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1 seed Bulls one loss away from elimination

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1 seed Bulls one loss away from elimination

From Comcast SportsNet
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- His coach called Jrue Holiday's slump "0 for the world." Even as the misses piled up, Holiday never felt the weight of it on his 21-year-old shoulders. All he could do in a thorny Game 4 was laugh about his struggles with teammate Evan Turner. "You've got to be happy when you play," Holiday said. "It really helps." Boy, did it help Philadelphia in the final minutes against Chicago. Holiday busted out of a game-long slump with consecutive 3-pointers that stretched a one-point lead into seven and helped the 76ers beat the Chicago Bulls 89-82 on Sunday and take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference playoff series. "Don't fear the consequences," 76ers coach Doug Collins said. It's the top-seeded Bulls who suddenly fear elimination. Spencer Hawes scored 22 points and Holiday had 20 to put the Sixers one win away from joining the short list of eighth-seeded teams that have won a series against a No. 1 seed. Andre Iguodala had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Sixers, who have won the last three games after losing Game 1. Game 5 is Tuesday in Chicago. The short-handed Bulls played without Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Joakim Noah (sprained ankle). Rose is out for the season and Noah is day to day for the rest of the series. In NBA postseason history, the eighth seed has won a first-round series against the No. 1 seed four times, including last season when Memphis eliminated San Antonio. Golden State (2007), New York (1999) and Denver (1994) also pulled off the rare feat. "I'm not worried about it," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I'm just worried about the next game. We do have more than enough to win with." The Sixers won three straight playoff games for the first time since Allen Iverson fueled their run to the 2001 NBA finals. Holiday was sensational down the stretch after a rocky first 3 quarters. He missed his first five 3-point attempts until he nailed one to make it 77-73. He hit another the next time down for a seven-point lead to the delight of a roaring sellout crowd. They were easily his biggest shots on a 7-of-23 night. He expects to hear the same noise in the next round. "We have to play like it's Game 7," Holiday said. "We want to win in Chicago." The undermanned Bulls kept at it and refused to use playing without their two biggest impact players as an excuse. C.J. Watson, who scored 17 points, hit a step-back jumper to make it a two-point game. In a whistle-happy game, Holiday went to the line with 51 seconds left and made both for an 84-80 lead. Suddenly -- and shockingly -- the Sixers are a win away from taking a playoff series for the first time since 2003. Carlos Boozer had 23 points and 11 rebounds for the Bulls. Taj Gibson chipped in 14 points and 12 rebounds. Without a full roster, the Bulls barked at the refs, talked trash on the court and used every self-motivational tactic they knew to gain an edge on the Sixers. Noah, injured in Game 3, took charge on the bench as head cheerleader. Wearing a protective walking boot, he clapped, cheered and offered instruction in the timeout huddle. Noah was needed more on the court than as a de facto assistant coach. Boozer actively did his best to keep the Bulls in the game. He played through foul trouble to score 18 points through three quarters (matching his combined total for the first two games) and he fought for some of the tough rebounds Noah would grab. It wasn't enough. The Sixers made 22 of 31 free throws to Chicago's 11-for-14 effort. The Sixers only averaged 18.2 free-throw attempts this season. "Bottom line, we've got to play better defense without fouling," Boozer said. "You can't cry about the referees. It's the playoffs. If we could hold them to 17, 18 points in the fourth quarter, maybe we win that game." Iguodala played through right Achilles' tendinitis to make so many impact plays for the Sixers. He halted a Bulls run in the third with a 3 for a 57-56 lead. Bad leg and all, he still soared for a thunderous dunk on the break in the first half for an eight-point lead. One of the worst fourth-quarter foul shooters in the NBA, Iguodala even made both with 26.6 seconds left. "I think the adrenaline carried me through the game," Iguodala said. "It's hard to get on your toes, that's the hardest thing." Game 4 lacked the electric atmosphere early that accompanies a postseason game because the Broad Street Run was routed in front of the sports complex. The Wells Fargo Center was barely half full by tip and the announced crowd of 20,142 needed time to warm up. By the time Holiday hit his 3s, the arena was going wild. His sharp shooting in clutch time came at the right time after a slow start. Holiday and Turner continue to befuddle Collins with their inconsistency. The under-25 starting backcourt followed a solid Game 3 with a combined 3 for 22 for eight points in the first half. Lou Williams, perhaps the league's top reserve, failed to bail them out with a 2-for-10 effort in the game. Their struggles were a key reason the depleted Bulls kept the score tight even without their two stars. The Sixers crashed the boards early without Noah in the lineup and had 15 second-chance points in the half to grab a 10-point lead. Hawes hit the go-ahead 20-footer late in the fourth for the Game 3 winner and he continued his hot hand into Sunday. He had made seven of his first eight shots, including a 3-pointer right before the second quarter buzzer to send the Sixers into halftime with 44-42 lead. Notes: Boxer Bernard Hopkins, former NBA great Dolph Schayes, former Sixers great Julius Erving and actor Bill Murray attended the game. ... Philadelphia last won a playoff series when it beat New Orleans in 2003. ... The Sixers hold a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series for the first time since the 1984 East semifinals. ... 76ers CEO Adam Aron said there was nothing the team could do about the start time.

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: