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LeBron wins fourth Finals MVP, pulls closer to MJ

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — LeBron James has made it clear that his goal is to surpass Michael Jordan as the greatest player in basketball history.

Sunday night, James took a step closer to doing so.

James was named the 2020 NBA Finals MVP for leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their first championship in a decade and winning the fourth title of his career, with a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6. James, who previously won Finals MVP in 2012 and ’13 with the Heat and in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the first player in NBA history to win the award with three different franchises.

Winning his fourth Finals MVP moves him out of a tie with Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal and into second all time — trailing only Jordan, who won the award six times.

James capped his 17th season in the league with a virtuoso run through the postseason, shooting well over 50 percent from the field while also running the Lakers offense virtually every possession he was on the court. He also displayed a commitment on the other end of the court, playing a key role in a suffocating defensive unit. Most importantly, James outdueled Jimmy Butler in what was an all-time classic matchup throughout the Finals, including the Lakers star going off for 40 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in Game 5 and 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 6.

“This was very challenging, and very difficult,” James said afterward. “It played with your mind, and it played with your body. You’re away from some of the things you’re so accustomed to [that] make you the professional you are.

“This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I have.”

James delivering a 17th overall championship to the Lakers, who last won a title in 2010, came after a disappointing first season in Los Angeles. Following their Christmas Day 2018 win over the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers were 20-14 and in fourth place in the West. But James suffered the first major injury of his career in that game, a strained groin that kept him out more than a month. By the time he returned, the Lakers had fallen to 10th in the West.

James ended up failing to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2005.

Last summer, general manager Rob Pelinka swung a massive trade for Anthony Davis, an excellent partner for James who helped the franchise quickly turn around.

“I can’t really explain it,” James said of what makes his partnership with Davis so special. “It’s just certain things you know. In any type of relationship, you kinda just feel, you know, that vibe, you can have that respect. You have that drive, and sometimes you can’t explain what links you with somebody, and that’s organic.”

That partnership fueled the Lakers to quickly establish on-court chemistry and success during the regular season before James, who averaged a league-leading and career-high 10.2 assists per game in the regular season, again proved to be indomitable in the crucible of the playoffs.

After the Portland Trail Blazers stole Game 1 of the first round, James averaged 34.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists over the final three games of that series. He and the rest of the Lakers overwhelmed the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. His defense on Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray helped put the Lakers in the Finals. And then his drive to continue willing the Lakers forward allowed them to survive a stiff test from a resolute Heat team.

“I think, personally, thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” James said. “And it fueled me over this last year-and-a-half since my injury.

“It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career up until this point, there’s still rumblings of doubt, or comparing me to the history of the game, and, ‘Has he done this? Has he done that?’

“So, having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, ‘Why not still have something to prove?’ I think it fuels me.”

James also made sure that the Lakers stayed unified and pushed toward their shared goal throughout their run in the bubble.

“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” James said on NBA Finals Media Day of playing in the bubble. “But I’m here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to compete for a championship. That was my mindset once I entered the bubble … I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career.”

James’s fourth championship gives him more rings than any other active player, and moves him within one title of a group of 13 players who have won five, including Johnson, Duncan and the late Kobe Bryant. With Davis all but certain to remain in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future, James should have an opportunity to add more. For now, though, he and the Lakers will be quite content to celebrate this one.

“I have always believed in LeBron James,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen, and if you think you know, you don’t know, okay, until you’re around him every day. You’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group. You think you know … [but] you don’t know. It’s just been a remarkable experience coaching him and seeing him take this group that was not in the playoffs last year, the roster was put together, you know, overnight, and just taking a group and leading us to the promised land, so they say.

“He was terrific the entire season leading us, and I can’t say enough about him.”

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How Brandon Lowe got his swing straightened out at exactly the right time

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ARLINGTON, Texas — This was for the Tampa Bay Rays. For the Silverback Tribe. Mostly, for himself. By now, Brandon Lowe understands how baseball works, how the game will gnaw at your psyche, taunt your process, asphyxiate your effort. It will remind you how hard it really is — and then troll you for giggles. Nothing in the world can humble a man quite like trying to meet cylindrical bat with round ball.

All those moments of doubt and exasperation exist to make days like Wednesday exponentially more satisfying. Before Game 2 of the World Series, Lowe was the disappointment of the postseason. By its conclusion, Lowe may have saved the Rays’ hopes at a championship.

About 700 miles from here, just outside of Nashville, a man was screaming so loud, he said, “I literally woke up the neighbors’ dogs.” For more than a half decade, Hunter Bledsoe has spent countless hours helping turn Lowe’s swing into a marvel of efficiency and power. And finally, after the struggles, the self-doubt, the weeks of frustration, here was Brandon Lowe being Brandon Lowe again, smashing two opposite-field home runs in a World Series game, piloting the Rays to a 6-4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers that evened the series.

For the last three weeks, as the Rays bullied their way to the American League pennant, they had done so with their best hitter virtually nonexistent. Coming into Game 2, Lowe had gone 6-for-56 this postseason. In none of the Rays’ 15 games had he registered more than one hit. He struck out 19 times. He swung at pitches out of the strike zone. He made weak contact. It was like he’d had a Freaky Friday with the mailman and never switched back.

In truth, Lowe’s swing simply fell out of whack, and he needed time to understand that and fix it. Which in the middle of a World Series run against a juggernaut of a team like the Dodgers is no small feat, but then the entire story of Lowe’s career is about the emergence of unexpected excellence.

Thousands of players have taken at-bats in the World Series, and none has done what Lowe — rhymes with wow — did in Game 2: hit two opposite-field home runs. And lest you wonder what sort of leviathan Lowe is, what beastly kind of über-man possesses the strength to go oppo twice in a game, get ready for this: He stands 5 foot 10 and weighs 185 pounds. Rays manager Kevin Cash once said of Lowe: “He looks like Elf on a Shelf, but, man, can he hit a ball a long way and really hard.”

Wednesday was baseball Christmas for Lowe and the home runs his gifts. The first came in the first inning, when he was the second batter at the plate — still high in the Rays’ lineup, Cash said after Game 2, because “he’s shown over time that he’s a really good hitter, really good player and sometimes … you got to let them go through some tough patches.” Three innings later, he illustrated that the first-inning shot off rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin was no fluke. He tagged Dodgers rookie Dustin May for a two-run shot that extended the Rays’ lead to 5-0.

To think, of course, that either materialized as if dropped through a chimney could not be further from the truth. Last week, toward the end of the ALCS, as Lowe’s slump reached its nadir, he sent a video of his swing to Bledsoe and two others confidants, asking, simply, “What do you guys see?” Each responded with almost the same answer: Lowe’s posture, which is so vital to him generating such enormous power from such a small frame, had too much slack.

When he is at his best, Lowe uses the swing he honed with Bledsoe, who, with his brother Dustin, owns and operates the Bledsoe Agency. Their office building includes a sports-performance center where Bledsoe, a former SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt, leads offseason workouts that endeavor to build clients into better versions of themselves. When players at the facility hit a ball with 100-mph-plus exit velocity for the first time, they’re invited into an elite group Bledsoe calls the Silverback Tribe.

As he excelled at Maryland, got drafted by the Rays and ascended in the organization, Lowe understood how his natural gifts — his hips rotate with elite levels of force — made up for his natural size. Lowe’s best swing begins with him getting grounded. “Get the booty back,” they’ll say at the performance center. When the posterior positioning happen at the same time as Lowe’s front foot moving, his swing breaks.

That was the problem for most of the last three weeks. Not that one game necessarily sends Lowe into the diamond lane toward excellence, but, as Bledsoe noted: “Everybody who knows Brandon knows he can be really hot and carry a team. When that starts to happen, he’s as good as anybody in the game.”

However much that may sound like an exaggeration, it’s not. Around the halfway mark in the shortened season, nobody in the American League had accumulated more wins above replacement than Lowe. He was grounding himself with aplomb — butt back, no slack, energy building through the middle-third of his body. All that time spent with Bledsoe — from when he came in after his first minor league season and said “I’ve got to get better” to last winter, when three days after that All-Star season he started cage work to prepare for 2020.

“The reason Brandon has a cool moment like this is because of the fact that he’s unwilling not to,” Bledsoe said. “People can pout. They can blame. He just works, man. And at the end of the day, regardless of what happens, it’s a hard game. And you can trust in that. It might not be on the time schedule we want, but eventually it will pay off.

“Brandon’s a very calm personality. He’s extremely competitive. His care factor and care level are extremely high. He’s hard on himself because he wants to be successful. One of the things we talk about the most is having a plan so you’re never truly lost, never that far away. Baseball is really hard. It makes everybody want to quit at some point. When you get into that valley, if you have a plan, you know you’re never too far from climbing out of it.”

Here is Lowe’s plan: hit the snot out of the ball. That’s high up on the easy-to-say, tough-to-do list, but Lowe trusted the responses in the text, trusted the wisdom of the Silverback Tribe, trusted that Cash kept slotting him not just in the lineup but high in it for good reason.

“To say my mind wasn’t going different places during that kind of struggle would be lying to you,” Lowe said. “There were times when I wasn’t feeling too good, but that’s what so great about this team. As soon as I started dragging my feet, somebody was right there to pick me up.”

He returned the favor in Game 2 like he knew he eventually would, and he knew that because Lowe has done this before. When he arrived in the major leagues, he went 0 for his first 19. Transitioning to the big leagues is difficult enough. Convincing yourself that you belong amid the gnawing, the taunting, the asphyxiation — that’s entirely different.

Different, it would seem, suits Lowe. His path to the World Series was circuitous enough, his understanding of himself deep enough, that he can stare at 6-for-56 and lean on his psyche, rely on his process, bank on his effort. As far gone as he was, turns out it wasn’t that far. When that cylindrical bat in his hands met the round ball, he was the one doing the humbling.

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Will Dodgers be OK if Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin don’t contribute more?

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Los Angeles Dodgers were three days removed from a taxing seventh game of the National League Championship Series and needed Tony Gonsolin to give them as much as he could as their opener in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night. He provided four outs, but allowed a home run to the second batter he faced.

With the deficit at only a run and two outs in the top of the fourth, the Dodgers needed Dustin May to keep the game close and bridge the gap to their high-leverage relievers. He was charged with three earned runs and exited before the start of the sixth.

The Dodgers cycled through seven pitchers in their 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, evening the Fall Classic at one game apiece.

Given the state of their pitching heading in, a loss like this might have been expected. But it also reinforced a problem that could haunt the Dodgers in what remains of this final round — May and Gonsolin, the two young starters counted on to be multi-dimensional weapons in October, haven’t been effective enough. And whether it’s execution or inexperience or a product of their unconventional usage is anyone’s guess.

“I still trust them, I still believe in them, and they just have to make pitches,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’ll look at the video and see what we can do better at, but they’re still gonna need to get big outs for us.”

May, 23, and Gonsolin, 26, combined to produce a 2.46 ERA in a combined 102⅔ innings during the regular season, placing themselves squarely in the thick of a deep field for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Since then, they have been charged with 13 earned runs on 15 hits and 13 walks in 16⅔ innings in the postseason and haven’t come anywhere close to a traditional five-day schedule.

When Gonsolin took the ball for Game 2 of the NL Championship Series — in place of Clayton Kershaw, who was scratched that morning because of back spasms — it marked his first appearance in 17 days. He was charged with five runs in 4⅓ innings. Five days later, he came into the top of the second in Game 7, gave up a leadoff homer to Dansby Swanson, then allowed the first three batters to reach in the fourth and was taken out. Three days after that, he opened Game 2 of the World Series.

May was effective as a multi-inning reliever early in the postseason, compiling three scoreless innings in the NL Division Series against the Padres and getting five outs late in Game 1 of the NLCS. But he gave up a run in each of his two innings as an opener in Game 5 and allowed the first three batters to reach as an opener in Game 7. Three days later, he was coming out of the bullpen again.

“It’s a big ask, to be quite frank,” Roberts said. “Right now, with the off-days, every team is gonna go down a starter, so that’s one thing. And so people have to adjust to certain roles. And when you’re talking about playing seven days in a row and how you can get as many outs as you can in the CS — yeah, these guys are in uncharted territory. Credit to them — they’re not making any excuses. They expect themselves to make pitches.”

The Dodgers traded Kenta Maeda, let Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill depart via free agency, and lost David Price after he decided to opt out of the 2020 season. And yet they still sported the second-best rotation ERA in the majors during the regular season. May, with his triple-digit sinkers, and Gonsolin, with his nasty sliders, were a major reason for that. They came on so strong that the Dodgers felt comfortable plucking from their starting-pitching depth before the non-waiver trade deadline, sending clubhouse favorite Ross Stripling to the Toronto Blue Jays so that he could finally solidify a spot in a major league rotation.

But May and Gonsolin haven’t come close to resembling the postseason weapons the Dodgers were hoping they would be.

On Tuesday, Brandon Lowe, who entered with a .107/.180/.161 slash line this postseason, homered off each of them. With Julio Urias saved for Game 4, Clayton Kershaw scheduled for Game 5 and Walker Buehler lined up to take the ball in Games 3 and 7, May and Gonsolin will likely continue on in uncertainty.

They’ll need to adapt quickly.

“It’s different, certainly,” Roberts said. “But I still, we still, need those guys to get important outs going forward for us to win this thing.”

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Lowe busts out with 2 HRs as Rays even Series

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Through all the struggles, all the moments when it looked like he should be dropped down in the lineup or out of it altogether, Brandon Lowe believed.

He had built himself into one of the American League’s best hitters, and no slump, not even one during the playoffs, could derail that. The Tampa Bay Rays kept believing in Lowe, too. And in Game 2 of the World Series, both were rewarded handsomely for their faith.

Lowe became the first player to hit two opposite-field home runs in one World Series game, and the Rays’ bullpen bent but didn’t break as they held on for a 6-4 victory Wednesday night to even the series at one game apiece.

The 26-year-old Lowe, an All-Star two years ago as a rookie and a down-ballot MVP candidate this year, had endured a brutal postseason: 6-for-56 with 19 strikeouts and not one multihit game among the 15 the Rays had played. And yet Tampa Bay never wavered — he sat only one game and pinch hit in it — confident that Lowe would find his swing.

“For better or worse,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said before Game 2, “we’re going to stick with guys we have a lot of faith in.”

He had, after all, figured out how to leverage his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame into one of the great power swings in the AL. With extra time spent analyzing video and recognizing flaws in his swing, he corrected it and saw the dividends early in Game 2.

Lowe, hitting in the No. 2 hole, punished a 95 mph fastball from rookie starter Tony Gonsolin out to left field, giving the Rays an early advantage. He piled on with a two-run shot off rookie Dustin May in the fifth inning, pushing the Rays’ advantage to 5-0.

In the meantime, Rays starter Blake Snell hadn’t allowed a hit, striking out two Dodgers in each of the first four innings. Following the fourth, Snell bounded off the mound, shouting into the expanse of Globe Life Field, to no one and everyone among the crowd of 11,472. He looked like his Cy Young-winning self, his fastball, curveball and slider confounding a group of Dodgers hitters who in Game 1 piled up eight runs through power, patience and proficiency wielding the bat.

The fifth ended Snell’s dreams of a no-hitter — and his night altogether. With two out, he walked Kiké Hernandez and served up a home run to Chris Taylor. After a walk to Mookie Betts and a single by Corey Seager, Snell’s night was over.

Nick Anderson wiped out the inherited runners by striking out Justin Turner, and though he allowed a solo home run to Will Smith and reliever Pete Fairbanks served one up to Seager, the cushion provided by Lowe stood as left-hander Aaron Loup recorded two outs and right-hander Diego Castillo the final out for the save. The win went to Anderson.

Lowe’s multihomer game was the 55th in World Series history, the seventh by a second baseman and the first by a Rays player. And it continued Tampa Bay’s trend of needing home runs to score. The Rays set a record with 28 home runs this postseason, and entering the World Series, nearly 72% of their runs had come via the longball.

The return of the Lowe who helped guide the Rays to the AL East title was a welcome sign for a Tampa Bay team whose offensive struggles were of paramount concern — particularly with the prospect of falling down 0-2 to the Dodgers. Lowe had hit .269/.362/.554 with 14 home runs in 56 games during the regular season and ranked just behind Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. in wins above replacement.

Now, after a Thursday off-day, the teams return Friday for Game 3 with the best pitching matchup of the series: Dodgers ace Walker Buehler against Rays stalwart Charlie Morton.

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