Andrea Bargnani returns, scores season high 36 points to lead Raptors past Suns

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The Toronto Raptors came into Tuesday’s game against the Suns having lost eight straight, the last six of which came with their best player, Andrea Bargnani, sidelined due to injury. The Suns were playing in Phoenix after a five-game, eight-day East coast road trip that concluded just the night before with a loss in Dallas.

Bargnani’s return to the Toronto lineup proved much more effective than the Suns’ return home.

The Raptors erased a 14-point first-half deficit, behind a season high 36 points from Bargnani, to get in the win column or the first time since Jan. 9 by a final of 99-96.

“We needed a W,” Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey said afterward. “To keep our confidence, to keep our ship going in the right direction. We needed a W just to reinforce what we’re talking about.”

On this night, everyone was talking about Bargnani. He logged over 42 minutes of playing time, and scored 27 of his 36 in the second half to take the game over and ensure victory for the Raptors. His third quarter was particularly impressive.

Bargnani dropped 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the period, including knocking down four of his five attempts from beyond the three-point arc. He was equally stellar defensively, sending back a shot of Marcin Gortat’s down low, while executing his coach’s halftime instructions on defending the pick and roll to perfection.

As good as Bargnani was, his team wouldn’t have been close enough for his surge to matter without the second quarter play of Leandro Barbosa. The former Phoenix Suns’ Sixth Man of the Year came off the bench for an 11-point second quarter  that kept his team in the game, and helped reduce a double digit lead to just four by halftime.

Barbosa said afterward that he felt the win was a result of the collective will of he and his teammates.

“I think everybody made a commitment that this is the day we’ve got to win,” Barbosa said. “It was a good opportunity. They played last night, it was a back-to-back for them so it was a good advantage for us running up and down so they get tired and we get the victory, and we did it.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that Barbosa would say that running is the way to actually beat his former Suns team? But this is what things have come to in Phoenix.

As Toronto opened up a double-digit lead of its own that reached as many as 12 in the fourth quarter, the Suns did manage to mount an exciting rally that cut the lead to two with under 23 seconds remaining. That effort will go a longer way than it should for a 6-11 team that started the season with hopes of making the playoffs, and one that got stellar performances from Steve Nash (17 points, 14 assists) and Marcin Gortat (21 points, 12 rebounds — his ninth consecutive double-double, the longest active streak in the league).

Interestingly enough, both teams are struggling with their rotations, trying to find out what the best combination of players may be for both the starting and the second units. Toronto inserted Aaron Gray into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and Casey was pleased with his physical presence.

On the Suns side, Alvin Gentry continued his tweaks, getting Hakim Warrick into the game to try to gain the offensive production that Channing Frye has yet to provide this season on any type of a consistent basis. Warrick played 26 minutes and finished with 17 points and four assists — this, after receiving DNP-CDs in the Suns’ previous two games.

Ultimately, each team will have its own perspective on this one. The Suns will likely look at the fact that they were able to rally late on dead legs and almost come all the way back from 12 down in the fourth to get a win. The Raptors, meanwhile, will be thrilled with Bargnani’s return and the team’s ability to overcome its own double-digit deficit on the road to secure a win.

Trouble lies ahead for both clubs, and it’s not going to be an easy season for either of them. But the expectations are lower in Toronto, with a new coach in his first year with a squad no one expected to compete. In Phoenix, the playoffs were the realistic goal that was laid out to start the season. And as Jared Dudley said afterward on Twitter, what’s happening right now isn’t going to get them there.

“Can’t be a playoff team and lose to last couple teams we have played at home,” Dudley wrote. “Gotta figure this out. I believe in this team.”

Notes

– Robin Lopez was ejected in the second quarter for bumping an official while protesting a call. As an aside, the Suns were particularly interested in discussing the officiating on this night, with Gentry leading the way, and Gortat and Nash following right along for most of the night.

– James Johnson tied a career high in rebounds with 10, and Linus Kleiza tied a season high in rebounds with 10 for the Raptors.

– Toronto has now won just three times in its last 13 games, and all three wins have required 30 or more points from Bargnani.

– Toronto had lost 14 straight to Phoenix before Tuesday’s win. The Raptors last beat the Suns in February of 2004.

– Leandro Barbosa said there was no advantage to playing his former Suns team, that whatever knowledge he had of their old system is no longer there.

“I think that’s gone,” Barbosa said. “Last year was tough for me just to come and see my friends. It was tough. But that’s gone. I miss them and everything, but this is my team now. I came to play and win.”

Here’s every 50-point dunk in NBA dunk contest history (VIDEO)

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Saturday night was yet another entertaining entry into All-Star Weekend lore, with both the 3-point contest and dunk contest coming through in expected fashion.

Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo won the dunk contest thanks in part to an entertaining move where he dunked over Shaquille O’Neal while wearing a Superman outfit underneath his regular uniform.

There were several 50-point dunks on Saturday night, including Diallo’s Superman dunk and Dennis Smith Jr.‘s dunk with rapper J. Cole. Despite a limited field of contestants, the contest many feel is the highlight of NBA All-Star Weekend did not disappoint.

To that end, the NBA decided to put together a video of all the 50-point dunks in NBA history. Check them out in the video above, and see if you agree on their perfect scores.

Adam Silver on Dirk Nowitzki: ‘I saw him painfully running up and down the court, and I think it was clear that this was going to be his last season’

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CHARLOTTE – For the first time in NBA history, All-Star rosters each have 13 players.

Don’t expect that to be a permanent change.

Don’t expect it never to happen again, either.

In addition to the five starters chosen by fans, players and media and the seven reserves selected by coaches, NBA commissioner Adam Silver named Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki extra All-Stars.

“I didn’t think about it in terms of the next year or whether there will be other opportunities,” Silver said. “I think that, as a league, I like to think we have the flexibility, when there are special occasions.”

Except 1971-73, when they went a whopping 14 deep, All-Star rosters have had 10, 11 or 12 players. It’d been 12 the last 36 All-Star games.

Meanwhile, the league has grown larger than ever. There are now 30 teams.

The result: It’s harder than ever for players to become All-Stars.

The NBA should use adding Wade and Nowitzki as a springboard to keeping All-Star rosters at 13 players. Going forward, the extra spot should go to someone deserving based on their current play, not used as a lifetime achievement award. Two players snubbed annually now usually deserve All-Star status based on historical standards.

Plus, 13-player All-Star rosters would match regular-season active rosters, which expanded to 13 in 2011. Most current players have spent their entire career with 13-player active rosters. It has become strange to have just 12 in the All-Star game.

But Silver – who once said he supported expanding All-Star rosters – views this as a “special occasion.”

“I thought it was a very unique situation in which you had two NBA champions, two NBA players who had long, fantastic careers, both of whom had been All-Stars multiple times in their career,” Silver said, “and both of whom, in the case of Dwyane Wade, had already announced it was going to be his last season. In the case of Dirk Nowitzki, I saw him painfully running up and down the court, and I think it was clear that this was going to be his last season. And it just seemed like a wonderful opportunity to honor two greats.”

Whoa, that is harsh about Nowitzki. (Also accurate.)

This is a nice honor for Wade and Nowitzki. But it’s also an opportunity to normalize 13-player All-Star rosters.

Hopefully, the NBA isn’t slow to seize it.

Stephen Curry brings back jacket similar to one he wore at 1992 All-Star Weekend with dad Dell (photos)

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CHARLOTTE – Stephen Curry got legitimately fired up, pumping his fists and screaming, after making his last 10 shots – including his entire money-ball rack – in last night’s 3-point contest.

That contest doesn’t usually spark so much emotion, but this is a special time for Curry and his family. He’s back in North Carolina, where he grew up, for All-Star Weekend.

Curry honored the occasion with a sweet windbreaker reminiscent of the one he wore at 1992 All-Star Weekend. Back then, he was a 3-year-old accompanying his father, Dell Curry, a Charlotte Hornets guard competing in the 3-point contest.

Jasmine Watkins:

Adorable.

Kemba Walker feels love from Charlotte fans, returns it All-Star Weekend

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry was only a few podiums away. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid were elsewhere on the court and could be seen in flashes on the big screen above. Some of the biggest stars in the basketball universe were floating around. Then the chant broke out from the stands.

KEM-BA WALK-ER. KEM-BA WALK-ER

In Charlotte, Kemba Walker is as beloved as any of them. Maybe more.

Walker raised his arm and acknowledged the chanting fans with a smile. The love is mutual.

While All-Star weekend in Charlotte has been a triumphant homecoming for Stephen Curry and a celebration of the Curry family — who Commissioner Adam Silver called the “first family of Charlotte” — there also is love for the slightly undersized point guard who was drafted by Charlotte, adopted the town, and has become its biggest NBA star and ambassador.

“The fan support has been A1, which is how it is each and every day for me,” Walker said. “For the fans, I’m happy they have this opportunity, I’m happy we got this event here. I think we deserved it.”

Walker, a three-time All-Star, said he and the city have been taking in everything around All-Star weekend — the concerts, parties, pop-up stores and more — and savoring it. Walker competed in Saturday night’s Three-Point Contest (although it was not his best outing). He admitted to being tired because of the fast pace of everything in a city that usually moves a little bit slower, but that and a little more traffic were his only complaints. And minor ones at that.

“I’m just happy to be home, honestly,” Walker said. “Excited to welcome people into the city — I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback about the city. Like today, a lot of guys have been telling me it’s their first time in Charlotte, they didn’t know how cool it was, so I was really excited to hear that.”

Walker grew up in a very different world, the Bronx in New York. However, his story of not having a lot of money — spending his days after school at the Boys and Girls Club — and having to work hard has resonated with the city and its residents.

So has his loyalty. Walker has not tried to push his way out the door despite the franchise not putting players around him who can win consistently. (Walker is a free agent this summer and will have options, although the Hornets want to re-sign him and will break the bank to do so, and Walker has professed his love for the city and sounded like a guy who wants to re-sign.)

This season’s Charlotte team is a good example of what Walker faces. It feels like Walker against the world — the team is 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits, mostly because the offense falls apart. The team’s second best player is Jeremy Lamb. Or maybe Cody Zeller. Walker has pushed Charlotte to a 27-30 record this season, good enough for seventh in the East at the All-Star break, but just half a game ahead on nine-seed Miami and one up on surging Orlando. Charlotte also has the toughest remaining schedule in the East over its final 25 games, and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs.

“Hopefully my teammates are getting some rest now, because when this weekend is over we need to make a strong, strong push,” Walker said of the team’s playoff drive. “We have a pretty tough schedule.”

But that’s for next week.

For the remainder of this weekend, Walker — and his mother — are around and just trying to soak it all in. He admitted it’s been surreal to be named an All-Star starter the season the game is in Charlotte, and he wants to make sure those fans who love him and chant his name get a show.

“I’m going to enjoy it, but I’m definitely going to go out there and compete and try to get a win,” Walker said. “Put on a show for the fans.”