Examining the West, title contenders


Examining the West, title contenders

Sunday's marquee matchup between the Thunder and Heat was billed by many -- though not in Chicago -- as a potential NBA Finals preview. For the Bulls and their fans, instead of taking umbrage, the game should have been dissected as an evaluation of both teams' strengths and weaknesses, particularly Oklahoma City, who play in the Western Conference, won't travel to Chicago and the Bulls face only once this season, next Sunday.

Two-time reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant's ability to score one-on-one against any competition was certainly illuminated, as he took on LeBron James, regarded as one of the league's top individual defenders and not only scored at will, but appeared to sap James' energy on the other end of the floor. Meanwhile, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook didn't have one of his recent high-scoring games, but was a solid distributor, providing opportunities for defensive-oriented inside players Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, while sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden also picked up the slack.

On the other hand, although the Heat looked tired, it should be noted that they endured multiple lackluster stretches last season before turning it on in the postseason. The addition of big man Ronny Turiaf shouldn't be overlooked because while he doesn't have ideal size to take on the Bulls, among other teams, Joakim Noah's French national team partner is an experienced active force who is capable of contributing on both ends of the floor -- the veteran is certainly an offensive upgrade from starting center Joel Anthony -- and at the very least, is a body willing to commit six fouls.

When it comes to other contenders in the league, it's hard to include anyone other than Chicago and Miami in the East. As a flawed and inconsistent Orlando team looks primed to make another early-round exit, as does Atlanta, which is still without injured center Al Horford, and Boston, which might have reached the end of their run as a serious threat. While the likes of Philadelphia and Indiana appear to be one year and player away from doing real damage after superb starts to the season, the race for the eighth seed between New York and Milwaukee -- both teams are hot, sparked by the Knicks' coaching change and the Bucks' acquisition of Monta Ellis -- is entertaining and in their own way, each team could pose problems for a top seed. The West, however, is another story, as Oklahoma City is the only team that seems capable of truly competing with the Bulls or Heat in a seven-game series, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the young Thunder even makes it to the Finals.

San Antonio is still lurking as the potential second seed and with the additions of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw -- the fact that Jackson, the volatile veteran swingman, was acquired for the disappointing Richard Jefferson, is a bonus in reuniting him with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who he won a title with earlier in his career, and Diaw's connection with both Jackson from their days in Charlotte and point guard Tony Parker from their France ties should ease his transition -- and while Staples Center co-residents the Lakers and Clippers are going through some very public and trying times, each team has the talent to make a run, particularly with the trade-deadline acquisitions in positions of need of Ramon Sessions filling the Lakers' point-guard void and hired gun and L.A. native Nick Young moving into the Clippers' starting shooting-guard spot. Another team to watch could be Memphis, which stayed afloat despite the nearly season-long absence of star Zach Randolph and with added depth and the burly power forward back in the lineup, is for the second consecutive year, a squad that could be a tough out in the playoffs.

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

NBC Sports Chicago

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

Manchester City is coming off a season in which it dominated the English Premier League to the tune of a record 100-point season.

City is kicking off the preseason of its title defense in Chicago. City takes on Borussia Dortmund at Soldier Field on Friday night.

The last time the reigning Premier League champions were in Chicago was when rivals Manchester United came to Soldier to take on the Chicago Fire in 2011.

The Citizens won’t have the full arsenal of stacked stars for its U.S. tour, which also includes stops in New York and Miami as part of the International Champions Cup. Many of the team’s best players are getting a break after playing in the World Cup. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, one of the stars of the tournament, is one of six Man City players to reach the semifinals.

Paul Dickov, who played for City for nearly 10 years between 1996 and 2008, is on tour with the team and talked about City’s preparations.

“The reason the clubs want to come to the States and play in International Champions Cup is the facilities are fantastic, the training facilities, the hotels, the treatment they get and just give them the best preparation going into what’s going to be a hard season,” Dickov said. “Nobody has won the Premier League back-to-back titles for nearly 10 years now so it’s going to be tough. Coming here and being able to prepare the way they can in the United States is going to put them on a long way to regain the title again.”

City brought the Premier League trophy to Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Cubs-Cardinals game. Dickov got to throw out the first pitch. The Scotsman threw a strike, much to his relief.

“I was quite calm beforehand, but I must admit when I got out there and I had to walk out there both hands started getting a bit sweaty,” he said. “I managed to make it and I got a fantastic reception off the Chicago Cubs fans so thank you to everybody at Chicago Cubs for having me there. It was great. Something I’ll never forget.”

Dickov compared Cubs fans to City fans in the way both teams struggled for a long time before finding success.

“They stuck by us through thick and thin when things weren’t as great,” Dickov said of Man City fans. “I suppose it’s a little bit like the Chicago Cubs here in Chicago. The fans turn out, they get 30-40 thousand, great atmosphere, back their team.”

While promoting the game, the Premier League trophy made multiple stops in Chicago, including with the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on an off day.

City also took the trophy and new signing Riyad Mahrez, who just joined Man City from 2016 champions Leicester City, to Haas Park in Logan Square. Haas Park includes a soccer field donated by Manchester City and the American embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

“The outcome of it has been great,” Dickov said. “Thousands of children and families benefiting, not just from the soccer part of it, but the education program as well. To be down there the other day for the full day and seeing the joy in the kids face seeing soccer here and the other activities that are on is great because, yeah, football is fantastic, soccer is fantastic and when you’re out there and you play you want to win, but it’s important, especially from Manchester City’s point of view, the city and the community. The stuff that they do off the field is second to none and it’s giving something back.”

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

Joe Maddon is liking the look of Cubs 'backwards' lineup

No matter how much people complain and Tweet, Joe Maddon will never go with a set lineup every game.

But that doesn't mean he won't let certain spots in the lineup settle in for a couple weeks in a row.

That's what may be occuring right now with Anthony Rizzo holding serve as the "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" once again.

Rizzo made his 5th straight start atop the Cubs order Friday after collecting a pair of doubles and a walk in Thursday's 9-6 victory.

Initially, moving Rizzo from the heart of the order to the top was in part to help the Cubs first baseman get going. Maddon is a big fan of hitting guys leadoff to help them reset mentally and find their stroke again.

But it is working — Rizzo entered play Friday 8-for-16 with 5 doubles, 3 walks, 3 runs and 3 RBI in the leadoff spot over the last week. The promptly reached on a hit-by-pitch and walk his first two times up Friday.

He's also been the team's biggest cheerleader:

So how long will Maddon keep this unconventional lineup?

"I don't know," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "I don't know. He came up again in crucial moments [Thursday]. He looks really good out there. I don't know. That's my exact answer."

Yes, Rizzo is looking good in the leadoff spot, but his insertion atop the order has given the Cubs lineup a new dynamic. 

With Rizzo first and Kris Bryant second, the guys that are historically the Cubs' top two run producers are hitting atop the order and "behind" the pitcher's spot. 

But they're also the Cubs' top two on-base guys and Maddon is liking the look of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — two high-contact guys — following Bryzzo in the order, as they have done recently. (It doesn't hurt to have the NL leader in RBI — Javy Baez — hitting cleanup, either.)

"It's almost a backwards way of doing this right now that I'm finding fascinating," Maddon said. "So I'm just gonna let it play for just a little bit and see where it takes us."

It's taken the Cubs on a 4-game winning streak endcapping the All-Star Break, though the Cardinals got up big early Friday afternoon.

For a team that leads the NL in just about every important offensive category, it's going to be a huge key moving forward if Rizzo gets going on a consistent basis in the second half.