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Fighting

UFC 254 main event breakdown: How Justin Gaethje can neutralize Khabib Nurmagomedov’s grappling

Khabib Nurmagomedov is ESPN’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He’s 28-0 and has not just defeated but also destroyed the top challengers to come his way on his journey to becoming an icon in the sport. All that said, he’s in for a challenge on Fight Island. Putting it simply, he has never faced anyone like Justin Gaethje before.

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MLB

With Big Ten returning, college football still faces more of the unknown

  • Senior college football writer
  • Six-time FWAA award winner
  • Graduate of Stanford University

The calendar says it’s late October. The colors of leaves and the emergence of sweaters say the same. But here on Planet College Football, the concept of time is hard to grasp. The game’s internal clock needs a reboot. The coronavirus pandemic has taken our mileposts and shuffled them like a deck of cards.

The calendar can’t tell you who’s on the schedule, the way it has for generations. Michigan and Minnesota are playing Saturday night for the 104th time, but the Little Brown Jug game has never been a season opener. The calendar might say it’s Week 8, but for the Big Ten, it’s Week 1. Those early-season mistakes we’ve endured for the past month? Get ready for another month of them. Northwestern, 3-9 in 2019, sat out bowl season. The Wildcats haven’t played in 47 weeks.

“It’s been a long time since we tackled in a live game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

We assume Northwestern will open against Maryland on Saturday night. The schedule is drawn up, but it can’t tell you which games actually will be played. Games are postponed days before kickoff. Games are scheduled the week before they’re played. Midweek reports of COVID-19 test results are becoming as dramatic and meaningful as final scores.

This is not the college football we signed up for. This is the college football we have. It sounds ungrateful to say, when we’re lucky to have any college football at all. But, in reality, this season is discombobulating. It’s difficult to trust in the narrative of the season when we don’t know who’s going to show up on Saturdays, when we can’t look at the calendar and have tradition tell us who is playing. Georgia and Auburn, a mid-November fixture since the 19th century, played on Oct. 3.

As the weather forces us to live more of our lives indoors, as the virus resumes its surge in state after state, odds are the disruptions to date are merely a preview. Players and coaches are all day-to-day. The Buddhist in you might say, “Aren’t we all?” But there are no Buddhists in college football. Coaches live to schedule and plan.

“I always had a plan I believed in so strongly that I thought it would win at Vassar,” coaching legend Bear Bryant once said.

Coaches plan practices in five-minute increments. They plot meetings. They script plays. This season, all that planning isn’t worth the sand it’s written on. A sport governed by tradition and coached by the anal retentive is operating on the fly, all of us — coaches, players, officials and fans — living at the mercy of a long nasal swab.

The coaches whose teams have yet to play have had the unrequested, unwanted luxury of watching college football.

“I think watching everybody else, if you didn’t earlier, you do now realize how fragile this is, how quickly things can change … in a 24-hour period,” said California head coach Justin Wilcox, whose Pac-12 Conference won’t kick off its season until Nov. 7. “Everybody has protocols they’re following, but nothing seems to be foolproof.”

The calendar says late October, and yet the quality of play says September. West Virginia averaged 5.9 penalties per game in 2019. This season, the Mountaineers are averaging 10 flags per game.

“You’re forming your discipline of your football team in your offseason and nobody had an offseason,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said earlier this month. “Nobody had a summer. Your team chemistry is not good because your guys can’t spend the time they need [to] around each other.”

Just as the teams that are playing hope to approach midseason form, four more conferences will start play. Temperatures at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, on Saturday night are expected to be in the mid-40s.

“We’re going out,” Fitzgerald said, “and here comes the wind blowing off Lake Michigan.”

In one sense, Wilcox said, this season is more like the game of college football than anyone realizes.

“You have all these great plans,” he said. “You [script] these 15 plays, and you’re going to score this many times. How many times does that actually happen? Never! Hell, last year, we fumbled the opening kickoff of the season. That was never in the plan.”

Wilcox talked about agility, being nimble, and he meant the thinking of his coaching staff. In the span of 72 hours last week, the Alabama coaching staff had to plan not to have head coach Nick Saban on the sideline for the first time in 14 years, then ditch that plan hours before kickoff and return to business as usual. That’s pandemic football.

Whittled-down rosters and whittled-down crowds. The energy that a full house brings to autumn Saturdays is missing. There are clusters of fans, sitting in odd patterns, if there are fans at all. That’s pandemic football.

The Big Ten returning to the field this week will color in some of the spots of this paint-by-numbers season. Here it is, late October. Maybe the trick is to look for the familiar where you can find it. Ohio State hasn’t lost a game. Rutgers hasn’t won one. Mack Brown is still 0-for-alma-mater. And Clemson and Alabama are Nos. 1-2. We search for mileposts that will help navigate another college football weekend today. We hold our breath for tomorrow. That’s pandemic football, too.

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MLB

How a text from Dad helped turn Cody Bellinger into an October hero

  • Joined ESPN in 2016 to cover the Los Angeles Rams
  • Previously covered the Angels for MLB.com

ARLINGTON, Texas — Clay Bellinger sat in Section 122 at Globe Life Field alongside his wife Sunday when Cody Bellinger came to bat with the score tied in the bottom of the seventh. Clay began to tell himself the same thing he tells himself every time his son digs into the batter’s box.

Let’s have a moment. Let’s have a moment. Let’s have a moment.

Then the moment came. The younger Bellinger turned on a fastball out over the plate, sent it 400 feet to right field and admired the drive in a manner befitting the accomplishment. His majestic home run gave the Los Angeles Dodgers their first lead and served as the decisive run in the 4-3 victory that sealed Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and punctuated an improbable comeback.

Throughout the summer, Clay watched as Cody struggled to duplicate the success of his MVP season in 2019. He batted only .239/.333/.455, one of several superstars who struggled through an unconventional season that consisted of empty stadiums without the use of in-game video and only a 60-game schedule.

Cody began the year adjusting to a slightly different setup, a personal preference that he suggested to the Dodgers’ hitting coaches during the three-month shutdown. As the season progressed, Clay kept hearing Cody express how comfortable he felt, even while positive results remained elusive. Clay, a utility player who won two World Series rings with the New York Yankees, mostly backed off. Then, after the Atlanta Braves took a commanding 3-1 series lead, he sent Cody a text. He felt his son was suddenly becoming too passive within the strike zone.

The message: Get in the box, be the man, see what happens.

“Hitting’s the hardest thing to do in sports, and when you’re taking one swing an at-bat, it’s super hard,” Clay explained. “I told him, ‘Get back to being aggressive the way you are. And if you get to two strikes, take that aggressive swing.'”

Clay started liking the quality of the at-bats over the next few days and watched it crescendo in Game 7. In the second inning, he watched Cody turn on a two-strike fastball low and inside — the type of pitch that gave him fits all year — and scorch a 107 mph line drive directly into the glove of Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. He followed by working back-to-back walks, the second on a full count.

Then, against Braves reliever Chris Martin in the seventh, Bellinger reached a 2-2 count. He fouled off a 95 mph sinker away and a 94 mph sinker inside, fouled off a 90 mph cutter off the plate, then got his pitch — another sinker, middle-up — and didn’t miss it. His home run, which came two years after a similar one, put him alongside Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra as the only players with a go-ahead homer in multiple Game 7s.

Now, with the Tampa Bay Rays on deck and four wins separating this franchise from its first World Series title since the days of Kirk Gibson, the question must be asked: Have the Dodgers finally unlocked Cody Bellinger?

“We get him going,” Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts said, “that is a sight to see.”

Bellinger’s home run was only his fifth hit in 25 at-bats this series, but that line doesn’t come close to capturing his performance last week. Throughout the series, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noticed Bellinger and Corey Seager — the NLCS MVP after producing a 1.230 OPS in seven games — begin to fully grasp the importance of controlling the strike zone. Bellinger drew six walks in the series and chased 19.7% of pitches outside the strike zone, an improvement from his 28% chase rate from the regular season. His average exit velocity was 95 mph, which showed up in a lot of hard outs.

There was a 108 mph ground out in the second inning of Game 1, a 114 mph triple in the ninth inning of Game 2 and a 410-foot fly out to straightaway center field in the ninth inning of Game 4, which only remained in play because of howling winds that reached 15 mph.

Maybe Bellinger, a .178/.234/.326 hitter in 36 postseason games entering the year, has found his MVP form at the right time.

Maybe, like Seager, he has learned to slow down the game in October.

Maybe his best is yet to come.

“Man,” Clay said, “I hope so. That’s all you can hope for.”

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MLB

Passan: Why NLCS Game 7 won’t be last time we see Braves-Dodgers in October

    ESPN MLB insider
    Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

ARLINGTON, Texas — Get used to this. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, who will play a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday for the privilege of moving on to the World Series, are bound to be here again. It may not be next year, or the year after, or even the year after that, which illustrates simultaneously the variance of baseball and the excellence inherent in both teams, who are stacked enough to glance three years down the road and still peacock about their chances of success.

This much has been apparent in the National League Championship Series, which hasn’t necessarily been a series for the history books. The Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Braves on Saturday at Globe Life Field to even the series was the closest thing this NLCS has offered to a tight game. In each one, though, were glimpses of what makes these teams so good and why return engagements, however difficult they may be, should be expected.

Whether that translates into a Game 7 to remember is impossible to predict. Game 7s are rare gifts to savor, and the fact that baseball is offering its minions two of them in a two-day span should make even the most opener-fearing, strikeout-loathing, analytics-hating buzzkill giddy.

This one will determine the World Series opponent of the Tampa Bay Rays, who evaded a historic collapse in the American League Championship Series and vanquished the Houston Astros in their Game 7 on Saturday night. Whichever team represents the NL, this will be a matchup of master organization-building, of premium player development — a showdown between teams operating in ways that draw envy from around the game.

The Dodgers are here, and will remain in this stratum, for myriad reasons. They draft and develop players better than any organization. They spend more money than anyone. They balance the primal desire to chase championships with the necessary discipline to build sustainability. The Dodgers are everybody’s worst nightmare: smart, talented, rich, patient, hungry.

Even still, the playoffs — and these playoffs in particular, with no days off — demand more than the Dodgers have to walk into Game 7 self-assured. Their starting pitcher is … well, manager Dave Roberts said he’s not sure, which is probably not true, because the moment Game 6 ended the Dodgers knew exactly what they had at their disposal. They could go with Tony Gonsolin, the rookie who got knocked around in Game 2, or with Julio Urias, their Game 3 starter who also could be a fireman in the late innings, or with Brusdar Graterol, their 100 mph-sinkerballing right-hander who would be just as valuable in late innings. Clayton Kershaw, their erstwhile ace, who would be working on two days’ rest? Probably not, but he’ll be in the bullpen, like he was during Game 6, ready to go.

“We are not done,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “We still got a lot to accomplish. We got a big one [Sunday]. We are going to get prepared and come in and fight for every pitch and find a way to win a ballgame.”

The Braves are not as fat-pocketed as the Dodgers, and their development pipeline isn’t bursting with quite as much talent, and yet what’s on their big league roster is intimidating. It’s Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, signed for cheap, decadelong contracts. It’s Cristian Pache roaming center field with the speed, precision and agility of a drone. It’s Mike Soroka, when he returns from his torn Achilles, and it’s Max Fried, and it’s Ian Anderson, who came into these playoffs with six career starts, still hasn’t given up a run in them and will take the ball for Game 7.

“I have 100% confidence in Ian Anderson,” Fried said. “He is as prepared and as smart as they come. You wouldn’t know it was his rookie year by the way he handles himself, his poise and how he conducts his business.”

Anderson’s last win-or-go-home game, he said, was in high school, which for the 22-year-old wasn’t particularly long ago. He exudes calmness and poise, and his Game 2 outing was uncharacteristically short and wild, which is what made him throwing four shutout innings so impressive.

Quick hooks are de rigueur in Game 7s, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash and Houston’s Dusty Baker demonstrated in the ALCS, so Anderson and TBD stamping their names in the history books as the hero of the NLCS may not be in the cards. If modern baseball dogma takes over, and it probably will, the game will be determined by an interconnected group of three: the offenses, the bullpens and the managers.

Roberts and his counterpart, Brian Snitker, are not regarded as the same sort of chess player in the dugout that Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash is. It’s hard not to see Game 7 on Sunday through that lens, comparing everything each team does with Tampa Bay — the decisions it makes, how it matches up, what a showdown might look like.

The Rays are the Aldi to the Dodgers’ Whole Foods. Take away Los Angeles’ ability to pay large sums of money and the organizations are very similar, which is no surprise, seeing as the person who runs the Dodgers’ baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, previously was in charge in Tampa Bay. The Rays share ideals with the Braves, too, who are seen as an old-school franchise but have made it to Game 7 of the NLCS leaning heavily on just two starting pitchers, which for a time was as Rays as it gets.

Tampa Bay can give itself 24 hours to party before it tries to figure out how its home run-dependent offense will counteract Globe Life playing like a never-ending warehouse. The Rays have scored an unthinkable 72% of their runs this postseason on home runs, and if those do wind up being fewer and farther between, the Rays will need otherworldly pitching against one of arguably the two most dangerous lineups in baseball or to figure out an entirely new offensive strategy on the fly.

Then again, great teams adjust. It’s what the Braves did early in this series when next to nobody gave them a chance against Los Angeles. It’s what the Dodgers did when Atlanta went up 3-1. And it’s what the World Series winner, whether it’s the Rays or Dodgers or Braves, will do next week.

For now, they are just glad they’re here. Because when some jabroni says “Get used to this,” a skeptic can say: Cubs. And it’s true: Starting in 2016, the Cubs were supposed to be at the beginning of a half-decade-long window of supremacy. It never materialized. And in the NL, the San Diego Padres certainly will have something to say about an annual Dodgers-Braves showdown. As will the Steve Cohen-owned New York Mets, who may Xerox the Dodgers’ modus operandi and give it some East Coast flavor.

Until then, we have this Game 7. Whatever the sport, whenever the moment, Game 7 means something more, even if Snitker said he’s going to treat it like any other game. He won’t because it’s not. It is, Roberts said correctly, “What you live for.” And for the many great matchups to come, the many years these teams are primed to be relevant, right now all they’re living for is to make sure they have a tomorrow.

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MLB

Banana phone, throwback cleats, and an NLCS pick: The best of NFL Week 6 arrivals

Week 6 of the 2020 NFL season has arrived, and with no positive COVID-19 tests on Sunday, an intriguing slate of games is set to kick off. While the action on the field will surely be captivating, we’re here to highlight the best of what the players have to offer from a sartorial standpoint.

For more on the matchups today, look no further: Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the keys to every game, a bold prediction for each contest and final score picks. Check out ESPN’s NFL Week 6 game guide.

More: Sunday’s fantasy football inactives: Who’s in and who’s out?

Best prop comedy

Baltimore Ravens tight ends Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews arrived together, and while Boyle is all business ahead of the club’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, Andrews was taking a call on his special phone:

Best cross-sport representation

Tennessee Titans linebacker Jayon Brown is a native of Southern California, so it’s no surprise where his allegiance lies for Game 7 of the NLCS on Sunday night:

Best logo homage via cleats

Denver Broncos wideout Tim Patrick had a breakout performance in Week 4. Hoping to keep the good vibes going for Week 6, he’s going old school with the art on his pregame cleats:

Best track suit

Eagles defensive back K’Von Wallace gets the nod in the category this week, with an exquisite lavender set:

Best of the rest

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MLB

Randy Arozarena shines brightest in Rays’ no-star approach to owning October

  • Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
  • Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
  • Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
  • Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

Let us all, as fans of America’s game, mull over the ramifications of what we have just seen: The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series. And Randy Arozarena was the MVP of an American League Championship Series that featured Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Zack Greinke.

Even as we wait to see who emerges from another Game 7 on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Dodgers face the Atlanta Braves in Texas, let’s acknowledge how in the year of a pandemic, we are on the cusp of a World Series. It’s going to happen. For so long, that didn’t seem possible.

Next, let’s acknowledge that everyone who picked the Rays to win the AL pennant before the shortened season began in July was spot-on. (This writer was not one of them. Thanks, Yankees.) But let’s also revisit the rationale for picking the Rays back then, because that has been on full display throughout this postseason. A lot has been on display during this long postseason.

“You might think a 60-game season, you get to the postseason and it’s just not the same,” Rays Game 7 starter Charlie Morton said. “But I have looked across the dugout in every team we played this postseason, and I know the guys we were playing, they care, they want to win. Probably more so this year than any other year. The motivation is doing it for each other.”

The forecasted love for Tampa Bay had more to do with the Rays’ pitching operation than their hitting. Because the Rays have featured a decentralized, crowd-sourced pitching structure for many years, they seemed well-suited to the frantic, 60-game campaign we ended up with. Starters wouldn’t be built up. No one, really, would be built up. So a club with exceptional pitching depth and a plan for disparate pitcher usage would be well-situated.

If that doesn’t sound like the Rays, nothing does. Sure enough, as the ALCS played out, Tampa Bay’s organizational approach emerged as a moment-by-moment proof of concept.

“The way we have just acquired talent through our minor leagues and trades, it’s incredible what [general manager] Erik Neander and the front office have done,” Kevin Kiermaier said. “It really is. They made a great roster, and that’s why our talent and depth is what it is. If I’ve said anything, it’s that if there’s any staff that can shut down the hot-hitting Astros, it’s our staff.”

True enough, but you also have to score. The issue for the Rays’ offense was that their most productive hitters during the regular season were not being productive during the playoffs — Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, Willy Adames and Michael Brosseau among them. So others stepped up, including usually light-hitting catcher Mike Zunino and semi-regular outfielder Manny Margot.

But no one typified the next-man-up dynamic of the Rays more than Arozarena.

Arozarena broke into the majors last season and raked — for St. Louis. He had a .891 OPS over just 19 games and went hitless in four plate appearances during the playoffs. Then he was traded, along with Jose Martinez (since dealt) in exchange for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore.

Well, players move around the major leagues, right? Arozarena looked good during his brief stint for St. Louis, but sometimes players look good in short stints and get flipped because their original team knows why that success is going to be fleeting. The only problem is that once the Rays inquire about a player, they’ve proved time and again that your best response probably should be, “No, thank you.” Because if the Rays like your player, then there is something very much to be liked.

“I wouldn’t say I was chasing MVP,” Arozarena said through an interpreter. “I was just trying to do everything for the team.”

He almost did. This is not to hammer on the Cardinals, although as the years play out, perhaps it will be impossible not to do that. But who possibly could have conceived that Arozarena would be doing what he’s being doing this postseason?

Look, players get on hot streaks. It happens all the time, and when a player gets on a roll, he isn’t necessarily headed for Cooperstown. Postseason series are by definition a parade of small sample sizes, so you figure that there are always going to be plenty of unsung heroes available to populate playoff narratives.

Yet, what Arozarena has done is not normal. It’s not routine. Others have gotten as hot as he has during the postseason, but if you have any conception of baseball history, his name is going to jump of the list of hottest postseasons and poke you in the eye. Among players who put up a higher OPS than Arozarena’s 1.288 over at least 50 playoff plate appearances, you find only Barry Bonds (1.559 in 2002), Carlos Beltran (1.557 in 2004), Paul Molitor (1.378 in 1993) and Alex Rodriguez (1.308 in 2009).

Then there is Arozarena. One of those names is not like the others.

“Ever since I got traded over, it’s felt like a family,” Arozarena said. “They welcomed me with open arms, and they gave me the freedom to be the player I want to be.”

But that’s the Rays. Just ask Zunino, who homered again in Game 7 and was picked up in a zero-buzz trade last year from the Mariners. Just ask Austin Meadows, rescued from prospect-bust status from Pittsburgh. Ask Manny Margot, who just dominated in a series played on the home field of the Padres — the club that shipped him away last winter.

There are so many similar stories. The common denominator is a lesson that sounds simple, but if it really was, every team would have learned it. The lesson the Rays have learned is that if you focus on what a player can do, rather than what he cannot, and you put him in position to do that thing he does well, that player can excel. Then, as a team, if you surround that player with other players who do complementary things well, it all adds up a good baseball team. Granted, none of this is fodder for a sexy World Series teaser. But, damn, it sure is effective.

“Man, it feels awesome,” Zunino said. “This is beyond my wildest dreams here. I feel extremely grateful. This group of guys, this organization, what we had to endure this year. It is a special group.”

Beyond the everybody-does-his-part aspect of the playing roster, there are the machinations of manager Kevin Cash, who is a kind of oddly enthusiastic Vulcan as dugout logicians go. He speaks in the no-ego, it’s all-about-the-players style of a successful College World Series coach putting on a front for potential recruits. But he’s also a merciless adherent to the actuarial side of the game, following best analytic practices as if he had the dead emotional life of Spock.

Time and again, to the consternation of baseball lifers, his interpretation of quantitative principles is spot-on. It happened again in the clincher.

Charlie Morton, the veteran Rays starter who played a key role in the Astros’ 2017 championship, was on his game. After five innings, he had retired 13 straight Houston hitters and used just 49 pitches. No Rays pitcher has thrown a complete game since May 14, 2016, when Matt Andriese did it, but could it happen again? After all, given Morton’s dominance and minimal pitch count, why would you remove him?

After striking out Josh Reddick on three pitches to start the sixth, Morton walked Martin Maldonado on four pitches. Springer rolled into a forceout. Altuve singled, but it was an infield chopper that was perfectly placed. Morton was at 66 pitches, and while there was traffic on the bases, he still looked like a pitcher in command of the game.

So, of course, Cash took him out. And, of course, it was the right move.

“The thought to go get him, I think we need to stay consistent with what we think is the right decision,” Cash said. “That is not to say [the decisions] are not tough. They certainly are. We’re just so appreciative of Charlie Morton, what he brings to our club on the field and definitely in the clubhouse.”

Nick Anderson — the Rays’ closer — came on to escape that sixth-inning jam. He did just that, then pitched the seventh, and by the time he exited for Pete Fairbanks, he’d gotten six outs. Fairbanks got the last four. Overall, the Rays threw just 114 pitches in the game, easily within Morton’s capability had he been left in to go the distance. But that’s not how these Rays do things.

Now the Rays are in the World Series. Just like in 2008, the other Tampa Bay pennant season, there are going to be numerous examinations about how a no-star team with a rock-bottom payroll can end up in the World Series.

Those examinations are worth conducting, but ultimately, they are going to come up empty. The Rays succeed because they have to. You can apply the same principles and follow the same methods and crunch the same numbers, but you probably can’t come up with the same answer. Because you’re not the Rays.

The Rays do not have superstars. They have a roster full of excellent baseball players, even if a lot of players on that list weren’t that special when they toiled for someone else. It’s like rooting for ants, or a Rotten Tomatoes score, or the All-Star Game voting.

Keep that in mind when the Rays match up in the World Series against the Dodgers or the Braves. You might scan their roster and wonder how that team of drones could end up in the Fall Classic. Don’t. The Rays are the collective wisdom of the baseball masses.

“We believe in our process,” Cash said. “And we will continue doing that.”

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MLB

Alabama remains the SEC king, Trevor Lawrence remains unstoppable and more from Week 7

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

You come at the king, you best not miss.

That’s a quote from “The Wire,” but there is a good chance the writers of that show stole it from Nick Saban.

Saturday was supposed to feature a wounded Alabama. It was a week of turmoil amid Saban’s COVID-19 test that, apparently, was a false positive. It was a week in which the defense was rightfully questioned following a dismal performance against Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss last weekend. It was a week in which the balance of power in the SEC appeared to teeter just a bit into Georgia’s favor.

But we’ve been here before, right? Twenty-two times to be exact.

On Saturday night, Kirby Smart lost to his mentor once again, as Georgia fell 41-24 to Bama, the third crushing blow (see 2017, 2018 below) in the past few years, again in a storyline that felt familiar. Georgia lands a blow, then another and another. Alabama appears to be on the brink of despair. And then it all turns — a twist ending that doesn’t exactly inspire much surprise.

In the 2017 season’s title game, Georgia led 13-0 at the half. It lost.

In the 2018 SEC championship game, Georgia led 21-14 at the half. It lost.

On Saturday, Georgia led 24-20 at the half. It lost.

And though we weren’t sure Saban would even coach in this game until Saturday afternoon, he has now run his record against former assistants to an astonishing 22-0.

That Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones had another terrific day — posting numbers through four weeks that rival his predecessor, Tua Tagovailoa — is another astounding feet of Alabama wizardry. There was a time when Saban won, year after year, with QB mediocrity. Now he churns out All-Americans like they’re Pez. Jones finished Saturday with a ridiculous 417 yards and four TDs to burnish his increasingly impressive Heisman Trophy résumé.

Jones’ success deserves platitudes, but he is working with some of the best offensive players in the business. Darth Vader orchestrated a heck of an empire, but dominating the galaxy is easier with a Death Star.

The thing is, there have been more than a few reasons of late to wonder if perhaps Alabama has a weakness too. Saturday marked the first time since 2006 that the Tide allowed 21 points or more in the first half of back-to-back games. It was only the second time since 2008 that Bama allowed 24 points or more in three straight games. It was the first time since 2011 that Saban went to the half without a lead in consecutive games.

And what did it all mean?

Nada.

Sure, Alabama has faltered over the years. And yes, LSU offered lightning in a bottle in 2019, leaving Alabama in its dust. These were speed bumps. The power structure reshuffled momentarily, only for order to be quickly restored.

That’s what Saturday was all about.

Think you’ve got Alabama figured out? Good luck stopping Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie III and … Seriously, Georgia was arguably the best defense in the country coming into Saturday’s game, and still the Bulldogs crumbled under the weight of the Tide’s talented skill guys.

Is the defense still elite? There have been cracks in the armor. But look around college football: It’s all offense. Alabama is just representative of the times, a unit still rocking the denim jacket and listening to REO Speedwagon but suddenly not looking so cool. But hey, denim and REO Speedwagon are still pretty great, and the Crimson Tide showed in a dominant second half that they’re no pushover.

This wild season still has its share of twists and turns ahead, to be sure. But make no mistake about how the SEC’s power structure stacks up today: It’s Alabama — and then a bunch of teams still trying to find the secret to Saban’s magic.

Clemson drops 73(!) points on Georgia Tech

It was an embarrassingly poor performance from the vaunted Clemson offense.

Sure, sure, you might point to the first 55 minutes of action when Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers hung 73 on Georgia Tech, but that was all window dressing. Let’s focus on the most important thing: the final drive.

Clemson gained just 24 yards on seven plays and its quarterback — who, admittedly, was also its punter — completed only two of his three throws. The result? A punt. Was Will Spiers purposefully ruining the offense so he could get a chance to punt? We can’t rule that out.

OK, so maybe we’re digging a bit here. What else can you do to recap a 73-7 performance that was as dominant as Clemson has ever looked? It was the most points the Tigers scored since beating Furman 94-0 in 1915. Which begs the question: Why didn’t Dabo Swinney keep his foot on the gas? Surely, if Lawrence had played another couple of drives, Clemson could have hit 100.

The Tigers have now won 37 straight regular-season games, the third-longest streak in the AP Poll era, trailing only the 1953-57 Oklahoma Sooners, who won 45 straight, and the 2000-03 Miami Hurricanes, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

Saturday’s victory had Lawrence throwing for 390 yards and five touchdowns — in the first half. It had defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney running for a touchdown. It had fourth-string QB Hunter Helms throwing two TDs of his own. At one point, Travis Etienne ran for a touchdown while drinking an Ocean Spray and lip-synching Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” (Note: We don’t really understand TikTok, but we wanted to engage with the younger demographic.)

But, if you’re tired of watching all these Clemson blowouts, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Up next is the most recent team to beat the Tigers in the regular season: Syracuse. Just don’t do any research on how the Orange are doing now.

The Big Blue defense dominates

Kentucky did what seemed impossible on Saturday. It won in Knoxville. The Wildcats hadn’t gone on the road to beat Tennessee since “Ghostbusters” was in theaters, “where’s the beef?” became a catchphrase, and the last great Van Halen album was released (RIP Eddie).

It was clearly something to celebrate.

And if you didn’t know any better, you might assume Kentucky was rolling right along after winning its past two games by a combined score of 58-9. And if you were talking about the defense, you’d be right.

While the Wildcats have won two straight blowouts, they’ve totaled just 451 yards of offense in the two games. How strange is that? Only two teams in the past decade have had two wins by 20 points or more without topping 300 yards of offense in either game in a full season. Kentucky has now done it in back-to-back weeks.

Credit Mark Stoops’ tremendous defense, which has 10 takeaways in the past two games and has matched its own offense in touchdowns, each with three.

Welcome to the panic room

With the Big Ten and others on the brink of opening their seasons, a few teams around the country are already wondering if their 2020 campaigns have reached a breaking point, including an ugly Saturday for Syracuse, Auburn, Tennessee, Notre Dame and others.

So, is it time to panic?

Auburn: Panic!

Step back in the time machine all the way to November 2013. Auburn won two miracle games — on a tipped pass against Georgia and the infamous Kick Six vs. Alabama — to advance to the SEC championship and, subsequently, the national title game. Those were high times on The Plains. Since then? A seemingly endless stretch of mediocrity. In fact, Gus Malzahn is now 33-30 vs. Power 5 opponents since the Kick Six, including Saturday’s latest flub to unranked South Carolina. The bigger concern is that supposed savior Bo Nix was again entirely middling, but that belies the real splits. Nix is 8-1 at home with 11 TDs and no interceptions (vs. admittedly below-average competition), and his numbers away from Jordan-Hare are downright brutal: 58.5% completions, 5.68 yards/pass, 10 touchdowns and 10 picks.

Tennessee QBs: Don’t panic.

Jarrett Guarantano threw two first-quarter pick-sixes in Tennessee’s loss to Kentucky, and Vols’ QBs are now just 27-of-49 for 203 yards and four picks in their last six quarters of action. But what are you going to do if you’re Tennessee? Dismissing Guarantano is like bad-mouthing your friend’s ex, knowing full well they’ll get back together again in a week or two. Such was the case for Tennessee fans. After pulling Guarantano following his second INT, Harrison Bailey came in and immediately threw a pick of his own. Truth is, this Tennessee team was never going to win the SEC East on the arm of its QB, but Guarantano still is the best option to win a few more games this year.

Notre Dame receivers: Panic!

Sure, the Irish came away with a 12-7 win over Louisville and remain undefeated, but let’s temper any enthusiasm by offering a reminder that its opponents are just 1-13 vs. other FBS foes. A bigger worry — particularly if the Irish hope to topple Clemson for an ACC title — is the absence of a downfield passing game. Ian Book was just 11-of-19 for 107 yards against Louisville, and through three games, the Irish wide receivers have just two TDs and three completions of 20 yards or more. Without finding some sort of threat on the outside, Clemson’s defense will be licking its chops.

Mike Leach’s offense: Don’t panic.

After a slow start against Texas A&M, Mike Leach set a new mark in his long career — his longest stretch without a touchdown. From late in the third quarter against Arkansas two weeks ago to early in the third quarter against the Aggies in Saturday’s loss, Mississippi State totaled two points — coming from a Kentucky safety. Even still, in the three games after a record-setting opener vs. LSU, Leach’s crew has managed just 30 points total. That’s pretty bad, but it’s not exactly out of character for a Leach rebuild. In his first season at Texas Tech, he had five games when scoring less than 20, and his team averaged just 25 points per game. The rest of the way with the Red Raiders, he averaged 38 points per game. At Washington State, he had six games of 20 or less points his first season, and the team finished 3-9, averaging just 20 points per game. The rest of his career, he averaged 29. Leach’s system is a simple one, but it still doesn’t typically change a team overnight.

Not-quite-Heisman Five

Justin Fields hits the field next week. Trevor Lawrence offered a five-touchdown exclamation point on his Heisman resumé Saturday. The SEC’s top QBs remain in contention.

But look outside the big names, and there are plenty of players having big seasons who probably won’t need to make room for a Heisman in their trophy cases. We figured this was a good time to give them a little love, too. These are our top five under-the-radar, probably-not-gonna-happen candidates.

1. Virginia Tech RB Khalil Herbert

He had only played three games before this weekend, but the Virginia Tech tailback entered Saturday leading the nation in all-purpose yards with 739. Against BC, he added a whole lot more to those totals. Herbert ran for 143 yards in the Hokies’ 40-14 win, becoming the first ACC back to do that since Matt Dayes in 2015. For the game, Herbert finished with 223 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

2. Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall

Raise your hand if you had Coastal Carolina at 4-0 to start the season. The Chanticleers are now well positioned to win the Sun Belt after upsetting Louisiana on Wednesday, and McCall is a huge reason why. The freshman QB is averaging nearly 11 yards per pass and has accounted for 14 touchdowns and just one pick so far.

3. Arkansas State QBs Layne Hatcher and Logan Bonner

Can we slice the Heisman in half and give a part to each of these guys? (Note: The Heisman is filled with chocolate.) In the last decade, only Texas Tech has had two different QBs throw for three touchdowns in the same game multiple times, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Arkansas State has now done it in each of the last two weeks. The Red Wolves two-QB system is producing big results, with Bonner and Hatcher combining for 1,834 passing yards and 21 TDs through five games.

4. UCF QB Dillon Gabriel

With the Knights riding a two-game losing streak, it might be easy to overlook their QB, but that would be a mistake. Gabriel was brilliant Saturday against Memphis, throwing for 601 yards and five TDs without a pick, while running for another score. For the season, he’s averaging 9.3 yards-per-pass with 14 TDs and 2 interceptions.

5. Arkansas S Jalen Catalon

All due respect to Grant Morgan, the senior linebacker who had 19 tackles, three tackles for loss and a pick Saturday, but there’s a good case to be made that the biggest difference in the Razorbacks’ defense in 2020 is the addition of the redshirt freshman safety. Catalon had nine tackles, a pick and a fumble recovery in Saturday’s win, and his 45 tackles puts him near the top of the SEC leaderboard. A year ago, Arkansas’ secondary allowed more than 8 yards per pass. So far this year, they’re allowing just 5.5.

Travis leads the Noles

Even in a win, Florida State doesn’t make it easy. But two North Carolina drops on the final two throws of the game gave the Seminoles their biggest win in years, 31-28 over North Carolina, and a huge moment for coach Mike Norvell.

Truth is, Florida State hung on. The defense struggled in the second half. The offense shot itself in the foot. And if you’re a pessimist, it would be easy enough to find reasons to diminish the celebration. But don’t be that person. This is FSU, a team desperate for some good news, and on Saturday, it came.

The difference for FSU was the quarterback, and Jordan Travis has offered a spark that the program has desperately needed. He led a comeback win over Jacksonville State three weeks ago. He gave Notre Dame fits last week. And on Saturday, he was the guy still making plays even when the rest of the team seemed to be crumbling around him.

How good has Travis been?

Since the start of last season, Florida State has averaged 5.42 yards per play, 7.45 yards per pass and 3.27 yards per rush when Travis was on the sideline. When he is been on the field, the Seminoles average 7 yards per play, 9.3 yards per pass and 6.1 yards per rush — nearly twice their average without him.

Syracuse: It’s almost basketball season.

Getting crushed by Liberty at home is bad. Having the Flames taunt you on social media is even worse. Can Jim Boeheim fix this somehow? There’s no chance the 2-3 zone would have allowed Liberty to run for 338 yards at home.

Best bets and bad beats

  • West Virginia backers likely weren’t feeling too good about their bets when Kansas jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but of course, this is still Kansas we’re talking about. The Jayhawks seemed pleased to call it a day after the early lead, and the Mountaineers quickly reeled off 38 straight points. It should have been an easy cover as West Virginia kicked off with 1:45 to play, but Pooka Williams Jr. returned the kick 92 yards to the end zone, leaving all parties disappointed with a push. But hey, at least it was a nice moment for anyone who had the over. The TD pushed the total to 55, covering the over by 5.

  • The line closed at 11.5, but with the availability of Pitt QB Kenny Pickett in doubt throughout the week, Miami had been favored by as much as 14 at times. Depending on when you grabbed it, the final two minutes might have proved awfully frustrating. Miami led by 12, drove to the Pitt 15 with 1:48 to play, then ran out the clock by taking a knee the rest of the way. If you bought in at kickoff, there was no stress. But if you had Miami -12 or more from earlier in the week, you were likely begging Manny Diaz to just kick a field goal and run up the score a tick more.

  • It is not typically a wise decision to give 27 points backing a road team, but Clemson offers more confidence than most teams. It’s far less often you can flip the channel at halftime when you’re giving 27 on the road. But again, Clemson is a little different. The Tigers hung 52 on Georgia Tech in the first half and cruised to a 73-7 win that was just the latest easy cover for the Tigers. Dabo Swinney has made a habit of taking the first few weeks of each season as a chance to play nutty professor with personnel and the playbook, but when the calendar hits October, there’s no stopping Clemson. In games after the first Saturday in October, the Tigers are now 17-3 in the past three seasons, including covering 13 of their last 14 — the lone exception coming against LSU in last year’s national championship game.

  • Eastern Kentucky was oh-so-close to pulling off a shocker at Troy. EKU had already been dealt blowout losses to Marshall and West Virginia in games against FBS foes, and it was a 27-point underdog on the road against a solid Trojans team. But a 4-yard TD pass with 21 seconds to go Saturday gave the Colonels a 29-28 lead that would’ve paid out at +1600, according to the Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. But no such luck for what was certainly a huge club of EKU backers. Troy returned the ensuing kickoff to its 40, completed back-to-back passes of 15 yards, and then booted a 47-yard field goal to win it, 31-29. Even better? The total for the game was 60, and the field goal resulted in a push.

Overreaction of the week

Trevor Lawrence threw an interception, his first in nearly a year. Georgia Tech’s Zamari Walton intercepted a Lawrence throw late in the first quarter Saturday, ending a streak of 366 throws without a pick. That left Lawrence just 12 shy of matching Russell Wilson’s ACC record. But despite this egregious performance, we’re going to predict the Clemson QB is going to move past the interception and still will be pretty good moving forward.

Under-reaction of the week

Sam Pittman is the coach of the year and it doesn’t matter what happens from here. Sure, it’d be tough to vote for a guy who could still finish 2-8, but we’d do it anyway. Arkansas beat Ole Miss 33-21 on Saturday, winning its second SEC game of the season, something that hasn’t happened since 2016. In fact, from 2017 through 2019, the Razorbacks won just two games total in SEC play. And had it not been for a controversial call a week ago against Auburn, Pittman’s team would be 3-1 right now. Short of UTEP making a late playoff push, there’s no chance anyone is writing a better comeback story than Pittman is at Arkansas.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Is there ever a bad UCF-Memphis game? In 2017, the American was settled with a raucous 62-55 UCF win in double overtime, when Memphis erased a 48-34 fourth-quarter deficit and McKenzie Milton accounted for more than 550 yards and six TDs. In 2018, they played twice. The first was a game where UCF trailed 30-14 late in the third quarter but won 31-30. Then in that year’s AAC title game, UCF used a 21-point fourth quarter to win 56-41, too. So, could the Knights rip the heart out of Memphis again Saturday? It sured looked that way as UCF led 35-14 in the second half, but it all fell apart as Memphis QB Brady White engineered a ridiculous comeback, taking a 50-49 lead with 1:08 to play, only to see Dillon Gabriel march the Knights downfield into field-goal range … but miss from 39 yards out. It marks the first time UCF has lost consecutive games since November, 2016.

Under-the-radar (re)play of the week

Louisville had just scored to take a 7-6 lead against Notre Dame. Scott Satterfield called for the on-side kick, and the Cardinals appeared to execute it beautifully, recovering the kick poised to deliver a dagger to the Irish. Instead, a replay caught Louisville blocking a Notre Dame player before the ball went 10 yards, and officials threw a post-replay flag, forcing the Cardinals to kick again. This time, they booted it deep, Notre Dame drove 66 yards on eight plays and scored on an eye-popping Ian Book run. That proved to be the difference in the game. So, kudos to the officials for getting the play right — even if it took replay to get there. On the other hand, they also moved the chains after an 8-yard run on first down on the next drive, so perhaps keep the pats on the back to a minimum.

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MLB

Three offseason questions for Astros after historic comeback falls short

  • Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
  • Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
  • Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
  • Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

The Houston Astros are the second team ever to force a Game 7 after falling behind 3-0 in the MLB playoffs.

Now they’re the first team to do that — and then lose that Game 7.

No, there won’t be any 2004 Boston Red Sox magic for Houston, which started the year with a sign-stealing scandal and ended the regular season with a sub-.500 record, but looked a lot more like the defending American League champions in October. But it’ll be the Tampa Bay Rays who move on to the 2020 World Series.

Bradford Doolittle takes a look at where the Astros stand and answers three key questions for the club moving forward to 2021 and beyond.

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Basketball

How Daryl Morey challenged NBA norms and almost won it all

    Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.

Any eulogy for Daryl Morey’s groundbreaking tenure as Houston Rockets general manager should probably start with the 2017-18 season — when Houston took a 3-2 lead in the conference finals over perhaps the greatest team ever assembled, and might have upset those Golden State Warriors had Chris Paul not suffered a hamstring injury at the end of Game 5.

Morey’s critics — and there are many — might clown him today upon his resignation for failing to win a title; underestimating the importance of chemistry and culture; and tossing away much of Houston’s future to build a team — centered around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but without any centers — that is not good enough to win the title now and only projects to get worse as the Western Conference gets better.

Some of those criticisms have merit, even if some of the critics delivering them do so at least in part out of some visceral and almost personal distaste for what Morey represents: the invasion of analytics into basketball decision-making, and all the stylistic consequences of the revolution Morey portended. Morey is not the only analytics-savvy person to assume a position of enormous power within an NBA team. But he was the forerunner, and his influence on the game — on the rise of the 3-pointer, the advance of metrics to evaluate defense, hiring patterns within teams, much more — has been massive. It is reasonable to argue NBA basketball is both more mathematically efficient and (with some teams) less interesting to watch because of Morey.

But just remember that 2017-18 Rockets team that won 65 games and pushed Golden State to the limit — including in a Game 7 that was closer than some people remember, and close enough for Houston (in a fit of bitterness that came back to bite them) to produce a report arguing referees cost the Rockets the series.

Morey was good for the league because he was willing to go for it. Some teams cowered before the Warriors’ dynasty once Kevin Durant signed there. Morey didn’t. He has long argued that any team with a 5% chance to win the title in any given season should go all-in — that any title window, even a 5% sliver, is too precious to squander with risk-averse behavior. He lived up to his word after Houston acquired Harden, a trade years in the making that altered the NBA’s landscape in ways that still reverberate.

After the Warriors’ 16-1 scorched-earth run to the title in Durant’s first season there, Morey told ESPN he still wasn’t backing down — that he had “something up [his] sleeve.” That something turned out to be a megatrade bringing Paul from the LA Clippers.

No team besides Houston won more than a single game in any playoff series against the Warriors over 2017 and 2018. Houston got three in 2018. There is no shame in losing to the Durant-era Warriors. Sometimes, a historically great team — this one enabled by a fluke salary-cap spike — is just too good.

The second Paul-Harden team bowed out to the Warriors one round earlier in 2019, in one fewer game, even with Durant sitting out the end of Game 5 and all of Game 6 with a calf injury. The Warriors, dancing and sneering all over Houston’s home floor down the stretch of Game 6, broke the Rockets’ spirit and closed down that era of Houston basketball.

But it wasn’t an era, really. Paul and Harden lasted two seasons, and then it was time to pivot again — to chase another star, another identity, another chance to find something sustainable around Harden.

Maybe the constant reshuffling around Harden — the lusting for superstars intrinsic to Morey’s stars-over-everything philosophy — cost Houston some ineffable continuity or trust that every champion must have. It’s certainly a tempting logical leap. Just remember in taking that leap how close the Rockets got in 2018, and what a juggernaut it took to derail them. Morey’s way could have worked.

Maybe the constant reshuffling is linked to Harden himself — the challenges of his style of play. If so, is that about Harden or Morey — or both of them?

Harden and Morey have become so closely connected that it is very hard now to untangle one from the other. From the moment Houston acquired Harden late on a Saturday night in October 2012, Harden became the on-court avatar for so much of what Morey believes about basketball: an algorithm come to life, all 3s, layups, and free throws.

Acquiring Harden was Morey’s masterstroke. Houston has made the playoffs all eight years since, the league’s longest-running streak. It was the culmination of almost a half-decade’s work that began as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady declined.

Yao and McGrady were true-blue superstars. Morey understood any team hoping to win a championship had to feature a top-10 player, and likely two. There were exceptions, of course. But exceptions were by definition long shots, and Morey was interested only in what gave his team the best shot. History said that was two stars, and you can’t get the second without one already on the roster.

The easiest way to get a star is to tank. Easiest is not the same as easy. The NBA’s lottery does not guarantee anyone the No. 1 pick, and even picking there does not guarantee the chance to select a franchise superstar. Every path to a superstar is a bad-odds path. Some are less bad than others. Tanking is the least bad. That is why Sam Hinkie, Morey’s longtime lieutenant, triggered The Process in Philadelphia — and why Morey would likely not be averse to taking that route if his next job (he does want one, sources say) comes with a green light from ownership to play the draft game and circumstances that favor it.

(There is uncertainty around the league over whether Morey’s role in igniting the NBA’s China controversy — with a tweet in support of Hong Kong — might make some teams wary about the fallout of hiring him. In a vacuum, Morey should shoot toward the top of the candidate list for any open front-office job.)

Leslie Alexander, the former owner of the Rockets, wanted Houston to stay relevant. Morey would have to tread water while somehow cobbling assets to trade for a star.

Every move the Rockets made was geared toward that theoretical superstar trade. They acquired extra first-round picks for Aaron Brooks, Jordan Hill, and a young Kyle Lowry. When Harden became available, they threw everything they had at Oklahoma City.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was skepticism about how good Harden could really be. He came off the bench in Oklahoma City. Some potential suitors did not share Houston’s belief in Harden’s star potential. There was much snickering, including in the local Oklahoma City media, when Harden shot 2-of-17 in an October 2012 preseason game both Durant and Westbrook sat out: That’s what life as a No. 1 option is.

The Rockets saw it all along. They were not the only team to see it, but they were the only one among those who did in the right moment — and with the right assets — to strike an agreeable deal.

Morey then spent his working life crafting an on-court identity around Harden, and searching for second and third stars to complement him. After years hoarding picks, Morey began trading them.

He lured Dwight Howard from the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2013 — considered a coup then. A year later, he tried to sign Chris Bosh away from the Miami Heat as the Heat were reeling from LeBron James’ departure. Morey was confident enough in Houston’s chances that he gave the Lakers a first-round pick to take Jeremy Lin — and unlock the cap space required for Bosh. (The Rockets also lost Chandler Parsons that summer after declining a cheap option on him, but pivoted by snagging Trevor Ariza — who became an indispensable role player.)

Houston made the conference finals in 2015, and Morey then traded another first-round pick to acquire Ty Lawson from Denver — where Lawson had fallen out of favor in part because of a DUI arrest. As part of the deal, Morey somehow persuaded Lawson to make his contract non-guaranteed for 2016-17. Part of Morey’s legacy to date is his stretching the collective bargaining agreement to its breaking point. He helped pioneer the concept of reverse-protected picks in trading Lowry to the Toronto Raptors, and was ahead of the curve extending players — including Harden — before most teams would have contemplated doing so. In other cases, Morey’s creativity backfired — including in his attempt a year ago to sign Nene to a bonus-laden deal designed to make his contract an artificial trade asset. (The league vetoed it.)

Houston fell to 41-41 in 2015-16; the Harden-Howard synergy dissipated. Howard walked that summer — a mutually acceptable divorce, something that would become a pattern. The Rockets then veered from character, splurging on Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — non-stars. There were rumors Morey was on thin ice. He acknowledged the moves ran counter to his track record. “Last year hurt us in terms of perception around the league,” Morey told ESPN at the start of the 2016-17 season. “We felt like if we didn’t have a more successful season this year, our ability to be a top destination would be hurt.”

Morey traded another first-round pick for Lou Williams in 2017, but the Rockets fell in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs — with Harden wilting in the clincher. Anderson’s salary became an albatross. Gordon’s extension, which runs through at least 2023, looks like one now.

The Rockets appeared stuck — before Morey traded Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, another first-round pick, and some other assets for Paul. Clint Capela was the only homegrown first-round pick left on Houston’s roster. Morey also landed P.J. Tucker for about $8 million per season — a shrewd signing. They leaned into a switch-everything defense and more isolation on offense — reinvention after reinvention.

Two years later, the Paul-Harden partnership expired just as the Harden-Howard tandem had. (In fairness, Howard had trouble finding a home before landing with the Lakers this season.) In one last, wild swing, Morey swapped Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps for Westbrook. It was an overpay for a much worse fit. Westbrook’s jumper so impinged on Harden’s driving lanes that the Rockets had to trade Capela and another first-round pick for Robert Covington.

Harden has become the only constant. He isn’t the center of Houston’s universe so much as he comprises the entire universe. They get the players he wants — no matter the cost.

They play the way he wants. Perhaps that has a shelf life. Players and coaches talk often about how staying involved on offense — touching the ball, moving around — motivates players to go hard on defense, and keeps morale high.

Mike D’Antoni hoped winning would resolve any chafing from everyone else about standing still to watch the Harden show.

“There is something to the human nature of it,” D’Antoni said in 2016. “But I don’t want to believe it. Because when they feel their paycheck every two weeks, shouldn’t that make you play hard on both ends? Look: You have to be a star in your role. And here, your role is: When James gets the ball to you, shoot it, and then run back and play hard as heck.”

Players did chafe, off and on. Houston has not had much of a Plan B in tough playoff games. The math says Harden isolating is the best option, and the Rockets under the Morey-Harden regime obeyed the math. The monotonous predictability of it is one reason Harden has struggled in the biggest moments of his biggest games. Harden refuses to move away from the ball. Take it from him, and he recedes into nothingness.

Morey and Harden have been equal partners in building the Rockets. If Houston has sacrificed culture, continuity, and damn near every future asset at the altar of efficiency, that is on both of them.

Contrary to the popular caricature of him, Morey has said chemistry matters. But he would probably also say it doesn’t matter quite as much as we think it does — that we sometimes fetishize it, or assign it importance in hindsight. Star talent matters, above all.

That philosophy got Houston to the precipice of history. Houston falling short does not invalidate Morey’s tenure.

The Westbrook trade leaves a stain. For the first time since acquiring Harden, the Rockets’ short- and medium-term future feel rickety. They are out so many picks that retooling via the draft and trades will prove difficult. If things go south, they may have to explore the trade market for Harden, who has two guaranteed seasons left on his deal — plus a $47 million player option for 2022-23.

The Rockets are not nearly ready to go there as they fill their coaching vacancy. They want to win, as they did year after year after year under Morey. Perhaps the best sign of Morey’s success is that the league at large mimicked Houston’s embrace of the 3-pointer — an imitation that flattered Morey, but also reduced his mathematical edge.

He tried to bump it back up by dispensing with centers, and going all-in on small ball. In Year 1, it failed. Houston’s next reinvention — another cycle of churn — falls to someone else now.

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Basketball

Are LeBron’s four NBA titles better than Jordan’s six?

  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus series
  • Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
  • Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system

How does LeBron James’ NBA Finals résumé compare to Michael Jordan’s?

The MJ-LeBron debate centers heavily on their performances on the NBA’s biggest stage. For Jordan partisans, the Chicago Bulls’ 6-0 record in Finals series — with MJ winning MVP each time — is indisputable proof of his superiority. For James believers, his 10 Finals appearances are emblematic of LeBron’s longer record of accomplishment.

Let’s take a closer look at how both superstars have performed in the NBA Finals.

What do LeBron’s and MJ’s overall Finals track records tell us about the choice between them as the greatest of all time?

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