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Jasmine Thomas Sets The Pace For The Sun … And Their Opponents

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Heading into the 2016 WNBA draft, newly installed Sun head coach Curt Miller, working with then-GM Chris Sienko, had a decision to make.

They had targeted a pair of players, Rachel Banham and Morgan Tuck, with their picks at Nos. 3 and 4. But sitting there at No. 6 was a big from George Washington they coveted, Jonquel Jones. To get that pick from Los Angeles would cost a significant return: The Sparks’ ask was young guard Chelsea Gray, who has gone on to win a championship and play at a top level in Los Angeles.

On Monday, ahead of Tuesday’s Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces, Miller said the decision came down to a simple question about who would fill Gray’s shoes. “That conversation all revolved around: Could Jasmine Thomas lead a team to a WNBA title?”

The answer remains technically unresolved — Thomas and the Sun fell a game short last year, losing in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals to the Washington Mystics. But few wonder whether the point guard, who turns 31 on Wednesday, is capable. From 2017-20, Thomas has started 154 of a possible 158 regular-season games and every playoff game, over four seasons that ended with postseason play for the Sun. Indeed, a significant and underappreciated amount of the success the Sun have enjoyed in the last few seasons, regularly advancing to and then in the WNBA playoffs, comes from the varied, steady work Thomas has provided her team after Miller inherited her, then built around her.

“A huge piece of that, early in my tenure, before ever coaching her for a second, was the belief that Jasmine Thomas could blossom into someone that you could play in WNBA championship games with,” Miller said.

The correct call is obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t clear from Thomas’s career numbers at that time. After the Seattle Storm selected her with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, they traded her to Washington in a three-team deal for Katie Smith. Thomas had played two years in D.C., two in Atlanta and 2015 in Connecticut under Miller’s predecessor, Anne Donovan, never shooting more than 38 percent in any of those seasons. Her defense and intelligence could only carry her so far.

In 2016, she shot 40.8 percent from the field, and by 2017, she’d turned 3-point shooting into a dangerous skill — hitting 40.3 percent of her shots from deep after four years of sinking less than 30 percent. Those 2017 Suns barreled into the playoffs with a 21-13 mark, while Thomas was named an All-Star.

Notably, though, that’s been her only All-Star honor during the Sun’s four straight playoff seasons, even as she continues her elite playing level. But Miller and the Sun understand just how important she is to them.

“First and foremost, we feed off of her energy,” Miller said of Thomas. “Certainly, you take what the defense gives, and she understands that. But she’s got to control our offensive tempo.”

To watch Thomas operate is like seeing a skilled driver handle a precision automobile, knowing when to push forward, when to hold back. She sets the pace not only for her team but for the Sun’s opponents. The Aces, for instance, pushed the ball all season, leading the WNBA in pace at 99.08; Connecticut was ninth at 95.81. However, Las Vegas’ pace is down to 94.5 in this series with the Sun.

What makes Thomas so vital to the team? “Her ability to remain calm and poised when you get into these later rounds of the playoffs,” fellow Sun guard Essence Carson said. “… When you have things on the line like a championship, you have things that tend to raise the tension level. And she’s done a good job of remaining poised and calm through it all.”

Thomas also raises her game, as a matter of pure production, when the playoffs arrive. She averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 assists per game in the 2019 regular season on 39.2 percent shooting from the field but lifted those totals to 12.8, 5.6 and 43.5 percent in the playoffs. The same phenomenon has held this year, with Thomas’s regular-season marks at 10.2 points and 4.0 assists on 40.4 percent shooting from the field. Thomas in the 2020 playoffs is at 15.7 points and 4.7 assists per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field.

And she’s doing it all through plantar fasciitis. Even in this way, she is overshadowed, as teammate Alyssa Thomas continues to play at an elite level despite a dislocated shoulder and two torn labrums.

But Jasmine Thomas’s greatness is not lost on her teammates. Brionna Jones — who in an expanded role this season has taken a dramatic leap forward in efficiency, shooting 60.5 percent from the field compared to 46.7 in 2019 — knows who is getting her the ball where she needs it.

“We have that connection,” Jones said of Thomas. “She can find me out of the rolls, out of the pops. And then I know she’s going to knock down shots. That creates more space for me.”

Another way to think about how steady Thomas’s greatness is: Brionna Jones is an utterly different kind of primary center than Jonquel Jones was for the Sun in 2019 — Bri Jones is a rim-oriented finisher, Jonquel Jones a wanderer who gets plenty of her points from beyond the three-point arc.

What remains constant is that the Sun are far better when Thomas is on the floor with them or anyone else. Connecticut’s net rating with Thomas was 7.8 last season, with only Jonquel Jones and Shekinna Stricklen ahead of her, and most of their minutes coming with Thomas. In 2020, among the regulars, Thomas led the team in net rating, at 7.0.

Whether Connecticut wins the WNBA title this season or not, Miller has his answer.

“When Jasz plays well, we’re tough to beat,” Miller said. “She doesn’t get some of the accolades our other players [have] the last two years. But we wouldn’t be in the semifinals, Game 5, and we wouldn’t have been in that Finals series Game 5 [last year] without Jasmine Thomas.”

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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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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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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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