Bears

Bulls have slight edge in Game 6

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Bulls have slight edge in Game 6

It's no longer a stretch to think the Bulls can win Game 6 and go on to win this series even with Taj Gibson less than 100 percent and no Joakim Noah. Coach Tom Thibodeau wants to keep up guessing with Noah by calling him a game time decision, and Noah has indicated he's hopeful to return, but my sources say we won't be seeing Noah on the court again in this series.

Gibson said at Thursday's shoot around that he is definitely going to play. Now the question is whether his conviction is stronger than his sprained right ankle. Playing through pain and being productive through pain are two different things.

Still, there are five key factors in my mind that will determine who will win this Game 6. When I tally up the advantages, the Bulls come out ahead, but only slightly.

1. Luol Deng

Luol Deng has seen the light. Deng played with much more energy and aggressiveness in Game 5, freeing himself a bit from the shadow that has been Andre Iguodala's defense. Iguodala has been stuck to Deng like glue for much of this series. The two had been tied with 41 total points through the first four games, so the matchup has been a wash. But Game 5 changed things and Deng outscored Iguodala 19-11 by hitting four 3-pointers and shooting 10-19 from the field. Maybe Iguodala's sore anchilles tendon is slowing him down, or Deng has finally found a second gear. Whatever the reason, I'll trust that Deng, facing elimination again, can muster the same type of performance on Thursday.

Advantage: Bulls

2. Center court

Despite Coach Tom Thibodeau's 'game time decision' declaration on Joakim Noah, I don't expect to see the Bulls big man back on the court for Thursday's game, or the rest of the series for that matter. The Bulls will have to go without him again, which wasn't a problem in Game 5 given the play by Omar Asik and Taj Gibson. The problem is Gibson may be slowed down by that bum ankle and the Sixers' Spencer Hawes seems to be angry over the physical play from Tuesday night--Hawes got a gash across his face courtesy of Gibson and seems pretty miffed about it. He may be looking for revenge and wanting to redeem himself after scoring just 11 points in Game 5 after three straight 20-point performances. Only because of Asik's inconsistency and Gibson's compromised ankle will I give the edge to Philadelphia here.

Advantage: Sixers

3. Rip Hamilton

The fact that Rip Hamilton has played in more playoff games and has had more playoff success than anyone on the court in this series should give the Bulls a significant advantage, but instead, Rip looks completely lost and has been sitting on the bench during critical points in the game. He's averaging 11.8 points in just under 27 minutes while shooting 40 percent. The Bulls need more from him if they're going to win this series and be competitive in the second round. But it's not all Hamilton's fault, Philadelphia is playing great defense on him. Credit Jrue Holliday for sticking with Rip while he's running and cutting like crazy. There are also a timing issue between Rip and CJ Watson--Watson seems to deliver the ball a bit too late for the quick Hamilton. It's maddening how the Bulls haven't been able to figure this out and correct it. Instead, Thibodeau chooses to sit Hamilton for long stretches. To me this is the "X factor" of the series. I'll go out on a limb and say Hamilton will find a way to be more productive to help this team win. I'm putting faith in Thibodeau that he will use Rip the right way as well. I'm taking a deep breath on this one.

Advantage: Bulls

4. Charity Stripe

The trips to the free throw line have been a huge advantage for the Sixers. Philadelphia has a whopping 134-90 edge in free-throw attempts, good for a 45-point advantage. The disparity is no fluke. You can blame the referees all you want, and they deserve some flak, but the bottom line is the Sixers haven earned it. They've been more active and aggressive and the referees are rewarding them for it. Not only are the Sixers getting more free throws, but they are making more, shooting 75 percent from the line compared to 62 percent for Chicago. Free points will always give you an advantage over your opponent. I don't know if we can expect a fairly officiated game on Thursday, and if Marc Davis is on the crew, then I will definitely say no. Either way, trips to the line have been a major issue in this series and I don't think it's a trend that's going to change.

Advantage: Sixers
5. Mentality

The Bulls stopped the Sixers momentum with a victory in Game 5, but it did more than prolong the series--it cast doubt. The Bulls got in their opponent's head. Philadelphia is a young squad that isn't quite seasoned in handling big time pressure. Instead of being relaxed on their home court, the Sixers may treat Game 6 like it's a Game 7, making the rims at the Wells Fargo Center just a little bit smaller. Even their coach Doug Collins is thinking in a "don't lose way" instead of a going to "close it out way", saying after the loss Tuesday night, "I just don't want to come back to Chicago for a Game 7." Collins even told his team the cautionary tale of Rip Hamilton's '03 Pistons coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Orlando in the first round. Sounds like they're a team that is more concerned about losing than they are confident about knocking off the top seed. Don't get me wrong, the Bulls have plenty of pressure on them, having to win on the road just to get a chance to play one more game. A loss would be not only embarrassing for the Bulls but render the entire 2012 campaign a complete failure. But the Bulls are always up for a challenge and they proved that in Game 5. They don't want to go out like this and they will fight to stay alive. I like the Bulls resolve much more than what I've seen from Philadelphia so far.

Advantage: Bulls

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In a game full of pivotal moments, one seemed to irk the Bears in particular following Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Driving on the Dolphins three-yard line, the Bears lined up in a T formation with Jordan Howard, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen lined up left to right in the backfield behind Mitch Trubisky, who was under center. Burton motioned out of the backfield and to the right, and ran his route into linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Trubisky threw a short pass to a wide open Cohen for a touchdown, with Alonso late getting to the running back after being hit by Burton. But that score was taken off the board for offensive pass interference, with officials ruling what Burton did amounted to an illegal pick play.

“Trey did everything I asked him to do,” Matt Nagy said, sharply.

On the next play, Trubisky forced a pass into double coverage in the end zone, which was easily picked off by Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. Miami turned that interception into eight points on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown and an ensuing two-point conversion.

The way Burton understood the rule was that offensive pass interference was only assessed on a pick play if he intentionally ran into a defender without running a true route. That’s what Burton felt he did; the officiating crew disagreed.

“I thought I ran a route and the guy ran into me,” Burton said. “I thought they changed the rule this year or last year — if you run the route, it doesn’t matter if you pick the guy or not, you’re good. Obviously they called it.”

A Rough Return

The conversations surrounding the Bears Sunday into Monday would be awfully different had a number of things happened — Trubisky doesn’t throw that interception, the Bears’ defense gets a stop, Tarik Cohen doesn’t fumble near midfield, etc. In that same group: If Cody Parkey hits what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard field goal in overtime.

Parkey, instead, missed that kick wide right. His career long is 54 yards, which he hit last year while with the Miami Dolphins (and that was a game-winner with about a minute left against the Los Angeles Chargers).

“I had the distance, I just didn’t kick it straight enough, bottom line,” Parkey said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’ve made game winners, I’ve missed game winners. As long as I keep playing, I’m just going to keep trying to kick my best.

“… I control what I can control, and unfortunately I missed a field goal. I’d like to have that one back, but it is what it is and I’m just going to focus on the next game. That’s all I can do.”

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”