Well, that was fun.
It started off slow. Let's face it, the Shooting Stars and the Skills Contest are pretty lame, and the Three Point Shootout is more than a little monotonous. But the Dunk Contest, in particular the first round, redeemed the evening.
For what it's worth, Team Atlanta won the Shooting Stars, which, I'm proud to say, I had literally never seen before, to the point that I didn't even know the format. In case you don't know the format either, an NBA player, a former NBA player, and an WNBA player from a city (or in the case of one team, a state) have to make shots collectively from six spots on the floor, culminating with a half court shot and the team that does it in the shortest time wins. Team Atlanta beat Team Texas in the finals, but for me the enduring image of the event will definitely be the sight of Steve Kerr from Team Chicago heaving up half court shots. Kerr literally looked like a 12 year old out there, using all his might to take the shot, as if he didn't have the strength to actually propel the ball 47 feet. I found it funny - and a little sad.
In the Skills Contest, was it my imagination or did both Derrick Rose and Chris Paul mail it in? I mean, it's one thing to miss the jumper, or to miss one of the targets on a pass. But Paul missed his opening layup for FSM's sake, and neither Paul nor Rose seemed to be in any particular hurry dribbling through obstacles. Stephen Curry, the eventual winner, went first and started off great in the opening round, but took three tries to make his jumper - ironic given that he's one of the best shooters in the league and by far the best shooter who participated in this contest tonight. When he then struggled to hit the target with his outlet pass, it seemed clear that Curry's score would not stand up through the other contestants. But it did.
Happily, Curry earned it in the final round, registering the best score of the evening and easily beating Russell Westbrook for the title.
The Three Point Shootout was notable for four things: 1) a last second 2 point money ball by Paul Pierce that advanced him to the second round; 2) a terrific first round display by Ray Allen; 3) an almost equally impressive final round by James Jones to win the title; and Kevin Durant going 5 for 25 in the first round of a contest in which he didn't really belong (Durant's a scorer, not a shooter). The LA crowd was definitely pulling for Jones in the Finals, as he went up against the two Celtics.
And then there was the dunk contest.
It must be said up front that the absurd staging of the dunk contest has gotten way out of hand. Why anyone at TNT thinks we want to hear Darryl Dawkins trying to form coherent sentences is beyond me. Serge Ibaka's salute to an entire continent at his entrance could have been nice, but came off as more than a little confused. And the 'my toy is lost' thing was just plain cringeworthy. (Although it must be said that the kid sold it the whole time and deserves some sort of special Golden Globe award, "Best Performance in a Lame Dunk Sketch".) The fact that Serge missed the dunk the first time, and that the whole gag had to be set up again, was offputting. Why did they stop the dunk clock? Should prop setup not be a consideration when deciding what dunk you're going to do, and included as part of the time limit? What's the point of having a time limit, if you can turn the clock off? And if the whole idea was to get the toy for the kid, why did they put it back up on the rim? How did that make sense? And me, I couldn't help thinking about the old Steve Martin "cat toys" routine. "My cat has been embezzling from me. I came home today and found $3000 worth of cat toys. And you can't return them, because they've got spit all over them." That kid now has Serge Ibaka spit all over his toy.
The dunk contest was so good, that the two participants that DIDN'T advance to the final round each had tremendous first round dunks. Ibaka's legitimate free throw line dunk registered a mere 45. This fact had a lot of pundits up in arms - many prior free throw line dunks were in fact not quite what they claimed to be, with foot faults of varying amounts. Unfortunately for Ibaka, it has been done to death, and few people appreciate the distinction of making it from the full 10 feet, as opposed to say 9'4" by Brent Barry. It was a great display of athleticism, even if the wow factor was somewhat lacking.
DeMar DeRozan's second dunk was just flat out sick, and with so many dunkers needing multiple attempts this year, I especially appreciated that he nailed it on his first (or was it second?) try. The pass to himself, one handed windmill jam had everything - originality, degree of difficulty, and pizzazz. I'm also not sure why his first dunk, which was terrific, warranted the lowest score of the night.
JaVale McGee's first dunk - dunking two balls on two different baskets - was simply amazing. How he even thought to do that - I mean, it's not like he's been anywhere with two rims side by side - is beyond me. When I first saw the two baskets, I was flabbergasted. When he then tossed one ball off the background on his first attempt, adding another element to the dunk, I was amazed. Then he missed his first few attempts badly, and I wondered to myself if he was crazy enough to try something in the dunk contest that he'd never practiced before. He even backed off the lob off the glass portion at one point, but missed the double dunk even worse. Eventually he nailed the dunk he had originally planned, and it was spectacular, scoring a perfect 50 from the judges.
The "three ball dunk" was a nice idea as a follow up, but it left me kind of cold. Yeah, he did it, and no, I hadn't ever seen anyone do that before. But it lacked anything remotely basketball-y, it seemed to me. It was more like juggling, and the sport part seemed closer to volleyball, as he didn't so much dunk John Wall's lob as dink it through the rim.
In contrast to McGee, who pulled out all the stops in the first round, Blake Griffin went with some relatively straightforward dunks in the early going. But of course nothing about Griffin's dunking is straightforward. It took him a few attempts to complete his first dunk, but even the failures were spectacular. He eventually connected on a 360+ two handed monster jam for a score of 49. His second dunk he took off the side of the board from a Baron Davis pass. He missed several attempts, and was beginning to run short of time, leaving open the very real possibility that he wouldn't advance to the finals of the event he was supposed to dominate. He finally connected with a nice one handed flush off the pass and scored a 46 that punched his ticket to the second round.
Now, with the new fan voting format for the finals, the contest was over at that point. Just as Yao will never not be voted the starting center in the All Star game as long as his name appears on the ballot, there was no way that JaVale McGee was going to beat Blake Griffin in what amounted to a popularity contest. Fortunately though, Griffin earned his title.
McGee's first dunk was plenty special. A baseline run in which he jumped - and had to duck his head out of the way of the backboard - and then reached back to dunk the ball as he flew by. It was unusual in that you just don't see reverse dunks while the guy continues to move past the basket so far.
In Griffin's first dunk of the final round, he pulled out an homage to Vince Carter in the 2000 dunk contest - an arm dunk off of the glass. Carter's is the yardstick, and is tough to beat mainly because no one had ever seen that before when he did it. But add the grace and athleticism of Carter to the sheer power of Griffin, and you've got one hell of a dunk. Blake hung out up there on the rim for a good five seconds to add to the moment.
Griffin's second dunk was the real show stopper. The news had long since leaked that he was planning to dunk over a car, but it was still pretty nuts when the moment arrived. Of course, most of the people in Staples Center weren't reading Twitter and blogs all day, so they didn't know what was going to happen. When they wheeled the car out onto the court, there was a buzz in the crowd, and probably more than a little confusion.
Now, when I first heard the idea, I wondered if he was 'just' going to jump over the hood, as opposed to the tallest part of the car. That's what he did in the end, and for me, it was a bit anticlimactic. I wonder if others got their hopes up for something more, and felt a little let down in the end. The "Baron throwing the lob pass from the sunroof" was a nice touch, and Baron was having so much fun that he definitely added to the show - he looked like jack-in-the-box with his head poking up. When the dunk actually happened, it was spectacular. He did it easily. In retrospect, one wonders why it took so long for someone to do this dunk - you know that both Kia and the NBA were absolutely thrilled with it, and I suspect that the idea might have come from the marketing department at one of those entities. It should be noted that, to his credit, Blake hit both of his final round dunks on the first attempt.
McGee seemed to sense the inevitability of a Griffin win after the car dunk, and more or less mailed in his final dunk. Griffin won the fan voting by a wide margin.
This was easily the best dunk contest in many years. The creativity was terrific (though I'd prefer if we could keep the creativity to the dunks themselves, as opposed to the staging around the dunks). Hopefully Griffin will defend his title next year - and maybe JaVale McGee will come back to challenge him again.