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Monday, February 18, 2013

Chris Paul's Dazzling Shooting and Passing Cap off the 2013 All-Star Weekend

Kevin Durant scored 19 first half points en route to a game-high 30 but Chris Paul initially showcased his passing skills (nine first half assists) before dropping in nine fourth quarter points to earn his first NBA All-Star MVP award as the West defeated the East 143-138. Paul finished with 20 points and a game-high 15 assists, just the third 20 point-15 assist performance in All-Star Game history; Isiah Thomas (21-15 in 1984) and Magic Johnson (21-15 in 1985) are the other two players who accomplished this feat. Paul now owns the best apg average (12.4) in All-Star history. While Paul deserved the All-Star MVP, Durant would also have been a solid choice. In a brief period of time, Durant is assembling one of the best All-Star resumes ever; last year, Durant poured in 36 points to win his first All-Star Game MVP and he already holds several All-Star records: career scoring average (28.8 ppg), most points scored in a player's first four All-Star Games (115, cruising past the 97 scored by LeBron James and the 96 apiece scored by Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson) and most consecutive All-Star Games with at least 30 points (three).

The West led for most of the game but never by more than 11 points. Paul's L.A. Clipper teammate Blake Griffin contributed 19 points, while James Harden had 15 points and six rebounds in his All-Star debut. Kobe Bryant scored just nine points but he distributed eight assists--second behind only Paul--and he guarded LeBron James for most of the fourth quarter, holding the league's best player to just one point (and 0-4 field goal shooting) in a competitive final stanza. Bryant blocked two of James' shots. James had a quiet game by his lofty standards: 19 points on 7-18 field goal shooting, five assists, three rebounds; James snapped his record streak of scoring at least 20 points in seven straight All-Star Games. Carmelo Anthony led the East in both points (26) and rebounds (12), while Dwyane Wade had 21 points and a team-high seven assists.  Paul George (17 points and four assists in 20:03) and Kyrie Irving (15 points and four assists in 24:46) performed very well in their first All-Star Game.

Only Kevin Garnett--who started for the East and went 0-2 from the field in 6:26--and LaMarcus Aldridge--who went 0-2 from the field in 11:27 as a West reserve--failed to score. Chris Bosh provided unintentional comic relief--and a bunch of clips for future Shaqtin' A Fool segments--with two first quarter airballs and the two times that he allowed guards to dribble between his legs (first Chris Paul, then Tony Parker), plus a few examples of Blue Bayou defense (as in, "Man, he blew by you"). An in-game interview with Dwight Howard revealed that Howard and Tim Duncan had some kind of side wager about who would make a three pointer first; Duncan missed his lone attempt, while Howard converted his only three point attempt and promptly celebrated with an imitation of Russell Westbrook's post-shot routine.

During a halftime commercial, Julius Erving--who always knew not just how to dunk but also when to dunk--provided succinct advice when asked to list the three qualities of a great dunker: "Don't miss" is the one and only quality that matters in Erving's book. That would have been the quote of the day, but Bill Russell topped it when he explained to Chris Webber why he considers himself to be the greatest player of all-time: Russell declared that he was a winner who did not "distort" his team's offense or his team's defense. That is a profound statement--whether or not you agree with Russell's conclusion--because most great players accumulate their statistics and/or gain their accolades by focusing attention on themselves, while Russell played in a way that focused attention on his team's success; Michael Jordan proved that, contrary to what his early critics said, a scoring champion could lead his team to a championship--but Bill Russell was never interested in proving anything of that nature: he was just interested in winning, regardless of his individual statistics. In that same interview with Webber, Russell also shrewdly noted that it is difficult to rank players from different eras because that is like "playing against ghosts"; a player can only compete against--and can only be compared with--the players he faced in his own era. Russell is smart enough to understand that you cannot really compare him to Jordan (or vice versa) but he also has enough pride (and basketball IQ) to explain why he has to at the very least be on the short list for the mythical title of greatest player of all-time.

The NBA All-Star Game does not showcase 48 minutes of intense defense and finely tuned shot selection but the players are not just goofing around and the intensity level definitely increased in the fourth quarter; the NBA All-Star Game more closely resembles a regular season game--while still providing room for the players to excite the fans with highlight plays--than the All-Star games in the other major sports. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the exhibition that tips off All-Star Weekend; watching the Rising Stars Game is like gorging on junk food: it may feel good in the moment but the satisfaction does not last. The young players are marvelously talented but watching two guys go one on one while eight guys stand around in a 20 point blowout is not really that entertaining, nor is it entertaining when a slam dunk contest breaks out at the end of the game; hard fought competition at both ends of the court is entertaining. Believe it or not, All-Star games--in all sports, not just pro basketball--used to be much more competitive than they are now. I am not suggesting that players do the equivalent of Pete Rose sliding hard into Ray Fosse but it is disrespectful to the game--and to oneself--to not compete.

The All-Star Saturday events were solid but not spectacular this year. The Shooting Stars is a decent way to simultaneously involve NBA players, WNBA players and NBA legends in one event but this contest has yet to produce a signature, memorable moment--nor is the format likely to enable that to happen. I would rather see some pure form of H-O-R-S-E. For the record, Team Bosh (consisting of Chris Bosh, Swin Cash and Dominique Wilkins) won. I like the Skills competition because it emphasizes the fundamentals of dribbling, passing and shooting but also enables players to provide glimpses of their speed and their leaping ability (if they choose to dunk the ball instead of laying it up); rookie Damian Lillard beat Jrue Holiday to win a trophy to place next to the Rookie of the Year trophy that he will receive in a few months. The Three Point competition has emerged as the most reliably entertaining All-Star Saturday event. Kyrie Irving is not known as a pure shooter but he stole the show and beat Matt Bonner in the final round.

The Slam Dunk Contest used to be the centerpiece of All-Star Saturday but it is not a good sign when the comedic stylings of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith are more entertaining than the event that they are covering. Terrence Ross joined the increasingly large list of forgettable Slam Dunk champions. There are several problems with the Slam Dunk Contest as it is currently constructed:

1) The game's great players do not participate; Julius Erving, David Thompson, George Gervin, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins are just a few of the Hall of Famers who participated in at least one ABA or NBA Slam Dunk Contest but today's superstars either do not want to be bothered and/or are concerned that failing to win the contest could somehow hurt their marketability.
2) In the old school Slam Dunk Contests there were not any do-overs, so there was great pressure not only to come up with something unique enough to garner a high score but also not to mess up. As a Julius Erving fan I did not like it that one missed dunk cost Erving the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest (Larry Nance had a big lead after that miss and thus played it very safe on his final attempt in the last round) but the all or nothing scenario is preferable to watching a guy try the same dunk over and over and over and over and over...and over and over and over--you get the point. The do-overs have to go or, failing that, points must be deducted from the final score for each missed dunk: it should not be possible to miss several dunks and still get a perfect 50.
3) After three decades of Slam Dunk Contests--and in an era of extreme sports, CGI special effects and outlandish video games--it is difficult to shock and amaze people. The dunks on Saturday night were not really that bad; if someone had taken off from just inside the foul line and dunked with two hands 20 years ago the way that James White did then that person would have become an instant legend: when Julius Erving did his one handed foul line dunk in 1976 it seemed like an almost superhuman feat but now even minor league ball players can do that, much like Roger Bannister's first four minute mile broke a barrier but now one does not have to be a track legend to run a mile in under four minutes. The reason that contestants are pulling out props and creating gimmicks is that they know that the audience is somewhat jaded and very hard to impress. I am not sure if there is a solution to this particular problem; we have lost our sense of wonder and that is a hard thing to recapture.

It may not be possible to recreate the magic of Julius Erving facing David Thompson or Michael Jordan challenging Dominique Wilkins but the Slam Dunk Contest could regain some of its lost prestige if today's superstars would participate and if the rules did not permit do-overs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM



At Monday, April 15, 2013 6:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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