Wall, Lillard, George headline new look All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest

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If all of us — red state, blue state, regardless of religion or skin color — could come together and agree on just two things they would be:

1) Kevin Durant’s new puppy is really cute.

2) The NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest needed some life injected into it.

The NBA has heard you on Number 2. The league is trying to do that in two ways this year in New Orleans, when the Sprite Slam Dunk contest takes place on Feb. 15.

First, they brought in some star power. Here are your contestants for this year’s dunk title crown.

Paul George (Indiana Pacers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
John Wall (Washington Wizards)
Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors)
Harrison Barnes (Golden State Warriors)
Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings)

That’s three guys selected to the big game on Sunday night (Wall, Lillard, George) who can all throw it down, as well as last year’s defending champion, Ross.

Then there is a new format that pits the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference.

First, there is the “Freestyle Round” — for 90 seconds all three dunkers for each conference can showcase as many dunks as they want. Whatever dunks they want. At the end of each conference’s 90 seconds, the judges will choose a winner, East or West.

The winning conference gets to decide if its dunkers go first or last in the “Battle Round.”

In that second round a dunker from each conference will have a little head-to-head dunk-off pitting East dunkers vs. West dunkers. For example, it could be Wall against Lillard — they each throw down a dunk, the judges vote for the best dunk and the loser is eliminated. The first team to win three “battles” will have his team crowned the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions.

Then you the fans come in — you (and tens of thousands of your closest friends) get to choose the ultimate winner, the “Dunker of the Night” through votes cast via SMS, Twitter, NBA.com and the NBA GameTime app.

Traditionally I’m in the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” camp, but the dunk contest is broke. It has been very up and down — it’s a lot of fun when a big personality like Nate Robinson or Dwight Howard took over the event, but a lot of years it has been down. (I will add this is an event that is just not as impressive on television as it is in person.)

So why not shake it up? I have no idea if the new format is really going to work or not, but with all these big names we should see some monster throwdowns. I’m actually pumped about the event this year, which is a sign the league has gotten something right.

Terse Kevin Durant says he has not yet spoken to Draymond Green

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Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Jimmy Butler on Markelle Fultz: ‘I know how hard he works’ (VIDEO)

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Much discussion has taken place about the potential impact that new Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler might have on the development of struggling young sophomore Markelle Fultz.

Fultz has had the yips for over a year, and Butler did not garner rave reviews from the young stars on his last team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There does seem to be some worry that Butler might not respect Fultz, or that Butler might push him even further into whatever psychological hole he’s currently in.

Butler joined the Sixers organization this week, and during his introductory press conference said that he knows that Futlz is a hard worker. It was the right thing to say, perhaps the first in many weeks after Butler went off the rails in Minnesota.

Via Twitter:

That’s promising at this moment. Fultz needs all the help he can get, and not having Butler going directly at him is additive in and of itself.

Sixers fans are hoping things work out with this new group in Philadelphia. Time will tell if Butler will be able to solve some of the issues they’ve had on offense to start the year.

Raptors players say emotions will run high when Dwane Casey returns

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TORONTO (AP) Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas spent a dozen years between them developing their games under coach Dwane Casey. Valanciunas had never played for any other NBA head coach before this season.

When they welcome Casey and his Detroit Pistons back to Toronto on Wednesday night, the two longest-serving current Raptors know emotions will be running high.

“It’s going to be different, but hey, I’m still going to try to take his head off, the team’s head off,” Lowry said with a laugh.

The Raptors will face Detroit for the first time since Casey was fired, just days after Toronto was ousted from the playoffs by Cleveland for the third consecutive season.

Lowry became a four-time NBA all-star under Casey’s watch, while Valanciunas has grown into a multi-skilled big man. Casey had kind words for both Raptors on the eve of his visit. Lowry got off to a rocky start with Casey when the Raptors acquired the temperamental guard in 2012, but he and Valanciunas returned the compliment.

“(Our relationship) changed a lot,” Lowry said. “It went from a guy who kind of wasn’t trusting in what I did, and me not trusting in what he wanted, and kind of us battling back and forth, to him being like, `Hey listen, I believe in what you can do, you show me what you can do,’ and me saying `All right, if you show me that and I’ve showed you what I can do, I’ll listen to you more and we’ll have a good relationship.”‘

“It turned into a great coach-player relationship. And him having young kids, and me having … they played soccer together, so we created a bond off the court also.”

Nick Nurse, who was promoted to head coach after Casey’s dismissal, insisted he was looking forward to seeing his former boss despite rumors the two were not close.

“My communication with whoever is between me and whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi (Leonard) and me or Case and me. . . or whoever,” Nurse told The Canadian Press. “I’ll keep that to myself. I am looking forward to seeing him.”

Nurse characterized his relationship with Casey as “good.”

“We have five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard,” Nurse said. “He took a team from relative obscurity or the hinterlands to relevance, and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league. I’m glad I was a part of it for five years. We had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy.”

The 51-year-old Nurse said the biggest lesson learned under Casey was professionalism and diligence.

“The seriousness of the day-to-day, the grind and probably most importantly is the work ethic,” Nurse said. “He used to say it to us a lot. He’d put his work ethic up against anybody in the league and he was right in that. The guy always had our staff prepared and our players prepared, he taught me all those things.”

After leading Toronto to a team-record 59 wins and the top seed in the East last year, Casey was also named the NBA’s Coach of the Year – after his firing.

The Raptors have a video tribute planned for the 61-year-old Casey early in the game.

“He did some really good things for the city, for the team. I think everybody respects him,” Valanciunas said. “(But) as a business we’ve got to move on and he (ended) up pretty well, so that is life. Sometimes we’re separating.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Kerr jokes after Durant-Draymond spat: ‘I kicked MJ’s ass’

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Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said on Tuesday that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had not yet spoken after the two had a dust-up during Monday night’s overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Green was suspended for one game, apparently for repeatedly calling Durant “bitch” while the two were still on the court with the Clippers. It was testy, and Durant was even seen saying what appeared to be the words, “That’s why I’m out.”

Things didn’t calm down when the Warriors returned to the locker room after the game, and a suspension was issued by the team.

Meanwhile, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that he felt that the team would be fine. He reiterated that no team he had ever been on had always experienced smooth sailing. Kerr famously got into a scuffle with Michael Jordan in Bulls training camp in 1995.

To that end, Kerr joked on Tuesday that he had, “Kicked MJ’s ass.”

Via Twitter:

Will things be okay in the Bay moving forward? The team has such a strong culture it’s hard to bet against things getting patched up, especially with regard to how the team will play as they seek another championship this season. Remember, Green was one of the guys who recruited Durant to Golden State in the first place, and the two have the same goal.

The real question many have is whether this spat will have an impact on Durant staying with Golden State this offseason. That’s anybody’s guess, seeing as how Durant is nearly impossible to predict.

For now, we just have to wait.