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WNBA players to wear T-shirts opposing Dream owner

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WNBA players are wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to games this week to support Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is challenging Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) for her Senate seat.

Last month Loeffler wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to the league’s promotion of Black Lives Matter — which is painted on the courts at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where the league is holding its return — and instead advocating for teams to add American flags to jerseys.

Elizabeth Williams, a forward on the Atlanta Dream, told ESPN that the league’s executive committee began exploring the shirt idea as a response to Sen. Loeffler’s statements, because “for effective change to happen, there has to be policy changes. And so if we’re going to sit here and talk about wanting justice reform, part of that is making sure that we have officials in office that understand that.”

Williams said that the Dream and other players have made a coordinated effort not to discuss Sen. Loeffler or her statements in recent weeks, and instead focused on how they could best support a candidate they felt better represented their political views.

“I think when all this stuff started happening with her, we didn’t want to feel like we were pawns,” Williams said. “We can only control so much about what the league does [in regard to Sen. Loeffler], and so for us, we wanted it to be bigger than that.

“That’s kind of been the theme of this season. So we wanted to make sure we could still keep the focus on our social justice movement, and funny enough, Reverend Warnock is somebody who supports everything that we support and just happens to be running in that seat. So it just worked out really well.”

Williams said that Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird initially came up with the idea.

Bird told ESPN that participation in the campaign to support Warnock is voluntary and that all players have discussed the idea over Zoom calls while at the IMG Academy, where the season resumed in late July.

“This was a situation where given what was said in regards to the owner of Atlanta, and how, basically, she came out against a lot of what the women in our league stand for, I think was emotionally tough for a lot of the women in our league to hear that,” Bird said. “But very quickly we started to realize that this was only happening for her political gain. This was something that she wanted. And the more noise we made, whether it was a tweet saying to get her out, that was just playing into her hands.

“I’m not some political strategist, but what I do know is that voting is important. And I think our league has always encouraged people to use their voices and to get out and vote.

“So, what a great way for us to get the word out about this man, and hopefully put him in Senate. And, if he’s in Senate, you know who’s not. And I’ll just leave it at that.”

Last month, Loeffler told ESPN that she fears that the WNBA’s public support for the Black Lives Matter movement could drive some fans away.

“I think a lot of people feel that they may not have a place,” Loeffler said. “They may feel excluded from this sport and other sports that make them feel like American values aren’t at the core of what we’re doing here.”

She also contends that there is a difference between saying “Black lives matter” and the organization Black Lives Matter.

“I think we all agree the life of every African American is important,” Loeffler said. “There’s no room for racism in this country, and we have to root it out where it exists. But there’s a political organization called Black Lives Matter that I think is very important to make the distinction between their aim and where we are as a country at this moment.

“The Black Lives Matter political organization advocates things like defunding and abolishing the police, abolishing our military, emptying our prisons, destroying the nuclear family. It promotes violence and anti-Semitism. To me, this is not what our league stands for.”

Former Atlanta Dream player Layshia Clarendon, who has written and spoken out about Loeffler’s comments, was also heavily involved in the planning of the WNBA players’ campaign.

“It’s important for us to support voting and the overall campaign to flip the Senate,” said Clarendon, who now plays for the New York Liberty. “We want people in office who support the same values and morals as we do. Rev. Warnock is pro criminal justice reform, for LGBT+ rights, and pro choice/reproductive rights. Those are the kind of people we want representing us, because that’s what our league stands for.”

ESPN’s Holly Rowe contributed to this report.

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What’s real and not in the conference finals?

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All four teams are still afloat in the NBA’s conference finals — and things just keep getting spicier.

The Boston Celtics kept their season going by beating the Miami Heat in Friday’s Game 5 121-108. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are hoping to make yet another improbable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, this time against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.

Ahead of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Saturday (9 p.m., TNT/ESPN Radio), our experts take a look at what to believe in these series. From Anthony Davis‘ starring role in the Lakers’ push to make the Finals for the first time in a decade to the Celtics and Heat perhaps giving us a glimpse of the future of the East, we’re sorting out what’s real or not.

MORE: Three ways the Lakers can prevent another 3-1 Nuggets comeback

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Anthony Davis puts up 34 points in the Lakers’ 114-108 win vs. the Nuggets in Game 4.

Real or Not: Anthony Davis is the very early favorite for Finals MVP

Not real, for two reasons: LeBron James and Bam Adebayo.

James has worked all season to set up his new star teammate as the team’s primary scorer, but he remains the captain of the ship. James led the Lakers in both offensive and defensive real plus minus (RPM) this season, and ranked second in the NBA in overall RPM. Add in that this would be the Finals — assuming Denver doesn’t recover from a 3-1 series deficit yet again — and James has been living for this moment since signing with the Lakers two summers ago.

The Finals are where James can best add to his historic résumé. He has the chance to become the first player to win Finals MVP with three different franchises, to secure his place among the legends who have led Los Angeles to the top, and to deliver an NBA record-tying 17th Lakers championship — in the same year that Kobe Bryant died.

In addition — again, if the Lakers advance and happen to face the Heat — Davis probably would be matched up with Adebayo, who has the length, strength and quickness to defend Davis at a level that he has not encountered this postseason. Adebayo was a huge factor in limiting league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Heat’s matchup with the Bucks, and ranks 11th in the NBA in DRPM.

Davis excels at driving to the rim, averaging 1.151 points per direct drive to rank fourth in the NBA among players with at least 150 direct drives, according to Second Spectrum. Meanwhile, Adebayo gives up only 0.828 points per direct drive, ranking seventh in the NBA among players who have defended at least 150 direct drives.

So Adebayo is elite at preventing Davis’ preferred scoring avenue. That would seemingly make him poised to limit the star big man in a potential Finals matchup.

— Andre Snellings

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Dwyane Wade breaks down why the Heat were perfectly assembled for a postseason run in the NBA bubble format.

Real or Not: The Heat are this season’s team of destiny

In a normal world, are the Heat as dominant as they’ve been through most of this postseason? Maybe not. But we aren’t in a normal world — and this particular Heat group is not a normal team. Friday’s result notwithstanding, Miami is still one win from the Finals with three rounds of momentum.

As Miami lifer Udonis Haslem said a few weeks back, the Heat are “built for the bubble.” The players trust one another on the floor and they are mentally tough enough as a group to handle seemingly any obstacle. There is balance throughout the roster and a belief that everyone will do their jobs.

The confidence within this group isn’t new, either. They’ve been talking as if they could win a championship all season. The Heat knew long before the rest of the basketball world just how special Tyler Herro could be and how dangerous Duncan Robinson is from deep. They recognized that Adebayo was developing into one of the best big men in the game. They trusted that veterans Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala could fit into their hard-nosed culture.

Most importantly, they figured their organizational structure — and the bubble environment — would bring out the best in Jimmy Butler. They showed confidence in acquiring him last summer after issues in his previous stops, and that faith has been rewarded in the postseason.

The doubters will surely reemerge after the Heat blew a 12-point lead Friday to keep the Eastern Conference finals going. But every time Butler and the Heat have been doubted this season — and especially in the bubble — they have gotten the last laugh.

Why should anybody believe it’s going to stop now?

— Nick Friedell

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Jamal Murray goes off in Game 4 for 32 points as the Nuggets fall to the Lakers.

Real or Not: Jamal Murray will be a 2021 All-Star

Jamal Murray has burst into the national consciousness by leading Denver to the Western Conference finals, and one could argue that he has evolved from a top starter to a franchise-level guard between when the season was postponed in mid-March and now.

But when looking at the 2021 All-Star selection process, we need to take a big-picture approach and not just look at what Murray has accomplished during the 2020 playoffs (26.9 points per game, 51% shooting from the field and 46.6% from 3).

There are two questions around why Murray could fall short of making his first All-Star appearance next year.

The first is, what version of Murray are we going to see in 2021? The player who averaged 18.5 points on 34.6% from 3 during the 2019-20 regular season or the fearless star from the 2020 playoffs? Can he play at an All-Star level on a consistent basis?

The more important question about Murray’s All-Star candidacy surrounds the heavy pool of excellent guards in the Western Conference.

Murray finished 23rd among backcourt players in 2020 All-Star West fan voting, earning just under 140,000 votes. The top two guards in the conference — Luka Doncic and James Harden — received more than 3.5 million votes (Doncic totaled 6.1 million). Even if Murray continues his torrid play next season, it’s unlikely that he will get voted in.

And if you thought getting voted in would be tough, take a look at the guards he probably will be competing with for one of the four reserve spots: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Devin Booker. If Curry returns to MVP form and Lillard is playing at an All-NBA level, there are only two spots left.

The Nuggets’ success during the 2021 season could play a role here, though. If Denver is in the top five of the Western Conference at the deadline to submit All-Star reserves, Murray could get the benefit of the doubt from the coaches even if his statistics are less stellar than players such as Booker and Gilgeous-Alexander.

— Bobby Marks


Real or Not: Celtics-Heat will be the Eastern Conference finals matchup again next season

I’m not bold enough to predict which of the Eastern Conference finalists won’t make it back to this stage next season. Boston and Miami certainly both have the foundations in place to make it a possibility, with the Celtics’ core of quality vets to complement arguably the league’s best under-23 tandem and the Heat’s crop of rapidly developing young stars who thrive under Butler’s brand of leadership.

But the odds are against a conference finals rematch, simply because there’s too much competition. I’d roll the dice on one of the East’s other three contenders — the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets — eliminating either the Celtics or Heat.

The Bucks might be the NBA’s most fascinating team over the next year, as they attempt to get over the hump and probably deal with the looming cloud of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency. It’s on ownership and the front office to make the roster upgrades to maximize the chances of a title run that would guarantee he stays in Milwaukee. It’s on Antetokounmpo — still only 25 — to develop the diversity in his offensive game required to be the go-to guy on a championship team.

The Raptors proved this season that they weren’t a one-hit wonder doomed by Kawhi Leonard‘s departure. Pascal Siakam had a miserable second round against the Celtics, but I’d bet on him using that as fuel to bounce back strong, considering his track record of developing from a raw project to an All-NBA selection in four seasons.

It remains to be seen how close Kevin Durant will be to the pre-Achilles’ tear version of himself — when he had a strong case as the league’s best player — and whether Kyrie Irving can stay healthy. But you can’t count out a Brooklyn team that boasts two players who have hit title-claiming daggers.

Which one of these teams will prevent a Boston-Miami rematch? It’s premature to make that prediction.

But three is more than two.

— Tim MacMahon

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Bam Adebayo takes blame for Miami Heat’s Game 5 loss to Boston Celtics

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Miami Heat All-Star big man Bam Adebayo took the blame for his team’s 121-108 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals on Friday night.

“I played like s—,” Adebayo said after the game in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “Bottom line. I put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault, it’s not my coaches’ fault, it’s me … I missed too many shots I should have made. Put that one on me.”

Adebayo, playing with a sleeve over his left arm after apparently suffering an injury to it at the end of the Heat’s Game 4 victory, almost registered a triple double with 13 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in 38 minutes, but he did not play with the same activity that he usually does up and down the floor, particularly at the defensive end.

“I wasn’t being the defensive anchor that I should have been,” Adebayo said. “I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today.”

Adebayo wasn’t the only player who was a step behind in the second half of Friday’s game as the Heat watched a 58-51 halftime lead get erased by a third quarter in which the Celtics dominated 41-25 and never looked back on their way to cutting Miami’s series lead to 3-2. The loss marked the 18th time this season the Heat have blown a lead of 10 or more points, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. That’s tied for the most by a team over the past two seasons, including the playoffs.

The numbers also back up that Adebayo struggled more than usual on Friday night. Adebayo allowed 1.65 points per direct pick-and-roll as the screener defender, according to Second Spectrum data. That’s the fourth-worst efficiency allowed in a game in his career with a minimum of at least 10 picks in a game. Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler said he was frustrated with his team’s effort, but stood up for Adebayo when he was told the 23-year-old tried to take the blame for the loss.

“It’s not [on Adebayo],” Butler said. “It’s on everybody. He does so much for us that it could feel like that at times, but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play in order for us to win. Nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it, I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself — we got to be there with him.”

When asked what specific injury he was dealing with in his left arm, Adebayo said only, “I’m good.” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also brushed off the notion that Adebayo was favoring the arm at all.

“He wasn’t favoring it,” Spoelstra said. “We’re not making any excuses. Boston outplayed us in the second half. We probably outplayed them in the first half and their outplaying of us in the second half was two or three times what we did in the first half. Forty-eight minutes, that’s a long game and you have to play consistently a lot longer than we did tonight.”

Butler said he would speak to Adebayo prior to Sunday’s Game 6 and offer his younger teammate a little pep talk.

“I will,” Butler said. “But I think he knows you can’t get stuck on this game now. We learn from it, it’s something of the past. But we’re going to need him to be who he is on Sunday. We need everybody to be that way. We’re gonna watch film, we’re gonna learn from it, not saying we already don’t know what went wrong, but we’ll be ready to go. We will fix it.”

Spoelstra also brushed off the notion that the Heat were concerned about dropping a 3-1 series lead much the same way the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers each have done against the Denver Nuggets already in the postseason bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys are well aware, we have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it. And we’ll just learn from this, go to work tomorrow and try to get ready for the next one.”

Adebayo is confident he will be better in Game 6 as well.

“I got to be better,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s it. There’s no excuses to this … this game is on me. I played terrible and that can’t happen.”

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NBA playoffs – How the Boston Celtics extended the Eastern Conference finals

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For the Boston Celtics, the first half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was a tractor pull. They shot 25% percent from the field in the first quarter. Coming off a simple pick-and-pop with Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker sent a pass into the hands of assistant coach Scott Morrison on the bench. On offense, the ball didn’t move, drivers were stuck in neutral, and the Celtics were slow to loose balls. But it wasn’t just a lack of rhythm or execution; Boston looked like a team broken by frustration.

Over the next three quarters, the Celtics rebuilt their spirit piece by piece. They got a healthy serving of instant offense from reserve big man Enes Kanter. Jaylen Brown set an aggressive tone. Boston started protecting the basketball. After halftime, Boston ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Tatum started to attack the paint and drew fouls on demand. The offense exploited the middle of the Miami Heat’s zone defense.

When Game 5 was finally over, the Celtics had woken from their slumber, outlasting Miami 121-108 to narrow the Heat’s series lead to 3-2.

“We just knew in the first half that we were playing with a lot of energy, but it was kind of all over the place,” Brown said. “And we just had to dial it in. We had the right mindset from the beginning of the game, but it was a little bit all over the place. Once we settled in a little bit and kept that same intensity, it worked out for us.”

After the early hiccup, every member of the Celtics rotation performed their role to specification. Tatum and Brown led the way, opportunistic on the drive and quick on the release from distance. Marcus Smart showed off his first-team All-NBA Defensive bonafides at the top of the floor, and threaded the needle in the half court with crafty passes. Gordon Hayward wasn’t exceptionally sharp but glimmers of the playmaking point forward with the full toolbox revealed themselves in the second half. Kanter did his Moses Malone impression. And after being a liability early, center Daniel Theis helped bust the zone and lorded over the offensive glass.

Both Theis and Kanter were also crucial in helping unlock point guard Walker who, despite an unremarkable stat line (15 points on 4-for-11 shooting and seven assists) and foul trouble, played the brand of basketball he prefers. Walker is a pick-and-roll virtuoso who can carve up defenses when he’s operating with confidence out of the action. But in the bubble, Walker has never quite found his game. He came into the restart nursing knee soreness. In the conference semifinals, he was the target of the Toronto Raptors’ box-and-one zone. And he encountered similar trouble against the Heat’s 2-3 zone scheme, never finding a way to show off his dance steps.

On Friday night, he finally got his chance to burst off a high screen and hide behind his big man to find space to launch from beyond the arc. His third-quarter performance was second only to Tatum’s in vaulting the Celtics from potential elimination to survival.

“We were just aggressive, really feeding off each other’s energy,” Walker said. “That’s who we are. We were out there encouraging each other … just really enjoying the game.”

Like Walker, Tatum came into Game 5 with an eye toward redemption. His scoreless first half in Game 4 was a source of embarrassment, and after another forgettable first half Friday, he found offense all over the floor in the third quarter. He connected on a couple from long distance but did most of his damage off the dribble, drawing fouls at will against Miami. The Heat simply couldn’t contain Tatum in the half court without hacking him. He controlled the pace of the game, frustrating a Heat defense that had cordoned off the lane for much of the series and allowing the Celtics’ defense to set on ensuing possessions.

Brown exacted his usual damage in both the half court and in transition. As is often the case, Brown discovered his offense in the flow, taking opportunities where he found him. He was also the first Celtics starter to shake off the doldrums in the first half and challenge the Heat’s defense.

During a huddle in the second half, coach Brad Stevens told his team that, for the first time in several games, they were playing Celtics basketball. Though this was probably obvious to anyone who has watched this conference finals series, it was a powerful statement that spoke to both how much of a departure the Celtics’ recent efforts have been from their ideal selves, and to Boston’s potential to be a two-way monster when the players are confident and aggressive.

“He was absolutely right, we didn’t play the way we wanted the whole series,” Theis said. “We didn’t play our defense, we did adjustments and we just went back to our system the way we played all year. Everybody felt comfortable in our system. You could tell in the third quarter everybody was just enjoying being out there.”

If the Celtics can sustain what they found in Game 5 for two more games, that statement can be a prophecy.

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