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NBA Saturday: Timberwolves Assembling Exciting Core

The Minnesota Timberwolves add Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to their exciting core of young players.

Jesse Blancarte

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New Era in Minnesota

Today, the Cleveland Cavaliers will officially acquire star power forward Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Love, one of the most productive players in the NBA, leaves Minnesota after six seasons with the Timberwolves.

While there may be an inclination to feel as though the Timberwolves have taken a major step back after losing their franchise player, the fact is that Minnesota acquired a solid haul of young talent to build around moving forward. The Timberwolves acquired two number one overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett from Cleveland, and will concurrently send Cleveland’s 2015 first-round pick (acquired from the Miami HEAT) along with Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Philadelphia 76ers for Thaddeus Young.

This was a strong return for Love, who made it clear to the Timberwolves that he would leave Minnesota for nothing at the conclusion of the upcoming season if he was not traded. While losing Love hurts, the Timberwolves now have one of the best core’s of young talent in the NBA, and are still talented enough to have an outside chance of making the playoffs moving forward.

Wiggins, the number one overall pick in this year’s draft out of Kansas University, is a top-level NBA prospect and potential superstar. In his one season at Kansas, Wiggins put up 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and one block per game, and shot 44.8 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from beyond-the-arc. While Wiggins’ stats don’t jump off the page, he has the size and skill of an elite wing player and should be able to develop into a well-rounded offensive player and lock-down defender.

Over the last few years, Wiggins has drawn comparisons to LeBron James, but a better or fairer comparison may be someone like Paul George. George entered the league as a wing player who could play defense immediately and had the size and skill to develop into a versatile offensive weapon. George, to his credit, made huge strides in his game early in his career, improving his jump-shot and ball-handling, allowing him to be a play-maker on offense. Similarly, Wiggins will need to add consistency to his jumper, and improve his ball-handling to take his game to the next level. Assuming Wiggins can make the same sort of strides in his game that George did, coupled with his elite athleticism, Wiggins could be a top wing player in the NBA in just a few years. Wiggins has been criticized in the past for being too passive, but he seems to recognize this and sees Minnesota as a place where he will have to embrace being a lead-player, and not just another piece.

Joining Wiggins in Minnesota will be the number one overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Bennett. Last season, in 52 games played with the Cavaliers, Bennett averaged 4.2 points, three rebounds and 0.3 assists per game and shot 35.6 percent from the field. It was a truly disappointing rookie campaign for the former number one overall pick. Bennett entered his rookie season rehabbing from shoulder surgery and suffered a knee strain in March. He struggled with injuries and conditioning last season, but has lost weight this summer and is looking to have a bounce-back sophomore season. In addition, Bennett underwent surgery in May to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea, and says it is now easier for him to breathe while playing.

Bennett’s improved conditioning and breathing does not guarantee that he will have a breakout sophomore season, but it is a positive step in the right direction for the talented forward. At UNLV, Bennett was a versatile offensive player who shot well at the rim, could take the ball off the dribble and knock down three-pointers consistently (38.3 percent). And while he was not a great defender in college, he moves well for a player his size and has potential defensively. With Minnesota, Bennett can learn from Thaddeus Young how to play the power forward position at the NBA level. However, Bennett also has the potential to play small forward, but he will have to keep his weight down in order to do so, which may make it harder for him to guard the bigger forwards in the league. This is something that Bennett and the Timberwolves will need to experiment with and figure out moving forward.

Fortunately for Bennett and the Timberwolves, Bennett will not have to rush his development with Corey Brewer and Wiggins in place at small forward, and Young set to take over for Love as the starting power forward. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. At age 26, Young is young enough to continue improving along with the young talent in Minnesota, but brings seven years of valuable NBA experience to the starting unit. At 6’8, 220 pounds, Young is slightly undersized at the power forward position, but can shoot the ball from the perimeter and has an overall solid offensive game. While Young will not be able to completely make up for the loss of Love, the Timberwolves have managed to add a solid replacement to help keep the team competitive moving forward.

In addition to these newly acquired players, the Timberwolves are bringing in another bright, young talent this upcoming season. The Timberwolves drafted Zach LaVine with the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft out of UCLA. LaVine is arguably the most athletic player in this year’s rookie class and at 6’5, 180 pounds, has good size for an NBA combo guard. At UCLA, LaVine averaged 9.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and shot 44.1 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. Similar to Wiggins, LaVine did not put up overly impressive numbers in his one college season, but his upside is off the charts. LaVine has the ability to handle the ball and initiate Minnesota’s offense, but is still very much a work in progress as a point guard. In the Las Vegas Summer League, LaVine had an opportunity to run point guard for Minnesota and showed flashes of his potential.

“I feel like I’ve been just setting up the plays really well, running the team,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “Getting to the hole, creating for others and then making my shots when I have to.”

LaVine still has a ways to go in terms of playing point guard, but there is certainly potential there. As a shooting guard, LaVine has shown his ability to score the ball from the perimeter and on drives to the basket. His three-point shooting will be a nice addition to Minnesota, as the Timberwolves were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league last season. At age 19, LaVine is certainly a raw talent, and will struggle on many nights in his rookie season. But, with good size, developing point guard skills and a solid offensive skill-set, LaVine has a ton of potential and could one day be considered one of the best players from the 2014 NBA draft class. And with athletes like LaVine and Wiggins running the lanes with point guard Ricky Rubio, there is certain to be some highlight plays in Minnesota next season.

In regards to Rubio, it is easy to forget that he is still just 23 years old. Rubio’s rookie season in the NBA started off well as he averaged 10.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 2.3 steals in 34.2 minutes per game. However, he suffered an ACL tear in March 2012, and missed the second half of his rookie season. In the following two seasons, Rubio continued to score roughly 10 points, and register roughly eight assists per game, but his perimeter shooting remains an issue. Rubio, a career 36.8 percent shooter from the field and 32.3 percent three-point shooter, has flawed shooting mechanics and an especially slow release. This is something Rubio will have to address moving forward, which, at age 23, is very possible. If, and when he does, he will join the upper echelon of point guards in the league as he is already a great play-maker, passer and solid defensive player. With Love on his way to Cleveland, now is the time for Rubio to take the next step in his development, and become the leader of the Timberwolves.

Also on the roster is Shabazz Muhammad, once considered the best NBA prospect in the nation. After a disappointing rookie season in which he only played in 37 games, Muhammad is looking to have a bounce back sophomore season. Before his rookie season, Muhammad spent one underwhelming season at UCLA before declaring for the 2013 NBA Draft. Muhammad, age 21, is a talented offensive player, but is not a great athlete, and has not shown much ability to make plays for his teammates. However, he does have a thick frame, is a good rebounder for a wing player, and plays with supreme confidence. While he may never live up to the hype that surrounded him as an amateur, Muhammad could still find a niche as a bench scorer and put pressure on opposing guards by taking them down into the post where he often has a size advantage. Much like Rubio, Muhammad is not as far along in his development as many had hoped, but he is still very young and has an opportunity to be another piece of Minnesota’s promising core of young talent. 

In addition to all of these young wing players, the Timberwolves have some young talent at center as well. Timberwolves starting center Nikola Pekovic missed significant time last season with an Achilles injury. To fill the void left by Pekovic, the Timberwolves turned to rookie center Gorgui Dieng from the University of Louisville. Dieng was a revelation for Minnesota and had some outstanding performances throughout the second half of the season. On March 20, Dieng logged 22 points, 21 rebounds, 4 assists and made 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Four days later, Dieng registered 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and one block. These are two of Dieng’s best performances from last season, but there were many other nights in which Dieng registered a double-double and contributed a few blocks. Pekovic will remain the starter next season, but with Dieng behind him, the Timberwolves now have a legitimate shot blocker and another young piece to develop moving forward.

Also, while Pekovic is 28 years old, he has only been in the NBA for four seasons, and is one of the league’s best scoring big men. At 6’11, and weighing in at 285 pounds, Pekovic is massive and does not rely on athleticism to score points. He has a well-rounded offensive game and knows how to use his size to clear out defenders and score at the rim. While he is older than many of his young teammates, he is still relatively young and should maintain his current level of play for a long time since he does not rely on athleticism to be effective.

It is true that the Timberwolves would probably win more games this upcoming season with Love than they would with Wiggins, Bennett and Young, especially considering it takes a few seasons for rookies to become real impact players. But the fact is that Love wanted to move on, and in his six seasons in Minnesota he never led his team to the playoffs. To be fair to Love, he did about as much as he could in terms of filling up the stat sheet every night, but it was never enough to get Minnesota over the hump. The reality is that the Western Conference is, and has been stacked with playoff teams and contenders for many years. The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trailblazers are all teams to be reckoned with, and even with Love, there was no guarantee the Timberwolves would make the playoffs this upcoming season.

With the addition of LaVine, Wiggins, Bennett and Young to Rubio, Dieng and Pekovic, the Timberwolves now have a core of players that can develop over the next few seasons and hopefully peak at a time when teams like the Spurs are rebuilding, and other teams are exiting their window for contention as well. In the meantime, this is a team that can still compete with opposing teams on a nightly basis, and fight for an outside shot at making the playoffs. And while Timberwolves fans may bemoan the fact that it may take some more time to break Minnesota’s 10-year playoff drought, they should take solace in the fact that Minnesota now has one of the best and most exciting cores in the NBA.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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NBA All-Star Saturday Recap

Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.

In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.

In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.

JBL Three Point Contest

The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.

In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest

The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.

Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.

In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points.  Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.

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