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More Bam and a third-quarter blitz: How Miami got within two wins of the Finals

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In the NBA postseason, there’s often a team that discovers its potential along the way. It learns who it is, banks on its strengths and builds confidence with each win.

The Toronto Raptors accomplished that in the 2019 playoffs, and in the Year of the Bubble, the Miami Heat are that team.

For the second time in two games, Miami roared back from a double-digit second-half deficit to shock the Boston Celtics. Their 106-101 victory gives them a 2-0 lead over Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

As has frequently been the case since the breakup of the Big Three in 2014, the Heat this season were an appealing collection of overachievers. This is a team that started in its backcourt two undrafted guards — one a rookie, the other with 15 games of service coming into the season. Their best playmaker in the starting unit was an undersized center, and their starting power forward in the bubble has been a throw-in to balance the books in a midseason trade.

From a team-building standpoint, it was impressive — the kind of resourcefulness demonstrated by solid NBA organizations — but nothing about the Heat’s regular season screamed NBA Finalist. Yet the way things are looking in Florida, give it another week and that improbability might become a reality.

If a team has a collective understanding of what it is, it’s because individual players understand their roles. That Heat attribute was on full display in Thursday night’s win. Marksman Duncan Robinson’s mandate is to never stop shooting — he drained four 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes.

Bam Adebayo is to make plays for teammates out of the high post and steamroll to the basket — check and check.

Jimmy Butler makes winning plays in the fourth quarter and plays all-NBA D. Goran Dragic buzzes around the floor and lets it fly with his lefty stroke. Jae Crowder holds opposing wings at bay. Tyler Herro reminds the world he has ball skills and rebounding chops.

Check. Check. Check. Check.

Since he took over for Pat Riley in 2008, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has been fond of saying that the defense works when “everybody is on a string.” Time and again in the second half, Boston tripped over that string, as the Heat’s active zone confounded a Celtics offense that scored with abandon in the first half. The zone is all the rage in the Eastern Conference this summer, but Miami’s model rarely leaks, minding the perimeter, picking up cutters and accounting for the glass.

These are the kinds of advanced tasks that championship teams do exceptionally well. The Heat are mastering them with greater fluency each passing day.

— Kevin Arnovitz

Bam Adebayo’s encore was a dunk fest

As each postseason game passes, Bam Adebayo offers a reminder of how good he is now — and how much better he’s going to become.

After a Game 1 performance that included one of the best defensive plays in NBA playoff history — a game-saving block of Jayson Tatum in the closing seconds of overtime — Adebayo turned around Game 2 for the Heat in the third quarter on the offensive end.

After scoring just four points in the first half and struggling to find his rhythm, Adebayo dominated the third, rattling off 15 points and imposing his will as the Heat outscored the Celtics 37-17. According to ESPN Stats and Information tracking, Adebayo was 6-for-6 on cuts to the basket in the third quarter. Each one of those shots was assisted and four were uncontested.

As has been the case throughout the season, Adebayo’s activity on both ends of the floor got the Heat going and brought them all the way back from a lackluster first half. The best news for the Heat is that Adebayo followed a huge moment in Game 1 by creating another showcase for himself. He had two huge rebounds in the final 30 seconds and finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in 35 minutes.

Adebayo doesn’t seem afraid of the moment, and his intensity continues to pay dividends for a Miami team that is firing on all cylinders at the best possible time.

— Nick Friedell

Kemba struggles to keep up with Dragic

The biggest question coming into Game 2 was whether Celtics All-Star guard Kemba Walker would bounce back from a dreadful showing in Game 1. Walker was much better in Game 2, finishing with 23 points in 34 minutes. But the biggest story of this game was the continuing return of The Dragon for the Heat.

Goran Dragic once again was the difference down the stretch in a playoff game. Between drawing a pair of free throws that put Miami ahead for good and hitting a pair of stepback jumpers — including a dagger 3-pointer as the shot clock expired over the extended arm of Celtics center Daniel Theis — Dragic made every play Miami needed, just as he did in the Heat’s five-game upset of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Walker, meanwhile, was the one called for the blocking foul on those Dragic free throws, and then missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer on the next possession.

It was that matchup where this series was thought it could potentially swing — just not in the way it has. While Dragic was sensational against Milwaukee, the Bucks have no one who can attack a defense off the dribble. Walker, meanwhile, is one of the league’s most explosive guards, and could potentially expose that vulnerability.

Instead, it has been Dragic, 34, who has continued to turn back the clock to his days as an All-Star level player, slashing into the lane and scoring at will — all while wearing an enormous leg brace.

This production is what Miami thought it was getting when it acquired Dragic at the 2015 trade deadline to pair with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Now, five years later, the Heat are seeing just how good Dragic can be with another athletic wing in Butler, and another athletic big in Bam Adebayo. It’s looking pretty good so far.

— Tim Bontemps

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Bam Adebayo contests Daniel Theis on the defensive end, then flushes home a Tyler Herro lob on offense.

Third-quarter woes continue to haunt Celtics

At halftime, Boston held a dominant 13-point lead, only to see it wither in the third period. Miami outscored Boston by 20 points — making it the single worst quarter by scoring margin of the Celtics’ season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Boston has now blown four double-digit leads this postseason, which is tied for the league lead.

Boston was 0-of-4 from beyond the arc and Jaylen Brown went scoreless in just over nine minutes of play. At the end of the third, Boston trailed 84-77. It was the only quarter they lost.

This isn’t new. While the Celtics won the third quarter of Game 1, 28-16, they were outscored in every third quarter in their semifinal series against the Toronto Raptors. Coming into this series, coach Brad Stevens and Boston’s players both noted that closing games was something they needed to improve.

“Finishing out each possession, each game,” Tatum said of what he learned from the Toronto series. “Just how critical that is because you never know how that could change the outcome or the dynamic of the entire series.”

In Game 2, cracking the door open for Miami in the third proved to be lethal for Boston. Fixing it will be the key to making this a series.

— Malika Andrews

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Jimmy Butler forces a Celtics turnover, then saves the ball with a behind-the-back pass before getting it back for the jam.

No lead is safe inside the bubble

The Heat came back from a 17-point deficit Thursday, and it’s time to stop being surprised. One of the key takeaways from this year’s playoffs is double-digit leads aren’t remotely safe anymore.

There have been 51 times this postseason where a team’s biggest lead was between 10 and 19 points. Those teams have collectively gone 31-20 (.608).

Obviously, you’d still rather be on the right side of a double-digit lead than the other side. But given that a lead of that size is less likely to result in a win than a Giannis Antetokounmpo free throw is to result in a make (63% during the regular season), we can’t treat it as anywhere near a sure thing.

Overall, there have been 21 comebacks from any kind of double-digit lead (one, by the Dallas Mavericks over the LA Clippers in Game 4, was by more than 20 points). Per ESPN Stats & Info, that ties the second-most ahead of the NBA Finals in any postseason since 1997. Only in 2003, when there were 26 such comebacks, have there been more on record in the first round of the playoffs. And there’s still time to add to that total.

During last year’s playoffs, Baxter Holmes and I looked at the increasing frequency of giant comebacks. The explanations were what you’d expect: Increasing numbers of 3-pointers and faster pace make it easier to build big leads, but also to lose them. Those massive comebacks aren’t exactly what we’re seeing in this year’s playoffs, but the same takeaways apply.

Leads just aren’t as safe as they used to be.

Miami knows that as well as anyone. Game 2 was the Heat’s fifth comeback from a double-digit deficit this postseason, including three of their four wins over the Bucks in the second round and both so far against the Celtics. That ties the Denver Nuggets — or, as ESPN’s Mike Breen called them earlier this week, “the comeback kids from Colorado” for the most in the 2020 playoffs and third most before the Finals since 1997, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Here’s the kicker: Miami never trailed by more than five in its one loss so far in the playoffs, in overtime to the Bucks. So when the Heat go down 10, they’ve got you right where they want you.

— Kevin Pelton

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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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