Bulls

Teague, Belinelli come through in the clutch for Bulls

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Teague, Belinelli come through in the clutch for Bulls

Who would you attribute the following typical Tom Thibodeau postgame press conference description to?

Staying ready to play, going out there, knowing what your job is, doing your job, getting it done, listed the Bulls head coach after his teams 83-82 win Saturday night over the Nets at the United Center. Providing whatever the team needed, playing well within the unit and they played well on both sides of the ball, played well defensively and offensively.

The most likely suspects are Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. But while that duo played well, it wasnt them, nor was it the power-forward tandem of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.

With the injured starting backcourt of veterans Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton sidelined, it wasnt them either. Instead, it was a 19-year-old who some expected to log more minutes in the D-League than the NBA this season (Marquis Teague) and a free-agent acquisition that seemed so out of sync early in the campaign that it appeared he might be nailed to the bench.

Marco Belinellis late-game heroics he scored 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting, with none bigger than his driving, surprisingly uncontested layup with 22.1 seconds remaining, as well as two free throws to seal the deal might be the headline, but as a six-year veteran, as fans in New Orleans, Toronto and Golden State can attest, hes capable of putting up big numbers, although the native of Italy hasnt done it on a consistent basis for his entire career.

But with his performance in the stead of the injured Hamilton, that might be changing, now that he firmly understands that defense is the way to Thibodeaus heart.

Everybody knows if you play defense, you stay on the court, so everybody wants to play defense, wants to be aggressive. When I was in New Orleans with Monty Williams, I think we played great defense, too. But right now, its like a championship team., he said afterwards. We want to be good, we want to do something big, so if you want to do something big, you need to play defense first.

Those are lofty aspirations in a season that began with Derrick Rose working his way back from ACL surgery, but after playing for a series of non-playoff contenders, you cant blame the guy. The smile on his face in the Bulls locker room, however, illustrated how much he starved to be on a competitive, winning squad.

Thats a great feeling. It was amazing. Im happy for me, but Im happy for everybody, he explained. It was a team win. We played good defense, we played good offense and the fans here are amazing, so we won the game for us and for our fans.

That was a good shot because I think Jo made a good screen for me, first of all, and the spacing on the court was good. I just tried to be aggressiveI was wide open to the basket, so those were good points, but I think most important was our defense. We played great defense in the last three, four minutes, so thats why we won the game, the candid Belinelli continued, before admitting to being wary of Brooklyns Gerald Wallace, who previously blocked two dunks from the weak side earlier in the evening. I was scared about that, to be honest. I was thinking to dunk a little bit, but I saw Gerald Wallace over there was coming, so I thought to float it for a layup with the left. It went in, so it was good.

Now, in the case of Teague, his play in clutch situations is close to becoming a pattern, as he was productive in crunch-time minutes during a November home loss to Boston, excelled as Thibodeau rode him down the stretch in Wednesdays road victory over Philadelphia in a hostile environment and continued to display that prodigal calmness in Saturdays contest.

That same serene demeanor he has except on the court, where the soft-spoken 19-year-old directs traffic firmly on most occasions is evident after games, too.

Its exciting. Its fun. It lets you know your coach has confidence in you and you want to go out there, and do whatever you can, whatever it takes to win, he said after the win, in which he contributed modest numbers of eight points and two assists, but only committed one turnover, again played big minutes in the fourth quarter and did a more than serviceable job defensively against Brooklyn All-Star point guard Deron Williams. My confidence is where its been from Day 1. Im always confident in my game, confident in my abilities, so I stayed the same, whether I play 20 minutes or zero minutes.

I was just trying to contain Williams, just keep him in front of me. Its hard to keep a player like that from scoring. I just wanted to make it as tough on him as possible, contest his shots, continued the Indianapolis native and point guard for last seasons University of Kentucky title team. I was just trying to take whatever the defense gave me, creating for one of my teammates or knock down the shot for myself and I had few silly fouls that I shouldnt have made. Ive got to do better and learn from it.

I see these guys his teammates every day in practice, I know what they like to do, I know their strengths and where to give them ball where theyre going to be most effective, he went on to say. It felt good. It was a lot of energy in the building. It just helped us, motivated us to play even harder than we were. It just felt good to get the win.

Besides the aforementioned questionable shooting foul on Williams They called it, so I guess its a foul, he said about the play and not taking a wide-open jumper as the shot clock ran down (he was looking for Luol Deng, who was tying his shoe at the time), its hard to find much fault with how he played, especially considering the competition.

The same goes for Belinelli, making the Bulls recent success even more remarkable, given that both players didnt look like theyd be big reasons for the team overcoming Roses extended absence.

But thats how the Bulls have prospered, not just as of late, but C.J. Watson being back in town was a helpful reminder over the past two seasons. It just shows how much Belinelli and Teague have not only bought in, but fit into the teams beating-the-odds, survival-at-all-costs, all-hands-on-deck mentality, a way of life here at the United Center, fostered at the Berto Center and that travels well to wherever the Bulls play, as evidenced by their early-season record, which is surprising to some, but not to anybody wearing that uniform.

Timberwolves fan finds a new use for their Jimmy Butler jersey

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NBA Reddit/jdbuffs1

Timberwolves fan finds a new use for their Jimmy Butler jersey

Jimmy Butler finally got his wish earlier this week when the Timberwolves dealt him to the Philadelphia 76ers for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick. The deal gives the Timberwolves a chance to try to stay competitive in the present with an increased focused on their core consisting of former No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Timberwolves faithful were (obviously) hurt at the way Butler forced his way out of town and one fan found an interesting use for his Butler home jersey.

Reddit user jdbuffs1 titled the post "Really cool new doormat to wipe my shoes on."

The post elicited other great responses from users such as "We cant see it [the doormat] with that rag covering it" and "YOU CAN'T WIPE YOUR FEET WITHOUT ME."

T'Wolves fan are right to have a little fun with Butler's departure, which ends one of the more intriguing trade-demand sagas in recent NBA history.

With the makeup of Minnesota's squad post-Butler trade, the team will be in a solid position whether they end up with a 2019 lottery pick or make a surprising playoff run. And while the T'Wolves would likely take Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine over ending their long playoff drought last year, it is tough to fault Tom Thibodeau on the move considering how good they looked for stretches last season.

Only time will tell if the Sixers won the Butler trade with the T'Wolves.

On paper, the Sixers easily won this trade. But if Butler ends up  being a one season rental for Philly, the T'Wolves will be able to look back at this deal and be happy with the fact they were able to extract two players who can bring long-term value, while allowing their core players to take on a bigger role.

As Bears enter season-tipping game, four ascending players could key win over Vikings

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USA Today

As Bears enter season-tipping game, four ascending players could key win over Vikings

The Bears, sure, haven’t beat anyone good. Their best win is over the 5-5 Seattle Seahawks, and the combined record of the six teams they’ve defeated is 19-38. 

But it’s also true that the Minnesota Vikings haven’t beat anyone good in 2018 either. Their best win came against the 4-5 Philadelphia Eagles, and the combined record of the five teams they’ve beat is 14-33.

The Vikings have lost to the Bills (3-7), Rams (9-1) and Saints (9-1), while the Bears have lost to the Packers (4-5-1), Dolphins (5-5) and Patriots (7-3). All this is to say: One of these two teams will get their best win of 2018 on Sunday night. 

And the Bears have shown plenty of signs over the last few weeks that they have a strong chance of emerging from a critical battle for the NFC North with a win. These four players are among the biggest reasons why:

1. Roquan Smith

The report: There’s little questioning the connection between Smith missing all but about a practice and a half of training camp/preseason and the No. 8 overall pick’s slow start to the regular season, but he’s come on strong as of late. Smith has 12 tackles in his last two games, providing big-time run support to mute the production of LeSean McCoy and Kerryon Johnson, and he sacked Matthew Stafford last weekend, too. 

He’s playing with a certain quickness that perhaps was lacking in the first eight weeks of the season, and it’s clear the game is slowing down for him, allowing him to make plays with his physicality and sideline-to-sideline athleticism. 

“He’s getting better and better every day and not just every game,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I see better things in practice, just little things, processing quicker, executing his job crisper and more quickly, if that’s such a word, and he’s getting better every day.”

The matchup: The Vikings’ offense hasn’t got running back Dalvin Cook rolling since he returned from a balky hamstring in Week 9. His explosive rushing ability provides a different dynamic for the Vikings’ offense, and getting him going would make things far easier for Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. While Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks are critical for the Bears’ run-stuffing efforts, it’ll be Smith and Danny Trevathan who may need to step up to keep him from ripping off a big-chunk play, as he did with a 70-yard dash against the Lions two weeks ago. 

“He’s strong but explosive,” Fangio said. “He can break the big run. He had a 70-yarder here recently against (Detroit) so he’s a threat to go the route all the time. He’s a really good all-around player.”

2. Anthony Miller

The report: Miller’s breakout game against Detroit (five catches, 122 yards, 1 TD) had been coming for weeks — he just needed Mitch Trubisky to connect with him when he ran open. That finally happened against the Lions. His chemistry with Trubisky is becoming apparent, and he’s combining his route-running savviness with increased experience to consistently find openings in whatever defense is in front of him. 

“He's slowly starting to fit into what we see him being down the road here,” coach Matt Nagy said. “And so any way we can get him the ball we're going to try to do that.”

The matchup: Miller primarily plays in the slot, running 71 percent of his offensive snaps from that position. Against the Vikings, he’ll face off against slot corner Mackensie Alexander, who’s allowed 28 receptions on 34 targets for 303 yards, good for 10.8 yards/reception, and a passer rating of 103.8 according to Pro Football Focus (for a slot corner comparison, scroll down for the Bryce Callahan section of this article). The Bears have a matchup edge here, so long as Trubisky is able to take advantage of it. 

3. Bryce Callahan

The report: Forget about the offseason price tag of Callahan, an impending free agent, going up by the game. The 27-year-old is playing spectacular football, holding opposing receivers to 28 receptions 38 targets (73.7 percent) for 219 yards (7.8 yards/reception) and a passer rating of 74.3 when he’s thrown at, per PFF. Perhaps making those numbers more impressive — of the 10 incompletions when passes are thrown his way, five were pass break-ups and two were interceptions. On top of all that, he has two sacks, two quarterback hits and seven hurries this year, good for 11 total pressures — more than double the next-highest total for a cornerback (Arizona’s Budda Baker has five). He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level. 

“There are a lot of little things that he’s mastered and can go to the next level as far as reading and dissecting routes and knowing how to play them, maybe playing them a half-second quicker than he did two years ago,” Fangio said. “Those things start to add up.”

The matchup: Adam Thielen can play both inside and outside, but has played the majority of his 586 snaps from the slot (53 percent). While he won’t be exclusively matched up against Callahan, the two former undrafted free agents will go against each other in a battle of strength vs. strength. Thielen already has 947 yards on 78 receptions, and until Minnesota’s Week 9 win over the Detroit Lions had eight consecutive games with at least 100 receivers yards (he’s also caught a touchdown in six consecutive games). Cousins has a passer rating of 119.2 when throwing Thielen’s way, too. If Callahan can win this matchup, it’ll be massive for the Bears’ chances on Sunday. It’s worth noting two of Cousins’ five interceptions have come when throwing Thielen’s way. 

“Both of those receivers with Thielen and Diggs, they're just very natural receivers,” Nagy said. “They have excellent hands, great route runners, they understand how to beat zones and then Kirk throwing the ball to them, he's been doing it for a long time, he's extremely accurate, he's tough, he finds different ways to get the ball to those guys.”

4. Mitch Trubisky

The report: On one hand, Trubisky lit up the Lions’ defense for 355 yards on 23/30 passing with three touchdowns and an additional rushing score. On the other hand, the Lions’ defense is awful, and the Vikings will bring a stout group to Soldier Field on Sunday night. The thought being: Trubisky still needs to prove himself against a good defense. 

But Nagy explained why what Trubisky did against Detroit didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Matt Patricia’s side having one of the league’s worst defenses. Specifically: Miller easily beat a blown coverage for a touchdown, but what Trubisky did to get him the ball translates against any defense. 

“Find an open guy and throw it to him,” Nagy said. “That's what we did. He has a progression. He has a progression. And so whether it's a blown coverage or a wide receiver runs a good route and beats a guy, as long as he's sticking within that progression and going from one, two, three, maybe four, or one, two, three, to run, etc., as long as he stays within that we're good.”

The matchup: A year ago, in primetime against the Vikings, Trubisky was baited into throwing a late-game interception by safety Harrison Smith, which led to a Kai Forbath game-winning field goal. Smith remains one of the very best safeties in the NFL, with three interceptions this year while allowing a passer rating of 66.1 when he’s targeted, according to PFF. 

“I think I’ve grown a lot since that play,” Trubisky said. “I’m not the same player, not even close. I’ve got better since that instance and I’m excited for the opportunity this weekend.”

Still, Trubisky will have to be aware of Smith at all times. Smith is one of those guys who epitomizes the Vikings’ ability to win close games — a been-there, done-that kind of guy. 

“He’s kind of like “Where’s Waldo?” He’s everywhere,” Nagy said. “And there’s several safeties in this league that are like him, where guys that can come down, play in the box, guys that blitz — very similar to (Jamal Adams). So he’s gonna be everywhere and he’s good at what he does. Harrison’s made consecutive Pro Bowls. We were with him in the Pro Bowl and he can play post-safety, play high, take care of the pass game. He’s got good ball skills. He can hit you hard. He can cover. It’s one of the reasons they’re a top defense. “