Bears

Bulls hope to rebound with Mavericks in town

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Bulls hope to rebound with Mavericks in town

After the Bucks came back from 27 points down late in the third quarter Monday night to beat the Bulls at the United Center, head coach Tom Thibodeau and All-Star Luol Deng were subjected to an expected litany of questions about the loss and what the team could do moving forward Tuesday afternoon. But the last thing Deng told the assembled media following the Bulls' practice at the Berto Center might have been the most salient point of all.

"We could have done a lot of things better and with that said, as bad as we played, we had the last shot to win the game and if that would have went in, it would have been a different story," Deng said. "But it didn't."

Losers of four of their last five games, the Bulls certainly have problems right now. Thibodeau's apparent lack of trust in his bench--though we can't forget, just a week ago, the story line was the coach didn't go to starters like Rip Hamilton, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich enough down the stretch, the antithesis of the criticism after Monday's game--has become a lightning rod and in addition to the team's periodic offensive droughts, something that has occasionally plagued the squad even when they won a league-high amount of regular-season games with injured superstar Derrick Rose in the lineup, the Bulls' once-vaunted defense is also a glaring issue.

But with the Mavericks--missing their own former league MVP in Dirk Nowitzki--in town Wednesday, there's no time for the Bulls to dwell on the defeat. Instead, they must have a short memory and find a way to get back on track against a quality opponent, one coming off a similarly gut-wrenching loss--Dallas lost in Philadelphia, 100-98, Tuesday night, when O.J. Mayo missed the first of two free-throw attempts with seconds remaining and after intentionally missing the second, rookie Jae Crowder was off on a desperation three-point attempt with the clock expiring--and also hungry for a win.

"Like every other game. You come in, you study, make your corrections, get ready for the next game," Thibodeau explained. "You have to learn, make your corrections and get ready for the next opponent. For us, it's about getting ready for Dallas.

"Dallas, they're tough. They've got a lot of guys who can score. They're fourth in the league in fast-break points, O.J. Mayo's having a great year for them, Chris Kaman can score the ball, Vince Carter's very explosive, Darren Collison's really pushing the tempo for them, so they've got a lot of weapons," he continued. "We all can do better and when you're facing some adversity, you've got to be mentally tough and as poorly as we played at the end of the third, to start the fourth, we were still in position to win and so, when things aren't going our way, I don't want us hanging our heads. Making the effort to get back, that shows discipline, discipline and effort, so those things, you can correct. Sometimes you aren't going to make shots, sometimes you may not have control, it may not be your night. But getting back, playing defense, playing together, executing on offense, those things you have control over, so I think you have to understand what your job is and I think you have to get your job done, and in the end, you have to find a way to win.

"It's floor balance. When the ball is shot, there's a responsibility of the perimeter players to be back and then, the fours and fives have to sprint back. Defensive transition is a five-man deal and we've got to get it done, and if one guy's jogging, we're going to break down, so we have to have the discipline, even if things aren't going our way, you can't take possessions off defensively and it doesn't take much to turn the game around."

Deng added: We have a lot to work on. It's a long season. Obviously there's a lot of frustration from last night's game. We're going to be in a lot of close games this year. We've got to get better. We've got to get better at playing the whole 48 minutes. I know you guys keep hearing the same things, but those are the answers that we have.

"I think the next few games will tell," he went on to say. "We're going to come out Wednesday and play hard, and hopefully, I'll have a better interview than I did Monday night. But we're trying to win and just trying to stay positive. I'm trying to stay as positive as I can be and I know there's nights I've got to be better, and each individual try to get better."

Deng joked about the team's practice session--"Yeah, it was terrible. Everyone had their ego showing. You could see their egos on the top of their heads," subtly referencing a popular car commercial--being filled with tension, but in reality, to a man, the entire Bulls roster shared a collective frustration from their performance Monday. At the same time, as the league's minutes-per-game leader, his own disappointment about the team's recent woes isn't the same as some of his teammates, who have to deal with inconsistent minutes or no playing time at all as of late.

"It was one of those days. No one was going to come in smiling. We lost a big lead and sometimes, you think back to the game and there's so many things that you could have done better, and you come in here and see the guys, and you feel like you let down a little bit, each individual. But at the same time, it's a quick turnaround and get ready for Wednesday," he said. "I know everyone wants to do well. It's tough. You're going to be frustrated. You've just got to keep working and try to stay positive. It's a lot easier said, but that's the way it is. That's the way the NBA is. You've just got to deal with adversity. It's a long season. We've still got so many games and so many things can happen, and you're going to get your opportunity."

Thibodeau gave terse responses when asked about his usage of the reserves and specific players not cracking his rotation. In fairness, the coach riding all of his starters--Deng and center Joakim Noah have been the Bulls' ironmen, but the same can't be said for the other regulars--Monday was an anomaly thus far in the young campaign.

"It's a team function. The team has to function well, so we have to do better," Thibodeau said. "We did go to the bench. We brought Taj and Jimmy in at the end of the third, and Nate to start the fourth.

"Everyone has to do their job. Our bench has to stay ready. They're capable, they've all proven they're good players," he added. "Jimmy's playing very well for us, I think Taj is starting to come around, Nate has had some very good games, so we still have some work to do and we've just got to keep our concentration on improving. We've got to get better. We've got to be able to close out games better."

Short rotation or not, the Bulls' struggles this season have not only highlighted Rose's absence, but the departure of the majority of the "Bench Mob"--with the exception of Gibson, who has been up and down in the campaign's early going--a unit that have become more myth than men as time has gone on. While former reserves like Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer were a strength of the team, especially during Rose's injury-plagued season a year ago, they weren't immediately a juggernaut upon arrival in Chicago.

"I thought it was a unique team, but it didn't start off the way everyone is talking about it now. It was something that they got better because of the way that they worked and the commitment they made to each other, and to improvement and to the team, and by doing it every day and they got better and better as time went on, and I'm hopeful that this group will do the same," said Thibodeau, who broke out his "we have more than enough" mantra when asked if the Bulls' front office would or should be active in looking to acquire more bench help. "You can use that as an excuse, but you've got to be ready. You've got to be ready and it's how quickly you can adapt to change. We can't keep using the excuse that 'we've got all these new guys and they're still learning,' and all that. We've got to get the job done. You've got to know what your job is and you've got to get it done.

Concurred Deng: "Honestly, I don't know what was expected. I don't know if you guys expected exactly the same bench. That bench, that "Bench Mob" was great. We won a lot of games because of them, but they're gone and some of them are struggling on their teams, some of them are doing well. But this is a new team. Not every team is going to be about a "Bench Mob." I've been here nine years and every team has a different story. I think for this team, there's going to be ups and downs until we all get our chemistry right and start playing the way we want to play, but we've got to find our identity. But it's a totally different year. It's not fair to the guys that are here, the new guys, to be compared to the guys last year. They're still getting used to it. Even the "Bench Mob," the first year we had them, it took a while to get going and when we got going, it clicked and the year after that, last year, what helped us a lot was we had a lot of guys returning, so we knew how we play and we knew how to play with each other. We're still learning how to play with each other."

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing. 

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

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USA TODAY

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

The goals came in bunches for the Blackhawks in their Oct. 5 season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the Blackhawks, it was a nice memory, albeit one that seems far away given they went from scoring at will through their first two games to not being able to buy a goal for a sizeable stretch.

As for the Penguins, well, you figure their memoires of that game means they’ll be more than a little ticked off when the Blackhawks arrive on Saturday night.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of a few losses like that,” Patrick Sharp said. “You certainly remember them more than other losses.”

This is kind of/sort of about the Penguins, who in the first meeting were clearly tired not only from two Stanley Cup runs but also from their season opener/banner raising the prior night. But it’s more about the Blackhawks who, after a lengthy scoring drought, are starting to get their offense going again (15 goals in their last three games).

And while they’d like to shore up their defense – they blew a 4-1 lead vs. New Jersey and just about did it again vs. the New York Rangers – overall they’re trending in the right direction. And just as they face the team against whom they played their best game of the season.

“I’m sure [the Penguins] will be excited about playing us and making things better. They’re playing well, winning some games. For [us], we’re looking for more consistency in our game with the puck and we’re generating some offense,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think it has some ways to improve. That was one night, whether it was the quality of the plays we made or [what], we seemed like we had the puck a lot and did some good things with it. We haven’t seen much of that lately so I think that maybe we can recapture a little bit of that with the puck as well.”

In the past three games the Blackhawks haven’t just reignited their offense, they’ve regained their confidence. Their lines are finding some chemistry. As frustrating as their scoring drought was, they’re hoping it’s behind them.

“At some point in the season I feel like every team goes through it, either in the beginning, the middle or toward the end. You just don’t want to have it right at the end of the season,” Ryan Hartman said. “You can look at it in in a positive way. Hopefully we got that part over with and now we’re just coming in confident and hopefully we put the puck in the net.”

The Blackhawks got off to a hot goal-scoring start against the Penguins by doing the right things: shooting, pouncing on rebounds, getting traffic in front of the net and capitalizing. As they head into their 20th game of the season, the Blackhawks are finally getting back to what worked so well in Game 1.

“Things dried up for a bit but I think we have a good rotation going here with the lines; the chemistry’s starting to fill in a little bit. Some guys are stepping up. [Artem] Anisimov had a big night and Brinsky’s [Alex DeBrincat] playing great. It’s good to see those guys step up. It makes you want to be that next guy who’s called up to step up in the next game,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s good to see some goals go into the net. More important, it’s good to see some wins. But we’re playing the right way and hopefully this will trend in the right direction for us.”