Cubs

Smith's shut out has 'Yotes one win from conference finals

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Smith's shut out has 'Yotes one win from conference finals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Phoenix Coyotes are on the brink of their first Western Conference finals thanks to their stingy goalie and the captain who traveled with the franchise from Winnipeg to the desert.Captain Shane Doan scored in the first period, Mike Smith made 25 saves and the Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators 1-0 on Friday night to grab a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series. It was the first win in the month of May in the franchise's NHL history, and Phoenix can advance with a victory in Game 5 on Monday night in Arizona."To win like this is exciting because our goaltender's so good, and we know that we go as far as he takes us," Doan said. "He's been unbelievable in this and really solidifies how important he is and how good he is."Now the Coyotes, owned by the NHL, are 3-1 for the second straight series heading back home with the chance to advance. Chicago won Game 5 to put off elimination for a game, but Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said his message will not change."It's going to be the same kind of game," Tippett said. "Very little space, very little advantages and you're going to have to compete hard and hopefully we can find a way to win a game."The Predators played without forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for the second straight game, this time the decision by coach Barry Trotz to stick with the lineup that won 2-0 on Wednesday night. Trotz said he refuses to second-guess his decision, though lineup changes are likely."Plain and simple, we've got to win a hockey game," Trotz said. "That focus can't go any farther than that. Winning a hockey game, and it's going to have to be in Phoenix. I know when you're down in a series 3-0, the numbers don't look good. At 3-1, a number of teams have come back."The Predators thought they tied it with 7:12 remaining. But officials waved off the power-play goal with the official explanation that a whistle blew before the puck crossed the line. Trotz said he didn't get an explanation with officials telling captain Shea Weber a different reason."They said that (Patric) Hornqvist pushed the goaltender into the net. If you look at it, I don't buy that," Trotz said.The Predators wound up outshooting Phoenix 25-24, but they had chances with the net open they simply missed with Radulov and Kostitsyn on the sideline.Smith, the low-budget replacement for Ilya Bryzgalov after the Russian left the desert for a big contract with Philadelphia, credited his teammates with pressuring the Predators into making some bad shots."We were so aggressive," Smith said. "We didn't give them much, kept them to the outside and when they did get opportunities we had stick on puck. We had guys lying down blocking shots. My D was tremendous tonight. They have been good all playoffs long, but this is one of the better games they've played in front of me."

Radulov leads Nashville with a team-high six points in the postseason, and Kostitsyn is tied for the team lead with three goals. Fans cheered the announcement that the two were scratched after they were suspended for Game 3 for an apparent curfew violation last weekend in Arizona.Nashville had plenty of chances, outshooting Phoenix 10-5 in the third. The Predators even got a power play at 11:34 when Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris cleared the puck over the glass and went to the box. The Predators had a scrum in front of the net after Mike Fisher threw the puck at the net, but the official behind the net immediately waved no goal.Phoenix improved to 4-1 on the road in the postseason, spoiling what had been a big party in Nashville with three blocks of Broadway shut down right in front of the arena. The Predators put two big TVs outside for fans to cheer but didn't give them much to yell about.The Coyotes outskated and outshot Nashville from the start, coming with much more energy. They even got a power play 90 seconds in only to see the Predators kill that. Then Ryan Suter had a turnover near the net, and Coyotes left wing Mikkel Boedker had a chance on Pekka Rinne right in front before the 6-foot-5 Finn blocked it with his right pad.Fans did their best to try and spark the Predators with their usual standing ovation through a timeout in the first period to a catfish tossed onto the ice early in the third. Nothing helped the Predators' aim getting past Smith into the net."Their goalie was phenomenal tonight," Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said. "It was definitely the toughest game to get anything going."Nashville went 0 for 3 with the man advantage. The first came when Rostislav Klesla was penalized for boarding Predators forward Matt Halischuk right in front of the Coyotes' bench. Replay showed Klesla appeared to grab Halischuk's jersey before pushing him into the boards, and Halischuk went to the locker room briefly. But the Coyotes, perfect in killing penalties on the road this postseason, did it again.Doan scored on a backhander as he skated across the slot with the puck going off the stick of Predators defenseman Roman Josi and over Rinne's right pad at 14:25 of the first.The Predators came out with more energy in the second but struggled to get a shot on net. Hornqvist had Nashville's best chance around the 6-minute mark when Smith came just out of the crease to handle the puck, and Hornqvist missed the net. The Predators struggled so much they couldn't even go on a 2-on-1 chance before being called for offsides later in the second.With Smith in net, Doan's goal proved to be enough with the way the Coyotes played in front of him. They blocked 10 of Nashville's first 15 shots, and Smith either covered up or gloved the others.
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Albert Almora Jr. is hungry for more

Albert Almora Jr. is hungry for more

While most of the Cubs were focusing on rest and relaxtion this winter, Albert Almora Jr. sees no need for chillin'.

Kris Bryant admitted he was worn down by the end of the Cubs' playoff run last October and most other regulars would say the same thing.

But some Cubs saw the winter not as an "offseason" but as the first opportunity to prove something.

Kyle Schwarber has shed weight and looks to be in great shape, but Almora is in the same boat.

The 23-year-old outfielder is chomping at the bit, anxious for the season to start. So anxious, in fact, that he spent just a couple weeks at home in Florida before heading to Arizona to start training for 2018. 

Yes, that's right. He's been in Arizona since November — training, eating right, mentally preparing himself for the grind ahead, taking swings. 

That's nothing new for the first draft pick under Theo Epstein's front office who's constantly trying to validate the sixth overall selection in the 2012 Draft.

"I'm always going out there trying to prove them right, trying to make them happy," Almora said.

This is a kid who earned a World Series ring before his 23rd birthday and has five gold medals from playing for Team USA as a teenager. 

Almora's no stranger to the big stage and he's already accomplished so much at such a young age, but he's never experienced anything quite like the 2017 season.

He's always been a starter and everyday player. From age 8, when he was playing up with 14-year-olds, Almora has been among the youngest guys on any team he's been on. 

That was the case with the 2017 Cubs once again, but this time, he wasn't a key contributor. He played nearly every day — notching 132 games — but only started 65 times throughout the course of the year. He had to learn a lot about waiting for his moment and making the most of his one at-bat or one inning in the field.

"[Playing time is] not in my control and I'm gonna do whatever I can when my name is called to help the team win games and have a lot of fun with it," Almora said. "That's the only way to stay sane and not worry too much.

"At the end of the day, all I can control is what I do on the ballfield and that's it."

Almora admitted he's let that external stuff creep into his mind in the past, though that was mostly in the minor leagues when he was wondering when he'd get called up to the next level.

In the majors, it's all about winning and Almora believes he can help the big-league team get back to the Promised Land.

Even Epstein admitted Almora is primed for a larger role in 2018, as the young outfielder proved down the stretch last year he could contribute against right-handed pitching as well as southpaws.

What does he make of his progression the last couple years?

"I can answer that by just saying I'm confident," Almora said. "The more opportunity I get, the more experienced under my belt. You're not intimidated, you're having a lot of fun out there and your confident in your game.

Being a 'little slow, a little late' costs Bulls against Curry, Thompson and Warriors

Being a 'little slow, a little late' costs Bulls against Curry, Thompson and Warriors

The margin for error in playing against even a half-focused Golden State Warriors team is thin.

Wire-thin.

And as the Chicago Bulls took their litmus test against the defending NBA Champions following their recent success, an understated quote from the HBO series “The Wire” comes to mind as character Avon Barksdale looks at his brother in a hospital bed, locked in a vegetative state.

“The thing is, you only got to (mess) up once,” he said. “Be a little slow, be a little late, just once. And how you ain't never gonna be slow, never be late? You can't plan for (stuff) like this, man. It's life."

While Barksdale certainly wasn’t referring to Golden State sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the words apply to defending them and this Warriors team in the middle of a dynastic run, winning their 14th straight road game with a 119-112 win over the Bulls at the United Center Wednesday night.

Curry and Thompson are at the peak of their powers, with Thompson scoring 38 and Curry 30 as they combined for 13 triples. The two put on a show during the decisive third quarter after the Bulls took a shocking 66-63 lead into halftime.

Thompson hit three in a row out the gate where the Bulls lost track of him away from the ball and Curry followed up with a quick five, giving the champions a seven-point lead.

"If you're a split second late, you're dead,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Each scored 11 in the period, reaffirming how dangerous they are when sensing opportunity.

“They were on fire, both of them, at the same time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But yeah, it was an old school ‘Splash Brothers’ game.”

It was during that period where the Bulls went cold for an extended stretch, nearly seven minutes between scoring after putting up 72 points in the game’s first 26 minutes—not a shocker considering how the Bulls have played and the Warriors being without defensive mainstays Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

“Our defense picked up,” Thompson said. “They got a lot of wide open threes in the first half. And they were able to space the floor and get to the basket after that. We guarded much better and communicated much better than we did in that first half.”

By the time Jerian Grant’s layup ended the drought with 2:47, the Warriors had sprinted out to a 17-point lead and were seemingly on cruise control.

“We lost our minds out there,” Hoiberg said. “We weren’t hitting shots, then we couldn’t get back to get matched up. We relaxed. We stood up. We got caught on screens. We lost our spirit.”

It wasn’t that the Warriors’ collective will smothered the Bulls; they merely waited until they saw an opening, exerted themselves and took control. With the United Center at a fever pitch, the Warriors can’t match the nightly desire of their opponents, their energy and motivation to beat the champions.

What they’ve mastered in the last two seasons is staying afloat long enough before someone gets hot, then they run away and hide before the 48 minutes expires.

“There’s a balance of understanding, every game isn’t gonna be playoff intensity,” Curry said after the morning shootaround. “We’re not gonna play playoff minutes during the course of the regular season. The things we can focus on, will mentally prepare us for the playoffs. No matter if it’s playing Boston with the next best record in the league or playing whomever is at the bottom of the standings, it doesn’t matter.”

They focus on the tenets the Bulls hope to make theirs: defense, rebounding and taking care of the basketball (11 turnovers), which is obscured by their dynastic scoring and shooting.

It initially looked over in the first 12 minutes, when Curry scored 12 points on a “too late, too slow” Kris Dunn and the Warriors had a 12-point lead. But the Bulls scored a remarkable 20 points in the last 3:11 of the period to tally their best opening stanza of the season and taking a 40-38 lead.

“A hard-fought, energetic first half,” Hoiberg said.

Perhaps the Warriors were a little shell-shocked after Jordan Bell exited in the first 24 seconds following an ankle injury, playing with unusual emotion before settling in and allowing the Bulls to display the emotion that has become their trademark in the last several weeks, buoying them to an unlikely finish before the half.

And they did it without the contributions of Zach LaVine, who struggled in his third game, going two for 12 in his mandated 20 minutes to score just five points.

The Bulls had six players in double figures while Nikola Mirotic provided the scoring as early and late when the Bulls made their comeback to make the score interesting, while the Warriors only had three in double figures: Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant, who was an afterthought of sorts with 19 points on six of 15 shooting.

On this night, it was Curry and Thompson doing the heavy lifting.

“We got sped up and they knocked down more shots than we did,” LaVine said. “We’re trying to match them at their game. They’re the gold standard. You can’t play that game. You have to get some stops.”

LaVine was tasked with chasing Thompson around screens, highlighting a step he needs to take in improving his off-ball defense.

A little slow, a little late.

“He’s extremely hard to guard,” LaVine said. “Especially when you have KD and Steph doing splits as well. Pachulia is good at screening. You gotta have your head on a swivel.”

Figuratively and emotionally, LaVine’s statement rings as the Bulls don’t have the talent to truly compete with the Warriors—and there truly isn’t a team that can say it does—they have to rely on emotion and execution to stay within arm’s reach of the champions.

“I don’t want to necessarily say we got lazy defensively, but we didn’t tighten up defensively,” said Justin Holiday, a member of the Warriors 2015 title team. “(Later) we did what we were supposed to do. I think we did a pretty good job, we just didn’t close it at the end.”

Dunn started to get going after a porous three quarters where he missed 10 shots in a row during a stretch, getting into the passing lane for a steal and uncontested dunk with 2:55 left to bring the Bulls close at 112-107—but fell on his face after letting the rim go and drawing blood from his mouth.

“He didn’t lose teeth,” Hoiberg said. “He’s being evaluated right now (for a concussion). There’s a good little chunk he took out of the floor. Tough kid.”

Tough kid, and tough team the Bulls have turned into from the last time they saw the Warriors when they played Washington Generals to the Warriors’ Globetrotters on Nov. 24 during a 49-point beatdown.

Mirotic has returned, and was a plus-25 in 27 minutes, scoring 24 points and hitting four triples. Bobby Portis continues to be an unsung catalyst with his style, and he battled veteran David West all night, scoring 12 points with four rebounds in 17 minutes.

David Nwaba came off the bench to guard Curry late, forcing turnovers and missed shots when the Bulls needed to do everything right to overcome a 32-12 third quarter.

“A guy like Curry and Thompson, any space you’re giving them, they’re shooting it,” Nwaba said. “They’re constantly on the move and I have to stay with them the best I can.”

When Nwaba was asked whether it was more important to stay with them on the ball or off, he sighed and said “Both. You can’t relax.”

And there’s the rub. No easy answer on this team, although the Bulls showed some character and moxie in picking themselves off the mat for the final 12 minutes to make it interesting.

“We’d like to play a perfect game,” Curry said. “But as I always say, the other team gets paid too and you’ve just got to find a way to win. Over the course of 48 minutes, we try to impose our will.”

Because sooner or later, you’ll be a little slow or a little soon—and it’ll be June, and we all know how that movie ends.