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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).

DeMar DeRozan didn’t meet with Lakers because he wanted “legacy of my own in Toronto”

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  DeMar DeRozan #9 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team stands on the court during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan was going to be one of the Lakers’ free agent targets last summer — an All-Star wing who could come home to Los Angeles and slide right into Kobe Bryant‘s now vacant spot in the rotation. But like the Lakers’ other top targets — Kevin Durant, Hassam Whiteside, etc. — the Lakers didn’t even get a meeting.

Durant’s reasoning was expected: “I really respect their team. I just thought they were a couple years away from where I wanted to be.”

DeRozan went another path — he loves Toronto and wants to carve out a legacy there, as he told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily recently:

“When you have an opportunity to go home, that’s something that certainly would cross your mind. But it wasn’t anything,” DeRozan told Southern California News Group. “After I finish playing, I’m pretty sure I’ll live in L.A. But I just wanted to do something special and leave a legacy of my own in Toronto.”

DeRozan is big on loyalty — he has the word tattooed on his hands. If he says he’s in for something, he’s all the way in. And he is in for Toronto — he and Kyle Lowry have built what that team has become. The Lowry/DeRozan backcourt fueled the Raptors to the best season in franchise history last campaign — 56 wins and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Nobody who knew DeRozan thought he would walk away from that, not even for the chance to play for the team he grew up idolizing.

The Daily News story does a fantastic job of showing DeRozan is still loyal to Los Angeles, too — he is a regular at the Drew League to this day. He loves L.A.

But that’s different from leaving an impressive Raptors team for the Lakers.

DeMarcus Cousins looks to make most of chance with US basketball team

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Roberto Santiago Acuna #35 of Argentina knocks the ball away from DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — DeMarcus Cousins considers the thought, and one of the NBA’s most recognizable scowls quickly turns into a bright smile.

Without saying a word, it’s clear he agrees: For the first time under Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. Olympic basketball team has a genuine offensive weapon in the middle.

The Americans might even have the best center in the world.

Cousins had 14 points and 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes of the Americans’ exhibition opener, a 111-74 victory over Argentina. The Sacramento Kings star can score inside and out, and gives the U.S. a dimension it hasn’t had while winning the last two gold medals.

“DeMarcus is going to be a force in Rio,” teammate Klay Thompson said.

The center spot has almost been an afterthought on recent U.S. teams, who much preferred playing small to pounding the ball inside. Then again, none had a “bulldog” like Cousins, as Kevin Durant called him.

“There’s been a lot of great bigs come through this program, so I’m blessed to be in this situation,” Cousins said. “I’m honored to be in this situation. I’m not really in it to say who’s the best at what position, I’m just here to help the team win. So we’ve got one goal in mind, which is the gold, and that’s only thing I’m focused on right now.”

Along with that gold, Cousins could bring back something else from the Olympics.

His NBA career has been six seasons of bad teams and bad moods, the constant losing in Sacramento and the chaos in the organization often overshadowing his play. He doesn’t hide his unhappiness, and many times if he’s not shouting, it’s only because he’s sulking.

The 6-foot-11 center out of Kentucky averaged a career-high 26.9 points last season, fourth in the NBA, and was fifth in the league with 11.5 rebounds per game. But the Kings missed the playoffs again, as they have every season since taking Cousins with the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft, and his bickering with coach George Karl generated more headlines than anything he or the Kings did on the court.

Now he’ll spend a month around a team that does nothing but win, and maybe that mentality will rub off on him.

“It can only help him,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said.

“I think all the players who play for us are better people for it. They become better players. As a result, they get absorbed in the culture and that culture they bring back to their respective teams, and ultimately they benefit.”

Colangelo wasn’t certain about Cousins as a young player, saying in 2012 that he needed to be “more mature as a person, as a player” and had “a lot of growing up to do.”

He now believes they have a great relationship that’s developed over time.

As has Cousins’ role with the U.S. program. He backed up Anthony Davis in the 2014 Basketball World Cup, but with Davis recovering from injuries, Cousins has a good chance to step into the starting role.

The Americans started Dwight Howard at center in 2008 and Tyson Chandler in 2012. Both are former NBA defensive players of the year, but neither possesses Cousins’ offensive repertoire.

“DeMarcus is a different player,” said U.S. veteran Carmelo Anthony, who then focused not only on what Cousins brings, but what he can bring home.

“He’s a big who can shoot, he’s a big who can post, he’s tough, he’s a hell of a rebounder,” Anthony said. “But the most exciting thing I like about having DeMarcus out here now is he gets a chance to see how everybody else is working. Work ethic. To see him jumping into lines, to see him asking can somebody work with him, staying after, coming in before, that work ethic is something that it spills over to everybody else. When you see your peers working that hard, it makes you want to be a part of that.”

Cousins doesn’t like comparing the U.S. experience to his pro one, but praises the way the Americans do little things that get forgotten in the NBA. He came to camp in great shape and seems committed to being a good teammate, whether he starts or backs up the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

“He’s totally invested in what we’re doing,” Krzyzewski said.

Next up for Cousins and the Americans is their second exhibition game on Sunday against China in Los Angeles.

When it’s over, Durant and Thompson will return to an NBA team with title hopes. Cousins’ future might be the usual losing and trade rumors, so he’ll miss being around a winning team.

But maybe he can help build one.

“When you leave winning situations, it’s always going to be hard. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy winning?” Cousins said. “But I’m also always ready to get back. I’m ready to share my experience with my teammates … get the season kicked off on the right foot.”

Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Joking with Justin Timberlake at golf tournament, Stephen Curry throws mouthguard. Again.

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Well played Stephen Curry, well played.

He was joking around with Justin Timberlake at the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe this weekend (you can watch it on NBC, check your local listings) when Curry poked a little fun at himself by throwing his mouthguard.

Last time he did that he got a $25,000 fine. This time he got some laughs.

WNBA rescinds fines regarding protest shirts

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 13, 2016 file photo, members of the New York Liberty basketball team await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream in New York. The WNBA is withdrawing its fines for teams and players that showed support of citizens and police involved in recent shootings by wearing black warmup shirts before and during games. WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement Saturday, July 23, the league was rescinding penalties given to the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and their players for wearing the shirts–which was a uniform violation. The players started wearing them to show solidarity after shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
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LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and a number of Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets players wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in warmups after the death of Eric Garner in New York. LeBron and his then Heat teammates wore hoodies for a photo shoot after the Travon Martin shooting. NBA players have made other protest fashion statements, with no repercussions from the league.

But when WNBA players wore black warmup shirts in support of Black Lives Matter and other anti-violence protests, the WNBA came down with fines for the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury ($5,000) and players involved ($500) for uniform violations. That led to a lot of backlash — including among WNBA players. Some refused to answer basketball questions with the media after recent games.

Saturday, the WNBA rescinded the fines. As they should have.

The women’s players’ union supported the move, via a statement from the director of operations Terri Jackson.

“We are pleased that the WNBA has made the decision to rescind the fines the league handed down to the players on the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury. We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the league to ensure that the players’ desire to express themselves will continue to be supported.”

I want a league — for men or women — where player’s individuality and statements can be made — I don’t want the NBA to be the button-down, cookie cutter NFL. Let the players be themselves. And if players want to weigh in on the biggest social issue of our time, they should. Without fear of repercussion.

Good on the WNBA for coming around to that.