Cubs

Bulls can't match Conley-Gasol combo in loss to Grizzlies

Bulls can't match Conley-Gasol combo in loss to Grizzlies

It's the simplest play in basketball but when players run it to perfection the pick and roll is almost impossible to stop, as evidenced by the Memphis Grizzlies duo of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.

They bludgeoned the Bulls with consistency, the same way they've done to the league since adopting the "grit and grind" mantra at the start of the decade, hitting just enough jumpers late to stymie the Bulls with a 98-91 win at the United Center, making it six of seven losses for the Bulls.

The unheralded center and suddenly well-paid point guard each scored 27 by way of slow death and execution, as they both hit critical triples in the final minutes to help the Grizzlies pull away and hold off the competitive Bulls, who needed one of their stars to step up late.

"They have two great players," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "They made huge shots, big plays. They slowed it down, took away rhythm from us."

Jimmy Butler certainly didn't look like his usual self, struggling to a 14-point night on just four of 16 shooting, missing all his 3-point attempts. Dwyane Wade took a hard fall in the second half on his right elbow and didn't play in the fourth quarter, leaving the team without their top playmakers being at optimal efficiency.

He'll have an MRI Thursday but it could be similar to Butler's 2015 left elbow injury that had him miss a month before the playoffs.

"He asked me how long I was out, I told him and he was like wow," Butler said. "It is what it is. Hopefully it's not what I had. But I know it's pain, I know that much. I know how it feels."

Rajon Rondo led the Bulls with 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds as he kept Conley reasonably in check before Conley found his rhythm against other Bulls defenders.

Conley kept exploiting the Bulls' pick-and-roll strategy where they challenged him to hit perimeter shots and he beat them nearly every time they went under screens as opposed to chasing him over the top.

Hitting critical triples on his way to a 27-point, nine-rebound and seven-assist night, he helped the Grizzlies get critical rebounds and loose balls when it seemed like they were there for the taking.

"They got to all the loose balls. We missed shots, we didn't rebound when we needed to," Butler said. "But we've been up and down all year. And it seems like we're down right now."

One small revelation Hoiberg has probably come upon is that with starting Rondo—despite him hitting three of four triples—he doesn't space the floor enough for Butler and Wade to work their magic, although that didn't contribute wholly to their struggles.

The Grizzlies suffocate even the best teams, so it wasn't much of a surprise to see the Bulls struggle offensively.

"They're tough to score against in the half court. Our pace was really good early," Hoiberg said. "The halfcourt wasn't as efficient as it was the other night. The movement wasn't as good."

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And if Nikola Mirotic is going to play definitively, he has to start over Bobby Portis, just to space the floor.

Mirotic, probably worn down after battling Zach Randolph on the blocks for the majority of his minutes and getting a few pounds of flesh defensively, hit back to back triples to keep pace with the Grizzlies, tying it at 83 with under five minutes remaining.

If not for the Bulls' 3-point shooting, they wouldn't have been able to keep up with the Grizzlies, particularly late as Wade was hobbled and didn't play in the fourth. 

They matched the Grizzlies with 11 triples, with Mirotic and Denzel Valentine each hitting three.

But the Bulls could only muster 37 percent shooting overall as the Grizzlies still had more than enough grit and grind to keep the Bulls at bay, adding one more loss to a ledger that has too many as is with 14 games remaining.

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

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AP

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

After Mother Nature washed out the Cubs and Dodgers Monday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs recognized one of their Hall of Famers.

In honor of outfielder Billy Williams’ 80th birthday on June 15, the Cubs painted Williams’ No. 26 behind home plate. Cubs players are also wearing shirts with his number featured on the front.

On the Cubs Twitter page, there is also a glass case of pictures and Williams’ old jersey with other memorabilia. 

In his illustrious 16-year career with the Cubs, Williams, known as sweet swingin’ Billy from Whistler, hit .290 with 392 home runs, 1353 RBIs, 2510 hits and 911 walks.

His best offensive season came in 1970 when he hit 42 home runs and 129 RBIs, both career bests.

Williams also played with the Oakland Athletics for two seasons after he was traded by the Cubs after the 1974 season.

Williams was a guy you’d see on the field a lot during his day, starting all 162 games four times. In 1970 he eclipsed 161 games.

He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1987. Williams appeared in six All-Star Games, he was the 1961 Rookie of the Year and the 1972 NL MVP. He also won the NL batting title that year.