Cubs

Belinelli, Bulls hold off Nets in nail-biter

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Belinelli, Bulls hold off Nets in nail-biter

Saturday nights 83-82 Bulls (13-9) win over the Nets (13-10) at the United Center was a story weve seen before: The undermanned squad, playing an opponent with supposedly more talent on paper and featuring a former player, this time C.J. Watson used a formula of offensive balance, timely contributions from an unexpected source, determination to fight back with the odds against them and of course, Tom Thibodeaus vaunted defense, to earn a hard-fought victory.

Two Joakim Noah (12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) dunks the second of which, over Brooklyn counterpart Brook Lopez (18 points, 10 rebounds), was highlight-worthy started the Bulls off on a positive note, as the hosts scored the games first six points and hit their first five shots from the field. In addition to Noah, fellow starters Carlos Boozer (15 points, six rebounds) and Marco Belinelli (19 points) also had good starts, enabling the Bulls to build a cushion in the early going.

While Lopez, whos dealing with health issues, found his groove as a scorer early, as did point guard Deron Williams (24 points, five assists), half of Brooklyns All-Star backcourt Joe Johnson (16 points), the Nets marquee offseason acquisition, picked up two quick fouls and took a seat on the bench the visitors looked sluggish overall, perhaps a byproduct of playing a double-overtime game the previous evening. That changed as the opening period waned on, as Williams outside marksmanship made it a close-knit affair and at the end of the first quarter, the Bulls trailed, 24-23, despite Boozer carrying the offensive load.

The game remained tight in the second frame, as backup point guards Marquis Teague in for Nate Robinson, who started in place of the injured Kirk Hinrich, but picked up two quick fouls and Watson, the former Bull in his first game back in Chicago, went at it. Teagues speed and ability to score in transition, were immediately evident and matched up with an elite player at his position in Williams, he held his own on the defensive end.

The tenor of the contest suited the home teams defensive sensibilities, even as their field-goal percentage dropped on the other side of the ball, necessitating putting the clamps on their guests offensive intentions. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 46-41 advantage, with Nets backup big man Andray Blatche making an impact for the guests.

After the break, Belinellis efficient scoring and underrated playmaking helped the Bulls start the third quarter positively, but after flirting with acquiring a double-digit lead, the hosts allowed Brooklyn to get back into the game. Behind the play of Lopez, Williams, Johnson and veteran Gerald Wallace, the Nets significantly cut into the deficit, eventually overtaking their hosts.

In what evolved into a defensive struggle, the Bulls took control late in the frame to once again build some breathing room, with Belinelli, Luol Deng (17 points, seven rebounds) and reserve Taj Gibson serving as catalysts. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls held a 67-62 lead, following a Deng jumper with 2.9 seconds left in the frame.

The Bulls lead proved to be tenuous as the fourth quarter began, as the visitors quickly regained the momentum in the contest, buoyed by the point production of Johnson. Put into the position of playing from behind after the Nets built a slim cushion, but led by the play of Teague, who continued to display poise beyond his 19 years, the Bulls made it a nip-and-tuck game heading into the stretch run.

Critical unforced errors appeared to be the hosts ultimate undoing late in the contest, but after a Belinelli fast-break layup cut it to 79-77, in Brooklyns favor, with 1:26 remaining, the Bulls tied the game at 79 with 1:01 left, on a Deng dunk in transition from a slick Teague assist after a Nets turnover.

Following a defensive stop on the other end, a Belinelli driving layup gave the Bulls an 81-79 advantage with 22.1 seconds to go, leading to yet another clutch defensive stop and two free throws by Belinelli to seal the deal, which ended up being necessary for the winning margin, as Williams hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

After finishing 30th in goals against average (3.55) and 31st in penalty kill percentage (72.7) this past season, the Blackhawks are clearly making it a priority to patch up their defense this summer. And that's been evident with the acquisitions of defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta.

But it raises some interesting questions about the future of the Blackhawks blue line.

With the de Haan and Maatta additions, the Blackhawks now have five defensemen under contract through at least the 2021-22 season: Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million cap hit), Duncan Keith ($5.538 million), de Haan ($4.55 million), Maatta ($4.083 million) and Connor Murphy ($3.85 million). That's $24.8 million tied up to five guys.

The money isn't the primary concern, though. It's the limited amount of roster spots available. The Blackhawks don't have to immediately figure out how it's going to work a year from now and beyond, but it makes you wonder how the cards may eventually be shuffled.

Let's run through the situations:

— Erik Gustafsson had a breakout season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He's obviously not part of the five current players under contract after next season, putting the Blackhawks in a spot where they have to consider trading him or be comfortable with letting him walk for nothing if he isn't re-signed. (They could always trade his negotiating rights after next season and pull off a sign-and-trade as well, if it came to that).

And even if Gustafsson is re-signed, the Blackhawks would then have six players locked up for the 2020-21 season and on, and that's enough to submit a lineup.

— Henri Jokiharju, who was drafted No. 29 overall in 2017, is probably ready to take the next step and become an everyday player. Where does he fit into the long-term plans?

— Adam Boqvist, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2018, likely needs one more year in the OHL before making the jump to the NHL, which would put him on a timeline to become part of the Blackhawks next season. Does he occupy that sixth spot if another one isn't opened by then?

— Nicolas Beaudin, who was drafted No. 27 overall in 2018, is expected to start the upcoming season in Rockford after four years in the QMJHL but might be NHL-ready by the 2020-21 campaign.

— And then there's Ian Mitchell, who's returning to Denver for his junior season and will serve as the team's captain. He's said all along that he intends to sign with the Blackhawks once he's finished with college, but does the organization value him enough to create a spot for him when he's ready?

To make things a little more complicated, the Seattle expansion draft is set to occur in 2021 and the same rules will apply as Vegas in 2017.

The Blackhawks have the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the expansion draft (and who decline to waive them) must be protected; Keith and Seabrook have a NMC. And all first- and second-year pros are exempt; Jokiharju would have to be protected.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks are likely to use the eight-skater option, but they will also have valuable forwards to protect. They're going to lose a good player one way or another, and it's probably going to come from the defensive group. All of this comes into play when weighing roster decisions for next season and beyond.

As stated above, the Blackhawks do not have to make an immediate decision on the future of their blue line corps. They can play out the 2019-20 season with the group as currently constructed. But the decisions the Blackhawks have to face next season could impact how Stan Bowman operates the rest of this summer and throughout the upcoming campaign.

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