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Jamal Murray Isn’t The New Steph Curry, But He Might Be Close

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Steph Curry indisputably accelerated a revolution during his first MVP campaign and title run with the Golden State Warriors in 2014-15. Since that season, defenses have adapted, lineups have shifted and coaches have given the green light to more and more 3-point shots. Because of this, it’s hard to compare Curry to any players that have come along since.

But that doesn’t mean direct imitators won’t materialize in his wake. In fact, there’s evidence that Jamal Murray — whose 40-point Game 7 capped Denver’s stunning 3-1 comeback against the L.A. Clippers — might be the closest thing we’ve seen. And even though his Nuggets are down 0-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers, his sudden mimicry of “the best shooter this league has ever seen” is the most important — and unexpected — reason they have gotten as far as they have.

Before stacking Murray’s current run against what Curry did in his 2015 postseason, here are a few caveats:

  1. Curry was 27 in 2015, and his initial scene-stealing postseason came two years prior, when he helped take down the Nuggets and then went face-to-face against the vaunted San Antonio Spurs. Murray is only 23.
  2. Curry never scored more than 40 points during those 21 playoff games, but he also never dropped fewer than 18. Murray has already reached 50 points on two separate occasions, but he has also scored fewer than 18 five times in 16 games.
  3. Curry’s production held through four playoff rounds, and his Warriors won the championship. Murray and his Nuggets are currently down 0-2 in the Western Conference finals.
  4. Curry had to travel and play in packed arenas. Murray does not have to travel and is in a bubble.
  5. And, most importantly, Curry had established himself as a superstar during the regular season, while Murray’s statistical production from his third to fourth year had plateaued — he’s never been an All-Star, let alone an MVP candidate or even the best player on his own team.

But all that said, there are several similarities between Murray and Curry worth acknowledging. To begin, let’s look at a few per-game stats for the two taken before the Western Conference finals began. They’re nearly identical.

They might be two of a kind

Postseason per-game stats for Stephen Curry and Jamal Murray

Curry IN 2015 Murray in 2020*
Minutes 39.3 39.1
Shots 20.9 20.2
Points 28.3 27.1
Rebounds 5.0 5.0
Assists 5.0 5.0

*Jamal Murray’s stats are through the second round of the playoffs.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Adding in Murray’s first two games of the Western Conference finals changes things some, but not much. Their touches, time of possession and dribbles per touch are similar, too.

But to be a legitimate carbon copy of Curry, outside shooting must be on par. During his first title run, the three-time champion attempted 11 threes per game and sunk 42.2 percent. Curry’s quick release and off-ball gravity blew up preconceived notions about what was possible on the court. Over half his shots were behind the arc.

Murray isn’t quite up to that volume — nearly 40 percent of his shots have been from the midrange and only 36 percent are hoisted from downtown — but heading into the conference finals, he was still attempting 7.7 threes per game and hitting *checks notes* 49.1 percent of them. Overall, he’s made 15 more threes than any other player in these playoffs.

Zooming in for a second, what made Curry special in 2015 was how he could put on a dribbling clinic and then take an accurate shot. According to Second Spectrum, Curry attempted 71 threes after dribbling at least five times during the 2015 playoffs, and his effective field-goal percentage on these shots was 71.83. Meanwhile, Murray has jacked up 44 of these shots throughout the playoffs. All but one has been contested, and his effective field-goal percentage is 68.18.

According to Second Spectrum, Murray’s quantified Shooter Impact (the difference between quantified Shot Quality — which takes into account the type of shot, where it came from, how it was defended, etc. — and a player’s actual effective field-goal percentage) is about equal with Curry’s when these pull-up threes are contested. (When every field-goal attempt is considered, Murray’s qSI is nearly twice as high as Curry’s was, which suggests a drop in his accuracy soon enough. But so far, he’s producing more points per shot: 1.22 to 1.19.)

During the regular season, Murray made only 32.4 percent of the 3.0 pull-up threes he attempted per game, so it’s not quite fair to suddenly claim that he’s Curry (who scorched the Earth during his first MVP campaign by hitting 42.3 percent of his 4.5 pull-up threes). But Murray’s pedigree always suggested he had this in him. In college at Kentucky, he took 7.7 threes per game (the exact same number he averaged through the postseason’s first two rounds) and drilled 40.8 percent of them.

And last year, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr had this to say in a general conversation about the league’s most promising shooters: “Jamal Murray is on his way to becoming one of those guys. He shoots it, catch-and-shoot, or off the dribble, like Steph.”

By volume, Murray hasn’t been the same type of spot-up threat (only 11.8 percent of his shots are catch-and-shoot threes right now), but off the bounce he’s a Curry-esque geyser. Here’s one example from a late-clock pick and roll with Nikola Jokić in which Murray gets the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac on a switch, then dribbles back behind the 3-point line before firing up the stepback.

How Murray and Curry function as screeners is another intriguing point of comparison. Murray is setting 12.9 off-ball screens per 100 possessions this postseason compared to Curry’s 14.5 in 2015, according to Second Spectrum. The Nuggets average 1.24 points per possession on these plays, whereas the Warriors only generated 0.93.

Murray doesn’t make time-honored defensive principles look as antiquated as Curry did, but his flurry of pin-downs (particularly for Jokić), cross and back screens create their own brand of panic when sprung on a defense that isn’t locked in.

According to Second Spectrum, Murray is averaging 2.75 ball screens per 100 playoff possessions. Curry set only 0.55. And, as was the case when leveraged away from the action, Denver is far more efficient on these plays than Golden State was.

Another area worth considering is the pick and roll, where each one is a maestro. According to Second Spectrum, Murray shoots or passes as the ball-handler 32.8 times per playoff game; on those possessions, Denver’s offense yields 1.24 points. Curry averaged 31.8 pick and rolls per game that ended with him shooting or passing, and the Warriors also generated 1.24 points — another example of just how these two remarkable runs have mirrored each other. Whether the defense blitzes, drops or switches, Murray is forcing defenses to eat whatever dish he wants to cook — much like Curry did.

But there’s one major difference so far: When Murray sits, the Nuggets have been unable to function, scoring 18.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than the 114.8 they score with Murray. In 2015, the Warriors’ offense managed just 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor — and just 3.0 points fewer without him.

Murray has a long way to go before he gets to where Curry is, but the 16 playoff games we’ve seen thus far have served as pretty impressive stepping stones. Beyond the numbers, he brings jaw-dropping, throw-your-hands-up-in-frustration shots to the fore, and he makes opposing coaches grab the nearest fire extinguisher just like Curry does.

It’s unreasonable to expect Murray to sustain his past few weeks for the next eight or nine years — doing so would make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer — but after a regular season that was relatively stagnant, what it does is signal what he can someday be. The Nuggets need their franchise point guard to keep up what he’s been doing if they want to beat the Lakers four times in their next five games. But if anyone can make LeBron James flash back to previous Finals defeats suffered at the hands of Curry’s Warriors, it’s Murray.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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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