get going, it might have been worth it. The free-agent acquisition had his best night of the season Wednesday and though the effort wasnt the 48-minute effort the team strives for, it was a nice bounce-back game after a gut-wrenching loss the previous evening at home.Starting in place of sidelined veteran Rip Hamilton for the second straight night, backup shooting guard Belinelli (23 points) was aggressive from the outsetscoring from the outside and even in the post, using his size advantage to knock down a fadeaway jumper over Cavaliers' counterpart Daniel Boobie Gibson, who was starting for injured rookie starter Dion Waitersand helped the visitors jump out to an early lead. In fact, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau apparently thought so highly of Belinellis start that he pulled a shocker: Luol Deng (22 points, seven rebounds), the leagues minutes-per-game leader, not Belinelli, came out of the game when second-year swingman Jimmy Butler checked in late in the opening period.With balanced scoring from the other startersincluding Joakim Noah (13 points, 15 rebounds) and Cleveland doppelganger Anderson Varejao (11 points, 15 rebounds) virtually canceling each other outand reserves Butler and Taj Gibson not missing a beat upon entering the contest, the Bulls, making a gaudy two-thirds of their shots and limiting their hosts to making just a third of their attempts, easily surged to a double-digit advantage. After a quarter of play, the Bulls were ahead, 27-11.While the Bulls cooled down offensively in the second periodthough Belinelli knocked down his first shot of the frame before getting a well-deserved breather after scoring 12 first-half pointsthe visitors continued to give a stout defensive effort, ensuring that the Cavaliers wouldnt get any easy opportunities. Additionally, the guests appeared to make a concerted effort to take better care of the balla bugaboo all season, as well as a slight issue in the first quarterwhich prevented Cleveland from getting out in transition, their best method of scoring without their young backcourt of reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Waiters in action.The Bulls continued to cruise, maintaining their comfortable winning margin and while they werent perfect, they generally played the mistake-free brand of basketball that Thibodeau prefers. With forwards Deng and Carlos Boozer (10 points, 12 rebounds)the latter, whose first NBA team in Cleveland, didnt exactly receive a warm receptionmaking positive offensive contributions, starting floor general Kirk Hinrich (11 points, eight assists) capably handling playmaking duties and backup point guard Nate Robinson providing his usual spark off the bench, the Bulls went into the intermission with a 45-35 lead.Cleveland made a push after the break, with Varejaos rebounding and help on the interior from second-year big man Tristan Thompson, leading the way. But the Bulls were prepared for a potential run and with Belinellis hot hand persistingat least until he picked up his fourth foul midway through the period, giving way to Butleras well as Deng starting to get going and Noahs high activity level yielding strong work on the glass against a similarly energetic opponent in Varejao, the visitors clung to their breathing room.The likes of Gibson and reserve guard Donald Sloan joined in the Cavaliers comeback effort and when rookie big man Tyler Zeller made it a two-possession contest, 64-59 in favor of the Bulls, with 1:51 to go in the third quarter, it officially became a ballgame. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were up 72-63, following Hinrich scoring the last six points of the period for the visitors.The fourth quarter started somewhat ominously, with Gibson picking up his fourth foul and Noah subsequently drawing a technical, already his fifth on the young campaign. But no matter how tenuous the Bulls control of the game appeared, they surreptitiously built up their lead, behind contributions from the likes of Deng, Noah, Robinson and of course, Belinelli, who was enjoying his best outing in a Bulls uniform.Cleveland didnt relent, however, cutting the deficit to single digits again after an Alonzo Gee triple midway through the period, but shortly afterwards, the Bulls put their foot down, outclassing their inferior foe and extending their lead to the point where it was all academic from there on out. The hosts waved the white flag, as Cavaliers head coach subbed out key starters when the contest entered its stretch run, ensuring that the Bulls got off to a positive start on their two-game, Central Division road trip.
Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.
When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.
“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”
This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.
Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.
Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.
“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”
Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.
“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.
"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”
That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.
They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.
One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.
“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”