Kyrie Irving scores 34 points, named MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge

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Kyrie Irving was the number one overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, but he was largely selected there for his ability to create for his teammates first, with his scoring being an afterthought. In the Rising Stars Challenge, which kicked off All-Star weekend on Friday, he showcased what’s possible for him offensively, scoring 34 points on just 13 shots to take home the event’s MVP trophy, while leading his team to an easy 146-133 victory at the Amway Center in Orlando.

Irving finished the night 12-for-13 from the field, while making all eight of his three-point attempts. It was a great performance, but one that he wish had occurred in a game that actually counted in the standings.

“It’s never occurred in my career,” he said of his shooting. “It’s kind of unfortunate that it comes in an All-Star game, but at the end of the day, it was fun to get out there with those talented guys. It was a great experience.”

While Irving’s shooting display was fantastic, overall the game was lacking in any real interest. The players largely played at half-speed or worse for the majority of the night, and the highlights — even when they were spectacular, as Ricky Rubio was in going through the legs of DeMarcus Cousins with the dribble before finding Blake Griffin for the alley-oop slam — weren’t frequent enough to keep the crowd from breaking its silence for most of the night.

This event has historically been a game which had stars of the Rookie and Sophomore classes playing against one another, but the league tried to infuse some life into it this year by having Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley mix the two classes, and draft the teams ahead of time playground-style. It may have generated additional interest in the days leading up to the event, but ultimately, with nothing on the line and with the fans in the building having no loyalty except to individual players, there was little-to-no effort made by either team to actually compete.

As usual, the game devolved into a slam dunk show in the final couple of minutes, with most players standing around while players took turns attempting ridiculous dunks. Last year’s MVP, John Wall, converted the best of the bunch, going behind his back with the ball while in mid-air before throwing it down one-handed — a dunk he said he’s converted only two times previously.

“I tried it once before in the Chris Paul All-Star game,” Wall said. “I just wanted to try it again, and luckily I made it. It was only my third time ever doing it, so I was shocked.”

Wall also had one of his dunk attempts thwarted by Greg Monroe, who surprised everyone by intercepting Wall’s bounce pass of the floor to himself while everyone else stood and watched.

There were other highlights, of course, but none as consistently satisfying as Irving’s stellar shooting. He knew it was a special night even while it was happening, doing the Jordan shrug a few times after knocking down three-pointer number eight.

“In the first half, when I hit four threes in a row, I just kept telling ’em, I’m feeling it,” Irving said. “I’m proud of them for actually having confidence in me.

“It’s fun getting hot, especially in an All-Star game where millions of people are watching. It was an enjoyable game.”

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.