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Reviewing the Air Jordan XX9, after testing the shoes at Michael Jordan’s house

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Jordan Brand touted ground-breaking performance and innovative design when the company unveiled the latest version of its flagship basketball shoe back in April, and now that we’re less than a month away from the release of the Air Jordan XX9, it was time to see if the company kept its promise.

A group of media members were invited to Chicago recently to get a first look at the shoes in person and test them on the court — but this was no ordinary wear test experience.

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THE EXPERIENCE

We were told to dress for basketball in the base layers that were provided the night before, even though we would be outfitted in additional gear once we arrived to the court. After breakfast at Wishbone, a spot in Chicago’s West Loop frequented by Michael Jordan in his playing days and one which came personally recommended by the brand’s namesake, we were loaded onto a minibus to be transported to what turned out to be a very special location.

The ride of more than 40 minutes out of town didn’t seem suspicious, considering that Jordan Brand’s open run they hosted in New Orleans during All-Star weekend was a similar distance from the town’s center. Once we exited the freeway and took a couple of turns into a residential area, however, things began to fall into place — especially once we came to our stop.

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We had arrived at Michael Jordan’s house.

Jordan no longer lives here, and his former home is currently on the market; he spends his time these days in Charlotte in an ownership role with the Hornets. But the sprawling estate still has many of his personalized touches — including a regulation-sized indoor basketball gym where the day’s festivities would take place.

As we walked down the long and winding pathway, we passed the main home and were ushered into a guest house. Once inside, two quick right turns landed us into a locker room space that was specifically created for our special event.

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Once everyone was in uniform, it was time to head into Jordan’s personal gym, where he spent so many hours perfecting his game. It was left untouched by the folks handling the event, because as one staffer quipped, “you don’t paint the Sistine Chapel.”

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THE SHOE 

The Jordan XX9 had big shoes to fill, so to speak, because it was going to be extremely difficult to improve upon the performance provided by the Jordan XX8. The company introduced its Flight Plate technology into the sole of the shoe, and by almost all accounts, the XX8 and XX8 SE were routinely reviewed as some of the best basketball shoes to play in over the past 18 months.

The Flight Plate returned for the XX9, but was rotated and adjusted slightly in hopes of providing even better overall cushioning in the forefoot of the shoe. And, a “tendril” was added to bridge the front and the back of the sole to provide what the company hoped would be a smoother heel-to-toe transition. You can see the differences here, with the XX8 on the left and the XX9 on the right.

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The adjustments to the Flight Plate gave the shoe a different feel than its predecessor, but that was only a minor tweak from the previous iteration. The real change in the XX9 is the woven upper, which feels more like a snug slipper than it does a traditional sneaker.

“The performance-woven upper delivers superior abrasion resistance, along with an entirely new look on the outside of the shoe,” the company described at April’s unveiling. “The structure and fit of the shoe are engineered through Flight Web tunnels, and strategic panels of stiffer and softer flex to enhance natural motion. The absence of numerous layers and adhesion technologies creates an incredibly comfortable, sock-like interior lining with superior breathability.”

Michael Jordan and the shoe’s designer, Tinker Hatfield, discussed the woven upper at April’s event, while explaining its significance and the way it affects performance.

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THE REVIEW

My initial impressions of the Jordan XX9 haven’t changed much since the first couple of games I played in them, even though I’ve tested them out many times since.

I originally thought my normal size might have been too small when I first put them on, and actually checked to see if a half-size up was available. It wasn’t, and that was fine, because it didn’t take more than a few minutes for the upper to stretch a bit, to the point where it was extremely comfortable and didn’t feel like there was anything there at all.

The word “sock” was thrown around a lot that day to describe the feel of the upper, but after discussing it with others at the event, we agreed that term simply doesn’t do it justice. The fabric is firm enough to provide support when you need it, but doesn’t feel too tight or constricting, and it’s undoubtedly the shoe’s key feature.

As previously mentioned, the Flight Plate has changed a bit in the XX9, and for those who enjoyed the feel of the extreme level of forefoot bounce in the XX8, it’s worth noting that in the newest model, that has been downgraded a bit, and is much more subtle. There isn’t a greatly noticeable difference once you begin playing in them from a performance standpoint, but you will notice it when first putting the shoes on, which may be viewed as a negative by some.

While the Flight Plate was the game-changer in the previous version, the fact that it’s now combined with this woven upper is what will keep players reaching for this shoe time and again when heading to the court. There are obviously tons of factors that go into declaring which shoe is the best to play in, and ultimately, it comes down to a player’s individual game, body type, and personal preference. But it’s tough to envision anyone playing in the Jordan XX9 and coming away with anything other than positive overall thoughts.

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Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: How ‘Bout them Celtics!

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Traditionally, NBA players treat the last game before the All-Star break like you treated the last day of school before summer vacation. But through the slop, there were some entertaining games on Wednesday, here is what you need to know:

1) If you weren’t taking the Celtics seriously before, the Clippers think you should start. The Boston Celtics are 32-23, have the third-best defense in the NBA, and in their last 10 games are outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions (fifth best in the NBA in that stretch). They are legitimate. Not title contenders, but they are looking like the third best team in the East and a second-round showdown with Toronto could be interesting (especially if Danny Ainge can pull off a big move at the trade deadline — he’s trying). Brad Stevens is earning Coach of the Year votes every time the Celtics step on the court.

The latest sign the Celtics are for real — winning a shootout against the Los Angeles Clippers. Two good defensive teams decided to take the night off on that end, which was entertaining and fit the “last day of school before break” theme. Isaiah Thomas just shredded the Clippers perimeter defense on his way to 36 points and 11 assists (watching how quick he is on the dribble, he’s got to be the favorite at the All-Star Saturday skills challenge). Chris Paul countered with 35 points and 13 assists. It was an old-fashioned, 1980s-style barn burner that went to overtime when the Clippers didn’t score a field goal in the final 3:29 of regulation and the Celtics completed a comeback in a Thomas jumper. In OT, J.J. Redick started out hot, but the Celtics closed hotter and got the win. The one bit of bad news for Boston Kelly Olynyk suffered a shoulder subluxation, he will have the week off to let that rest. (We will now note that happened on the same night Kevin Love suffered a shoulder injury, too. His was just a stinger, and he will be back after the break.)

2) Kawhi Leonard drains game winner to give Spurs another win. A couple of seasons back, when the Spurs motion offense was clicking, with the game on the line they would have run a play, four guys would touch the ball, and they would get a clean look. But this is how much Gregg Popovich trusts Kawhi Leonard now: Tie game with 13.3 seconds remaining, and the play design is a 1-4 flat isolation for Leonard. That’s what you call for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Popovich called it for Leonard. And he was rewarded with the win.



3) Chauncey Billups got his number retired in Detroit.
There is a 2004 championship banner hanging above the Detroit Pistons court in large part because for a stretch Billups was not only the ultimate leader but played as well as anyone in the league. Just ask Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Wednesday night they honored Billups in the Motor City (well, in Auburn Hills) by retiring his number.

4) Portland beats Houston to take over final playoff spot in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started today, the Trail Blazers would be the eight seed in the West and the Rockets would be golfing. That’s because Portland beat Houston 116-103 to move to .500 and ahead of Houston in the standings by half a game. Houston had some success scoring in the first quarter thanks to some old school Dwight Howard in the post and James Harden on the drive. The problem is, when Portland adjusted and Houston’s offense sputtered, they had no defense to fall back on — Portland scored at will all night. Damian Lillard finished with 31 points, the Trail Blazers had an offensive rating on the night of 115.6, and the Rockets head into the break trying to answer the same questions they had back when Kevin McHale got fired. Houston thinks things can come together, and they can make another playoff run, but a playoff run would be based on defense and the Rockets don’t play four quarters on that end nightly.

5) Suns Markieff Morris, Aaron Goodwin scuffle on bench. After the game — a 112-104 loss to Golden State — Morris said this was no more than two guys as close as brothers having a disagreement. It’s just a little hard considering everything that has gone on in Phoenix this season — including Morris’ poor play and the towel throwing incident with now-fired coach Jeff Hornacek — to think this is not another window into the chemistry problem in the Suns locker room.

Lillard scores 31 as surging Blazers beat Rockets 116-103

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Damian Lillard sparked a second-quarter outburst for the Portland Trail Blazers and finished with 31 points and nine assists in a 116-103 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.

Maurice Harkless set season highs with 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Blazers, who moved past Houston into a tie with Utah for seventh place in the Western Conference standings. They enter the All-Star break having won three in a row and eight of nine.

James Harden had 34 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds for the Rockets, who have dropped three straight and six of eight to fall out of playoff position. Dwight Howard dominated the paint with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

After trailing by as many as 21 in the second half, Houston closed to 93-88 early in the fourth quarter. But a Blazers timeout led to a scoring burst that restored the lead to 20 with 3:47 to go.

An entertaining, if at times sloppy, game took on a far more spirited air with 5:02 left in the second quarter. Patrick Beverly committed a hard, and needless, foul on Lillard just past halfcourt, sending the Blazers point guard sprawling.

Lillard spiked the ball in anger, officials reviewed the play to determine if it was a flagrant foul, and the crowd roared as Portland reeled off eight consecutive points and closed the half on a 13-4 run to take a 57-46 lead into the locker room.

What had all the look and feel of that mail-it-in last day of work before vacation – both teams are off until Feb. 19 thanks to the All-Star break – suddenly played out like the battle for the eighth and final playoff seed in the West that it was.

Beverly and Lillard have had run-ins before, and the fans expressed their feelings toward Beverly with a cacophony of boos throughout the game. Lillard sparked the half-ending run with a 3-pointer, and Harkless added another 3 and a driving layup to bring the fans to their feet and prompt a Houston timeout.

Until Beverly’s foul, the game was fairly even as neither team placed a premium on tough defense or ball security. Through the first quarter both teams shot at least 50 percent from the field and they combined for 20 turnovers in the first half, 13 by Houston.

Tempers and intensity subsided to start the second half, until Houston’s Jason Terry picked up a technical foul for throwing an elbow into the ribs of Meyers Leonard as they ran down the court following Terry’s jumper.

Leonard and C.J. McCollum chipped in 14 points each for Portland. Gerald Henderson scored 13 off the bench.

Clint Capela had 10 rebounds for the Rockets.

TIP-INS

Rockets: F Terrence Jones, who went to nearby Jefferson High School in Portland, missed his fourth consecutive game and remains in the NBA’s concussion protocol. He was injured in a car accident on Feb. 3. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who attended Oregon State, said the team hopes to get positive news regarding Jones’ return after the All-Star break.

Trail Blazers: Lillard was added to the U.S. national team pool. He fell just short of a place on the 2014 World Cup of Basketball roster and wasn’t among the original 30 candidates for Rio de Janeiro announced last month. . F Noah Vonleh was in uniform for the first time after missing three games with a sprained left ankle. He did not play. . Before the game, the Blazers held a moment of silence in memory of Ingrid Williams, the wife of former Portland assistant coach Monty Williams. She died Wednesday from injuries sustained in a car accident Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where Monty Williams is now an assistant with the Thunder.

UP NEXT

Rockets: At Phoenix on Feb. 19.

Trail Blazers: Host Golden State on Feb. 19.

Timberwolves come back from 18 down to stun Raptors, 117-112

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 10:  Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots against the Toronto Raptors on February 10, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Karl-Anthony Towns had 35 points and 11 rebounds, and the Minnesota Timberwolves came back from 18 points down to stun the Toronto Raptors 117-112 on Wednesday night.

Canadian star Andrew Wiggins scored 13 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, including a jumper with under 2 minutes to go that gave Minnesota a 112-109 lead. Ricky Rubio had 19 points, eight assists and eight rebounds to outplay All-Star Kyle Lowry, and the Wolves used a huge advantage at the free throw line to close out a team that had won 14 of its last 15 games.

DeMar DeRozan scored 35 points for the Raptors, who head home to host All-Star Weekend beginning on Friday night. But Lowry was held to 14 points and seven assists while battling foul trouble, and the combination of Wiggins and Towns was too much down the stretch.

Minnesota set season highs with 43 free throws made on 53 attempts on the way to its largest comeback win of the season. The Raptors were whistled for 34 fouls compared to 21 for the Wolves.

The Raptors looked to be cruising toward a highly anticipated weekend in Canada when they raced out to an 18-point lead in the second quarter. Then Lowry picked up his fourth foul, Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t handle Towns in the paint and the Timberwolves came all the way back to grab the lead early in the fourth quarter.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey emphasized before the game the need for a veteran group to hold it together for one more night before the party starts in Toronto. The Raptors were facing a Timberwolves team with the third-worst record in the West that was just blown out by lowly New Orleans in this building two nights prior.

When the Raptors got up big early, they may have relaxed a little bit and they found themselves in a fight for the final 9 minutes.

Rubio’s third 3-pointer gave the Timberwolves a 104-98 lead with 5:24 to play.

The Raptors fought back to tie the game with under 3 minutes to play, but Wiggins hit big shot after big shot a day before heading back to his hometown to play in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night.

Gorgui Dieng had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and all five Timberwolves starters finished in double figures.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Their 68 points were their most in a first half this season. … Bismack Biyombo left in the second quarter after a nasty spill under the basket but was able to return in the second half. … The Raptors made 10 of 31 3-pointers to just 4 of 14 for Minnesota.

Timberwolves: F Tayshaun Prince missed the game to attend former teammate Chauncey Billups’ jersey retirement ceremony in Detroit. … Zach LaVine started in Prince’s place and finished with 13 points. … The Wolves again played without Kevin Garnett (leg), Nikola Pekovic (ankle) and Kevin Martin (wrist).

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Chicago on Feb. 19.

Timberwolves: Visit Memphis on Feb. 19.

Celtics rally late, overtake Clippers in overtime 139-134

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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas had 36 points and 11 assists, including a fade away jumper that sent the game to an extra period, to help the Boston Celtics overtake the Los Angeles Clippers 139-134 in overtime on Wednesday night.

Jared Sullinger added 21 points and 11 rebounds. Jae Crowder finished with 19 points, and Avery Bradley added 18 points as the Celtics won their eighth straight at home.

Boston played the second half without big man Kelly Olynyk. He left late in the first half with a bruised right shoulder.

The Clippers led by five late in regulation, but went without a field goal for more than three minutes.

Chris Paul led the Clippers with 35 points and 13 assists. J.J. Redick added 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds.

The loss spoiled what may be Clippers’ forward Paul Pierce‘s final game in the Boston Garden. The 38-year-old played 15 seasons with the Celtics and was facing his former team for the eighth time.

The Clippers opened overtime with a four-point play by Redick.

After a Celtics miss, he was fouled again on a 3-point attempt, and connected on two of his three free throws to give Los Angeles a six-point lead.

Boston didn’t go away, and eventually tied it on a jumper by Evan Turner. Turner then put the Celtics in front 135-132 via a three-point play – his seventh straight point – with 1:33 left.

Both teams traded baskets, before Pierce came up short on a 27-footer that was rebounded by the Celtics.

Los Angeles had a chance to tie it up, and Jamal Crawford‘s long 3-point attempted nearly banked in before rimming out.

Los Angeles led 120-117 with 56 seconds to play in regulation after Thomas was fouled on a driving layup. He missed his ensuing free throw, but it was rebounded by Sullinger. He connected on the first of his two free throws to trim it to 120-118.

Following a pair of free throws by Redick, Thomas gave the Celtics life again with a teardrop jumper.

Paul missed a long jumper with the shot clock winding down on the Clippers next possession, but Jae Crowder was called for a loose ball foul with 23.3 remaining

Jordan misfired on both ensuing free throws, and Thomas tied it with fade away jumper.

Paul had a good look at a jumper that would have won it regulation, but it bounced off the side of the rim at the buzzer.

TIP-INS

Clippers: The Clippers did not have a field goal for the final 3:29 of regulation. … Paul had 10 points and five assists in the first quarter. It was the 37th time in his career he’s had at least 10 points and five assists in a quarter. That’s the most in NBA since 2005-06.

Celtics: Improved to 10-3 in the second game of back-to-backs.