Blake Griffin jumps Dunk Contest over car, into new era of spectacle

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The days of the Dominique tomahawk are gone. The Jordan cradle dunk is a dinosaur. Throwing it off the backboard to yourself is passé.

Blake Griffin dunked over a car while a gospel choir sang at midcourt. And he is your 2011 Slam Dunk Contest champion. It was impressive and entertaining.

That, my friends, is where we are headed with the dunk contest.

Saturday night the four participants — Griffin, JaVale McGee, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka — used props, skits and showmanship to make the dunks spectacle. It was made-for-television. This wasn’t just four band members in jeans and T-shirts rocking out, it was a Kanye West concert. It was pure spectacle with some dunks thrown in.

And it was the most entertaining contest in years.

It’s how things will be for years to come. Say you miss the old school Dunk Contests all you want, the event has evolved.

“A lot of the things that are possible have been done, you know what I mean?” Griffin said after the contest. “So it’s tough to come up with something that nobody has ever seen before. That’s always the big thing. Everybody is like ‘Oh it’s going to be something nobody has ever seen’ but you kind of have to use props for that. It’s kind of become — it’s kind of moved toward that.”

“All of us definitely came prepared,” said runner up JaVale McGee. “We came with props and everything. We all came for entertainment because we definitely didn’t want to be another disappointment for the Slam Dunk Contest like the year before was.

Last year, after the year of Dwight Howard’s show, guys went old school. Few props, just athleticism on display. The event got panned as dull.

Griffin is spot on — we’ve pretty much seen it all. Serge Ibaka executed a dunk taking off from the free throw line and couldn’t get a perfect score from Dr. J (who was one of the judges).

But he didn’t just do the dunk. The Congo native came out to Kanye music with people carrying African-colored flags. The flag carriers lined his path to the free throw line.

It was like that through the first two rounds — two of the best rounds the contest has ever seen. Ibaka grabbed a stuffed animal hanging on the rim with his teeth while dunking. McGee dunked three basketballs at once (John Wall assisted on that).

McGee even had them bring out a second backboard, lined up right next to the first, so he could dunk on both at once.

There was still the crazy athleticism — on Griffin’s first dunk of the final round he put his arm through the rim and hung there on his cocked elbow for a while. DeRozan got a perfect score without props and just leaping and spinning. McGee dunked from behind the backboard having to duck his head out of the way.

But that alone is not enough anymore. The contest has evolved. More importantly our expectations have evolved. It is a show. It is a spectacle. Just being athletic is not enough; you have to be an entertainer.

Could you argue that some dunks were better than the winners, that someone got robbed? Sure. Knock yourself out. I’ll even agree that with fans voting for the finals Blake Griffin won this thing a month ago. But that’s all besides the bigger point.

This dunk contest forever changed the game. Don’t accept if you don’t want to be a showman. In-game dunks don’t cut it here, this is an exhibition and the bar has been raised.

In the end, Griffin had the biggest spectacle of the night — Baron Davis lobbing an ally-oop out of a sunroof to Griffin leaping over a Kia while a gospel choir sang R. Kelly. The dunk contest has never seen anything like it.

It moved the needle and now there is no going back.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor).

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more focus than they brought against the Timberwolves, because unlike Minnesota those teams will make Houston pay a steep price.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top. Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.