Cubs

How important is the Heat game?

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How important is the Heat game?

If you ask Joakim Noah, Wednesday's Bulls-Heat clash is just as big as it's been advertised.

Yeah, I think it's an important game. I mean, everybody sees it the way they want to see it. Maybe in the standings, but everybody knows tomorrow is a big game. Were all excited, the center said after the Bulls Tuesday-afternoon practice at the Berto Center. You want to play against the best. Its going to be a competitive game. They have a lot of great players. Its a team that eliminated us and went to the Finals. We just want to set the tone.

However, according to Tom Thibodeau, the showdown is only important because, as hes fond of saying, its the next game on the teams schedule, meaning there wouldnt be any extra preparation for the primetime affair.

Just all your normal stuff. For us, its not going to change. Every game, we do the same. The routine remains the same, said the coach, who had a one-on-one post-practice video session with Derrick Rose, a staple during last season. To me, theyre all the same. They all count the same. We have to be ready to play.

While Noah and Thibodeau have conflicting views on how big the game is, the two do share similar opinions on philosophy.

Play smart. Try to really limit our turnovers. Play good defense, which is something we havent done in a while, and play our game, said Noah. All these games against Miami are really, really close. We know we gave up a lot of points in transition off our turnovers. If we can limit that, it will work in our favor.

Echoed Thibodeau: We know we have to defend, weve got to rebound, weve got to take care of the ball. That was one thing in the game down there we felt we didnt do a good job of and the way they convert turnovers into points, if they get into the open floor, theyre hard to stop, so weve got to do a better job. More inside-out and well go from there.

Just run our offense. Theyre an excellent defensive team and LeBrons an excellent defender, and their team is excellent, so we have to try to attack them before theyre set and if they are set, weve got to move them, keep the ball moving, keep our bodies moving and the big thing is taking care of the ball, he continued. Theyre a good team. Were chasing them. Theyre the Eastern Conference champions from last year, so we know we have to come out and play real hard.

Thibodeau said that while the Bulls can take some lessons from their narrow late-January loss at Miami, he isnt dwelling on that outcome.

That ones long gone. The big thing for us is to learn from the games, move on, focus in on the next game and all were concentrating on is tomorrows game. Whats happened in the past is the past. Theres nothing you can do about it but learn from it, move on and be ready, he said. Theres not a big difference amongst teams in this league. The talents great on every team and Miami certainly has a lot of talent, and whats transpired in all our games is theyre usually very hard-fought and very close. At the end, it usually comes down to a hustle play and a make or a miss. Miamis tough. Theyre not going to beat themselves. You have to play well to beat them.

Noah discussed the fact that the East-leading Bulls are currently fighting off the Heat, who are second in the conference, for home-court advantage in the playoffs.

We know there are a lot of good teams so you have to take it one step at a time. But it would be ideal, he said. Its very important to hang onto home court. We know in the playoffs that home court means a lot. You still have to win on the road, but playing at home definitely helps.

Added swingman Ronnie Brewer: Thibs comes and tells us how important home court is for morale, if you want to make it deep in the playoffs and you dont really want to watch what other teams are doing because you hold your own destiny, but you look at the standings and see where the Heat are, where the third-place team is at, where the fourth-place team is at, and you just want to try to go out there and take care of business every time you step out on the court.

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

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USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.

What now for the Cubs?

What now for the Cubs?

OK, time to turn the page.

Nah, it doesn't have to be that sudden.

The 2017 Cubs season may not have resulted in a World Series, but it was absolutely a smashing success. There was a time not long ago that playing — and even losing — in the fifth game of the NLCS was a huge step.

But the Cubs now have a World-Series-or-bust mentality now and the 2017 season did not live up to those expectations.

"We're capable of more than we showed in the postseason," Ben Zobrist said.

So what now? What's next for these Cubs?

Well, quite literally: Rest. Rest is next.

"For those guys that are playing every day, they need to take the time that they need to take," Zobrist said. "Take the three weeks, month to let your body relax and heal up.

"I think from there, it's listening to your body for them. For me, I'm in a different place. I didn't play as many games as I normally play. I feel like my stamina, I have to work on my endurance and stamina to get back up to where it needs to get to where I'm capable of playing more games and not getting injuries and things like that like I had this year.

"...[Kris Bryant] and [Anthony] Rizzo, they were our horses and so they need to take more time than somebody like me does going into the offseason. They deserve to get some rest and relaxation. I think we're all very motivated going into the offseason to get back to where we're capable of playing as a team."

Other players have a different attitude as they approach the winter.

Albert Almora Jr., after his first full season in the big leagues, is anxious to get better. Immediately.

The young outfielder is planning on spending a lot of time hanging out with his wife and one-year-old son, but he isn't interested in all that much rest right now.

"[I plan] to get back to work," Almora said. "I think we have a big chip on our shoulder coming into next year."

Rizzo and Bryant, meanwhile, played 167 and 161 games, respectively, including the postseason. They combined for over 1,500 plate appearances from April 2 through Oct. 19.

Neither player has much interest in watching the Los Angeles Dodgers play either the Houston Astros or New York Yankees in the World Series.

So what will they do?

"It's always tough," Rizzo said after the Cubs were officially eliminated. "You start a journey with all these guys and at the end of the day, these last couple days, you don't take anything for granted at all.

"The stretch, the cage work. Yesterday could've been our last day. Today's obviously our last day. We gotta enjoy these moments because you don't know how long they last.

"But you make a lot of friendships along the way. This next week will be tough and kinda scratching your head on what to do."