Fire

Examining the West, title contenders

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Examining the West, title contenders

Sunday's marquee matchup between the Thunder and Heat was billed by many -- though not in Chicago -- as a potential NBA Finals preview. For the Bulls and their fans, instead of taking umbrage, the game should have been dissected as an evaluation of both teams' strengths and weaknesses, particularly Oklahoma City, who play in the Western Conference, won't travel to Chicago and the Bulls face only once this season, next Sunday.

Two-time reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant's ability to score one-on-one against any competition was certainly illuminated, as he took on LeBron James, regarded as one of the league's top individual defenders and not only scored at will, but appeared to sap James' energy on the other end of the floor. Meanwhile, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook didn't have one of his recent high-scoring games, but was a solid distributor, providing opportunities for defensive-oriented inside players Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, while sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden also picked up the slack.

On the other hand, although the Heat looked tired, it should be noted that they endured multiple lackluster stretches last season before turning it on in the postseason. The addition of big man Ronny Turiaf shouldn't be overlooked because while he doesn't have ideal size to take on the Bulls, among other teams, Joakim Noah's French national team partner is an experienced active force who is capable of contributing on both ends of the floor -- the veteran is certainly an offensive upgrade from starting center Joel Anthony -- and at the very least, is a body willing to commit six fouls.

When it comes to other contenders in the league, it's hard to include anyone other than Chicago and Miami in the East. As a flawed and inconsistent Orlando team looks primed to make another early-round exit, as does Atlanta, which is still without injured center Al Horford, and Boston, which might have reached the end of their run as a serious threat. While the likes of Philadelphia and Indiana appear to be one year and player away from doing real damage after superb starts to the season, the race for the eighth seed between New York and Milwaukee -- both teams are hot, sparked by the Knicks' coaching change and the Bucks' acquisition of Monta Ellis -- is entertaining and in their own way, each team could pose problems for a top seed. The West, however, is another story, as Oklahoma City is the only team that seems capable of truly competing with the Bulls or Heat in a seven-game series, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the young Thunder even makes it to the Finals.

San Antonio is still lurking as the potential second seed and with the additions of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw -- the fact that Jackson, the volatile veteran swingman, was acquired for the disappointing Richard Jefferson, is a bonus in reuniting him with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who he won a title with earlier in his career, and Diaw's connection with both Jackson from their days in Charlotte and point guard Tony Parker from their France ties should ease his transition -- and while Staples Center co-residents the Lakers and Clippers are going through some very public and trying times, each team has the talent to make a run, particularly with the trade-deadline acquisitions in positions of need of Ramon Sessions filling the Lakers' point-guard void and hired gun and L.A. native Nick Young moving into the Clippers' starting shooting-guard spot. Another team to watch could be Memphis, which stayed afloat despite the nearly season-long absence of star Zach Randolph and with added depth and the burly power forward back in the lineup, is for the second consecutive year, a squad that could be a tough out in the playoffs.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”