"I thought the highlight of the night was the Three-Point Contest," Charles Barkley said shortly before the TNT broadcast of All-Star Saturday Night signed off, and man, did that about say it all.
Washington Wizards point guard John Wall was voted "Dunker of the Night" by NBA fans after the Eastern Conference reigned supreme during the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk to cap off All-Star Saturday Night in New Orleans. Wall earned the recognition by throwing down the best dunk of the night, leaping over Wizards mascot G-Man, taking a ball out of his hands, bringing it down as he continued to rise, and throwing down a two-hand reverse dunk that put a charge into what seemed (to the TV-watching audience, at least) to be a largely dormant Smoothie King Center crowd:
Wall and his Eastern teammates — Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, who entered this year's competition as the odds-on favorite to win the fan vote for "Dunker of the Night," and defending Dunk Contest champion Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors — won the conference crown by besting, with relatively little argument, Western Conference counterparts Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors, and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings in the head-to-head "battles" that marked the second round of this year's shuffled-up Slam Dunk Contest.
The problem wasn't with the dunkers. (Well, except for maybe Barnes.) The problem, as some feared in the run-up to this year's contest, was with the shuffling.
After Wall's reverse (and subsequent dance with teammate George), the contest's judges were effusive in their praise, awarding Wall a clean sweep of head-to-head counterpart McLemore.
"John Wall just brought the Slam Dunk Contest back," said Magic Johnson, delivering the line that apparently must, by law, be spoken on microphone at literally every dunk contest.
"Magic is right," added Julius "Dr. J" Erving. "The Slam Dunk Contest has returned."
"I walked over on my way here, and Dominique Wilkins stopped me and said, 'You know what? John Wall just brought the Dunk Contest back,'" TNT host Ernie Johnson said later.
With all due respect to the legends: We don't believe you. You need more people.
First, the facts of the case: This year's dunk contest featured an overhauled format. Instead of the familiar every-man-for-himself tournament in which each competitor dunks, with judges giving scores for each dunk to determine which dunkers move on to the next round until eventually someone is judged a winner, this year the six dunkers — George, Wall and Ross for the East, Lillard, McLemore and Barnes for the West — opened the competition by participating in a 90-second "freestyle round," where the dunkers took turns throwing stuff down and teamed up to try things, with the judges eventually selecting a "winner" based on which conference they thought performed the best dunks in their 90-second session.
The winning conference then got to choose whether its dunkers went first or second in the "Battle Round," a series of head-to-head matchups between one East dunker and one West dunker. The judges chose a winner for each battle. The first conference to three victories was crowned the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions.
Got that? Yeah, neither did the people calling the action:
"I'm just glad you here to read all these rules," Charles Barkley said to Ernie Johnson, speaking for us all, just like always.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 16, 2014
With everything clear as mud, the East opened up the freestyle round, taking turns and trading off.
Ross put down a double-clutch reverse. Wall followed with an off-the-bounce right-handed windmill, then bounced a lead-in pass for George, who finished with a two-handed reverse. They went again in turn, with Ross putting down a big righty 360, Wall again going off the bounce before catching and finishing with a lefty tomahawk, then leaving a bounce pass for George to attempt a right-handed windmill that missed.
The East then turned their attention to three-part teamwork dunks. George bounced the ball for Wall, who caught it in the air and bounced it for Ross, who elevated, caught, cocked back and crammed it with his right hand. Then Ross drove in from the right wing and left an alley-oop pass for George, who put the ball back up for Wall, whose lefty finish went awry. Finally, they hit on their cleanest bit of teamwork — Ross driving down the lane before passing it off the glass for Wall, who caught it in the air and lofted a lead pass off the shot clock for George, who caught it, brought it all the way back with his right hand, and hammered it home.
There weren't any "oohs and aahs" moments, but the East dunkers seemed to get and work well within the confines of the new layout from just about the moment their 90-second clock started.
Things didn't start out so hot for the West.
Barnes opened with a behind-the-back pass to McLemore, who put it up off the backboard for Lillard, who missed his dunk, giving us no payoff for a half-speed three-man weave. Lillard trotted off to get a second ball, then drove in to throw a lob for Barnes, who finished with what amounted to a layup, before putting up another pass for McLemore, who couldn't handle it. Three attempts into the freestyle round, we were still without a Western Conference dunk.
Barnes got the West off the schneid with a nice enough two-hand double-pump windmill. McLemore followed with an off the bounce one-hand lefty hammer that we've seen him throw down before, but remains very rad. Barnes followed with a righty tomahawk; Lillard got on the board with an awesome nod to Oakland, throwing down an off-the-bounce East Bay Funk Dunk that introduced a bit of amplitude. After a couple more OK-but-not-great dunks from Barnes and McLemore, Lillard's off-the-bounce 360 looked cool but banged off the back rim, ending the West's freestyle round with a bang, but not the kind they'd hoped for. All three judges called the freestyle round for the East, who chose to go second in the head-to-head battles, which, to be honest, I am still not entirely sure how the pairings were chosen despite having read the rules a few times and watched the whole broadcast, I swear.
Lillard missed his first attempt at an off-the-bounce, all-the-way-around-and-down lefty 360, but got it on the second. Ross, for his part, had noted Raptors ambassador Drake precede him onto the court with the 2013 trophy as Ross trailed, wearing a boxer's robe, as Muhammad Ali's "The champ is here" refrain played intercut with Aubrey's "Started from the Bottom."
The multiplatinum-selling pop star's entrance got the Smoothie King crowd as hyped up as they'd been in the competition; the energy waned as Ross missed his first two attempts at racing in, leaping off one foot, pulling the ball off Drake's outstretched right hand, putting it through his legs with his left and throwing it down with his right. He got it on his third, though, and the finish was impressive enough to earn votes from 'Nique and Dr. J, eliminating Lillard and giving the East a 1-0 lead.
Next up: Barnes vs. George.
The less said about Barnes' attempt to complete he'd done in practice, but to do it after being hooked up to some sort of USB-enabled dongle that would enable the dunk to become downloadable content for "NBA 2K14," the better.
"That won't be downloaded," said TNT commentator Reggie Miller, throwing some high, hard shade.
George missed his first two attempts at throwing down a complicated-as-heck reverse-360-through-the-legs-finished-with-the-left-hand, but he got it on the third, and that was enough to get a clean sweep ("No words," said a very impressed Magic) and give the East a 2-0 lead.
And then, it was Wall vs. McLemore.
McLemore ... well, let's just let that be. Wall won, giving the East a 3-0 sweep of the "Battle Round," and ... that was it. We were all done with dunking. The winning team didn't move on to a head-to-head-to-head round, like what happened last year when the top scorer from both East and West advanced to a final. There was just no more dunking, and waiting for fans to finish voting for the "Dunker of the Night." It was Wall. That was it. Good night, everybody!
"I thought the format — I was a little nervous about it, but it was great," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. "One thing I would add: They should have one more round, and those three guys should go at it one time. One dunk. Set it off. That would be great."
"I have to agree with Kenny," Barkley followed. "I would've liked to see those three East guys go against each other, and not let the fans go off of one dunk, basically. That really wasn't fair. We don't know what those other guys had in store. I'm pretty sure if you asked them, they thought they were going to continue."
They didn't, though. And it was weird.
Just when the NBA dunk showcase, not contest, was getting good it ended. Disappointed fans can't leave arena fast enough. Whose idea at NBA?
— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) February 16, 2014
We don't know the answer to that, but it seems like a fair bet that by the time next year's dunk contest rolls around, we're going to see either another new format or (cross your fingers) a return to the plain-and-simple "let's have individual people do some dunks and see whose dunks are better" plan. This sort of sad-trombone finish seems unlikely to bring the biggest names into the fold or keep casual fans from changing the channel, which makes it seem like an awful lot of white noise and absence of fury that still signifies not a whole heck of a lot.
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