LeBron James

Heat begin title defense with opening night blowout win over Bulls

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The Bulls were one of the fashionable preseason picks to dethrone the Heat this season, considering the return of Derrick Rose, the way Chicago has historically defended under Tom Thibodeau, and the fact that Miami is trying to become the first team to reach the Finals in four straight seasons since the Celtics did it 27 years ago.

Chicago may very well round into form over the grind of the 82-game season and ultimately give the Heat some problems. But they are a long, long way away from that goal, and opening night in Miami showcased that fact.

While the Bulls struggled to find their rhythm offensively, the Heat’s team defense looked ready to defend the team’s back-to-back titles from the opening tip. Miami had no trouble in its first game of the season, and led by as many as 25 points before ending up with the 107-95 opening night victory.

The scary thing for the rest of the league after this one might be the fact that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh didn’t have dominant individual performances offensively. They finished with 17, 13, and 16 points respectively, and did so combining to shoot less than 50 percent from the floor.

Instead of the stars taking over under the national spotlight, it was the bench of the Heat that was the difference in this one. While the Bulls were forced to roll out rookie Tony Snell (who was brutal), Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, and Mike Dunleavy, the Heat countered with veterans who were more than capable of producing. Miami’s bench outscored Chicago’s 42-26, and did so by shooting a much higher percentage.

Derrick Rose returned to his first regular season NBA action since suffering a torn ACL injury in the 2012 playoffs, and while he looked explosive early, he struggled against the swarming team defense of the Heat. Rose finished with 12 points, four assists, and five turnovers in 34 minutes of action, while getting the majority of his looks from outside. Rose ended up just 1-of-7 from three-point distance, and shot just 4-of-15 from the field overall.

What this game showed more than anything is that the Bulls have a journey ahead of them to get to a level where they can challenge an elite team like the Heat. Miami showed us that despite the long offseason, the fact that the majority of the championship roster returned intact makes it seem like they’re already several steps ahead of their would-be challengers.

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: