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Lowe: What a key play by Andre Iguodala tells us about Heat-Celtics

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When I first saw the series of passes that led to this Goran Dragic dagger in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, two thoughts whipped through my brain:

No. 1: Why are the Boston Celtics trapping Jimmy Butler on this pick-and-roll with Bam Adebayo? Boston closed with its center-less Best Five lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. You play such a lineup to switch every two-man action that doesn’t involve Walker. Why not have Tatum and Hayward — sturdy, like-size defenders — switch here? Why let one of the best passing big men alive ease into a 4-on-3? Ducking under Butler ball screens — something Boston is barely doing, though Miami sets up some such actions in ways that make going under difficult — is preferable to this all-out blitz.

The Celtics played that lineup only five minutes in Game 4 after they went plus-13 in the seven minutes they deployed it in Game 3. They have had zero consistent answers for Adebayo running amok down the gut on the pick-and-roll. They have adjusted their coverages since Game 2, helping more from targeted places — including some unconventional ones — and even daring to lunge off of Duncan Robinson on the weak side when there is no better option. Nothing has worked for long.

I wonder if switching more might be their default response in Game 5. Stretching out this Best Five group would enable that. Daniel Theis, the odd man out in this group, managed well switching onto both Butler and Dragic late in Game 4; Boston might choose to amp up its switching even with Theis on the floor in more traditional lineups.

Alternatively, the Celtics have stashed Theis away from Adebayo, off to the side on a spot-up type — Jae Crowder, perhaps Andre Iguodala. But sliding Theis there removes one hiding place for Walker. Boston has risked slotting Walker on Tyler Herro in an effort to keep him out of Miami’s pick-and-roll game, and the Heat finally exploited that matchup with the right level of ruthlessness in Game 4. (Brad Stevens pivoted to Walker on Iguodala midway through the fourth quarter — too late.)

No. 2: I’ve seen that same Iguodala pass in crunch time before — that inside-out, twisting-in-midair, full-body touch pass-slash-heave from underneath the rim all the way out to the arc. That is such a tough pass. The speed with which Iguodala turns his body and releases the ball all in one motion indicates he knew what he was going to do — what options were available, and which was best — before he even touched the ball.

Iguodala is one of those spatial savants who sees everything a beat before everyone else. When he brings the ball up in transition, he sometimes hops mid-dribble, eyes wide and head tilting in a specific direction, begging a teammate to make some cut said teammate has not even registered as a possibility.

The cut might not unlock a shot for the cutter. That cutter might never even touch the ball. That cut might distort the next layer of defense in a way that opens up a shot for another teammate — a progression of events only Iguodala sees.

Watch this clip from last season, in which Iguodala in full flight instructs Stephen Curry to veer toward the top of the 3-point arc because he knows that will draw the defense and free Alfonzo McKinnie for a layup. Iguodala points back at Curry after McKinnie’s basket, acknowledging Curry’s selfless act:

Iguodala in those moments vibrates with hyperactive impatience. He sees something you don’t, and he really needs you to see it now.

He was probably primed to redirect the ball to Dragic the second Boston trapped Butler.

Turns out I had seen a very similar Iguodala pass in an even bigger postseason moment: the last minute of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Toronto last June.

It’s not precisely the same, but it’s close. Iguodala jumps to meet Curry’s pass in the air — a method of getting more oomph on what is basically a long-distance inside-out touch pass to Draymond Green. You only jump like that if you know where you are going with the ball before it arrives.

“That’s what Andre does,” Klay Thompson told me after the game.

Iguodala was the headliner in Miami’s deadline deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, but Crowder has turned into the more important player for the Heat so far. It has felt at times as if Iguodala never quite settled in with Miami after sitting out most of the season — never made his imprint. He played 14 minutes combined over Games 2 and 3 of the conference finals.

Iguodala’s impact can be easy to miss. He doesn’t score much. It sometimes seems as if he finds scoring unseemly — that he’s almost disdainful of points and their obviousness. It’s as if he wants his contributions to be harder to notice, lest he draw too much attention.

But his impact is always there — quiet background noise. He’s always doing something helpful. You know about his defense. (Iguodala is close now to yet another Finals clash with LeBron James — a potential fifth head-to-head matchup between their respective teams in six seasons.) He spots transition opportunities, and runs the floor hard. When he doesn’t have the ball, he stands in the right places — and slides to more profitable ones when the defense isn’t looking. Even when he passes up wide-open 3s, Iguodala turns those instances of frustrating non-aggression into positive next steps — smart passes, a canny give-and-go, the handoff that becomes a screen, a running floater if the shot clock demands it.

The lineup with which Miami closed Game 4 — Dragic, Herro, Butler, Iguodala, and Adebayo — played zero minutes together in the regular season. It includes three minimal threats from 3-point range — a lineup construction Spoelstra has mostly avoided.

It is now plus-23 in 42 postseason minutes, per NBA.com. Pristine spacing isn’t everything, though it certainly helps against elite defenses. That lineup includes five high-IQ playmakers who all move well without the ball. Collective feel and smarts can compensate for an overall lack of shooting. That is Iguodala to a tee.

Miami going into Game 4 had begun to look like a six-man team — their five starters, plus Herro. Spoelstra in Game 4 benched three regular reserves — Kendrick Nunn, Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Jones Jr. — and even unearthed Solomon Hill. Iguodala gave them a seventh man — enough to eke out another win, one game closer to an improbable Finals return. If Miami advances, it will need this Iguodala — the one for whom the Heat traded — even more.

NBA schedule: Game 5, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App

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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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