Cubs

Veteran scorer Martin making quick transition to Harden-less Thunder

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Veteran scorer Martin making quick transition to Harden-less Thunder

Contrary to popular belief, just because Oklahoma City traded James Harden to Houston--where he's gone on to become the league's leading scorer on the young season--doesn't mean the balance of power in the Western Conference has changed. Yes, Harden was an important piece of the Thunder, both in his individual ability and in regard to team chemistry, but his de facto replacement, veteran scorer Kevin Martin, isn't too shabby himself.

Martin, averaging 19.3 points per game off the bench, despite not going through training camp with his new team, is a different player than Harden--more of a catch-and-shoot player than a ballhandler, adept at getting to the free-throw line and using screens to get open off the ball--but that doesn't mean he won't fit in. In fact, due to the fact that Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was a Sacramento assistant when Martin played for the Kings earlier in his career, it wouldn't be surprising if the transition is more seamless than many expect it to be.

"It always helps, just like when I went to Houston and current Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman was there, and he was a big part of my evolution as a player, and also Brooks is, too. Some of the things he piggybacked off of Adelman helped me get to the line and things like that, so he's familiar with what kind of player I am, so that really made it easier to come here," he said after the Thunder's shootaround Thursday morning at the United Center. "Just that familiarity. He knows what I do, so he put in a couple plays for myself and now then he had to put the ball in Russell's and KD's hands more, let them become playmakers. So, right now it's just one big process and it's going pretty well.

Added Brooks, whose team plays Thursday night against the Bulls: "We definitely have changed a few of our things. Not drastic change, just a few minor changes to kind of let his game shine a little bit. He's a great backdoor guy, he's great at coming off screens, he's great making quick decisions. He's not one guy that's going to pound the basketball and try to find an opportunity for him to manipulate a screen-and-roll. He's going to make quick decisions and when you have guys like that, your offense can make adjustments quickly because he knows how to play. I've been with him one year in Sacramento and it's unfortunate for him that he's played on a lot of teams that were in rebuilding phases and they didn't have a lot of success with wins and losses, but he has a winning mentality, he has a winning spirit, he has a great attitude and we're thankful that we have him. He does a good job of working hard.

"'K-Mart' does a good job of just putting himself in the position to fit in. He's not one to come in, demand things and have us change to fit what he does. He's one of those glue guys that come in, he can score without the ball by just moving, hard cuts and setups are always at a high level, and he's very efficient. He doesn't take-very rarely-does he need 20 shots to get 20 points. He can get 20 points with eight shots, with a lot of free-throw attempts and three-point buckets. But his personality fits very well with our group and that doesn't surprise me. We have a good group of guys that believe in team and whenever you make a trade, you have to have guys that understand whoever we bring in, they still have to do it the way we do it, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and 'Perk' Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison-just down the line-and Serge Ibaka, they're all a good group of guys to work with and 'K-Mart' has a great opportunity to continue to improve as our season goes on."

Martin, who toiled on losing teams in both Houston and Sacramento for years, making him one of the more unknown star-level players in the league, is hungry to play on a winner and the demeanor of his new teammates has already made a strong impression on him.

"They're hungry. They're coming to work every day and they know what's at stake for them this year," said the shooting guard, who was hampered last season by a shoulder injury. "They had a little taste of it last year and now they just want to put everything together, and try to bring home the whole thing."

Martin's solid start to the campaign has been overshadowed by Harden's more obvious brilliance with the Rockets, but the Thunder aren't acting as if the star power of "The Beard" will make a difference. Brooks, who ironically won a title as a player with the Rockets, shared his opinion on the widely-accepted theory that multiple superstars are needed to win a championship, a la Miami last season.

"I was fortunate enough to be on Houston's championship team in '94. They had Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe, and myself as the three stars," he joked. "We had one star, Olajuwon, and everybody knew what we were going to do. We were going to give the ball to him on the left block and we had a bunch of good players. You need good players. Does it make it easier to have a bunch of stars and All-Stars? Yeah, obviously. But you need good players, man. Good players win championships. One star, two stars, three stars, there's enough stars in this league for everybody to have a chance to win. I don't look at it that way. We built our team-obviously Kevin and Russell have been All-Stars the last three years and well-deserved-for us to win, they have to play well, but we have to have other guys play well and everybody has to be a star in his own right. Nick has to do his role at a star level, 'Hash' Hasheem Thabeet has to do his role at a star level, and sometimes you only have 10 minutes to do that, and the backup point guard has to do that at a star level and that's how you develop your team and team habits and good habits. I like what we have and we have a chance to have good success here."

Speaking of a team missing a star, Oklahoma City is obviously aware that the Bulls are without the injured Derrick Rose, but still take them seriously.

"They're obviously like every team in this league. You're losing one of your best players, you're not going to be as good. But the way they play, it never changes. They play with great energy, they play with great hustle, toughness and they have great players. Coach Thibs does a great job," Brooks said. "When you lose one of the best players in basketball, it's impossible to be a better team, but they're managing it through all the work they put in and just knowing Thibs-he coached me a couple of times as an assistant coach-he's a great coach, he's a worker and he gets the most out of everybody he has on his team.

Chimed in Martin: "Well, we're know that they're going to play hard. They're going to run every cut hard, they're going to grab, hold, have a great defensive system and we've just got to match that effort and intensity, and just worry about us once again."

Coincidentally, a player Martin is likely to match up with Thursday, fellow shooting guard Rip Hamilton, is a player he watched in his early days and tried to pattern aspects of his game after. Like Hamilton, Martin is an efficient player who effectively utilizes a potent mid-range game and off-the-ball movement.

"I used to watch a lot of him because I knew I was going to have to score a lot without the ball, playing with Mike Bibby and Chris Webber, and how they passed the ball," he explained. "I watched a lot of film on Rip in his Detroit days, scoring 20 points on 11, 12 shots, night in and night out, so he was definitely a big idol of mine."

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Kyle Schwarber took a Babe Ruth swing on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, posed for a moment and dropped the bat out of his follow through, watching that Yu Darvish pitch soar 408 feet out toward the left-center field bleachers.

Those carefree Cubs relievers shown on the video board – wait, was that John Lackey bouncing around? – danced in the bullpen in the first inning. This is exactly what the Cubs wanted: Grab an early lead? Check. Get one of their big boys going? Check. Energize the crowd of 41,871? Check.

That sense of momentum lasted less than the time it takes to buy a beer or go to the bathroom at Wrigley Field, because the Los Angeles Dodgers look like the unstoppable force this October.

Now Wade Davis may never pitch in this National League Championship Series and Wednesday night could be Jake Arrieta’s final start in a Cubs uniform. Winter is coming after a 6-1 loss left the defending World Series champs looking mentally checked out of 2017.

The Cubs played AC/DC and Motley Crue in their underground clubhouse and answered questions about why they believe they can match the 2004 Boston Red Sox who took down the New York Yankee Evil Empire, becoming the only team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS expanded to a seven-game format in 1985.

But Kris Bryant’s glassy look and bloodshot eyes told a different story, the reigning NL MVP admitting how “draining” those five games felt against the Washington Nationals in Round 1.

“But you kind of expect that around this time when games mean a lot,” Bryant said. “It takes a lot of energy to get ready for these games, and at the end, you feel wiped out. It’s expected.”

But no one could have predicted this lack of buzz in Wrigleyville, which felt less than a lot of midweek games during the regular season. A silence fell over the old ballpark when Andre Ethier – who has three homers across the last two seasons combined – lined a Kyle Hendricks pitch off the video board in right field to lead off the second inning.

Hendricks – who has made 10 postseason starts across the last three years and kept the Dodgers completely off-balance last October on the night the Cubs clinched their first NL pennant in 71 years – watched in the third inning as Chris Taylor crushed another home-run ball that bounced off the roof of the batter’s eye in center field.

“I wouldn’t say we’re running out of gas,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “Every time we step on the field, I feel like we have a pretty good chance of winning. We’re going to come into the clubhouse tomorrow positive and just ready to strap it on.”

The Dodgers will be out for beer and champagne on Wednesday night and the chance to kick back and watch the Yankees and Houston Astros expend all their energy in the ALCS.

Dodger manager Dave Roberts – who pushed all the right bullpen buttons in Games 1 and 2 (eight no-hit/scoreless innings combined) – toyed with the Cubs by letting Darvish hit against struggling reliever Carl Edwards Jr. with a two-run lead and two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

Darvish showed bunt on all four pitches – and drew a four-pitch walk and slammed his bat to the ground in celebration. The fans booed after Edwards struck out Taylor on three pitches to end the inning.

“We were there just as much as any other game,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “Mentally, there was no letdown. Physically, there was no letdown. It was just a matter of them capitalizing on some mistakes that we made. That’s part of the game. And they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.

“They played better baseball than us tonight. That’s why they got the W.”

The Cubs committed two errors in Game 3 and then had a National-style meltdown in the eighth inning, from Zobrist misjudging the flyball to right field that dropped in front of him, to Mike Montgomery throwing a wild pitch, to catcher Willson Contreras getting crossed up on a swinging strike three, his glove nowhere near Montgomery’s 92.7-mph fastball, which crashed into his right arm and ricocheted into the visiting dugout.

A three-run game became 6-1 – and head for the exits and then the offseason. There was Albert Almora Jr. in the ninth inning, driving a ball into the ivy in left field and sprinting right into lead runner Alex Avila at third base, bailed out only because Kike Hernandez waved his hand to signal a ground-rule double.

At least that made All-Star closer Kenley Jansen work the last three outs, accumulated stress that might benefit the Yankees or Astros more than the Cubs.

“They are done,” an NL scout wrote in a text message. “You can see it in their faces.”