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Lowe on Lakers-Heat: What happens if Bam Adebayo returns?

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This is the third NBA Finals in six seasons in which injuries have either completely changed the series midstream or forced one team to game-plan for two different opponents.

The Los Angeles Lakers, under at least a little pressure after the Miami Heat‘s rousing Game 3 win saw L.A.’s series lead tighten to 2-1, have to prepare for the Heat with and without Bam Adebayo.

With that in mind, let’s look at some Finals numbers and what they might hint about Game 4 (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN App).


120.5

Miami has scored 120.5 points per 100 possessions over the past two games, a mark that would blow away the Dallas Mavericks‘ No. 1-ranked offense. That isn’t sustainable against the Lakers’ defense. It’s hard to imagine the Heat winning three more games without Adebayo’s two-way play. (LeBron James‘ teams have never lost a series after taking a 2-0 lead.)

But Miami has caught lightning in a bottle by surrounding Jimmy Butler with four shooters. One more potent game out of that alignment — if Adebayo doesn’t play — and the Heat could knot the series.

The Lakers’ suffered more defensive breakdowns than usual in Game 3. They will clean up some of those. They know now how the Heat look and feel with one more shooter. A team down 2-0 plays with a level of desperation its opponent rarely matches. Any intensity gap should close in Game 4.

But Miami coaxed those breakdowns. As Jeff Van Gundy often says, great shooters make the best screeners. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro doing a Splash Brothers impression while someone else holds the ball is stressful. Those guys run hard; Erik Spoelstra has compared Robinson’s route running to Jerry Rice’s. Panic ratchets up when one of them busts out of that jumble to sprint around a pick from Kelly Olynyk — another ace shooter.

I don’t care what team is defending that. They are going to make mistakes. The catchall solution is switching everything, but the Heat countered that by having screeners slip out of picks before setting them — zooming ahead of Lakers switches.

Even Olynyk and Meyers Leonard got into the slipping act, complicating any plans to switch Dwight Howard onto Butler:

The Heat were also smart about using Butler — the only non-3-point shooter on the floor much of Game 3 — as screener, and having him fly out of picks:

Having Butler screen left Anthony Davis — guarding Olynyk above — out of the action, unable to exert influence as a help defender.

The Lakers want only LeBron and Davis on Butler, with some allowance for Howard to take him on switches. The Heat produced more favorable matchups, including by having Butler slip screens with such ferocity as to force the Lakers into switching:

The Lakers and LeBron took a ton of criticism for conceding switches in crunch time, and watching Butler barbecue overmatched defenders. But traditional help-and-recover tactics are dicey when Butler’s screener is a threat to pop for 3s.

The Lakers might try ducking under screens for Butler in Game 4, and daring Butler to hoist jumpers. (They had major trouble with staggered screening actions for Butler.)

The Heat flashed a counter: setting screens so low on the floor that darting under would gift Butler short jumpers.

If Butler knows a switch is coming, he’ll feint toward a screen, get his guy leaning there, and bolt the other direction.

Random Butler tangent: The Butler-Paul George debate has raged awhile. Both have ranked somewhere between the league’s eighth- and 12th-best players the past few seasons. I have (barely) leaned George in the past, though both are amazing.

The reasoning, which you hear within the league: Neither is winning a ring as the No. 1 option, and George, because of his shooting, is the perfect No. 2.

Well, the Heat are within three wins of a title. They might not win it, but getting so close is a reminder these distinctions — who can be the “best guy on a championship team”? — can get blurry and depend heavily on roster construction and other variables.


Minus-12

That is the Lakers’ margin with Howard on the floor in the Finals. They are plus-29 with Howard sitting. That’s not as bad as it sounds. But Howard might have more utility against Adebayo than with Miami playing stretch centers. The Heat present zero offensive rebounding threat without Adebayo. (The Bam-less Heat are easier prey for L.A. offensive boards, especially if they revert to zone defense — perhaps a justification for giving Howard another shot.)

The Lakers are faster and more switchable with Davis at center. When Robinson pops off an Olynyk screen, Davis can lunge and recover faster than Howard — or switch in a crisis.

The sacrifice comes in rim protection. If Davis is 30 feet from the hoop and Howard is on the bench, that leaves LeBron as the only shot-blocking deterrent. He might be 30 feet from the hoop too. But the Heat without Goran Dragic are short on driving threats.


27.8%

That is the share of L.A.’s shots that came at the basket in Game 3, its third-lowest single-game mark of the season, per Cleaning The Glass. The Lakers over Games 2 and 3 attempted 89 3s and 87 2s. In the regular season, 40% of their shots came at the rim — second most.

The Heat played mostly zone in Game 2 and man-to-man in Game 3, but the effect on the Lakers’ shot chart was the same: way fewer shots at the rim, and a Houstonian level of 3s.

One big difference: L.A. shot 20-of-37 (54%) on 2s in Game 3 after hitting 33-of-50 (66%) in Game 2.

How much of that was Miami’s game plan, and how much was luck — plus Davis’ foul trouble?

The Lakers in Game 2 knew how to crack open soft spots in the zone. They manipulated.

To some degree, the Heat dictated terms of engagement in Game 3. They decided where the soft spots would be. They hit first.

Miami swarmed LeBron and Davis, and had support defenders take an extra step toward the basket. Jae Crowder fronted Davis knowing a teammate — usually Howard’s man along the baseline — was behind him, preventing the lob pass. Removing Howard makes every Miami rotation longer, and opens easier entry passes.

When Howard was up top, Miami ignored him to sandwich Davis. Watch Leonard:

Could Howard flash to the foul line for a high-low? Maybe. But Miami doesn’t fear his playmaking. He is more useful as a baseline lob threat. If Howard is up top with no one near him, he could set a quick ball screen for LeBron — allowing LeBron to zip around it with a long runway. (That is what Draymond Green does when defenses ignore him: Morph into a sudden screener. The Lakers have no one resembling a Splash Brother, but LeBron inflicts pain in different ways.)

The Lakers also ran Davis through screens underneath the rim to spring him for post-ups. They will revisit that.

If Adebayo returns, Spoelstra faces another decision: Have Adebayo guard Davis — shifting Crowder onto Howard if the Lakers start big — or maintain current matchups?


3

That is the number of LeBron-Davis pick-and-rolls the Lakers have run through three Finals games, per Second Spectrum. That is astonishing, even if tracking algorithms might undercount by one or two picks.

When Howard plays, LeBron often uses him as screener — turning Davis into a spot-up threat. LeBron has leaned hard on his guards as screeners — a method of hunting Herro, Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. Here is LeBron cycling through both methods of attack in one possession:

On the LeBron/Howard dance, all three Heat help defenders plant a foot in the paint. Nothing doing. Using Danny Green as screener means one less spot-up threat around the central action. Miami blankets the paint again.

Here’s the same style of defense thwarting a LeBron-Alex Caruso pick-and-roll:

The Heat switch Herro onto LeBron and somehow re-switch even though Butler and Herro end up 20 feet apart. Re-switching there should be almost impossible; it risks leaving Caruso wide open. But the Heat pull it off because all three help defenders straddle the paint — ready to pounce on Caruso.

LeBron makes them pay by rejecting Caruso’s second pick — wrong-footing the defense.

Miami’s help defenders in Game 3 closed softly to the Lakers’ perimeter shooters. They did not sprint at them, and fly by them. They chose to let those guys fire semi-contested 3s instead of giving them drives.

The Lakers’ secondary guys are not exactly fearsome off-the-dribble threats, but they’ve done enough making the next play when defenses run them off the arc. The Heat mostly shut those opportunities off.

The result was a hail of 3s. The Lakers hit 14-of-42. That’s not, like, horrible. It’s 33% — two percentage points below the Lakers’ average. Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma went 9-of-19. You can’t bank on that every game.

Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit just 1-of-7 and are 4-of-26 over the past two games. They will shoot better, though Green is dealing with a hip injury. If Morris and Kuzma regress when Green and Caldwell-Pope heat up, the net effect might be the same.

Maybe the Lakers have a 3-point avalanche coming. Maybe Miami gets sloppy with the ball. Any underdog must limit the Lakers’ transition game, and the Heat have done it. They have coughed it up on only 10.8% of possessions — way below the league’s lowest regular-season rate. All three Finals games rank among the Lakers’ bottom dozen or so in total transition chances, per Cleaning The Glass. (Only 3% of L.A. possessions in Game 2 finished via transition attacks — a season low.) That is a huge reason the Lakers’ shots at the rim are down. Fast breaks equal dunks.

It’s hard to plan for hot shooting or opponent gaffes. The Lakers can strategize to get more clean 2s in the half-court — more cascading drive-and-kick sequences on which they dictate terms.

If the Lakers play Davis at center more, they might be able to re-weaponize the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll. An Adebayo return would complicate that. He would guard Davis, and switch onto LeBron. Even if Adebayo is out, the Heat will hide Olynyk on the perimeter, keep Crowder on Davis, and switch the LeBron-Davis action.

Fine. Try it anyway. If Davis defends Olynyk, there will be lots of possessions — after L.A. stops — when Olynyk is stuck on Davis. Hunt that, and have Davis roll hard instead of fading for jumpers. The Heat might respond by going zone, but the Lakers are OK with that.

LeBron knows all the counters. He will mix in sideline pick-and-rolls with his guards so they can flare to the corner for 3s — instead of rolling down the packed middle of the floor. Going early in the shot clock, before the defense is set, always helps:

LeBron has only 11 post touches in the series, per Second Spectrum. Those have produced heaps of points, as is customary for LeBron. He has done work against both Butler and Andre Iguodala, though that work is taxing.

LeBron setting screens for Caruso, Rajon Rondo, and even Davis is a smart change of pace. The Lakers have a bundle of set plays and misdirection actions.

And that’s the point: The Lakers have to work for this game, this series, this championship. The Heat are not still in the bubble for a coronation.

NBA Finals: Game 4 on Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN App

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Passan: Game 3 win proof Walker Buehler is baseball’s reigning October ace

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Just look at the names. Sandy Koufax. Randy Johnson. Clayton Kershaw. Curt Schilling. Orel Hershiser. Madison Bumgarner. Josh Beckett.

Walker Buehler is 26 years old. He is in his third full season in the major leagues. To put him alongside two Hall of Famers, another shoo-in, a likely entrant and three more of the greatest pitchers in baseball playoff history, then, might feel presumptive, a prisoner-of-the-moment reaction to his latest sparkling outing.

Here’s the thing: These are his peers. The numbers say so. And however statistics can be twisted, engineered and leveraged to tell a story, Buehler needs no such manipulation. Right now, he is baseball’s best big-game pitcher, and the gem he spun in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night only enhanced that argument.

Over six innings, Buehler neutralized the Rays with a heavy dose of a four-seam fastball that defies gravity and a curveball that embraces it. He struck out 10, ceded three hits, walked one, and yielded one run. Against Buehler, the Rays flailed and failed, and though no solace can be taken from that, not when they now trail two games to one in the series, at least they know they’re not the first.

Consider the first set of names: Schilling, Hershiser, Bumgarner. They’re the only players in history to post a better ERA over a nine-start postseason stretch than Buehler’s current run. Schilling’s was 1.14, Hershiser’s 1.17, Bumgarner’s 1.18. From his start in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS through Game 3 of this World Series, Buehler’s is 1.28.

“The more you do these things, the calmer you get,” Buehler said. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this. And I feel good in these spots.”

Confidence never is a problem for Buehler. He knows he is good. He’ll talk about how he’s good. It’s extremely matter-of-fact. And these are the facts.

Among players 26 and younger, none has struck out more in the postseason than Buehler. He reached 80 on Friday, passing Bumgarner. The extra rounds and games make this more of a modern record than something to compare Buehler historically, but still: He’s better than his contemporaries.

In all 11 of his playoff starts, Buehler has punched out at least six. The previous record holder for consecutive postseason starts with half a dozen or more strikeouts: Johnson, with nine.

Before Game 3, only two Dodgers pitchers had double-digit strikeout games in which they allowed three or fewer hits: Koufax and Kershaw.

The last player as young as Buehler to record at least 10 punchouts in a World Series game: Beckett when he was 23.

Yes, some of these are arbitrary. Had Buehler not struck out the side in the sixth inning, those double-digit factoids wouldn’t exist. And he pitches in a far different era than Schilling, Hershiser and Bumgarner. Their respective innings totals over those nine starts of microscopic ERAs: 71, 69 ⅓ and 68 ⅔. Buehler has thrown just 49 ⅓ innings, a hair under 5 ½ innings a start, which, even in the heart of the bullpenning era, is nobody’s idea of a horse.

The game’s evolution is a culprit, because Buehler could work deeper into games if given the leash to do so. Even during the regular season the Dodgers welded a restrictor plate to Buehler, lest they overexert him and not have him for the moments they need him to win things like their first championship since 1988.

“Obviously there’s been a few games that I kinda wanted to keep going and keep going and keep going,” Buehler said. “But that’s what you want. I think you want an organization that’s gonna help you and hold you back. And I think as a player you want to keep going. No, I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

Until the Dodgers let Buehler work deeper into games, his lack of a classic sort of playoff performance — a shutout or at least a complete game — will be a reasonable ding on his resumé. It’s less the fault of Buehler than the moment in which he pitches, when someone of his ilk is seen as so valuable that any risk is a risk. Particularly for someone with a Tommy John scar on his right elbow.

With that not an option, at least for now, Buehler instead focuses on carving up opposing lineups. The Rays struck out twice in the first, second and fifth innings and three times in the sixth. They swung under Buehler’s fastball, which is unfair at 97 mph with supreme command and even more prone to embarrass because its average spin rate of 2,550 rpm is among the five best of any starter in the big leagues. High-spin-rate fastballs are the pitcher’s version of sleight-of-hand magic, looking to some hitters like they’re almost rising. The truth is that the speed of the spin simply fights gravity better than lower-speed heaters, meaning they’re still dropping but at a slower rate than the brain can instantaneously process.

Between that and his 3,000-rpm curveball, another elite pitch Buehler controls with the precision of a puppeteer — and don’t forget his slider and cutter, two more power pitches that round out his arsenal — hitters fidget when facing Buehler for good reason. Even though he is more reliant on his fastball than most pitchers, he relies because it’s arguably the best offered by any starting pitcher today. The only others in the conversation are Gerrit Cole — who has the best argument of anyone to dispute Buehler’s big-game throne — and Jacob deGrom, who may someday mount a challenge if the Mets stop Metsing.

“He was unbelievable. He really was,” said Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, who himself made history, homering and driving in a run via sacrifice bunt, the first player to do both in the same World Series game in nearly 60 years. “He made it really easy on me. That might have been the best I’ve ever seen his stuff really.”

The best. That’s saying something. Buehler showed the capabilities in 2018 when he threw 6 ⅔ shutout innings against Colorado to clinch the NL West in Game 163. Less than a month later, in the last World Series Game 3 started by Buehler, he allowed two hits and struck out seven over seven shutout innings. And in his start after that, in Game 1 of the 2019 Division Series, he threw six shutout innings and yielded one hit. His first three this postseason were good, his NLCS Game 6 with six shutout innings excellent and Friday’s brilliant. And the Dodgers are in perfect position should they need him again. Worst-case scenario, if they lose Games 4 and 5, Buehler could go on short rest in Game 6. Otherwise, the Dodgers can have him ready and fully rested for Game 7.

“I haven’t put it all together and grasped or wrapped my head around all that he’s accomplished in this short period of time,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Being a big-game pitcher and really succeeding on this stage, there’s only a few guys currently and throughout history. He’s in some really elite company, and I’m just happy he’s wearing a Dodger uniform.”

There is perhaps one statistic that fully encapsulates why Buehler warrants the best-active-big-game-pitcher label. Pitch-tracking technology goes back to 2008, and over the 13 years since it debuted, only two times has a pitcher struck out at least 22 batters on fastballs in a postseason.

This first was Walker Buehler in 2018.

The second is Walker Buehler in 2020.

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‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez-‘El Gallo’ Estrada rematch has the potential to be another classic battle

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Juan Francisco “El Gallo” Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez scored impressive wins on Friday in Mexico City to set up a potential rematch of their tremendous battle in 2012, which Gonzalez won by unanimous decision.

Chocolatito defeated Israel Gonzalez by unanimous decision to retain his WBA junior bantamweight belt, and then in the main event, Estrada stopped Carlos Cuadras in Round 11 after recovering from a third-round knockdown.

Estrada’s win over Cuadras — his second victory over Cuadras, who he beat by points the first time around by scores of 118-110, 116-112 and 116-112 at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles — bookends an impressive run. Since that fight Estrada has gone 15-1, and Gonzalez has been on point himself during that period with a record of 16-2, 13 KOs — with both of those losses coming at the hands of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Estrada’s lone loss in that stretch also came at the hands of SSR, though Estrada later avenged that defeat by defeating Rungvisai in a rematch in April 2019.

So, what can we expect in the rematch? Can Gonzalez repeat history, or is Estrada the better fighter now? Steve Kim breaks it down.

What do you expect from an Estrada-Gonzalez rematch?

Another classic battle. Having been lucky enough to have been at their first clash back in 2012 at the LA Sports Arena, I expect the second chapter to be just as entertaining, if not more so. Just for the simple fact that both boxers have so much on the line, and that they are both incredibly prideful, world-class fighters.

You could say that Gonzalez is no longer in his prime, but since his KO loss in the second Sor Rungvisai fight in 2017, he is now in a career renaissance of sorts — and he’s still an offensive force, one who simply avalanches his foes in leather. Estrada is also an improved fighter since their first meeting, and has been yearning for revenge.

Their styles mesh perfectly: the steady two-fisted arsenal of Chocolatito, who weaves exquisite combinations, against the precise, heavy-handed counter-punches from Estrada.

It’s time to find out who is the lord of the super flys.

How does Estrada win?

By being the younger, fresher fighter down the stretch. Which means he’ll have to overcome the steady work rate of Gonzalez in the first half of the fight, withstand all that comes his way and land his share of body shots early to set up a strong finishing kick. Gonzalez is still a solid puncher at 115, but he isn’t hitting through his opponents as he did at lower weight classes.

At this stage of their careers and this weight class, Estrada might actually be the more forceful puncher. But he can’t allow himself to be outworked in the early rounds to a degree that he falls too far behind, as he did in his first bout with Sor Rungvisai.

How does Gonzalez win?

Does Gonzalez have another great night in him? He is 33, which is unusually old for a smaller fighter to be at the world-class level. Once again, he’ll have to get in great shape and then be prepared to set a fast pace, be the busier fighter than Estrada — especially early on — and hopefully soften him up enough to a point where he wont have enough in the gas tank to come on strong.

Chocolatito will most likely be an underdog in this rematch, but as you saw in Estrada-Cuadras II, a lot of leather was landed by Estrada before he secured the TKO. Cuadras is a bit of a slap hitter, one that doesn’t completely turn his punches over, and that isn’t the case with Gonzalez, who throws punches with great torque and balance that gives him the ability to throw one punch after another seamlessly.

Should Martinez move up to face Gonzalez and/or Estrada? Or should he stay at flyweight and unify titles?

If Martinez can’t get a unification bout with Moruti Mthalane at flyweight, he should go big game hunting at junior bantamweight, where there are bigger, more recognizable names. And as he waits for Estrada and Gonzalez to engage in their rematch there are other names For Martinez to pursue, like Joshua Franco, Kazuto Ioka or Jerwin Ancajas, who all have title belts and would make for interesting fights.

Martinez is a highly entertaining fighter that also brings pressure, is relentless and has shown a willingness to mix it up from the very first bell. He doesn’t just throw a lot of punches, Martinez also has very bad intentions on each punch.

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Finau’s health and game are doing well after his recovery from COVID-19

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Tony Finau is feeling good, all things considered. And he’s relieved. Not only is he on his way back after contracting the coronavirus, but he has a big tournament to look forward to next month.

“The silver lining for me is I’m 100 percent going to play in the Masters,” Finau said Friday at Sherwood Country Club, where he shot a second-round 64 in the Zozo Championship. He trails leader Justin Thomas by 3 strokes.

Finau learned a lot about COVID-19 during his 10-day quarantine in Las Vegas after testing positive on Oct. 6, which forced him to withdraw from the Shriners for Childrens Hospital Open two weeks ago.

Among those lessons is he knows he is no longer contagious, even though he has tested positive five times since his initial diagnosis. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control state that a person can return to work 10 days following the onset of symptoms, provided there is no fever.

They also say that those who contract COVID-19 and experience symptoms will likely continue to test positive for weeks, even though they are not contagious. So Finau does not have to worry about a positive test knocking him out of the Masters — a concern Phil Mickelson raised earlier this week.

Finau had hoped to play at last week’s CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, and the fact that he was still in Las Vegas made that easier. He was cleared to practice on that Wednesday but did not feel well enough to play.

“It just wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling up to it. I needed another week.”

Finau, 31, said he started to experience flu-like symptoms on Oct. 3. Two days later, he drove from his Salt Lake City home to the tournament in Las Vegas. He was tested the following day, with the positive result forthcoming.

“For the first five days, it got worse,” said Finau, who was required by the PGA Tour to quarantine in Las Vegas for 10 days — with a $75,000 stipend provided. “I had massive headaches, body aches. I didn’t feel like doing anything. It got me really good — fatigue-wise. I’m very active. Work out quite often. Always playing golf or with my kids and quite active. It knocked me down. There’s no question about it.

“For those 10 days, I didn’t feel like doing anything. I obviously didn’t get to practice. I lost my taste and smell after about four days. Still don’t have it back. That kind of sucks; I’m quite a foodie. It was not the experience I thought I was going to have. Most guys are asymptomatic. They say if you’re young and healthy, it’s not a big deal. I think I gained some respect for the virus.”

Finau said he does not know where he contracted the virus but was told it likely occurred during a time frame of 48 to 72 hours before his symptoms set in. He wondered about a tournament where he caddied for one of his kids. He had not competed since the U.S. Open last month.

The PGA Tour has played tournaments for four months, with a limited number of issues due to COVID-19. The Tour has announced 15 positive tests among players it has tested. Three prominent players have tested positive in the past three weeks: Finau, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott.

Ranked 17th in the world, Finau has been busy since the PGA Tour’s restart following a 13-week break due to the pandemic. He played 12 times through the U.S. Open, where he tied for eighth. He also tied for fourth at the PGA Championship and had three other top-10 finishes.

“It was worse than the flu and it lasted way longer,” he said. “This was 10 days of a little bit worse symptoms than the flu and fatigue. Not really feeling like doing anything. Not really comfortable in your skin. It was quite rough. But I’m on the back end of it and I’m happy about that.

“Not that I felt I was ever going to die, but it can take your immune system to a place where I can totally see being hospitalized from it and affecting your life. In a way, I gained a respect for the actual virus. Not that I wasn’t taking it seriously. But I understand the measures that are being taken, whether you agree with it or not, it’s probably the right thing to do.”

Finau did not begin practicing again until last Saturday. He had planned to play both Las Vegas events and the Zozo, so he lost two weeks of tournament golf, a bit of a setback in his Masters preparation.

“I’m just trying to be as healthy as possible now,” Finau said. “I’ve made some great strides in the last week. Just how my body feels. I’ve got this week. I’m playing Houston. Played a great round of golf today which is huge for me. And I think [Augusta National] is a place where I can play well no matter what.”

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