Durant Shoots His Way to MVP Honors, Bryant Surpasses Jordan on All-Star Career Scoring ListKevin Durant played the most minutes, took the most shots and poured in 36 points to earn his first All-Star Game MVP as his West squad cruised to a 21 point lead but had to survive a late rally before defeating the East 152-149. Durant shot a very efficient 14-25 from the field--including 3-8 from three point range--and he also contributed seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. Durant made his intentions obvious right from the start--scoring 13 first quarter points on 5-9 field goal shooting while playing all 12 minutes--and after the game he mentioned that he had spoken with West Coach Scott Brooks (who of course coaches Durant for the Oklahoma City Thunder) about his desire to play a lot of minutes; Durant played 37:23, nearly three minutes more than the playing time of any other player, with second place honors going to the seemingly ageless and indefatigable Kobe Bryant. Bryant also came out with both barrels blazing, scoring 11 first quarter points on 5-6 field goal shooting. He finished with 27 points on 9-17 field goal shooting and along the way he broke Michael Jordan's NBA career All-Star scoring record of 262 points; Bryant has now scored 271 points in All-Star competition, second on the all-time ABA-NBA All-Star scoring list behind Julius Erving, who scored 321 points in 16 All-Star games (five ABA, 11 NBA). Bryant is a 14-time All-Star but he really has only played in 12 full All-Star Games: he missed the 2010 contest due to injury and an injury limited him to a token three minute appearance in the 2008 contest. Bryant also lost a potential All-Star Game appearance to the 1999 lockout. LeBron James led the East with 36 points on 15-23 field goal shooting, including an incredible second half run when he made nine straight shots. James also had seven assists and six rebounds. James' Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade joined James (2011) and Michael Jordan (1997) as just the third player to post an All-Star Game triple double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists).
Wade fouled Bryant in the game's strangest play--and the play that could potentially have the most impact (no pun intended): neither team offered much defensive resistance until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter but when Bryant blew by Wade with a spin move on the left block early in the third quarter Wade grabbed Bryant around the head and whacked Bryant in the face hard enough to draw some blood from Bryant's nose. The TNT announcers joked about how the play seemed to be out of the context of the game's relaxed vibe but Wade really could have been called for a flagrant foul for making unnecessary contact above the shoulder and I will not be surprised if it turns out that Bryant has a broken nose. Bryant did not visibly react to the injury and he stayed in the game, though the trainer did have to do some treatment to stop the bleeding. You can bet that if Wade had taken a similar shot to the face the NBA would have had to airlift him to an emergency trauma center (remember, Wade once required a wheelchair to leave the court after suffering a shoulder injury). Bryant made both free throws but only scored eight points the rest of the way.
Durant, Bryant, James and Wade clearly established themselves as the game's four major MVP candidates but each of those stars had at least one bad play in the final two minutes when the result was in doubt: Durant carelessly threw the ball away to Deron Williams for an easy layup, Bryant only split a pair of free throws to give the East a chance to tie (or even win with a three pointer), Wade did his Wes Welker impression by dropping a pass that should have resulted in a layup and James inexplicably threw a soft cross court pass that got stolen instead of attempting a game-winning three or driving for a game-tying two. Any of those errors could have potentially changed the outcome but James' unwillingness to take the last shot in an exhibition game that he had dominated for long stretches is as inexplicable as the way that he disappeared in the clutch during the 2011 NBA Finals.
The lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness seen during most of the All-Star Game mirrored what we almost always see in the various iterations of what is now called the Rising Stars Challenge; that Friday night event is clearly a game played by young people (first and second year players) for young people (the arena is usually filled with kids, many of whom are admitted free or at reduced costs) and it showcases the players' remarkable athletic ability but I wish that those players understood that what is really captivating is not an uncontested dunk but a contested dunk. Several years ago, Julius Erving told me that he is disappointed with the way that All-Star Games are played in the current era: "Today's game, some of these All-Star Games, players have figured out a way to allow guys to dunk the ball and not have it perceived as the guy dunking on somebody. When I was coming up, you rarely could dunk on people and people did not want to get dunked on, it was almost like being 'posterized' if somebody dunked on you. Guys tried their best not to let anybody dunk on them. Sometimes they would just grab you rather than let you dunk. That seems to be lost somewhere in what I see with a lot of the high wire act performances. It is almost like, 'I'm going to let the guy dunk. And I'm going to get far enough out of the picture so nobody is perceiving this as me being dunked on or being posterized.' I don't understand the mentality of just letting a guy go in there and throw it down and applauding it, if he's wearing a different colored uniform. It's just playing to the crowd but I think that the crowd would respect and appreciate a play being made when somebody is trying to contest it. I think it makes for a great photo-op and a great poster if somebody is there. I remember being in Madison Square Garden and going up for a dunk and Lonnie Shelton was there and my knees were up on his shoulders. He was trying to draw a charge, I guess. Looking at that shot, when somebody is there, it is poetry in motion. Just throwing the ball up and going through the motions, I guess guys don't want to get hurt. I like watching the dunk contests—but I don't like a game to turn into a dunk contest with no defense. That does nothing for me." My favorite play of this year's Rising Stars Challenge was when John Wall tried to toss an alley-oop to himself at the end of the blowout and Greg Monroe jumped in Wall's path to steal the ball. If Wall is so enthused about doing uncontested dunks then he should sign up for the Slam Dunk Contest.
Speaking of the Slam Dunk Contest, I mean no disrespect to the four young players who participated and who seemed to be trying their best--but the format was terrible and most of the dunks were not particularly inspiring. I guess letting the fans vote on the winner is OK but having just one vote at the end drains the event of any drama because viewers (and the contestants) have no way to know who is winning. If the fans are going to vote then the voting should be done after each round. As for the dunks, there were at least five All-Star Game dunks that were better than anything we saw in the Slam Dunk Contest (though Jeremy Evans' two ball dunk off of Gordon Hayward's two simultaneous lobs was nice). The original charm of the Slam Dunk Contest, going all the way back to its 1976 ABA roots, was that we saw Hall of Fame bound players performing dunks that they could (and did) actually do during games: Julius Erving took off from the free throw line in both the 1976 and 1984 Slam Dunk Contests (and he dunked from just a step inside the free throw line as a 35 year old in the 1985 Slam Dunk Contest!) but he also dunked from the free throw line in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game. Julius Erving, David Thompson, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins did in-game dunks in Slam Dunk Contests--and that is much more exciting than watching unheralded players doing various gimmick dunks. Most importantly, the Slam Dunk Contest must do away with the clock and must minimize the number of missed dunk attempts that are permitted; despite his perfect 50 for his free throw line dunk--an amazing feat for a 34 year old--Erving lost the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest to Larry Nance because Erving missed a dunk. I think that this was overly harsh and that a player should be permitted to either drop one dunk from his score or attempt a do-over--but there should not be more than one do-over. Repeated do-overs drain the life out of the event. I also think that props--other than perhaps using a second ball, an act that showcases a player's big hands and his hang time--should be eliminated.
The Three Point Shootout did not seem as great as it has been in years past but that may just be a subjective impression; the final round scores seemed low (Kevin Love defeated Kevin Durant 17-14) but I checked the record book and saw that--contrary to what people may think--three-time winner Larry Bird really only had one lights out final round performance (22 points in 1986) and that his other two winning scores were rather pedestrian (16 in 1987, 17 in 1988). I liked Anthony Morrow's Drazen Petrovic jersey tribute (before the event I actually thought that Morrow would win but he did not even make it out of the first round).
The Skills Competition and the Shooting Stars Competition may not thrill younger audiences but I like both events; in the former the players are required to actually use fundamental skills, while the latter provides a way for WNBA players and retired NBA players to participate in All-Star Weekend.
For me, the real highlight of the 2012 All-Star Weekend was Mel Daniels finally receiving a long overdue call from the Hall of Fame.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM