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Wall, Lillard, George headline new look All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest

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If all of us — red state, blue state, regardless of religion or skin color — could come together and agree on just two things they would be:

1) Kevin Durant’s new puppy is really cute.

2) The NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest needed some life injected into it.

The NBA has heard you on Number 2. The league is trying to do that in two ways this year in New Orleans, when the Sprite Slam Dunk contest takes place on Feb. 15.

First, they brought in some star power. Here are your contestants for this year’s dunk title crown.

Paul George (Indiana Pacers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
John Wall (Washington Wizards)
Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors)
Harrison Barnes (Golden State Warriors)
Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings)

That’s three guys selected to the big game on Sunday night (Wall, Lillard, George) who can all throw it down, as well as last year’s defending champion, Ross.

Then there is a new format that pits the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference.

First, there is the “Freestyle Round” — for 90 seconds all three dunkers for each conference can showcase as many dunks as they want. Whatever dunks they want. At the end of each conference’s 90 seconds, the judges will choose a winner, East or West.

The winning conference gets to decide if its dunkers go first or last in the “Battle Round.”

In that second round a dunker from each conference will have a little head-to-head dunk-off pitting East dunkers vs. West dunkers. For example, it could be Wall against Lillard — they each throw down a dunk, the judges vote for the best dunk and the loser is eliminated. The first team to win three “battles” will have his team crowned the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions.

Then you the fans come in — you (and tens of thousands of your closest friends) get to choose the ultimate winner, the “Dunker of the Night” through votes cast via SMS, Twitter, NBA.com and the NBA GameTime app.

Traditionally I’m in the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” camp, but the dunk contest is broke. It has been very up and down — it’s a lot of fun when a big personality like Nate Robinson or Dwight Howard took over the event, but a lot of years it has been down. (I will add this is an event that is just not as impressive on television as it is in person.)

So why not shake it up? I have no idea if the new format is really going to work or not, but with all these big names we should see some monster throwdowns. I’m actually pumped about the event this year, which is a sign the league has gotten something right.

Will Kevin Durant leave Thunder? Other teams reportedly believe decision hinges on Spurs series

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) walks up court during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series as San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) looks on, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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There’s plenty at stake in this Spurs-Thunder series already.

The winner advances to the Western Conference finals – an accomplishment in itself – likely to face the Warriors, who still haven’t gotten Stephen Curry back.

But this second round matchup could also prove instrumental in whether Durant stays in Oklahoma City or bolts – maybe to San Antonio.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

As well as Durant and his close-knit tandem of representatives, Rich Kleiman and Charlie Bell, have done in terms of keeping their intentions mysterious, there is a working assumption among KD’s would-be suitors that a second-round Thunder exit essentially cinches the notion that he’ll indeed walk away and look for the best external situation that positions him to win that elusive first championship.

The theory (stress: theory) also holds that OKC success in this round against the 67-win Spurs would be enough, no matter what happens in a presumed Western Conference finals showdown with the Warriors, to convince Durant, at the very least, to sign a new two-year deal with Oklahoma City ‎that contains a player option for Year 2.

Durant has already denied a report he’ll leave the Thunder if they don’t reach the NBA Finals. It’s never that cut and dry for a free agent.

But the Thunder’s success is works in their favor, and seeing that come undone right in front of his eyes could push Durant out of Oklahoma City. Likewise, seeing the Thunder win could convince Durant of his current team’s potential.

I don’t know whether Durant will re-sign if the Thunder advance and leave if they don’t. But if I’m Oklahoma City or San Antonio, I’d sure want to win to tip the odds toward my favor.

Four Things to Watch in Playoffs Friday: Can LaMarcus Aldridge get some scoring help

San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) runs up court during the first half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Kentucky Derby pick? I’ll take Outwork, I think the lack of early speed in this race will favor the frontrunners, who will hold off the Nyquist led charge. Oh, and here is some basketball stuff for Friday night.

1) LaMarcus Aldridge will get his, what about the rest of the Spurs? Oklahoma City’s defensive strategy in Game 2 started with more aggressive, more disruptive pick-and-roll coverage (the Thunder effort was much better than Game 1).  The Spurs responded by getting the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, both in the post and on the pop, and it worked to the tune of 41 points for the All-Star forward.

Oklahoma City can live with that. In leaning so heavily on Aldridge in an isolation set the Spurs ball movement went away, the spacing got off, and the Spurs weren’t getting the same open looks by making the extra pass. San Antonio played isolation basketball too often, not just with Aldridge. The Thunder would be happy with a repeat of that offensive outing, but Gregg Popovich was clearly, understandably less thrilled with the outcome. Expect a more balanced Spurs offense — if Aldridge is north of 35 points again Friday it’s not necessarily a good sign for them.

2) Oklahoma City needs to keep running — and take care of the ball this time. Game 2 was played at a faster pace than Game 1 — San Antonio’s early missed shots (2-of-15 to start the game) let the Thunder show off their superior athleticism in the open court. It happened a few times throughout the game, leading to Thunder scoring runs, and the Spurs would be back to digging out of a hole. The Thunder need to replicate that pace on Friday night — and turn the ball over less while doing so. OKC had 18 turnovers in Game 2 (18.5 percent of their possessions) and if they make those kinds of mistakes again the Spurs will make them pay for it.

3) Expect a better defensive effort from Atlanta. Clearly there was a snowball rolling down a mountain effect in Game 2, where the Cavaliers confidence grew as the three balls started to fall and pretty soon the momentum was nearly unstoppable. But there also was a lot of indifference from Hawk defenders about the arc in that game — rather than whine about all the threes the Cavs took after the game, go out there and stop them from shooting them. The Cavaliers are not likely to be that hot shooting from deep again, but also expect a much better defensive effort from the Hawks — they should be embarrassed and now will be in front of their home fans.

4) Can Al Horford and Paul Millsap get going at home? Millsap is 10-of-27 from two-point range through two games in this series (but hitting 40 percent of his threes). Horford is 7-of-20 from two and 5-of-16 from three. The Cavaliers have had those two struggling in the paint and daring them to beat them with jumpers, especially long twos. Millsap and Horford need to knock down these jumpers or the Hawks stand zero chance of a comeback this series.

Beyond those two, this applies to all the Hawks starters — they have been crushed by the Cavs starting five this series. The Hawks need for that to change back home.

Steve Kerr: Stephen Curry out for Game 3, ‘maybe a slight chance’ of playing in Game 4

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, and head coach Steve Kerr react during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Stephen Curry said there was a “pretty good” chance he’d play in Game 3 of the Warriors-Trail Blazers series on Saturday.

Steve Kerr said Curry would probably sit.

The coach was right.

Kerr, via The Dan Patrick Show

He hasn’t practiced with us yet. So, Game 3 tomorrow, he’s not going to play. He’s getting better every day, but until he’s out on the floor with our team and scrimmaging and we’re seeing him move, and trainers say it’s a go, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. But no way tomorrow, and I would say maybe a slight chance on Monday if he gets great work in the next few days.

Even if the Warriors lose in Portland tomorrow, they’d still lead the series 2-1. Golden State has looked like the better team through two games, and with Curry in its back pocket just in case things get tight, advancing seems likely.

As long as they Warriors keep talking around the same return date, there’s no reason to panic. They need Curry healthy for the conference finals or if this series gets tight.

So far, it’s not, so Curry can continue to heal.

Jazz extend Quin Snyder’s contract

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder speaks with reporters during the Jazz's end-of-season media availability Thursday, April 14, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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The Jazz hired Quin Snyder in 2014, reportedly giving him a contract that ran through next season with guaranteed salaries and contained a team option for 2017-18.

Utah wants to keep him around even longer.

Jazz release:

The Utah Jazz announced today a long-term contract extension for third-year head coach Quin Snyder. Per team policy, financial terms were not released.

“With this contract extension, we are declaring our confidence in Coach Snyder’s ability to continue to develop the Utah Jazz into a championship team,” said Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. “The Miller family recognizes the significant progress made under his leadership and we are excited about the direction we are headed.”

“Our relationship with Quin, and this extension, reflect our shared passion for building a championship team,” said Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz. “With long-term contracts now in place for Quin, Dennis and other key front office personnel, we are well-positioned for the future.”

“We have continued to take significant steps as a team under Quin’s direction,” said Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey. “His work ethic, basketball intelligence and ability to connect with and develop our players make him the ideal head coach of the Jazz.”

“I am very grateful for this gesture by the Miller family and the Utah Jazz and appreciative of their belief in me to continue to lead this team,” Snyder said. “Amy and I are fortunate to be a part of a franchise and family that cares deeply for our community, stays true to its values and is committed to winning. More than anything, it is confirmation of our collective commitment to building a championship team.”

Snyder has done a nice job in Utah.

Despite a young roster and some ill-fitting pieces (namely Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors offensively), the Jazz have gone 38-44 and 40-42 under Snyder. Player development looks good, and the defense has been top notch.

At some point, the goal must become snapping a four-year playoff drought – the franchise’s longest since its first four seasons in Utah. But Snyder has the team on the right track, and the Jazz are already winning at a fine clip given their circumstances. He deserves a chance to see this through.

Gobert, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Favors, Dante Exum, Trey Lyles and Alec Burks – who are all already signed for next season (and, in some cases, beyond) – give the Jazz a bright future.

So does Snyder.