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.

Suns surprise starters with family doing intros (video)

Suns players Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Suns are 7-0 in the bubble.

This this is even better.

Before playing the 76ers yesterday, Phoenix surprised its starters (Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker) and coach (Monty Williams) with video intros done by family back home.

ESPN:

Players and coaches in the bubble have been away from their families more than a month. The way they’re playing, the Suns might stay at Disney World longer than the seeding games. This is the difficult downside of the NBA’s resumption.

But what a great boost to morale.

The joy shown by everyone involved is just so awesome.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.