A ridiculously fun prelude to the all-star game.
Even before the dunks started, the NBA All-Star Saturday Night spectacular was clearly something special.
And then Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon happened.
The evening started out with the Skills Challenge, the competition least familiar to fans because it’s the least simple to explain—a sort of basketball obstacle course that tests all the core skills of being (usually) a point guard. This year featured the most elaborate props yet, including very fancy passing targets that lit up with lasers and other shiny things. But the real reason this year’s Skills Challenge was so great was because the NBA framed it as “guards” versus “bigs,” trying to find four power-forward-or-larger players capable of competing ably in the Skills Challenge.
In the end, it came down to Isaiah Thomas versus Karl-Anthony Towns, which is about as diverse a matchup as could possibly be found in the NBA currently: a seven-foot monster who was last year’s first overall draft pick, versus a “billed as five-nine but honestly he’s probably a couple inches shorter” point guard who, as a #60 draft pick in 2011, is the lowest-picked draftee ever to be named an NBA All-Star. Sadly for fans who like a good narrative, Towns beat Thomas, but only after a nailbitingly close race to the finish and a frantic battle of three-point shots.
Over the course of the evening fans were treated to amusing videos, as one normally gets at a basketball game at the Air Canada Centre. We learned that NBA players do not know many common Canadian words and phrases: Chris Paul, for example, does not know what a “kerfuffle” is. (Hint for Chris Paul: the Los Angeles Clippers are currently undergoing a kerfuffle with that whole “Blake Griffin punched a guy in Toronto” thing.) However, Steph Curry, who briefly lived in Toronto as a youth, correctly identified a “Canadian tuxedo,” and Chris Bosh was roundly booed for correctly identifying a loonie. Incidentally, memo to Raptors fans: please, please, get over Chris Bosh leaving already. It was six years ago and the team, at the time, was terribly mismanaged by an apathetic front office. He was right to leave that situation, and he’s never been anything less than classy towards this city, which has been remarkably graceless towards him in return. Chris Bosh is a really decent guy, as professional athletes go, so please stop booing him. It’s the adult thing to do.
The three-point shooting contest was also stupidly entertaining, despite a mediocre showing from Raptor point guard Kyle Lowry (who, along with DeMar DeRozan, is probably having a hell of a time trying to subtly convince other NBA players to come to Toronto with this Hoth-like weather we’re getting this weekend).
Golden State’s Splash Brothers, Curry and Klay Thompson, naturally snagged the first two spots in the final, but then there was a three-way tie for third place in the qualifying round; a quick tiebreaker was arranged and Phoenix’ Devin Booker won it. Thompson won the overall three-point contest in the final with a blistering 27 out of a possible 34 points, and Curry graciously handed over the three-point championship to his teammate.
At this point came the only off note of the entire evening, which was a performance by Walk The Moon of their hit song “Shut Up And Dance”. We understand that the song is a dorky, spazzy sort of fun song, and we hardly demand that people be self-possessed and cool at all times, but man, there is a limit to the amount of gawky dorkiness we can tolerate. Given that the crowd had already enjoyed one far superior musical interlude earlier in the evening—Silento’s performance of “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” which featured unexpected guest dancing from Anthony Anderson, Dikembe Mutombo, Victor Oladipo and Jon Stewart—Walk The Moon’s performance felt like nothing so much as an attempt by the NBA’s marketing department to make the All-Star events seem friendlier to white people who might get nervous around hip-hop.
And then, finally, it was time for the dunk contest. The dunk contest has become less important in recent years, mostly because the NBA has taken every opportunity to make it less impressive—cutting down the number of dunks, and the number of competitors, giving too many chances to players to make their elaborate dunks, and watching the star power drop with each year. Going into this dunk contest expectations were lower than ever: only four competitors, and only the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine, last year’s winner and a prodigious dunker, was expected to make any magic happen.
Everybody was wrong.
Although Denver’s Will Barton and Detroit’s Andre Drummond flamed out early, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon brought the thunder with some truly ridiculous dunks, including one where he leapfrogged over the Orlando mascot and brought the ball under both of his legs before dunking. LaVine countered with a ridiculous alley-oop dunk from the free-throw line, and at that point the dunk contest was truly on.
Gordon and LaVine exchanged utterly perfect dunk after utterly perfect dunk—in the championship round, and this necessitated a tiebreaker.
Then each player completed a third stupendous dunk in the tiebreaker round, both of which earned perfect scores once again.
Only in the second round of tiebreakers did Gordon—who at this point was well out of planned dunks and completely improvising, “only” scored a 47/50 on his final dunk, a double-pump reverse backhand jam which probably deserved a perfect score as well.
LaVine then dunked another perfect 50-score by successfully completing a running between-the-legs dunk from the free throw line.
It was finally over, one of the best dunk contests in NBA history if not the best. Really, it comes down to where you rank this year’s contest in comparison to the brilliant Michael Jordan/Dominique Wilkins dunk-off from 1988.
It was, as All-Star Saturday nights go, about as good a show as could have been hoped for.