NBA All-Star Weekend: Waiters, Hardaway light up Rising Stars Challenge with 3-point shootout

3 Comments

NEW ORLEANS — To be perfectly honest, there are times when the Rising Stars Challenge can feel like a bit of a chore. It can’t match the talent level of the actual All-Star game, but it has all of the lack of defense, intensity, and ball movement that is usually par for the course in Sunday’s main event. Botched alley-oops, cherry-picking, jogging up and down the court, and ill-fated dribble moves are rampant.

So why is this a staple of NBA All-Star Weekend, and why do we watch? To put it plainly, there’s a very good chance that something completely insane will happen during the Rising Stars Challenge. Without so much as the pride of their conferences to play for, let alone the pressure of playing for their actual team, the players are openly out there to put on a show, and the flashes of sheer ridiculousness that come out of that mentality are often enough to make up for the apathy that makes up the rest of the game.

Last year, it was Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight going at each other, which culminated in Irving destroying Knight’s ankles with one of the nastiest crossovers you’re likely to ever see. In 2003, Jason Richardson drilled a 3 after bouncing the ball off of Carlos Boozer’s head. And of course, it was the Rookie/Sophomore game that gave us one of the most audacious moves in the history of the NBA — Jason Williams’ legendary elbow pass.

On Friday, the game started out lackadaisically, even by All-Star Friday standards. When a player wanted to get a layup, he got to the rim with less resistance than a stiff breeze would be able to offer him. 3-pointers were thrown up early in the clock at a high volume, but rarely found their mark. The cherry-picking was even more blatant than usual.

Andre Drummond dominated the game simply by camping under the basket, actually trying to get rebounds, and easily depositing the ball in the hoop time after time. There weren’t even particularly impressive dunks or crossover moves to break up the monotony. It was shaping up to be 40 minutes of a game that only barely resembled basketball, and seemed to only be fun for those playing in it.

Then Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dion Waiters happened. With 8:58 remaining in the game, Hardaway Jr., who had been shooting the ball aggressively all night but struggling to get his shots to go in, drilled a 3. Waiters came right back at him, drove, and got two free throws. Waiters and Hardaway both said they had something of a score to settle before the game, as Hardaway had made a 3 with the clock winding down in a Knicks blowout win over the Cavaliers on TNT earlier in the year, something that Waiters told Hardaway he would “get him back” for.

Hardaway said that Waiters had talked to him before the game and during the game, and that both of them were “trying to do a great job of just getting the fans involved. It was kind of dead in there, and we just wanted to start something, a little one-on-one battle here and there.”

After Waiters made his free throws, the Waiters-Hardaway show had officially begun. Hardaway came right back down the court and drilled a 3. Waiters answered with a fadeaway jumper. Hardaway went to the hole and got free throws. Waiters got fouled and split free throws of his own. The players traded layups, then Hardaway set up his teammate for a layup.

After that, the three-point contest begun, as Waiters drilled a 3 in Hardaway’s face and Hardaway answered with a pull-up 3 of his own — from 33 feet away. The crowd had come alive. Waiters came right back with a 3. Hardaway came back with a 31-footer, and the crowd was fully on its feet. When Hardaway missed a 3 after two Waiters free throws, the two players had combined for 27 points in just under 3 minutes. They weren’t completely done, either, as they went head-to-head again a few minutes later to combine for 14 points in just under a minute.

Ultimately, Waiters got the better of the rookie on Friday, as he needed only 14 shots to get his 31 points and added 7 assists, while Hardaway Jr. needed 23 shots to get his 36 points and only managed to dish out two assists, and Waiters’ team ultimately pulled out the victory. Still, the important thing is that both men combined to give NBA fans the kind of display you simply won’t see often in the games that count, and one that made the Rising Stars Challenge anything but a forgettable affair.

Russell Westbrook trade to Houston official, Thunder praise him on way out door

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Whatever their long-term intentions, after Paul George was traded the Oklahoma City Thunder changed focus. General Manager Sam Presti sat down with Russell Westbrook and his agent, talked about the future, what the former MVP wanted, then worked on trading him where he wanted to go.

That was Houston.

The Westbrook to the Rockets trade for Chris Paul — with Oklahoma City picking up two first-round picks and two pick swaps — is now official.

In announcing the trade, the Thunder praised the greatest player in their franchise history on his way out the door.

“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state,” Presti said in a statement. “None of us could have anticipated the player he has become, and we are all deeply proud of what he has contributed to the success of the franchise and to our community. Russell and his wife Nina, their three children, his brother and his parents will always remain part of the Thunder family. We wish them nothing but happiness and success in the future.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans,” said Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. “His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. We wish he and Nina and their family all the best. While this era of Thunder basketball now comes to an end, I’m confident our talented team of people will once again position the Thunder for success in the future.”

While Presti and the OKC front office are still working on a CP3 trade, they are entering a rebuilding phase.

The Rockets are banking on Westbrook and James Harden being able to work out any fit issues — and finding a way to defend with both of them on the court — to keep them as title contenders.

Anthony Davis dances around question about re-signing with Lakers

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
4 Comments

After the drama around his push to get to Los Angeles, league executives and other sources around the NBA expect Anthony Davis to re-sign with the Lakers on a max contract next summer.

However, Davis has paired up with LeBron James, and rule one of the LeBron contract playbook (and agent Rich Paul’s, too) is to keep the pressure on a franchise. Make the team improve and keep itself in title contention.

So it’s not a surprise that when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Davis about re-signing with the Lakers, he didn’t answer the question directly.

Nichols: You’re only signed through this season. Do you think you will be a pillar of the Lakers for years and years to come?

Davis: Honestly, Rachel, I’m just focused on this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going make the best of this year. And when that time comes around in the summer or, you know, whenever the season’s over — hopefully, around, you know, mid-June, after we just had a parade, and I need a couple days to think — then we can talk about that. But until then, I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win this year.”

That a well-handled scripted answer hitting all the talking points.

After the NBA summer we have just gone through (and continue to see with Chris Paul), nobody sane will say Davis would never leave the Lakers after one season. Cut to Kevin Garnett screaming “Anything Is Possible.”

However, he came to the Lakers to win rings (now and in the future), to take over as the face of the franchise when LeBron steps away in a few years, to get the kind of recognition and endorsements he felt were not coming his way in New Orleans, and ultimately to have his jersey up in the rafters with Wilt and Kareem and Shaq. That’s the plan. Which means AD will re-sign with the Lakers next summer.

He’s just not going to say that right now.

Kendrick Perkins: ‘Pelicans better lock Zion in the House’ because of great New Orleans food

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
6 Comments

Zion Williamson‘s weight became a discussion point during Summer League.

The general consensus going into the draft was that Williamson would ultimately want to play a little lighter in the NBA than he did in college (but without losing his strength). Since then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came out and said the No. 1 pick was not in Summer League shape and should not have played. Some broadcast analysts said he looked heavy. In the hallways and behind-the-basket defacto meeting space of Summer League there was a lot of talk among league watchers about the Pelicans needing to get Zion with their trainers and dietitians to prepare him for the 82 game grind.

Kendrick Perkins warns that’s not going to be all that easy in the Big Easy.

As a wannabe foodie, let me just say that Perkins is spot on about the food in New Orleans. It may be my favorite food city in America, it is home to the ultimate comfort foods, and the portions are not small. From muffulettas to gumbo to po’ boys to fried every-kind-of-protein-you-can-name, New Orleans cuisine is both undeniably delicious and not the foundation of a healthy diet.

It’s going to take some discipline from Williamson, who also can afford his own chef now to keep the meals at home healthy and tasty. Then gumbo can be a splurge-day treat.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
4 Comments

James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.