They're the two best basketball players in the world by most measurements, including the advanced ones. They're the two biggest stars in the competition, having led their conferences in All-Star fan voting. They both entered All-Star Weekend with impressive individual performances to cap the first "half" of the season in style, and they're the two players whom everybody — even their All-Star peers — looks at in awe.
James, the four-time league MVP, has long known that Durant, the three-time scoring champion, is "coming for [his] spot", and this year the Oklahoma City Thunder star's pursuit has ramped up to the point that KD-over-LeBron-for-MVP has gone from interesting possibility to entirely legitimate, increasingly likely scenario. When they went head-to-head back for the first time this season on Jan. 29, Durant's Thunder got the better of James' Miami Heat, but not before a mano a mano third-quarter showdown that saw them combine for 14 points in just under two minutes in a can-you-top-this? duel more reminiscent of Rucker Park in the summer than a regular-season NBA game.
The question, then, is whether we'll get a Round 2 at some point on Sunday. Both players sloughed off inquiries about comparisons between them during All-Star media sessions — "They don't compare me to KD, they just talk about the two best players in the game and which one is better, which one can score better, who is the MVP, who is going to win the next championship," James said, while Durant said his level of exhaustion with the comparison was a "25" on a scale from 1 to 10. But KD whistled a slightly different tune in a brief interview with Craig Sager during Friday night's BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, and it sounded at least a little bit like "The Farmer in the Dell."
"What will you try to do in Sunday's game?" Sager asked.
"Just go out there and have fun," Durant said, before flashing a small smile and adding: "I want to play one-on-one with somebody out there Sunday for a few minutes. But we'll see how that goes."
"Would that somebody be LeBron?" Sager followed.
Durant started to shake his head, but stopped.
"Probably, yeah," he answered, that trace of a smile coming back to his face.
Given that, a LeBron vs. KD showdown seems inevitable, and would likely represent the high point of All-Star Weekend; one can only hope it lives up to Friday's legendary Dion Waiters-Tim Hardaway Jr. clash.
2. Which young All-Stars will announce their presence?
During last year's game, we saw three first-time All-Stars — James Harden of the host-city Houston Rockets, Paul George of the Indiana Pacers and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers — play significant roles when the game got tight and competitive during the fourth quarter. Harden played more fourth-quarter minutes than anyone, scoring five points and grabbing three boards, and staying on the floor for head coach Gregg Popovich for the final six minutes of the contest, while Irving scored eight points in 6 1/2 minutes to keep the East close and George hit a pair of 3-pointers to cut a double-digit deficit down to five points before the West pulled away.
They weren't the players who decided the game, but they were on the court when the game mattered most (or, y'know, "mattered," given the mostly freewheeling nature of the exhibition), and that helped stamp them as players who belong in the conversation when considering stars of consequence in the NBA. With another collection of young talent cutting their teeth in All-Star Weekend's main event this year, which players will seize the opportunity to do the same this time around?
In the East, it could be John Wall. The Washington Wizards point guard will enter Sunday night riding high after his Slam Dunk Contest victory, figures to have an opening in the Eastern backcourt with starter Dwyane Wade likely to see only a limited workload, and is competing this weekend with an emotionally gripping source of motivation, as detailed by Michael Lee of the Washington Post:
Wall can’t completely revel in his first NBA all-star game appearance because his mother, Frances Pulley, has been hospitalized with fluid buildup in her lungs that kept her from traveling to be with her son on his special weekend.
“I’m dealing with a lot of stuff, but she wants me to enjoy myself. She wants me to be happy,” Wall said before practice at the New Orleans Convention Center. “Whenever I get the opportunity, I try to call her and check on her, make sure she’s all right and try to enjoy myself. At the same time, that’s also at the back of your mind.” [...]
“Her being in my corner through thick and thin, somebody I can call and talk to at any time,” Wall said. “I want to win for her. I’ll definitely play the game for her.”
Turning attention to the Western Conference, a big part of me wants to put my money on first-time All-Star Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, due in part to the fact that he's representing the host city and in part to the fact that he's enough of an athletic marvel for no less an authority than Dirk Nowitzki to call him "the future of power forwards," according to SB Nation's Paul Flannery. It's hard to see the young trio of Durant, Blake Griffin and first-time starter Kevin Love not taking up most of the West's high-leverage frontcourt minutes, though, so I'm going turning my attention to a player it's been almost impossible to miss this All-Star Weekend.
Damian Lillard headed to New Orleans with the goal of making history as the first player ever to compete in five All-Star Weekend events; he will head back to the Pacific Northwest having accomplished his goal, but he has yet to really make his mark on the weekend. He didn't produce a particularly memorable moment during Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. His second straight Skills Challenge win didn't move the needle much. He fell one point short of eventual champion Marco Belinelli in the first round of the Three-Point Contest. And while his individual efforts were strong, he found himself eliminated head-to-head and on the business end of a clean sweep loss in a Slam Dunk Contest in which, as he said later, the Eastern Conference "kind of just outclassed us."
Lillard teamed with fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and a slew of sweet-shooting running buddies to make us stand up and take notice of the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half of the season. If he can turn the same trick on Sunday night, he'll have succeeded in turning All-Star Weekend into the coming-out party that he and his reps intended it to be.
3. How hard will Chris Paul go in his "homecoming?"
While Durant breezed to 30 points, Griffin threw down dunk after dunk, and Carmelo Anthony put up a 26-point, 12-rebound double-double, it was the Los Angeles Clippers point guard who walked away with All-Star MVP honors last year in Houston. Coming back to New Orleans — the city where he spent his first six seasons after the then-New Orleans Hornets drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft, the site of his first All-Star appearance back in 2008, and a city he still holds in such high regard — it wouldn't be a surprise if CP3 wanted to make a point of showing out and looking to become the first back-to-back All-Star MVP since Bob Pettit in 1958 and '59 (when he shared the trophy with Elgin Baylor).
The question, though, is whether he'll go long enough, or hard enough, to make a repeat reasonable. Paul is just one week removed from his return to live action after five weeks on the shelf with a separated right shoulder, and he'll be coming off the bench behind Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Harden, whom Thunder head coach Scott Brooks tapped to replace the injured Kobe Bryant in the starting lineup. Add Lillard and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker into the mix, and there's more than enough backcourt bodies to chew into Paul's prospective minutes should he let Brooks know he'd like to take his foot off the glass a bit in the interest of staying fresh for the start to the second half of the Clippers' season.
Then again, if Paul's in a particularly giving mood during his time on the floor — he had 15 assists last year, ranks ninth all-time in All-Star assists with 62, and needs 12 dimes to surpass Kobe, Jason Kidd, John Stockton and Gary Payton to break into the top five in All-Star history behind Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson — and once again wrests control of the proceedings down the stretch, he could be a sentimental favorite for the voting panel in the Big Easy.
4. Some all-time records that could be in play.
In no particular order, here are three All-Star marks that wouldn't surprise me if they went by the wayside on Saturday:
• Single-game scoring. Wilt Chamberlain's 42-point performance has stood up since 1962. Durant's scored 34, 36 and 30 points in his last three All-Star games, he's the unquestioned man on the Western Conference squad, and there's been a certain "my time is now" sneer to the entirety of Durant's season thus far. He might go for it. (That could also put "most field-goal attempts," currently shared by Rick Barry and Michael Jordan with 27, up for grabs; KD's averaging 24 shots a game over his last three All-Star appearances, and there's no Kobe this year.)
• Single-game 3-point makes. Mark Price (1993) and LeBron (2012) share this with six apiece. C'mon, Steph. Let's crank it up and redeem the disappointing Shooting Stars and Three-Point Contest performances. (As above, this could also jeopardize the high-water mark of 11 3-point attempts reached by Ray Allen in 2005 and Durant in 2011.)
• Regulation total score. The highest combined point total in a non-overtime game in All-Star history is 301, set just two years ago when the West beat the East, 152-149. Given the increased prevalence of the 3-point shot, all the bombers in the mix and the prospect of an all-time Durant explosion, I think this might go down.
5. Whether Paul George found the other two amigos between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) February 16, 2014
Here's hoping he did, and that they all took Kevin Garnett's once-upon-a-time advice to Craig Sager about what to do with their suits.
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