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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

James' Jam Punctuates East's Win

New Orleans had a real Cleveland flavor during All-Star Weekend. Daniel Gibson stole the show in the Rookie-Sophomore Game before finishing second in the Three Point Shootout. Then, LeBron James led the East to a 134-128 victory in the All-Star Game, winning his second All-Star MVP in three years. Here is my fourth report about All-Star Weekend (10/7/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Sunday Legends Brunch is a can't miss event every All-Star Weekend. It is a tremendous gathering of all-time basketball greats and many of today's stars. The ninth annual edition included the presentation of six awards, with several of the honorees having ties to Louisiana's rich basketball tradition: Eugene "Goo" Kennedy (Legends Humanitarian Award), Branford Marsalis (Legends Humanitarian Award), Teresa Weatherspoon (Legends Career Achievement Award), Pete Maravich (Legends Commemorative Award), the New Orleans Jazz (Legends Commemorative Team Award) and Willis Reed (Legend of the Year). TNT's Ernie Johnson emceed the event, with a little help from his TNT studio partner Kenny Smith. Chris Tucker once again left the crowd in stitches with his impromptu standup routine at the conclusion of the brunch.

Julius Erving presented Weatherspoon with her award. In addition to providing a complete recap of Weatherspoon's career, he said, "Everyone here knows, my 'five' was, is and always will be (Oscar) Robertson, (Jerry) West, (Elgin) Baylor, (Wilt) Chamberlain and (Bill) Russell and that my sixth man is Connie Hawkins coming off the bench and playing guard, forward and center. I am very grateful and very, very happy and honored that Teresa has included me in her 'five,' as she has told me many times."

Gail Goodrich, who briefly played for the then-New Orleans Jazz at the end of his career, introduced 11 Jazz players and former Jazz Coach Elgin Baylor so that they could collectively receive the Legends Commemorative Team Award. Jackie Maravich accepted on behalf of her husband, the late Pete Maravich. She and their two sons Jaeson and Josh also accepted the Legends Commemorative Award after an introduction by current New Orleans All-Star Chris Paul. A highlight video of Maravich's career drew audible gasps of wonderment even from the great players in the audience and Paul shook his head in disbelief when the house lights came back on after the video ended.

Near the end of the brunch, Karl Malone stepped to the podium to make some remarks. He candidly admitted that he was a last minute selection as a speaker and that he was nervous talking in front of a group of people who included so many of the players who he idolized growing up. Malone, who was somewhat notorious for his wayward elbows during his career, stressed how much he admired and respected all of the players in the room even if--and he chuckled when he said this--it may not have seemed like it when he played. He offered heartfelt words on a variety of topics, including a passionate plea regarding retired players who have fallen on hard times. Malone declared that with the league making so much money and today's players earning fortunes because of the foundation laid by previous generations, "It's up to us to help them out." He pledged to take a more active role going forward to make sure that this happens. Malone also expressed how thankful he is for the work done by our troops to protect our freedoms, a sentiment that he later reiterated when he spoke briefly to the crowd during the All-Star Game.

With so many activities going on during All-Star Weekend it is important not to forget what is supposed to be the crown jewel of the event, the All-Star Game itself. A lot of pregame talk and speculation centered around the playing status of Kobe Bryant, who is putting off finger surgery to try to help the Lakers win a championship--and to hopefully lead Team USA to a gold medal in next year's Olympic Games. The Lakers preferred for Bryant to skip the All-Star Game entirely in order to give the injury a better chance to heal but league rules stipulate that a player who plays in the last regular season game prior to All-Star Weekend must either play in the All-Star Game or else receive a one game suspension. The league office would not bend on this but on the other hand it is obviously not in anyone's interest to see the sport's best player get hurt in an exhibition game, so common sense ultimately prevailed. During his pregame media availability, West Coach Byron Scott said that he spoke with NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson and Bryant and that the solution they reached was that Bryant would start the game but only play three to four minutes. As it turned out, Bryant got one rebound in exactly 2:52 of court time before leaving the game for good. He spent most of the contest sitting on the bench with his finger wrapped in ice.

The East never trailed in the first quarter and led by as many as 11 points and the West team seemed sluggish. The East converted a lot of dunks and Chris Bosh--starting in place of the injured Kevin Garnett--was the early scoring leader with eight points as the visitors led 34-28 after the first 12 minutes. The East pushed that lead to 74-65 in a high scoring second quarter. LeBron James had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds in the second quarter alone and with 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds at halftime he seemed to be well on his way to posting just the second triple double in All-Star history. Dwight Howard also had 12 first half points, making all five of his field goal attempts.

The East went up by as much as 16 points in the third quarter but somehow the game never really felt out of reach; the West quickly countered with a 14-3 run that cut the margin to 98-93. The Boston connection of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen scored two field goals apiece to make the score 106-93 going into the fourth quarter. At that moment, James had a game-high 19 points and needed just two rebounds and two assists to get a triple double, so the MVP seemed like it was his to lose. New Orleans' own Chris Paul tried to steal that honor late in the game, producing nine points and five assists in the fourth quarter, helping the West go up by as many as three points. Allen stemmed the tide with a lights-out shooting display, racking up 14 fourth quarter points while shooting 3-4 from three point range as he made his own late run at capturing MVP honors, finishing with a game-high 28 points. "I was supposed to be in the Bahamas this weekend," Allen said with a smile after the game, alluding to the fact that he made the team as an injury replacement.

In the end, though, the MVP had to go to James, who topped off his excellent all-around performance by scoring eight fourth quarter points, including a monster dunk that gave the East the lead for good at the :55.5 mark; he drove around Tim Duncan and then seemingly put the hammer down on the entire West team. "We had two people on him and it still wasn’t enough," marveled Paul. James finished with 27 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.

James offered a very matter of fact description of what he was thinking while he converted the play of the night: "The game was tied. I didn't want to settle for a jump shot." He acknowledged that the West's 153-132 win in last year's game definitely fueled the fire for the East this time around. Bryant spearheaded that rout by the West, winning the MVP after scoring 31 points and making six steals in a little over 28 minutes of action. As Scott said after the game, "There's one player we really, really missed today and that’s Kobe."

During the late stages of the game, the West went with a big lineup that featured Duncan, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki. East Coach Doc Rivers realized that he could not match that group's size, so he countered with quickness, using a small lineup with LeBron James at power forward. The East survived on defense by swarming Duncan whenever he caught the ball in the post against James and then scrambling after Duncan passed out of the trap. On offense, the East used their speed and quickness to great effect, which is why Allen repeatedly got open. "It's a game of chicken, basically," Rivers said of his strategic adjustment, meaning that whichever team blinked first would lose.

Dwyane Wade had a solid game (14 points, four rebounds, three assists) but he made a couple big plays in the last minute. First, he scored a layup that put the East up 129-125 and then he stuffed a Nowitzki three point attempt that could have pulled the West to within one point. Other double figure scorers for the East included Howard (16 points on 7-7 field goal shooting), Bosh (14 points) and Pierce (10 points). Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Roy led the West with 18 points each, while Paul had 16 points, a game-high 14 assists and four steals. Stoudemire threw down a driving dunk right in Howard's face early in the fourth quarter, leading to an exclamation by ESPN's Chris Broussard that Stoudemire had found the kryptonite to counter Howard, who used his Superman persona to good effect while winning the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday.

From the NBA's extensive community service efforts to help rebuild New Orleans to Jam Session to All-Star Saturday Night to the Legends Brunch to a thrilling, competitive All-Star Game, All-Star Weekend 2008 in New Orleans will long be remembered for showcasing all that is good about the NBA on and off the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM



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