Blackhawks

Bulls' collective effort holds off East-leading Knicks

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Bulls' collective effort holds off East-leading Knicks

In a flashback to the days of the Bench Mob finding improbable ways to win, an even more short-handed Bulls (11-8) team topped the conference-leading Knicks (14-5), 93-85, Saturday night at the United Center.

Led by the a myriad cast of characters playing with heart and selflessness, clutch play and of course, a stout defensive effort, it certainly wasnt pretty, but Bulls held off the best team in the East by exemplifying teamwork, just the way head coach Tom Thibodeau likes it.

A 6-0 Knicks run to start the contestincluding a jumper from former Bull Kurt Thomas, starting in place of the sidelined Carmelo Anthony, alongside another ex-United Center denizen, Ronnie Brewer, at the two forward spots for New Yorkmade it appear as if the hosts simply didnt have enough firepower to keep up with the Eastern Conference leaders.

However, the ever-present rebounding of Joakim Noah (10 points, 11 rebounds) and the three-point shooting of the Kirk Hinrich-Marco Belinelli (22 points, 4-of-6 three-point shooting) backcourt pairing allowed the Bulls to rapidly overtake their guests.

Belinellis outside marksmanship persisted throughout the opening period, but he was countered by the aggressive offensive play of Knicks point guard Raymond Felton (27 points)in the midst of a resurgence now that hes back in New York, after being shipped to Denver in the blockbuster deal for Anthony, then having a nightmare campaign in Portland last seasonand the visitors whittled away at the deficit. New York tied the contest at 23 apiece with seconds remaining in the first quarter after an improbable bank-shot three-pointer by veteran big man Rasheed Wallace, but Belinelli struck again, hitting a buzzer-beater from just beyond halfcourt to give the Bulls a 26-23 advantage at the conclusion of the frame.

Though Belinelli cooled downhow could he not, after scoring 15 first-quarter points?the Knicks did not, as they got contributions from reserves Wallace, sixth-man extraordinaire J.R. Smith (15 points) and sharpshooter Steve Novak, as well as Felton. But the Bulls managed to keep it a close-knit affair, as backup point guard Nate Robinson (14 points, eight assists, six rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (12 points, 10 rebounds) were sources of point production.

A surprise moment occurred when Taj Gibson, generally a happy-go-lucky, if hard-playing type, was whistled for a foul against Novak, then promptly got hit with two technicals in short succession on the way back to the Bulls bench and was ejected. Still, the hosts held it together as Luol Deng (22 points) came alive offensively toward the end of the half and at the intermission, the Bulls had a 43-41 lead.

After the break, the already short-handed Bulls became even more undermanned when Hinrich didnt start the third quarterRobinson filled in for himdue to a left-elbow injury. Behind forwards Deng and Boozer, however, the hosts soldiered on and played the visitors to a draw midway through the period.

Maybe Brewers presence inspired them, but the Bulls gutted out a gritty collective effort, similar to how the Bench Mob would dig deep in the absence of Derrick Rose or other injured stars over the past two seasons, with reserves Robinson and Jimmy Butler (eight points, seven rebounds) each making positive impacts, along with continued solid contributions from Belinelli, a trio the team doesnt absolutely count on to win games. Despite Feltons blend of scoring and playmaking still hurting them on the defensive end and center Tyson Chandler (14 points, 18 rebounds), the reigning league Defensive Player of the Year, controlling the paint, the Bulls headed into the final stanza ahead, 67-65.

Rookie Marquis Teague, who hasnt received meaningful playing time since prior to the Circus Trip, when he held his own against Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo, had a brief, uneventful stint early in the fourth quarter. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau instead, stuck with his regulars and with Dengs quiet consistency as a clutch scorer, Noah mustering up the energy to make his presence felt late, Robinson, Butler and Belinelli making timely plays and a stout defensive effort forcing the quick-triggered Felton and his teammates into a woeful shooting night, the hosts somehow maintained their slight edge as the contest entered its stretch run.

A Noah layup with 56.1 seconds left made it a three-possession game, 89-82, and although the Knicks furiously attempted to make a comeback attempt, Robinsons ability to make free throws under pressure sealed the deal. Just like in the past, the Bulls collective effort outweighed anything they could have done on an individual basis.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.