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).

Arron Afflalo and Nemanja Bjelica fight, both get ejected (VIDEO)

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The Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers nearly got into a fight on Monday night after their game. The whole thing was a fiasco, and we don’t know the extent of that incident, but apparently it was just an amouse-bouche for Tuesday’s showdown between Arron Afflalo and Nemanja Bjelica.

During the matchup between the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves in Florida, the two wound up actually fighting during a play in the second quarter.

As both teams went to contest a rebound on a Jamal Crawford jumper, Bjelica appeared to rush directly at Afflalo as the smaller player tried to pass block.

Elbows and forearms were involved in the rebound attempt, and that’s what caused some actual swinging.

Via Twitter:

Afflalo’s big haymaker didn’t appear to make contact, and Bjelica sort of got the better of him by getting him in a headlock, ending the fight.

Both were ejected. No doubt Adam Silver and the league office will have their work cut out for them trying to parse this fight and whatever happened between Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, James Harden, Blake Griffin, and Austin Rivers.

Afflalo should get a couple of games for that big swing, and for being the main instigator. Bjelica got a good run at him for the rebound, but the first arms going up above the shoulders was all Afflalo.

It will probably also help Bjelica that once he had Afflalo in a headlock he put his other arm up, seemingly indicating he wanted to get out of the situation but didn’t want to let Afflalo go for fear of the fight continuing.

Players are heated lately, and there has been some discussion about whether new officiating styles by younger referees has led to players getting antsy with each other. We’ve heard that some of the newer refs aren’t talking with players as much, and perhaps that hasn’t let guys blow off steam throughout the course of the game and they’re taking it out on each other.

This is all very armchair psychology of me to speculate, but no doubt the conversation between the NBA, NBPA, and NBRA during the All-Star break regarding the officiating will be massively important.

Stephen Curry, Warriors lead league merchandise sales. Again.

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A few years ago, the Warriors were everybody’s darlings — they were the Brazilian soccer team of the NBA, everybody’s second-favorite squad because they play the beautiful game and did it with flair. However, sustained success in today’s world means people are going to turn on them — how dare they go and add a great player — and it’s become trendier to root against the Warriors and for the next hot thing. The Warriors didn’t change. That’s just the cycle of fame.

However, the trend has not slowed Warriors merchandise sales — they are still the top-selling team in the league, the NBA announced Tuesday. Stephen Curry is on top of the individual jersey sales. Both led the list last season, and Curry has been on top for a few years now.

Those next hot things — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joel Embiid — are fast climbing the list. Those three rank behind the expected big three of Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.

The NBA releases the jersey rankings based on NBAStore.com sales from last October through the end of 2017 (that’s not a perfect measure, but it’s representative). Here are the top 15 player jersey sales from NBA.com:

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
5. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
9. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
10. James Harden, Houston Rockets
11. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
12. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
13. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
14. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
15. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

Antetokounmpo has steadily climbed the list the past couple seasons, but this is the first time Porzingis or Embiid appeared in the top 15. Same with Lonzo Ball at 11 (he’s sold more gear than Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson, which feels wrong).

As for team merchandise sales from NBA.com:

1. Golden State Warriors
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Philadelphia 76ers
4. Los Angeles Lakers
5. New York Knicks
6. Milwaukee Bucks
7. Boston Celtics
8. San Antonio Spurs
9. Chicago Bulls
10. Oklahoma City Thunder

Jazz make it official: Thabo Sefolosha to have knee surgery, done for season

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This report had been out there for a few days, but on Tuesday the Utah Jazz made it official:

Swingman Thabo Sefolosha is going to have knee surgery. From the official release:

After further evaluation, Sefolosha (6-7, 220, Switzerland) has elected to undergo right knee surgery to repair an avulsion of the medial collateral ligament (MCL) which he suffered against Charlotte on Jan. 12. 

While the team would not put a timeline on this, he is done for this season.

Which is a blow to a Utah team that has battled injuries all season, most notably a couple of knee injuries to center Rudy Gobert. Sefolosha has been solid for the Jazz this season, averaging 8.2 points per game primarily off the bench, shooting 38 percent from three and playing solid defense in 21 minutes a night.

Joe Johnson will get more run, but this does not help the slim hopes of the Jazz to climb back into the playoff race.

Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan fined $15,000 for criticizing referees

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The Raptors lost to the Warriors on Saturday, and DeMar DeRozan – despite his own brilliant performance – was irked.

The Toronto guard seemed particularly upset about a review of an out-of-bounds call in the final seconds. After initially giving the ball to the Raptors, officials said it touched DeRozan while he was out of bounds and granted Golden State possession:

The NBA’s replay guidelines say (emphasis mine): “Referees can only initiate a review on a called out-of-bounds play (for example, not one where an out-of-bounds might have occurred) and only those involving doubt as to which player caused the ball to go out (not those, for example, where a player stepped on the line).”

DeRozan

I mean, it’s frustrating being out there feeling like you playing 5-on-8. It’s just what it feel like, period. Some of them calls was terrible, period.

I thought you couldn’t even do that. I’m not even a referee, and I know that rule. So, somebody correct me if I’m wrong.

The NBA corrected him in the two-minute report, saying “After communicating with the Replay Center, the ruling on the floor of Raptors possession is overturned and the Warriors are awarded possession because the ball touches DeRozan’s (TOR) leg while his body is out of bounds before Curry (GSW) knocks the ball out. Referees were able to review two aspects of this out-of-bounds play since they were part of the same sequence.”

Then, the league fined him.

NBA release:

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan has been fined $15,000 for public criticism of the officiating, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The comments were made following the Raptors’ 127-125 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, Jan. 13

Saying “5-on-8” seems to be a secret code word for getting fined. I’m not sure whether the rest of DeRozan’s comments would have gotten him fined, but that phrase almost certainly did him in.