Bears

Short-handed Bulls can't fight off Sixers

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Short-handed Bulls can't fight off Sixers

PHILADELPHIAWith injured center Joakim Noah on the bench in street clothes, the physically and emotionally weary Bulls put forth a game effort in Sundays Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the 76ers, but simply didnt have enough left in the tank, leading to an 89-82 loss at the Wells Fargo Center. The effort was there and although the execution lacked at certain junctures, it became clear that despite giving it their all, the Bulls just didnt have the personnel or energy to move forward, meaning that Tuesdays Game 5 could mark the end of their 2011-12 campaign.

An aggressive Sixers squad beat the Bulls to the punch from the outset, relentlessly penetrating to the basket, getting out in transition and swarming their guests on defense. To make matters worse, Carlos Boozer (23 points, 11 rebounds), one of the visitors primary scoring options, picked up two quick fouls and was forced to sitprompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to reinsert fill-in starting center Omer Asik, who was torched by Philadelphia counterpart Spencer Hawes (22 points, eight rebounds)which contributed to a double-digit hole.

Then, Bulls All-Star Luol Deng (11 points, five rebounds) took a hard spill while driving to the basket and got up clutching his already-injured left wrist, though he would battle through the pain and bounce back to have a solid opening period. Still, after a period of play, Chicago trailed, 24-15, not surprising considering their disadvantage on the glass and 28-percent shooting from the field.

Reserve Taj Gibson (14 points, 12 rebounds) sparked the Bulls in the second stanza, as his boundless energy, rebounding and overall productivityhe scored 10 consecutive points to bring the Bulls back within striking distancematched Philadelphias quickness and athleticism. Gibson and a modified Bench Mob, including swingman Ronnie Brewer, who didnt play a single minute in Fridays Game 3 loss, closed the gap with improved defensive intensity and an offense consisting mostly of Gibson scoring in a variety of fashions, from face-up dribble moves to tough interior finishes.

While the score remained close, it wasnt due to the Bulls offensive proficiency, and while it would dovetail well with the games statistics to call the contest a defensive battle, in reality, neither team was very capable of producing points, with notable exceptions being Boozer and Hawes. Despite starting wings Deng and Rip Hamilton playing limited minutes in the quarterDeng exited the period early in favor of sharpshooter Kyle Korver, while Hamilton didnt touch the floor at all after starting the gamethe visitors, after briefly taking a lead, were behind, 44-42, at the intermission, after a Hawes corner three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer.

Boozer got off to a strong start after the break and thanks to solid Bulls ball movementa hallmark of the team during the regular season when it was without All-Star Derrick Rose in the lineup to make playsthat included the starting perimeter trio of Deng, Hamilton and even C.J. Watson (17 points, four assists, six rebounds), in the midst of a miserable series shooting the ball, knocking down outside jumpers. However, behind the scoring of Hawes and the all-around contributions of the young backcourt of Jrue Holiday (20 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Evan Turner, as well as All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala (14 points, 11 rebounds), the Sixers hung tough, making it a back-and-forth affair.

Boozer and Watson ended up shouldering Chicagos offensive load as the period waned on, but the frames emphasis was less on scoring than physical, hard-nosed play on both ends of the floor, as scoring was at a premium for either team. Philadelphia was unable to unleash its transition game, but heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were still behind, 64-63.

The ragged contest didnt get any prettier in the fourth quarter, reflected by the gritty approach of both squadsas well as the crowd, as one member of the audience ambled on to the court, screaming at a game official, which led to his ejection from the arenaone fighting for survival, the other to put its opponent on the ropes. Along with continued, if sporadic contributions from Boozer and Gibson, Watson, consistently described by Thibodeau as nicked up, fought through physical defense and mustered up some clutch buckets, as did opposing point guard Holiday, whose back-to-back dagger jumpers gave the Sixers a three-possession cushion, 80-73, with 3:34 to go.

Following a timeout, a Boozer traditional three-point play and a Watson jumper cut the deficit to two points, then after Hawes and Watson exchanged buckets, the Bulls had a chance to tie the game, but whistles remained silent when Boozer drew contact going to the basket, while on the other end, Holiday was fouled with 51.5 seconds left and knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 84-80 in Philadelphias favor. After a timeout, the Bulls turned over the ensuing inbounds pass and after the Sixers bled away the clock and knocked down clutch free throws, what could be the final game of the season looms Tuesday night at the United Center.

First and Final Thoughts: Does anyone really know what to expect this Sunday?

First and Final Thoughts: Does anyone really know what to expect this Sunday?

Not unlike Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky, it's Year 2 of First and Final Thoughts. Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Cam Ellis talk about what's on their minds between games.

Final Thoughts on the Bye Week 

J.J. Stankevitz: The Bears had a lot of soul-searching to do in their off week, specifically among offensive players and coaches not named Allen Robinson. But more important than anything else will be improvements on the offensive line — better protection and run blocking will go a long way toward helping this offense operate more effectively in the Bears’ final 11 games. That means better play from left tackle Charles Leno and center James Daniels, as well as counting on Rashaad Coward/Ted Larsen/Alex Bars to be better at right guard than a less-than-100-percent Kyle Long was. 

Fix the O-line and a lot of problems will be solved. Don’t and it could diminish how much better Mitch Trubisky is — if he is at all — upon  coming back. 

Cam Ellis: I'll be curious to see where the Bears' bye week preparation show up first. Between the offensive line, an uninspiring run scheme, absent tight end production and no real answers at quarterback (but otherwise it's fine!), they've got to start somewhere.  Is it fixing the run game in hopes that it takes the burden off Trubisky's return? Or is it getting Trey Burton: The Adjuster involved earlier? Speaking of getting the ball earlier, Anthony Miller lightly lobbied for a higher workload, which may not be a bad idea either. This is why they pay Nagy the big bucks, but man, coaching in the NFL seems kind of hard. 

First Thoughts on Week 7 

Stankevitz: I’m going to expand on this more later in the week, but New Orleans’ defense looks like a tough challenge for Trubisky to face in his expected return Sunday. 2018 first-round edge rusher Marcus Davenport is third in the NFL in pass rushing efficiency, generating a pressure once every 13.7 snaps (behind only Nick Bosa and Khalil Mack). Cam Jordan is one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL and doesn’t always get his due for how good he is. 

So New Orleans has an excellent defensive front, one that will take sound technique and strong communication for the Bears’ O-line to block. And then there’s cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who’s shut down the likes of Amari Cooper, Mike Evans and DJ Chark over the last three weeks. His lock-down presence — he travels in zone coverage to take out a team’s best receiver — allows the Saints to not need to always play a safety over the top, leading to extra men in the box to stop the run. 

So Trubisky will have his hands full on Sunday. It’s not like the Saints have an elite defense, but it’s good, and looks like a bad matchup for the Bears’ offense. 

Ellis: To almost directly contradict J.J., I actually think there are yards to be had against a Saints defense that ranks 13th in pass defense DVOA, ninth in yards per play and has allowed five plays of 40+ yards (T6). Marshon Lattimore's had a great month, but his season-long coverage numbers are more good than great. An average pass defense will be more than enough if the Bears' offensive line plays as poorly as it did in London, but if for some reason the combination of Rashaad Coward, a bye week breakthrough, and Taylor Gabriel makes everything snap into place, I think the Bears could move the ball better than people expect.

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How Blackhawks physicality is adding new dimension to style of play

How Blackhawks physicality is adding new dimension to style of play

The Blackhawks turned in their best 60-minute effort of the young season in Monday’s 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. They controlled the pace of play, got terrific goaltending from Corey Crawford and tightened up defensively.

But they also showed that they added a new layer to their team game this season.

The Blackhawks registered 36 hits against the Oilers, one of which was thunderously delivered by Andrew Shaw, sparking a scrum. Brent Seabrook led the team with six hits, Calvin de Haan had five and Drake Caggiula and Olli Maatta each had four. Heck, even Alex DeBrincat (three) and Patrick Kane (one) got in on the action.

It’s an element of their game that’s been missing the last few seasons and something they feel is important to their overall team success because it keeps other teams honest.

"I don't know if it's because of the personnel we have or the way we want to be strong and competitive and win battles, but obviously the other night we had a lot of finished hits and a lot of physicality that brings up the morale on the bench, which is a good thing," Kane said. "You look at Shawzy's hit, the stuff he's been doing early in the season — whether it's scoring big goals or sticking up for guys after they get hit — it's been awesome for the team. That's something that can really help us. We also need to play a little bit more with the puck, but it's a way we can get the puck back."

The Blackhawks don’t necessarily want to lead the NHL in the hits category, but they do want to establish an identity centered around being a difficult team to play against and adding that dimension is part of it. So is team unity.

"I don't think it's going to be our go-to in the way we're going to beat teams," Jonathan Toews said. "There's no doubt we've got guys that can mix it in. We saw last game with Shawzy and Murph, and [Ryan Carpenter] and [Zack Smith] and go down the list of guys. Even [Caggiula] and [DeBrincat] were throwing the weight around a couple days ago. It's definitely part of our game — we can play with energy and I think it's going to be there when we're ready to go. But our game is puck possession and keeping teams in their end and outplaying them in that sense.”

Through four games this season, the Blackhawks are averaging 33.0 hits per game. The previous two seasons they averaged 16.5 and 16.8, respectively, which ranked 30th.

While it's still early, there's clearly an uptick in the physicality department and it's exactly what the organization was hoping for after bringing in players like Shaw and Smith to add some bite to the roster. The Blackhawks are focused on becoming a team that can win in several different ways and play any kind of style.

"There’s a difference between running around just trying to get a tick on the stat sheet," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "But we definitely want to be physical when we have the chance and force the opposition to make plays before they're ready, and we can create turnovers and transition and offense and get out of D zone. We have some guys who like to play that way and I think it helps our team." 

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