Blackhawks

Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

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Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

The good news is the Fire is awaiting its first playoff match since 2009. The bad news is the Fire goes into Wednesday nights meeting with the Houston Dynamo with absolutely no momentum.

Its still possible for the Fire to wins its second Major League Soccer title, the first coming in the clubs inaugural 1998 season, but the road couldnt be much more difficult. If the Fire gets by the Dynamo, the next task will be a two-game home-and-home series against Sporting Kansas City, clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

The first game of that conference semifinal series would be at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire gets by Houston and thats a big if.

Sadly, it didnt have to be this way. Had the Fire won its last regular season game, its playoff outlook would have been much brighter. The Fire would have been second in the East and have a week to prepare for its first opponent. But, the Fire didnt win, the last match ending in a 1-1 draw against D.C. United before a sellout crowd (20,017) in Bridgeview.

That result left United (17-10-7, 58 points) solo second behind Sporting Kansas City (18-7-9, 63). The Fire (17-11-6, 57) finished tied in points with the third-place New York Red Bulls (16-9-9, 57) but the Red Bulls owned the tiebreaker with 57 goals scored to 46 for the Fire.

Thus, D.C. United and New York will join SKC in getting a weeks rest before their first playoff match. Both will have some momentum going, too. United finished the season 5-0-2 and after its best player, Dwayne DeRosario, was lost with a knee injury. The Red Bulls needed to win their last game against Philadelphia to avoid the knockout match and got it with a resounding 3-0 CHECK victory a few hours before the Fire and United took the field in Bridgeview.

"Our conference was so tight, said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "This (match vs. United) wasnt the last game for us. Its behind us. Were still in a very good spot. We wanted a week to prepare. Thatd be better than a quick turn-around like this, but at least we dont have to travel. Our goal from the beginning was to be in the playoffs, and we are."

True, but having to play (and win) an extra game wont help the Fires chances of going deep into the postseason. Unlike most of this uplifting season the club finished it on a downer, going 1-3-1 in the last five matches. Two of the defeats were against Philadelphia and New England, conference rivals who had long since been eliminated from postseason contention.

And, as for settling for a draw with D.C. United, the Fire had only itself to blame. There were plenty of chances to win that one.

The Fire scored first, an electrifying 25-yard blast by Patrick Nyarko in the 16th minute. That was a promising start, since the Fire had never lost a match under Klopas when it scored first. That streak is still alive at 22 matches (17-0-5). The Fire also has a history of playing well in home finales, going 9-4-1 in its first 14. The Fire still hasnt lost a regular season home finale since 2005, but those stats are basically meaningless now.

A Fire breakdown in the 50th minute allowed Lionard Pajoy to head in the tying goal for United, but the Fire had plenty of opportunities to get it back. The club put nine shots on goal, many in the waning moments.

"We had four chances. Youre lucky if you get that many in a months worth of games," lamented forward Chris Rolfe, who was honored before the match as the Fires Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner for scoring the most goals.

Dominic Oduro put one shot high and another off the right post after entering the match in the 68th minute. Alvaro Fernandez, Sherjill MacDonald and reserves Alex and Guillermo Franco also had opportunities, too, but couldnt convert.

"Im proud of the effort of the group, said Klopas. "Theyve been consistent and put everything on the field. We took some risks, and you feel good about the chances youve created."

But theres a big difference between good chances and finishing them off. Klopas called a rare day-after-game Sunday training session to begin the Fires preparation for Houston. Though the Dynamo (14-9-11, 53 points) was a full four standings points behind the Fire, Houston was till comfortably in the playoffs after building a five-point advantage on sixth place Columbus.

The Dynamo may have the disadvantage of traveling to Wednesdays match, but should be well-rested. Coach Dominic Kinnear knew his club couldnt improve its position in its late Saturday night match against Colorado, so he gave his usual reserves plenty of playing time in a 2-0 loss. The key players who will take the field on Wednesday had only limited playing time against the Rapids.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: How should Hawks mentally approach getting back into playoff race?

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: How should Hawks mentally approach getting back into playoff race?

On the latest Blackhawks Talk podcast, Adam Burish joins Pat Boyle to discuss the three-game losing skid the Hawks are experiencing, the problems on the power play and how they should mentally approach getting back into the playoff race.

The guys also discuss Corey Crawford’s first public sighting, trade rumors and Burish shares his favorite Original 6 story.

Listen to the full Blackhawks Talk Podcast right here:

Unbelievable performance, unexplainable failures leads to Bulls' collapse in New Orleans

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USA TODAY

Unbelievable performance, unexplainable failures leads to Bulls' collapse in New Orleans

Weird things tend to happen in New Orleans. Things filed under “unbelievable” or “unexplainable.”

The Bulls’ double-overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans doesn’t exactly fall under either, but the circumstances leading to it certainly do.

Justin Holiday, the reliable 84 percent free throw shooter missing the last of three freebies that would have ended the game in regulation after being fouled with 0.3 seconds left?

Unexplainable.

“Could’ve won the game with a free throw,” Holiday said, dismissing the notion of nerves. “Thought it was cash, it just didn’t go in. Wasn’t meant to happen, I guess. I was hyped. You get that opportunity, I don’t miss free throws. When you get an opportunity like that, that’s what was on my mind.”

Holiday raced to the 3-point line after the Bulls fell behind 114-112 with three seconds left, drawing a whistle on Darius Miller as the buzzer sounded—giving them a chance to win a game they had no business losing in the first place.

“He made the hard ones, which the first one is the hardest,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He made a great play to be fouled in the first place to even get himself to the line.”

It seemed so unlikely the Bulls would find themselves in their wildest game of the year after seemingly driving the Pelicans to insanity and frustration, taking a 17-point lead with 5 minutes left.

Zach LaVine looked comfortable in his fourth quarter minutes, while Denzel Valentine and Nikola Mirotic hit big shots to extend the Bulls lead—ignoring the irritated atmosphere at the Smoothie King Center as the Pelicans fans felt their team had gotten an unfair whistle.

Then the Pelicans—and their maddeningly talented star DeMarcus Cousins—got mad and took all his frustration out on the Bulls in a historic performance. He needed every bit of the 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists to put the Bulls away, as he bullied the game inside and finessed things from the outside (five 3-pointers) as his teammates finally caught up to his intensity in those frenetic five minutes.

His numbers put him in the company of Wilt Chamberlain—not surprising considering he did everything down the stretch including bringing the ball upcourt as if he were the world’s biggest point guard.

Unbelievable.

“It’s cool to be in company with a guy like Wilt (Chamberlain). He’s a guy that’s put up videogame numbers his entire career,” Cousins said. “Just to have a little game like his, that’s pretty cool.”

His alley-oop to Anthony Davis with 1:39 left in regulation gave him a triple-double and cut the Bulls lead to 110-107, and the Bulls seemed to be in full panic mode. Davis fouled out in the first overtime but not after inflicting 34 points, nine rebounds and five assists of damage in 43 minutes.

“The inability to get a rebound late cost us,” Hoiberg said. “Their pressure, getting into us, really lost all of our pace that we did a good job of for the most part all game. It really slowed us down. That’s what got their run started.”

Jerian Grant, who had performed solidly in Kris Dunn’s absence, then became a target for the Pelicans defense as they harassed Grant, taking the Bulls’ offense out of its rhythm.

Grant had six turnovers in 47 minutes and was visibly bothered by the pressure employed by the Pelicans’ defense, nearly negating his 22-point, 13-assist, five-rebound performance.

“I thought we had really good flow,” Hoiberg said. “I thought Jerian had a really good game. But the pressure really did bother us. Gotta do the things that got you the lead we had. A lot of pace, a lot of movement. A lot of good things.”

The good things certainly included Lauri Markkanen holding his own against Davis and making big defensive plays in the fourth quarter and overtime when the Pelicans foolishly tried to switch Markkanen onto their guards.

But Markkanen kept his composure, moved his feet and was never exploited. Although he shot just 5-for-12 and missed all four of his 3-point attempts, Markkanen took steps forward defensively as he finished with 14 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.

Robin Lopez went at Cousins on the other end, as both were exhausted at the end of the marathon. Lopez scored 22 points in 39 minutes, his only regret likely getting stripped by Cousins at midcourt during the Pelicans’ comeback, leading to free throws.

“We just decided to play defense,” Davis said. “It was tied up going into the fourth quarter. They went on a crazy run. There was like eight minutes left, we just said we going to play defense. Play defense one possession at a time and we are going to be able to come back here.”

Jrue Holiday, Justin’s younger brother, was the main irritant late, along with former Bull E’Twaun Moore, giving just enough support for Cousins and Davis. The Pelicans’ Holiday scored just 12 points with six assists, but had big baskets in the first overtime after Davis fouled out.

“They turned it up, physically,” Justin Holiday said. “My brother started guarding full court. They all starting pressuring us a little more. Sometimes, it’s tough. When they turn the pressure up like that and we have the lead, we don’t necessarily want to be in a rush to score. Then they’re scoring on the other end. We gotta get stops.”

It was hard to ignore how the pressure affected the Bulls. The composure and poise they’ve played with over the last several weeks gave them a level of confidence in hostile environments, but missing Dunn meant they were without a critical part of their offense.

“I don’t wanna say trouble but it bothered us for sure,” Holiday said. “We kinda got sped up. Forget about the offensive end but if we get stops and rebound, we win the game. Again, they have all-stars and things like that, supposed to do their job.”

Even then, though, everyone walking away from the Smoothie King Center knew they witnessed a historic, unbelievable performance as well as an unexplainable collapse.