Bulls fall to Rockets, first back-to-back losses of season


Bulls fall to Rockets, first back-to-back losses of season

The stage was set, with the return of half of their starting backcourt, but a second-half collapse led to the Bulls dropping the two games in a row for the first time all season, as they fell to the Rockets, 99-93, Monday night at the United Center.

An atypical defensive showing and the inability to take care of the basketball led to the rare occurrence of the team that entered the evening with the leagues best record losing at home, a day after a disappointing blowout defeat at the hands of the Western Conference-best Thunder in Oklahoma City.

In his return to the lineup after missing 14 games due to a right-shoulder injury, Rip Hamilton (six points on 2-for-7 shooting, three assists in 19 minutes) made an immediate impact, providing the Bulls (42-13) with an aggressive perimeter scoring threat, as well as a capable playmaker.

A beneficiary of the veteran shooting guards underrated playmaking was Joakim Noah (15 points, nine rebounds), who got off to a solid start in general, as evidenced by his activity on the boards, strong finishes at the rim and running the floor in transition.

Houston (29-25), however, was clicking on the offensive end, as the veteran inside duo of Luis Scola (18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) and Marcus Camby (12 points, 11 rebounds) went to work early, as the pair was a force on the glass, rained in jumpers and scored on the interior.

With point guard Goran Dragic (21 points, five assists) also contributing on offense, the Rockets took advantage of the Bulls again playing below their usual standards on defense, putting the hosts behind, 26-22, after a period of play, despite All-Star Luol Deng (24 points, seven rebounds) chipping in with a quietly solid opening quarter.

The always-energetic Taj Gibson came off the bench to spark the Bulls early in the second frame, helping the home team quickly overtake the visitors and seize the lead. The entire Bench Mob gave the Bulls a boostRonnie Brewer, back to being a backup with Hamilton starting, stood out as a passerextending the lead with an all-out defensive effort and sprinkling of transition offense against the Rockets reserves.

Noah continued to thrive on both ends of the floor, finishing with authorityof his first six baskets, five were dunksand providing a defensive presence, both of which aided the Bulls in acquiring a comfortable double-digit advantage.

However, the visitors stormed back toward the end of the first half, as Dragic scored six points in less than 20 secondstwo fast-break layups off Bulls turnovers, then another off an inbounds passto narrow the gap, leaving the hosts with a 51-40 lead at the intermission.

After the break, Deng became the Bulls offensive focal point and delivered as a scorer, but received little help from his teammates throughout the period. For Houston, the opposite was true, as a total team effortgreatly aided by the Bulls ball-security issues, leading to transition baskets on the other end of the courtgot the guests back into the game.

Camby and Scola were instrumental in the comeback, but Dragics scoring and playmaking prowess was key for the Rockets, who also got solid contributions from supporting-cast members, such as starting wings Courtney Lee (13 points) and rookie Chandler Parsons, as well as reserves Chase Budinger (13 points) and recently-signed veteran Earl Boykins.

With the Bulls struggling on both ends of the floor, the visitors surged to take a 71-70 into the fourth quarter.

The Rockets held on to the games momentum early in the final stanza, as Budingers long-range accuracy offset Carlos Boozers (16 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) mid-range shooting, giving the visitors a double-digit cushion to work with.

Familiar fourth-quarter savior John Lucas III and designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver attempted to spark a run, but the balanced visitors continued to get help from a variety of sources, as Boykins and second-year power forward Patrick Patterson came through with timely scoring to keep Houston in firm control midway through the period.

Turnovers and the inability to capitalize on missed Rockets opportunities still plagued the Bulls as the game entered its stretch run, but even after a Deng jumper cut it to a four-point contest, Lee responded to make it 94-88 with 51 seconds remaining.

A Korver turnover and subsequent foul on the next possession virtually sealed the deal, giving the Bulls back-to-back losses for the first time since falling to Golden State and Portland last February.

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Braves are coming (but not yet)


Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Braves are coming (but not yet)

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Atlanta Braves

2017 record: 72-90, 3rd place in NL East

Offseason additions: Preston Tucker, Charlie Culberson, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Peter Moylan, Chase Whitley, Grant Dayton, Chris Stewart, Anibal Sanchez

Offseason departures: Matt Kemp, R.A. Dickey, Jason Motte, Matt Adams

X-factor: Ozzie Albies

One of the youngest players in the league, Albies just turned 21 in January. He carries with him the pedigree of the game's No. 11 overall prospect entering last season and got his first taste of big-league life toward the end of 2017.

He hit well, posting a .286 average and .810 OPS while showing an advanced knowledge of the strike zone and providing some pop and speed.

Assuming he can avoid any sophomore slump and take another step forward, the Braves could actually surprise some people this year. But without Albies providing Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman some lineup support until a certain phenom gets to town, it's hard to see Atlanta contending.

Projected lineup

1. Ender Inciarte - CF
2. Ozzie Albies - 2B
3. Freddie Freeman - 1B
4. Tyler Flowers - C
5. Nick Markakis - RF
6. Preston Tucker - LF
7. Dansby Swanson - SS
8. Rio Ruiz - 3B

Projected rotation

1. Julio Teheran
2. Mike Foltynewicz
3. Brandon McCarthy
4. Sean Newcomb
5. Scott Kazmir


The Braves are coming, you guys. 

Maybe not now, but they'll be here soon enough.

2018 will feature growing pains for a young group of up-and-comers including the aforementioned Albies, plus Tucker (a powerful outfielder acquired from the Astros), Swanson (the 2015 No. 1 overall pick who's since fallen on tough times) and Newcomb.

Oh and there's some guy named Ronald Acuna coming up next. You may have heard of him.

The 20-year-old phenom has absolutely torn the cover off the ball everywhere he's gone the last 14 or so months and we'll see the game's No. 1 overall prospect in the big leagues in mid-April, God willing.

Once Acuna does come, it adds another level to a lineup that frankly comes up a bit short right now, even with Freeman (one of the best hitters in baseball) and Inciarte (one of the game's most underrated players). 

The Braves have a solid bullpen, plenty of rotation depth and a decent bench. It wouldn't be shocking to see them challenge for the second wild card spot, but true contention will probably come in 2019 for this bunch.

Prediction: 3rd in NL West, no playoffs

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves

Podcast: Eddie O discusses what went wrong for Blackhawks this season


Podcast: Eddie O discusses what went wrong for Blackhawks this season

Eddie Olczyk joins Pat Boyle, Steve Konroyd and Jamal Mayers to discuss what went wrong for the Blackhawks this season, and what changes could happen this summer to get the team back into the postseason.

Listen to the entire HawksTalk Podcast here: