CLEVELANDIt was more difficult than necessary, but if dragging out a seemingly inevitable, 95-85 Bulls (9-8) victory over the Cavaliers (4-15) at Quicken Loans Arena is what Marco Belinelli needed to get going, it might have been worth it. The free-agent acquisition had his best night of the season Wednesday and though the effort wasnt the 48-minute effort the team strives for, it was a nice bounce-back game after a gut-wrenching loss the previous evening at home.Starting in place of sidelined veteran Rip Hamilton for the second straight night, backup shooting guard Belinelli (23 points) was aggressive from the outsetscoring from the outside and even in the post, using his size advantage to knock down a fadeaway jumper over Cavaliers' counterpart Daniel Boobie Gibson, who was starting for injured rookie starter Dion Waitersand helped the visitors jump out to an early lead. In fact, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau apparently thought so highly of Belinellis start that he pulled a shocker: Luol Deng (22 points, seven rebounds), the leagues minutes-per-game leader, not Belinelli, came out of the game when second-year swingman Jimmy Butler checked in late in the opening period.With balanced scoring from the other startersincluding Joakim Noah (13 points, 15 rebounds) and Cleveland doppelganger Anderson Varejao (11 points, 15 rebounds) virtually canceling each other outand reserves Butler and Taj Gibson not missing a beat upon entering the contest, the Bulls, making a gaudy two-thirds of their shots and limiting their hosts to making just a third of their attempts, easily surged to a double-digit advantage. After a quarter of play, the Bulls were ahead, 27-11.While the Bulls cooled down offensively in the second periodthough Belinelli knocked down his first shot of the frame before getting a well-deserved breather after scoring 12 first-half pointsthe visitors continued to give a stout defensive effort, ensuring that the Cavaliers wouldnt get any easy opportunities. Additionally, the guests appeared to make a concerted effort to take better care of the balla bugaboo all season, as well as a slight issue in the first quarterwhich prevented Cleveland from getting out in transition, their best method of scoring without their young backcourt of reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Waiters in action.The Bulls continued to cruise, maintaining their comfortable winning margin and while they werent perfect, they generally played the mistake-free brand of basketball that Thibodeau prefers. With forwards Deng and Carlos Boozer (10 points, 12 rebounds)the latter, whose first NBA team in Cleveland, didnt exactly receive a warm receptionmaking positive offensive contributions, starting floor general Kirk Hinrich (11 points, eight assists) capably handling playmaking duties and backup point guard Nate Robinson providing his usual spark off the bench, the Bulls went into the intermission with a 45-35 lead.Cleveland made a push after the break, with Varejaos rebounding and help on the interior from second-year big man Tristan Thompson, leading the way. But the Bulls were prepared for a potential run and with Belinellis hot hand persistingat least until he picked up his fourth foul midway through the period, giving way to Butleras well as Deng starting to get going and Noahs high activity level yielding strong work on the glass against a similarly energetic opponent in Varejao, the visitors clung to their breathing room.The likes of Gibson and reserve guard Donald Sloan joined in the Cavaliers comeback effort and when rookie big man Tyler Zeller made it a two-possession contest, 64-59 in favor of the Bulls, with 1:51 to go in the third quarter, it officially became a ballgame. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were up 72-63, following Hinrich scoring the last six points of the period for the visitors.The fourth quarter started somewhat ominously, with Gibson picking up his fourth foul and Noah subsequently drawing a technical, already his fifth on the young campaign. But no matter how tenuous the Bulls control of the game appeared, they surreptitiously built up their lead, behind contributions from the likes of Deng, Noah, Robinson and of course, Belinelli, who was enjoying his best outing in a Bulls uniform.Cleveland didnt relent, however, cutting the deficit to single digits again after an Alonzo Gee triple midway through the period, but shortly afterwards, the Bulls put their foot down, outclassing their inferior foe and extending their lead to the point where it was all academic from there on out. The hosts waved the white flag, as Cavaliers head coach subbed out key starters when the contest entered its stretch run, ensuring that the Bulls got off to a positive start on their two-game, Central Division road trip.
Only a couple names went off the board of 2014 draftees who reached agreements on extensions with their teams, with Zach LaVine sitting on the sidelines as the midnight deadline came and went.
His debut in a Bulls uniform and contract will have to wait.
Although LaVine’s representatives and the Bulls front office remained in communication, there was never any serious talk of a deal being reached and he’ll hit restricted free agency this summer.
The Bulls will have a better picture of what type of player LaVine is post-surgery on his left knee, and LaVine will have a chance to reconstruct his market value the way he’s done to his knee—as evidenced by his casual stroll down the lane, two dribbles and two-handed dunk while running a dummy offense with the assistant coaches over the weekend at the Advocate Center.
His return isn’t imminent, as he’s still weeks away from being cleared to practice, following the track of his rehab from surgery.
Perhaps in a bit of curious timing, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was talking about LaVine, saying his future shooting guard wasn’t going through much in the way of 5-on-0 drills.
“The big focus right now is on his rehab,” Hoiberg said.
But considering how few options Hoiberg has on a team that isn’t expected to win more than 20 games, the thought of how he’ll use LaVine on the floor in this offense isn’t unrealistic.
“He's doing a lot of unpredictable movements, but a lot of that is 1-on-0 workouts. Yeah, absolutely there's things we look at and see actions that other teams might be running for their skilled players or shooters.”
Justin Holiday will be keeping the seat warm for LaVine until LaVine is completely healed from his surgery, and while the Bulls are adhering to the nine-month recovery prognosis after his February surgery, his return will be highly anticipated.
“Some of the things we're running for Justin right now I think will be very good for Zach as well,” Hoiberg said. “Then we're going to get both of those guys on the floor, it's going to give you two really good options as far as shooting and spacing and two athletic wing players.”
With the Bulls in the infancy stages of a rebuild, LaVine’s success is one they’ll be invested in above any other player on the roster considering the financial stakes.
LaVine can command a deal well over $100 million this summer and will join the likes of draftmates Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon into the always-tricky world of restricted free agency.
The Bulls have done this dance before, most recently with Jimmy Butler before Butler blossomed into an All-Star. There was a small gulf between Butler’s contract wishes and the Bulls offer before the 2014-15 season began, one that resulted in Butler receiving a max contract when Butler took the biggest single-season leap in his career.
Preserving precious salary cap space has been paramount for the Bulls, who originally signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to short-term deals with an eye on the summer of 2018, believing many teams will have overspent with the salary cap boom.
In that instance, they’re correct and are in position to have among the most cap space in the NBA next summer when Wade’s contract buyout runs off the books being close to $40 million under the cap. As of now, only Robin Lopez is guaranteed over $10 million for next season and Nikola Mirotic’s deal is a team option.
For LaVine, he began to blossom playing as a third wheel behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota before tearing his ACL. If he’s a reasonable facsimile physically, he will produce at a higher clip than scoring 18.9 points as a No. 1 option in Chicago.
As the centerpiece in the Butler trade, the Bulls have no intentions on letting him walk and LaVine is even more incentivized to perform for a potential max contract.
“I'm very excited about Zach. You can tell how much he wants to be out there with our guys. Every day he comes in and says, 'Coach, I'm ready to go out there',” Hoiberg said. “It's a process. We have to make sure he 100 percent healthy, even though he feels no symptoms right now at all. He's got no soreness in that leg. But he can't wait, his teammates can't wait and the staff obviously is very excited to get him back out there.”
“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”
It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.
There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.
There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.
· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.
“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.
“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”
· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.
“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”
· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.
But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.
“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”
· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.
Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.
“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.
“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”
· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.
By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.