Blackhawks

Bulls look to continue dominance over Pacers

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Bulls look to continue dominance over Pacers

Monday, Dec. 13, 2010
12:12 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Before the season started, it was assumed that the Bulls and Bucks would be the class of the Central Division. Through the first quarter of the 2010-11 campaign, however, it's been Indiana--Chicago's neighbor to the east, instead of the north--that has been the Bulls' main divisional competition.

Judging from the Bulls' 102-74 preseason rout of the Pacers, as well as their dismal season a year ago, hopes were dim for Indiana to recover anytime soon from the downhill spiral the franchise has been in since the infamous "Malice in the Palace," the 2004 brawl with the Detroit Pistons that occurred when the Pacers were last a legitimate contender. While the young team, at 11-11, isn't exactly a juggernaut, it has surprised observers around the league and in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, Indiana could sneak into one of the bottom playoff seeds if it maintains its strong play.

Many expect Milwaukee to rebound from its disappointing start and regain the magic of last season's "Fear the Deer" run to the playoffs, although much of that hinges upon whether star center Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and return to form. Regardless, Indiana's up-tempo style under head coach Jim O'Brien--seemingly on the hot seat every season for the past couple years--has started to click, as evidenced by games like their 144-113 shellacking of Denver (admittedly an anomaly), in which the Pacers benefited from a team-record 54-point third quarter; they shot 20-for-21 from the field in the period, with the lone miss a last-second heave from forward Josh McRoberts.

Star small forward Danny Granger has been the catalyst, bouncing back from a subpar, injury-plagued season--a year after his initial All-Star appearance--to score 21.1 points per game. The numbers aren't the most impressive of Granger's career and he isn't as efficient as he's been in the past, but league observers note that he's playing more unselfishly and has recommitted to the all-around game that first won him accolades in the league, following a humbling summer where he played limited minutes on the gold medal-winning FIBA World Championships USA Basketball squad.

Third-year center Roy Hibbert has been one of the league's most improved players in the early season. After losing weight and working with Hall of Famer Bill Walton in the offseason, the Georgetown product is averaging 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per contest, developing into one of the NBA's better young centers. Hibbert's uncanny shooting range and passing ability belie his 7-foot-2 size, as he often operates in the high post, but has displayed improved post moves, strength, mobility and stamina.

Perhaps most significant about the Pacers is the offseason addition of Darren Collison. A true point guard, the second-year former UCLA star was acquired via trade (along with veteran James Posey) and despite losing productive power forward Troy Murphy in the late-summer four-team deal, the organization now has their floor general of the future. After a first-team NBA all-rookie campaign with the Hornets a year ago, starting for New Orleans when superstar Chris Paul was sidelined, Collison is scoring 13.5 points and handing out 4.2 assists an outing as a full-time starter.

Add in the good health of oft-injured sharpshooters Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy, and the Pacers are actually competitive again on most nights. Taking all that into consideration, though, it still might not be enough to derail a focused Bulls team on a current five-game winning streak Monday evening at the United Center.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Wake-up call? Brandon Saad 'surprised' about possibility of being a healthy scratch

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AP

Wake-up call? Brandon Saad 'surprised' about possibility of being a healthy scratch

Brandon Saad played a majority of last season on the first line, started this season on the second to change things up, got demoted to the fourth by the fifth game, and could find himself out of the lineup in the sixth.

Before the Blackhawks hit the ice for practice on Monday, the 25-year-old winger found a white jersey hanging in his stall. That's usually reserved for players who are injured — Andreas Martinsen (back) was the only other player wearing one — or players who are on the outside looking in, which appears to be Saad right now considering he was not part of the four-line rotation.

"I don't think anyone wants to be wearing white around here," he said. "But it is what it is and there's nothing you can do but keep trying to improve. It's their job to make the call to put the best team out there to win hockey games."

Known for being even-keeled through the ups and downs, Saad expressed disappointment about the possibility of being a healthy scratch on Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes. He didn't exactly show that emotion following his demotion to the fourth line, perhaps out of respect to the players he was playing with by noting how it brings balance.

But he did on Monday, and it was the first time we've really seen some sort of emotion out of him.

"Everyone makes mistakes and things aren't always going to go your way but to be out of the lineup, a little surprised today," Saad said. "But it is what it is. ... No one wants to be out of the lineup. That's never fun regardless of who you are."

When asked to pinpoint what's gone wrong, Saad said he wasn't the right person to ask.

"I think you got to ask him that," he said, referring to Joel Quenneville and the coaching staff. "It's his calls. For me, you can talk pros and cons as much as you want but just trying to go out there and compete and win hockey games. We've won a few here, I know every game has gone to overtime so they've been close. Nothing was said to me about lineup change or anything like that. You just come in and you see your jersey and you go out there and you play."

So Quenneville was asked.

"Just expect more," he said. "That's the situation."

Is his mindset in the right place?

"I think he's fine," Quenneville said. "His mindset is what it is. Whether it's urgency or passion, coming up with loose pucks in those areas is going to be the difference."

The Blackhawks sending a message shouldn't only be directed at Saad. It also serves as a reminder to his teammates and is important to note for the younger guys about earning your ice time.

"I don't really know where the coaches are coming from so I'm not going to comment on that," Jonathan Toews said respectfully. "But [Saad] has been doing some good things and I think it's good for all of us to know what's going on there because if [Saad] can get his ice time taken away, then so can a lot of guys, myself included. So we all want to play well and have team success."

The Blackhawks need Saad to return to form quickly because he's crucial to their overall success. There's no debate about that. It's why the thought of Saad, who played in all 82 games last season, serving as the 13th forward is frustrating for everyone involved.

It hasn't been a problem in the past, but now it's becoming one because of the Blackhawks' aspirations of getting back to the playoffs and their dependence on their top players.

"I don’t think it’s an issue," Quenneville said. "We just expect more out of him."

Cubs have reportedly found new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have reportedly found new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is reportedly set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons:

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.