Cubs

Belinelli hopes shooting slump is over

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Belinelli hopes shooting slump is over

SOUTH BEND, IND. For Marco Belinelli, the seven points he scored in Friday evenings Bulls win over the Pacers were more symbolic than anything else. Known as a sharpshooter over the course of his NBA career, the native of Italy has been mired in a slump the entire preseason.

So when he hit an improbable three-pointer to beat the shot clock in the first half of the exhibition finale the shooting guards first of the preseason it felt like a weight was lifted off his back. He would later go on to hit a contested fadeaway jumper out of the mid-post, then a layup off a sharp cut in the second half and played, at the least, determined defense.

This is a good team, so I just want to be the best player that I can be. But its important tonight to me that we won the game and I hope that were going to be ready for the first regular-season game, Belinelli said afterwards. I was really pissed off, especially when a shooter cant score the ball. Its terrible, but at the same time, I try to be positive, work on my shot and be ready to score the ball. Its important to me to go on the court and be real aggressive. Thats the most important thing.

I just tried to be more aggressive. I was watching the games, the last couple games that I didnt play real well, so I wasnt aggressive. That was one of my mistakes, so tonight, I went to the court, tried to be aggressive, take my shot, take the foul or do something for my teammates and be aggressive on defense. I think that tonight its important that we won the game and every day is better, he continued. That was crazy because I missed the first three-point shot when I was wide-open, but I scored a three-point shot that was crazy. But I think that was important for me, for my confidence, so for now, everythings going to be better.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau continues to insist that hes less concerned about Belinellis shooting than his overall play. Still, he has to be relieved that on a team without a plethora of outside marksmen, let alone defensive magnet Derrick Rose to attract attention, that Belinelli took a step in the right direction.

I dont think hes been playing poorly. I think he hasnt shot well so far. But he will. We know that. Hes already proven that. I think hes made several big plays off the dribble for us and defensively, hes improving each day, Thibodeau explained. He still has a long way to go, but hes got to be confident in his ability to play well on the nights on which he doesnt shoot the ball well and I think he can.

Belinelli hopes Friday was just the start of bigger and better things for him, as he adjusts to the best NBA team hes played for during his career. He admitted that hed been overly preoccupied with his errant shot.

Maybe thats why, because I didnt think too much. Maybe thats one of the reasons, he said. We played well. We passed the ball amazing, we played defense and tonight we took a lot of rebounds, so tonight, especially against this team, that was really important. Now, finally were going to start the season Wednesday.

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

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USA TODAY

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

For the second year in a row, the National League champs celebrated a pennant at Wrigley Field.

A dominating, 100-win club that had the championship formula of elite starting pitching, a lights-out closer and a fearsome lineup lifted a trophy Thursday night on the North Side and look destined to lift another before this postseason is over.

Sound familiar, Cubs fans?

The Cubs’ quest to repeat as World Series champs ended Thursday, and instead the Los Angeles Dodgers got to party, getting their revenge after the Cubs eliminated them here last October.

The next few months’ worth of conversation in Wrigleyville will center — and not inappropriately so — on the Cubs’ shortcomings this postseason. They couldn’t hit. The bullpen was woefully unreliable. And the starting pitching, particularly Jose Quintana in a two-inning, seven-run outing in Game 5, was not what it was last fall.

But if you hear that laundry list of offenses over the course of the next few days, weeks and months, remember to give some credit where credit is due, because these Dodgers look a lot like last year’s Cubs.

“The better team won over the course of these five games,” Joe Maddon said after his team’s season came to a close. “They played really well. They kind of out-pitched us and everything else. So give them credit.

“You know what it feels like coming off of last year, we were celebrating versus them in this exact same spot. So they've had themselves a spectacular year.”

The Dodgers have the elite starting pitching, as evidenced throughout this series and most specifically in two of the three games here on the North Side, where Yu Darvish (Game 3) and Clayton Kershaw (Game 5) showed why they’re two of the top pitchers in the game.

Thursday night, Kershaw did what he couldn’t do to the Cubs last October, stifling that slumping lineup with six innings of one-run ball, the only run surrendered (and just one of the three hits surrendered) a meaningless Kris Bryant home run with the Cubs down 9-0.

Altogether, Dodger pitching posted a jaw-dropping 1.64 ERA in this series. Starting pitchers were the only ones to give up runs, and they gave up just eight of them in 27 innings. The four starters’ ERA was a fantastic 2.67.

And so there’s another part of the Dodgers’ championship combination: that stellar bullpen. The Cubs got just two hits and no runs against the relief corps in the entire five-game series. In 17 shutout innings, the Dodger bullpen was pretty much unhittable.

No one shone more than Kenley Jansen, who faced 13 batters and recorded 13 outs. Cubs fans will remember how big a weapon Aroldis Chapman was out of last year’s bullpen. Well Jansen is just as incredible — and just as meaningful to this postseason run.

Now obviously the Cubs’ hitting woes weren’t exclusively the result of facing Dodger pitching. They carried over from the NLDS — another series featuring some sensational pitching from the opposition — and without the mega-slumps of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and practically everyone else to swing a bat for the Cubs, things would have been incredibly different. But there’s something to shutting down a lineup with superior pitching, and that’s what the Dodgers did.

And then there’s the Dodgers’ offense, which has its own Bryzzo in Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, who were named the NLCS co-MVPs after combining to go 12-for-37 with four homers, 10 RBIs and eight runs scored in five games. Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig are mighty good hitters. And then there’s what Enrique Hernandez did Thursday night: three homers and seven RBIs in the 11-1 mauling.

That’s a fearsome lineup, and while Quintana should’ve gone longer than two-plus innings, you can’t entirely blame Cubs pitching for not being able to quiet these guys over the past four games. Moments like John Lackey giving up that walk-off homer to Turner in Game 2 will live in infamy in the collective memory of Cubs fans, but the guy’s an MVP candidate. Seeing him do something like that isn’t unexpected.

“Sometimes in our game,” Maddon said before Game 5, “there is more of an attempt to vilify as opposed to glorify. In other words, when Turner hits a home run, it's because Turner is good, not because the pitcher is bad or wrong. So I think it's been shifting in a sense that people want to blame somebody as opposed to giving somebody credit. I see a lot of that.”

So yes, there’s no doubting that the Cubs had their problems — big ones — during the 10 postseason games they played this month. And those problems will have huge effects on the offseason and how Theo Epstein & Co. construct the 2018 edition of this team.

But sometimes, as Cubs fans well know from last season’s championship run, there’s one of those teams that has that magic formula. The Cubs were that team in 2016. The Dodgers seem to fit that bill now.

In other words, the better team won.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime loss to Oilers: Connor McDavid adds to highlight reel

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime loss to Oilers: Connor McDavid adds to highlight reel

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night:
 
1. Shake-up on power play doesn't work.

Joel Quenneville spruced up his power play units before Wednesday's game in an effort to snap a dry spell, but the Blackhawks had no luck in that department in the second of a back-to-back.

The Blackhawks went 0-for-5 on the man advantage against an Oilers team that was ranked dead last in penalty kill percentage going into the contest, and failed to capitalize on a 5-on-3 opportunity for 56 seconds in the opening minutes of the season period.

They're getting off a fair amount of shots, but the quality of them isn't there.

2. Ryan Hartman fine after brief exit due to illegal hit.

It was a physical game between the Blackhawks-Oilers, but a line was crossed at the 4:59 mark into the second period when Zack Kassian delivered a huge hit on Hartman, who went face-first into the boards.

Kassian was given a two-minute minor penalty for boarding, a call that didn't sit well with the sold-out United Center crowd of 21,444. Hartman went to the locker room to be checked out after the hit despite getting up quickly and showing no visible signs of distress, but he fortunately returned a few shifts later.

It was a dangerous hit by Kassian, and an avoidable one too. 

Quenneville admitted Hartman getting up quickly perhaps may have "helped" keep it a minor penalty and not a five-minute major, but the Blackhawks coach wasn't focused on that after seeing the result unfold.

"I saw how hard it looked," Quenneville said. "But Hartzy getting up right away, that helped. You don't even measure it anymore after that. That's the one thing you're hopeful for right off the bat."
 
3. Connor McDavid adds another play to highlight reel.

We're only two weeks into the season, but the 20-year-old reigning Hart Trophy winner submitted an early entry for Assist of the Year.

Late in the first period, McDavid flew from his own end into the offensive zone, made a spin-o-rama move on two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and backhanded a perfect pass to Patrick Maroon, who tapped in a goal at the doorstep.

It looks impossible to defend from anyone watching, and Keith pretty much felt the same way.

"When he gets the speed in the other end there and he's able to skate all the way down, it's tough to stop a guy especially when he's that fast," Keith said. "He's just flying through the middle. I'm just a sitting duck there at the other end of the ice waiting for him to come full speed. It's a hard play to defend against."
 
4. Anton Forsberg sharp again.

It's a small sample size, but the Blackhawks' backup goaltender has looked really sharp in practically every start he's had in a Chicago uniform, including preseason.

He deserved a better fate in his regular season debut last week in Toronto when he stopped 39 of 43 shots in an overtime loss, and the same applied here.

Forsberg tied a career-high with 40 saves, and seemingly got better as the game went on.

"I for sure felt more comfortable, felt like I was more used to the speed," Forsberg said. "It's tough again to lose in overtime, obviously I wanted a win and that's kind of frustrating."

"Excellent games, both games," Quenneville said of his goaltender. "Would've been nice to get him a win tonight."
 
5. Jordan Oesterle keeps it simple in debut.

The Blackhawks' crowded blue line has made it difficult for Quenneville to give all eight defensemen a fair amount of playing time, but Oesterle took advantage of his season debut.

He logged 15:01 of ice time, registered three shot attempts (two on goal), and blocked two shots.

"I liked him," Quenneville said. "Moves the puck."

Said Keith: "I thought he was good. Tough situation for him, he hasn't played all year in a game but I thought he played good. He's got good poise, he's smart back there."