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.

Celtics’ Jayson Tatum: “Trade rumors don’t bother me”

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Jayson Tatum was one of the young Celtics who struggled to find his space this season with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the mix. Tatum wasn’t shooting the three as well, was taking more long twos, and just seemed to plateau from last season rather than take the leap forward that was expected.

Playoff Tatum has looked more like what we expected, 19.8 points per game, 58 percent shooting from three, and impressive shot creation. That, of course, has rekindled the “are they going to trade him for Anthony Davis” talk. To which Tatum just shrugs, speaking to the New York Times.

“Trade rumors don’t bother me,” he said in his deep monotone. “They’re talking about trading me for guys like Anthony Davis. So, I mean, I must be doing something pretty well.” When pressed on whether this bothered him, he didn’t budge: “I love the game of basketball. Being traded is part of the game. I’ll play for whomever. It’s something I can’t control.”

That echoes what Tatum has said all year. This wasn’t the Laker locker room (which was a different circumstance), Tatum was unphased by the rumors that swirled around him and felt management would be upfront with him.

New Pelicans head man David Griffin has said in the past what he would look for in a Davis trade is one young All-Star player, other good young players or picks, and a veteran role player or two to stabilize the locker room. Tatum would be the young likely future All-Star. The guy who did this to LeBron James just a year ago.

Whether Tatum is traded or not depends on a lot of things — what direction Pelicans’ ownership wants to go with the trade, whether Kyrie Irving remains in Boston this summer, what other surprise offers for Davis or other stars come in — and none of it is within Tatum’s control. So he’s going to do his thing.

In the playoffs, that thing has been impressive.

Jimmy Butler, Jared Dudley ejected after scuffle following Joel Embiid block

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Welcome to the playoffs.

Emotions already were running high as Brooklyn faced what isn’t officially but might as well be a must-win game Saturday.

Then with 7:42 left in the third quarter this happened, and all those emotions burst out.

It started with Joel Embiid making a hard block on a Jarrett Allen dunk attempt. Brooklyn’s Jared Dudley — who started for the Nets and has been huge for them this series — came in to protect his man and shoved Embiid. Then Jimmy Butler decided to protect his guy and ran in and shoved Dudley. Then it all broke loose, including D'Angelo Russell moving the pile with his shove.

After the official reviewed the video (and consulted with the official video center), Butler and Dudley were ejected as instigators — that is a win for Brooklyn, the 76ers lost the better player in that trade.

Embiid was given a flagrant 1 for a foul with contact to the head. For my money that’s over the top in this case, he got the ball and blocked the shot, and this is the playoffs. That was not an intentional blow.

The Nets got a couple free throws and the game moved on, but you can be sure this is going to linger.

The playoffs are just more fun when there is bad blood between the teams.

Joel Embiid playing, starting for 76ers in Game 4 in Brooklyn

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Philadelphia can take a commanding 3-1 series lead over Brooklyn with a win on Saturday.

The Sixers will have Joel Embiid in the paint for that game.

Embiid, battling a sore knee, has averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, and he’s been a defensive presence, but he has not been his same, explosive self. He has missed some bunnies around the rim and just has not been right. It’s clear watching him.

Still, Philly is better with him on the court (as long as the aggressive Ben Simmons still shows up). With him in the paint and a quick end to the series, Philly may be able to get some rest for Embiid before the second round. But Brooklyn will not make that easy on Saturday or the rest of the way.

Missouri’s Jontay Porter announces he will enter NBA Draft

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Jontay Porter — the younger brother of Denver’s Michael Porter Jr., who did not play all season as he recovered from back issues — was impressive as a freshman, the one season he played at Missouri. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game (mostly off the bench), showed a shooting touch from three, he plays a high IQ game, and at 6’11” he has NBA size and a strong frame.

But since then Porter has been a story of injuries. A lot of them. He did not play this past season after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee back in October. By his own admission he tried to rush back and tore the same ACL again in March.

Now, Porter is declaring he will enter the NBA Draft.

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Porter has legitimate potential as a stretch five in the NBA, but the knee injuries and questions about Porter’s athleticism (he’s not athletic by NBA standards) makes teams hesitant. That’s why Porter is projected as a second-round pick, a big man with potential but one who needs time to get healthy and develop.

A couple other draft notes:

• Charles Bassey, the 6’11” big man out of Western Kentucky, will test the draft. He is projected as a late second rounder, if drafted at all.

Mike Daum, who averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game this past season for South Dakota State, has entered the draft and signed with Octagon Sports. He needs to impress at combines and workouts to make sure he gets drafted.

• Two European big men, Louis Olinde (6’10” out of Germany) and Aleksander Balcerowski (7’1” center from Poland) both have put their names in the NBA Draft pool. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony announced both of the Euros looking to come to the NBA.