Bears

Bulls bounce back, top Timberwolves

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Bulls bounce back, top Timberwolves

After Thursdays disappointing home loss at the hands of Oklahoma City, the Bulls (4-2) took out their frustrations on Saturdays visitor to the United Center, the Timberwolves (4-2). While the 87-80 victory was by no means an offensive clinic, the Bulls blend of defense (Minnesota shot 38.8 percent from the floor), scoring from unexpected sources (the reserve back court of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli scored 17 and 11 points off the bench, respectively) and perseverance (starting point guard Kirk Hinrich was injured during the contest) were significant factors in the win.
Led by the energetic play of the boisterous Joakim Noah (17 points, seven rebounds, four blocked shots), who showcased his improved offensive repertoire by sandwiching a 15-foot jumper between two dunks, the Bulls took a slim lead in the early stages of the contest.
The battle between Noah and rugged Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (18 points, eight rebounds) was a study in contrasts, but with Minnesota missing veteran Brandon Roythe shooting guard sat out the contest with soreness in his right knee; the visitors were already missing young stars Ricky Rubio and All-Star Kevin Love, also due to injurythe hosts theoretically had their guests outmanned.
Luol Dengs (16 points, seven rebounds, four assists) strong start to the season also continued, manifesting itself in some early offense, as did his running mate on the wing, Rip Hamilton, who was aggressive from the outset.
But behind Pekovicwhose job became easier after Noah exited with a left-knee laceration, though he would returnand his 10 points in the frame, the Timberwolves kept things close and at the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls held a narrow 20-19 advantage.
At the beginning of the second period, the Bulls seemingly couldnt get anything, as there were several frustrating in-and-out misses, which Minnesota capitalized upon in the close-knit affair. However, Robinson (18 points) single-handedly picked up the energy inside the United Centera steal and fast-break layup, then a contested three-pointer gave him a personal 5-0 runto take back the lead for the home team and provide them with some breathing room, along with support from fellow reserve Taj Gibson (eight points, eight rebounds) and Noah, who returned to the contest.
But just as quickly, Robinson had a spate of turnovers that allowed Minnesota to get back into the game, prompting a Bulls timeout, after which the visitors continued to make their push and eventually regained the lead. At the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 41-40, and Hinrich leaving the game late in the half with a strained right hip didnt help matters.
After the break, the Bulls emphasized their transition game, but even pushing the tempo baskets were hard to come by, aside from the virtuoso contributions of Robinson, who started the third quarter in place of the injured Hinrich, and continued to be the Bulls offensive catalyst. Minnesota responded with an outside-shooting barrage, keyed by the starting back court of Luke Ridnour and Chase Budinger, and despite the Hamilton and Noah increasing their offensive productivity, the contest remained close.
While the flow of the Bulls offense left something to be desired, Robinson was effective as a scorer and eventually, the likes of Noah, Hamilton and Deng also got in the mix. At the end of the period, rookie Marquis Teague was inserted into the contest and promptly scored the first regular-season points of his young NBA careerimmediately followed by committing a foul with 0.3 seconds remaining in the quartergiving the Bulls a 63-59 lead heading into the final stanza.
Belinelli (11 points, 3-of-4 three-point shooting), considered a mild disappointment early in his tenure with the Bulls, knocked down a trio of triples early in the period, living up to his billing as a sharpshooter and inspiring both a subdued United Center audience and his teammates. Noah, for instance, was a major presence on defense, blocking a pair of Timberwolves shots in a single possession, while Deng, in a subtly fierce battle with the similarly versatile Andrei Kirilenko (11 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists), found ways to score in transition and on the offensive glass.
As the Bulls defense clamped down to make scoring a premium, the hosts maintained a comfortable winning margin as the game entered its stretch run, with interior shot-blocking of Noah and Gibson being major deterrents to Minnesotas attack and timely scoring ensuring no last-minute comeback would be made, despite the Timberwolves valiant efforts. As usual, it wasnt prettyand through the three games in the preseason and regular slate these two teams has played, it rarely has beenbut for the Bulls, it got the job done, through both unconventional and expected measures.

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Pedro Strop said he feels "ready" in his return from a hamstring injury, but he and the Cubs aren't going to rush it.

The veteran reliever has missed most of May with the injury, but threw 25-pitch bullpens on both Monday and Wednesday and has reported zero issues. He said it's been more than a week since he last felt pain in the area.

But considering this is Strop's third hamstring injury in the last eight months, the Cubs want to be extra cautious to make sure this will not happen again.

Plus, there's no point in rushing him back right now, even with the bullpen struggling. The Cubs would certainly welcome Strop back to the active roster immediately, but he's going to be a huge key for them down the stretch and they need to ensure he's healthy for that.

"I think we're just being overly cautious because we don't want this to happen again," Joe Maddon said. 

But how can Cubs avoid another hamstring injury with the soon-to-be-34-year-old? 

"We're building strength, we're working hard to make it stronger instead of just, 'Oh, it's OK and pain-free, let's go out there and have the same thing happen again,'" Strop said. "We're just taking care."

He missed the final two weeks of the regular season last year and pitched through "severe pain" in the National League wild-card game after first hurting his hamstring in Washington D.C. He then missed time in spring training with an issue in the other leg.

The injuries are not all directly related, but hamstrings are tricky by nature.

"That's a hammy, man. When you mess up with those things, they keep reminding you that they're there," Maddon said. "He has to continue to be proactive with the work in between and our guys in the back there do a wonderful job rehabbing and strengthening. 

"I think some guys are just predetermined to do those kinds of things and it really stinks. But it happens. So our next best thing is to create that program that hopefully prevents it from happening again. 

"In the meantime, just really monitoring him and not pushing him too hard, etc. But hamstrings are hamstrings, man. They're just no fun. Once you pull them once, there's a chance to do it again."

Strop said he will throw another bullpen Saturday and doesn't believe he needs a rehab stint. Because this was a leg injury, he's been able to continue throwing throughout the recovery process and keep his arm strength up.

If Strop continues to report well and doesn't go on a rehab assignment, we could possibly see him back in the Cubs bullpen early next week, which would be a welcome sign for a unit that has suddenly run into some tough sledding of late.

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