2014 Dunk Contest: Ranking the dunks

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Let’s get this out of the way: that was an awful, awful dunk contest. Despite one of the most star-studded fields in years and some phenomenal athletes, the 2014 dunk contest was a complete dud. Most of the blame probably lies with the new contest format which, at the risk of recycling adjectives, was unforgivably awful.

For the majority of the “freestyle” round, it would have been possible to hear a fly crash into a bed of cotton in the Smoothie King Center, and it’s not clear why anyone thought it was a good idea.

While the idea behind the “battle” round was an intriguing one, the fact is that the format caused the viewers to see far less dunks under pressure. Last year, having the 4 participants get two dunks each and the finalists get an extra two dunks apiece meant the viewing audience at home got to see 12 dunks. If you don’t count the freestyle dunks, and you really shouldn’t, we got to see six dunks this season, thanks to the East’s “sweep.” Apparently a round-robin of some kind, which would have allowed the fans to see more dunks, would have taken away from the drama of the inter-conference dunk rivalry that does not exist and nobody cares about. More dunks, in general, makes for a better dunk contest.

Okay, enough complaining. At the end of the day, we got to see dunks, and dunks are fun. Now I shall rank all six dunks that we got to see in the “battle round,” as well as the three most notable dunks of the “freestyle” round.

9) Harrison Barnes, Battle Round: Throwing down a windmill while being motion-captured for NBA 2K

When Harrison Barnes hooked himself up to something before his dunk, we knew some type of gimmick was coming, and we knew it wasn’t going to be nearly as fun for the fans as Barnes and the fine gentlemen at 2K studios probably thought it would be when they came up with it. After two misses, Barnes threw down a relatively plain windmill slam, and fans were then treated to an immediate rendering of Barnes performing the exact feat in NBA 2K graphics. I’m sure the technology behind doing that in real-time is amazing, but it was the nadir of the dunk contest.

8) Ben McLemore, Battle Round: Ben McLemore jumps over a Shaq, who was sitting in a big chair

I mean, sure, the crown, the cape, the throne, and the “Shaqramento” and “Shaqlemore” puns were bad, but at this point, we know better than to expect anything resembling subtlety from Shaq. The reason this ranks so low isn’t a reaction to the specific gimmick — it’s a reaction against the idea that “dunker jumps over thing” is enough to make an impressive dunk in and of itself anymore, especially when the person is sitting down. Plus, McLemore took two attempts to pull the dunk off. After rumors that McLemore was going to attempt a 720, this was a disappointment.

7) Terrance Ross, Battle Round: East Bay Funk Dunk, assisted by Drake

We’ve seen the between-the-legs dunk a lot at this point, and while it will always probably my favorite category of dunk, pretending that having Drake hold out a ball puts a radical new spin on an old dunk contest standby simply didn’t work for me.

6) Damian Lillard, Battle Round: Reverse 360 dunk with a lefty finish

I liked this dunk — it was smooth, it was clean, and there was a nice degree of difficulty on it — I think it should have beaten Ross’ dunk, obviously, which would at least have allowed us to see two more dunks. The dunk wasn’t anything radical, and it wasn’t thrown down with enough force or amplitude to make it amazing, so it takes this space on the list. This is the problem with the format — if Lillard had had four “official” dunks, this would have been a great dunk. With only one, it didn’t quite cut it.

5) Ben McLemore, Freestyle Round: Reaching way the hell back and slamming down a self-oop

Here’s another frustrating thing: when you can jump like Ben McLemore, you don’t need a man making a fool of himself on national television, not to mention a herald, to make your dunks impressive. A simple self-oop off the floor that forced McLemore to hang in the air as he re-adjusted himself to the toss was enough to make for a darn impressive dunk.

4) Damian Lillard, Freestyle Round: Off-the-floor self-oop East Bay Funk Dunk

Like I said, I’m a huge sucker for the between-the-legs dunk, and watching the smallest guy in the field throw one down off of a nice self-oop toss was beautiful to see. Lillard definitely should’ve saved this one for the battle round.

3) The East, Freestyle Round: 3-man alley-oop ending in a shot-clock toss to Paul George throwdown

Teammwork is fun. Dunks thrown off the shot clock are fun. Alley-oops grabbed way above the rim and thrown down with authority are super-fun. During the freestyle round, the Eastern squad combined to put all of these things into one dunk, and the result was delightful.

2) Paul George, Battle Round: Reverse-spin 360 East Bay Funk Dunk

Again, I’m a huge sucker for the between-the-legs, and I love opposite-direction spins. Plus, this was a dunk done without any props, or even an alley-oop toss, that we had never seen in a dunk contest before, which is amazing. If George had thrown it down just a little bit harder, or hit the dunk on his first try, this could have easily gotten the #1 spot.

1) John Wall, Battle Round: Over-the-mascot reverse tomahawk

You were expecting something else? This was the dunk that woke up the Smoothie King Center, just in time for the dunk contest to be over. There was some showmanship with the mascot, but it wasn’t distracting. The dunk was beautiful, clean, and he put it through on his first attempt. The hops required to pull off the dunk were apparent, and the power Wall generated with the Nique-like reverse tomahawk was shocking. Great dunk from a great dunker, and a painful reminder of what this dunk contest could have been if the contestants got more chances to show their stuff.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.