Archives For February 2011

More news and notes from STAPLES Center as we look ahead to tonight’s big game…

• Other than a potential meet-up in the Finals, the All-Star Game is the only time all season other than two regular season games when the Lakers and Celtics will share the same floor. Just because the game is an exhibition, though, doesn’t mean the rivalry takes a night off, too—at least not for Lakers fans, who vociferously booed Paul Pierce every time he touched the ball during last night’s three point shootout. Fellow shootout competitor and new all-time three-point record-holder Ray Allen got off a little easier, but there was still no mistaking the disdain in the building for the enemies in green. “I think that’s normal,” said Gasol after yesterday’s All-Star practice. “I think that’s the passion of the fans. We all know how they feel about the Celtics.”

• With All-Star regulars like Dirk, Yao, Pau, Manu, etc., the league’s showcase weekend also doubles as a testament to the NBA’s rapid international expansion. “It means a lot,” explained Gasol. “It means that international basketball has grown so much and it’s produced incredible players. To a certain point, the Dream Team of ’92 had a big effect on a lot of players from my generation who started to play there and are now playing in the NBA.”

• We all know Kobe has a flair for the dramatic and has historically performed well in previous All-Star games. Does that automatically make him the go-to option down the stretch of a close game on such a star-studded roster? Gasol chimed in with his two cents: “I’m sure if the game comes to the point where the West needs to hit a game-winner, I’m sure he’ll step up and take it for sure and he’ll be thrilled to do so. I mean, what better scenario than at STAPLES Center.” If his play on Team USA is any indicator, his teammates should and will look to Bryant in the clutch.

• Of the many ails that plagued the Lakers leading up to the All-Star break, Pau believes that a renewed sense of energy is all his team needs to get back on track in the second half of the season—and the (underrated) return of Matt Barnes. “I can’t wait to get back together with the team Monday and work on whatever things the coaching staff wants us to work on and get it going,” said Gasol. “We have a tough back-to-back starting right after the break, so I look forward to that to.” On the impact of Barnes re-joining the team: “We’ve just got to get Matt healthy so he can help us in the small forward position. We have pretty much the same championship team we had last year, so that should be plenty to go for another one.”

The fact that Blake Griffin was crowned dunk king 2011 is no surprise. Throwing down monstrous jams in front of hometown fans with viewers all over the world texting in votes to choose a winner almost ensured that he’d go home with the trophy.

But, while Griffin even had a miss that brought the house down, took the “elbow” dunk to the next level by throwing the ball off the glass before throwing his entire arm through the hoop, and pretty much ended the night jumping over a car and throwing down a two hander, I’m not sure if he had the best dunk of the evening.

Personally, I’m fond of both the dunks that DeMarr DeRozan pulled off, with his first dunk really standing out to me as he caught a lob off the stanchion and then went between his legs for the finish. His second dunk where he lobbed the ball to himself and then caught the ball one handed and cupped home a crazy finish was just as good.

Meanwhile, the other contestants were throwing down monsters too. Serge Ibaka took off from the free throw line with his first dunk of the night and got head high at the rim throwing down a second.

JaVale McGee spent most of the night testing the limits of what we thought was possible by first dunking two balls on two different baskets and then trying to top that by throwing down three balls all on the same hoop. His under the rim cradle dunk was one of the best I’ve seen in a while after actually seeing it in slow motion.

And maybe that’s the real lesson from the night. All four guys had an arsenal of dunks that had the crowd ooh-ing and ah-ing all evening. Any of the four guys could have advanced to the finals and I’m sure any of them could have won considering what they showed on the big stage. The fact that Griffin is now the champ shouldn’t take anything away from what the other guys put on display for us to see.

So, what was your favorite? McGee’s double rim hammer? Maybe his up and under cradle? Griffin’s off the side of the backboard finish? On of DeRozan’s? Ibaka’s tribute to Jordan and Dr. J?After thinking more about it, I’m actually having trouble choosing myself.

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If the last All-Star Game held in Los Angeles in 2004 feels like like a lifetime ago, Kobe’s All-Star Game debut in 1998 seems nearly pre-historic by now. Long before Kobe-to-Shaq, a Most Valuable Player Award and five NBA Championships, there was a precocious skinny kid who went toe-to-toe with an aging icon — Michael Jordan. Fourteen seasons and 13 All-Star nods later, it’s Kobe who’s playing the part of NBA legend.

Even as the years go on and the talent pool in the NBA continues to widen, it’s #24 who still drew the largest crowd during today’s post-practice media session. By no coincidence, he’s also the one player that his All-Star peers look to more than anyone else.

“I remember Kobe’s first one; he was squared up against Jordan,” said first-time All-Star Kevin Love. “He had the 360 and then Kobe won the dunk competition in ’97. I remember all that stuff.”

As one of the babies of this year’s group, you can forgive Love if he’s still processing the sheer amount of talent surrounding him this weekend.

“I was talking to those guys in the locker room before we came out here that this is my first time and they’ve been out here like 13, 14 times,” said Love. “It’s unbelievable.”

One of those players is fellow big man Pau Gasol, who’s still in the middle of his All-Star journey, somewhere between Love and his Lakers teammate, Bryant.

“Those are guys I try to emulate and loved watching growing up, so being here with them, I just try to pick apart their game and hopefully get a closer look at them tomorrow,” Love said.

Doling out advice to rising stars like Love at All-Star Weekend is two-fold for players like Kobe and Pau, giving them a chance to reflect on their own All-Star history, too.

“Obviously, it’s a great compliment that the young guys try to emulate you and do the things you do out there—especially young talented players who have the potential to be terrific players,” said Gasol, whose first All-Star appearance in 2006 was soured due to an illness that forced him to miss most of the weekend’s activities.

“I was in bed the whole weekend,” Gasol said. “I missed practice, I missed everything, but I had to play no matter what. But I played—I played 13 to 14 minutes and I got like 12 boards or something. I didn’t score one point, but I had a good time. I told myself I had to give myself another chance to actually get to enjoy another All-Star game.”

Five years the wiser, Pau’s given himself plenty of additional chances, making it to three consecutive All-Star games, while joining Bryant on the list of regular All-Star veterans — an achievement not lost on the seven-footer.

“It’s a big opportunity to have this great party—this great basketball party—here at home with the locals. It’s really an honor,” said Gasol.

For the Lakers duo, there’s nothing jaded about this weekend. Even after back-to-back NBA titles and whispers from Father Time, Kobe and Pau will approach tomorrow’s All-Star game with every bit as much fire and anticipation as Kevin Love.

“This one’s a little bit more special,” said Bryant. “For a player to have an All-Star game in his home town twice is pretty cool.”

Throngs of media. Players and coaches walking around like every day people. People whose work I read on a daily basis and the guys whose games I analyze essentially standing right next to you. Pretty surreal. But I’m here not to observe, but to jump into the deep end of the pool and see what nuggets can be passed along to all of you. A snapshot of my first day…

  • First of all, Tony Toni Tone lied, it actually does rain in Southern California. What started out as a cold, gusty day has now turned wet. Folks seem to be adjusting fine, if you define fine as hustling through the rain without an umbrella. Luckily, I came prepared.
  • The media sessions with the coaches and players from both the East and West teams provided some insight on what folks think about the current state of the Lakers. The prognosis is that they may be struggling but they still have everyone’s respect.
  • Greg Popovich called them the “best team in the West”.
  • Doc Rivers said that the spotlight still belongs on the Lakers and he tried to deflect any attention that his Celtics may garner and said that he’s “perfectly happy with (the Celtics) flying under the radar”. He also mentioned that the Heat deserve the attention that they’re getting, citing their big three and how bringing them together is something special.
  • Dirk also mentioned that his Mavs are flying a bit under the radar and seemed perfectly content with that. When asked the direct question about how he felt about catching the Spurs and if the West is more exciting with the Lakers “floundering” he replied “Yeah I think they’re stuggling a little bit. But after back to back championships and (playing) until July almost every year I think they’re going to be okay. I think they’re going to step it up after the break. To me, the Lakers are still the team to beat. They’re still the same team. They still have length.”
  • The person most confident about the Lakers though was none other than our own Kobe Bryant. He laughed off a question about whether the Lakers recent play was a downer on his All-Star experience and when asked if this was rock bottom, he said “sure, but that means there’s no where to go but up”. When asked a follow up stating that Jerry West mentioned that rock bottom is normally 8 or 9 consecutive losses, Kobe quipped that “3 losses in a row is like 9 in a row for this team”. When asked if he knew what was wrong with the team he simply said “yes”. He then followed that up by saying that he wouldn’t share what that was and that he sees it as entirely fixable, further saying that he has full confidence that the team will play better.
  • The most insightful part of Kobe’s media session came when he answered a question about if he worries that when this team tries to call on its experience and institutional knowledge that it won’t be there for them. He answered “Of course. That’s where the concern comes from. But that’s the challenge of playing the game. That’s what brings the excitement . It’s not knowing. Even when you’re rolling and you’re playing extremely well there’s still the unknown of saying well, this can slip from us in any game in the series. It cut’s both ways”. He then went on to say that the Lakers are a team that has a better chance than others of pulling it together to make a run and continued to put the focus on what’s most important is how a team is playing together at those crucial times.

It’s tough to gauge if guys like Dirk, Doc, and Coach Pop are just paying lip service to the Lakers as the current champ and putting them up on a pedestal or if they truly believe that L.A. is still the team to beat. It’s probably a bit of both as no one attempts to crown or elevate a new team until the current champion is knocked off. That said, I thought Kobe’s comments speak to what other players and coaches see in the Lakers as the challenge. L.A. still has #24 and the memory of what they’re capable of doing is still quite strong.

We’ll continue to have updates throughout the weekend. Stay tuned for more.