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LeBron And AD Are The Heroes. But The Sum Of This Lakers Club Was More Than Its Superstar Parts.

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As the Los Angeles Lakers romped their way Sunday night to a record-tying 17th league title with a 106-93 blowout victory over the Miami Heat, the majority of conversations around their win figured to focus on the superstar combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis that ultimately returned them to glory.

But while those two will understandably share the brightest spotlight, the totality of this particular Lakers club — and what helped it prevail — was always more than met the eye.

Make no mistake: James and Davis were incredible all season. And there’s a solid case to be made that James — who previously played with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — has never had a partner this perfect.

The Big Three in Miami was a terror, but it’s easy to forget how out of sync James and Wade were offensively early on,the Heat blew out opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions during that 2010-11 playoff run. They were more comfortable playing apart until they learned how to play off each other.

“>1 as Bosh took time to settle into a tertiary role after being a No. 1 option in Toronto. And even in Cleveland, where James got the biggest lift of his career off a clutch Game 7 triple from Irving, his Cavs sidekicks weren’t all that skilled on defense, making it more of a challenge for them to hold the line whenever James had to go to the bench for breathers.

This year, when Davis was asked to hold down the fort without James on the floor in the regular season, the Lakers weren’t anything special, getting outscored by 3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats. But the big man found a new level in the playoffs, when Los Angeles beat up opponents by 8 points per 100 possessions when Davis played as James was sidelined.13 points per 100 possessions when the two All-Stars were paired together this postseason — up from their 8-point advantage per 100 possessions together in the regular season.

“>2

The importance of Davis was on display repeatedly, whether on a series-altering game-winner or over a quarter of using his condor-like wingspan to stifle the guy who had just gone off for a 40-point triple-double the game before. His presence was an enormous factor in Sunday’s Game 6 clincher, as Miami often looked reluctant to shoot anywhere near the rim, fearing that Davis might be nearby, ready to swat any close-range tries.

But it would be wrong to think that this title was solely about James and Davis.

Frank Vogel, who hoisted a championship trophy in Orlando just two years after being fired by the Magic, did an outstanding job with this group. Long known for his defensive acumen, Vogel often got fantastic buy-in on that end from James, who, after years of less-than-consistent effort, generally locked down his opponents when it mattered most. (Davis, of course, was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.) But even on the offensive end, Vogel and his staff developed a game plan designed to blow up Miami’s zone — placing either James or Davis in the middle of it, then taking the other man and putting him along the baseline, which forced the Heat to scrap the plan altogether.

After the Lakers’ disappointing flame-out last season, general manager Rob Pelinka was under pressure to assemble a roster after holding out for, then missing on, Kawhi Leonard. He didn’t bring in a third star, but it’s worth noting that Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard (!) made up just 7 percent of the team’s salary cap, while ultimately contributing far more than that to the Lakers’ championship run.

Howard, acquired after free-agent signee DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL, was deemed a small risk — if only because of his wishy-washy reputation and the agitation in Laker Land over his first stint. But his ability on the glass was enormous throughout the NBA Finals against Miami, and he was usually a steadier backup presence than the undisciplined JaVale McGee. (And to Vogel’s credit, he adjusted in Game 6 by playing small and leaving Howard on the bench as a way to space the floor offensively. This change allowed the Lakers to turn the game into a track meet early, and the Heat were never able to locate their sprinter’s spikes.)

Talented as the Lakers are, the offense outside of their supremely talented Top Two was a fair question coming in. Yes, they could score with the best of them because of Davis and James. But it wasn’t crazy to wonder where any other high-level ball-handling would come from, or if a lack thereof would place too much of a burden on an aging James.

As they illustrated Sunday, the team feasted and brought opponents to their knees when they couldn’t appropriately set their defense, with James throwing transition touchdown after transition touchdown to Davis. Yet the Lakers’ half-court offense was mediocre throughout the regular season, having posted slightly below-average efficiency numbers. They weren’t all that good from deep either, and the team endured a notable cold spell to end the regular season, ranking 20th of the 22 bubble teams in offense.

But we had no idea that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would morph into an elite role player for the second half of the Finals. Nor did we know that Rondo, who has a well-worn reputation as one of the league’s most errant-shooting guards, would suddenly become a relative flamethrower during the postseason. Perhaps aided by improved depth perception in the smaller arenas, Rondo — a 29 percent postseason shooter from three before this year — shot closer to 40 percent on three tries a game this postseason.

In Second Spectrum’s quantified Shot Quality stat, which measures how an average player would be expected to perform on the same attempts, Rondo went from being 5 points worse than expected on jumpers during the regular season to now shooting 6 points better than expected in the playoffs. (For context: That 11-point swing in effective field-goal rate would be the equivalent of going from the wayward-shooting Michael Carter-Williams to marksman Khris Middleton.)

Rondo becoming a reliable shooter was a massive development for Los Angeles, as it gave defenses a bit more to consider before abandoning him beyond the arc. It meant that Davis and James were likely to see less aggressive double-teams than they otherwise would have, allowing them to have an advantage in most of their matchups.

As always, there will be some who seek to poke holes in this title. Aside from the one-off weirdness of the bubble itself, there’s also the fact that the Lakers didn’t end up having to face the team with the league’s best record. Or the team with the second-best record. Or the team with the second-best record in the West. (Though Los Angeles did take down the Bucks and the Clippers in consecutive games just before the league shut down, and then they beat the Clippers again the night the league resumed.)

Even the Miami club that earned its way to the Finals was hobbled shortly after getting there, with Goran Dragić sitting out four games and Bam Adebayo missing two.

But in the end, these NBA Finals are merely another example of nearly every series having its set of oddities or unfortunate circumstances. Just like last year’s. Or like 2016’s. Or like 2014’s.

In a way, to focus more on those circumstances would be a lot like crediting James and Davis alone for the title. Yes, that tandem was a massive part of it, and they did much of the heavy lifting. But overlooking everything else would be ignoring the nuances of what made this team special.

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Dodgers right-hander Gonsolin will start Game 2

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Los Angeles Dodgers will start rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, with first pitch set for 8:08 p.m. ET.

Gonsolin, who will oppose Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell, faced 11 batters and threw 41 pitches in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and might not be able to provide much more than a couple of innings.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said his other two young starters, Julio Urias and Dustin May, will also be available out of the bullpen in Game 2, though Urias and May combined to face 14 batters in Game 7.

Walker Buehler will start Game 3 on Friday; whoever is freshest among Gonsolin, May and Urias will probably take the ball in Game 4 on Saturday. Clayton Kershaw, who pitched six innings of one-run ball in Monday’s 8-3 victory in Game 1, lines up on normal rest for Sunday’s Game 5.

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Dominant Kershaw propels Dodgers in Game 1

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Forget the perception. Burn the narrative.

Clayton Kershaw can pitch just fine in October, thank you very much — and after his performance in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers are within three wins of their first championship in 32 years.

Kershaw carved through the Tampa Bay Rays lineup, retiring 17 of the final 18 batters he faced and leading the Dodgers to an 8-3 victory in Game 1 of the 116th World Series.

Over six innings, Kershaw allowed two hits and one walk while striking out eight. His lone blemish was a Kevin Kiermaier home run that wound up of little consequence as the Dodgers’ offense spent the middle innings tagging Rays pitchers with a complement of longballs and small ball.

A crowd of 11,388 stuffed the concourses at Globe Life Field with Dodger jerseys, cheered the Dodgers’ big moments and unleashed vociferous boos on a check-swing strike call. The prospect of a partisan crowd for the remainder of the neutral-site series gives the Rays another obstacle — as if beating the team that went 43-17 during the regular season wasn’t enough.

When Kershaw is pitching as he did Tuesday, the task becomes even more herculean.

Rays batters swung at 38 of Kershaw’s 78 pitches and whiffed on 19. All eight of his punchouts were of the swinging variety, with the last seven on sliders, and they moved Kershaw into second place on the all-time postseason strikeout list with 201. Should the series get to a fifth game, Kershaw is likely to pass the leader, Houston‘s Justin Verlander.

While in past years Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ instinct has told him to send Kershaw out for the seventh inning, he resisted in Game 1. Even though Kershaw had allowed just two hits, even though Kershaw had generated 19 swings and misses, even though Kershaw had struck out eight, even though Kershaw had thrown only 78 pitches.

Kershaw had pitched into the seventh inning in 13 previous postseason games. He allowed opponents to score in more than half of them — 18 runs altogether.

Naturally, Roberts’ decision was followed by the Rays scoring a pair of seventh-inning runs and chipping away at Los Angeles’ lead, though by that point the Dodgers had flexed their offensive muscles in impressive fashion. Cody Bellinger, who hit the go-ahead home run in the Dodgers’ Game 7 victory over Atlanta in the National League Championship Series, blasted a two-run home run off Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. Rather than celebrate with the forearm-bash celebration that dislocated his shoulder in the NLCS win, Bellinger executed a light foot-tap with teammate Max Muncy.

As much as the Dodgers love the home run, their ability to play small ball gave them their biggest inning.

Back-to-back walks by Glasnow to begin the fifth inning were followed by Mookie Betts and Corey Seager executing a double steal. Betts scored on a Muncy fielder’s choice, Seager on a Will Smith single, Muncy on a Chris Taylor single and Smith on a Kiké Hernandez single. And just like that, the Dodgers were ahead 6-1.

They piled on the next inning with a Betts leadoff home run and back-to-back doubles from Justin Turner and Muncy. And the favorites since the beginning of the original season — as well as the shortened one — were a quarter of the way to their first World Series title since 1988.

For months, as the coronavirus pandemic changed the world, the prospect of baseball staging a season, let alone the World Series, looked grim. The league and players fought over salaries. Commissioner Rob Manfred threatened to cancel the season. MLB ultimately imposed on the players a 60-game slate, and within the first two weeks a pair of teams suffered COVID-19 outbreak.

Since then, apart from the odd single case, MLB has operated with remarkable efficacy.

Playoff teams spent the last week of the seasons staying in hotels and, aside from travel to and from the stadium and from city to city if they advanced, haven’t left. No player on an active roster has tested positive since Aug. 28, according to the league.

Game 2 is scheduled for Wednesday, with the Rays’ Blake Snell facing a yet-to-be-named pitcher. After an off-day Thursday, Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton will start against Dodgers ace Walker Buehler.

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Follow live: Kershaw, Glasnow face off in Game 1 of World Series

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7th Kiermaier singled to right, Wendle scored, Brosseau to second. 3 8 7th Brosseau singled to right, Margot scored, Wendle to third. 2 8 6th Muncy doubled to deep right center, Turner scored. 1 8 6th Betts homered to right (349 feet). 1 7 5th Hernández singled to left, Smith scored, Taylor to second. 1 6 5th Taylor singled to left center, Muncy scored, Smith to second. 1 5 5th Smith singled to center, Seager scored, Muncy to third. 1 4 5th Muncy grounded into fielder’s choice to first, Betts scored, Seager third. 1 3 5th Kiermaier homered to right (382 feet). 1 2 4th Bellinger homered to right center (378 feet), Muncy scored. 0 2

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