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NBA playoffs Real or Not: Next leaps for Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray

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All four teams are still afloat in the NBA’s conference finals — and things just keep getting spicier.

The Boston Celtics kept their season going by beating the Miami Heat in Friday’s Game 5 121-108. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are hoping to make yet another improbable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, this time against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.

Ahead of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday (9 p.m., TNT/ESPN Radio), our experts take a look at what to believe in these series. From Anthony Davis‘ starring role in the Lakers’ push to make the Finals for the first time in a decade to the Celtics and Heat perhaps giving us a glimpse of the future of the East, we’re sorting out what’s real or not.

MORE: Three ways the Lakers can prevent another 3-1 Nuggets comeback

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Anthony Davis puts up 34 points in the Lakers’ 114-108 win vs. the Nuggets in Game 4.

Real or Not: Anthony Davis is the very early favorite for Finals MVP

Not real, for two reasons: LeBron James and Bam Adebayo.

James has worked all season to set up his new star teammate as the team’s primary scorer, but he remains the captain of the ship. James led the Lakers in both offensive and defensive real plus minus (RPM) this season, and ranked second in the NBA in overall RPM. Add in that this would be the Finals — assuming Denver doesn’t recover from a 3-1 series deficit yet again — and James has been living for this moment since signing with the Lakers two summers ago.

The Finals are where James can best add to his historic résumé. He has the chance to become the first player to win Finals MVP with three different franchises, to secure his place among the legends who have led Los Angeles to the top, and to deliver an NBA record-tying 17th Lakers championship — in the same year that Kobe Bryant died.

In addition — again, if the Lakers advance and happen to face the Heat — Davis probably would be matched up with Adebayo, who has the length, strength and quickness to defend Davis at a level that he has not encountered this postseason. Adebayo was a huge factor in limiting league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Heat’s matchup with the Bucks, and ranks 11th in the NBA in DRPM.

Davis excels at driving to the rim, averaging 1.151 points per direct drive to rank fourth in the NBA among players with at least 150 direct drives, according to Second Spectrum. Meanwhile, Adebayo gives up only 0.828 points per direct drive, ranking seventh in the NBA among players who have defended at least 150 direct drives.

So Adebayo is elite at preventing Davis’ preferred scoring avenue. That would seemingly make him poised to limit the star big man in a potential Finals matchup.

— Andre Snellings

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Dwyane Wade breaks down why the Heat were perfectly assembled for a postseason run in the NBA bubble format.

Real or Not: The Heat are this season’s team of destiny

In a normal world, are the Heat as dominant as they’ve been through most of this postseason? Maybe not. But we aren’t in a normal world — and this particular Heat group is not a normal team. Friday’s result notwithstanding, Miami is still one win from the Finals with three rounds of momentum.

As Miami lifer Udonis Haslem said a few weeks back, the Heat are “built for the bubble.” The players trust one another on the floor and they are mentally tough enough as a group to handle seemingly any obstacle. There is balance throughout the roster and a belief that everyone will do their jobs.

The confidence within this group isn’t new, either. They’ve been talking as if they could win a championship all season. The Heat knew long before the rest of the basketball world just how special Tyler Herro could be and how dangerous Duncan Robinson is from deep. They recognized that Adebayo was developing into one of the best big men in the game. They trusted that veterans Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala could fit into their hard-nosed culture.

Most importantly, they figured their organizational structure — and the bubble environment — would bring out the best in Jimmy Butler. They showed confidence in acquiring him last summer after issues in his previous stops, and that faith has been rewarded in the postseason.

The doubters will surely reemerge after the Heat blew a 12-point lead Friday to keep the Eastern Conference finals going. But every time Butler and the Heat have been doubted this season — and especially in the bubble — they have gotten the last laugh.

Why should anybody believe it’s going to stop now?

— Nick Friedell

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Jamal Murray goes off in Game 4 for 32 points as the Nuggets fall to the Lakers.

Real or Not: Jamal Murray will be a 2021 All-Star

Jamal Murray has burst into the national consciousness by leading Denver to the Western Conference finals, and one could argue that he has evolved from a top starter to a franchise-level guard between when the season was postponed in mid-March and now.

But when looking at the 2021 All-Star selection process, we need to take a big-picture approach and not just look at what Murray has accomplished during the 2020 playoffs (26.9 points per game, 51% shooting from the field and 46.6% from 3).

There are two questions around why Murray could fall short of making his first All-Star appearance next year.

The first is, what version of Murray are we going to see in 2021? The player who averaged 18.5 points on 34.6% from 3 during the 2019-20 regular season or the fearless star from the 2020 playoffs? Can he play at an All-Star level on a consistent basis?

The more important question about Murray’s All-Star candidacy surrounds the heavy pool of excellent guards in the Western Conference.

Murray finished 23rd among backcourt players in 2020 All-Star West fan voting, earning just under 140,000 votes. The top two guards in the conference — Luka Doncic and James Harden — received more than 3.5 million votes (Doncic totaled 6.1 million). Even if Murray continues his torrid play next season, it’s unlikely that he will get voted in.

And if you thought getting voted in would be tough, take a look at the guards he probably will be competing with for one of the four reserve spots: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Devin Booker. If Curry returns to MVP form and Lillard is playing at an All-NBA level, there are only two spots left.

The Nuggets’ success during the 2021 season could play a role here, though. If Denver is in the top five of the Western Conference at the deadline to submit All-Star reserves, Murray could get the benefit of the doubt from the coaches even if his statistics are less stellar than players such as Booker and Gilgeous-Alexander.

— Bobby Marks


Real or Not: Celtics-Heat will be the Eastern Conference finals matchup again next season

I’m not bold enough to predict which of the Eastern Conference finalists won’t make it back to this stage next season. Boston and Miami certainly both have the foundations in place to make it a possibility, with the Celtics’ core of quality vets to complement arguably the league’s best under-23 tandem and the Heat’s crop of rapidly developing young stars who thrive under Butler’s brand of leadership.

But the odds are against a conference finals rematch, simply because there’s too much competition. I’d roll the dice on one of the East’s other three contenders — the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets — eliminating either the Celtics or Heat.

The Bucks might be the NBA’s most fascinating team over the next year, as they attempt to get over the hump and probably deal with the looming cloud of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency. It’s on ownership and the front office to make the roster upgrades to maximize the chances of a title run that would guarantee he stays in Milwaukee. It’s on Antetokounmpo — still only 25 — to develop the diversity in his offensive game required to be the go-to guy on a championship team.

The Raptors proved this season that they weren’t a one-hit wonder doomed by Kawhi Leonard‘s departure. Pascal Siakam had a miserable second round against the Celtics, but I’d bet on him using that as fuel to bounce back strong, considering his track record of developing from a raw project to an All-NBA selection in four seasons.

It remains to be seen how close Kevin Durant will be to the pre-Achilles’ tear version of himself — when he had a strong case as the league’s best player — and whether Kyrie Irving can stay healthy. But you can’t count out a Brooklyn team that boasts two players who have hit title-claiming daggers.

Which one of these teams will prevent a Boston-Miami rematch? It’s premature to make that prediction.

But three is more than two.

— Tim MacMahon

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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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