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Monster Games In The NBA Playoffs Aren’t Automatically Translating To Wins

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In Game 1 of Utah’s first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, Donovan Mitchell could not be stopped. The third-year Jazz star rained down 57 points, the third-most in NBA playoff history behind only Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor. Mitchell made 19 of his 33 shots from the field and six of 15 from behind the 3-point arc, and he paraded himself to the free-throw line 13 times, connecting on all 13 tries.

Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, Jamal Murray, Monte Morris … whomever the Nuggets put in front of him, it didn’t matter. They were sitting ducks, and Mitchell roasted them all. When he wasn’t busy cooking, Mitchell found time to grab nine rebounds and dish out seven assists. It was a truly spectacular performance — and yet, the Jazz lost the game in overtime, unable to withstand Murray’s own crunch-time explosion.

Later that night, in Game 1 of the Dallas Mavericks’ series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Luka Dončić could not be stopped. Dončić poured in 42 points, connecting on 13 of his 21 shots from the field and 14 of 15 from the charity stripe. When he wasn’t putting the ball in the bucket himself, Dončić found time to snag seven rebounds, dish out nine dimes and snag three steals. Even his 11 turnovers couldn’t overshadow what was, again, a truly spectacular performance. And yet, the Mavericks lost the game by 8.

A few days later, Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon went for 34 points, seven rebounds, 14 assists and two steals while shooting 11 of 17 from the field and four of seven from deep, only to see his team lose by 9 to the Miami Heat. Over the weekend, Murray and Mitchell switched roles. This time, it was Murray dropping a 50-spot, grabbing 11 rebounds and setting his teammates up for seven baskets, only to see his team lose the game by 2. That very same night, the Clippers’ Lou Williams came off the bench to sear the nets for 36 points on 13 of 20 from the field, two of four from three and eight of nine from the line, to go along with four rebounds and five assists, only to see his work foiled by Dončić, who capped his own stunning performance with a preposterous buzzer-beating three in overtime.

Five spectacular games from five players, all with the same result for their team: L. To say that those losses defied long odds would be a dramatic understatement. Each of those performances registered as at least a 30 in Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Score. (Game Score is exactly what it sounds like: an attempt to capture single-game performance in one number.)

From 1980 through 2019, NBA teams with a player tallying a Game Score of at least 30 in a playoff game went 468-159, a 0.746 winning percentage. This year, such teams are just 9-5, for a 0.643 winning percentage. Only thrice in the previous 40 years did teams register a worse winning percentage in these games: 1988, when they went 16-9; 2009, when they went 16-10; and 2013, when they went just 4-3.1

If any of that sounds like merely the result of a small sample or a small difference between the rate at which teams have won, consider this: NBA teams with a 30-Game Score player would need to win all of the next six games to match or exceed the historical winning percentage in those types of playoff games.

These games are also happening more often. There have already been 14 instances this postseason of a player recording a Game Score of 30 or better, against an average over the previous 40 seasons of just 15.7. In the 16-team playoff era, the average was 16.8 per postseason, and that has been consistent even since the league lengthened first-round series from five games to seven. So far, we’re seeing a 30-plus Game Score performance more than twice as frequently in 2020 as we did from 2004 through 2019.

Year Total Games Monster Games Frequency
2020* 34 14 2.43
2017 79 32 2.47
2009 85 26 3.27
2019 82 25 3.28
2006 89 22 4.05
2018 82 19 4.32
2005 84 19 4.42
2011 81 17 4.76
2016 86 18 4.78
2008 86 18 4.78
2010 80 14 5.71
2014 89 13 6.85
2007 79 10 7.90
2015 81 10 8.10
2004 82 9 9.11
2012 84 9 9.33
2013 85 7 12.14

Through games on Tuesday, Aug. 25.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Not once in the previous 40 years did these games happen more frequently. The only year that came close was 2017, when there were 32 in a 79-game postseason, or one every 2.47 contests. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1990 to find a year in which you saw a 30-plus Game Score performance more than once every third game.

Some of the increase in frequency can be pinned on pace. This is the fastest postseason for which there is pace data available on NBA.com,1996-97 season.

“>2 with games checking in at an average of 99.7 possessions per team, and Game Score leans heavily on stat accumulation. More possessions equals more chances for stats. But last year’s postseason averaged 98.1 possessions per game, and there were only 25 instances of a 30-plus Game Score during the 82-game postseason, or one every 3.28 games. The year before that, the average was one every 4.32 games. So, it’s not just pace.

Some of it has to be attributed to the ridiculous offensive environment we have seen in the bubble. This season’s Mavericks had the most efficient offense in NBA history, and five of the 16 playoff teams are scoring more efficiently in the postseason than the Mavs did during the year.

That environment also gets at an unsurprising commonality in the five games in which a player had a Game Score of 30 or better and his team still lost: In each of those games, the player’s team had a defensive rating of 114 or worse. In four out of five, it was 120 or worse. Their teams getting lit up on defense meant Mitchell, Dončić, Brogdon, Murray and Williams had to try to take over the game on the other end of the floor, which in turn raised their Game Score even higher.

They were also each helped by one of the other trends that has revealed itself in the bubble: extraordinary shooting on contested jumpers. During the five games in question, each of the players exceeded their expected effective field-goal percentage on contested jump shots by at least 6.43 percentage points, according to Second Spectrum, and three of them exceeded it by 30 percentage points or more. (The same trend held for Mitchell, Dončić and Williams on their teammates’ contested jumpers taken after passes thrown by those players.)

Player Contested Jumpers eFG% qSQ Diff.
Jamal Murray 14 85.71% 46.16% 39.55
Lou Williams 8 75.00 41.41 33.59
Malcolm Brogdon 10 80.00 48.46 31.54
Luka Dončić 7 57.14 41.67 15.47
Donovan Mitchell 18 52.78 46.35 6.43

*Quantified Shot Quality (qSQ) measures the likelihood of a shot going in if taken by an average player.

Source: Second Spectrum

It’s further notable that 10 of the 14 instances of these games have come against defenses ranked outside the top 10 in efficiency, and that it’s likely that at least two and as many as three or four of those teams (depending on the result of the Clippers-Mavericks and Thunder-Rockets series) will be eliminated by the end of this week.3 With better defenses advancing to the later rounds and the poorer defenses leaving the bubble, perhaps we’ll see a reduction in the frequency of these monster games. If the way this first round has gone is any indication, though, we’re likely to see at least a few more — whether in wins or losses.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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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