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The Extra Pass: Handicapping the All-Star Saturday events

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A week from now the eyes of the basketball world will be on New Orleans for the NBA’s Damian Lillardapalooza. … er, I mean the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

While Sunday’s All-Star Game is the big show, I’ve always found Saturday night’s series of skill contests more fun than the no-D exhibition that is the All-Star Game itself. So, in the spirit of gambling (I guess), let’s take a stab at handicapping the three big events of All-Star Saturday night.

SLAM DUNK CONTEST

All predictions here must come with this caveat — they have changed the format this season to start with a freestyle round where everyone is dunking, then a series of head-to-head dunk “battles” to decide if the East or West wins. I have no idea how this will change the feel of the event and how the format will effect who wins it. That said, I’ll make a prediction anyway on who wins the “Dunker of the Night” as voted by the fans.

Favorite: Paul George, Indiana Pacers. There are three factors in his favor. First and foremost, the fans vote on the award and George is a popular budding superstar. This is a popularity contest to a degree. Second, he has done this before. George has been in the dunk contest and that matters because there is a distinct difference between an in-game dunk and an exhibition dunk and having done this before he should get it. Third, and most importantly, he can really throw it down.

Others at the front of the pack: Terrence Ross and John Wall. Ross won the Dunk Contest last year and did it without props — he knows how to win and we know he can throw down. Wall has the perfect combination of athleticism and showmanship to win the Dunk Contest, plus he is a name known by fans.

Dark Horse: Ben McLemore of the Kings. He was supposed to be the best shooter in the last draft but he has real hops and has shown some impressive dunks this year.

SKILLS CHALLENGE

Favorite: This is the hardest event to predict, but I’ll take Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns — he’s quick, he’s precise, and he grew up in a European system where they practiced the fundamentals more than most AAU coaches do stateside. Besides, the Suns deserve some recognition.

Others at the front of the pack: Watch out for the two rookies, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke. This is the kind of event that traditionally goes to skilled guys who are quick with the ball, your Tony Parkers of the world, and these two guys are both quick and skilled.

Dark Horse: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks… okay, I’m not sure he has a real shot at this, but I just want the Greek Freak to win.

THREE POINT CONTEST

Favorite: It’s got to be Stephen Curry. There are guys who have higher in-game shooting percentages but this is a contest about finding a groove and hitting big shots under pressure and nobody in the game right now does that better than Curry.

Others at the front of the pack: Really any of the guys in this group could get in a rhythm and win, but keep an eye on Marco Belinelli — he is knocking down 44.3 percent of his looks from beyond the arc this season, the highest percentage of anyone in the competition. Also don’t sleep on Kevin Love, who won this same competition two years ago and we know he can find a rhythm and win.

Dark Horse: I would say Kyle Korver, but somehow he isn’t there participating. I would say Klay Thompson, but somehow he isn’t there participating. You sense a theme here?

SATURDAY NIGHT’S BIGGEST WINNER

Kendrick Lamar.

He’s performing before the Slam Dunk Contest and he’s the only thing I know I’ll love all night.

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Nets 103, Spurs 89: The Spurs were without their big four (no Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard) yet they led in the first half by as many as 12 because they are the Spurs and they run their system. But eventually talent wins out in the NBA and Brooklyn just had more of it — although Alan Anderson may not be the first name you think of in Brooklyn he had the hot hand and had 22 points on the night as the Nets pulled away in the second half for the win.

Warriors 102, Bulls 87: Out of the gate Golden State just was not ready for the hard charging, aggressive style of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls — they only know how to play one way. But again, as in the Nets game, at some point talent wins out and Golden State has guys who can create on offense that the Bulls just do not — Stephen Curry had 36 points on the night as the Warriors came back to get the win. But it was closer and harder fought than the score indicates (the Warriors closed on an 11-2 run).

Watch some of Hawks 12 blocked shots in close-out Game 6 vs. Celtics

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Atlanta got to the playoffs on the strength of their defense.

That also won the Hawks their first-round series against the Celtics — Boston struggled to get score consistently against Atlanta. On Thursday night that included 12 blocked shots as the Hawks took away the paint and the Celtics could not make them play.

Well done by the Hawks but that defense is about to be put to the test in the next round — the Cleveland Cavaliers have much more dangerous weapons.

No longer rebuilding, Pistons hope to improve in offseason

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 20: Tobias Harris #34 Andre Drummond #0 and Marcus Morris #13 of the Detroit Pistons celebrates during the first half of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Pistons have finally moved beyond the rebuilding stage.

After their first playoff appearance since 2009, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons can look ahead to the offseason knowing that if they simply keep their current starting lineup intact, the future could be fairly bright. That’s not to say that Detroit will stand pat, but the team’s key players are young enough that the Pistons can envision more success if this group stays together.

“We’re now not at the time of wholesale change anymore. We went through that,” said Van Gundy, who just wrapped up his second season as Detroit’s coach and team president. “We’re not making deals just to make deals. We like the guys we have, but we’ve got to add to it, and if there’s ever a chance to make a significant upgrade – yeah.”

The Pistons went 44-38, their best record since 2008, before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by top-seeded Cleveland. When Van Gundy met with reporters Thursday, he talked about a lot of potential improvements that can come from within – such as Andre Drummond‘s free throw shooting, Stanley Johnson‘s skill set and the team’s overall defensive approach.

The 22-year-old Drummond remains the Pistons’ biggest star. As he enters restricted free agency, the team has not expressed any reservations about trying to sign him long term – despite his sub-40 percent free throw shooting, an issue which occasionally relegated him to the bench during crunch time.

“He’s a 22-year-old All-Star center. There aren’t very many guys in the league who have the abilities that he has,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll move forward and obviously do everything we possibly can to try to get him re-signed.”

Detroit’s starting lineup of Drummond, Reggie Jackson (26 years old), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (23), Tobias Harris (23) and Marcus Morris (26) was good enough to lift the Pistons into the postseason, and the team also has the 19-year-old Johnson, a lottery pick last year. Van Gundy says he wants Johnson to work on developing his individual skills in the offseason, which isn’t always easy for players in the years before they reach the NBA.

“They don’t really get, or haven’t had summers where they could take an extended period of time and really focus on skill development,” Van Gundy said. “They’re always playing AAU, then with Stanley, USA Basketball, then they have a summer where they’re going to draft workout after draft workout after draft workout, and then right after that, they’re just going into summer league.”

As for Drummond’s woeful foul shooting, Van Gundy says it’s wrong to view it purely as a mechanics problem. Drummond shot 35.5 percent this season from the line and was 11 of 34 in the playoffs.

Van Gundy was asked if having Drummond try to shoot underhanded could be an option.

“I think right now everything’s on the table,” Van Gundy said. “We all know it’s an important thing, Andre more than any of us. I think he’s pretty open to anything, but there’s a lot of ways to attack this problem, and we’ll all have a hand in it.”

Although the Pistons don’t have to worry much about losing Drummond before next season, Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake are both unrestricted free agents. They combined for only 69 minutes in the playoff series, and Van Gundy was somewhat noncommittal about their future.

“In just a very general sense, I like the idea of having both of them back,” he said. “But – and I was honest with them – there’s priorities ahead of re-signing them.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Hawks close out Celtics, advance to face Cavaliers

<> during the first quarter of Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 28, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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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The first Eastern Conference semifinals matchup is set: the Atlanta Hawks closed out the Boston Celtics 104-92 on the road to win their first-round series in six games and advance to the second round, where they will face the Cleveland Cavaliers beginning on Monday.

The Hawks controlled the game from start to finish, neutralizing Boston’s offense and attacking Isaiah Thomas on the other end. Thomas finished with 25 points, leading all scorers, but shot just 9-for-24 from the field.

In the second half, Atlanta’s lead stretched as far as 28 points, before a Marcus Smart-led comeback in the fourth quarter cut it to 12 and Atlanta was able to put the game away.

From a talent standpoint, this series was always going to be skewed away from the Celtics, especially after Avery Bradley‘s hamstring injury in the first round of the playoffs. And Atlanta’s superior talent won out in Game 6, with every Hawks starter reaching double figures.

From here, Atlanta will face Cleveland in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, this time with everybody fully healthy for both teams. Boston is set up for an interesting offseason, with a high lottery pick coming from Brooklyn, a ton of cap space and dark-horse status in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes.

Livingston enjoying the moment filling in for injured Curry

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Shaun Livingston #34 celebrate during a second half time out against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. The Warriors defeated the Wizards 134 to 121. 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.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Shaun Livingston‘s left leg could have been amputated nine years ago.

The knee injury he suffered while with the Clippers in 2007 was that severe. Going for a layup, Livingston’s leg buckled backward, parallel to the court, when he fell in a freak accident. He screamed and writhed in agony.

Now, healthy and reliable, Livingston is making a new name for himself on the NBA’s postseason stage. He has filled in admirably for the NBA’s best player as Golden State moves on to the second round of the playoffs without injured MVP Stephen Curry.

Livingston scored 16 points in each of his three starts in place of Curry during Golden State’s 4-1 first-round series win against the Houston Rockets.

“I think when you go through traumatic events like that, you understand,” Livingston said. “Now, being in this position and playing with guys like Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Draymond (Green), All-Stars, being on this team, there was a time I was getting waived off teams that weren’t winning 20 games.”

Journeyman for this guy is practically an understatement. Just 30, the Warriors are already his ninth NBA team. Livingston has played in the most games of his career the past two seasons, 78 each, and emerged as a trustworthy backup to Curry when he comes off the bench with high energy and an aggressive style.

That night of Feb. 26, 2007, still fuels him. Livingston overcame long medical odds just to get back on the court, and for that he is so grateful each time he laces up his shoes for practice or game day.

Livingston tore three major ligaments in his knee – the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral – as well as his lateral meniscus, then required extensive surgery performed by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama.

Livingston also dislocated his knee cap and tibiofemoral joint. Though the injury could have potentially ended his career at age 21, he still believed he would play again. First he had to walk again.

After all that, the Warriors love watching him contribute in such a meaningful way as they chase a second straight championship.

“He’s been huge. Not just this series, all year,” Green said after Golden State eliminated Houston on Wednesday night, 114-81. “But really stepping in for Steph, and it’s different. It’s not the same thing that you’re used to, which is so unique about it. But he’s been incredible for us, always steady, somebody we know we can go to if we need a basket, and taking care of the ball and really running the offense.”

Livingston’s remarkable comeback inspired coach Steve Kerr this season when he was coping with his own trying ordeal, a long leave of absence following complications from two back surgeries.

“I admire Shaun Livingston. Shaun had probably the worst knee injury that I’ve ever seen, that anybody’s ever seen in NBA history, almost had his leg amputated,” Kerr said this week after being named Coach of the Year. “Think about what it took for Shaun to get back to the point where he is now, several years of rehabilitation. That inspires me, my players inspire me. … People may forget, but if it weren’t for the knee injury, Shaun was headed for a superstar career.”

Livingston, drafted fourth overall by the Clippers in 2004 out of Peoria Central High in Illinois, was hit with plenty of injury hard luck well before the frightening knee blowout and had yet to even play a full NBA season because of injuries.

“Going through those experiences, it’s humbling, and never getting too high or too low,” Livingston said. “Just respecting the process, keeping your head down and keep grinding.”

He has vowed to be aggressive and make things happen at every chance to keep Golden State’s record-setting season going. The Warriors had an NBA-best 24-0 start on the way to a 73-9 record that topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ previous-best finish of 72-10.

Kerr was on that team. The encouraging words from the coach mean so much to Livingston.

“He’s played and won championships as a player, and he’s been around,” Livingston said. “He’s played with the greatest and been coached by the greatest. So to hear those words, it’s very humbling. I’m grateful. I take it in stride, and I just try to let it fuel me.”

At 6-foot-7, Livingston is a tough matchup because of his length and athletic ability.

His teammates don’t want him to change a thing.

“He’s been phenomenal, so we’re going to need him to continue to be that way,” Green said. “We’re not sure how long Steph will be out, but until then Shaun will be holding it down for us. So he’s been big, and we look forward to him continuing to do that.”