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Lowe on West finals: Jokic is the new Dirk

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The Denver Nuggets can rally from the depths in an NBA playoff series because Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic methodically problem-solve opposing defenses. Your preferred coverage of the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll might set them on their heels for the first half of Game 1, but they soon adjust. They poke and prod, downloading information, searching for holes.

By Game 2, they begin exploiting those holes. By Game 3, they might have forced a change in your coverage. They see that change. It signals they are inflicting pain. It emboldens them, even if it means they have to problem-solve anew. They grow more powerful, separately and together, over time.

The Los Angeles Lakers in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals switched a lot of Murray-Jokic actions, leaving two mismatches: a big guy on Murray, and a small guy on Jokic. It marked a departure for a team that has prided itself on not switching — on keeping bigs near the basket. The Lakers were probably switching more than coaches wanted, but the frequency indicated switching was part of their plan.

NBA schedule: Game 4, West finals | Game 5 East finals (ESPN)

That is a tribute to Murray and Jokic. There is no silver bullet coverage for any pick-and-roll partnership in which both members can score from anywhere. The closest would be switching with two big wings, but Jokic punishes even slight mismatches with his bruising back-to-the-basket game. Even so, we saw LeBron James briefly take Murray in crunch time of Game 3. Perhaps Frank Vogel will go back to James on Murray and Anthony Davis on Jokic if Game 4 is close late, and unleash them as the rare switching combo that might trouble Denver’s stars.

So few big men can score on the block like Jokic anymore. In the East, the Miami Heat switch with Bam Adebayo knowing most centers — Daniel Theis, Myles Turner — present zero threat posting up. The dearth of big men with back-to-the-basket craft has made the point guard-wing pick-and-roll — think Kyrie Irving/James in Cleveland — the crutch for playoff offenses. The Murray-Jokic dance is refreshingly old school.

Jokic has been most often compared to Marc Gasol, but aggressive postseason Jokic might be the true heir to another international big man star: Dirk Nowitzki. Crunch time offense has become the domain of wings and point guards. Nowitzki was the rare modern big man with the shooting chops and one-on-one skills to serve as the hub of an elite crunch time offense. Jokic is that now. Drop back, he rains 3s. Chase him off the arc, he pumps and drives for some wild floater. Switch, and he isolates against little guys at the nail — peeking at the opposite shot clock, an old Nowitzki trick.

(Nowitzki, in his way, almost rejected the comparison. “Damn,” he texted. “That’s a compliment. I wish I had his skill set. His passing is so good it’s a joke. I unfortunately always wanted to score and not pass.” Yeah, I think the Dallas Mavericks and their fans are cool with the balance you struck, big fella.)

The Lakers’ switching worked well enough for a game and change. When the Lakers have a center on the floor — JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard — both Davis and James lurk on the back line to put out mismatch-related fires:

Murray beats Howard, but Davis meets him at the rim knowing James looms. The Lakers were betting on their size and speed — that they could double Denver’s stars, and scramble to prevent easy buckets.

When the Lakers play Davis at center, the same switch leaves James as the lone back-line predator; Davis is tasked with chasing Murray. Davis still managed to disrupt some Jokic mismatch bully ball:

The Lakers load up to help Alex Caruso deal with Jokic. Torrey Craig flashes open amid the chaos, but Murray cuts under the rim — bringing Davis into Craig’s path.

By Game 2, Murray was taking Davis to one of two places as Jokic overwhelmed L.A.’s guards.

Place No. 1: the other side of the floor, making it harder for Davis to help.

Place No. 2: in 3-point range one pass away from Jokic.

Davis trapping Jokic there risks an open Murray trey. If the Lakers dispatch a third defender at Murray, he’d better arrive on time. Even then, Murray can engage drive-and-kick mode.

Murray has also been effective driving those switches right away instead of pulling back and giving the Lakers’ defense time to gird itself:

In Game 3, the Lakers’ came out determined not to switch as often. It threw the Nuggets off at first:

They adapted. Jokic made hay slipping screens and rolling behind the Lakers’ defense. Few guards are cleverer than Murray dragging resistant defenses into switches. He freezes big men with nasty hesitation dribbles, and then accelerates at them — forcing the switch. He might zoom away from Jokic’s pick and string his dribble out, yanking Jokic’s defender so far toward the sideline as to leave the defense no choice but to switch.

Murray instills indecision and, eventually, panic:

(Murray also got some good looks running off screens away from the ball. Denver might want to do more of that.)

The Lakers did not slink into surrender after switching in Game 3. When Murray danced with the ball, L.A. charged him with sudden double-teams — forcing Murray to give it up, and wagering again on their scramble defense working in concert with the dwindling shot clock:

The Nuggets have scored about 1.17 points per possession in this series when Murray or Jokic shoots out of their pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who fires — a mark that would rank 25th for the season among almost 400 pick-and-roll duos with at least 100 reps, per Second Spectrum. Zoom out to include full possessions, and the number balloons to 1.23 points.

By the fourth quarter, the Lakers resorted to the last option for desperate defenses: zone. The Nuggets fell apart. Rajon Rondo committed high crimes and misdemeanors. You’d suspect Denver will be ready for it in Game 4.

The only answer is to continue mixing it up, and that includes the sort of switching and helping the Lakers preferred in Games 1 and 2. They are good at that. They surely have another level of urgency; Denver needed Game 3 more than the Lakers did. Game 4 is crucial for both.

Other thoughts ahead of Game 4:

• Meanwhile, the Lakers are searching for rhythm on offense again. Game 2 was low scoring. They got back into Game 3 with pick-six turnovers. They have scored 95.5 points per 100 possessions in the half-court over Games 2 and 3, per Cleaning The Glass — right around their league-average regular-season mark that raised alarms during the seeding games.

The James-Davis pick-and-roll has produced fewer than 0.8 points per possession, per Second Spectrum. The James-McGee dance has been worse. The Lakers might consider starting Howard in Game 4.

Denver’s help defenders took an extra half-step toward the paint in Game 3, barricading the restricted area. They have faith in their ability to swarm and retreat to dangerous shooters. They are willing to live with some open looks from Caruso, Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, and even Davis. The Lakers’ shot 6-of-26 from deep in Game 3. Both those numbers — makes and attempts — are bad.

Over Games 2 and 3, only 33% of the Lakers’ shots came at the basket — way down from their regular-season share of 40%, which ranked second overall, per Cleaning The Glass. The corresponding jump came almost entirely in midrange jumpers. James and Davis are megastars who will make enough tough midrangers to beat you on a lot of nights. The Lakers can still work for better looks.

You can see the Lakers searching out counters to Denver’s paint-packing. Caruso is headhunting with flare screens, trying to block Denver’s defenders from recovering onto shooters:

Both Kuzma and Caruso have found buckets on cuts and split actions. That kind of stuff requires diligence and coordination. Cuts are no good when players cut into each other, or clutter James’ path to the basket. The diligence waned late in Game 3 as more Lakers stood still.

Corner actions centered around Davis — in which he sets a pindown for a shooter in the corner, or vice versa — have been effective all postseason; Davis got two easy hooks out of that early in Game 3. Similar misdirection plays, oriented more toward the top of the arc, have generated decent looks for Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope.

Beyond those counters, I thought the Lakers waited too long to go all-in on their best Davis-at-center lineups in Game 3. They played just 15 total minutes with James and Davis on the floor — and all of Howard, McGee, and Morris on the bench, per NBA.com. The fourth quarter comprised 12 of those minutes. Such lineups went plus-10, though that was fueled by those pick-six steals. Those lineups were minus-4 in 15 minutes over Games 1 and 2.

Those lineups sacrifice rebounding (a huge problem in Game 3) and some back-line size on defense, but they can extricate the Lakers’ offense from the mud. They also re-weaponize the James-Davis pick-and-roll. The Nuggets are switching that action with Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap — while Jokic guards the Lakers’ center. Remove that center and the Nuggets have two choices: Have Jokic guard Davis, or hide him on a perimeter player.

When Jokic defends Davis, the Lakers should milk the James-Davis two-man game without mercy. If Denver switches, it’s barbecue chicken time for James. When Jokic corrals James, Davis can roll hard through a clear lane:

James and Davis have run only 26 pick-and-rolls together in three games, per Second Spectrum. Davis has rolled on just 10 — and rolled hard on maybe three.

The alternative of hiding Jokic on the perimeter creates more of a dilemma. Should the Lakers recenter their offense around Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Caruso, Rondo, et al. — and away from Davis — just to attack Jokic? Kuzma and Caruso are shooting 31% from deep combined this season; Kuzma was hesitant to launch with Game 3 in the balance.

But if James is handling the ball, that kind of mismatch hunting is fine in the right doses. James will find driving creases. Some open 3s will drop. Some will draw extra rotations, opening more drive-and-kick goodness.

The hunt-Jokic gambit gets more dangerous with more shooting on the floor. Danny Green‘s late absence in Game 3 was curious. The Caruso/Green/Caldwell-Pope/James/Davis fivesome has played 11 minutes the entire postseason, and none in Game 3. (The Lakers are plus-10 in those minutes.) I get that: Rondo and Kuzma have been mostly good, and the Lakers’ centers have contributed off and on. Still, the Lakers should find a way to get to that lineup in Game 4.

The Lakers can also leave Jokic to the side and try the James-Davis pick-and-roll. If the Nuggets switch, LeBron should be able to rumble past Millsap. Millsap has defended James as well as could be hoped throughout his career — and at times in this series — but I’m skeptical he can stick with James one-on-one if the floor is spaced.

The Lakers tried all this down the stretch of Game 3. Denver stuck with Davis’ slips to the rim. Davis was barely involved otherwise, and looked understandably fatigued — even walking into one or two possessions way behind the rest of the Lakers — after playing the entire second half. James was 6-of-8 in the fourth quarter, but settled for step-backs at the end. He has faded late in some playoff games.

Still, if Davis can defend Jokic — and he has been mostly fine — and hold up on the glass, there is not a huge downside to leaning into these lineups a little more should the offense require a jump start.

• Keep an eye on Rondo’s pick-and-rolls. He tore the Nuggets apart in Games 1 and 2; they could not get underneath screens. They made it a point of emphasis in Game 3, though their execution was scattershot. The Lakers’ screeners were smart about rolling right into Rondo’s defenders, bulldozing them into switches.

• I wonder if the Nuggets found something playing Grant at center over Mason Plumlee against the Lakers’ Davis-at-center lineups late in the third quarter.

• A fun game-within-the-game: Against some bench-heavy Denver lineups, the Lakers have James guarding Michael Porter Jr. — knowing full well the Nuggets want no part of that matchup on the other end. After stops, James is sprinting the floor, hoping to catch the Nuggets before they rejigger the matchups.

Game 4 is often the series’ pivot point. A Lakers win means a commanding lead (though the Nuggets seem impervious to deficits). If Denver snags it, we shift into best-of-three. Buckle up.

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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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