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NBA All-Star Saturday Night in Toronto sets new standard

By Tamberlyn Richardson
Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine competes in the dunk contest during the NBA All Star Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine competes in the dunk contest during the NBA All Star Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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Despite frigid Toronto temperatures NBA All-Star Saturday Night served up the hottest cumulative performances in event history.

Over the past few seasons the competition portion of the weekend had regressed with the hype leading up to the event often surpassing the actual performances. So much so that there was discussion the premiere portion of NBA All-Star Saturday night (the Slam Dunk Competition) should be moved ahead of the 3-point competition.

In some regards this thought process made sense given the direction the league has taken with position-less basketball, the ever increasing use of small ball and the emphasis on the land beyond the arc. Add to this reasoning players like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are dominating the league via the aforementioned principles. Given the Warriors sit at 48 and 4 at the break it’s understandable the Association would consider this schedule shift as the league has always tended to follow the trend of the moment.

Last year in New York the 3-point competition ended up providing more entertainment than the Slam Dunk with all apologies to the one stand out: Zach LaVine.

In essence the itinerary is meant to build through each individual stage reaching a crescendo with the night’s final programmed segment. To assist with this goal the powers that be decided to tweak the preexisting line-up. To with, the Shooting Stars segment was eviscerated and the skills comp was modified to add the ever improving offensive talents of front court players. Further, as the break neared, analysts began the dialogue suggesting it was time for the 3-point competition to be the final battle in the program.

Surely the wishes of the League heading into Saturday was for the big men to be competitive, the Splash Brothers to repeat last years excellence and that LaVine would replicate his efforts. Instead, what the League ended up with was a program as close to perfection as imaginable and arguably the best All-Star Saturday Night cumulative performances ever! 

Highlights from the event

Skills Competition:

Leading off the night the revamped Skills Competition pitted guards against front court players though the first two rounds saw the participants pitted against their own positions:

Round 1:

Isaiah Thomas defeated Emmanuel Mudiay

CJ McCollum defeated Jordan Clarkson

DeMarcus Cousins defeated Anthony Davis

Karl-Anthony Towns defeated Draymond Green

Round 2:

Thomas defeated McCollum

Towns defeated Cousins

Fittingly both Thomas and Towns semi-finals was a clean round with both hitting their pass and 3-point shot on their first attempts.

Finals:

Towns defeats Thomas in closest battle of this competition segment:

In what can be described only as a neck and neck battle from start to finish it was the Timberwolves rookie who took down Thomas in a 3-point shoot out prior to being mobbed by his big men co-horts.

With the first event of the night in the books it was a roaring success as the rounds proved to be competitive and entertaining. And with 6’11” Towns beating 5’9″ Thomas in an extremely close final it served to justify the tweaking of the event to include the new era of big men who are more versatile offensively.

3-Point Shoot out:

Prior to the 3 point shoot out beginning the perfect lead-in was Kevin Hart facing off against Draymond Green in their own 3-point effort. Although I had started to tire of Kevin Hart being so intrinsically involved in the NBA All-Star weekend events I have to admit this segment was extremely funny. Perhaps it was made more so by the ever affable and entertaining Green who provided the perfect foil to Hart. The presentation of the trophy measuring almost as high as Hart was hilarious.

Participants:

Next up the extremely deep field of 3-point specialists took to the court for the real competition:

Round 1:

It should be noted most first time participants don’t fare well in this event as was the case with 3 of the 4 first timers and in an unprecedented situation 3 players tied with a very productive 20 makes including Houston Rockets’ Harden. This meant the 3 players who scored 20 had to play a :30 second tie break to determine who would go to the final round. Harden made a tactical error placing his money ball rack last which cost him as he ran out of time. In fact, he hit more shots than Redick but by virtue of JJ placing his money ball rack first he beat Harden. That said, it was the youngster Booker who advance. Notably Booker bears an uncanny similarity to the Splash Brothers in terms of his shot mechanics which is almost a cross between the two Warriors.

Tie Break:

  • Harden – 8 with 6 baskets and 2 money balls
  • Redick – 9 with 5 baskets and 4 money balls
  • Booker – 12 with 8 baskets and 3 money balls

Of note: if Harden who hit the entire second rack had placed his money balls there he would have tied Booker and forced a second tie-break.

Finals:

  • Booker – 16
  • Curry – 23
  • Thompson – 27

The takeaway from this event was every team in the NBA has reason to worry as the best 2 shooters in the NBA are on one team – Golden State! And for any team seriously wanting to add fire power to their line-up they may want to try to pry Booker away from the Suns as he looks to be the next one who’ll challenge for supremacy behind the arc.

And so the stage had been set for the pundits who began to opine on why this event needs to be the closing segment of All-Star Saturday. What they didn’t know at the time was the previous most acclaimed Slam Dunk Competitions in history – MJ vs Dominique and Vince Carter’s 2000 win was about to get some company.

The Slam Dunk Competition:

Entering the competition for most it was a forgone conclusion Zach LaVine would easily triumph as a repeat champion. Most analysts when pressed to pick a runner-up thought Will Barton was likely to have a long shot at best. I personally said in my preview Gordon had a shot at wowing the crowd and won a bet with a couple BBoyz selecting him to move on to the finals. I knew he had fared well in the MacDonald’s All American event and expected something major from the youngster although I can’t claim I expected it to be as thrilling or spectacular as it turned out.

Regardless, I am suffering from a bit of sour grapes given I’d have kicked a few BBoyz’ posteriors had the results been tabulated differently.  That said, what lie in store for the final round will undoubtedly go into the history books and for those who attended the event in person. I can attest friends at the ACC shared the buzz during and after the dunk off has only been equaled by the Raptors Game 7  versus the Nets.  So, on to the details ….

Participants:

Will Barton

Andre Drummond.

Aaron Gordon

Zach LaVine

Round 1 – Dunk 1:

Oddly the first round was somewhat subdued as Barton who had made some big claims (you’ll all know who Will the Thrill is after this event) failed to live up to expectations, Drummond offered creativity, but was unable to convert and Gordon was marked extremely low on a quality dunk.

It was reigning champ who kick started the competition with an impressive never before seen dunk that merited a 50 from the judges.

Scores were Drummond – 36, Barton – 44, Gordon 45 and LaVine – 50 (LaVine takes early lead which was an accurate representation of the players first attempts)

(for full highlights you can visit this link)

Dunk 2:

Different dunk same results for Barton (30) and Drummond (39) who failed to deliver again though A.D. gets bonus points for including Captain Canada Steve Nash.

As this point of the competition Aaron Gordon began what I’ll simply term as the trilogy of Orlando Magic mascot dunks each building in difficulty and wow factor. And all were entirely new, never seen before dunk completions of mastery.

A record No. of 50s – 8 – awarded in the #VerizonDunk; Previous mark: 5 (1985, 1988) pic.twitter.com/UE6Im6DtGM

— NBA History (@NBAHistory) February 14, 2016

In a humorous portion of the commentating Kevin Hart saw the mascot and said “I don’t like it” which Kenny Smith re-iterated, but once the Jet saw what Gordon was attempting he immediately changed his tune to “I like it!”

Not to be out done LaVine delivered his own trilogy of never seen before dunks from the foul line which were also brilliant and increasingly difficult. His first was a lob pass assisted by fellow T-Wolve Andre Miller. To put this in perspective all dunks previously attempted from the foul line stemmed from Dr. J’s first effort from that mark.Every attempt since has simply been to jump from the behind the free throw stripe (all unsuccessfully) with one hand, two hands (Carter) and MJ who altered it the most with his scissor kick . Suffice to say, LaVine smashed all previous efforts with his trilogy and new tweaks from this point on the hardwood.

Oh man oh man! #VerizonDunk https://t.co/vj5qS9KxEJ

— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) February 14, 2016

Both Gordon and LaVine received 49 for their second dunks with Shaq penalizing them a single point for taking 2 tries to complete the dunks and while the crowd booed him it truth it may have served to produce the no miss efforts the two dunk masters provided for their next 4 deliveries… YES YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY …. FOUR MORE DUNKS EACH!

Finals:

Gordon vs. LaVine:

Dunk 3:  Both receive perfect 50’s

In part 2 of the trilogy Gordon brought Stuff the Magic Dragon back on the hoverboard and had the mascot turning in a circle with the ball extended. Gordon grabbed the ball with his arm bent and behind his head, cuffed the ball and dunked it.

LaVine’s response was to loft the ball to himself and do virtually the same dunk as Gordon, just without any assistance and he had to get the timing right. For those who feel Gordon’s was better I’d argue while it was creative the reality is technically LaVine’s was more difficult due to him having to time it exactly right. Therefore it felt like a tie of 50 was fair so that the final dunk could determine the winner.

Dunk 4: Both receive perfect 50 again!

In my opinion and most of the people in the NBA loving universe deemed this the best dunk of the night and arguably ever given it’s difficulty, creativity and the shear balls it took to pull it off. That said, in replaying it

10, 20, 30, 50, 100,

numerous times  I noticed Gordon’s strength helps him as he is able to push off the mascot when he grabs the ball which explains how he was able to gain additional height to enable the under the leg move.  Regardless of that fact there is no denying how special this dunk was. And while I tweeted out various iterations of it the 3D version does it the most justice:

And yet another incredible angle of #AaronGordon‘s sit down dunk #NBAAllStarTO pic.twitter.com/tkwG9SS1nB

— Tamberlyn’s Tip-Off (@TTOTambz) February 14, 2016

And still another view of the dunk HINT: look at the sideline and watch Drummond fall off his chair onto the floor demonstrating just how incredible the dunk was to those observing it live.

At this point everyone in the building felt Gordon had won the competition with Kenny ‘the Jet’ Smith calling out ‘It’s over’ as he had the year Vince Carter had clearly won. BUT…. Zach wasn’t done.

LaVine again utilized the free throw line this time performing a wind mill and shifted his legs into a scissor like movement:

What an insane dunk contest! Can we make sure Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon are in it again next year?!https://t.co/ccaVXG87iO

— DTS Hoops (@dtshoops) February 14, 2016

One point I’d like to add is for those watching the competition and paying attention to the sidelines it was obvious the players were demonstratively more impressed with LaVine. And though there were teammates like Towns and Wiggins on the sidelines there was also players like DeMar DeRozan and John Wall who are past Dunk contestants. Furthermore, just as I saw influences in both men’s dunks let me also point out there was a reason the NBA wanted Andrew Wiggins to participate. Many pundits suggested Wiggins knew better than to participate, but I don’t believe that’s why he declined.

As everyone knows Wiggins grew up in Toronto and while he comes naturally by his athletic abilities (his Mother was an Olympic track star and his father an NBA professional) he has credited Vince Carter as his true inspiration he’s also pointed to Tracy McGrady during that era. Although this is just a gut feeling on my part all fans were saddened when TMac left Toronto, so a young kid who loved the Raptors was likely devastated. I felt from the very beginning Wiggins would never compete against Zach for the possible fractures in chemistry it would cause.

Unlike the established and successful Warriors the Timberwolves are a young team especially their core of Wiggins, Towns and LaVine. I believe that was why Wiggins chose to not participate. You may say I’m giving way too much credit to the Toronto (to be precise Vaughan) native, but for those that believe that I point you to the following picture of a then high school Wiggins at an event Gordon participated in (and also note there is no one to assist in his elevation).

Not convinced? Then perhaps this high school (yep, you read that right high school) dunk competition shows Gordon performing the very same dunk he ended the night with. More impressively it shows where Gordon and LaVine probably drew ample inspiration from… none other than Andrew Wiggins. In fact something to note is every dunk you see Wiggins make he takes just TWO STEPS prior to completing the dunks. Including the one where he puts the ball under his legs. Because he missed one dunk he was unable to catch the eventual winner, but the last dunk caused the entire student group to mob him and made Bo Jackson jump from his seat and bow to Wiggins!

Again, let me reiterate… Wiggins did this when he was 17!

Sudden Death Dunk Off – Dunk 5:Both receive perfect 50’s

At this stage the two athletes had to utilize the dunk they probably had in their repertoire called ‘the in case of emergency dunk’. Still they needed the dunk to be worthy of scoring high, but also something they knew they could complete. In both instances their dunks reminded me of previous Raptors dunks:

Gordon utilized teammate Elfrid Payton to throw the ball off the side of the backboard in a dunk reminiscent of DeMar DeRozan’s with the difference being DeRozan passed the ball between this legs and Gordon turned around backwards prior to dunking.

In LaVine’s case his fifth dunk was also reminiscent of former Raptors, but felt almost like a cross between Carter’s out of bounds dunk and DeRozan’s windmill cuff dunk:

LaVine said afterwards that he thought he broke his back on this one. Obviously he was exaggerating, but he definitely extended himself backwards as far as he possibly could. And while the next round would end in controversy this round could be deemed even or perhaps a slight edge to LaVine as at least to me it felt like his was the more difficult of the two dunks.

Sudden Death Dunk Off – Dunk 6: A winner is finally crowned – –

Neither player would have planned for 5 dunks let alone 6, so at this point they both appeared a little panicky. They consulted teammates and peers with Gordon seemingly changing his mind twice once before the dunk and once mid dunk. LaVine for his part credited his opponent Will Barton for suggesting what would inevitably be the winning dunk.

Gordon’s final dunk was much more impressive than the 47 points he collected. It demonstrated agility, creativity and power.

Still the final LaVine offering was definitely worthy of the 50 as he did what I doubt anyone deemed possibly prior to the event when he completed his free throw line trilogy, this time putting the ball between his legs as he flew through the key. This super slow mo is the best example of the dunk I’ve seen which demonstrates exactly how far, how high and the relative ease with which he completed the dunk seemingly with room to continue his ascent:

As the players erupted and ascended upon LaVine and the perfect score from the judges was displayed to the ACC crowd there was a mixture of cheers mixed with some sounds of disappointing ahhs. The fans were enjoying the rarest of shows and wanted the competition to continue.

LaVine was extremely humble in his win taking the microphone and suggesting there should be 2 winners based on how amazing each of the hoopsters had performed. He said the sudden death dunk off had forced the players to complete dunks they had never tried and he further stressed how each others performances had brought out the best in each other.

And, in a touching moment he dedicated his title repeat to the memory of his late head coach Flip Saunders (and the Saunders family) crediting him for always believing in him.  Fittingly most post event interviews featured both Gordon and LaVine as they continued to extol on each others’ brilliant performances.

A heartfelt message from Zach LaVine to his late Head Coach, Flip Saunders & family #ForFlip (IG) pic.twitter.com/ZiswhXT42o

— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) February 14, 2016

Closing Thoughts:

More from Space City Scoop

Ultimately the Slam Dunk performances of LaVine and Gordon will be debated regarding who produced the better cumulative effort.  Further the event itself and unprecedented 6 perfect 50’s with two sudden death dunk-off rounds will provide fodder for Monday morning cooler debates as to where they rank in the history of the event.

Not since Vince Carter’s 2000 effort has a Dunk Competition ranked among the best ever consideration. Additionally, this 2016 performance is the first to offer a duo who can be compared to the standard set by Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.

Coincidentally there are many similarities between the two pairs. Jordan and LaVine’s technique offers hops and fluidity while Nique and Gordon are both gifted with power and unprecedented elevation capabilities.  With close to 30 years between these 2 unparalleled performances by equally gifted  duos the Association will do everything in their power to ensure there is a repeat performance in Charlotte. Heck they probably will be praying Gordon wins, so a tie-break can occur  just as MJ and Nique did.

One thing is certain, the question of shifting the order of the itinerary was answered loud and clear by LaVine and Gordon. And, while the 6ix experiences record low temperatures the heat generated from the best All-Star Saturday ever sent fans and celebrities home abuzz over what they witnessed.

Next: Countdown to Deadline, Potential Rockets Trades

Next: Join Space City Scoop Writing Team

With the trade deadline around the corner, make sure you visit Space City Scoop on a daily basis for our trade series. Each day, SCS will feature an article on who the Rockets should trade for or what it would take to part ways with the players currently on the roster. Finally, we’ll assess the Rockets and each team in the Association in terms of what their needs are, if they should be buyers or sellers, and also speculate on who would be the ideal trade target.

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