The Extra Pass: Handicapping the All-Star Saturday events

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A week from now the eyes of the basketball world will be on New Orleans for the NBA’s Damian Lillardapalooza. … er, I mean the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

While Sunday’s All-Star Game is the big show, I’ve always found Saturday night’s series of skill contests more fun than the no-D exhibition that is the All-Star Game itself. So, in the spirit of gambling (I guess), let’s take a stab at handicapping the three big events of All-Star Saturday night.

SLAM DUNK CONTEST

All predictions here must come with this caveat — they have changed the format this season to start with a freestyle round where everyone is dunking, then a series of head-to-head dunk “battles” to decide if the East or West wins. I have no idea how this will change the feel of the event and how the format will effect who wins it. That said, I’ll make a prediction anyway on who wins the “Dunker of the Night” as voted by the fans.

Favorite: Paul George, Indiana Pacers. There are three factors in his favor. First and foremost, the fans vote on the award and George is a popular budding superstar. This is a popularity contest to a degree. Second, he has done this before. George has been in the dunk contest and that matters because there is a distinct difference between an in-game dunk and an exhibition dunk and having done this before he should get it. Third, and most importantly, he can really throw it down.

Others at the front of the pack: Terrence Ross and John Wall. Ross won the Dunk Contest last year and did it without props — he knows how to win and we know he can throw down. Wall has the perfect combination of athleticism and showmanship to win the Dunk Contest, plus he is a name known by fans.

Dark Horse: Ben McLemore of the Kings. He was supposed to be the best shooter in the last draft but he has real hops and has shown some impressive dunks this year.

SKILLS CHALLENGE

Favorite: This is the hardest event to predict, but I’ll take Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns — he’s quick, he’s precise, and he grew up in a European system where they practiced the fundamentals more than most AAU coaches do stateside. Besides, the Suns deserve some recognition.

Others at the front of the pack: Watch out for the two rookies, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke. This is the kind of event that traditionally goes to skilled guys who are quick with the ball, your Tony Parkers of the world, and these two guys are both quick and skilled.

Dark Horse: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks… okay, I’m not sure he has a real shot at this, but I just want the Greek Freak to win.

THREE POINT CONTEST

Favorite: It’s got to be Stephen Curry. There are guys who have higher in-game shooting percentages but this is a contest about finding a groove and hitting big shots under pressure and nobody in the game right now does that better than Curry.

Others at the front of the pack: Really any of the guys in this group could get in a rhythm and win, but keep an eye on Marco Belinelli — he is knocking down 44.3 percent of his looks from beyond the arc this season, the highest percentage of anyone in the competition. Also don’t sleep on Kevin Love, who won this same competition two years ago and we know he can find a rhythm and win.

Dark Horse: I would say Kyle Korver, but somehow he isn’t there participating. I would say Klay Thompson, but somehow he isn’t there participating. You sense a theme here?

SATURDAY NIGHT’S BIGGEST WINNER

Kendrick Lamar.

He’s performing before the Slam Dunk Contest and he’s the only thing I know I’ll love all night.

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Nets 103, Spurs 89: The Spurs were without their big four (no Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard) yet they led in the first half by as many as 12 because they are the Spurs and they run their system. But eventually talent wins out in the NBA and Brooklyn just had more of it — although Alan Anderson may not be the first name you think of in Brooklyn he had the hot hand and had 22 points on the night as the Nets pulled away in the second half for the win.

Warriors 102, Bulls 87: Out of the gate Golden State just was not ready for the hard charging, aggressive style of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls — they only know how to play one way. But again, as in the Nets game, at some point talent wins out and Golden State has guys who can create on offense that the Bulls just do not — Stephen Curry had 36 points on the night as the Warriors came back to get the win. But it was closer and harder fought than the score indicates (the Warriors closed on an 11-2 run).

Three Things to Know from All-Stars: Recruiting is alive, will it matter in Greek Freak’s world?

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — All-Star Weekend in the NBA means there is a lot to unpack over three days, so we want to bring you the three things you need to know from the last 72 hours in the NBA.

1) Recruiting is alive: The undercurrent of a wild coming free agency was everywhere in Charlotte. From the moment LeBron James picked a free-agent heavy team — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson, plus he has Anthony Davis — the tampering jokes flew. LeBron tried to play down the idea that he would recruit guys over All-Star weekend.

Not Washington’s Bradley Beal, he leaned into it.

The NBA moved the trade deadline up a couple of years ago to avoid having talk of trades overshadow the events all weekend (DeMarcus Cousins being traded during the All-Star Game was the final straw). That has worked, to a degree. But the shadow of July’s free agency period that is going to reshape the NBA was still hanging over the weekend.

Especially with Davis, whose agent requested a trade before the deadline that did not come to fruition. When he met with the media Saturday, Davis also leaned into the controversy, including about the list of the four teams he wanted to be traded to (Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Bucks).

“That list that came out, it’s between my agent and the Pelicans,” Davis said, but then added:

“It’s true.”

That list never included Boston, which now is one of the front-runners to be able to trade for him.

“They are on my list, I never said Boston wasn’t on my list,” Davis said.

So, is Boston on your list?

“I never said they wasn’t on my list,” he reiterated.

The NBA should take a lesson from Beal and Davis — lean into all the rumors and trade talk. It’s part of what has fueled the league’s growth.

2) Kevin Durant is your All-Star MVP, but talking about Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson is more fun. The All-Star Game felt like a distilled essence of what has gone on around the Golden State Warriors for two years.

On the biggest stage, Durant was the player of the three. The two-time Finals MVP was named MVP of the All-Star Game, an obvious choice as Durant helped spark Team LeBron’s comeback..

However, it’s far more fun to talk about Curry and Thompson.

They guarded each other for stretches of the game and Curry was loving it.

Then late in the game, Curry (who struggled in the fourth going 3-of-11) got Thompson on a four-point play.

“It was good to see Steph knock that shot down over Klay, because Klay is always talking trash to him,” Durant said after the game.

3) Soon it will be Giannis Antetokounmpo’s world and the rest of the NBA will just live in it. His team lost the All-Star Game, but Antetokounmpo may have been the best player on the court all night. He had 20 first-half points on his way to 38 points and 11 boards for the game, plus some ridiculous highlights along the way.

“He’s got potential through the roof,” Durant said after the game. “He’s still producing at an elite level, and it’s scary to see how far he can keep going. His game is rounding into shape. He’s still getting better, but he’s leading top five, top three MVP candidates right now at 20. How old is he, 23? [Ed. note: 24] To be that young and already at the top of the class as one of the elites in the game, it’s a joy to watch his progression.”

A joy unless you’re the coach that has to gameplan against him for the next 10 years.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: There was one dunk for the ages in the Dunk Contest. For the most part, the Dunk Contest was flat. Except for Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo doing a Vince Carter-style elbow dunk over Shaq. That was as good as it gets.

Kevin Durant keeps building up superstar accolades with second All-Star MVP

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CHARLOTTE – When Kevin Durant won All-Star MVP in 2012, he was asked whether he considered himself a star, a label he had resisted.

“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” Durant said. “Hopefully. Hopefully soon I can say that.”

The notion was silly then. Durant had already made two All-NBA first teams and finished second for MVP.

But that All-Star MVP started to change how Durant presented himself. He made another All-NBA first team, again finished second for MVP and led the Thunder to the NBA Finals that season.

“In 2012, I started to feel like I started to hit that elite level,” Durant said. “All that stuff in one year was pretty exciting to me.”

The hits have kept rolling since.

Durant has added an MVP, two titles and two Finals MVPs. Tonight, he claimed another All-Star MVP. The Warriors star scored 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting to lead LeBron James‘ team to a 178-164 win.

“I just keep trying to rack them up, I guess,” Durant said.

That’s seven years between his All-Star MVPs. Few players sustain that elite level – starring among stars – so long. Only LeBron James (12 years), Michael Jordan (10 years), Kobe Bryant (nine years), Oscar Robertson (eight years) have gone so long between their first and last All-Star MVPs.

Durant, 30, appears to have plenty left in the tank.

Of course, the impending question: Where? Durant can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and this weekend included plenty of speculation.

Tonight’s game gave Knicks fans reason to fanaticize. New York’s presumed targets with its double-max cap space, Durant and Kyrie Irving showed strong chemistry. Half Durant’s baskets were assisted by Irving, who sent five of his six assists to Durant (the other an alley-oop to former teammate LeBron).

Asked which of his All-Star teammates he best meshed with, Durant refused to name one.

“You don’t really have to do too much when you’re playing with so many great players,” Durant said. “You can do what you’re just best at.”

Team LeBron starts playing defense first, comes from 20 down to win All-Star Game

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s All-Star Game, Team LeBron started to care.

Down 20 at one point early in the third, Team LeBron came out of a mid-quarter timeout with a different energy. The “bench” guys on the court started defending with the kind of relative intensity usually reserved for the final minutes of this exhibition (when it’s close), the players on the bench were standing and cheering like it was a playoff game, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal started knocking down everything, and the game just shifted. It culminated when Damian Lillard tied the game up with a 35-foot three.

Team LeBron kept up the momentum, owned the fourth as Durant went 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in the quarter, and Team LeBron got the win 178-164.

“It was our second unit that came in — Dame, Klay, Brad Beal, LaMarcus, Ben Simmons, KAT,” LeBron said after the game about what turned the momentum. “They came in and just changed the whole complexion of the game. We got stops, and, obviously, Dame and Klay caught fire from beyond the arc, and that allowed us to get back in the game.”

Durant was named MVP, a clear choice with his second-half play in particular.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 38 points and 11 rebounds, while Paul George showed anyone that hasn’t seen him this season how well he’s playing — MVP conversation level — on his way to 20.

This All-Star Game opened with the level of defensive intensity we have come to expect in All-Star Games. Which is to say none.

Well, except when Stephen Curry was guarding Klay Thompson.

The one guy who was intense from the start was Antetokounmpo, who scored the first six points for Team Giannis. He didn’t slow down on his way to 20 first-half points, plus he had one of the game’s great highlights on a bounce pass alley-oop from Curry.

Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only Buck hot to start, Khris Middleton entered the game midway through the first quarter and drained three shots from beyond the arc in a row. In the first nine minutes of the game, the Bucks were beating Team LeBron 28-27.

The favorite crowd moment of the first half was when future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki walked on the court and splashed a couple of threes.

Dwyane Wade was the other Commissioner addition to the game, which means for one last time we got Wade throwing the alley-oop to LeBron.

Curry struggled late, going 3-of-11 in the fourth, but he still got to rub it in Thompson’s face a little.

“It was good to see Steph knock that shot down over Klay, because Klay is always talking trash to him,” Durant said after the game.

Team Giannis was in control most of the first half and was up 13 (95-82) at the half, not that 13 points is much of a deficit in the All-Star Game. Not when one team started to care.

Stephen Curry gets four-point play after Klay Thompson foul, Curry does some taunting

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry is enjoying going against Klay Thompson. Maybe a little too much.

In the first half, Curry was matched up on his Warriors’ backcourt mate and enjoyed that Thompson missed the shot.

Then in the fourth quarter, with the game tight, Curry drained the contested three and drew the and-1 on Thompson — and did a little taunting.

That’s some All-Star fun.