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NBA playoff predictions

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NBA playoff predictions

Quick show of hands: Who loves predictions? Prognosticating the playoffs in advance might be an easier task than predicting the end result before the season even begins, but the NBA postseason is always unpredictable and with fears of ragged play after the lockout being unfounded, it's shaping up to be, as Joakim Noah likes to say, "an exciting time."Speaking of Noah's Bulls, before getting into league-wide predictions, it's an all-or-nothing proposition, as fans want to know if this is the year the team breaks the title drought that's plagued it since the Jordan era. Well, Derrick Rose's return and a fully-intact roster certainly help, but the added motivation of Sixers swingman Evan Turner's comments -- in case you've been living under a rock, the second-year pro and Chicago native said Philadelphia is "dodging the tougher team" by taking on the Bulls, instead of the Heat -- is what could push them over the edge.Not that the Bulls are undergoing some kind of internal team turmoil, but with their relative struggles in April, it appeared that they were in a bit of a malaise, at least for them, and needed a fire lit under them. Now, they'll claim they don't need any outside motivation, but after being informed of Turner's comments, to a man, it was evident that the perceived disrespect touched a nerve.Expect the Bulls to dispatch the Sixers in quick fashion. If Rose uses that series to get in rhythm, it should carry over to a potential second-round series with the Celtics, who are playing well at the right time, but struggle with the Bulls' size and frankly, can't beat the Bulls in a seven-game series if Rose is even a semblance of his former self, despite their championship experience, as Rip Hamilton's recent groove, as well as the Bulls' lack of fear -- stemming from their epic first-round series of a few years back -- make the aging squad bait. Then, unless Central Division rival Indiana pulls a shocker and upsets the Heat in an expected second-round matchup, comes Miami.After last week's road loss, in which the Heat played a surprisingly physical brand of basketball, many gave Miami an edge over the Bulls, seeing it as a foreshadowing of the future. However, examining the Bulls on a nightly basis in Tom Thibodeau's two-year tenure as head coach, that performance was an aberration and after receiving so much scrutiny for their passivity, it's unlikely that recent history repeat itself.Therefore, ditto for the potential series in general, as the two insults -- Turner's verbal slight and the perception that the Bulls are somehow a soft team -- will ramp up their intensity even further, resulting in no more uncontested drives for MVP frontrunner LeBron James or All-Star sidekick Dwyane Wade. It won't be easy, but if Rose is back in the swing of things by then, which will be needed to advance to that point anyway, and his supporting cast utilizes the confidence gained from posting an 18-9 record without him this season, vengeance will be Chicago's.In the NBA Finals, the wide-open West is hard to predict. UnlessThunder guard James Harden, the NBA's likely Sixth Man of the Year award winner, doesn't recover effectively from a concussion suffered after the elbow heard around the world from Lakers forward Ron Artest, Oklahoma City should make it to the championship round. The top-seeded Spurs, regardless of how impressive they've been all season -- if they manage to get by the Clippers or Grizzlies, who ousted them a year ago, in the second round -- might not be able to contend with the younger team's combination of interior size and two-headed scoring duo of All-Star point guard Ruseell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who recently won an unprecedented third consecutive league scoring title. If that plays out, the Bulls will again have revenge on their minds after being throttled at Oklahoma City, sans Rose, earlier this month and while the Thunder are indeed talented, the Bulls' defensive mentality should prove the old adage, "defense wins championships" to be correct.So while nothing's guaranteed, if the Bulls win it all, one thing is for sure: Turner should be lauded in his hometown for providing the Bulls with an added boost that should serve them well as the playoffs begin. He just won't feel the love come Saturday, when the series opens.Predictions:No. 1 Bulls vs. No. 8 76ers: Bulls in five games.Why? All of the above.No. 2 Heat vs. No. 7 Knicks: Heat in six.Why? Miami certainly drew the short end of the stick by having to face New York, but while Carmelo Anthony, a much-improved defense and the Knicks' overall offensive firepower -- Amar'e Stoudemire looked good in the season finale -- will be issues, the Heat's overall talent reigns supreme. Also, LeBron James loves playing at Madison Square Garden.No. 3 Pacers vs. No. 6 Magic: Pacers in five.Why? Indiana's burgeoning confidence and playoff experience from a year ago will come into play against a reeling, short-handed Orlando team that simply doesn't match up well with them. Expect the Pacers to pound the Magic inside with the absence of All-Star center Dwight Howard.No. 4 Hawks vs. No. 5 Celtics: Celtics in five.Why? Boston ended the regular season on a roll and although future Hall of Famer Ray Allen is currently banged up, Atlanta just doesn't have enough weapons, especially with star big man Al Horford still on the shelf. Look for superstar point guard Rajon Rondo and the remaining "Big Two" of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to dominate.No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 8 Jazz: Spurs in five.Why? San Antonio's additions have made them a much deeper team, but it's the veteran core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginbili and Tim Duncan that will be the key against a young Utah squad. While the Jazz have a nice collection of size and young talent, the Spurs will be too much for them.No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 7 Mavericks: Thunder in five.Why? Oklahoma City has something to prove and opening the playoffs against defending-champion Dallas, the team that ousted them last postseason, will get them off to a strong start. The Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is a less than ideal dilemma for the Mavericks to handle without Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense.No. 3 Lakers vs. No. 6 Nuggets: Lakers in seven.Why? This series is a bit of a toss-up, but the Lakers' experience should prevail against a young, deep and talented Nuggets team. If Denver can get the Lakers into a transition game, that spells trouble, but Kobe Bryant seems determined not to let his team get embarrassed two springs in a row.No. 4 Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Clippers: Grizzlies in six.Why? Memphis getting home-court advantage was significant, as it will be tough for the Clippers to win in the "Grind House," and as much as Chris Paul has turned the franchise's fortunes around, the size and physical style of the Grizzlies will take a toll on high-flying Blake Griffin. Paul will have to be at his absolute best for the Clippers to have a chance.Eastern Conference semifinals:Bulls vs. Celtics: Bulls in six.Why? To paraphrase Bulls announcer Stacey King, the Bulls are too big, too strong, too deep and too good for the Celtics. Now equipped with the experience of a deep playoff run and Rip Hamilton to counter longtime nemesis Ray Allen, Boston just doesn't have any advantages over Chicago, and if Rose has found his stride, it might get ugly.Heat vs. Pacers: Heat in seven.Why? This series will be tougher than expected for the Heat, as the Pacers have a significant advantage at center with All-Star Roy Hibbert and match up at other positions -- Danny Granger and Paul George on the wing, David West and Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, the guard trio of George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa -- but Miami's star power should pull it out. James and Dwyane Wade will need to play at a high level, but Chris Bosh's role might be even more important.Western Conference semifinals:Spurs vs. Grizzlies: Spurs in seven.Why? On paper, the Grizzlies should win this series, since like last year, their combination of size, athleticism and defensive-minded style of play is a tough matchup for the Spurs, particularly with Zach Randolph back in the lineup. However, after getting upset by Memphis last spring, and having a healthy Ginobili to counter Rudy Gay being back in the fold, San Antonio will be desperate to avoid getting stunned again, meaning Parker will have to decisively win his battle with Mike Conley.Thunder vs. Lakers: Thunder in six.Why? This might be the best series of the round, especially if Metta World Peace is back from his suspension for elbowing Thunder sixth man James Harden. The Bryant-Durant scoring battle will also be closely scrutinized, but the Lakers' hopes depend on the effectiveness of point-guard acquisition Ramon Sessions against Westbrook, as well as how Oklahoma City interior defenders Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka fare against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.Eastern Conference finals:Bulls vs. Heat: Bulls in seven.Why? The Bulls' fate might actually depend on the previous round, as they would gain an edge if they can dispatch a smallish Celtics team quickly and a more physical Pacers squad beats up the Heat. Both teams have plenty of motivation -- Miami to win the first of many titles promised two summers ago and Chicago simply vanquishing a villain--but the confidence the Bulls gained from beating the Heat twice while short-handed in the regular season should pay off and Rose has been anticipating this moment for nearly a year now.Western Conference finals:Spurs vs. Thunder: Thunder in seven.Why? A tough series with the Grizzlies could truly take a toll on on aging Spurs team and the youthful Thunder are far from the elixir they need to recover. Durant is virtually unguardable in general, but San Antonio doesn't have anyone who matches up remotely well with the league scoring champ and after Oklahoma City advanced to the same point last postseason, their veteran experience against superior talent might not matter this time around.NBA Finals:Bulls vs. Thunder: Bulls in six.Why? After being demolished at Oklahoma City early this month, the Bulls will still have a sour taste in their mouths and with Rose back in the lineup to match up with his close friend Westbrook, the odds will be evened. However, expect Chicago's defense to clamp down on Durant much more and the Thunder's lack of balanced scoring might finally catch up to them, leading to another parade in Grant Park.

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

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USA Today

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

Chicago Bears left tackle Charle Leno, Jr. has outplayed expectations after joining the Bears as a seventh-round pick in 2014. General manager Ryan Pace rewarded Leno for his play with a four-year, $38 million extension last offseason, committing to the former Boise State product as the Bears blindside protector for the immediate future.

Leno joined his teammates at the team's annual Bears Care Gala on Saturday and said new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is going to make the group better.

"We love Harry, let's just get that out of the way," Leno told 670 the Score's Mark Grote. "Harry is a great coach. I saw what he did for guys that he coached in college and the guys that were before us here in Chicago. He's getting us better."

Hiestand's efforts at Notre Dame produced four first-round picks: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. He brings a no-nonsense coaching style back to Chicago, where he last served under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. 

STANKEVITZ: In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears' coaching staff

Leno enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017. His 80.4 grade from Pro Football Focus was the best of all Bears linemen and his highest overall mark over the last four years. He finished 15th among all tackles graded by PFF last season.

Regardless, Leno still has to impress his new coach just like every other offensive lineman on the roster. The Bears haven't added any competition for Leno, but his fate as the team's long-term answer at left tackle could be decided by Hiestand.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

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USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”