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Daryl Morey stepping down as Rockets GM

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Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is stepping down, effective Nov. 1, Morey and the team announced Thursday.

In the aftermath of Houston’s elimination from the NBA’s restart in Orlando, Florida, Morey approached owner Tilman Fertitta with the idea of leaving the job, and the sides quietly worked through an exit agreement to conclude his 13 seasons running the franchise’s basketball operations, sources said.

Morey isn’t ruling out a future return to the NBA on the team side, but he has become increasingly determined to explore what else might interest him professionally, sources said. Morey also saw an opportunity to spend time with two college-age children who are each taking a gap year academically during the coronavirus pandemic.

Morey will remain in an advisory role for a short period to assist in the Rockets’ completion of their head-coaching search, sources said.

The Rockets are planning to promote executive vice president of basketball operations Rafael Stone to general manager, sources said. Stone has played a significant part in the Rockets’ team-building throughout his tenure and will become the 10th current Black executive to hold the general manager title in the NBA.

Houston is also promoting Eli Witus to assistant general manager, sources said.

Under Morey, the Rockets have the league’s longest consecutive playoff appearance streak with eight — advancing in the Western Conference playoffs in each of the past four years.

Nevertheless, his final season on the job became engulfed in scrutiny after a tweet supporting freedom in Hong Kong led to China pulling the NBA off its airwaves and suspending sponsorship agreements with the league.

China returned the NBA to its airwaves for the first time during the NBA Finals.

Commissioner Adam Silver and Fertitta supported Morey, despite China’s calls for his dismissal. Silver estimated that the league’s losses in revenue could cost in the neighborhood of $400 million.

There had been leaguewide uncertainty about Morey’s job security since his tweet affected the NBA’s and Rockets’ business relationships with China, costing Fertitta millions of dollars in sponsorship money. Through it all, Fertitta remained consistently adamant that he was committed to Morey, calling him “the best general manager in the league” in an interview with ESPN on the night of the tweet. Fertitta never seemed to waver in his plan for Morey to continue running the Rockets’ basketball operations.

Despite the economic turmoil of the pandemic, Fertitta has publicly and privately insisted that he is committed to keeping the Rockets a contender in the Western Conference, even if that means elevating the team’s payroll into the luxury tax.

Morey has been the Rockets’ general manager since 2007-08. The team has the league’s second-best regular-season record over his 13 years as general manager and 14 years with the franchise. He signed a five-year contract extension in March 2019.

Under Morey as general manager, the Rockets made 77 trades — the second most in the NBA since May 2007, behind only the Philadelphia 76ers with 78. Among the deals were trades for James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

Stone, who played basketball at Williams College and received a law degree from Stanford, has served as the Rockets’ general counsel since 2005. He was promoted to executive vice president of basketball operations in April 2019, shortly before former Rockets executive Gersson Rosas left to become the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ president of basketball operations.

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.

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Rams out to prove Week 6 clunker was a fluke versus Bears

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Missed tackles. Dropped passes. False starts. Errant kicks.

The Los Angeles Rams‘ second loss of the season, a 24-16 clunker against the San Francisco 49ers, featured every miscue.

“We had a lot of uncharacteristic things, we had a lot of our players that we count on not come through in some situations that they typically do,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, while also shouldering some of the blame. “It’s a great learning opportunity for us.”

The Rams are 4-2 overall and 0-1 in the NFC West, far from any need to panic, but they must quickly fix issues that plagued them against their division rival before they take on the Chicago Bears (5-1) at SoFi Stadium on Monday Night Football.

The offense, which entered Week 6 averaging 27.2 points per game, must return to establishing its dominance on the ground behind a trio of healthy running backs, Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown, while quarterback Jared Goff and wide receiver Cooper Kupp must renew their connection through the air.

“It was just some uncharacteristic stuff for me,” said Goff, who passed for a season-low 198 yards and had a pass intercepted in the end zone against the 49ers. “Missing guys open there early. It’s something that I’ve never done in my life and don’t expect to ever repeat.”

However, even when on target, Goff’s receivers performed few favors. Kupp, who has caught 31 passes for 374 yards and two touchdowns, found himself turned around on a throw over the middle, then later dropped a pass in the end zone.

Even veteran Andrew Whitworth stumbled into multiple mistakes, as the sturdy left tackle twice was penalized for false starts.

“It’s one of those things that you’ve had a couple games where your execution is not as good as it should be,” said Whitworth, also referring to a Week 3 loss to the Buffalo Bills. “Just all the little details, and for some reason sometimes, you’re just off.”

The defense, which has been sporadically struck by tackling issues this season, must solve the problem for good while finding a way to pressure Bears quarterback Nick Foles after they were unable to disrupt 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

“We got punched in the mouth this past week,” said linebacker Micah Kiser, who fell victim to brutal stiff arm from 49ers running back Raheem Mostert. “We’re just ready to get that taste out of our mouth and get back to work. That’s all you can really do.”

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the NFL with 7.5 sacks, but did not take down Garoppolo, as the 49ers spread the ball quickly to the perimeter.

“We just wasn’t playing our ball,” Donald said. “We just didn’t play good as a team.”

Donald has not gone back-to-back weeks without a sack since Weeks 4 and 5 in 2019, and could be extra motivated to take down Foles, who he has yet to sack in his career.

And finally, there’s special teams, where rookie kicker Samuel Sloman connected on a season-long 42-yard field goal Sunday but otherwise continued to struggle connecting on extra points (15-of-18) and executing strategically placed kickoffs.

On Tuesday, a day after McVay expressed frustration with Sloman’s development saying, “He’s got to improve,” the Rams signed veteran kicker Kai Forbath from the Bears’ practice squad.

Forbath last kicked in an NFL game last season, when he appeared in the final three games with the Dallas Cowboys and converted 10 of 10 field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder.

Despite the underwhelming performance that plagued every phase last Sunday, McVay is continuing to express optimism about the Rams’ capabilities moving forward.

“The thing that I do genuinely believe is when you look at, ‘Okay, where did we fall short, are these things we’re capable of doing or are we just physically outmatched?'” McVay asked, rhetorically. “No, we’re capable of executing and playing better football, being a cleaner operation.”

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Bucs look more like legit contenders each week

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers cleared one major hurdle this season in getting their first signature win against the Green Bay Packers last week, playing one of their best games in the past decade. The next hurdle: how they handle winning on a weekly basis with a growing target on their backs as they’ve emerged as a favorite in the NFC. They handled business against the Las Vegas Raiders, who had an extra week to prepare, with a 45-20 win on the road.

Tom Brady threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns — he now has 559 passing TDs, surpassing Drew Brees (558) for the career TD passes mark. This wasn’t an error-free performance for the Bucs. They started off sluggish as a defense. Their second-half struggles that plagued them earlier in the year resurfaced in the third quarter, before a three-TD scoring explosion in the fourth. The Bucs improve their record to 5-2 to maintain their NFC South lead.

QB breakdown: Brady didn’t need his defense to get things going like he did when the Bucs were down 10-0 last week. Against the Raiders’ single-high safety looks in the first half, he had a ton of success on crossing routes with tight end Rob Gronkowski, producing gains of 26 and 28 yards. After a QB sneak for a TD in the first quarter, Brady hit Gronkowski in the corner of the left end zone on a back-shoulder fade, just like they did last week, to make it 14-10. Then just before halftime with :25 remaining, Brady fired a missile to Scotty Miller for a 33-yard touchdown to make it 21-10.

In total, Brady completed 33 of 45 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns with a fifth on the ground and no interceptions. He was not sacked once, and the Bucs’ red zone numbers were back on track after flopping against the Bears, going 4-of-5 in that department.

Promising trend: Coming off the Bucs’ 11-penalty performance against the Bears in Week 5, Bruce Arians told his players, “You have to get the job done or you won’t be the one doing the job,” inside linebacker Devin White said. It appears they’ve taken it to heart. After delivering a zero-penalty performance for just the second time in franchise history last week against the Green Bay Packers, the Bucs followed that up with just four penalties against the Raiders this week.

A pair of those penalties were costly, though. An offsides penalty on Shaq Barrett negated what would have been a Mike Edwards interception in the third quarter. Then on the very next play, Sean Murphy-Bunting was slapped with a holding call, setting up a 44-yard reception by Nelson Agholor and a 1-yard touchdown strike to Darren Waller to make it a one-score game.

Biggest concern: Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans hasn’t been able to fully practice with an ankle injury he suffered in Week 4 and was targeted three times with just one catch. If he’s that hurt — which it appears he is — there’s no reason to play him against the 1-6 Giants next week when a rematch with New Orleans could decide the NFC South in two weeks. In fact, he was still playing when the Bucs had a two-TD lead, which is baffling.

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Kershaw on lifting L.A. to cusp of WS: ‘Feels good’

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ARLINGTON, Texas — As Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts strolled to the mound with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, a chorus of boos rained down from the crowd at Globe Life Field. Even though this was Game 5 of Major League Baseball’s first neutral-site World Series, Dodgers fans have overrun the stadium, and they let their feelings be known: They did not want Roberts to remove Clayton Kershaw from the game.

Roberts did not abide, and as Kershaw strode off the mound, it was to a sound too often unfamiliar to him in October: cheers. If ever there was a postseason to huzzah the Dodgers’ left-hander, of course, this is it, and his plenty-solid performance in Game 5 laid the foundation for the Dodgers’ 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.

The win, on the heels of the Dodgers’ brutal Game 4 loss a day earlier, gave the Dodgers a 3-2 advantage in the series and put them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988. They can lock up a title in Game 6 on Tuesday night.

“It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said of walking off the mound to a standing ovation. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason it just means so much, that is what you work for, that is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”

If this was Kershaw’s last appearance in the 2020 postseason — there’s always a potential Game 7 relief appearance looming — there’s a good argument that it’s his finest playoffs yet. His shakiness in Game 5 evened out in the middle innings — he even foiled the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since 1982 — and by the time Roberts yanked him, Kershaw had retired eight batters in a row to gussy up a final line for 5 2/3 innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. In total, he has thrown 30 2/3 innings these playoffs, allowed 23 hits, walked 5 and struck out 37 with a 2.93 ERA and 4 wins.

Though the jeers that greeted Roberts on his way to the mound were even worse as he returned to the dugout, his maneuvering in Game 5 worked far better than his bungling the day prior — even if it placed the Dodgers in one particularly hairy situation. Dustin May, the fireballer who replaced Kershaw, struck out Rays cleanup hitter Manuel Margot on a 101.5-mph fastball to end the sixth and threw another scoreless 1 1/3 innings afterward.

He exited with a runner on first when Rays manager Kevin Cash pinch hit left-handed hitter Ji-Man Choi, which prompted Roberts to go to lefty Victor Gonzalez. Cash immediately pinch hit right-hander Mike Brosseau, who mashes lefties, and he walked. Up stepped Randy Arozarena, the Rays’ best hitter and a right-hander as well.

On the first pitch, Gonzalez induced a flyout. Brandon Lowe floated a ball to center field for the third out. The Dodgers had escaped, and Blake Treinen — not Kenley Jansen, who blew Game 4 — came on in the ninth and recorded the save.

“We stuck with the plan so credit to Doc for that one,” Kershaw said of Roberts. “DMay came in and threw the ball awesome, Victor same way and Blake too. Unbelievable job by those guys tonight which was huge.”

The Dodgers had played nine innings of clean baseball less than 20 hours after their two-error debacle with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning allowed Arozarena to pound home plate for the winning run and Brett Phillips to airplane into the outfield after loosing the single that led to the chaotic series of events evening the series.

Mookie Betts ripped a leadoff double off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, Corey Seager plated him with a single and Cody Bellinger‘s two-out infield single scored him, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 advantage. Joc Pederson‘s home run in the second extended it to 3-0 — the same lead he had and frittered away in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series.

World Series Game 5s, in fact, had been a bugaboo for Kershaw. The Boston Red Sox tarred him with four runs in four innings of the 2018 World Series, and he was beginning to bend in the third inning Sunday. Kevin Kiermaier singled, Yandy Diaz tripled him in and Arozarena drove him in to cut the lead to 3-2.

“I didn’t have my stuff like I did in Game 1,” Kershaw said. “My slider wasn’t there as good as it was, so fortunate to get through there.”

The key moment came an inning later. Manuel Margot drew a leadoff walk, stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw. Hunter Renfroe walked. With runners on the corners, Joey Wendle popped out and Willy Adames struck out. With Kiermaier at the plate and down 0-1, Margot dashed for home. Kershaw recognized in time and threw to Austin Barnes, who slapped a tag with Margot’s fingertips inches from home plate.

From there, Kershaw cruised, passing Justin Verlander for the most strikeouts all-time in the postseason with 206. Kershaw, circa 2020, is more craftsman than conqueror, and though this wasn’t the coronation he wanted nor the dominant start he desired, it was plenty good — something well worth cheering.

“Kersh, a lot of credit goes to him for what we’ve been able to do in this World Series,” Treinen said. “There’s a tough narrative on him. He’s a phenomenal pitcher on the biggest stage.”

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