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.

USA’s 78-game international win streak ends at hands of Australia, Patty Mills, 98-94

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Gregg Popovich wanted his USA team to face some adversity. For them to be challenged and see how they’d respond.

He got his wish on a Saturday afternoon in Australia and has to be disturbed by the result.

Australia, behind a red-hot Patty Mills who finished 30 points and drained seemingly every big bucket down the stretch, tore up the USA defense and outplayed the Americans when it mattered most, beating Team USA 98-94 in an exhibition match in front of a raucous 52,000 people in Melbourne.

Team USA had won 78 consecutive games — including both friendlies and in international tournaments — before this loss. The last USA exhibition game loss was in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics (when the Americans took home the bronze).

The USA opens FIBA World Cup play in just more than a week, facing the Czech Republic in their first game on Sept. 1. The Americans enter that tournament as the favorites, but the combination of improved international play and a lot of elite American talent staying home means the USA’s margin for error very slim. Teams such as Serbia and Spain — not to mention Australia — have to see this result and gain confidence.

This loss comes just two days after the USA had beaten this same team by 15 points, pulling away in the second half.

“They wanted it more than us tonight,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “Lesson learned for us.”

Those lessons include needing to clean up a defense that still has communication issues, and to find more consistent shot creation outside of pick-and-rolls with Kemba Walker or Donovan Mitchell.

Walker, who came off the bench to score 22, was clearly America’s best player. His ability to penetrate was the only thing all night that either forced the Aussie defense to collapse, or it allowed him to get space for a good shot. Donovan Mitchell, who finished with a dozen points including seven straight late in the game, was able to provide a little shot creation, but the Americans lacked much ball or player movement in this one. Harrison Barnes finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

Popovich is clearly still experimenting with lineups and combinations, and that is the silver lining of this USA loss. This was not the American’s best foot forward.

But don’t take anything away from Australia, which played a physical and feisty game all afternoon. They put the ball more in the hands of Utah’s Joe Ingles and he responded with 15 points, seven assists, and he and Andrew Bogut set up the offense and were smart with their passes. Bogut finished with 15 points. The Australian team played as a unit and their off-the-ball movement was impressive.

Team USA takes on Canada in a final exhibition game in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup.

Report: Dwight Howard gave back $2.6 million in buyout with Memphis, what he will make in L.A.

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Dwight Howard will get his money, the full $5.6 million he opted into this summer. The man is getting paid.

The checks are just coming from two different teams.

To facilitate a move to the Lakers, Howard is giving back $2.6 million in a buyout with the Grizzlies — exactly how much he makes on a minimum contract with Los Angeles. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN:

My guess is the Grizzlies will just take the cap hit this season to get Howard off the books.

This is exactly how this was expected to go down financially if Howard came to Los Angeles. The risk for Howard is he will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers — they can waive him for whatever reason, pay a small buyout fee, and Howard loses out on the $2.6 million.

That’s motivation for him to follow through on what he promised the team.

 

Former NBA, ABA coach Tom Nissalke dead at 87

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tom Nissalke, who won coach of the year honors in the NBA and ABA, has died. He was 87.

Nissalke passed away at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday after facing a “series of health-related problems” in recent years, according to the Deseret News.

He was the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated from New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke was also an NBA head coach in Seattle, Houston, and Cleveland.

Nissalke got his start in the pro ranks as an assistant with Milwaukee and helped guide a team featuring Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in 1971. His work with the Bucks landed him a head coaching gig with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals. He led them to a 42-42 record in his first season and was named the league’s top coach.

He was hired the next season in Seattle but was fired after a 13-32 start. Nissalke then coached the Utah Stars and San Antonio before returning to the NBA with the Rockets. He won 124 games in three seasons with Houston, twice taking the team to the playoffs and the 1977 Eastern Conference finals.

Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year after going 49-33 in 1976-77.

After retiring, he was active with the YMCA and worked as a radio analyst.

Nissalke is survived by a daughter, Holly, son Thomas Jr, and two grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2006.

 

How Dwight Howard convinced the Lakers to take a chance on him

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Laker fans Friday sounded like your friends after an ugly relationship and breakup, when you suddenly consider taking that person back. Laker nation took to Twitter screaming “ARE YOU SERIOUS? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”

The Lakers, however, are entering a second relationship with Dwight Howard with their eyes wide open — he will sign a non-guaranteed contract to be the team’s center (sharing duties with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee). Howard will have to prove himself, on and off the court. The Lakers have leverage and can waive Howard and move on to Joakim Noah or someone else quickly if things do not pan out.

But how did it even get to this point? How did Howard — who did his annual summer media tour saying “I have changed, I am taking the game and my conditioning seriously, I just want a chance” and league observers shrugged because they have heard the same thing for years — convince the Lakers to roll the dice on him again? Shams Charania of The Athletic laid it all out.

Howard’s message to [Laker assistant coach Jason] Kidd and the Lakers was the same one he delivered to The Athletic in July from NBA summer league: He’s learned from the past several seasons, learned that, at age 33, he is simply one of the guys now. Howard believes he can contribute at a high level for any NBA team, but the eight-time All-Star also understands he has to focus on rebounding, defense, blocking shots, finishing around the rim and simply playing whenever he is asked… Kidd became convinced about Howard’s newfound awakening…

The Lakers then began setting workouts for free agents, and Howard traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Wednesday. His meeting and workout with the Lakers was set for Thursday, but Howard went to the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon for his own training session. The Lakers were surprised to see him, sources said, and many key decision makers were in attendance…

League sources said Howard had a convincing and emotional meeting with the players and Lakers officials, explaining how he had reached rock bottom a season ago and needed to find a new mindset in his life. On and off the floor. He was not the teammate he needed to be in playing for three teams in the past three years. He did not take the game seriously enough, he did not understand what was needed to turn the corner.

Howard has said all that before. Multiple times. To multiple teams and teammates. Maybe this time he has genuinely figured things out, but whatever he did and said was enough to convince the Lakers to buy in…

To a point.

One could argue — and I would make the case — that Noah would be a better fit on the court for the Lakers’ needs in terms of passing and defense, but he comes with plenty of risks as well (health, getting along with LeBron James, and how much he liked the nightlife as a Knick in New York and what that would mean in L.A.). At least with Howard, the Lakers mitigated that risk with the non-guaranteed contract. If Howard will not accept his role and is disruptive (as he has been in recent stops), if he is still eating candy like a bingeing 10-year-old on Halloween night, if he can’t stay healthy, the Lakers can waive Howard and move on. If the Lakers brought in Noah, they would have been smart to have the same non-guaranteed contract (if Noah would have signed that kind of deal).

For now the Lakers have their man, but he’s basically on probation. Howard has to prove in deeds everything he has said in words.