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WNBA playoffs 2020: Lynx, Sun move on, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker ponder what’s next

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In her first WNBA playoff game, on the day she was named the league’s Rookie of the Year, point guard Crystal Dangerfield initially couldn’t hit a shot.

She was 0-for-6 from the field in the first 20 minutes, the most field goals she has missed in a first half this season. Then she missed her first shot of the third quarter. It could have sunk her and the Minnesota Lynx. But Dangerfield isn’t easily discouraged.

She made her first basket at the 5:54 mark of the third quarter, and then came on strong. In a tight second-round, single-elimination playoff game, No. 4 seed Minnesota beat No. 5 Phoenix 80-79 and moves on to the semifinals. In the second game of the doubleheader, seventh-seeded Connecticut eliminated No. 3 Los Angeles 73-59.

The best-of-five WNBA semifinals open Sunday. Connecticut faces top-seeded Las Vegas (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET) and Minnesota faces second-seeded Seattle (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).

Dangerfield scored 15 of her 17 points in the second half, and nine of those came in the fourth quarter. This season, Dangerfield averaged 6.5 points in the fourth quarter, second in the league only to another rookie, Atlanta’s Chennedy Carter (6.7 in the fourth).

“I think Crystal was pretty uptight, despite our best effort,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of Dangerfield’s slow start. “I think she was doing things that were uncharacteristic. She fought the defense too much. She is usually really good at shifting away from the defense to get a clear shot off. That rookie got some great experience in hard situations. I saw as the game wore on, she was a little more loose.”

Dangerfield said she wasn’t overwhelmed by the ceremony earlier Thursday when she was presented the rookie award; Reeve also was honored as WNBA Coach of the Year. But Dangerfield acknowledged, “I think most of the nerves was it was my first playoff game.”

Lynx teammate Napheesa Collier, who was Rookie of the Year last season, played alongside Dangerfield for three seasons at UConn and knows how clutch she can be.

“She apparently just has ice in her veins, she comes alive in the fourth quarter,” Collier said. “I’m excited that we’re going to our first semis together. It’s going to be fun.”

Dangerfield, the No. 16 pick in April’s WNBA draft, is the only second-round pick to win the rookie of the year award. Thursday, she also got backcourt help from Odyssey Sim (14 points, four assists, four steals) and Rachel Banham (11 points).

“This was a win-or-go home situation,” Dangerfield said, “and we weren’t ready to go home yet.”

What’s next for Taurasi?

Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi turned 38 in June, and then had an outstanding 16th season in the WNBA, averaging 18.7 points and 4.5 assists. But despite her 28 points and nine assists on Thursday against Minnesota, Taurasi and the Mercury leave the bubble before the semifinals.

“We just needed one more play, and we just didn’t get it at the end of the game,” Taurasi said. “What’s done is done; we fell short.”

Taurasi didn’t take the last shot for the Mercury; that went to Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had a good first season playing for Phoenix but struggled Thursday, going 3 of 15 from the floor for eight points. She missed the final shot. Asked if she was disappointed to not have the ball in her hands at the end, Taurasi shrugged.

“Sandy’s call,” she said, referring to Mercury coach Sandy Brondello.

The Mercury lost two key players in August: Center Brittney Griner left the bubble for personal reasons, and Bria Hartley suffered a season-ending knee injury. But Phoenix responded well to adversity to get the No. 5 seed.

“We showed incredible character,” Taurasi said. “We went through a lot of stuff this year, on and off the court. We stayed together. We could have easily quit. We were one possession away. It’s going to hurt for a little bit.”

Phoenix survived the first round against Washington on a buzzer-beater by Shey Peddy. But Peddy was inadvertently hit in the face by Minnesota guard Odyssey Sims on a drive to the basket Thursday, and was limited to just over 14 minutes. Her absence hurt mostly on defense, as she had done a good job on Dangerfield early on.

“I’m sure it changed the dynamic of the game for us a little bit,” said Taurasi, who is now 14-2 in winner-take-all career playoff games.

But she added that there was a bright spot to leaving the bubble, where WNBA players have been since early July.

“I get to see my son tomorrow,” Taurasi said.

As for her future, she added, “The plan is to come back next year, hopefully better, and try to go after it again. But at this age, a lot can happen. With everything that’s going on with COVID, and thinking about [maybe] playing in a bubble again, there’s a lot of factors that go into it more than just being healthy.”

She said she would talk with her wife, former Mercury player Penny Taylor, and the team about everything.

“My contract’s up,” Taurasi said, “so there’s some things I’ve gotta figure out.”

Defense leads Sun back to the semifinals

Last year, the Sun made it all the way to Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, where they lost to Washington. This year after an 0-5 start, they had to re-boot and start fresh, and it has worked.

Connecticut took control of its matchup with Los Angeles and never let up. Holding the Sparks to just 59 points was a defensive tour-de-force by the Sun. Coach Curt Miller attributed that to great individual defenders — including Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, Briann January and Brionna Jones — who have defended well together.

The Sparks scored 23 points in the opening half, their fewest in a playoff half since they scored 15 in the first half against Seattle in 2008. The Sparks’ eight points on 4 of 19 shooting in the first quarter were their worst for any quarter this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

The Sun held Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray to no assists for the game, something that had not happened to her since 2016. Along with the defense, Miller credited the Sun’s ability to take care of the ball on offense. They had just eight turnovers Thursday.

“I think we’re now 10-1 when we turn the ball over less than 13 times in a game,” Miller said. “It helps us set our defense, it gets us more shot attempts than the opponents. It was a huge story tonight.”

Sparks, without Ogwumike, suffer disappointing loss

Los Angeles didn’t have Nneka Ogwumike on Thursday because of a migraine, which was tough timing for the Sparks. They had earned the No. 3 seed with their 15-7 record, but their playoff stay ended after 40 minutes.

“They should have more than one night to prove they are a good basketball team,” coach Derek Fisher said of the playoff format, which went to single-elimination first- and second-round games in 2016.

With Ogwumike out, the load for the Sparks went to Candace Parker, who had 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.

“We’ve had a next-up mentality all season,” Parker said. “We kept the routine we normally have going into a game like this.”

Parker said Ogwumike’s absence isn’t an excuse for how much they struggled offensively. She thinks the Sparks’ last three games — all losses — was an emotional slide that started with the first in that string: an 80-72 loss to Washington. She thinks that changed the team’s positive vibe, and they couldn’t get it back.

Parker, 34, was also asked about her thoughts going forward after 13 seasons with the Sparks.

“I want to be in L.A.,” she said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to get better. We can’t keep saying, ‘Next year.’ “

Fowles back, but Dantas was big

Sylvia Fowles, who had been out since Aug. 13 with a calf injury and played just seven games in the regular season, returned for the Lynx on Thursday. She started and played 18 minutes, finishing with six points and four rebounds. But Damiris Dantas, who has filled in so well for Fowles this season, led the Lynx with 22 points. She also had eight rebounds.

And on a night when Collier didn’t get many touches — she had seven points on 2 of 6 shooting — Dantas’ productivity in the post was all the more crucial.

Dantas, in her sixth year in the WNBA, averaged 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, both career bests, in the regular season.

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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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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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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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