The bizarre dichotomy of the NBA All-Star Game

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Sunday night, 24 players will amble into the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Many of them will be hungover, sleep-deprived, or both from a night of partying at all the hot spots during the biggest nightlife year for the NBA universe. They will casually go through the media requirements, slowly get dressed, do some casual shooting, talk with a lot of friends and acquaintances.

They will play a game, of sorts. There will be no defense. There will be very little effort. There will be some ooh and ahh moments, a few dunks, some neat passes, and a general giggly sort of feel to the day. It will be presented with lots of flash and pageantry and have no effect on anything, nor should it. It shouldn’t decide homecourt advantage in the Finals, it shouldn’t impact playoff seedings, it’s an exhibition and should mean absolutely nothing.

Those players were elected to play in the game either by fan vote, the same fan vote which routinely ignores any and all evidence to who has been good or not good throughout the season and is primarily decided based on either the presence of an overwhelming voting block (in the case of Yao Ming), or the player’s station as a member of one of the big three teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls), or by coaches’ decision, which is often done using impact from assistants or video editors and which can often be attributed to recognition of a lifetime event or influence from what they “should do.”

To sum up, today’s NBA All-Star Game is a completely meaningless exhibition in which you will barely remember anything outside of who wins MVP and who was on roster, and was constructed using completely meaningless, bogus, and largely flawed methods of election. Saying the All-Star game is stupid isn’t really a stretch, even if it’s a bit much for something that’s just supposed to be fun for fans. Fun things can be meaningless, like cartoons for your four-year-old or appletinis (say hey, LBJ).  There’s no harm in that. This is not advocacy for eliminating the All-Star Game. The Game is a tradition, a nice PR tool for the league, and a fun experience, if exhausting and boring for players after about their third time.

No, what this is is a study in contrasts. Because while this game is constructed nearly without meaning, entirely arbitrarily, its relevance expands beyond this day, this season, this year and into a much greater context. That’s the real dichotomy of the All-Star Game. It’s both meaningless and crucial.

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When evaluating the resumes of players listed for the Hall of Fame, the criteria is complex, but it’s like any other resume. When you list your resume to an employer, are you able to encapsulate on a 1-2 page document why that job you were at less than six months didn’t work out? Can you describe the thriving success you experienced at the position you were at for four years without a promotion? Can you give context to why one award granted meant a lot and was well-earned while the other was simply the result of your relationship with the awarding board? No. You just fill in the lines. I can do X, I have done X,  I want to do X. That’s it.

The All-Star resumes are no different. Stats, a specific anecdote, perhaps, championships most importantly, and then there’s that which is most often the first thing listed.

X-Time NBA All-Star.

That line holds relevance in history. When we debate the relative merits of a player for inclusion in the Hall (and don’t get me wrong, we can say a lot of the same things about the Hall of Fame that we say about the All-Star Game; in fact, the Hall is probably a bigger disaster than a game which is voted for online), that measure is used to distinguish. Being a six-time NBA All-Star? That’s more than a half-decade of being one of the elite players in the NBA!

Some six-time All-Stars in the Hall of Fame: Tiny Archibald, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Artis Gilmore, Tommy Heinsohn, Jack Twyman.

Pretty impressive, right? Some active six-time All-Stars: Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson.

Joe Johnson is a six-time All-Star.

(Note: I’m one of the few people left on the planet who doesn’t punish Johnson for his contract relative to his performance. The Hawks have made the playoffs each year since 2008, haven’t been an abject embarrassment in them outside of the Bucks series which they won, and gave Atlanta a run. Johnson, for all his moderate efficiency, is a huge part of that and is constantly underrated for his defensive work. My point is more about how we look at things now versus how we will look at things later.)

When we look back at Johnson’s career, the contextual stuff about the disgust over his selection or the mockery of his production relative to his contract will get lost. Someone’s going to be perusing Basketball-Reference in ten year who has never seen Joe Johnson play a second of basketball, look at his per-game stats during his peak, look at that six-time All-Star streak, find the YouTube of his work in the Boston series 2008, and think of him as a pretty great player, when currently, he may be the most derided All-Star selected, and Chris Bosh is on the team for crying out loud (again, I don’t have an issue with Bosh, he’s actually been great this year, but for the most part people hate him).

My point is, this stuff matters.

Going to the All-Star game means nothing, but it means more than the All-NBA teams, which receive so much less scrutiny and criticism. Being an All-Star means something to your career. It puts you into that level. When people in non-NBA contexts introduce you, they introduce you as “NBA All-Star.” It’s a designation that represents being something greater, not just currently, but within the massive flow of players that ebb in and out of the league. Stars rise and die in weeks in this league (take heed, Jeremy Lin), and these players selected are above. Paul Pierce is a nine-time All-Star. Nine. He’s probably going to wind up with a decade of All-Star appearances.

Jermaine O’Neal is a footnote in the NBA, and he’s pretty much only mentioned in reference to how slow he is or his injury issues.

The guy is a six-time All-Star!

And there are certainly debates about the quality of stars in the league relative to these eras. But they’re only mentioned in relatively recent context. We ignore how many fewer teams there were in 1980 and before, when some of the biggest legends exist. And no, no one’s going to be talking about Joe Johnson or Jermaine O’Neal as all-time greats, but there is a fondness that develops as a man’s career passes, a remembrance of when he was best that comes to overshadow the fading years of age. The same will happen with Jason Kidd, with Kevin Garnett, the same has already happened with Gary Payton.

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So today is a day for lazy skip passes, a few off-the-backboard alley-oops. Kobe will shoot a lot and if he’s feeling it will score a lot and make everyone shake their head, grin and go “Oh, Kobe.” LeBron may have one of those days… you know what, no, James has never taken this event seriously, probably never will. Blake Griffin will do some stuff. But none of it means anything, and the process of their respective assemblies is obviously flawed, subjective, invalid and largely a joke. But the fact that they are there (or in Joe Johnson’s case, there in spirit) does resonate. It does reflect something about their position in the context of this game, of sports, of culture.

Having been an All-Star means something, even if being one doesn’t.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.