Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bulls-Nets, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game No. 3: Hold On

Chicago Bulls 79, Brooklyn Nets 76--Bulls lead 2-1

The Bulls and Nets entered the United Center tonight tied at a game apiece on the heels of a pair of vastly different games in Brooklyn. In Game One, the Bulls were simply overwhelmed, but Game Two was a 2012-13 Chicago classic, a symphony of raw exertion and grit. 

In this one, the early going resembled Game One, as the Bulls turned it over three times in less than two minutes of play and found themselves down 13-2 by the 7:37 mark. The turnover total for Chicago ballooned to five before the halfway point of the first. Meanwhile, the Bulls couldn't throw it into Lake Michigan, starting the game 2-for-8 from the field. 

Unfortunately for the Bulls, Deron Williams had eight points (5/5 from the FT line) through just over six minutes of play after scoring eight all game on Tuesday. Luckily, Williams cooled down and the Bulls rattled off an 14-0 run, taking a two point surplus into the second after having been down 12. All in all, it was a tremendously ugly first quarter, as the Bulls didn't start hitting until the last few minutes and the Nets stuck with the outside shot even as it didn't fall (Brooklyn didn't score a basket in the first quarter's final 6:25). Then again, it's not as if "that was an ugly quarter" will be an infrequent saying during this series. 

The Nets continued to lob airball after airball, which negated the fact that the Bulls weren't lighting it up either. However, Taj Gibson absolutely posterized Kris Humphries off of a pick and roll to the put the Bulls up 26-20, a dunk that was basically a way scaled down version of MJ's throw dunk from the end of Space Jam. 

Things were getting so bad that I wondered if the Nets might have more luck blindfolding themselves and using the Force when rising to shoot. The Nets were an unbelievably awful 6-for-32 from the field through 18 minutes of play, good for 19%. 

The Bulls did very well to recover, generally outworking the Nets and taking shots much closer to the basket. At the same time, the Nets' incompetence was just amazingly comprehensive. A Jimmy Butler interception in the back court led to a wide open layup for Kirk Hinrich, who happened to still be under the basket, a play that capably summarizes the state of affairs for the Nets in the first half. 

The Bulls took a 41-34 lead into the break after Gerald Wallace hit a trey at the buzzer. The Nets finished the half just 9-for-40 from the field, or 22.5%. The Bulls weren't exactly covering themselves in glory either, having shot just 41% (1-for-6 from three).

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bulls-Nets, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game Two: The Importance of Being Gritty

Chicago Bulls 90, Brooklyn Nets 82--Series tied, 1-1

Luckily, I didn't get around to writing anything about Game One of this series, which is a good thing given the  fairly disappointing outcome. The Bulls aren't 100 percent --Joakim Noah only managed to grit out 13 minutes-- but you would have liked to see a closer game given the Bulls' nice regular season mark against the Nets. 

Noah said he would give it a go again tonight for Game Two, but it was unclear how much a factor he could possibly be, particularly given the pesky nature of a plantar fasciitis injury. I'm writing these first couple of paragraphs before the game has started, but the unfortunate reality seems to be that the Bulls are going to have to win this series largely without significant contributions from Noah. This is a shame given the season he's had, but it's not exactly unexpected when a player is forced to play the minutes that Noah has. So it goes. 

In any case, the Bulls came into tonight with the opportunity to even the series before heading back to Chicago for Game Three on Thursday. It wasn't pretty early on, but through just over three minutes of play the game was tied at 2-2: progress! Noah got the start and was playing hard, as usual, but you could pretty obviously tell that he was not 100 percent. He started his evening with a miss in the paint on a relatively challenging running layup and also failed to connect on a mid-range jumper from just past the free throw line extended. 

The next few minutes continued to resemble a poorly played, out of control JV game, but the Bulls somehow found themselves up 10-6 heading into the first timeout. The Nets were blocking Bulls shots, crossing them over and throwing down monstrous dunks, but the Bulls held on to 20-17 lead heading into the second, a huge improvement over the 25-14 deficit they took into the second frame of Game One. 

Marco Belinelli pitched in some strong minutes in the second, hitting a 23-footer and then back-to-back strong finishes at the rim for six points in the second quarter's first half. Unfortunately, Brook Lopez caught fire, scoring eight second quarter points. Old friend C.J. Watson buried a buzzer-beating trey to send the Bulls into the half with a 47-46 lead. It was not the prettiest half of basketball, but it was exactly the sort of game the Bulls needed to play. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Game No. 14, White Sox-Blue Jays: Tank In Toronto

 White Sox 4, Blue Jays 3

With the Bulls heading to the playoffs soon (and likely no advancing further than the second round) and the NHL playoffs beginning in two weeks, I'm hoping to have more time to focus on the White Sox and, yes, Michigan football offseason minutiae. I'm still working out a summer schedule of sorts, but, as always, whatever happens, happens.

In any case, the White Sox have struggled since I last wrote about them, when I visited the Cell for the second game of the season, back in the halcyon days when the Sox were 2-0.

Now, Robin Ventura's club sits at 5-8, having been swept by the Nationals, dropping two of three in Cleveland and losing yesterday's contest against some guy named Mark Buehrle. You may have heard of him at some point. The White Sox got to this Buehrle character in the first inning, but quickly relinquished the lead in the second frame after a Maicer Izturis home run. The Jays held on for a 4-3 win in the end.

Today, Josh Johnson took the mound for Toronto, whose last appearance saw him get shelled in Detroit; he exited the game after just four outs.

Naturally, the White Sox went down 1-2-3 in the first inning, with Alejandro De Aza recording a strikeout for the eighth time in his last nine games.

For the White Sox, Dylan Axelrod took the mound, his third start of the season. Axelrod did provide a solid performance on April 6 against Seattle, recording the win, but didn't fare quite as well in Washington. giving up seven hits and six earned runs in 3.2 IP.

On the bright side, Axelrod started the game with a K, getting 2B Emilio Bonifacio on some breaking stuff, the fourth pitch of the AB. Axelrod did give up a sharp single on the next at bat, but managed to get out of the first unscathed.

Adam Dunn struck out to start the second, but the White Sox started some trouble after a Konerko single and a Gillaspie walk. With a runner in scoring position, I'm pretty sure the White Sox are contractually obligated to not get said runner home. Viciedo struck out, but on the next AB Ramirez ripped a hard single to center. Unfortunately, Paul Konerko was forced to stay at third, leading to a bases loaded situation with two outs for Hector Gimenez.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Game No. 81 Recap, Bulls-Magic: Magic Cures What Ails You

Chicago Bulls 102, Orlando Magic 84

The Bulls entered tonight having squandered any momentum that win against New York could have possibly generated; since then, the Bulls have lost two straight, putting them a game behind Atlanta with two games to go. A Chicago loss and an Atlanta win tomorrow night would seal the Bulls' playoff seed at the 6 spot, meaning a tough first round opponent in the Indiana Pacers.

As such, a game like tonight's, against a quite frankly horrid Orlando Magic squad, was one that a team with even a modicum of hope for any sort of playoff run should win. Jacque Vaughn's Magic team entered tonight with a 20-60 record, second to last in the Eastern Conference and the second worst mark in the entire league (they're only one game better than last place Charlotte).

Fortunately for the Bulls, both Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson made their return, albeit from the bench and under a minutes cap.

Orlando jumped out to a quick 7-2 lead, but a Hinrich trey from the straight away and a beautiful backdoor dish from Carlos Boozer to Jimmy Butler allowed the Bulls to pull within two; on the next possession, Boozer faced up and hit his patented jumper to tie it at 9 four and a half minutes in.

The Bulls' defense was far from lockdown in the opening quarter, but the Bulls were able to capitalize on some easy buckets in transition situations and off of turnovers. Chicago entered the game tied for second to last in the league in points per game (93.1), but the Magic weren't far ahead, ranked 24th with 94.3 ppg. Of course, this is the NBA, where games aren't won or lost in the first quarter, or even the second or third.

Nonetheless, the Magic finished the first quarter with a shooting percentage of 47.6%; to the Bulls' credit, however, that number was hovering around 55% with just a few minutes left in the first quarter, so the defense tightened up a little bit. Chicago took a two point deficit into the second quarter, but, on the bright side, Noah and Gibson entered the game late in the second, logging their first minutes in some time.

Unfortunately, Noah picked up three quick fouls in just 4-5 minutes of play, with his third coming just over two minutes into the second quarter. A couple of minutes later, Rip Hamilton also picked up his third, putting the Bulls in an awkward situation very early in the game.

Upon an Orlando 24-second violation, Neil Funk mused that sometimes "you just have to wonder what Orlando is doing." An appropriate comment given that particular possession, and yet, the Bulls were still down four.

The offense was much harder to come by early in the second, as both teams combined for just nine points in the second frame's first five minutes. A 5-0 Bulls run gave them a 29-28 lead just past the halfway point in the second.

The Bulls offense start to hum down the stretch in the second, with four buckets from Boozer and Luol Deng from within 10 feet (three of them layups) and two more treys from Hinrich. Deng added another three for good measure, and a foul on a Jimmy Butler alley-oop dunk attempt sent the Bulls into the break up 49-37. Despite a shaky first 18 minutes or so, strong halves from Boozer (12 pts), Deng (14 pts) and Hinrich (3-for-3 from three) gave the Bulls a sizable cushion as the first half drew to a close.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Game No. 78 Recap, Bulls-Knicks: Clean Sweep

Chicago Bulls 118, New York Knicks 111

Luol Deng came out and hit an elbow jumper to start the game, but the Knicks were quickly able to jump out to an 8-2 lead less than two minutes in. How, you ask? Of course, via the dreaded three-point shot. As I mentioned earlier in the preview post, the Knicks shot a disgusting 20-for-36 from three on Tuesday, and they started this one with two from the left side, one from Shumpert and Felton each. 

Unlike the matchups in MSG, it was the Knicks who jumped out to a big early lead, 11-2 by the 9:10 mark, forcing a Thibodeau timeout. It was not an auspicious start for the Bulls. 

Out of the timeout, starting "center" Chris Copeland nailed another trey, extending the lead to 14-2. Meanwhile, the Bulls had missed their next five shots after the aforementioned Deng make. 

The Knicks finally missed their first shot of the game at the 7:37 mark, but the Bulls offense could not keep up at the other end. A trey from Pablo Prigioni at the 5:58 mark --forcing another Bulls timeout-- gave the Knicks their 23rd point six minutes in. Small sample size and all, but through just over six minutes of play, the Knicks were scoring at a clip of 1.94 points per possession. 

Luckily, a quick 10-0 Bulls run brought Chicago a step away from the precipice of First Quarter Blowout City. After going down 23-6 halfway through the first, the Bulls held the Knicks to just seven points the rest of the way. Entering the second quarter down 30-23 was just about as close to "winning" a quarter as a team can get while being down seven. 

On the not so bright side, the Knicks continued their sharpshooting ways early in the second, with a long two and a trey on consecutive possessions from Raymond Felton, and another trey from Copeland a couple of minutes later. Although it was only 15 minutes into the game, the Knicks were outshooting their three-point shooting percentage from Tuesday, having shot 7-for-11 from beyond the arc (64%). No matter how many times the Bulls would rally back, there is no way the Bulls could win this one with the Knicks shooting so many relatively uncontested threes. 

A few minutes into the second, Mike Woodson was forced to roll with a four guard lineup, with Copeland as the only big. This is where you start pining for a healthy Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Done pining? Okay, let's move to the next graf. 

After a 3-for-3 start from the field, Carmelo Anthony went on to miss 11 straight, which probably had somewhat to do with the Bulls' ability to get back into the game relatively quickly. Also, the Bulls got some solid bench production, with six points from Rip Hamilton (yes, he still exists) and seven from Nate Robinson. 

The Bulls cut the deficit to two at one point, but a 7-1 run by the Knicks --that included technical fouls on both Anthony and Robinson-- brought the lead back up to eight. I'm not sure what was said, but the Nate tech took the wind out of the Bulls' sails for a moment, especially on the heels of the Melo tech. 

Despite a disastrous first six minutes, the Bulls went into the half down just 59-54, powered by a 57% mark from two and 25 combined second quarter points from Robinson and Hamilton. The Bulls' D was not good in any respect, but I'll take 54 points in a half from an undermanned Bulls squad any day of the week and twice on Sunday. 

Game No. 78 Preview, Bulls-Knicks: On Fire

Chicago Bulls (42-35) vs. New York Knicks (51-26)

The Bulls and Knicks meet tonight for their fourth and final meeting this season, a series which has somewhat surprisingly been dominated by the former this season. Chicago is 3-0 against the Knicks, who recently locked up the division title and have a magic number of three for the No. 2 spot in the East, with Indiana hot on their heels. The Knicks have been beset with all sorts of injuries all season, but they still have much to play for down the stretch before the playoffs begin. 

Thibodeau's squad notched a close victory at the UC back on Dec. 8, and you of course probably remember the two thumpings the Bulls delivered in the Garden (both which ended up looking vaguely close on the box score). 

Both teams are riddled with injuries at the moment, so this matchup will not exactly represent both teams at full strength, let alone even 75% of their full capacity. Regardless, it is an important game for both squads, as the Bulls are also looking to hold on to the 5-seed in order to face Brooklyn in the first round, a much better matchup in my mind than a date with the Pacers. 

At this point, there's no need to run through the roster for a fourth time this season: you know these Knicks. On Tuesday, the Knicks went with a starting five of Martin-Anthony-Prigioni-Shumpert-Felton; unfortunately for the Knicks, Kenyon Martin was the latest guy to go down in Tuesday's game against the Wizards. He, Tyson Chandler, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace will all likely be out for this one (although this is just me doing some early morning speculating as I write this). 

As such, the Knicks will be even more thin at the front court than they've been in past matchups. The Knicks are apparently close to signing James Singleton, who sounds like a Kenyon Martin approximate of some sort, but I'm not sure if that will be done in time for tonight's game. According to Frank Isola, the Knicks will likely have to cut someone (i.e. Kurt Thomas) to make this happen. 

In any case, the song remains the same. The Bulls will need to be physical with this Knicks team, which has struggled with that brand of play against the Bulls in their previous triumvirate of matchups. As you are likely aware, Carmelo Anthony has been channeling Spike Albrecht of late, averaging an insane 40.6 ppg in the month of April, including 50- and 36-point outputs at Miami and at Oklahoma City. Not only has Anthony's jersey sales topped LeBron's, his MVP star may be rising past the latter's after it dipped somewhat in the middle of the season. 

Unfortunately for the Bulls, with Joakim Noah out and Taj Gibson currently listed as day-to-day, there might not be much opportunity to take advantage of the boards as the Bulls have done against New York in the past. I don't think the Bulls can count on cracking the century mark in this one as they did in the two games in MSG. This will be one or lost by, you guessed it, defense and probably Jimmy Butler getting close to duplicating his career night on the offensive end against Toronto. 

The Bulls are on a two-game skid, ending a long winning streak against the Pistons and dropping the aforementioned game in Toronto on Tuesday. As we've seen all season, there is no reason to do much extrapolating from this sort of thing: the Bulls have been known to lose to poor teams only to turn around and beat one of the league's best shortly thereafter (and vice versa). There's no reason to expect the Bulls to not put up a fight, especially at home. 

However, if the Knicks somehow manage to go 20-for-36 (55.6%) from three again, as they did on Tuesday, this one will of course be pretty ugly. In their previous matchups, the Knicks have shot 35%, 31% and 50% from three against the Bulls. If Chicago's defense can allow something close to the first two matchups, they'll be in business. 

As always, forcing Anthony and J.R. Smith into high-usage, low-efficiency outputs will be the name of the game, as well as being mindful of the always dangerous Steve Novak corner three. 

The simple "100-point rule" applies tonight: the Bulls haven't cracked the century mark since their March 27 victory against the Heat. If the Knicks manage to score 100+, turn out the lights. I don't think they will, but I once again don't think the Bulls have enough juice to pull one out against a Knicks team playing its best ball since its early season run of dominance. But, I've been wrong many times before, and it's not like the Bulls didn't somewhat recently end the Heat's prolific streak. 

Bulls 87, Knicks 93. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Game No. 2, White Sox-Royals: Errors and Long Balls

Fouad Egbaria

Chicago White Sox 5, Kansas City Royals 2

Hey, how about a little baseball? 

I had the chance to take in the Sox' second game of the season this afternoon, coming after the always annoying post-opening-day-day-without-a-game. On an exciting note, this was my first trip to the Cell in many, many years (i.e. the early 2000s). So, it was nice to be back, even if the park was depressingly empty.  But, hey: 1:10 p.m. on a Wednesday? What can you do. 

Jake Peavy took the mound for the White Sox and came out in vintage bulldog fashion, striking out five of the first six Royals he faced, all five going down swinging and looking generally like fools. 

In the bottom of the second, Adam Dunn made up for a poor opening day by smacking the first pitch into the right field stands, a 431-foot home run shot. Interestingly enough, Tyler Flowers knocked one out of the park on the first pitch of the next inning as well, making this two games with two homers for Flowers. At this rate, Tyler Flowers is on pace to become the most decorated athlete in the history of Western civilization. My guess is he won't keep up this homer per game pace...let's see if this bold prediction holds up. 

Although Peavy did bring the good stuff today, his outing wasn't without its troubles, namely due to the defense behind him. In the third, a Three Stooges-esque little collision between Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo led to the former dropping what should have been a fairly routine out. The error was charged to Ramirez, but it seemed to me that Ramirez waved Viciedo off early off for the latter to have gotten out of the way. But, in the end, the ball's on the ground, and that's not good. This would become a trend. 

In the same inning (after an Alex Gordon flyout following the aforementioned shenanigans), Viciedo mishandled a ball in left field that allowed Chris Getz (GO BLUE) the opportunity to score with ease, tying the game at 1-1. The top of the third of this one was one to forget. 

Luckily, Chicago's home run offense kept churning on, this time with Viciedo hitting a two-run home run, bringing in the walked Adam Dunn in the process. 

After a quiet fifth inning --in which all three Sox struck out swinging-- Gordon started the sixth for the Royals with a double. Two ground outs later and Gordon crossed home, cutting the lead to 4-2. Peavy gave up another double, this time to Mike Moustakas, but he managed to get out of the inning and complete his 107-pitch outing having given up two runs and four hits. 

Jesse Crain relieved Peavy, and the defense once again faltered. Dewayne Wise, entering the game at left for Viciedo, simply dropped a catchable ball down the line, allowing Hosmer to reach second. I'm not sure if the sun was in his eyes or what, but the Sox were quite lucky all these errors didn't come back to bite them. 

Crain then gave a single to Lorenzo Cain, he rang up a big punchout against Jeff Francoeur. Robin Venture then brought in Donnie "I'll be here all week" Veal, who faced a pinch-hitting Miguel Tejada (yes, he is still around). Veal walked Tejada in four pitches, loading the bases with one out. Things were looking grim, but a Veal managed to get Gordon to fly out and Matt Lindstrom (in his White Sox debut) entered the game, also getting Alcides Escobar to fly out, ending the inning. 

In the bottom of the 7th, Luke Hochevar relieved Ervin Santana. Alexei took advantage, knocking, you guessed it, another dinger over the newly de-memorialized outfield wall. The insurance run proved to be unnecessary, but hey, fireworks retailers have families to feed too. 

Matt Thornton relieved Lindstrom with one out in the 8th and proceeded to get two easy outs, paving the way for an Addison Reed save situation in the 9th, his second in as many games. I doubt Bobby Thigpen's 1990 saves mark of 57 is in any serious danger, but you couldn't have really asked for a much better start to the season from Reed. 

Reed rattled off a 1-2-3 inning in the 9th to end the game, sending the White Sox to 2-0 on the season. A few notes: 
  • The White Sox still haven't scored a run of the non-HR variety this season. So, yeah: same old White Sox. 
  • Gordon Beckham walked once but struck out twice. 
  • De Aza saw 22 pitches on the day after seeing 21 on Monday. 
  • New 3B Jeff Keppinger is batting .125 thus far this season on eight at bats. He's struck out once and has yet to draw a walk. 

Denard Robinson Q & A in the NYT

You've probably seen this already, but oh well. It's a fairly boilerplate set of questions and answers, but this part was of interest (other than the sexual orientation question, which he answered just about exactly as you'd expect him to):
Q. Your nickname is Shoelace because you play with your laces untied. Will you be superstitious or feel uncomfortable if the team that drafts you makes you tie your laces?
A. I am a little bit superstitious. But you know what? I can’t afford the fine. I’m not well off. So I will be tying my shoelaces if they want me to tie them. 
In the end, this is trivial --except for people like me and you-- but it is also somewhat saddening. NFL, why do you potentially (i.e. probably will) have to ruin everything that is fun and good?

denard.1.DSC_5464 copy
(Source: Adam Glanzman)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Michigan to the Final Four

It's been over 48 hours now, and it really hasn't sunk in yet. Michigan is going to the Final Four.

I wrote about this and the enduring incredulity over at Maize n Brew today:

The NCAA tournament is a strange concentrated series of staccato blasts, short weekends of fevered action moving faster than Time itself. Hopes rise and they fall, expectations collapse and are born anew. It is sport on a subatomic level, each game meaningful on an elemental level. March Madness is like staring the supernatural in the face, not unlike the Sodees in Escanaba in Da Moonlight. You see what you see and sometimes you just can't believe it. Sometimes you even go crazy, waiting for that first buck. You're 43 and wondering: when?

To be quite honest, growing up watch Michigan basketball during the Ellerbe and Amaker eras, I never thought this day would come; but, here we are.