Bears

'Bench Mob' fourth-quarter blitz stuns Raptors

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'Bench Mob' fourth-quarter blitz stuns Raptors

TORONTOFor the games first three quarters, the Bulls (39-10) appeared as if, like in last Fridays surprising home loss to Portland, they were resting on their laurels after a big win and had overlooked an inferior opponent.

Until the fourth quarter hit, that is, as the visitors to Canada, were poor guests and with a dominant defensive effort from the Bench Mob, blew away the bewildered Raptors (15-32), to end a two-game road trip with a 94-82 victory Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre.

Maybe it was the camouflage-themed uniformsworn in honor of Canadas armed forcesthat disoriented them, but the Bulls, coming off arguably their best defensive performance of the season, allowed the high-scoring Raptors, propelled by the point production of athletic swingman DeMar DeRozan (23 points, six rebounds), to make it a high-scoring affair in the early going.

Countering for the visitors was first-time All-Star Luol Deng (17 points, 10 rebounds), who appeared to be in pre-wrist injury form, as he was efficient scoring the ball in a variety of ways, yet still showcased his all-around skills.

Along with the playmaking of floor general Jose Calderon, former Bulls reserve James Johnson (16 points, seven rebounds), in a starting role for the hosts, was another reason Toronto was able to jump out to an early edge and even after their guests caught up and eventually, take the lead.

But with Joakim Noah pounding the boards in his typical fashion, as well as displaying his underrated ability to distribute the ball, and C.J. Watson (13 points) bouncing back after a rough offensive outing Monday in Orlando, the Bulls were able to take a 27-23 advantage into the second quarter.

The offensive battle between Deng and DeRozan continued into the second period and the game remained a close-knit contest, as the Bulls allowed the home team to shoot a higher percentage than desired with many of the Raptors opportunities coming in transition.

The visitors also endured surprising ball-security issues, considering their opponents usual sieve-like defense, and found themselves in a shallow hole, as Toronto, buoyed by the play of frontcourt reserves Aaron Gray and Linas Kleiza, built a slim cushion.

Despite a stated desire to not allow the contest to be a so-called trap game, following an impressive road victory Monday in Orlandoin which the Bulls set a franchise record for the fewest points allowed to an opponent in a regular-season gameit certainly appeared they werent playing with the urgency and intensity that has marked this stellar campaign thus far.

At the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 51-43, following a deep jumper by star forward Andrea Bargnani toward the end of the first half.

After the break, the Bulls offensive woes continued, while the Raptors remained potent on that end of the floor and quickly took a double-digit lead over their supposed upper-echelon guests.

However, the tough-minded bunch from Chicago fought back and used a rapid 6-0 spurt, led by Watson and swingman Ronnie Brewer (13 points), to get back within striking distance.

The hosts wouldnt let up, though, and with DeRozan maintaining his hot hand, as well as contributions from a variety of sources, including Johnson and frontcourt partner Amir Johnson, the Raptors took full advantage of Chicagos offensive ineptitude to keep the breathing room they had earned.

With the Bulls bench providing little to nothing in the way of helping to staunch the bleedingin fairness, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau turned to them sparinglythe visitors were the wrong end of a 69-62 score through three quarters of play.

At the outset of the final stanza, sparkplug John Lucas III (14 points, four assists), whos more familiar than most with the Air Canada Centre rims, led a Bulls comeback with the instant-offense scoring and intelligent playmaking that has become so familiar as of late.

Lucas, along with the Bench MobTaj Gibsons athleticism, Omer Asiks defense and Kyle Korvers (10 points) outside marksmanship were other highlights of the blitzand Deng, left the Raptors absolutely shell-shocked, as the visitors went on a 20-0 run, holding the hosts scoreless for exactly 20 minutes.

Each of the players on the floor had their moments, but the Bulls familiar theme, defense, truly carried them as the game entered its stretch run.

Although the first three periods were far from ideal, the fourth and final frame embodied why the Bulls, even without reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, have the leagues top record, are a dominant defensive unit and even after an NBA-best 62-win season a year ago, have evolved into a squad capable of beating the odds on a nightly basis, as they cruised to the win in the games waning moments.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”