NEW YORK — Andrew Wiggins tried to warn us.
"You guys are in for a surprise," said a smiling Wiggins after being named the Most Valuable Player of Friday night's BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge. "Trust me — it's going to be crazy. I can't say nothing. Just know: I almost fainted. I never seen a dunk like that. I've never witnessed it live before in my life."
[Slideshow: Best photos from NBA All-Star Saturday night]
Even for those of us who have watched Zach LaVine's expansive collection of highlight-reel finishes, that seemed like an awful lot of hype for one Minnesota Timberwolves rookie to heap on another. Could the 19-year-old LaVine really bring it like that?
Sorry we asked.
"I just wanted to come out with a bang," LaVine said after the competition. "I tried to get 50 on every dunk [...] I wanted to show everybody what I got."
The Wolves rookie didn't quite make the latter happen — he finished with 194 out of a possible 200 points, with two perfect 50s, one 49 and one 45. He sure as hell checked off the former, though, winning the 2015 NBA Sprite Slam Dunk contest at Barclays Center on Saturday, eclipsing Brooklyn Nets big man Mason Plumlee and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo before besting Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo in the final round to take home the crown as the most electrifying performer of All-Star Saturday Night ... and, if we're being honest, in quite a number of years before Saturday night, too.
LaVine thrilled the Brooklyn crowd from his very first dunk in the opening round of competition, which was prefaced by a bit of pageantry.
In a promotional video clip aired by TNT prior to the competition, LaVine referenced his childhood love of the 1996 Michael Jordan/Looney Tunes animated comedy "Space Jam." That wasn't just chatter, as it turned out — LaVine was trailed to the court by the Quad City DJs, who performed their original theme song from "Space Jam" to set the tone for what would follow — LaVine tearing off his warmups to reveal a Michael Jordan "Tune Squad" jersey before throwing down an off-the-bounce, between-the-legs one-handed reverse:
LaVine's remarkable opening salvo came hot on the heels of an impressive debut by Oladipo, who began his evening by donning a top-hat and entering the court singing Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" before whipping out a 360-degree two-handed reverse that was just a tad more impressive than his Ol' Blue Eyes routine:
Both Oladipo and LaVine earned perfect scores of 50 from the New York-themed panel of judges — Bernard King, Nate "Tiny" Archibald, Chris Mullin, Walt "Clyde" Frazier and "Dr. J" Julius Erving — leaving behind Plumlee, who earned a 40 for putting down a two-handed reverse dunk after an off-the-side-of-the-backboard pass from fellow Duke Blue Devil and Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Kyrie Irving:
... and the 30 that Antetokounmpo received for his unsuccessful attempt to put down an off-the-bounce one-handed throwdown from very far away with his very long reach:
The dueling 50s let us know that Saturday's competition would most likely be a two-horse race. But with all due respect to Oladipo's second slam, for which he enlisted the aid of rookie teammate Elfrid Payton for an off-the-side-of-the-glass assist on his whirling 180-degree tomahawk, earning him a 39:
... LaVine left little doubt that this was his competition to lose with his second dunk, which saw him throw himself a lob from the 3-point arc, corral the carom with his left hand, pass the ball behind his back and drop the hammer with his right, eliciting oohs, aahs and stink faces all around en route to another 50, giving him a perfect opening round score of 100:
Both Plumlee and Antetokounmpo tried to nudge themselves back into the proceedings by bringing their brothers into the fold for their second dunks, with Mason dunking over 6-foot-10 big-brother Miles of the Phoenix Suns after his initial attempt came up empty, earning a 36:
... and Giannis taking a feed from brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who plays for the D-League's Westchester Knicks, before jackknifing down a two-handed reverse and (of course) pausing for a family selfie, which netted him a 35:
LaVine (100 out of 100) and Oladipo (89) moved onto the finals, but in the championship round, Oladipo seemed to either run out of gas, succumb to the pressure of matching LaVine's seemingly effortless acrobatics, or both. He missed on all three attempts of his first dunk in the finals, earning a 30 and putting him squarely behind the 8-ball.
LaVine opened the final round by briefly showing imperfection — after two flawless one-take finishes, he missed his first try! — before taking a running start before grabbing a handoff from teammate and fellow rookie Wiggins to go through his legs and finish with the left, his off-hand, with authority:
And after Oladipo failed to convert his preferred attempt at his fourth and final dunk — a one-handed windmill off the bounce — before eventually coming from behind the backboard with a windmill, LaVine capped his evening with a flourish, calling out another Minnesota teammate, fellow UCLA product Shabazz Muhammad, to set him up with a feed off the basket stanchion that he could catch with his right hand, put through his legs and punch through with his right:
The finish brought the Brooklyn faithful to their feet and confirmed LaVine as the first Timberwolf to win the Dunk Contest since Isaiah "J.R." Rider in 1994, and as the youngest champion since an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant — LaVine's favorite player growing up — took the crown in 1997.
"I'm still on cloud nine," a beaming LaVine told reporters after the win. "I feel like I'm dreaming. Seeing all the Dunk Contests and people hoisting the trophy — I just saw myself do it, and lived it. So it's a dream come true. I'm glad my family is here to witness it and go through it."
It was a command performance, perhaps a star-making turn, and coming as it did 15 years after the greatest Dunk Contest showing ever, it made more than one observer wonder whether Zach LaVine had resurrected the at-times moribund competition in the same way the rise of Vinsanity did back in 2000.
The comparison, while inevitable, understandably made the rookie a bit uncomfortable.
"I'm not — Vince Carter is above me," he said. "I don't want to get into that area right now. I'm still a rookie. Vince Carter, you know, is a future Hall of Famer."
On this night in Brooklyn, though, LaVine wasn't just a rookie — he was a soaring reminder of the reason why so many of us loved this silly little exhibition as kids, an undeniable signifier of how utterly arresting it can be to watch a human defy gravity with a seemingly unimaginable combination of grace and power. A Three-Point Shootout can be great — and this year's certainly was — but what the Dunk Contest can stir in us is different. Consider us stirred, and maybe even a little shaken, this Saturday night.
"Slam Dunk Contest is supposed to be the hype around All-Star Weekend," LaVine said. "That's what gets the crowds. I wanted to put a jolt through the crowd and get everybody off their feet, and just have a really good time."
I have a hard time believing that anyone on God's green Earth was more fully doing what he was built to do on Saturday night than Zach LaVine was at Barclays Center. The question now is whether we'll get to see him do it again next year in Toronto, where hometown hero Wiggins might be compelled to join in the fun.
"Hopefully," a cheery LaVine said when asked if he'd come back again next year. "I like dunking. I didn't bring them all out. [...] I'm going to be talking a lot of mess to him to try to join it. I'm looking forward to that."
OK, well, that's answered, which leaves us getting our Columbo on with just one more question: which of LaVine's four championship-winning throwdowns was the one that nearly made Wiggins faint?
"That's the funny thing," LaVine said with a smile. "I didn't do that one. I got some tricks in the bag still."
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