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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).

Really? Online petition started to change name of Durant, Oklahoma, to Westbrook.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on the court in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Durant, Oklahoma, is a city of just more than 15,000 people in the southern part of the state. It is the capital of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and it was named after its Choctaw founder, Dixon Durant.

But some people in Oklahoma are not high on the name Durant, lately. Kevin Durant decided to bolt the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors this summer, and some Thunder fans feel betrayed. Understandably. Durant was well within his rights, but if you’re a Thunder fan and you’re not hurt by this it would be strange.

Still, you have to hope what follows is satire. It reads like it.

Oklahoma’s Ryan Nazari created a Change.org petition asking the city of Durant be renamed the city of Westbrook. As in Russell Westbrook. The guy who signed a contract extension to stay in Oklahoma (for just one extra year, but still). Read the petition below and tell me it doesn’t sound like satire.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the great state of Oklahoma has been betrayed. As many of you know, Kevin Durant has left our state, torn out our hearts, and left our beloved Oklahoma City Thunder in depleted shape. All of this after even being offered a cabinet position for the State of Oklahoma. It is because of this heinous action that I believe the State of Oklahoma has a responsibility to change the name of the City of Durant to Westbrook, the man who is loyal, whom we believe in, and who will lead our team to glory. Yes, it is understood that the city Durant was not named after the evil Kevin Durant, but it is just another hideous reminder of what happened to our community.”

As of this writing, he had reached his goal of having more than 1,000 people sign on.

Maybe it’s satire, but it’s more creative than burning a jersey.

Obviously, the name of the city is not changing. If people want to live in Westbrook, they should move to Maine.

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.