Cubs

Bulls look to continue dominance over Pacers

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Bulls look to continue dominance over Pacers

Monday, Dec. 13, 2010
12:12 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Before the season started, it was assumed that the Bulls and Bucks would be the class of the Central Division. Through the first quarter of the 2010-11 campaign, however, it's been Indiana--Chicago's neighbor to the east, instead of the north--that has been the Bulls' main divisional competition.

Judging from the Bulls' 102-74 preseason rout of the Pacers, as well as their dismal season a year ago, hopes were dim for Indiana to recover anytime soon from the downhill spiral the franchise has been in since the infamous "Malice in the Palace," the 2004 brawl with the Detroit Pistons that occurred when the Pacers were last a legitimate contender. While the young team, at 11-11, isn't exactly a juggernaut, it has surprised observers around the league and in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, Indiana could sneak into one of the bottom playoff seeds if it maintains its strong play.

Many expect Milwaukee to rebound from its disappointing start and regain the magic of last season's "Fear the Deer" run to the playoffs, although much of that hinges upon whether star center Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and return to form. Regardless, Indiana's up-tempo style under head coach Jim O'Brien--seemingly on the hot seat every season for the past couple years--has started to click, as evidenced by games like their 144-113 shellacking of Denver (admittedly an anomaly), in which the Pacers benefited from a team-record 54-point third quarter; they shot 20-for-21 from the field in the period, with the lone miss a last-second heave from forward Josh McRoberts.

Star small forward Danny Granger has been the catalyst, bouncing back from a subpar, injury-plagued season--a year after his initial All-Star appearance--to score 21.1 points per game. The numbers aren't the most impressive of Granger's career and he isn't as efficient as he's been in the past, but league observers note that he's playing more unselfishly and has recommitted to the all-around game that first won him accolades in the league, following a humbling summer where he played limited minutes on the gold medal-winning FIBA World Championships USA Basketball squad.

Third-year center Roy Hibbert has been one of the league's most improved players in the early season. After losing weight and working with Hall of Famer Bill Walton in the offseason, the Georgetown product is averaging 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per contest, developing into one of the NBA's better young centers. Hibbert's uncanny shooting range and passing ability belie his 7-foot-2 size, as he often operates in the high post, but has displayed improved post moves, strength, mobility and stamina.

Perhaps most significant about the Pacers is the offseason addition of Darren Collison. A true point guard, the second-year former UCLA star was acquired via trade (along with veteran James Posey) and despite losing productive power forward Troy Murphy in the late-summer four-team deal, the organization now has their floor general of the future. After a first-team NBA all-rookie campaign with the Hornets a year ago, starting for New Orleans when superstar Chris Paul was sidelined, Collison is scoring 13.5 points and handing out 4.2 assists an outing as a full-time starter.

Add in the good health of oft-injured sharpshooters Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy, and the Pacers are actually competitive again on most nights. Taking all that into consideration, though, it still might not be enough to derail a focused Bulls team on a current five-game winning streak Monday evening at the United Center.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Chris Bleck (ESPN 1000) and Scott King (WGN Radio) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Ryan Pace’s offseason begins. Josh Sitton and Jerrell Freeman are gone, but what will he do with Kyle Fuller?

Plus, Rick Hahn joins Kap from Glendale, Ariz., to discuss the state of the White Sox rebuild, how tough it is to keep their best prospects in the minors and why Jose Abreu is so important for his young team?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: