Bears

Cubs clearing the path for Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs clearing the path for Anthony Rizzo

Theo Epstein has scouted Anthony Rizzo in person several times this season, and watched just about every one of his at-bats at Triple-A Iowa on video.

Like every prospect in the Cubs system, Rizzo received an individual player plan for improvement this season, and almost all of Epsteins boxes are checked.

The Cubs sent another clear signal that Rizzo is coming soon by moving first baseman Bryan LaHair to right field for Mondays 12-3 win over the White Sox.

What you saw at U.S. Cellular Field Alfonso Soriano in left, David DeJesus in center and LaHair in right is what it should look like once Rizzos stationed at first base.

Rizzo is hitting .364 with 23 homers and 59 RBI in 63 games at Iowa, where hes drawn rave reviews for his potential Gold Glove defense and professional approach.

He was destroying down there, said catcher Geovany Soto, who just got back from a rehab assignment with Iowa. Hes got some pop. Hes doing it right. Hes coming on pretty good.

Rizzo, 22, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and flipped to the Cubs last winter in the Andrew Cashner trade.

The three executives in charge at Clark and Addison Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were involved in all three deals and are banking on Rizzo being a foundation piece. Theyve so far resisted bringing up Rizzo to give the team a jolt.

You have to look at what happened last year, Epstein said. He put up great numbers and then was rushed to the big leagues and struggled. So its important to always put players in a position to succeed.

The Cubs believe Rizzo learned from his experience last season in San Diego, where he hit .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. They say lowering his hands has been a key mechanical adjustment to his swing.

The minor leagues arent just some holding pattern, Epstein said. Its a place for a lot of teaching and learning. Its where adjustments are made, not only fundamentally a players swing (or) physically getting stronger, learning how to stay healthy, learning their body. But (its) also mentally, your routine that you develop to get you through tough days.

His approach has always been pretty solid. I think he got into some bad habits with his swing last year when he was trying to do too much at the big-league level.

Hes someone who kind of toys with his hand position quite a bit. Hes got a little bit of rhythm with his setup. (Now) hes ready to hit the fastball and adjusting well on off-speed pitches. Hes an aggressive hitter. Hes not someone whos overly selective at the plate, but hes got a real plan. Its worked for him so far.

LaHair began the day tied for the lead in homers among National League first basemen, and then launched his 13th shot 404 feet beyond the wall in right-center field.

That morning, LaHair received a phone call from manager Dale Sveum letting him know that hed be in the outfield that night. There is less ground to cover at U.S. Cellular Field, but the winds were gusting up to 41 mph at first pitch.

LaHair passed his first test by making a nice running catch onto the warning track in the first inning to rob Gordon Beckham.

Ive played in the outfield quite a bit throughout my life, so it should be a pretty minor adjustment, LaHair said. In the back of my mind, there was always the thought of me moving to the outfield at some point, so its not a complete surprise.

This will be a new challenge.

The Cubs are getting very close to the point where restarting the meter on Rizzos major-league service time will make more financial sense. The fans cant wait to see the face of the future at Wrigley Field, and its almost time to give in to the hype.

Hes one that you go to the computer every day to see what he did, Sveum said. But we had a plan to start with, so there was no early arrival or anything like that. We knew he had to develop and we had a gameplan and we were going to stick to it.

After loss to Patriots, Bears' defense searching for answers — but not confidence

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USA Today

After loss to Patriots, Bears' defense searching for answers — but not confidence

A year ago, had the Bears come within one yard of tying the New England Patriots in a game in which they allowed two special teams touchdowns, the vibe in the Solider Field locker room might’ve been different. Sort of like, hey, that was pretty good that we were able to hang with one of the league's best teams and nearly tie and/or beat them despite our own mistakes. 

The operative term, then, after Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Patriots may be confident frustration. The Bears know they’re a good team, better than they’ve had in recent memory. And that makes losing a game this team felt it was close to winning that much more frustrating. 

“We still had confidence last year that we could go in and win games (last year), but I would say this year we know what type of team we have,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “We know we got a quarterback that’s developing and throwing the ball down the field really well. We know we have a great wide receiver corps. We know we have rushers that can get to the quarterback. We have a really good team and we’re going to have to figure out how to capitalize on that big play momentum and finish games out.”

Perhaps this is a picture of a talented team still trying to figure out how to win. The Bears’ defense entered Sunday allowing an average of 8.8 yards per play in the fourth quarter and allowed 6.5 yards per play in the final 15 minutes Sunday, including a critical 96-yard touchdown drive. 

And while Mitch Trubisky’s Hail Mary to Kevin White came up one yard short, that the Bears were even in that situation to begin with was the problem. New England was able to chew up 3:49 off the clock before punting the ball back to the Bears' offense with 24 seconds remaining. Get a stop earlier and the Bears might not have to rely on a nearly-converted heave with time expiring to tie the game. 

“In games like this, your room for error is slim in all phases,” cornerback Kyle Fuller said. “No matter what we did (well), there are still a couple things that we have to clean up against a team like that."

The Bears’ defense is remaining confident despite scant pressure on Brady — he was sacked once (by Roquan Smith) and hit only three times (by Smith, Bilal Nichols and Roy Robertson-Harris). Khalil Mack barely showed up on the stat sheet, registering only one tackle while being dropped into coverage far more frequently than he made an impact as a pass rusher. How much he was affected by his injured ankle, or how much defensive coordinator Vic Fangio felt he had to gameplan around it, is unclear (Mack did not speak to the media following the game). 

Leonard Floyd, too, was picked on by Brady, who frequently got the ball out quick in a successful effort to mitigate a pass rush that’s struggled to make an impact after recording 18 sacks in four games to begin the year. But the confidence is still there, despite seemingly few reasons for optimism since the second half in Miami kicked off last weekend. 

“We definitely don’t feel like (we’ve hit a wall),” safety Eddie Jackson said. “That’s probably the greatest quarterback in the NFL right now. We just gotta come in, we left some things on the field, we left some plays on the field. Like I said, it’s tough trying to put this one behind you but, you know, it’s a long season. We’re not getting down on ourselves, we’re still going to play with confidence. That confidence is still there.” 

Games against two of the league’s worst offenses in the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, then, should help the Bears’ defensive production match its confidence, if that line of thinking is to be believed. But as the first four games of the season get farther and farther in the rearview mirror, this is a defense that has to prove itself again in the coming weeks. 

“(The Patriots) came to play all together, and not saying we didn’t but we didn’t make the plays when we needed to make the plays,” outside linebacker Aaron Lynch said. “It’s on us. Defense, we got it though. We’re not worried about it. It’s another game we lost. We got how many other games, we got 10 games left? Yeah. I’m not worried about it. I don’t think anybody is.”

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Dallas Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.