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Heat’s Butler: We’re not the underdogs in Finals

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Miami Heat were not expected to be in the NBA Finals. They are not favored to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

But good luck getting Heat star Jimmy Butler to agree to either of those facts. And, ahead of Game 1 of the Finals tipping off here inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, Butler remained resolute in his belief that Miami is every bit the equal of the star-studded Lakers.

“A really good team,” Butler said Tuesday, during the NBA’s annual Finals media day, of how he views the Heat entering this series. “That’s it. A really good team. Not going to say that we’re any better than anybody else, but I just don’t think that we’re underdogs. I don’t.

“So what that nobody picked us to be here? That’s okay. Pretty sure nobody is picking us to win, either. That’s okay. But we understand that. We embrace that, because, at the end of the day, we truly don’t care. We’re just going to go out here and compete, play together like we always have, and I’m going to see where we end up.

“But at the end of the day we’re going to do this our way, the Miami Heat way, and that way has worked for us all year long.”

The Heat have certainly embraced the lack of expectations placed upon them all season long – and have thrived. Miami entered the season with 75-to-1 odds to win the title, according to ESPN’s Stats and Information Group – easily the lowest of any Finals team of the past 30 years. The only team to come close? The 2002 New Jersey Nets, who were 60-to-1 longshots before reaching the Finals and being swept by the three-peat Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

No other team has been a longer than 30-to-1 shot over the past 30 years to make the Finals, with the 28-to-1 Warriors in 2015 being the longest shot to win the title. None of that matters much to Butler, however, who has completely embraced everything that comes with being part of the Heat since arriving as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Philadelphia 76ers last July.

“I think, like I said, I just get to be me here,” Butler said. “I get to call it how I see it. Nobody takes it personally. I don’t have to worry about anybody trying to control me, as it was said people were trying to do over there [in Philadelphia].

“But I have no hard feelings towards any of those players, anybody in that organization. I’m glad to be where I am. As you can tell, it’s worked out, and that’s where I’ll leave it. I knew what we could do here. We added some key pieces in the middle of the year, and we are where we are. So, I don’t really look back at it too much. I’ve got to stay focused in on the right now and with the group that I have.”

The Heat are a group that has not only defied expectations, but has blown past them. Miami was an underdog both against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

And, in both series, the Heat wore down their opponents as each individual game, as well as the series as a whole, progressed. It’s a singular mindset as a group that served the team well, and now has it back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014 – when LeBron James, their opponent in this series, was last in a Heat uniform.

After beating the Celtics in Game 6 of the conference finals Sunday night, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he and his players took a night to celebrate their accomplishment.

But, by the next morning, it was back to the work of preparing for the next task at hand.

“We did take a night just to acknowledge it and enjoy it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The players and the staff and families that were here, I wanted everybody to have perspective on how difficult this is, how extraordinary of an experience all of this is, being part of this bubble, being here for 80-plus days, surviving all of it and earning the right to compete for an NBA title. We just got off a very competitive, hard-fought series, and emotionally I don’t think anybody was ready just to turn that page.

“But yesterday was a workday. For the players, it was a day just to recover and relax. We got together last night and did some more prep today.”

Now, the Heat have to move on to the task of taking on the Lakers. And while Butler may not think his team is an underdog in this series, he did acknowledge the reality that, for he and most of his teammates, getting this far was a new experience – and that, with it, would come some nerves when Game 1 tips off Wednesday night.

Butler said Miami will rely on the veteran leadership of Spoelstra, Udonis Haslem and Andre Iguodala – who have, separately, been involved in each of the last 9 NBA Finals – to help guide the Heat through the series, and all that comes with it, successfully.

“I don’t know,” Butler said. “You know, we’ll see as the game goes. But I think there’s a lot of nerves for a lot of people, including myself. This is the first time being here, so I just want to make sure that everybody is comfortable. We’ve been playing a certain way this entire year. I’m not getting away from that. I think that’s winning basketball for us, me making sure that everybody is involved. I think that’s part of my role on this team, so we’ll take it as the game goes, and we’ll figure it out. But I mean, I’m sure before the game, [Haslem], [Iguodala], [Spoelstra], they’ll definitely tell me what to look for and how to start, I guess.”

Goran Dragic said Haslem and Iguodala’s work in that department has already begun.

“You know, [their message was] simple,” Dragic said. “They said, ‘Guys, we deserve this, and just enjoy it. Enjoy the moment, be present.’

“Those two guys, they know what it takes to win, and they give us that confidence that we can do it. You know, everybody is locked in. Everybody is paying attention. Everybody is on the same page, and can’t wait to start.”

While Butler doesn’t want to see the Heat as underdogs, they are slight ones according to Caesars by William Hill, where Miami is rated as +300 to win the series. He can take some solace in the fact, however, that the line opened as Miami being +420 to win, and quickly began to drop.

Still, in an alternate universe, Butler could’ve been on the other side of this series, as the Lakers did initially have a max cap slot last summer – which they used to pursue Kawhi Leonard, before he ultimately chose the LA Clippers instead.

But Butler didn’t ever consider that possibility. After one meeting with Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley, there was no doubt in his mind where he wanted to be.

“I knew the type of structure that I wanted and needed, and it was here,” Butler said. “Heard about it, obviously, when I was meeting with Coach Spo, Coach Pat. It just felt right in every aspect of it, how there’s just — we’ve got a bunch of good people here. Not to saying that the Lakers don’t got a great bunch of good people. But everything we’re about, just me working, we’ve got a group of guys that do that, as well as saying it like it is, holding everybody accountable and moving on from it. They said that that’s how we do that. You get to come here and you get to be you, so I’m in.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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