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The Miami Heat Built This Lead With A Zone And More Experience (And Tyler Herro)

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chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Game 4 of the Celtics-Heat Eastern Conference finals went pretty much as we expected it to: With Boston’s Jayson Tatum going scoreless for an entire half, Miami rookie Tyler Herro dropping 37 points, and the Heat — a team that wasn’t even on a 50-win pace during the regular season — winning again to take a commanding lead and put themselves on the doorstep of the NBA Finals.

We watched the Heat take out a dominant Milwaukee club pretty convincingly last round. But did any of you think we’d end up here, with Miami up 3-1 on the Celtics, who seemed to match up better?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): I think we all saw Tyler Herro’s Herroics coming. (I’m so sorry.)

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I did not foresee this at all, but I also think I should have listened to my own advice. I’ve been having a conversation with a friend about the Heat throughout the playoffs, and I keep pointing out that you have to remember this is not the same Heat team we saw during the regular season.

chris.herring: Very, very different.

Erik Spoelstra is deploying his lineups so differently — a lot like Pat Riley used to do, where he shortens his bench and leans on guys. That was the case in Game 4, for sure.

dubin: Specifically, it’s a more experienced team. (Aside from Herro.) Their minutes-weighted age was 27.1 heading into Game 4, compared with 25.9 during the regular season. There’s more Jimmy Butler, more Jae Crowder, etc. That helps.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I really thought the Heat would have needed Kendrick Nunn to come back strong at some point to be able to get to this point. He was arguably the team’s fourth-best player during the regular season.

dubin: Oh, right! I glossed over Goran Dragić, who has been amazing.

chris.herring: Yeah, Dragić found an Ocean of Youth, bro. My goodness.

sara.ziegler: I love that they’re scoring more (with an offensive rating of 113.0 in the playoffs vs. 111.9 in the regular season) and defending better (107.8 vs. 109.3) now. Against better, more consistent competition!

chris.herring: Where has Boston gone wrong? And what’s the remedy for what’s played out so far?

dubin: One thing that’s really interesting is that the Heat seem to have taken a defensive cue from the Raptors in deciding that the most important thing to do is stop Kemba Walker from getting into the paint. That has meant a ton of zone defense, and that’s thrown off not only Kemba but the entire Celtics team for long stretches of multiple games. (Even though they did figure some stuff out in Game 3 and then toward the end of Game 4.)

chris.herring: I would ask if it’s too late to mount a comeback, but Denver is whispering in my ear, telling me that would be a stupid question.

dre.waters: Like Jared said, it felt like Boston had found the solution to beating the zone in Game 3, so I was really surprised to see them struggle so much with it Wednesday night.

chris.herring: One thing I will say that I’m not understanding, in watching Boston: They opted to trap Jimmy Butler — a guy that’s usually not gonna hurt you with his shooting — so far from the basket at times. Similar to what Milwaukee did in going over the top of screens to defend him last series. It’s strange, given how many other guys Miami has to hurt you.

You have to be thrilled, or at worst content, if you’re Miami right now. Though I do want to see what’s going on with Bam Adebayo health-wise.

I’d be a bit surprised if the Heat take the series in 5. But at this point, I think the likelihood of that is a lot better than the Celtics coming back and winning the next three to reach the Finals.

dubin: I’d be pretty thrilled if I were a team leading 3-1 in a series where the overall score is tied through four games, for sure.

dre.waters: Chris, Bam’s injury looked kind of awkward. Was I the only one who had trouble seeing exactly how he got hurt even when it was in slow motion? It looked like he hurt his upper arm, but then it looked like he started holding his wrist.

chris.herring: Not as if anyone has a choice as to when they get hurt. But they had been coming off a, what, four-day break between Games 3 and 4? Now that the calendar is back to normal, pretty much, there’s far less time for recovery.

sara.ziegler: He apparently got hurt in Game 3, and this was a reaggravation. He says he’ll be good to go for Game 5 … so we’ll see.

chris.herring: I guess we should talk at least briefly about Herro, too: 37 American points in a playoff game for a rookie who wasn’t even in the conversation for Rookie of the Year? Insane.

dubin: He wasn’t even the rookie on his own team that made the All-Rookie First Team!

dre.waters: In honor of Tony Chow, this should officially be called the Jimmy Butler AND Tyler Herro Stan Club.

chris.herring: There’s a tendency to label guys who shoot as well as Herro does “shooters.” But Wednesday was so fun in part because it was the full buffet of everything he does.

You can’t score 37 in a playoff game — a conference finals game — being a shooter only. He’s got a smooth handle. He navigates screens well and can play off the ball. He’s a good pull-up shooter. He’s crafty around the basket.

sara.ziegler: Seems like his game has matured substantially in the postseason. Herro was the eighth-ranked rookie in our regular-season RAPTOR wins above replacement, with 0.7 WAR for the season. He’s had more WAR than that (1.0) in these playoffs alone.

dubin: I know this is a stats site so I should probably know the answer, but that seems good. Is it good? Can we confirm it’s good?

sara.ziegler: Seems pretty good to me!

dubin: The first thing I noticed about Herro early in the season was the way he moved without the ball. He shakes free of defenders so easily, and he slides in and out of passing lanes remarkably well for such a young player. So pretty immediately, I liked his game a lot and thought he could do more than that with some time. But doing this much on the ball, this quickly, is far beyond what I expected.

chris.herring: Yeah. He looks like a veteran already based on those things.

It’s one thing to do them at the college level (and I watched someone like Nik Stauskas do it a ton at Michigan). It’s insanely difficult and unusual to then replicate it at the pro level, particularly as a rookie in a meaningful playoff situation.

dre.waters: But shooting is really what he was asked to do at Kentucky before entering the league. So either there was a lot to his game that we hadn’t seen while he was in college or Miami has done a hell of a job developing him throughout the course of the year.

chris.herring: Some people make the comparison to Devin Booker, who also played at Kentucky and who also flourished when given the opportunity to do a bit more at the next level.

dubin: John Calipari loves asking his guys to do specific things that he knows will get them to the NBA, and highly drafted at that. But they can often do much more. Booker never had the ball in his hands at Kentucky. Karl-Anthony Towns never took threes.

chris.herring: Let’s talk about the West, which later on tonight will either move to 3-1, like the Miami-Boston series, or be knotted at two games apiece.

The Nuggets have very much been that inflatable punching bag: You punch them with all your might, but then they swing back and knock you in the face. It would have been so easy for the Nuggets to fold after Anthony Davis’s game-winner in Game 2 — it was a back-breaking sort of loss. But then they come back and take Game 3. And that’s after they’d played themselves back into Game 2, with a chance to win until Davis’s jumper.

Where does Denver stand now? Have the Nuggets figured something out that gives them an advantage?

dubin: If Jamal Murray makes all of his shots, they have a pretty distinct advantage.

dre.waters: LOL

chris.herring: LOL

sara.ziegler: You can’t argue with that.

dre.waters: I think it really comes down to what we talked about during the last Slack chat — Denver’s role players. They played great in Game 3, and got 51 points out of Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig.

sara.ziegler: And don’t forget Monte Morris! Twelve points in the second quarter alone in Game 3.

(Shoutout to my Iowa State fam.)

dre.waters: Oh, yeah, I counted his points and forgot to add his name, LOL.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

dubin: Agree with Dre. They need to get at least two A-level performances from Porter, Grant, Craig, Morris and Paul Millsap.

chris.herring: I’m curious to see whether the Nuggets continue to make more use of Grant as their 5 man, and less of Mason Plumlee. (I’m sure the Nuggets wouldn’t mind us leaving Plumlee out of most conversations after what happened to end Game 2.)

dubin: And that wasn’t even the first time he made that exact mistake this season. Or this season against the Lakers. Or this season against the Lakers in the bubble.

chris.herring: Speaking of players used at center: The Lakers finally leaned into playing AD as the lone big, something I pointed out in the last chat that might be a factor in this series. Los Angeles used those lineups for 15 minutes in Game 3 and came out a +10 in that span.

dre.waters: But doing that had to have been a major factor in being outrebounded by so much.

sara.ziegler: My jaw hit the floor when I saw AD’s rebounding numbers in Game 3. Sheesh.

dre.waters: Never would have thought Nikola Jokić could have single-handedly outrebounded the combo of AD, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.

dubin: Missing 10 more shots than the opponent probably makes the baseline expectation that you get outrebounded by seven or eight, but they got outrebounded by NINETEEN. Yikes.

dre.waters: I saw a crazy stat from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group: The Lakers were actually 0-for-9 on wide-open 3-pointers in Game 3.

dubin: Sounds a lot like Game 1 against the Blazers.

dre.waters: And their first few games in the bubble, they couldn’t buy a three.

sara.ziegler: I think that kind of stuff is why the FiveThirtyEight model continues to hate the Lakers.

(Which it still really does — it gives L.A. only a 17 percent chance to win the Finals.)

chris.herring: So maybe this all suggests a bounceback performance in Game 4?

dre.waters: I think they have to have one, Chris — they don’t want the Nuggets to get rolling again.

chris.herring: I’m really interested to see what happens with LeBron James the next few games. We saw rumblings of the Lakers being upset, to the point of complaining, that he hasn’t gotten to the line much.

He’s averaging a little under 9 points and shooting just under 41 percent in second halves — down from averaging 15 points and shooting 70 percent in first halves.

sara.ziegler: Even with all the fouls called against Denver in the first two games, LeBron only shot eight free throws.

dubin: So he’ll be taking 20 free throws tonight, right?

dre.waters: 😂

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: The magical Rajon Rondo performances were so helpful to start, I think, just because it placed a little less pressure on LeBron to make certain things happen within their offense.

It’s also crazy to look at 41 percent shooting and think “bad.” But it’s a pretty steep dropoff from one half to the next. And he’s worn down in the late stages of the playoffs before.

I thought Zach Lowe made an interesting point: AD’s perimeter shooting has prompted him to pop far more than he’s rolled in this series. He obviously can hit those shots, as Game 2’s dagger showed. But it puts less pressure on a poor rim defender like Jokić and the Nuggets in general to have someone with Davis’s talent and free-throw shooting ability 25 feet away.

dubin: If you’re the Lakers, AD going to the line is probably preferable to LeBron going to the line in terms of the actual chances of making the free throws, but LeBron repeatedly getting fouled certainly warps the defense in a different way than AD getting fouled repeatedly does. So I can see why L.A. might want to tip that balance a bit by … nudging the officials about it.

sara.ziegler: Are you insinuating that this is not just a pure response to incorrect officiating??

dre.waters: LMAO

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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