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The scenes of a Lakers’ title celebration like no other

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Drake’s latest hit, “Laugh Now Cry Later,” was blaring in the Los Angeles Lakers’ makeshift locker room at AdventHealth Arena. And fresh off his fourth NBA championship, LeBron James needed a quieter place to talk.

Drenched in champagne, goggles strapped to his face, holding a lit cigar in one hand and his phone in the other, the 35-year-old just wanted to FaceTime his mother, Gloria.

“I love you. I love you. … You are the reason why I’m able to even do this, mom,” James told her, splayed out on a carpeted stretch of the hallway about 100 feet from the locker room entrance. “You don’t understand — 16 years old, you bring a little-ass, big-headed-ass boy into the world? C’mon. C’mon, mom.

“Like everything that you’ve been through, everything that I’ve seen, there’s nothing that can stop me. Because this s— right here is nothing compared to the s— you had to go through.”

This was the most trying season James had experienced in his 17-year career, though not because of basketball. That fell into place almost immediately in his first season with Anthony Davis as his teammate and Frank Vogel as his coach.

It was everything that surrounded basketball, in a year of heartbreak and obstacles.

“Once I got inside here,” James said of the NBA campus, “I said, ‘OK, this is my mission. I want to win a championship. This is why I’m here.'”

MORE: How LeBron and the Lakers fought heartbreak to win the NBA Finals

THE BLOWOUT NATURE of Sunday’s Game 6 meant the Lakers could start preparing for their championship celebration early.

JR Smith, who was famously shirtless for the entire 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers title parade, had already discarded his warmup shirt before the final buzzer, even though he hadn’t played at all.

In between semi-private moments of celebration, players did live TV hits from the court, with their children in the background shooting on the baskets. Dion Waiters’ son, Dion Jr., bounded his way across the NBA Finals logo, bottle of sparkling cider in hand, and exclaimed to no one in particular: “I got to hold the trophy!” (“He’s a handful,” his dad said later with a smirk.) Other children made confetti angels out of the Larry O’Brien Trophy-shaped pieces of paper that had been shot from confetti cannons.

As that confetti engulfed the court in Orlando, Lakers guard Avery Bradley was jumping up and down celebrating the franchise’s 17th championship in his living room in Texas. His three children were in purple-and-yellow Lakers sweatsuits.

“Everyone was going crazy,” Bradley said over the phone on Sunday night. “Everyone was excited. My wife was excited.”

In late June, Bradley told the Lakers front office that he was opting out of the NBA restart in Orlando. His 7-year-old son, Liam, has a history of respiratory illnesses. Bradley and his wife, Ashley, worried he wouldn’t be cleared to join the family at Walt Disney World, even when the league expanded the bubble to include guests.

“I think it is something that is hard, obviously, not being there,” Bradley said. “But I think from the beginning I’ve been able to be at peace.”

Since the final buzzer of Game 6, Bradley’s phone has been ringing. Friends reached out. Family members called. Bradley sent texts to all of his teammates. He dropped a note in the team group chat — which includes DeMarcus Cousins, another player who spent most of the season with L.A. but wasn’t with the team in Orlando. He said he received FaceTime calls from Quinn Cook, assistant coach Phil Handy and general manager Rob Pelinka from that noisy locker room.

“He was just letting me know I am a part of it,” Bradley said of his call with Pelinka. “It has been a long season — and an amazing one. And we’ve been through a lot. It was just an amazing win. You could see it on his face.”

While his teammates were getting back in shape through the seeding games, Bradley — who started in 44 games for Los Angeles this season — was helping to homeschool his son. But in the evenings, when games were on, he would plop down on the sofa with Ashley, his children and sometimes his mother-in-law.

“I watched every single game,” Bradley said. “I am still a Laker.”

Bradley said that before the first game of every series, he had a phone call with Pelinka. He shot off text messages of encouragement to his teammates before games and congratulated players and individual performances afterward. After Davis put up 34 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks in his NBA Finals debut, Bradley texted him that he’d never seen a game quite like that.

The Lakers sealed the No. 1 seed in the West in the first three games of the NBA restart. That was thanks to the work that the team, including Bradley, had already put in before the season was paused in March. Pelinka has already said that Bradley will be receiving a ring.

“You play your whole career working for a championship,” Bradley said, “and knowing that I was this close and a part of something, even though I wasn’t there, is still an amazing feeling.”


AS THE GAME clock ticked down, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss — who had watched through plexiglass — was led down to the court. Pat Riley, who had also been sitting in the upper tier, sent a text to Heat security informing them he was coming down. Within minutes of his team exiting the court, Riley was stationed outside Miami’s locker room — previously a no-fly zone for second-tier bubble guests.

Joey Buss joined his sister on the court to watch her accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy from commissioner Adam Silver.

In 2009, Joey Buss was a 25-year-old newlywed when his father, the late Dr. Jerry Buss, sent him to handle the trophy ceremony at the 2009 NBA Finals, also in Orlando.

“I was a little bit speechless,” said Buss, now 36.

He stood on stage in 2009 with Kobe Bryant, commissioner David Stern and ESPN reporter Stuart Scott, and spoke for 38 seconds total.

Joey Buss started with the Lakers by shadowing then-coach Phil Jackson, trying to take in as much as he could. Now he runs the Lakers’ G League franchise. One of the South Bay Lakers’ greatest success stories, Alex Caruso, started Game 6 against the Heat and registered a plus-minus of plus-20 in 33 minutes — the best mark on the team. While Jeanie accepted the trophy this time around, Joey found Caruso at center court and posed for a photo together, both of them beaming.

“There’s been a lot of highs and lows over the last 11 years, and a lot has happened,” Joey said. “And I think being able to now bring it back full circle into Laker success, I think it means a lot, because I think that fans will be at ease to know that we can have success.”

While the Buss family was enjoying claiming another championship in Orlando on Sunday night, James was reflecting on Bryant, the Laker who had won MVP of those 2009 Finals.

“I think, I mean, if we all knew Kobe, Kobe didn’t want friends — on the court. That’s what fueled him,” James told ESPN as he trudged across the confetti-strewn court on Sunday night.

“My game was different. I’ve kind of always allowed people to come in [to my circle] or whatever the case may be. But we both wanted to be the best,” he continued. “And Kobe’s like, ‘No, you’re not about to come out here and take my reign.’ And it was vice versa. Him on one coast, I’m on the other coast. But I think it’s just that drive, man.”

Just about every person on the 2019-20 Lakers had some personal connection to Bryant.

Vogel said Bryant was influential in his getting the Lakers head coaching job. Dwight Howard played one ill-fated season with Bryant in L.A. in 2012-13 and came back to the Lakers last summer looking to redeem himself. Quinn Cook has fond memories of watching Bryant and rooting for the Lakers with his father, Ted, who died when he was 14. Davis, fresh off a one-and-done season at Kentucky, became like Bryant’s little brother at the 2012 Olympics in London, tagging along wherever Bryant went.

Kyle Kuzma remembered coming to L.A. as a late first-round pick in 2017 and doing whatever he could to get an audience with the Lakers legend. Eventually, Bryant acquiesced.

“I guess he took a liking into me just being so inquisitive and asking questions,” Kuzma said. “And Kobe was just the type of person that, he really wouldn’t mess with you if he didn’t think you had something special in you and if you didn’t really have a true desire to get better at basketball. So, I mean, that’s just probably the greatest compliment I can get from having that type of relationship, him seeing something special in me.”

From there, Bryant had an open-door policy with Kuzma, working out with him in the offseasons, inviting him to his basketball camps, even bringing him in on investment opportunities. Now Kuzma goes to James for such advice.

“It’s honestly the same,” Kuzma said. “Like, the exact same. I talk to Bron all the time about basketball life, business, whether that’s what type of bank account does he use? What type of investment resources he has? Like, it’s the same. So, it’s just been great for me to have both of those guys.”

James never had that type of relationship with Bryant but since his death in January, James has been wearing purple finger sleeves with No. 24 stitched in gold on them. They were procured by his athletic trainer, Mike Mancias, who found a stash of the sleeves originally made for Bryant years ago.

After Game 6, Kuzma snapped a photo of one of the finger sleeves on the base of the Larry O’Brien Trophy — his reflection, showing a black championship hat atop his head, seen in the curve of the golden sphere. He tweeted the photo with a simple caption: 24.

LONG AFTER GAME 6 had ended, Anthony Davis finished posing for photos with his family — peeling off his white No. 3 uniform and handing it to his father for safe keeping. And then Davis had to circle back to the studio set up in the bowels of the arena and smile for the camera all over again — this time with LeBron James and the trophies.

All that was left to do before leaving the arena was to make his way down a corridor flanked by black curtains and turn back onto the circular path where the buses were waiting. He closed out L.A.’s championship run with 19 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in the clincher and now was limping around as if he had no business being on the court just hours before.

“Man, I’m hurting,” said Davis, who was listed on the injury report with a right heel contusion but told ESPN he was also dealing with an undisclosed ankle injury that required six hours of treatment on Sunday afternoon.

“My mindset is, ‘It’s the Finals. I got to do whatever I can to compete,'” he said. “There’s no way in hell I wasn’t playing in this game.”

James had promised Davis he would help put him in position to be a champion. Now that James had fulfilled his word, Davis was asked if he was up for helping James reach his goal of going down as the G.O.A.T. — the best the sport has ever seen.

“I think so,” Davis said after taking a few seconds to answer, dancing around his free agency plans. “I mean, what he’s done in his career and what we’ve been able to do tonight and if all the pieces fall in place and I end up coming back to L.A. and we win again and however long the contract is — if I decide to come back — say it’s two years and we win two [more titles]. Like, that’s a strong case.”

Davis and James became the first pair of teammates in NBA history to both average 25 points on 50 percent shooting in the same postseason, and throughout the playoff run, a couple of Davis’ teammates called him — not James — the best player in the world.

Does Davis, now 27 with a championship under his belt, believe them?

“Win a couple more championships and win a couple MVPs and get a shoe and …” Davis said, stopping himself with laughter as he listed off the bullet points that James’ CV includes. “That all comes in time. … Like, he tells me, ‘This is your team. This is your time.’ Like, ‘I’m good. If I retired today, I’m fine.'”

THE LAKERS’ BUS pulled into the parking lot for their last night in their temporary home at 12:37 a.m., after the vehicle had left the arena without Quinn Cook. The reserve guard had flagged JR Smith’s attention through the comments of Smith’s Instagram Live as the bus trekked toward its destination.

Looking to keep the locker room festivities rolling, the newly minted champions arrived at Three Bridges Bar & Grill. Named for the trio of wooden walkways patrons can access it from, the open-air watering hole in the middle of a man-made lake in the heart of Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort became the go-to nightlife locale in the bubble.

The light fixtures surrounding the structure glowed purple and gold, inviting the victory brigade. All that was missing was Sade. “Got to throw on ‘Smooth Operator,'” a party guest texted ESPN. One of the longest-running inside jokes in the NBA bubble was getting its moment of glory.

Late on a Friday in mid-August, James joined about a half dozen NBA staffers posted up on benches that lined one of the bridges.

Drinks flowed and the hodge-podge group of coaches and trainers and league personnel enjoyed the warm summer air, accompanied by an NBA star just happy to be out of his hotel room.

There was dancing. There was singing. At one point, James did the moonwalk.

As the hangout extended into the early-morning hours, a DJ competition broke out, with the aux cord getting passed around. Eventually, Sade filled the air. The R&B artist’s debut album, “Diamond Life,” came out in 1984, the same year James was born.

“He went nuts,” a source present that night told ESPN. “He was like, ‘Oh my God.'”

Earlier in the season, James had sent out a tweet praising Sade. And as the selection played that night, he was so subsumed by the moment, some of those present made a note — play Sade when the Lakers are in action.

Matt Shelton, the Lakers’ director of game entertainment, got word and requested that the in-arena DJ queue up some Sade when the purple and gold played. One of the in-house DJs selected for Orlando, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Shawna Nicols, prepped her computer — “Sweetest Taboo,” “Smooth Operator” and, of course, “Our Love is King.”

During halftime of Games 1 and 2 of L.A.’s first-round series against Portland, “Sweetest Taboo” seeped out of the arena sound system as the Lakers warmed up, but there was no acknowledgement from James. The arena staff tried once more at halftime of Game 5, the next designated home game for the Lakers.

“It happened to be that right when it hit the chorus of ‘Smooth Operator,’ he came walking around the corner,” Shelton said. “And you could see it on his face, and he starts singing along to the lyrics, and we’re like, ‘Oh, we have something here.'”

L.A. went on to win the game, and with James having enjoyed it the first time, they played it again to celebrate closing out the series. James didn’t just sing along this time, he danced — rolling his fists, pulling an imaginary rope and pirouetting around Davis who was still conducting his postgame interview.

The event operations crew saved the song for two more closing moments — when L.A. beat the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of the second round and when it took care of the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the conference finals — cementing its place as part of the soundtrack to this Lakers’ season.

“I love Sade. I’ve never been to a Sade concert, which I’m still regretting. But I love her,” James told ESPN after Game 2 of the Finals. “I listen to her music, s—, weekly. The song was played one time and it just kind of, I don’t know, I love the song. I mean, who doesn’t love ‘Smooth Operator’? It’s great. I guess it kind of turned into a closing anthem right there on the court.”

Meanwhile, in an attempt to shield themselves from Los Angeles’ glee, the Heat had moved their team room from a shared hallway by the practice courts, where they had been next to the Lakers, to the top floor of the Gran Destino Hotel. It was there that Miami set up their postgame food and drinks for the team. They purposefully chose a room facing away from the celebratory venue.

“It was sparsely attended and a bit sad,” one person present said.

The Lakers’ afterparty was not sparsely attended, as music bumped and lights danced on the water as the clock ticked past 5 a.m. A Lakers staffer stopped his bicycle ride to hand out cigars. Players and other staff — some with teammates or fellow coaches, some reunited for the first time in months with significant others who had been in the upper tier — strolled the property, soaking in the final hours in the bubble, bursting with satisfaction.

MORE: Biggest takeaways from Game 6 of the NBA Finals

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In Pictures: Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated MMA champion

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MMA world lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his shock retirement from the sport on Saturday after revealing he promised his mother his clash with Justin Gaethje would be his last fight.

The Russian, who won by a second-round technical knockout, was fighting for the first time since the death of his father Abdulmanap, who was also his coach, in July.

“I’m the UFC undisputed, undefeated champion with a 13-0 record (in UFC), and 29-0 in all of my pro MMA career,” he said after his win in Abu Dhabi.

“Today I want to say this is my last fight. No way am I coming here without my father.

“When UFC comes to me about Justin I spoke with my mother for three days. She didn’t want me to fight without father and I said this is my last fight – and I have given her my word.

“Thank you, coach, thank you, guys. Today is my last fight in the UFC.”

Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, 57, passed away after COVID-19 related complications in the summer.

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Best and worst cases for the Warriors, the Knicks and the teams we haven’t seen since March

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Next season will reintroduce the eight teams that didn’t make the cut for the NBA’s restart this summer in Orlando, Florida.

For the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks, the tipoff to the 2020-21 season will be their first time on an NBA court since March.

The Warriors plan to pick up their championship pursuit after injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry derailed last season. For the Bulls and Knicks, front-office and coaching shake-ups give hope for a brighter future.

What do success and failure look like for these eight teams after such a long layoff? Our experts detail what could go very right or very wrong for each.

MORE: The 25 best free agents available in 2020


Best case
A young, talented team usually breaks through at some point. There was a thought, briefly, that last season would be that time for the Hawks. The start was promising and there were signs of an upward move. But John Collins‘ suspension, some injuries and a lack of defensive development put them right back in the lottery.

Next season is another shot at making that progress. Trae Young‘s offensive ability and stardom have been established. The young players have improved. Clint Capela could be the interior bulwark needed to stabilize an abominable defense.

The Hawks can score. They just let their opponents score a lot more. If they make some defense-minded moves this offseason — in addition to several such moves in the last year-plus — those decisions might start to show results. If they improve on defense — even just to middle of the pack — they could be an Eastern Conference playoff team.

Worst case
At their core, the Hawks have a simple but possibly unsolvable issue: Their best player is also their biggest liability in their biggest area of weakness. Young’s defense has been an issue, and while there have been moves made to try to cover for his limitations, playing a defensively deficient player for 40-plus minutes a game can take its toll.

Adding Capela was an effort to address some of that on the back end, but it’s not just Young. The Hawks have not developed an identity beyond running and gunning, and they aren’t offensively elite enough to simply outscore opponents every night.

The Hawks have set themselves up to operate on a process-oriented plan, and it’s about time to see those investments yield results. If the Hawks don’t progress into the playoff hunt next season, change could be coming.

— Royce Young


Best case
In the dream scenario, the Hornets find a future star. There was enough competence on Charlotte’s roster last season to hang around the fringes of the playoff race, but no big-time upside. Devonte’ Graham‘s leap forward in his second season was impressive, but he’s limited by his size and poor finishing. At 25, Terry Rozier probably isn’t going to improve dramatically. Miles Bridges has yet to create his shot efficiently enough to project as more than a quality starter at best.

That leaves two good options for the Hornets: PJ Washington and this year’s No. 3 pick. Because Washington scored with average efficiency and was a weak rebounder, his rookie campaign didn’t rate as well by advanced stats as per-game ones, but at 22, it’s too early to define his ceiling. The No. 3 pick is Charlotte’s highest since 2012. More than any other team in this year’s draft, the Hornets should swing for the fences.

Worst case
The Hornets miss on another high pick. Their record in the lottery since returning to the NBA in 2004 is ugly:

Of the 14 lottery picks Charlotte has made over the past 16 years, only Walker made an All-Star Game. Besides Walker, there are some quality role players in this group, but such a player won’t move the needle for the Hornets. As much as Charlotte needs to draft for upside, missing would be painful and leave the team no closer to returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

— Kevin Pelton


Best case
After whatever this past season was for the Chicago Bulls, seeing the team’s young core stay healthy enough to play together and compete for the eighth seed would be a step in the right direction.

Good health would allow the Bulls to see what they have in Otto Porter Jr. before his contract expires after the season. The same would be true of restricted free agent Kris Dunn, one of the NBA’s best perimeter stoppers, assuming Chicago brings him back despite his struggles to stay on the floor.

One other area to watch with this club: how it delivers in the clutch. The Bulls were one of the NBA’s worst teams in close games last season, as Zach LaVine often played with tunnel vision in putting the club on his shoulders late. By contrast, the Thunder, who were led by new Bulls coach Billy Donovan, finished with a league-high 30 clutch victories during the regular season.

Worst case
It would be a waste to gain no clarity on the question of whether Coby White is better as a lead guard, alongside the high-usage LaVine, or as the backup shooting guard. And it’d be a shame if the club doesn’t seek more chances for Wendell Carter Jr. He’s one of Chicago’s best passers, but he often barely looks at the rim. Donovan, who coached former Bulls star Joakim Noah at Florida, should be able to help Carter realize his potential.

An overlooked blemish on this team’s résumé is its brutal performance against solid competition. The Bulls were an NBA-worst 2-23 mark against teams .500 or better last season. To play that poorly against the league’s best in consecutive seasons — with a decent roster — would be a failure, especially as the team tries to showcase its progress to free agents in 2021.

— Chris Herring


Best case
After back-to-back 19-win seasons in the post-LeBron James era, contending for a playoff spot would be a huge success for the Cavs.

Cleveland must hit on its No. 5 pick in the upcoming draft to help a roster with plenty of holes. A full season under head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, hired full time in March after John Beilein agreed to part ways 54 games into his first season, would establish stability for young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, with added leadership from All-Star veterans Andre Drummond and Kevin Love.

Ideally, the Cavs fight all season to hover around .500 and contend for the No. 8 seed in the East.

Worst case
If Cleveland fails to improve defensively after giving up 42.8 points per game in the restricted area last season — the most by an NBA team in the last 23 seasons, per NBA.com/stats — things could go sour.

Sexton, entering Year 3 after emerging as one of the best scorers in the NBA after the All-Star break last season — 25.5 points per game on 53% shooting in 11 games — can’t take a step back as he becomes a focal point of opposing defenses.

If moves by GM Koby Altman and the front office, such as adding Drummond and Bickerstaff, don’t translate to wins in 2020-21, the franchise could suffer its third straight sub-20-win season.

— Eric Woodyard


Best case
The Pistons hope to get another borderline All-NBA season from Blake Griffin, which, despite his bloated contract for this season and next, could allow them to move on from him before the trade deadline to ensure Detroit finishes at the bottom of the NBA standings.

The Pistons could then use their cap space to acquire more draft assets to help new general manager Troy Weaver begin to turn around the franchise. Those plans would get another massive boost if the Pistons win the 2021 NBA draft lottery, giving them a chance to pick at the top of a deep class and give them a shot at landing the franchise’s first homegrown superstar since Grant Hill in the mid-1990s.

Worst case
If the franchise watches its star spend the season on the shelf with more injuries and doesn’t get the chance to flip a resurgent Griffin for future building blocks, that could spell trouble. Meanwhile, it could mean the Pistons attempt to get better quickly in free agency by spending money on long-term deals that both clog up the team’s books for years to come and do nothing to improve Detroit’s standing at the bottom of the league.

If the team’s young talent — including second-year forward Sekou Doumbouya and the team’s latest lottery pick — both look more like busts than long-term fits, that will be a problem. And if the team’s lone other potential intriguing young player, Luke Kennard, isn’t healthy enough to be turned into a draft asset by the trade deadline, that will raise other issues.

Detroit could find itself in the spot it was in after the 2019-20 season: near the league’s basement but not bad enough to realistically have a shot at the No. 1 overall pick.

— Tim Bontemps


Best case
This is a proud group looking to compete for another NBA title. In a season that goes according to plan, the Warriors become the Warriors again: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green remain healthy and lead the team back to prominence as a young bench finds its way. Golden State hits on the No. 2 overall draft pick or flips it in a deal to land another star-caliber player.

If Curry finds his shooting stroke quickly after playing in just five games last season because of a hand injury, and Thompson again becomes one of the best two-way swingmen in the league after missing all of last season because of an ACL injury, the Warriors have a chance to get back into the NBA’s upper echelon.

That process accelerates if Andrew Wiggins fits into the offense by playing off the Warriors’ stars, Kevon Looney becomes a productive player again after a year full of injury problems, and Eric Paschall builds on a solid rookie season and develops into a trusted member of Steve Kerr’s rotation.

Worst case
If Curry can’t dominate at age 32, or if Thompson struggles to regain his All-Star form more than a year and a half removed from his ACL injury, the Warriors won’t be the team we knew. The same goes for Green on the defensive end — they need him to be great again.

A strong supporting cast is necessary, too. Wiggins and the young players are unproven, and Looney’s health is a question. It remains to be seen if Curry, Thompson and Green can find the same chemistry with the newest Warriors that they had with the old group, which included glue guys and multifaceted contributors Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. And of course, the Warriors’ last title team featured Kevin Durant, who’s now in Brooklyn.

In the worst-case scenario, the Warriors have to face the realization that their run as title contenders could be ending sooner than they expected.

— Nick Friedell


Best case
The Timberwolves want to see Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, who played only one game together after the trade that united the longtime friends, click on the court and emerge as one of the NBA’s best 25-and-under tandems. With this duo combining for close to 50 points per game, the Timberwolves could crack the NBA’s top 10 in offensive efficiency.

Before that, the Timberwolves hope to find a third franchise cornerstone with the No. 1 overall pick or by trading the selection. Minnesota especially needs the trio of Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie to be strong defensively to help make up for the shortcomings of the team’s stars and provide further evidence that they are quality rotation players.

If the Timberwolves compete for a playoff spot in the loaded West, that’s a major step forward and a successful season in Minnesota.

Worst case
In the worst-case scenario, the Timberwolves continue to be bad defensively. That’s a distinct risk when building around a center and a point guard who lack defensive instincts and whose effort on that end of the floor can often be politely described as indifferent.

If the development of the other young potential core players on the roster stalls — or if they draft a dud with the No. 1 pick — the Wolves could again be one of the NBA’s worst teams. And next year, the pingpong balls might not bounce Minnesota’s way. If the Timberwolves slip to No. 4 — just outside of the top-three protection on the pick owed to Golden State as the tax for taking on Andrew Wiggins’ contract in the Russell deal — that could assure another year of misery in Minnesota.

— Tim MacMahon


Best case
Success next season won’t be measured in wins and losses. Instead, the Knicks hope to develop a winning culture under new coach Tom Thibodeau — and especially an improved defense — and identify the young players who show the most promise as centerpieces for their rebuild.

The best-case scenario is that RJ Barrett develops into the superstar scorer he was drafted to be. And the team wants to see Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle mesh into an impact front line.

The Knicks have six players 25 and under — including former lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox II — and three of the top 38 picks in next month’s NBA draft, including No. 8 overall. The Knicks need to find a starting point guard and wing among these players and picks.

Worst case
The absolute worst case is if none of the young guys gain traction or show they are future NBA impact players. Rebuilding is difficult, but the first step is identifying and developing young centerpieces. If they squander their opportunities to find that young talent, the Knicks will continue to be stuck in the lottery purgatory in which they’ve resided since 2013.

If the Knicks continue to bring in overpriced free agents, and if Thibodeau takes a “win-now” approach, the rebuild could be halted before it really gets going. Thibodeau needs to be willing to play the youngsters and to avoid shrinking the rotation for short-term gain. All in all, the franchise must embrace the opportunity to build for the long haul — taking the time to invest in the young players and assess them.

— André Snellings

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Indiana brings the chaos, Justin Fields brings his A-game, and more from Week 8

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Quarterback Michael Penix is 6-foot-3, a seemingly insignificant fact from Indiana’s roster and the universe’s cruelest twist for Penn State.

Oh sure, that might seem like a conspiratorial view of the events that led to the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions losing their season-opener 36-35 in overtime. This was just college football after all. Does the universe really care who wins a Big Ten game?

The answer is yes. Yes it does.

If Penix is a centimeter shorter, Penn State is celebrating. Instead, Penix’s stretch for the pylon to convert a two-point try by the absolute slimmest of margins created the most dramatic replay review since the Zapruder film.

And yes, if Penn State doesn’t fumble at the goal line, miss three field goals or score too quickly on its final drive, it would’ve won, but those are all peripheral moments. This was fate. A loss this painful has to be due to larger, unseen forces of nature. The football gods were feeling frisky. And, on Saturday, they reminded the nation of just how much we had been missing Big Ten football these past two months.

Really, what’s more 2020 than the Big Ten, a league that has produced fringe medical theories (Jim Harbaugh doesn’t want players eating chicken because it’s a “nervous bird”), confounding miseries (hi, sad Michigan fans) and utter feelings of helplessness (Maryland, we’re looking in your direction) on an annual basis? This year was made for the Big Ten and, in its return, it offered us a perfect 2020-type ending when nothing felt certain and anything seemed possible.

It was a historic win for Indiana, which hadn’t beaten a top-10 team since before man landed on the moon. It was an ending Penn State fans will still talk about over cheap beers 50 years from now, shaking their heads and cursing a replay official whose name they’ve never known.

It was a heck of a moment in a game that, in the grand scheme of the season, probably doesn’t really matter all that much.

After all, Alabama decimated Tennessee in Knoxville with Nick Saban running his record to 23-0 against former assistants as the dad who keeps dunking on his kids in a driveway basketball game. The Tide can win it all, to be sure, but Saturday’s events offered a red flag, as star receiver Jaylen Waddle was lost for the season with an ankle injury. It was likely the end of a collegiate career for one of the sport’s most electric players, one that could have ripple effects months from now when Alabama is actually tested by a worthy adversary.

An inexplicable season nearly took an astounding turn as Clemson struggled to put away woeful Syracuse, despite being favored by nearly seven touchdowns. Trevor Lawrence threw a pick six, the Orange converted a handful of big plays, and the Tigers were up only six midway through the third quarter. How did it happen? A shaky performance by a reconstructed offensive line and lackluster day from a receiver corps still trying to find a weapon on the outside. Clemson can win it all; but, despite a lopsided final score, Saturday served notice that there are cracks in the impenetrable facade. (Just don’t ask coach Dabo Swinney about it.)

Ohio State made its case for joining college football’s elite tier by dominating Nebraska, thanks to a near-perfect performance from quarterback Justin Fields. The Huskers, meanwhile, might be dusting off that application they started in August for readmittance into the Big 12. But a close look at the Buckeyes does offer at least one potential concern. Trey Sermon and Master Teague combined for 23 carries and just 89 yards on the ground, and the Buckeyes clearly missed J.K. Dobbins in their 2020 debut.

And then, there’s the question of who will push for the fourth playoff spot, if our favorites all hold serve.

Is it Oklahoma State? It would be a fitting tribute to this bizarre year if coach Mike Gundy made the playoff on the back of his defense, but the Pokes shut down Brock Purdy and Iowa State for a critical win that kept them undefeated.

Is it Notre Dame? Ian Book finally connected on some big plays in the passing game as the Irish embarrassed Pitt. Or was that more about an utterly inept Panthers team that added to a particularly thin resume for Notre Dame?

Maybe Michigan has finally found its QB, and Harbaugh’s crew will roll into Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 12 and pull off a historic … um, no. Even for 2020, that’s a bit wild.

But maybe all of this discussion a week into the Big Ten season, before the Pac-12 kicks off Nov. 7, is entirely premature. This is 2020, a year when the ground seems to continually shift beneath our feet and no assumption should be carved into stone.

Perhaps that’s why Indiana’s stunner means so much on this late October Saturday. It’s a reminder that the really great moments can happen any time, the margin between joy and misery is razor thin, and it’s best to enjoy the moments we have rather than worry too much about what comes next.

Heisman Five

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Justin Fields tosses a pair of touchdowns and adds another on the ground as Ohio State cruises by Nebraska.

Welcome back, Justin Fields. You’ve been missed. Slip on your Heisman Five smoking jacket and allow us to show you to the members’ lounge. There’s a complimentary plate of warm cold cuts on the table next to the memorial photo of Geno Smith’s 2012 season.

1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

It could have been a game to pad the stats, but Lawrence generously let 46-point underdog Syracuse hang around with a pick six. Perhaps we shouldn’t be talking Heisman and instead push the Clemson QB for the Nobel Peace Prize.

2. Alabama QB Mac Jones

Saturday delivered a devastating blow to Jones’ Heisman campaign. He didn’t throw for a single TD. Just awful. Oh, he did complete 25 of 31 passes and averaged 12.5 per throw. But, let’s be honest — that still counts as a bad day for a guy who has been nearly perfect so far.

3. Ohio State QB Justin Fields

How do you force your way into a Heisman conversation a full month after everyone else got started? With 20-of-21 passing for 330 yards and three touchdowns.

4. BYU QB Zach Wilson

Whether BYU has a real shot at the playoff is a big question, but Wilson’s chances of becoming a Heisman finalist look more legitimate by the week.

5. UCF QB Dillon Gabriel

His numbers are insane. Through five games, Gabriel has 2,178 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. The last quarterback to have more passing yards at this stage of a season was Patrick Mahomes in 2016. No, UCF isn’t going to push for a playoff berth, but don’t let that keep you from appreciating what Gabriel is doing every week.

The champs bounce back

LSU looks like a real football team again, and all it took was an injured QB, a revamped defense and … getting to play South Carolina.

After starting 1-2, the Tigers were dominant in a 52-24 win, playing without starting QB Myles Brennan. They started freshman T.J. Finley, who was terrific — completing 17-for-21 passes for 265 yards and accounting for three touchdowns. LSU didn’t punt.

Nearly as impressive was the defense, which had been awful in its first three games under new coordinator Bo Pelini. Head coach Ed Orgeron offered his frustrations and promised changes following a loss against Missouri, saying the scheme needed to be simplified. We’ll assume Pelini read some Marie Kondo books and eliminated any schemes that didn’t kindle joy. The result was the best performance of the season.

Does this mean there will be a QB controversy moving forward? Will we see Finley again next week against Auburn in a warm-up for Alabama? Will Pelini leave the team for his own Netflix home design special?

The answer to all of those questions is, it will be worth watching.

Cincinnati stands tall

It’s not likely a Group of 5 team will make a run at the playoff, but Saturday’s showdown between Cincinnati and SMU was at least a battle for college football’s Miss Congeniality.

The Bearcats’ offense had struggled to find big plays, but it jumped out to a 14-0 lead on a quintessential Cincinnati 12-play drive. SMU could never scratch its way back, thanks to some mind-boggling decisions in and around the red zone that included a missed field goal, a confounding bit of clock management at the end of the half, a curious choice to kick a field goal on fourth-and-2 and two turnovers on downs.

Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder threw for just 126 yards, but he made up for the lack of an aerial attack with 179 yards and three touchdowns on the ground — all of which was enough to warrant throwing up on the field in the third quarter. (It might have been the third plate of Skyline Chili before the game — cinnamon doesn’t belong in chili.)

Ridder was fine, and the Bearcats won 42-13 and moved to 4-0 for the second time in four seasons under Luke Fickell. More importantly, ninth-ranked Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s Six berth, with another huge game next week against Memphis.

They keep winning

The odds of a non-Power 5 school making the playoff have never been particularly good, but there are a few teams doing a nice job making their cases.

Coastal Carolina was without QB Grayson McCall on Saturday, but its defense was dominant in a 28-14 win against Georgia Southern. The Chanticleers are now 5-0 and made a strong case to remain within the Top 25 after cracking the poll for the first time in program history last week (at No. 25).

Using the transitive property of wins, Coastal is still in line for a Big 12 title.

Meanwhile, Marshall also moved to 5-0, though in less impressive fashion. The Thundering Herd struggled to pull away from Florida Atlantic, but Grant Wells’ two TDs proved the difference in a 20-9 win.

And then there’s Liberty, which is now 6-0 behind QB Malik Willis, who was electric on Saturday in a 56-35 win versus Southern Miss. Willis threw for six touchdowns and ran for a seventh, collecting nearly 450 yards in the process. Hugh Freeze’s team is among the most explosive in the country, and his QB — a transfer from Auburn — makes the Flames nearly impossible to defend.

And we get to welcome Boise State back into the conversation. While the Big Ten celebrated its return, the Mountain West kicked off, too, and the Broncos looked dominant in a 42-13 win against Utah State. It is nice to have blue turf back in our lives.

Still, ESPN’s FPI gives them all less than a 0.1% chance of making the playoff, so don’t get your hopes up. Then again, try telling that to Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are likely to finish you with a Stone Cold stunner.

Anderson’s triple leads Wake Forest

After Wake Forest’s stunning upset of Virginia Tech, teammates celebrated in the locker room by throwing defensive back Nick Anderson into the air and chanting, “Scholly! Scholly!” Head coach Dave Clawson said he’ll gladly oblige the request this spring.

The walk-on true freshman got his share of playing time for the banged-up Demon Deacons on Saturday and picked off three passes.

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Wake Forest true freshman walk-on safety Nick Andersen gets three interceptions to help the Demon Deacons upset Virginia Tech 23-16.

Anderson had a handful of FCS offers last year, but he wanted to play big-time football, so he rolled the dice as a preferred walk-on at Wake Forest this season.

It was a good choice.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Anderson is just the fourth player in Wake history to have three interceptions in the same game and the first ACC DB to do it since Louisville’s Gerod Holliman in 2014.

The huge win marked another turning point for the program. At No. 19, Virginia Tech was the highest-ranked opponent the Deacons have beaten since topping No. 16 Boston College in 2006 en route to an ACC title.

Out of its Rut

Don’t look now, but Rutgers is undefeated in Big Ten play.

OK, it’s one game, but let’s enjoy it while we can. We’ve spent plenty of time cracking jokes at Rutgers’ expense over the years (we’ll now turn our complete attention to Kansas), but Saturday’s 38-27 win against Michigan State warrants some real enthusiasm.

Rutgers scored more than one touchdown in a game just once in its previous 12 Big Ten games (against Ohio State, believe it or not). On Saturday, the Scarlett Knights found the end zone five times. Five! That’s just one fewer conference TDs than Rutgers managed in all of 2019.

Has head coach Greg Schiano successfully turned back the clock to 2006? We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but, considering those 21 points Rutgers scored against Ohio State last year, the trend line sure seems to be pointing to a Big Ten title.

Oh so close

Life isn’t fair, especially for QBs who deliver a perfect pass only to see a receiver flub the catch and have the ball end up in the hands of the defense. And, with that, we give you the misery of NC State freshman Ben Finley, who delivered what should’ve been the first touchdown pass of his career, if not for a rather unfortunate bounce off the hands of his receiver.

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NC State’s Ben Finley throws the ball into the end zone, but it is bobbled and picked off by a diving Don Chapman in the end zone.

We’re going to dub this a six-pick, reversing the INT-turned-TD designation to account for this brutal bit of luck.

Meanwhile, North Carolina cruised to an easy win, rebounding from last week’s shocking loss against Florida State. The Tar Heels also had a pair of running backs top 100 yards for the second time in three weeks, as Javonte Williams and Michael Carter combined for 266 yards and four touchdowns.

A second one for the record books

Fields made his return Saturday in fine fashion, completing his first 11 passes and finishing 20-of-21 passing in the game. It looked an awful lot like his fellow Big Ten QB Graham Mertz, who also completed 20-of-21 for Wisconsin in a win against Illinois on Friday night.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the two are now tied for the second-best completion percentage for any qualifying QB in the Big Ten’s history, trailing only Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan (21-of-22 against Purdue last year).

But who holds the Big Ten’s all-time best completion percentage? That’s a trivia answer that will win you a drink. Tate Martell, the Ohio State QB-turned-Miami receiver-turned-transfer aficionado, who was 10-for-10 against Rutgers in 2018. Martell has had just 11 more completions since.

Under-the-radar game of the week

This man is either celebrating a ridiculous college football win or protesting the “No Shirt, No Service” policy at a South Philly 7-Eleven.

Actually, it is Stephen F. Austin head coach Colby Carthel, whose Lumbrerjacks wrapped an overtime stunner Saturday. SFA trailed Abilene Christian 29-22 with 1:38 to play, but went 67 yards on three plays to tie the score and send the game to overtime. After Abilene settled for a field goal, Trae Self hit Chad Aune for a 16-yard winning TD. And off came the shirt.

It was Carthel’s first game back since testing positive for the coronavirus, forcing him to ask his father (and volunteer coach), Don, to stand in last Saturday.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Did you see the game that ended by the absolute slimmest of margins, sending the favorite to a loss in utterly painful fashion?

No, we’re not talking about Penn State-Indiana. What happened to Rice might be even worse.

The Owls had a shot to win late after scoring a touchdown with 34 seconds to play and connecting on a two-point try to go up 3. Instead, Middle Tennessee went 35 yards in 34 seconds and kicked a game-tying field goal to force overtime.

The Owls had another chance to win, but missed a 45-yard kick in the first OT … by the absolute slimmest of margins (Indiana’s Michael Penix aside).

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Rice lines up for a game-winning field goal against Middle Tennessee in overtime, but the ball hits both uprights and the crossbar twice before bouncing out.

Another missed kick and an MTSU TD in double OT sent Rice to a 40-34 loss in its season opener. Chalk it up to MTSU’s experience. The game was also historic for featuring two teams from the same conference, where one (MTSU) had played six games and the other played none (Rice).

Best bets and bad beats

  • Ole Miss backers can be forgiven for throwing remotes at their televisions as officials failed to go to replay on what appeared to be a critical Auburn mistake on a late punt. With the Rebels up a point, the ball appeared to tip off the finger of Tigers return man Shaun Shivers and roll into the end zone, where it was clearly recovered by Ole Miss. Instead, the play was ruled a touchback, Auburn marched down the field, and Seth Williams scored the game-winner with 1:11 to play. Auburn won 35-28, and the replay booth owes Ole Miss bettors a few bucks.

  • Ohio State head coach Ryan Day apologized for running up the score against Nebraska, but he should also apologize to bettors of the over. The total closed 69.5, and rather than take a knee, he had Jack Miller run for a 2-yard touchdown to bring the score to 51-17. Day said he had a young unit on the field and wanted to get them experience. It’s a reasonable explanation, but couldn’t he have gotten them a little more experience by going for two and covering the over? Instead, Ohio State kicked the PAT, putting the final total at 69 — a half-point shy of going over. On the upside, the Buckeyes covered as a 28-point favorite thanks to that TD; Ohio State is now an impressive 14-4 against the spread in season openers since 2000, the best by any team in FBS.

  • We’re not sure what Tom Herman had his staff read on Baylor message boards last week, but it sure wasn’t the point spread. Texas, an 11-point favorite, was up 27-9 with 9:51 to play when QB Sam Ehlinger, for inexplicable reasons, threw a pass that was picked off. It led to a Baylor TD to close the gap to — you guessed it — 11. Texas would surely find a way to score again, right? Yeah, the Longhorns had the ball at the Baylor 4 with 1:15 to go, but Herman simply ran out the clock for a push, which we believe deserves a horns down. Or, at least a horns sideways. Or maybe both horns pointing in opposite directions.

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