Author: John Krolik


All-Star 2014: The Standouts


First, the obvious: The NBA All-Star Game is different from a normal basketball game. Apathy often reigns supreme, especially on defense, in this yearly exhibition, and there’s a premium on flashy play instead of solid, efficient basketball. For some players, it’s a dream format, while it’s less than ideal for others. In short, how a player does in an All-Star game can have very little correlation with how good he is relative to his All-Star peers in the games that actually count. With those caveats in mind, let’s highlight some of this year’s All-Star performances (I’m not going to be able to get to everybody — that doesn’t mean they played poorly, or even average, but I do have some space considerations):

Eastern Conference: 

Kyrie Irving: Winning a new trophy on All-Star Weekend is becoming a tradition for Irving. His rookie year, he was named the MVP of the Rising Stars challenge. Last season, he won the 3-point shootout. This year, the 21-year old point guard took home the MVP trophy, and it was well-deserved. Irving finished with an eye-popping 31 points and 14 assists on 14-17 shooting, and he sank 3 of his 6 3-point attempts. He also spearheaded the East’s comeback from an 18-point deficit, as he scored 15 points and dished four assists in the final quarter alone.

Irving’s shot was on point, he jelled with his teammates nicely and set them up with some beautiful passes, he used his handle to make some absolutely disgusting highlight-reel forays to the rim, and he converted when he got in the paint. Irving has shown that he has the talent to hang with the best players in the league, especially when he has the spacing that comes from playing with the best players in the world on offense and facing players that aren’t all that interested in defense. Now we just have to see if Irving can carry this over into the regular season and turn Cleveland’s four-game winning streak into their first playoff appearance since the LeBron era.

Carmelo Anthony: Carmelo might have the best combination of size, range, and a lightning-quick release this side of Kevin Durant. For all his imperfections as a player, there’s not much the defense can do when his shot is falling. He’s shown that in prior All-Star games, as well as in international competition, and he showed it again on Sunday night. Carmelo finished with 30 points on 10-18 shots, and set a new All-Star game record by draining eight three-pointers.

LeBron James: The NBA’s best all-around player may have been in the mood for a duel with Kevin Durant, who as of this writing is the prohibitive favorite to take LeBron’s MVP trophy from him at the end of this season, but his outside shot wasn’t on board with that plan, as he missed all seven of his attempts from deep. However, he is still LeBron James, so he set up his teammates with some nice assists and provided some jaw-dropping dunks, including a switch-handed windmill alley-oop in the opening quarter to get the building going early and a coast-to-coast power dunk after some fancy ballhandling.

He formed instant chemistry with his teammates, setting them up with looks on pick-and-rolls and cutting to make himself available after they had gotten past the player “guarding” them. Even when James isn’t hitting on all cylinders with his shot, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him in a format like this.

John Wall and Joakim Noah: Neither player finished with huge numbers, but they brought actual energy on both ends of the floor, which was a huge part of the East’s comeback. Wall did a great job of pushing the ball and had a few huge dunks, but more importantly, he stayed active in the passing lanes and actually put pressure on the West’s offense, which was getting everything they cared to get through most of the first three quarters. Likewise, Noah brought some toughness on the boards to the East, who were beaten 19-9 on the offensive boards over the course of the game, and actually had some nice chemistry on the pick-and-roll with his rival LeBron James on offense. Noah isn’t the kind of player you’d think would thrive in an All-Star environment, but I doubt the East would have won the game without his play and mindset on Sunday night.

Western Conference:

Blake Griffin: Blake’s plan coming into Sunday was as follows —

1) Get ball

2) Dunk ball

3) Repeat

The East had no answer for this strategy, possibly because they did not consider the “keep Blake Griffin from getting near the basket with nobody around him” option. Blake finished with 38 points, which tied him for the game-high, and he came only four points short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star game scoring record. He made an All-Star record 19 field goals, and only needed 23 field goal attempts, in no small part because nearly all of his made baskets were of the dunk variety. (After the game, when asked if he was worried of being pigeonholed as just a dunker, Griffin jokingly replied “Yeah, I’m terrified of that.”)

Kevin Durant: It’s been KD’s year so far, and Durant clearly wanted to keep that going with a statement performance in the All-Star game. He was looking to fill it up from the opening tip, firing from absolutely everywhere, and he finished with 38 points of his own, with some of those coming on 3s directly in the face of a one LeBron James. Unfortunately for Durant, his shot wasn’t as good as it normally is, and he only made six of his 17 three-point attempts, which isn’t a horrible percentage, but a few more made 3s would likely have given the West the win and Durant both the MVP trophy and the scoring record. Even still, with Kobe Bryant not playing due to injury, it was fun to see Durant accepting the role of the West’s undisputed alpha dog with relish.

Steph Curry: The planet’s best shooter actually struggled with his shot this weekend — he failed to advance to the finals of the 3-point shootout on Saturday, and he only made 2 of his 11 tries from deep on Sunday. Still, Curry showed off his skills as a ballhandler and a passer — he had 11 dimes, with many of them being gorgeous alley-oops, and his behind-the-back-between-the-legs move to get into the lane for a scoop shot was one of the highlights of the night.

Anthony Davis: Davis had 10 points on 5-6 shooting, and finished off some beautiful alley-oops, but only got 9 and a half minutes of playing time. I know Davis was an injury replacement but still — Coach Brooks, let the hometown favorite show his stuff!

All-Star Performers:

Absolutely fantastic across the board. The pregame concert got everybody pumped up, the in-arena organist (Sir Foster, who normally plays for the Atlanta Hawks), became an immediate twitter sensation thanks to his renditions of a gigantic catalog of songs, and the halftime show was absolutely unbelievable. New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty did a great job leading the festivities, Gary Clark Jr. did a great job of bringing the blues, the impossibly dynamic Janelle Monae once again proved why she’s one of the must-see live performers working today, and Earth, Wind, and Fire brought the funk. The arena was absolutely buzzing well after they were done — the performers threatened to steal the show from the game itself. Great job, New Orleans, and thanks for another great All-Star Weekend. In a year, it’s off to New York for All-Star 2015.

2014 Dunk Contest: Ranking the dunks

2014 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest

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.

Belinelli beats Beal in tiebreaker, wins 3-point shootout

via @marcobelinelli on twitter

In the first year of the new 3-point contest format, the 27-year old Marco Belinelli emerged victorious, holding off Sophomore Bradley Beal with a contest-high 24-point performance in the tiebreaker round to beat Beal’s 18-point performance.

The first format change, which pitted the conferences against each other and had the top shooter from each conference in the first round advance to the finals instead of having the top two scorers from the first round advance, ended up having absolutely no effect, as the finalists under the new format ended up having the top two scores in the first round anyways. Belinelli’s first round score of 19 was enough to get him past Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kevin Love, while Beal’s first-round score of 21 put him into the finals ahead of Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson, and Arron Affalo.

Both players made good use of the new all-moneyball rack throughout the contest, with Belinelli putting his rack in the right corner and Beal choosing to put his in the left wing. Beal provided some drama in the final round, as he hit his final six shots to tie Belinelli’s 19-point performance and send the contest into a tiebreaker. It wasn’t enough, however, as Belinelli turned it on to win the tiebreaker round and his first 3-point contest trophy.

Belinelli, who is a career 39.5% 3-point shooter in seven seasons with the Warriors, Raptors, Hornets, Bulls, and Spurs. This season, Belinelli is shooting a career-high 44.8% from deep, but he was still an underdog coming in. According to, the odds against Belinelli winning were 8-1 — only Joe Johnson came into the contest with longer odds from the bookmakers.

NBA All-Star Weekend: Waiters, Hardaway light up Rising Stars Challenge with 3-point shootout

dion waiters

NEW ORLEANS — To be perfectly honest, there are times when the Rising Stars Challenge can feel like a bit of a chore. It can’t match the talent level of the actual All-Star game, but it has all of the lack of defense, intensity, and ball movement that is usually par for the course in Sunday’s main event. Botched alley-oops, cherry-picking, jogging up and down the court, and ill-fated dribble moves are rampant.

So why is this a staple of NBA All-Star Weekend, and why do we watch? To put it plainly, there’s a very good chance that something completely insane will happen during the Rising Stars Challenge. Without so much as the pride of their conferences to play for, let alone the pressure of playing for their actual team, the players are openly out there to put on a show, and the flashes of sheer ridiculousness that come out of that mentality are often enough to make up for the apathy that makes up the rest of the game.

Last year, it was Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight going at each other, which culminated in Irving destroying Knight’s ankles with one of the nastiest crossovers you’re likely to ever see. In 2003, Jason Richardson drilled a 3 after bouncing the ball off of Carlos Boozer’s head. And of course, it was the Rookie/Sophomore game that gave us one of the most audacious moves in the history of the NBA — Jason Williams’ legendary elbow pass.

On Friday, the game started out lackadaisically, even by All-Star Friday standards. When a player wanted to get a layup, he got to the rim with less resistance than a stiff breeze would be able to offer him. 3-pointers were thrown up early in the clock at a high volume, but rarely found their mark. The cherry-picking was even more blatant than usual.

Andre Drummond dominated the game simply by camping under the basket, actually trying to get rebounds, and easily depositing the ball in the hoop time after time. There weren’t even particularly impressive dunks or crossover moves to break up the monotony. It was shaping up to be 40 minutes of a game that only barely resembled basketball, and seemed to only be fun for those playing in it.

Then Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dion Waiters happened. With 8:58 remaining in the game, Hardaway Jr., who had been shooting the ball aggressively all night but struggling to get his shots to go in, drilled a 3. Waiters came right back at him, drove, and got two free throws. Waiters and Hardaway both said they had something of a score to settle before the game, as Hardaway had made a 3 with the clock winding down in a Knicks blowout win over the Cavaliers on TNT earlier in the year, something that Waiters told Hardaway he would “get him back” for.

Hardaway said that Waiters had talked to him before the game and during the game, and that both of them were “trying to do a great job of just getting the fans involved. It was kind of dead in there, and we just wanted to start something, a little one-on-one battle here and there.”

After Waiters made his free throws, the Waiters-Hardaway show had officially begun. Hardaway came right back down the court and drilled a 3. Waiters answered with a fadeaway jumper. Hardaway went to the hole and got free throws. Waiters got fouled and split free throws of his own. The players traded layups, then Hardaway set up his teammate for a layup.

After that, the three-point contest begun, as Waiters drilled a 3 in Hardaway’s face and Hardaway answered with a pull-up 3 of his own — from 33 feet away. The crowd had come alive. Waiters came right back with a 3. Hardaway came back with a 31-footer, and the crowd was fully on its feet. When Hardaway missed a 3 after two Waiters free throws, the two players had combined for 27 points in just under 3 minutes. They weren’t completely done, either, as they went head-to-head again a few minutes later to combine for 14 points in just under a minute.

Ultimately, Waiters got the better of the rookie on Friday, as he needed only 14 shots to get his 31 points and added 7 assists, while Hardaway Jr. needed 23 shots to get his 36 points and only managed to dish out two assists, and Waiters’ team ultimately pulled out the victory. Still, the important thing is that both men combined to give NBA fans the kind of display you simply won’t see often in the games that count, and one that made the Rising Stars Challenge anything but a forgettable affair.

James, Heat bounce back from loss, destroy Hornets

Erik Spoelstra, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Mike Miller

NEW ORLEANS — The Heat’s 27-game winning streak may be over, but they aren’t ready to stop terrorizing the rest of the NBA quite yet. The Heat still own the league’s best record and have the league’s best player, and they were out to prove a point on Friday night.

The Heat actually looked better against the Hornets than they did in the waning games of their incredible streak, actually starting the game off strong despite the absence of Mario Chalmers, taking a double-digit lead at the end of the first quarter, and never looking back.

LeBron James was an absolute house of fire. It was the kind of game that I, quite frankly, am just glad to have witnessed in person. With just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter, James teed up an in-rhythm three, and drained it. Then, on the next two possessions, he pulled up for two more threes, and hit two more threes. Instead of taking his customary rest to start the second quarter, LeBron stayed on the floor, and continued to rain sulfur on the Hornets.

He made a three on the Heat’s first possession of the second quarter, then pulled up with his foot on the line in transition…and drained that too. Then, on the next possession, everyone knew LeBron was going to shoot until he missed…and he drained the three anyways. Then he pumped the crowd up, successfully. To be clear, the Heat were on the road. On the next possession, he drove, pulled up, launched, and hit, then hit one more heat-check three for god measure. When the dust had settled, LeBron had made eight long jumpers in a row, six threes in a row, scored 23 points in five and a half minutes, and the Heat were up by 20, and it never really got competitive after that. When the best player in the world gets it going like that, there’s nothing you can do.

(Monty Williams wasn’t as impressed as some by LeBron’s performance: when asked after the game if LeBron’s performance was “Jordanesque,” Williams said “No. Michael played against men. LeBron is playing against little boys.”

The Heat didn’t let up on the gas pedal after LeBron cracked the game wide open, bearing down on the Hornets’ pick-and-roll sets, keeping Anthony Davis frustrated and in foul trouble, and generally keeping the Hornets from getting into anything resembling a groove all night long.

The Heat’s streak might be over, but everyone knows that ring #2 was always more important to this team than win #34, and on Friday night Miami showed why they’re still the favorites to get the former.