All-Star 2014: The Standouts

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First, the obvious: The NBA All-Star Game is different from a normal basketball game. Apathy often reigns supreme, especially on defense, in this yearly exhibition, and there’s a premium on flashy play instead of solid, efficient basketball. For some players, it’s a dream format, while it’s less than ideal for others. In short, how a player does in an All-Star game can have very little correlation with how good he is relative to his All-Star peers in the games that actually count. With those caveats in mind, let’s highlight some of this year’s All-Star performances (I’m not going to be able to get to everybody — that doesn’t mean they played poorly, or even average, but I do have some space considerations):

Eastern Conference: 

Kyrie Irving: Winning a new trophy on All-Star Weekend is becoming a tradition for Irving. His rookie year, he was named the MVP of the Rising Stars challenge. Last season, he won the 3-point shootout. This year, the 21-year old point guard took home the MVP trophy, and it was well-deserved. Irving finished with an eye-popping 31 points and 14 assists on 14-17 shooting, and he sank 3 of his 6 3-point attempts. He also spearheaded the East’s comeback from an 18-point deficit, as he scored 15 points and dished four assists in the final quarter alone.

Irving’s shot was on point, he jelled with his teammates nicely and set them up with some beautiful passes, he used his handle to make some absolutely disgusting highlight-reel forays to the rim, and he converted when he got in the paint. Irving has shown that he has the talent to hang with the best players in the league, especially when he has the spacing that comes from playing with the best players in the world on offense and facing players that aren’t all that interested in defense. Now we just have to see if Irving can carry this over into the regular season and turn Cleveland’s four-game winning streak into their first playoff appearance since the LeBron era.

Carmelo Anthony: Carmelo might have the best combination of size, range, and a lightning-quick release this side of Kevin Durant. For all his imperfections as a player, there’s not much the defense can do when his shot is falling. He’s shown that in prior All-Star games, as well as in international competition, and he showed it again on Sunday night. Carmelo finished with 30 points on 10-18 shots, and set a new All-Star game record by draining eight three-pointers.

LeBron James: The NBA’s best all-around player may have been in the mood for a duel with Kevin Durant, who as of this writing is the prohibitive favorite to take LeBron’s MVP trophy from him at the end of this season, but his outside shot wasn’t on board with that plan, as he missed all seven of his attempts from deep. However, he is still LeBron James, so he set up his teammates with some nice assists and provided some jaw-dropping dunks, including a switch-handed windmill alley-oop in the opening quarter to get the building going early and a coast-to-coast power dunk after some fancy ballhandling.

He formed instant chemistry with his teammates, setting them up with looks on pick-and-rolls and cutting to make himself available after they had gotten past the player “guarding” them. Even when James isn’t hitting on all cylinders with his shot, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him in a format like this.

John Wall and Joakim Noah: Neither player finished with huge numbers, but they brought actual energy on both ends of the floor, which was a huge part of the East’s comeback. Wall did a great job of pushing the ball and had a few huge dunks, but more importantly, he stayed active in the passing lanes and actually put pressure on the West’s offense, which was getting everything they cared to get through most of the first three quarters. Likewise, Noah brought some toughness on the boards to the East, who were beaten 19-9 on the offensive boards over the course of the game, and actually had some nice chemistry on the pick-and-roll with his rival LeBron James on offense. Noah isn’t the kind of player you’d think would thrive in an All-Star environment, but I doubt the East would have won the game without his play and mindset on Sunday night.

Western Conference:

Blake Griffin: Blake’s plan coming into Sunday was as follows —

1) Get ball

2) Dunk ball

3) Repeat

The East had no answer for this strategy, possibly because they did not consider the “keep Blake Griffin from getting near the basket with nobody around him” option. Blake finished with 38 points, which tied him for the game-high, and he came only four points short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star game scoring record. He made an All-Star record 19 field goals, and only needed 23 field goal attempts, in no small part because nearly all of his made baskets were of the dunk variety. (After the game, when asked if he was worried of being pigeonholed as just a dunker, Griffin jokingly replied “Yeah, I’m terrified of that.”)

Kevin Durant: It’s been KD’s year so far, and Durant clearly wanted to keep that going with a statement performance in the All-Star game. He was looking to fill it up from the opening tip, firing from absolutely everywhere, and he finished with 38 points of his own, with some of those coming on 3s directly in the face of a one LeBron James. Unfortunately for Durant, his shot wasn’t as good as it normally is, and he only made six of his 17 three-point attempts, which isn’t a horrible percentage, but a few more made 3s would likely have given the West the win and Durant both the MVP trophy and the scoring record. Even still, with Kobe Bryant not playing due to injury, it was fun to see Durant accepting the role of the West’s undisputed alpha dog with relish.

Steph Curry: The planet’s best shooter actually struggled with his shot this weekend — he failed to advance to the finals of the 3-point shootout on Saturday, and he only made 2 of his 11 tries from deep on Sunday. Still, Curry showed off his skills as a ballhandler and a passer — he had 11 dimes, with many of them being gorgeous alley-oops, and his behind-the-back-between-the-legs move to get into the lane for a scoop shot was one of the highlights of the night.

Anthony Davis: Davis had 10 points on 5-6 shooting, and finished off some beautiful alley-oops, but only got 9 and a half minutes of playing time. I know Davis was an injury replacement but still — Coach Brooks, let the hometown favorite show his stuff!

All-Star Performers:

Absolutely fantastic across the board. The pregame concert got everybody pumped up, the in-arena organist (Sir Foster, who normally plays for the Atlanta Hawks), became an immediate twitter sensation thanks to his renditions of a gigantic catalog of songs, and the halftime show was absolutely unbelievable. New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty did a great job leading the festivities, Gary Clark Jr. did a great job of bringing the blues, the impossibly dynamic Janelle Monae once again proved why she’s one of the must-see live performers working today, and Earth, Wind, and Fire brought the funk. The arena was absolutely buzzing well after they were done — the performers threatened to steal the show from the game itself. Great job, New Orleans, and thanks for another great All-Star Weekend. In a year, it’s off to New York for All-Star 2015.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.