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Butler, Bulls battle to continue their success against Detroit

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Butler, Bulls battle to continue their success against Detroit

Fresh off an impressive win Monday night against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, the Bulls will look to keep up their success at home with a matchup against the Detroit Pistons. Coverage begins at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live, hosted by Mark Schanowski and Kendall Gill

Jimmy Butler may not want to label himself as the "Kobe Bryant Stopper" -- though he did limit the future Hall of Famer to 16 points on 7-of-22 shooting in Monday night's 95-83 win over the Lakers -- but the second-year swingman out of Marquette has been everything the Bulls needed when Luol Deng aggravated a hamstring injury last Friday in Boston.

Over the last three games -- the latter two of which were his first and second career starts -- Butler is averaging 13.6 points 6.6 rebounds and may draw yet another start tonight against the Pistons. Deng did not practice Tuesday and, with Butler playing as well as he has been, there's no need for Tom Thibodeau to rush back his leading scorer given how often a hamstring injury can linger all season if not treated properly.

The numbers do tell part of the story of Butler's resurgence, but the Bulls' 2011 first-round draft pick has played just as well defensively -- taking after Thibodeau's team model -- in that span. Guarding the likes of Boston's Paul Pierce, Memphis' Rudy Gay and Bryant mirror the traits that moved Butler into the first round of the draft two years ago. His versatility allowed Marquette coach Buzz Williams to utilize his swing man on defense against four different positions, and Butler -- who was rarely used as a rookie -- has proved his worth in the past three games, if not the entire season.

Overlooked as a junior college athlete before arriving at Marquette as a junior, Butler waited until the end of the first round to hear his name called despite leading the Golden Eagles to their first Sweet 16 in 2011 for the first time since the days of Dwyane Wade. Butler has played with a chip on his shoulder his entire playing career and has never been one for the spotlight.

The three key Pistons that Butler and the Bulls will face tonight, however, have been in the spotlight ever since high school, and are now making names for themselves at the NBA level.

Point guard Brandon Knight, power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond have helped the Pistons rebound from a horrid start to the 2012-'13 season and are playing some of their best basketball as they head to the United Center tonight. They've won five of eight contests since the calendar flipped to 2013, and have tallied a 9-4 record since Dec. 21. Wins in that span have included Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Boston, all playoff teams as of today.

Like Derrick Rose, who began contact practice with the Bulls earlier this week, Knight is one of a handful of players on the list of Kentucky head coach John Calipari's point guard "dynasty." Ranked as the No. 6 high school player in the 2010 class, Knight spent one season with the Wildcats before the Pistons selected him No. 8 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. He has regressed slightly in his second season, but has the athleticism and talent to make Kirk Hinrich's job a tough one. Knight scored 21 points in the Pistons' 108-104 home loss to Chicago in December.

Monroe was ranked as the No. 8 high school player in the 2008 class, and declared for the draft after two successful seasons with the Georgetown Hoyas. The Pistons used their seventh overall pick in the 2010 Draft to select Monroe, and after an up-and-down rookie season the 6-foot-9 forward has become a key cog inside for Lawrence Frank's group. Monroe squared off against Butler three times in college, with his Hoyas holding a 2-1 advantage over Butler's Golden Eagles.

One of the reasons Monroe has improved has been the shift to move him to his more natural power forward position. That was made possible, in part, by management selecting Drummond with the No. 9 pick in last year's draft. After reclassifying to the 2011 high school class, Drummond was ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Anthony Davis. Davis would go on to Kentucky, win a national championship, be named the AP Player of the Year, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the NCAA Tournament's MOP. Things weren't as smooth for Drummond, who struggled at Connecticut under Jim Calhoun and entered the draft after his freshman season. But the raw talent the Pistons saw in the 6-foot-10 center was legitimate, and he's averaged 7.5 points and 7.3 rebounds for Detroit in his rookie season.

Veterans Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince have also helped the Pistons rebound from an 0-8 start to begin the season, but the young guns deployed by Frank -- who replaced Thibodeau as an assistant in Boston after Thibodeau accepted the Bulls' head coaching gig -- are the players to watch for in tonight's matchup. If the last week is any indication, Butler will have his sights set again on locking down defensively and acting as a role player in the offense. Tune in tonight to catch all the action.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”