All-Star Weekend gets underway Friday night and if all goes well, fans will be privy to another classic midseason exhibition that always proves to be fun in a way that only NBA basketball can be. Of course, some All-Star Weekends have proven more memorable than others, so as we head into this year’s events let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable moments in NBA All-Star history:
Larry Bird Begins His 3-Point Dominance, Dallas, 1986 – The 1980s were a different time, competitively speaking, as the game’s greatest players didn’t want to just beat their opponents; they wanted to break their will to continue playing basketball at all. This was Bird’s approach to everything in that era, including the three-point contest, so when he was asked to participate in 1986 he spent weeks ahead of the event shooting thousands of three-pointers from the five shooting locations set for the event.
Before the contest, Bird famously walked into the locker room with typical Larry Legend Swagger and asked the rest of the field, “Which one of you guys is going to finish second?”
He destroyed that first competition, even going so far as to call “bank” on one deep shot once he knew he had sewn up the event. He’d walk off the court yelling, “I am the three-point king!” and of course he was, as he’d win the next two competitions, as well.
Blackman Has Confidence, Seattle, 1987 – In what was arguably the most suspenseful game in All-Star history, the Western Conference found themselves down by a couple of points with a just a few seconds left in the game, when Dallas Mavericks All-Star Rolando Blackman drove baseline and ran into four East defenders, at least one of whom fouled him as time expired.
This meant pulling everybody else off the floor and letting Blackman shoot two free throws completely alone. It was just him and the basket, down by two, needing both free throws to send the game into overtime. He, of course, made both shots, and when the camera zoomed in on his face following the second make, Blackman was seeing yelling out, “Confidence, baby! Confidence!” giving him not just a moment, but an iconic moment.
In overtime, Blackman’s Western Conference team won the game, and while Tom Chambers earned the game’s MVP, Blackman owned the most memorable moment of one of the most memorable All-Star games ever.
Jordan vs. ‘Nique, Chicago, 1988 – Even now, almost 30 years later, the back-and-forth between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 dunk contest still holds up as one of the best ever. Jordan won the contest on his home court with a 50-point score on his free-throw line dunk, which remains the most graceful of any free throw line dunk the league has seen before or since, but Wilkins was in a lot of ways the star of the show, throwing down graceful, powerful dunk after graceful, powerful dunk. Both guys represented poetic motion in a way fans had never really seen on that level before. There’s a reason that Jordan’s free-throw line dunk is one of the best-selling basketball posters of all time.
What really helps keep this in the memory of long-time basketball fans is the fact that Wilkins may have been robbed to give Jordan the title in front of the home fans. The scoring was arguably inconsistent, and Jordan himself reportedly told Wilkins after the event that he probably should have won.
“You know it. I know it,” Jordan told Wilkins. “But hey, you’re in Chicago. What can I tell you?”
Magic Johnson Wins MVP After Write-In, Orlando, 1992 – In what might be the best All-Star story of all-time, Magic Johnson, after retiring from basketball following his HIV diagnosis in late 1991, was written in by fans to appear in the 1992 All-Star Game just months later. Not only did he appear in the game, but he was named MVP after scoring a game-high 25 points. Nobody could have written it any better.
Johnson’s early retirement at age 33 shocked the world, and as one of the league’s most beloved superstars, it should come as no surprise that fans were champing at the bit to make the 1992 All-Star Game their opportunity to give the man the goodbye they felt he deserved. Johnson was announced last in that year’s starting lineups to raucous applause, and the joy with which he played that game was both tangible and utterly unforgettable.
“Words mean a lot,” Johnson said after the game. “But it’s feelings that count most. Ours is a game of compassion. I’ll never forget those hugs and high-fives.”
Thankfully, Johnson hasn’t met the end most assumed he would when HIV served as a death sentence in the early ‘90s, giving him a lot more time to remember that compassion than either he or fans thought possible at the time.
The Elbow Pass, Oakland, 2000 – Jason “White Chocolate” Williams turned passing into an art form during his tenure in the NBA, but never was he more creative with a dish than during the Rookie-Sophomore game in February of 2000.
On a fast break, Williams ran down the court with Dirk Nowitzki on his right and Raef LaFrentz trailing. When he swung the ball behind his back the assumption was that he’d be delivering a little bit of stylistic flair for a Nowitzki layup, but instead, the ball somehow squirted out from behind Williams and into the hands of LaFrentz. It looked purposeful somehow, but even after watching the replay live it was nearly impossible to discover the physics of it all. How had Williams delivered a perfect no-look pass off of his elbow?
All these years later, the replay hasn’t lost any of its zest. It’s every bit as fresh as it was 17 years ago.
Vince Carter’s Dunk Contest Victory, Oakland, 2000 – While there certainly have been more competitive dunk contests, it’s hard to remember a time when any player made such difficult dunks look so easy. It almost felt like Carter was backstage somewhere before the 2000 dunk contest, playing video games in street clothes until about 30 seconds before it was his turn to dunk. Then he walked casually out to the court, put up a handful of perfect-score dunks and walked back to the locker room casually as if nothing unearthly had just happened.
Getting prime Carter in the dunk contest is something we’ll all be glad happened when we look back at the pantheon of dunk contests past. The 360 Windmill, the elbow through the rim, the bounce from T-Mac and then through the legs—it was all essentially flawless. In an era when dunk contest performers were taking several attempts at landing two-bit tricks, Vince was hitting most of these incredibly difficult dunks on the first try.
The crowd in the building and the audience at home were dumbstruck. In a world before YouTube, nobody had ever seen anything remotely close to those dunks before. The only bad thing is that it was the only time Carter ever participated.
East Rallies from 21 Down, Washington, D.C., 2001 – Down 21 points with nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, this particular All-Star Game looked like the sort of blowout that forces viewers to tune out after a long weekend of watching basketball exhibitions. But Allen Iverson made sure fans stayed glued to their sets and guaranteed that fans got every ounce of the show they expected.
Iverson scored 15 of his 25 points in those final nine minutes, spurring a massive 21-point comeback and leading the Eastern Conference squad to a shocking win. Iverson was, of course, named the game’s MVP, which was fitting considering his role in the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in All-Star Game history.
The “Perfect” Dunk Contest, Toronto, 2016 – While it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind because it only happened a year ago, the 2016 dunk contest was arguably the greatest showdown in league history. While Jordan vs. Wilkins was packed with a whole lot more star power than Zach LaVine vs. Aaron Gordon, the showmanship of last winter’s contest was unparalleled, as it ultimately led to six consecutive perfect scores from those two dunkers, forcing a double-overtime in something most fans didn’t know could have even one overtime.
LaVine dunked through his legs from the free throw line. Gordon jumped a million feet in the air to rip the ball from Orlando’s mascot and tucking it under his rear end before throwing it down. There were more unbelievable dunks, obviously, and every single one of them represented a certain fluidity and power that made this event special. LaVine had turned down his opportunity to three-peat this month even before tearing his ACL, but Gordon will be back and hopefully has enough ideas left over to keep this event as fun as it has been the last couple of years.
The thing about All-Star Weekend is that it’s supposed to be a lot of fun, and as the events on this list prove, that’s exactly what it is more often than not. Stay plugged into Basketball Insiders all weekend for updates and analysis from New Orleans, and just know that even more memorable All-Star moments are just over the horizon.
NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet
The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.
With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.
We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.
And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.
All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.
What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.
So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?
It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.
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Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.
In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.
The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.
The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.
Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.
Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.
It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.
The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.
In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.
You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.
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There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.
And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.
If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.
Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.