2015 All-Star Weekend Preview

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Beginning tomorrow night the NBA’s All-Star Weekend tips off in the Big Apple—a fitting host city for a three-day festival of glitz, glamour, high-flying craziness and, of course, star-studded hoops. The events will be co-hosted by the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks—James Dolan and Mikhail Prokhorov will put aside their differences for 72 hours, one hopes—and the showpiece, Sunday’s All-Star Game itself, will take place at the basketball Mecca that is Madison Square Garden.

Photo: Madison Square Garden

While the majority of the NBA’s coaches and players will get a week off from the rigours of regular-season basketball to rejuvenate their minds and bodies on white-sand beaches across the globe, the lucky few who have been given the honour of representing their respective franchises in New York will be part of a showpiece that aims at giving back to the fans.

All-Star Weekend does away with the blood, sweat, tears—and defence—of competitive basketball in order to showcase the facets of the game that can be described as, for want of a more sophisticated term, pure, unadulterated fun. The dunks, the crossovers, the crazy behind-the-back passes—point guards posting-up, big men running the point—these are all elements of the game that elicit a joy which brings many of us back to a time when, as kids, we got hooked on the game. All-Star Weekend is silly, it’s meaningless, but it’s one hell of a good time.

Friday Night
And speaking of silly: the curtain-raiser for the weekend is the All-Star Celebrity Game, or as it should be called, The Arne Duncan Classic. Unfortunately for those of us who appreciate basketball that, well, resembles basketball, Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education won’t be participating this year. However, the likes of Kevin Hart, Michael Rapaport, Grizzlies owner Robert Pera (oh, the schadenfreude if he doesn’t play well) and Hall-of-Famer Chris Mullin will be gracing (if that’s the verb you can use) the hard court.

Friday night’s action really gets going—at least basketball-wise—with the Rising Stars Challenge, a game that pits the best American rookies and sophomores against the best young international players in the NBA. This is a welcome format change from last season, when the roster was simply selected by Shaq and Charles Barkley. Team USA is led by the likes of Michael Carter-Williams (last season’s Rookie of the Year), the Orlando Magic’s Victor Oladipo and Nets standout Mason Plumlee. Team World—the better team on paper, in my opinion—features the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo; Dante Exum; and, of course, Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins.

The Rising Stars challenge is often the forgotten event of the weekend, but it’s had its moments. It’s certainly tough to forget Kyrie Irving’s decimation of poor Brandon Knight two seasons ago. This year’s edition should be a lot of fun.

All-Star Saturday Night
Saturday night’s festivities, which take place at the Barclay’s Center, begin with the Shooting Stars competition, an event that teams up a current legendary NBA player and a WNBA player. Each team has to make a series a shots in the quickest time possible—the last shot being a mightily entertaining heave from half-court. Miami’s Chris Bosh is the unofficial champion of this event—the guy’s team seems to win every year—and he’ll be competing again alongside Hawks Hall-of-Famer Dominique Wilkins and WNBA legend Swin Cash. Other notable participants this year include Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry (alongside his father, Dell) and Penny Hardaway.

Now, if there’s a point during Saturday night when you want to head out to grab some food (a taco, perhaps), or make yourself a drink in the kitchen, do it during the Taco Bell Skills Challenge—the least inspiring part of All-Star Weekend. Eight players essentially run a basketball obstacle course, dribbling, shooting and bounce-passing their way through mind-numbing indifference, with the winner being the player who manages to do it fastest. Every year the participants give off the impression that they’ve been physically coerced into the competition. The lack of enthusiasm almost makes it worth watching—almost. Look for Jeff Teague and the Raptors’ own Kyle Lowry to be the frontrunners for this event.

Next up is the Three-Point Contest, which many people would argue is the most consistently entertaining part of Saturday Night. Fans tune in by the millions for the Dunk Contest, of course, but that event so often flatters to deceive. The three-point contest, on the other hand, is like an opening band that always seems to upstage the headliner.

This year’s edition could not feature a more mouth-watering line-up of trifecta-bombing talent. The competition features two former champions in Kyrie Irving and Marco Bellinelli; the Splash Brothers tandem of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry; as well as James Harden, J.J. Redick, Wes Matthews and a player who’s currently having the greatest three-point shooting season in NBA history. That last man is Kyle Korver, who’s shooting more than 50 per cent from three-point range on six attempts per game—that’s positively bonkers. Whether or not Korver can replicate that insane in-game shooting on Saturday night remains to be seen, but people will be on the edge of their seats in anticipation.

All-Star Saturday Night finishes with the Dunk Contest, an event that’s become somewhat polarizing in recent years for fans who grew up salivating over the epic battles between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins—and before that, Dr. J. and David Thompson. In some ways the bar has been set so high by the game’s Dunk Contest predecessors that the current generation can do very little that hasn’t already been done before. The rock-the-cradle dunk? Dunking from the free-throw line? Whatever.

Players are criticized for resorting to gimmicks—jumping over cars, blowing candles out on the rim—but in fairness, they’re just trying to find a creative space that hasn’t already been occupied. It’s tough.

Thankfully this year the NBA has gone back to the traditional format of years past, ditching the disastrous East versus West format from last year. All four participants are either first- or second-year players (the debate over whether star-calibre names should participate rages on), and the contest provides the perfect platform for each player to announce himself on the big stage. Three of the participants—Miles Plumlee, Victor Oladipo and Antetokounmpo—can all throw it down with force, but Minnesota’s Zach LaVine, a player who looks like he was made for this competition, is the early favourite.

The Main Event
All-Star Weekend ends on Sunday Night with the All-Star Game itself, the 64th of its kind. The East and West teams will be lead by the head coaches of the best team in each conference: Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks, and Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.

Two things immediately stand out when viewing the rosters: the multiple Atlanta Hawks on the roster and, unfortunately, the injuries.

First, the Hawks: Atlanta, the best team in the NBA, will have four participants on the East team—Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. No team has sent four players to the All-Star game since Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics of five years ago. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to 2006 when the Detroit Pistons had four of their players selected. It’s a well-deserved recognition of the success that the Hawks have had this season. They’re a team that plays basketball the right way.

Injuries, the inevitable result of a demanding season, have taken their toll on both teams. Dwyane Wade was recently forced to pull out of the game (replaced by Korver), while Carmelo Anthony—the weekend’s de-facto host of sorts—is currently touch-and-go with a bad knee that will eventually require surgery. Over on the Western Conference side, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis (the latter two are simply made for the high-flying antics of the All-Star game) are also sidelined with injury.

Nevertheless the game should be heaps of fun, as it always is. There won’t be much, if any, defence or set-plays in the half-court. Those will be replaced with a lot of dunking, a lot of crazy dribbling and some always-ridiculous, and always-fun, role reversals (think Kyle Korver playing iso-ball). As far as predicting a winner, it’s hard to say. The Western Conference has dominated the East in recent seasons, although Kyrie Irving did lead the East to victory in the last.

Whoever wins, expect a lot of points in the process. This will not be a grind-it-out affair. 
 
 
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