Let me tell you something!

Let me tell you something!

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

Now that weve entered the supposed sports void, things should slow down, right? The best thing the NFL has done for us is to have moved the Pro Bowl to the week before the Super Bowl. Nothing adds to the depression of no more NFL than having to watch that garbage. Now at least we have big game closure. But besides enjoying this winter without winter weather, my sports sickness has not missed a beat. Most of that is due to the early demise of the Eagles and Bears seasons. Since I was able to emotionally check-out several months ago, it was only a matter of time until I dove into something else. Helping matters is the fact that due to the varied clientele at the bar Im always getting asked questions. Just when I think Im out.

The number one discussion at the bar is about the Peyton Manning saga. He hijacked the Super Bowl and doesnt appear to be going anywhere soon. Literally. My answer as to what will happen and where he will end up is always the same. Im no doctor, Im a bartender, so the medical side is beyond me, but when I hear neck surgery (3-times!!) and degenerative nerve damage, dont know about you, but I see HUGE red flags. DUH! So why does everyone think he will come back? What, if any, physical progress has he shown to warrant such optimism? I for one dont think it will be for the 2012 season. Not to mention hell be 36 coming off of three surgeries. Who wants to invest in that? Hes got a ton of dough and can make even more on TV. Besides which, there arent 330 pound behemoths trying to rip his head off on the tube. If he still thinks he canwants to come back, the best bet will be for 2013. But much like his 1st Super Bowl win brother in arms, Brett Favre, we will have to deal with updates until that happens. Ugh. At least, for now, Im still in the fascination stage, although Im sure thats not far from wearing off. For all of our sakes, I just hope he doesnt fill his down time serial texting, like you know who.

Here in Chicago, in the bars, the favorite sport is bemoaning what we have versus bemoaning what were going to have.

As far as what we have, its the Bulls and Blackhawks. The Bulls conversation centers on the madman at the helm and a talent deficiency against their nemesis in the east. The Hawks are another story altogether.

A lot of people are questioning the fact that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes to ride the whip. Like in Luol Dengs first game back from his wrist injury, when he played 41 minutes. And especially in monitoring Derrick Roses minutes while dealing with injuries, substandard competition and, of course, their hellish, David Stern induced, 3 out of 4 nights, schedule. To some, Thibs appears reckless. But I remember, when asking the Tribs ample-headed beat reporter, K.C. Johnson, about this very thing on CTL before the season started, his response was, Hes not an idiot! And I agree. He is successful for a reason. His team plays well, for him, for a reason. I like the leave it on the floor mentality. The most common complaint Ive always heard about the NBA is that they dont play hard. Now theres a team that does that every night, and still people complain. Again, (Thank you, Stacey King!) if you play it safe, not to get hurt, you always get hurt. And if you decide only to turn it on for certain games, youre not going to end up playing for as you think you should. ATTITUDE!

For Blackhawks Nation, its a different story. The one constant since their Cup is their inconsistency. Game-to-game or shift-to-shift, who can figure them out? They taketh, then they giveth right back, and then some. The thing about the 2009-10 season was their mastery of controlling the puck. They dictated the tempo and lived in the offensive zone whether they had the puck or not. They were suffocating. I can speak from experience. This team, while talented on offense, seems very indifferent in their own end. The easy target right now, no pun intended, are the goalies. I get that to a point, theyve given up a few softies, but when a guy scores 8 points on you and no one gets knocked down? That wasnt 99 out there. That was a mediocre player on a mediocre team, who they made look like The Next One. Watch a Rangers or Bruins game right now. Defensively they are light years ahead of the Hawks, as a team. Their forwards come back all of the time, they allow no room. Then go check out their goalie stats. Theyre easy to find since all 4 are right near the top of every meaningful stat list. Coincidence? My thought is the play of Brian Campbell is missed more than anyone would like to admit. For at the very least, he could get the puck out! Dont look now, but the schedule for the last 28 games is over-the-top difficult, only 2 of the games remaining are not against a team that would be in the playoffs or is just a point out. And those 2 games are on the road against Columbus, one of which is next week to end this current nine-game trip, which at this time has yet to produce a win. Yikes! Lets hope that game isnt to salvage the only win of the trip, especially since the prize for returning home is an 11:30am nationally televised game against the Blues. Its time to stop making excuses.

Now as far as what we have to look forward to, it could be the good, the bad and the ugly. I said could be! That since during the offseason we can wax poetic about what could be, in spite of the overwhelming reality of the ending of the Bears, Sox and Cubs seasons.

For once, Im actually bullish on the Bears prospects. If there is a sense of urgency towards this year, there is. Defensively, the core is not getting any younger, so make the moves to win now. That being said, this defense has always proved to be able to consistently keep the team in games. The difference has always been the offense. I never understood the trade for a franchise QB and make him do things that he doesnt do as well as others. I know that much was made of his in-game phone message for Mike Martz and that Jay should comport himself better. Whatever! Im stunned it took him a year and a half. Well thats all over now, with the promotion of Mike Tice and, finally, the addition of Jeremy Bates as an offensive assistant, Jay is now in charge. Hes also going to be working directly with two guys who know what he does best, and maybe more important, theyre two guys who Cutler trusts will put him in good spots and not leave him out to dry in repeated 7-step drops with a suspect line. Get used to the 3-step drop and the moving pocket! One of the things I took from the Super Bowl - I mean besides all of the chowder-head anguish!! was how similar I think Jay and Eli Manning are, right down to the facial expressions and body language that everyone seems to have a problem with. They both have big-time arms and are willing to show them off. They both are relentless. And in the pocket, while neither would be confused with Mike Vick, have an ability to move around to extend plays, sometimes to the consternation of fans and coaches with their creativity. What I like about that is that they dont quit and will do anything to make a play. I think Elis results speak for themselves. Can Cutler do the same? For a start, having some wide receivers would help. Earl Bennett is nice, as a 3, he cant be a number 1 guy. Someone like Vincent Jackson could be, and he should be available in a couple of weeks. The draft might be a nice place to look also. But the key here is not to bring in more waste of talents like Roy Williams and try to sell him as a number 1. Two receivers better than Bennett are the key. End of story. I cant wait to see what happens and like I said Im optimistic. What?!

And any February blog would not be complete without a pitchers and catchers reporting reference. When Im asked about the 2 teams in town, the thing Im most excited about is that they are about to start up. The thought of spring training just makes me smile. In fact, Opening Day for Major League Baseball is less than 50 days away. 50! Soon enough well be able to lament about the fates of the north and south siders, but for now, like any other fan, its exciting to think about what might be. Hope abounds! For the Cubs, I think Anthony Rizzo is going to be a fan favorite, I just hopes he lives up to his price. And although the era of a fan-favorite lefty has ended, is another one beginning on the Southside with Chris Sale? Reality will soon be upon us, but for now its time to dream the dream, imagine what could be, and, to be nice. What?! Im not sure, but I think this mild winter is making me soft! Dream the dream? Here? It will be back to normal here soon enough, outside and in.

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

15494063_10154553009606858_998332033_n.jpg
USA TODAY

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

morning_update_pic.jpg
USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks square off with Stars tonight on CSN

Complete Bears-Lions coverage on CSN

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lift Bulls to win over pesky Heat

Brent Seabrook could return, but Jonathan Toews will miss ninth straight when Blackhawks play Stars

Three Bears necessities to lay a broom on the Lions

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

Bill Dineen, father of Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen, passes away

Tracy Abrams pours in career-high 31 points as Illini cruise past Central Michigan

Cincinnati hires Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell as new head coach