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The Keys To Winning The NBA Finals For The Lakers And Heat

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chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Well, this NBA season that went inside a bubble and is on the cusp of lasting an entire calendar year officially begins its Finals round tonight. Lakers-Heat is almost certainly not the matchup any of us thought we would get. But it’s one full of storylines for any number of reasons — and one that feels like it could honestly go either way, given how well Miami has played against higher-seeded competition throughout the postseason.

What are you all most interested in seeing as the Finals kick off tonight? What strikes you as the biggest key in all of this?

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m a pretty big nerd, so I’m most interested in seeing how the teams align themselves defensively. Does Bam Adebayo start on Anthony Davis, or do they try to hide him for a bit? Does Jae Crowder guard Davis or LeBron James? And how do the Lakers deploy LeBron, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope against Goran Dragić, Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson/Tyler Herro. I can’t imagine L.A. wants LeBron chasing Robinson all night or dealing with as many ball-screens as Dragić uses, so I imagine he’ll actually spend quite a bit of time on Jimmy.

chris.herring: The matchups and Xs and Os are fascinating in this series, aren’t they? And even the stuff we’ll see at the beginning will likely just be to start.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): In terms of matchups, I’m interested to see how the Heat try to slow down LeBron as well. They brought in guys like Crowder and Andre Iguodala specifically for a series like this … so how will they use them defensively?

I imagine both of them will spend most of their time on defense guarding LeBron.

dubin: A big swing in this series will be whether the Heat decide to use Crowder on LeBron or AD. Davis tends to do better against big guys, so it could make some sense to have Crowder on him, but the Heat also probably don’t want to have Jimmy spend his entire night dealing with LeBron.

chris.herring: Not that it has an immediate tie-in, but remember that clip of LeBron at the free-throw line showing frustration when he saw that Kawhi Leonard was coming back into the game to guard him? To your point, though, it’s a really exhausting sort of assignment to guard someone of the caliber of LeBron or even Butler for a whole game. Expect to see different folks with those responsibilities over the course of the night.

One thing I’m oddly intrigued by here is how much the offensive rebounding — something that’s been deemphasized in recent years — may matter in this series. The Lakers often play two traditional bigs at a time, and the Heat just hustle their butts off frequently. The zone defense Miami plays becomes a little more risky for that reason, too.

dubin: The Celtics grabbed the offensive board on almost 30 percent of their misses last series, far higher than either of the Heat’s two previous playoff opponents. The fact that Miami played so much zone definitely contributed to that, and if they go heavy zone against the Lakers, they could be inviting some trouble there.

That said, the whole point of the zone is to cut off access to the paint, and that might be the Heat’s best chance of winning the series. If they can turn it into a 3-point shooting contest, I feel like that’s really good for them.

chris.herring: Very good point.

dre.waters: On the other hand, though, if Miami beats the Lakers rebounding on the offensive end, they definitely have the shooting from deep to make them pay. Butler, Crowder, Iguodala, Dragić, Robinson and Herro are all shooting over 34 percent from 3-point range.

chris.herring: The Lakers’ outside shooting has never really been their strong point, although that late hot streak from Bron was how they ultimately put away the Nuggets.

dubin: KCP shooting in the mid-40s from deep during the playoffs as opposed to his usual mid-30s has been pretty big. Same with Rajon Rondo shooting over 40 percent on almost three attempts per game.

chris.herring: This would be such a horrible time for either of them to regress to the mean.

dubin: On the other hand, it would be a nice time for Danny Green to progress to the mean.

chris.herring: A complicating factor in trying to make sense of this matchup: They last played each other in December, almost 10 months ago.

dubin: Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard were still in the starting lineup! James Johnson guarded LeBron in the first matchup! Quinn Cook guarded Dragić!

chris.herring: Hahaha

Those were the good ol’ days.

dre.waters: That feels like so long ago. A lot has changed for Miami since then.

chris.herring: In those two meetings, the Heat were neck and neck or ahead through halftime. But each time, the Lakers had big third quarters, winning one by 10 and the other by 11.

Erik Spoelstra is a fantastic coach, and if anything, this run has proven just how great he is. But the Heat were a pretty poor second-half team over the course of the season, while the Lakers were relatively solid in that regard. Miami dropped an NBA-high 18 games in which it held a lead of at least 10 points.

Not sure whether it’s a focus thing, or simply that the Heat change defenses a lot midgame, which might turn the faucet on or off for the opponent. But it will be interesting to see if they can finish the job if and when they take leads against L.A.

dubin: I wonder how many of those came pre-hiatus and how many came in the bubble. Feelings aren’t numbers, but it does feel like they’ve been the team making the comebacks in the playoffs, not the team allowing opponents back in it.

chris.herring: Definitely feels like there’s some truth to that, including in the Eastern Conference clincher. I’ve picked Miami in this series — partly because of how well they’ve played against what I perceive to be better competition and partly off of feel.

dre.waters: I actually picked Miami as well. In terms of play outside their best player(s), they’ve been far more consistent to me. And, like Chris said, it was against better competition – the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.

dubin: I feel like we could have said “the Lakers have the two best players in the series but the [opponent] has the next five or six” about every series L.A. has been in so far. How much do we think that matters in a series where LeBron and AD are probably going to play around 40 minutes a night anyway?

chris.herring: I am at least slightly worried about the Heat’s ability to produce steady offense against this Laker defense. So much of it will depend on what sorts of looks Adebayo gets as a shooter and passer. And much of that will depend on the Lakers’ defensive approach, which, as Jared mentioned, will likely involve Davis for long stretches.

Jared, you didn’t pick Miami, too, did you?

dubin: Nobody has asked me to make a definitive pick, unless this right here counts. I think I would lean slightly toward the Lakers, but largely because I think picking against LeBron is kind of stupid and not because I think the Lakers are actually better.

chris.herring: Hahahaha

dubin: (I’m not calling you guys stupid, in case it sounded that way. I just feel silly picking Not LeBron.)

dre.waters: 😂

It’s always hard picking against LeBron, but somebody had to do it, right?

chris.herring: Yeah. If anything, I think the burden of proof here has to be on folks picking against the team with the two best players.

Which is part of why I’m still completely shocked and confused that our projection model thinks so little of the Lakers, as it has for a while now. I listened to our podcast from the other day, on which Neil Paine gave the best explanation of it that he could. But I still couldn’t make complete sense of it.

I do think that’s where we are, though: If Miami wins, it’s largely because of their depth compared to the depth of the Lakers.

dubin: Yeah, I would say if the Heat win, it will be due to their 3-point shooting — but that shooting is coming from the depth guys.

chris.herring: It is much easier to imagine LeBron and AD going for 60 or 70 combined each night, though, and that potentially being enough.

I was so close to putting Duncan Robinson as my MVP choice.

dre.waters: Miami has six guys who could average double-digit points in this series. And that really could be enough.

chris.herring: I picked Miami in six. I might as well have picked Robinson, smh.

dubin: I’m interested to see if Robinson has yet another bad Game 1 and then hits multiple threes inside the first minute of Game 2. Again.

dre.waters: Chris and I are on the exact same page today … except for the Robinson for MVP pick. LOL.

I have the Heat in six as well. But that’s mostly because I don’t know if they could top LeBron in an all-or-nothing Game 7.

dubin: It feels weird to say, but I think the most important players in the series might be Crowder-Herro-Robinson and Green-KCP-Markieff Morris-Alex Caruso-Rondo. Just, who gets better shooting from those groups.

chris.herring: We’ve largely avoided the narrative talk of the Pat Riley/LeBron stuff. I think people will hear enough of that elsewhere. But I do want to at least ask this one: How much more would this Finals win bolster LeBron’s legacy?

He’s called it the most challenging season of his career, citing the passing of Kobe Bryant and the bubble, which I think we can all understand. I could also imagine that a lot of critics will look at the slate they’ve had and say that the Lakers, through no fault of their own, didn’t end up having to play any of the most dominant teams from this past season in order to win the title.

dubin: I don’t know that it’s their fault that the Clippers and Bucks didn’t take care of business. If anything, doing so in the bubble is almost more impressive than doing it at home.

chris.herring: I said through no fault of their own!

dre.waters: I think the better question, considering the point Chris just made, is how would another Finals loss hurt his legacy?

dubin: Everybody knows it’s better for your legacy to lose before the Finals than lose in the Finals.

chris.herring: 😂

dre.waters: 😭

Jared’s right though…

dubin: In all seriousness, the idea that a win or loss should change LeBron’s legacy doesn’t make that much sense to me. No matter what happens, he is not going to wake up a better or worse player the day after the final game of this series. Really, it’s just going to confirm people’s priors.

Then again, I said the same thing after the Cavs won their title, and that was a minority opinion on that day.

chris.herring: There’s almost certainly a lot of truth to that. Though I do think people raise more questions when you lose the Finals as a favorite.

dubin: It reminds me of what happened after the most recent Super Bowl, when people were finally willing to admit that Andy Reid is one of the best coaches ever, as if the one game changed everything.

chris.herring: The weird thing here, as we’ve all said, is that the Lakers are favored, but we can all step back and tell that something special has taken place with Miami. You don’t roll through the postseason the way the Heat have, as a five-seed, unless you’re on a mission.

I just find it really tough to pick against them and all the stuff they throw at you, Xs and Os-wise, physicality-wise, etc.

dubin: I can admit that as long as the credit is not given to Pat Riley. No, I will never get over it.

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.”

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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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