New Orleans finds path to winning runs through San Antonio

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The New Orleans Hornets are standing at the top of the hill, 7-0. They beat the Clippers last night, but the lineup before that — Milwaukee, San Antonio, Denver and even Miami — is a bunch of teams that would bring most teams to their knees.

Standing there, the Hornets have a good view. They are as good a team as there is in the league right now, but they see the long road of the season stretching out before them. Standing there the questions about the future remain — key among them is can they keep Chris Paul? — but the road looks open and the future promising.

However, if they were to turn around and look back at the road that led them to this spot, they would see it runs straight through San Antonio.

The Hornets started to retool their organization this summer, something that was expected to come with a change in ownership that has yet to materialize. But the change in the organization went forward anyway.

It started with the hiring of Monty Williams as coach then Dell Demps as general manager (in that odd reverse order, but it seems to work here). Demps was a member of the San Antonio Spurs brain trust who was general manager of their D-League affiliate the Austin Toros (among other jobs in the Spurs organization). Demps came in with a mandate to “change the culture” of the organization, to make the culture more Spurs-like. Which is what everybody says when they hire a GM, but Demps really has changed things.

He didn’t hire Monty Williams — a coach who learned the NBA game at the right hand of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — but he’s the kind of guy Demps would have hired. A like minded, Spurs culture guy.

And you can see that on the court in how the Hornets play defense. The Spurs have won four titles by defending the rim and closing out hard at the arc, forcing teams into a lot of long twos and midrange shots. The least efficient shots in the game.

Sound strategy, but could Emeka Okafor really be that guy defending the rim? He can, it turns out. Okafor has been a force all season, really controlling the paint. He’s had room to do that because David West — who seemed to sleepwalk though the last couple seasons — has brought energy at both ends of the floor. With West focused and Okafor not having to help him as much, it has freed Okafor up to defend the rim with gusto. Okafor also leads the league right now with a 72.7 shooting percentage. He can’t miss, like a Pacer in the third quarter.

Of course, the biggest change for the Hornets has been the return of a healthy Chris Paul. He is playing at an MVP level, giving the team 18 points and 10 assists per game, doing it with the highest shooting percentage of his career. Right now, when he is on the court he assists on about half of his team’s baskets scored. His PER is at 29.8, a career best by a mile (and second only to Dwight Howard so far this season).

Add in smart pickups like Trevor Ariza to fill needs, and you have really got something.

It all looks good. Does that mean Chris Paul is staying?

Nobody knows. Maybe not even Paul himself. Nothing is going to happen short term. The Hornets are not looking to move him right now, instead they are looking to woo him to stay long term by proving he can win here. The 7-0 start is just that, a nice start, but winning in the playoffs is what matters and that is a long way off.

Paul isn’t talking, and the Hornets do not face the deadline pressure to make a move that Denver does right now. But that will change — by next summer and into next season the Hornets will need to get a commitment from Paul (who will be in the last year of his deal) or they have to look to move him. They have until then to change his mind. Certainly some kind of resolution with the ownership sale and that outcome will play a role in Paul’s decisions as well (as will outside influences, such as what happens in New York).

But the Spurs never really lost their core players. If the Hornets stay with that model… maybe you can win big in the Big Easy.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.