The Extra Pass: Predictions for All-Star Weekend

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All-Star weekend is upon us. While the rest of the PBT crew gets to eat beignets and earn beads for showing a little skin (that’s how that works, right?), some of us will be stuck at home watching the celebrity game and reevaluating our life choices. Not that I’m bitter or anything. Not at all.

If we’re going to be watching anyway, though, we might as well make some predictions for all the weekend’s festivities. Feel free to leave your own in the comments section so you can probably gloat at a later juncture. Ready? Here we go.

All-Star Celebrity Game, Friday, 7pm ET

Winner: Arne Duncan’s team. I’m not sure what team that is, or who is even on his team, but the Secretary of Education can HOOP. He’s a former professional basketball player in Australia, and he takes this game entirely too seriously. He’s liable to take a charge on Nick Cannon and not even feel bad about it.

MVP: Michael B. Jordan. Duncan is great, no doubt, but Jordan has been rumored to have serious game on the hardwood. That makes sense because his parents, ya know, named him Michael freaking Jordan.

I’m obviously not picking against the man who played Vince Howard in Friday Night Lights, either, as he was one of the most convincing TV or movie quarterbacks ever. What’s the basketball equivalent of a last second 60-yard touchdown run? Mark MBJ down for whatever it is. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose (unless he’s not on Arne Duncan’s team).

Rising Stars Challenge, Friday, 9pm ET

Winner: Team Webber. Damian Lillard is barely going to play in this one, so Team Hill will be relying on Bradley Beal and Dion Waiters to bring up the ball. It doesn’t really matter all that much because no one plays defense anyway, but I’m picturing Waiters taking 40 shots and never passing to poor Jonas Valancuinas (or anyone else), while Jonas has flashbacks to playing with Rudy Gay and finally freaks out. Good for you, Jonas. Let it all out.

I can’t believe I’m picking against Giannis Antetokounmpo right now, but he’s going to get iced out like Isiah Thomas by all the sophomores. I’m pre-angry at Team Hill.

MVP: Anthony Davis. He’ll win even if he shouldn’t because he’s playing in front of the Smoothie King faithful. That said, he’ll probably deserve to be MVP because he’s better at basketball than everyone else in the game, and the crowd will yell at anyone who doesn’t give him the ball enough. I’ve thought about this way too much.

NBA D-League All-Star Game, Saturday, 3pm ET

Winner: One of the teams, probably.

MVP: Pierre Jackson. He’s been absolutely destroying the D-League this year (29.1 points a game!), but the Pelicans haven’t called him up to the NBA because Austin Rivers exists and life isn’t fair. Anyone in New Orleans who wakes up before noon will be in for a real treat watching Jackson do his thing.

Shooting Stars, Saturday, 8:30 pm ET

Winner: Steph Curry, Dell Curry and Becky Hammon. This is a father/son battle against Tim Hardaway Jr. and Sr., but then there are two other teams that don’t have father/son combos. I don’t know, just roll with it.

This is basically picking which team you think can hit halfcourt shots first. It really has very little to do with actual shooting ability, because that would be too much fun. This would be All-Star weekend’s worst event if it weren’t for…

Skills Challenge, Saturday, After Shooting Stars

Winner: No one. The person that created this just said, hey, you know the obstacle course at dog shows? What if we did that, but — wait for it — with basketballs? Someone said yes and now we’ve done it every year since.

At least they changed the format this year and made it teams of two, maybe figuring that two half-hearted performances would add up to one full-hearted performance.

I guess I can make amends for my earlier betrayal and go with team Giannis/DeRozan as the winner here. I’ll be rooting for Goran Dragic to either take this way too seriously and set a course record or lay down and take a protest nap.

Three-Point Contest, Saturday, After Skills Challenge

Winner: Steph Curry. Sorry. I’m just never going to pick against him in any sort of shooting contest. Here’s how I think the field will shake out:

1. Curry – Quick release, probably the scariest “streak” shooter of the bunch.
2. Irving – Returning champ, heavy favorite to emerge out of the Eastern Conference quartet.
3. Lillard – Would be getting more attention for his prolific three-point shooting if it weren’t for Curry.
4. Love – Former winner, has the advantage of a good beard.
5. Belinelli – No Spur has ever won the three-point contest, but this feels like one of those times Wikipedia is being a liar.
6. Beal – Has about one full season of really good three-point shooting on his resume.
7. Afflalo – Amazing from the corners, not so hot from everywhere else.
8. Johnson – A serious threat to run out of time.

Slam Dunk Contest, Saturday, After Three-Point Contest

Winner: Eastern Conference. If this is what it takes to get big names back in the dunk contest, it’s probably worth it to not have guys like Fred Jones bringing home the title.

Out of Paul George, John Wall, Harrison Barnes, Damian Lillard and Ben McLemore, I like Terrence Ross to have the best dunk of the night. He’s the most acrobatic of the group, and there’s always the chance he gives a nod to Vince Carter. Playing on memories always helps in this event.

McLemore is the wildcard who could help the West win, but Barnes is just a little too stiff of an athlete and Lillard might not be able to do some of the crazy dunks we’ve grown accustomed to. So long as Paul George doesn’t go all glow-in-the-dark again, the East should be able to win this.

2013-14 All-Star Game, Sunday, 8pm ET

Winner: Western Conference. It’s been by far the superior conference during the real games, and the East likely being down Dwyane Wade won’t help. The East has a lot of good players that don’t necessarily translate all that well to the All-Star style (Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah), and the West is far more balanced with scorers like Kevin Durant and Curry in addition to table setters like Chris Paul.

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony make for a tough tandem, but the West is deeper and more explosive. Here’s guessing the West makes it four straight over the East.

Score: West 144, East 139

MVP: Kevin Durant. We know LeBron and Durant are going to go at it, as the battle for MVP won’t take a break. Here’s giving Durant the slight edge, as he’s more likely to be on the winning team and have the game’s most points. That’s usually enough to win MVP, but either way, this should be good.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.