Ranking the dunks

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The 2011 All-Star Dunk Contest was one of the best  dunk contests in recent memory. There was pageantry, creativity, innovation, and some of the most memorable dunks we’ve seen in years. Blake Griffin won the contest with a dunk that was more about theater than amplitude, but the dunks that led to that point were almost uniformly strong. Without further ado, let’s rank each of the twelve dunks that made up the 2011 Dunk Contest:

#12: JaVale McGee, Off-the-backboard alley-oop

After Blaker dunked over a car, JaVale McGee needed to do something special to pull out a win. He didn’t. McGee was apparently planning to do a stuffed-toy based dunk for his finale, but Ibaka had done one earlier in the evening. After doing a weak imitation of Vince Carter’s reverse 360 windmill, McGee simply threw the ball off the backboard to himself and threw down. It would have been impressive on a fast break, but it wasn’t the type of dunk that wins dunk contests.

#11: Blake Griffin, Side-of-the-backboard windmill

After a couple of misses on his second dunk of the first round, Griffin finally put home a windmill home off a Baron Davis pass from the side of the backboard. It was thrown down with force, and would have been one of the better dunks in most other contests, and a 46 wasn’t a terrible score for it. But the fact that a gospel choir and a Kia were both waiting in the rings for Griffin does raise some questions about why Griffin’s dunk got a better score than DeRozan’s first slam. I mean, it’s hard to find that much outrage about something as entertainment-focused as the dunk contest, but Blake was definitely making it to the second round.

#10 Serge Ibaka, stuffed animal-grab reverse dunk

Ibaka’s dunk was impressive enough, although missing it the first time required the dunk clock to be stopped so that the stuffed animal could be re-attached to the rim. Ibaka’s mix of theatrics and pure athleticism was more than enough to silence the people wondering why he was invited to the contest in the first place, but it wasn’t quite enough to get him to the second round.

#9: Blake Griffin, the Kia dunk

This was the most controversial dunk of the night. The novelty of rolling a car out onto the stadium, bringing in a gospel choir, and having Baron Davis throw an alley-oop pass through a moonroof made the build-up to the dunk one of the most electrifying moments in dunk contest history — everybody at Staples Center was holding their collective breath. However, the dunk itself was (understandably) pretty plain, and it was hard to shake the feeling that Ibaka, McGee, and DeRozan all could have done the same dunk without much trouble if they had gone to the trouble of getting the props.

#8: JaVale McGee, Reverse rock the cradle dunk

McGee has a special combination of height, wingspan, and leaping ability, and his first dunk of the finals round showed just how physically gifted McGee is. McGee took off from one side of the key, ducked under the backboard, then reached back to dunk the ball from where most big men are setting up for a jump hook. Absolutely amazing stuff.

#7: DeMar DeRozan, East Bay Funk Remix

Believe it or not, this dunk got the lowest score of any dunk on Saturday night. It’s hard to know why — DeRozan missed his first few cracks at this dunk, but he still threw down a through-the-legs dunk on a pass that was thrown behind the backboard. That’s an incredible slam, and the 44 it ultimately received did not do it justice.

#6: JaVale McGee, three-ball dunk

Major, major points to JaVale for his innovation on this one. The degree of difficulty was high, and he gets bonus points for bringing out his mother. However, McGee took more than a few events to finish this dunk, and it didn’t have the sheer power that the night’s best dunks did. JaVale’s dunk is easy to appreciate, but the best dunks are a more visceral experience.

#5: DeMar DeRozan, “The Show Stopper”

Almost everything about this dunk was clean. Good toss, high degree of difficulty, excellent power, completed on the first try. And Darryl Dawkins’ coaching job was beyond reproach. Not a life-changing dunk, but a very good dunk that was perfectly executed.

#4 Serge Ibaka, Free-Throw line jam

Somebody tries to dunk from the free throw line every year, and it’s almost always disappointing. The dunk has been done before, and players are simply bigger and more athletic than they were in the heyday of Dr. J or Michael Jordan, which takes a lot of the novelty away from the dunk. Just because MJ’s free-throw line dunk was the most memorable dunk of all time doesn’t mean that duplicating it will bring instant adoration.

Still, Ibaka’s free-throw line jam was the best one in recent memory. Ibaka, the underdog of the field, came out followed by people holding flags for South Africa and Kanye West’s “Power” blaring over the loudspeakers, and the theatrics made Ibaka’s dunk more interesting without distracting from it. Ibaka took off from well beyond the free throw line, with his toe barely grazing the white line, and his dunk was one of three dunks that were completed on the first try. James Worthy somehow saw fit to give the dunk an eight, and three other judges gave it a nine, but Dr. J himself recognized just how impressive Ibaka’s slam was when he gave him a perfect 10. (Note: the choice between this dunk and DeRozan’s “show stopper” was the hardest on the list — I could easily see them being switched.)

#3: Blake Griffin, Tornado Dunk

After McGee pulled off his incredible double dunk, some people began to wonder how Griffin could follow that jam and live up to his hype as the most exciting in-game dunker since Vince Carter. They quickly got their answer. Griffin went up with one hand like he was trying to pull off a standard 360 jam, then switched to two hands, sped up his rotation in mid-air, and attacked the rim with force. Even though Blake missed his few attempts of this dunk, his misses were enough to show just how much explosion, amplitude, and power he puts into every one of his dunks.

#2: Blake Griffin, Off-The-Backboard Elbow Dunk

The height. The power. The timing. The precision. The fact that he threw it down successfully on his first try. The moment you realized he was still hanging on the rim after throwing it down. The ice pack he’s going to need for that elbow tonight. What a dunker. What a dunk.

#1: JaVale McGee, Double Dunk

JaVale McGee’s wingspan and leaping ability allow him to do dunks that should not be possible. How did he get the idea to put two hoops alongside of each other? How did he time an alley-oop while dunking another ball? Is anyone else in the league physically capable of pulling off that dunk? Most dunk contest “props” are there to hinder the contestant and distract people from the fact that the dunk is relatively simple — McGee used a prop to give himself an opportunity to show what he is capable of.

Blake’s body of work in the dunk contest was better than McGee’s, and the power he put into his dunks was something to behold. However, McGee’s first dunk was an incredible athletic feat that also redefined what is possible, and that’s why it was the best dunk of the evening.

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.