Cubs

Against NBA's elite, Bulls must be almost perfect

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Against NBA's elite, Bulls must be almost perfect

It was one of those losses that afterwards, the reasons for it were given in a code of sorts. After his teams 94-89 loss to the Clippers at the United Center, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau talked about dancing with the ball and staying disciplined, the type of thing coaches say about teams that are either mistake-prone or outclassed.

RELATED: Bulls battle, but Clippers close curtain on Chicago win streak

In the Bulls case its more the latter when facing the leagues elite, such as the Clippers, their opponent Tuesday evening. When the Bulls dont execute to near-perfection on both ends of the floor and key players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have off nights scoring the ball, they face an uphill battle against even moderately talented squads, let alone the high-flying bunch thats attempting to become Los Angeles true glamour team.

Offensively, despite Deng and Noah not giving them much, the Bulls compensated for it with a surprise performance from long range -- one of the NBAs worst three-point shooting teams, they were 10-for-20 from deep Tuesday -- and on the defensive end, mostly fared well against their explosive foes. But a crucial stretch before halftime during which the Clippers Lob City moniker became accurate, as well as fourth-quarter lapses and of course, their season-long ball-security issues rearing its ugly head spelled defeat for the Bulls.

"They just made tough plays," Taj Gibson said. "It seemed like we were in the hunt, we cut it down to a couple points, but Blake and Chris just made tough plays. Matt Barnes played a great game and weve just got to do better closing out quarters and finishing games."

"We were disappointed, especially in that second quarter. The momentum changed, we didnt close out the right way. They got a lot of dunks, got a lot of momentum going, especially in the half-court set.

Every loss is tough to get over, especially at home. But weve got to put it behind us. Weve got a lot of games still to come. Weve got to leave tonight, get on a plane, play Philly Wednesday, then come back, play Brooklyn.

Gibsons sentiments were echoed by his teammates throughout the Bulls locker room. But in reality, while they battled valiantly, this isnt one of the games on the schedule that most observers would pencil in a "W" in the win-loss column.

Coming off Saturdays home win against the Knicks -- sans Carmelo Anthony, though that isnt an excuse because New York defeated defending-champion Miami on the road, without the superstars services -- the Bulls were deservedly flying high and despite the late start to the contest, they hung tough with the Pacific Division leaders all night.

But already missing injured point guard Derrick Rose, as well as a proven veteran scoring presence in sidelined shooting guard Rip Hamilton, maybe its expecting too much to think that these Bulls will come out on top in marquee, primetime showdowns with the leagues best.

Sure, their defense has made great strides as of late -- Noah has elevated his game, Deng has shown that hes capable of being a go-to player, sharpshooter Marco Belinelli has found his groove as a starter and the second unit is starting to come around -- but even with all of that going for them, over the course of an 82-game regular season there will be nights when they execute Thibodeaus game plan to the best of their abilities, enough to beat most opponents, higher-level foes will simply overwhelm them when it counts.

That isnt to say they should take a defeatist approach (as recent examples like the Miami Heat losing to the lowly Washington Wizards show). Instead, the Bulls should take heart in the fact their defense alone can beat truly inferior teams and depending on performance, they have a right to think they can beat middle-of-the-pack clubs. They know from the experience of winning the most regular-season games over the past two seasons that when a superior team, laden with firepower and having designs on bigger fish decides to finally put its foot down, sometimes theres nothing that can be done about it.

Thats what eventually happened Tuesday with the Clippers depth -- another aspect of the loss that could be hauntingly familiar to Thibodeau when he reviews the tape, after having one of the NBAs top benches prior to this season -- putting the visitors over the top.

But as players are fond of saying, the best thing about this league is that the games come so quickly, so Wednesday evening in Philadelphia the Bulls will have a chance to take out their frustrations on the 76ers, the team that ousted them from the postseason last spring, but is likely still smarting over losing in Chicago last week. For the Bulls, despite landing in the wee hours of the morning after departing the Windy City just after midnight, thats a winnable affair -- one which they dont have to be perfect to be victorious.

One of Thibodeau's mantras is "striving for perfection," something that rang hollow the past two seasons, when they could be awful and a tour-de-force effort from Rose or just having a better bench than some team's starting lineups was enough to cement a victory, particularly when backed by the league's best defense.

Now that's no longer the case. And while the Bulls won't be flawless every evening, knowing that they can come close, compete with the best and -- unlike Tuesday -- if they get the right breaks late, they can win games they're not supposed to, is something they should take heart in.

Even if they won't admit it.

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Cubs are due for a win...right?

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Cubs are due for a win...right?

The Cubs are "due."

That's a funny thought in general. For anybody or any team to be "due," that's saying that everything will even out eventually.

That's often true in baseball. But that's over the course of a 162-game season, far and away the longest sample size in professional sports. 

In an abbreviated postseason series, there really is no such thing as "due" because the season's over before you get a chance to see things even out.

The baseball gods don't ensure that everybody gets the same amount of luck at the same time. The sample size is absolutely too small for that. Plus, the Cubs have had plenty of luck and caught their fair share of breaks already this postseason.

So while it's easy to point to some of the Cubs numbers and say things like "they're not going to hit .162 as a team forever," that's not necessarily true because there are only two guaranteed games left in the 2017 for Joe Maddon and Co. It is absolutely possible the Cubs' season is over before they get a chance to correct their offensive woes.

Though, it would be pretty stunning to see the Cubs offense finish a 9-game October stint with Jon Lester and Jose Quintana as the team's leading hitters (both are 1-for-4, .250 average). 

Like a deliriously-happy, champagne-soaked Theo Epstein said early Friday morning in our nation's capital, "we always hit eventually."

So if I'm a betting man (which I'm not, unless you count fantasy sports), I'm betting on the Cubs offense finally waking from their fall slumber. 

They're simply too good to continue these numbers. This team has combined for a .513 OPS, which is essentially a team of Andres Blancos, a 33-year-old backup infielder who defined "light-hitting" with a .192 average and .549 OPS in 144 plate appearances this season.

The urgency is now a very real thing with the Cubs, and that's something — maybe the ONLY thing — that has really motivated this 2017 squad. They've really only played well when they've had a sense of urgency and they did not have that the first two games in Los Angeles.

Which is understandable. After such a physically, emotionally and mentally draining Game 5 that didn't end until early Friday morning, the team had to travel all the way across the entire continental U.S. only to wind up getting diverted to New Mexico where they sat on the tarmac for five hours.

Every single starting pitcher on the team was exhausted and working on short rest, and that's not to say anything about Wade Davis, who gave everything he had just to get the Cubs to the NLCS.

The Cubs have now had a full day off to clear their heads, get back to center and find their mojo again.

I'm betting that's exactly what they've done, because this team has proved over and over again how resilient they are. I mean, really, a 2-0 deficit is nothing for a team that stared down a 3-1 deficit in the World Series a year ago.

Prediction

Cubs 5, Dodgers 2

The Cubs started out the two-game set in LA by having a few good at-bats against the game's best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) before things got awful against the Dodgers bullpen.

But if we're talking about being "due," that Dodgers bullpen is due for a regression on some level. They've been absolutely incredible this postseason, allowing only one baserunner to the Cubs in eight innings thus far.

Breaking things down individually, there are positive signs for several guys:

—Kris Bryant struck out only three times in 8 at-bats in LA, which is actually an improvement considering he struck out 10 times in 20 at-bats in the NLDS.

—Addison Russell lined a homer to left off Rich Hill for the Cubs' only run in Game 2. He had some really good at-bats in Game 5 and the game's biggest hit when he doubled home two runs off Max Scherzer.

—Javy Baez walked in Game 2. I mean, if that's not enough of a reason for positivity, what is??

Either way, the Cubs offense has their hands full against Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86 ERA) and Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72 ERA) the next two games and if they win one of those two, Kershaw awaits in Game 5 Thursday.

Five teams you can't overlook come IHSA playoff time

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Five teams you can't overlook come IHSA playoff time

With the IHSA Football Playoff Pairing Show just days away, here are five teams that you need to keep in mind when the brackets are announced. They could cause big matchup problems once the postseason begins. You can catch show live this Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago+ with live streaming at nbcsportschicago.com/IHSAPairingShow and via the NBC Sports app.

Class 8A

Edwardsville: The Tigers (5-3) got off to a rough start and lost their first three games, including an opening week stunner, 53-49, to Naperville North. It was a game that the Tigers led 42-0 in the second quarter. However, coach Matt Martin and company are riding high with a five-game winning streak. They feature an explosive offense led by junior QB Kendall Abdur-Rahman and a deep group of backs. Keep an eye on freshman RB Justin Johnson. 

Naperville North: The afforementioned Huskies (5-3) have lost two of their last three games but don't be fooled. Naperville North can trade offensive punches with everyone in the 8A field behind QB Drake Davis, WR Nick Calcagno and a deep group of receivers. Senior LB Ryan Marrano leads the Huskie defense. The team has marquee wins over Edwardsville, Wheaton North, Lake Park and Naperville Central.

Class 7A

Mount Carmel: The Caravan (5-3) will wind up starting the state playoffs on the road.  And trust me: every opponent will not be excited to see this tradition-heavy program come to town. Mount Carmel will look towards its running game with QB Alek Thomas (a TCU baseball and football commit) along with a big offensive line led by senior Jeremy Cooper (Cincinnati). 

[MORE: Edgy Tim's Week 9 Power Rankings]

Class 6A

Providence Catholic: The Celtics (5-3) are coming off a tough Week 8 loss to Loyola. Don't let the three losses fool you. The combined record of the three teams Providence lost to is 22-3. Keep an eye on senior RB Deshon Gavin (WIU commit), a big and physical offensive line and a strong group on defense. Providence has won five of its last six games.

Class 5A

Rochelle: It is the last season for Hubs' veteran head coach Kevin Crandall. Rochelle (5-3) will look to run the football early and often. They also have a fast, physical defensive unit. Rochelle's three losses this season come to the likes of Sterling (8-0), Morris (7-1) and Johnsburg (8-0) and this team will be a tough out for every opponent in 5A. Rochelle is 157-95 under Crandall, including three 12-win seasons.