Is there any reason the National Basketball Association ever holds the All-Star Weekend outside of New Orleans? After a foray into Houston for 2013, the unofficial midpoint of the basketball season returned to the Big Easy, and the results were spectacular. Even if some of the events like the dunk contest seemed mishandled in execution and no one really watched the skills contest anyway, the games that bookmark the weekend always seem to bring out some of the most entertainingly lazy defense and corresponding offensive wizardry of the year. The games were so much fun it was possible to ignore the sleeved jerseys that the league insists on forcing players to wear and fans to endure.
With a plethora of high-profile guests like Spike Lee, Wolf Blitzer, and Kendrick Lamar in the crowd, not to mention NBA luminaries and Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Dominique Wilkins, Magic Johnson, and Hakeem Olajuwon in the crowd, the atmosphere walked a weird line between gaudy and electric, just like every other All-Star game worth mentioning. As Russell was celebrating his 80th birthday on Sunday, he was spotlighted by Johnson, who got the crowd to sing Russ — either the best or second-best player of all time, depending on how you feel about Michael Jordan – ”Happy Birthday.” For a basketball legend that was disrespected and under-appreciated by his own fans in his prime, it was a moving gesture.
And, of course, there was the small matter of a record-breaking All-Star Game, a new three-point contest winner, and a repeating skills champion. That all happened. There’s also the small matter of the New Orleans arena being the Smoothie King Center, which is the best name for an arena ever. Keep the All-Star Weekend within the Smoothie King — it’s the right thing to do.
Officially the Taco Bell NBA Skills Challenge, this event stands as perhaps the least heralded of the weekend, but the new team relay format added a fun twist to what is, appropriately, a more difficult event than it looks. It consists of a dribble course, a chest-pass target, a pair of jump shots, then a floor-length layup or, most likely, dunk. The winner is the team that completes the challenge the fastest.
This year, the challenge featured defending champion Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns, Reggie Jackson of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and rookie point guard Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz for the West. Representing the East were DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors and three rookies: Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, and second overall pick Victor Oladipo, representing the Orlando Magic.
While the new team format offered the possibility of a shakeup, when the dust settled, Lillard, along with teammate (and good friend of Boston Celtic Jared Sullinger) Burke, ended up victorious, with a time of 45.2 seconds.
Slam dunk contest
This one was a little disappointing. On paper, this was poised to be the best dunk contest in years. The rosters were great, the team element was a nice twist, and the idea of a freestyle round was, yes, a slam dunk.
But it didn’t seem finished. While the team concept made sense on paper and a free-for-all round leading into a head-to-head elimination round made sense, the contest suddenly ended. Why they didn’t put the three finalists (all dunkers from East, by the way) up against each other for another round? Only newly appointed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver knows the answer. The feeling is that a special opportunity to see John Wall, Terrence Ross, and Paul George have to top each other in a final round was lost.
The three-point shooting contest might be even more easily explained than even the dunk contest: The player that makes the most three-point shots wins. The only real wrinkle is the timer, which means that each player only has a certain amount of time to shoot as many shots as possible, as well as the money ball rack, which is a series of balls that are worth two points each, double the score of a normal made shot.
This year, the contest featured San Antonio Spur Marco Belinelli, Cleveland Cavalier and defending champion Kyrie Irving, Lillard, and Washington Wizard Bradley Beal. Irving would fail to repeat his victory after being unceremoniously bounced in the first round by Beal. Belinelli would best Lillard’s score in the West and would eventually go on to defeat Beal in a tiebreaker round that saw him score an event high-24 points. The lowest score of the event was Irving’s 16 points.
BBVA Rising Stars Challenge
The newest iteration of the rookie-sophomore game that made its way into the All-Star festivities all the way back in 1994, the rising Stars challenge is now not dissimilar to fantasy basketball. The teams are drafted out of the same pool, there’s little thought put into overall team coherence, and nobody really cares about defense. This year, the teams were selected by respected former players and legends Chris Webber and Grant Hill. The two were famously on opposite sides of the court in college, when Webber’s Fab Five at Michigan emerged as a counterpoint to Hill’s Duke University squad.
On the floor, the game played out more or less as expected — a whole lot of dunking, many transition points, and some ill-advised threes. And then there was Detroit Piston Andre Drummond. In the regular NBA universe, Drummond is regarded as an outstanding physical specimen who is leading the league in rebounds per game and is extraordinarily bad at shooting free throws. His nickname is also Big Penguin.
During the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, though, Drummond lead Team Hill to a 142-136 victory, scoring 30 points and grabbing 25 rebounds, setting a rebounding record for the game. Fourteen of his boards were off the offensive glass, to give you some perspective of his tenacity. And because Drummond seems to invite the good with the bad, his MVP trophy broke during the post-game presentation.
Some typical facts about the All-Star Game: the game is usually showboating for three quarters, all long bombs and outrageous dunks, while everyone hangs out and puts on a demonstration of the best athleticism and hoops skill anywhere ever. Then, the defense finally makes an appearance near the end of the game, and the Western Conference usually comes away with a victory.
It almost went according to plan. There were highlights and there was a whole lot of dunking. There were many three pointers — a game-record eight from New York Knick Carmelo Anthony, six from Kevin Durant, and an additional three from All-Star MVP Kyrie Irving, who finished with 31 points, 14 assists, and shot 14 of 17 from the field. The only player on the Eastern team to shoot under .500 from the field was Brooklyn Net Joe Johnson. At least he wasn’t Dirk Nowitzki, who finished the game without making a single basket, despite the fact that he’s currently 13th on the all-time scorers list.
The game, which finished with an Eastern win at 163-155, set the bar for the most points scored in an All-Star Game, beating the old record (from 1987) by 15 points. Durant set a record for most three-pointers attempted, which would have been more impressive if he hadn’t bricked 13 of them. Kobe Bryant, who was voted into the All-Star Game but sat out owing to his fractured knee, was present as an announcer and blithe when asked if he was thinking about his future. Unfortunately, the sleeved jerseys are probably here to stay.