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The storylines and stats that matter ahead of Seattle Storm-Las Vegas Aces

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The top two seeds reached the WNBA Finals, but it took a grind-it-out 66-63 victory Tuesday by the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces over the No. 7 seed Connecticut Sun to get there. Now the Aces, who won their semifinal series 3-2, will meet the No. 2 seed Seattle Storm, who swept the Minnesota Lynx in their semifinal, in the best-of-five Finals series that starts Friday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET).

The WNBA Finals match the teams that tied for the best regular-season record (18-4) and had the top two MVP candidates. Las Vegas’ Aja Wilson won that honor, but Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, is eager to pick up her second WNBA Finals MVP. She won her first in 2018, but missed last season with an Achilles tendon injury.

The WNBA’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida, has gone from 12 teams to two. Which one will be the last standing? Let’s look ahead to the Finals.

Series schedule

Game 1, Oct. 2: Storm at Aces | 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 2, Oct. 4: Storm at Aces | 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 3, Oct. 6: Aces at Storm | 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 4 (if necessary), Oct. 8: Aces at Storm | 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Game 5 (if necessary), Oct. 11: Storm at Aces | 3 p.m. ET on ABC

Does it matter that Las Vegas swept Seattle in the regular season?

Not really. The Aces’ won the first matchup 82-74 on Aug. 22, and the second 86-84 on Sept. 13, the last day of the regular season. Not to take anything away from Las Vegas, but Seattle point guard Sue Bird didn’t play in either of those games, and forward Breanna Stewart didn’t play in the second one, as both were nursing injuries.

Stewart averaged 23.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 5.7 APG in the Storm’s three semifinal games. Bird’s best game of the series was the clincher Sunday, when she had 16 points and nine assists. Bottom line: Seattle looked very strong in sweeping the Lynx.

But you can’t discount the Aces’ regular-season wins against the Storm, nor their grit in battling back from being down 2-1 in their series against Connecticut. Defense has been a key for the Aces, and they’ll need a lot of it against Seattle.

The Aces are the No. 1 seed, but the Storm were the preseason favorite. Seattle has largely the same roster as 2018, when the Storm won the WNBA championship. So Las Vegas comes into the Finals a little more the underdog, regardless of seed. Aces coach Bill Laimbeer will try to use that to both take the pressure off his team and fire up his players.

How did they get here?

Neither team lost much during the shortened 22-game regular season. Las Vegas had the same starting lineup for all but one of those games, whereas Seattle didn’t have Bird for 11 games.

Still, Jordin Canada (7.9 PPG, 5.5 APG in regular season) filled in well starting at point guard when Bird was out, just as Canada did all last season when Bird didn’t play. Stewart missed two games, but largely was the picture of consistency in her 20 regular-season contests at 19.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG and 3.6 APG.

“Grateful to be here, grateful to be back playing at a high level,” said Stewart of coming back from her April 2019 injury. “Just happy to be with my team. I think that was the biggest thing that I missed when I was out rehabbing. I’m excited for what we’ve done, and what we still have to do in the future.”

Seattle’s Jewell Loyd (15.5 PPG in regular season, 17.3 in the playoffs) is one of the most dangerous scoring guards in the league. The Storm also have Alysha Clark, a unanimous first-team all-defensive selection, and Natasha Howard, last season’s defensive player of the year.

Just as Stewart was like a metronome for the Storm, Wilson was the same for the Aces: They could always count on her. She averaged 20.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 2.0 BPG in the regular season; those numbers have jumped to 21.8, 10.4 and 3.0 in the playoffs. Angel McCoughtry has been the team’s second-leading scorer in the regular season (14.4) and playoffs (16.0). With Dearica Hamby out (more on that below), Danielle Robinson (10.2 PPG) and Kayla McBride (8.0) have been the next-best threats for Las Vegas during the playoffs.

The Storm won Game 1 of its semifinals with Minnesota 88-86 on Clark’s putback with less than a second left. But they widened the margin in Game 2 (89-79) and Game 3 (92-71).

Things were tougher in the semifinals for the Aces, who lost the first and third games of their series with Connecticut, and trailed Game 5 on Tuesday by as much as 16 points. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that is the largest-ever comeback in a winner-take-all game to advance to the WNBA Finals.

The Aces did it thanks mostly to defense in what felt like a second-half battle of attrition.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Sun were 10 of 24 (41.7 percent) on contested shots in the first half, after which they led 45-39, but 5 of 20 (25 percent) in the second half. Connecticut’s 18 second-half points were the fewest in a playoff half since the Los Angeles Sparks had 15 in the first half in a 2008 playoff game against Seattle.

The Aces made just two field goals in the fourth quarter — the lowest of any winning playoff team in the final quarter since the Indiana Fever made just one in beating Minnesota in Game 4 of the 2015 WNBA Finals. Wilson’s free throw shooting carried the Aces; she made 9 of 10 foul shots in the game and finished with 23 points.

Holding the high-scoring Storm to 63 points seems unlikely, but the Aces know they have a strong defense.

Who is missing?

Two key reserves for both teams are out of the WNBA Finals: the Aces’ Hamby and the Storm’s Sami Whitcomb.

Hamby, a 6-foot-3 forward who is the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year, suffered a knee injury in the semifinals. It’s a big loss on both sides of the ball, as Hamby is one of the Aces’ top defenders and averaged 13.0 PPG and 7.1 RPG in the regular season. She also averaged 28.3 minutes during the regular season and 25.0 in the three playoff games she was in.

“It’s going to hurt us a little bit; she gives us that extra body to play on Stewie,” Laimbeer said of defending the 6-4 Stewart. He added that 6-1 Angel McCoughtry, 6-foot Jackie Young and 6-2 Emma Cannon will all spend time at the power forward position.

Whitcomb was part of the Storm’s 2018 championship team. This year, coming off the bench again, the 5-10 guard played in all 25 games for Seattle, averaging 8.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in the regular season, and 5.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG and 1.7 APG in the playoffs.

Whitcomb averaged 16.5 minutes in the regular season to 10.7 in the postseason. That’s not a big surprise, as rotations often get tighter in the playoffs. But Whitcomb’s minutes still will be missed, along with her 3-point shooting threat (32 treys in the regular season, three in the semifinals).

A fourth title for Seattle, or a first for Las Vegas?

Seattle is looking to tie Minnesota and Houston, a defunct franchise, with four WNBA titles. The Storm have lost just one game in the Finals. They beat Connecticut 2-1 in 2004, when it was still a best-of-three series, swept Atlanta 3-0 in 2010 and swept Washington in 2018.

“I think our players understand the historical moment that they’re in,” said Seattle’s Gary Kloppenburg, who has filled in as head coach with Dan Hughes not in the bubble for health reasons. “They really want to come out, be ready and bring a championship back to Seattle.”

This is the first trip to the Finals for the Aces in that franchise’s third season in Las Vegas. The Aces started as the Utah Starzz in the WNBA’s inaugural year, 1997, and moved to San Antonio in 2003. The highlight for San Antonio was a trip to the 2008 WNBA Finals, but the Stars were swept by the Detroit Shock, who were coached by Bill Laimbeer, now coach of the Aces.

San Antonio’s last playoff appearance was in 2014, Becky Hammon’s final WNBA season. In 2015, ’16 and ’17, the Stars had the league’s worst record, and then they moved to Las Vegas to become the Aces. The franchise got No. 1 draft picks in 2017 (Kelsey Plum), 2018 (A’ja Wilson) and 2019 (Jackie Young). Plum is out this season with a torn Achilles tendon, and center Liz Cambage is sitting out on a medical hardship, but they were part of the Aces team that reached the semifinals last year.

With Wilson elevating to MVP level this year, the Aces are now in the Finals. It’s especially gratifying for someone like Kayla McBride, who was with San Antonio from 2014-17 and experienced three seasons in the WNBA cellar.

“You remember when these teams used to smack on you,” McBride said. “I remember when we used to go to Minnesota and get our ass kicked by 30. In the back of my mind, I’m always remembering we started at the bottom. I’m so thankful for Vegas and this organization, because they’ve created something really special.”

How important is experience?

It can’t be discounted. As mentioned, the Storm are much the same as their 2018 title team; they have eight players back from that championship run (Whitcomb would have made it nine). Plus, Sue Bird is a 17-season veteran who also started for the 2004 and 2010 Storm championship teams. But she’s also not someone who will over-value looking back.

“We reference it at times — ‘We ran this in 2018,’ or ‘we guarded it this way in 2018’ — just because we have the same people,” Bird said. “But I feel like you can get caught up sometimes in thinking about the past. We really haven’t done that. This is this team’s year, this team’s journey. And It won’t matter if we don’t finish the job anyway.”

For the Aces, two players have previously been to the Finals with other teams. McCoughtry led the Atlanta Dream to the Finals in 2010, ’11 and ’13. But they were swept in all those series; in the first by Seattle and the other two by Minnesota. The Aces’ Sugar Rodgers was a rookie on that 2013 Lynx team that beat the Dream for the title.

McCoughtry, who came to Las Vegas as a free agent this season, said it has been a long journey for her to return to the Finals. That included missing all of the 2019 season after an ACL injury she suffered late in the 2018 season.

“To come back and be able to contend for a championship, it’s emotional for me,” McCoughtry said. “I really thank the Aces organization for believing in me.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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