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What is up, guys? So, it’s been a minute – hopefully this look ahead to Game 5 of what promises to be yet another oddity (different flavor, at least)of a Laker season finds you in good health.

When we last crossed paths, overstating the disarray that surrounded the Lakers would have posed quite the challenge. Wrapping up a season defined by tumult – the passing of a patriarch, upheaval and uncertainty on the bench, devastating injuries, the Next Great Laker eyeing the exit seemingly on arrival and cupboard shockingly devoid of youth, athleticism and, frankly, NBA talent – with Kobe Bryant shelved indefinitely and without a trump card to pull from their perpetually stacked deck, Mitch Kupchak and Co were staffed with the task of assembling transitional roster (I’ve gotta get diplomatic immunity for that, right?), on the cheap, without hamstringing their ability to go shopping next summer.

While acknowledging the myriad challenge that lay before the Lakers’ front office – the aforementioned financial constraints, an ascendant contender down the hall (still owned by a racist slumlord – never forget) also equipped with the “hey, ____, wouldn’t be cool to live and play in L.A.?” sales pitch – what emerged from the summer’s personnel machinations read like an obituary for optimism:

Chris Kaman, huh?… Hey, apparently Jordan Farmar’s back – Ok… Xavier Henry… at least he was a lotto pick?… Wes Johnson?! Isn’t that just English for Nikoloz Tskitishvili?… NICK YOUNG?!?! Really? Swaggy @$%4%$ P?!?!

It was dark.

On the other hand…

Though I’m not one to vocally advocate for openly tanking a season, I’m not not one to vocally advocate for openly tanking a season. And hell, if you’re ever going do it, this is supposedly the year… And man, if you’re in, might as well only do it once, and be the freaking Lakers of tanking.

Yeah, about that…

One week ago, the NBA’s island of misfit toys, err, the Lakers, opened the season with a matchup against their noisy neighbors, under the watchful eyes of a triumphant legacy, a legacy that, well… the hell with it – Oh, Doc. Shrouding the achievements of Baylor, West, Magic and Kareem so that giant Jared Dudley can watch over your squad? C’mon man! That’s just sad. Just slap a Pacific Division banner and Loy Vaught’s #35 on one of the other walls and be done with it.

Whew! That felt good. Sorry. Where were we? Oh yeah…

Last Tuesday evening, the Lakers’ curious collection kicked off its season as a near-double-digit underdog against the Clippers – and frankly my specs were not sufficiently rosy to allow me to expect what was to come. Unencumbered by the expectations that typically accompany the arrival of November in Lakerland, behind an early spark provided by Pau Gasol and fueled spectacularly by the desire and tireless effort of the Gallows Humor All-Stars, the Lakers took the fight to L.A.’s presumed contender. Not only did the Lakers dominate the offensive glass (15 off the bench – 11 from Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman), attack the paint and unleash an awesome 3-point barrage en route to 76 bench points (!!; That’s like a week’s work for your average Laker bench!) and a 13-point win, the backdrop against which they did so made for one of the most enjoyable victories in recent memory. For the first time in a long time, a Lakers win brought with it exuberance, and not relief. The Lakers as plucky upstarts.

With all due respect to the individual and collective abilities of the men comprising the 2013-14 Lakers’ roster, in an unaltered state it’s difficult to examine this crew and – in the absence of heroism the likes of which we’ve never seen from a still-rehabbing Kobe – concoct a scenario in which the accomplishments of this squad outstrip those of its 2012-13 predecessor. What we do have, however, is a collection of largely useful basketball players, without long-term financial commitments, looking to revive an NBA career, pen a successful final chapter, audition for a supporting role with a contender, capitalize on an opportunity to justify lofty draft status, or some combination thereof. And Nick Young.

And the opportunity to watch these guys work like hell to reclaim, reroute and resuscitate their NBA careers. And Nick Young.

The first stanza of the Lakers’ 2013-14 season has run the gamut. The euphoric haze of the shocking dismissal of the Clippers dissipating in Oakland, as the Lakers were rolled, lit up by Klay Thompson. Two nights later they once again flirted with an upset, challenging the (admittedly Duncan-less) defending Western Conference champion Spurs before coming up just short. And on Sunday, clinging to victory against the Atlanta Hawks after surrendering a double-digit lead they’d held throughout the game.

78 to go. It’s time to settle in.

Two years into their own retool-not-rebuild amid the professional twilight of their own generational great, face of the franchise, the Dallas Mavericks’ attempts to find a running mate of comparable stature for Dirk Nowitzki – via the pursuits of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Dallas native Deron Williams – have anticlimactically yielded Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Sam Dalembert and DeJuan Blair. Tonight in Texas, the Lakers kick off what is certain to be a challenging three-game trip against the Mavs, with matchups against the Rockets and Pelicans looming Thursday and Friday, before returning home for six of their next seven games. And with Dallas looking at three road games of their own in the next four nights, starting in OKC tomorrow, they’ll surely muster their best shot for the Lakers.

Offensively, Dallas will present the Lakers with a range of challenges. Like the Lakers, the Mavs prefer to play at a breakneck pace (fourth in the NBA in pace; the Lakers rank first), but, through three games, have managed to do so far more effectively than the Lakers, ranking third in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency (111.3 points/ 100 possessions), and rank in the top 12 leaguewide in each of the “Offensive Four Factors”: eFG% (12th), Offensive Rebound Rate (11th),Turnover Rate (10th lowest) and FTA/FGA (3rd). The strong defensive effort from Wes Johnson will be huge here, as will the Lakers’ work on the offensive boards. (Note: Jordan Hill and his stellar 23.2% ORB Rate are banged up, but will be in action)

Not terribly surprisingly, however, a squad on which the Dirk/Monta/Calderon trio is logs roughly 100 minutes per night does not hang its hat on the defensive end of the floor, ranking 23rd in the NBA. Despite a similarly pedestrian ranking offensively (20th in the NBA), the Lakers must exploit the Mavs’ shortcomings at the defensive end – namely by getting to the line, as the Mavs’ .352 opponents’ FTA/FGA ratio ranks last in the NBA, and perhaps easing up a bit on the gas, and emphasizing lineups featuring both Pau and Chris Kaman, a handful to begin with, but potentially a nightmare for the Mavs with Brendan Wright out of action and Dalembert and Bernard James their only active bigs.

Beyond this as has been the case through the season’s first week (and likely will be going forward), the most vital components to a Laker victory will at the offensive end be energy, aggressiveness and outside shooting. In other words, Xavier Henry must build on the best week of his NBA life.

Enjoy the game everyone!

In the annals of NBA history, no franchise has more persistently, or more successfully, taken a Babe Ruthian approach to personnel decisions than the Lakers. Sure, Mikan, West, Baylor, Goodrich, Magic, Worthy, Cooper, A.C. Green and, for all intents and purposes, Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant, head a mind-blowing assembly of talent for whom every meaningful NBA moment has unfolded in Laker garb, but every era of Laker glory has hinged upon management’s ability to swing for the fences.

In 1968, with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West approaching their still-ringless twilights, the most dominant big man in NBA history was added to the mix. Three conference titles and Los Angeles’ first banner later, and the legendary trio having departed the Association, the Lakers’ brass once again took to the market and returned with, get this, the NBA’s most dominant big man. Despite kicking off with a few (by Lakers standards) lean years, it’s probably fair to state that Kareem’s tenure in forum blue and gold was a relative success. In the 90s, what ought to have been a smooth transition out of Showtime and into Magic Johnson’s twilight was preempted, when the HIV virus forced the GLoAT from the game. A few more “lean” years (the worst of times still saw the Lakers nearly become the first #8 seed to upset a #1, the selections of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones and a playoff series victory over Payton-Kemp Sonics), and…

Blah, blah, blah, most dominant big man of his (and perhaps all-) time, yeah, yeah.

ALL of that, and there is a case to be made that last summer’s (Seriously. How. The. Hell. has it not even been a year?) additions of Steve Nash and (at least at the time) the NBA’s most dominant big man represented the most euphoric offseason Lakerland has ever seen.

HOWEVAH…

Continue Reading…

In any field of endeavor, prodigious talent is idolized, achievement rewarded, lasting greatness immortalized. What then, of transcendent talent that achieves not only greatness, but actually furthers the evolution of the endeavor in which it is deployed?

Whatever his place in the Pantheon of basketball greats, that Earl Monroe is one of NBA history’s most important players is beyond question.

And when I had the opportunity to sit with Monroe at the SNY studio in midtown, where was promoting his fascinating, newly released  autobiography, “Earl the Pearl,” that is what most engrossed me. I didn’t care about 17,454 points, or four All-Star selections, or that he was a Hall of Famer. This guy truly matters in the history of the NBA. This man Changed. The. Game.

The modernization of the NBA game is, by its very definition, a collaborative effort. Bob Cousy married style and substance like no superstar before him. Monroe not only carried on the work of pro basketball’s original maestro, he infused it with a level of flair and artistry only just being refined in the game’s blacktop laboratories. The clinical trial for every Pete Maravich, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and White Chocolate that’s arrived since. Monroe delivered to the NBA the style and spirit of the playground like no one before. His signature back-and-forth, “windshield wiper” dribble – really an ancestor of the modern day crossover – that [insert legendary Olympic ice skater name here]-tight spin move, the change of pace dribble as a weapon, the double-pump, the pump fake… Earl Monroe redefined the way the backcourt game was played in the NBA.

I grew up on the playmaking stylings of Magic Johnson. It was difficult to avoid the sense that the game he was playing differed from that of his opponents. I’d venture that anyone who witnessed the early days of Earl Monroe’s NBA career had a similar experience.

By the time he was dubbed him “the Pearl” early in his senior season in college, Monroe had already picked up “Jesus” (how’s that for a nickname), “Black Magic” and “Thomas Edison,” for his on-court inventiveness. Not bad for a dude that didn’t take up basketball until his early teens.

In 1963, after starring at John Bartram High, he headed down the East coast, to Division II Winston-Salem State University. In four years under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Monroe grew into superstar befitting his playground monikers. After averaging 7.1 points per game as a freshman, he more than tripled his output, scoring 23.2 and grabbing seven rebounds per game as a sophomore, and continued ascent, dropping 29.8 points (on 56.3% from the floor and 86.6% from the line) and grabbing 6.7 boards per game as a junior. Already a star, Monroe’s senior season and cemented his place among the singular greats of the college game, as he averaged an awesome 41.5 points (on 60% shooting) and 6.8 rebounds per game, earned the 1967 Division II Player of the Year award (in addition to a second All America selection) and led Winston-Salem State to the NCAA’s Division II Championship.

In the summer of ‘67, the Baltimore Bullets used the second pick (behind Jalen Rose’s dad) in the NBA draft to acquire Monroe’s services. He proved an immediate revelation, averaging 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game en route to the 1967-68 Rookie of the Year award. One night during his rookie campaign – on February 13, 1968 to be precise – Monroe hung 56 on the Lakers. Sadly, a combined 79 from Jerry West and Elgin Baylor kept the Bullets from victory, but the explosion set a franchise record that stood for nearly four decades (it was broken by Gilbert Arenas in 2006), and remains the fourth highest single game total by a rookie in NBA history. Four times in the 48 years since has a rookie gone off for 50+ – not one has managed to wrest from Monroe his place on the all-time list, behind a pair of 58’s by Wilt in 1960 and 57 by Rick Barry in December 1965. Beyond permanently etching Monroe’s name in the annals of franchise and league history, on a personal level the outburst provided Monroe with indelible proof of his place in the game:

Coming into the league, I remember having seen all these guys play. And you have a certain amount of respect for these guys, and it’s especially exciting to actually play against them. And Jerry was one of those guys. When we used to talk about him we’d say that Jerry could stop on a dime and give you nine cents change (laughs), so it was exciting.”

An interesting thing about how our relationship began: we played Jerry at home, and during the game Jerry kept calling me ‘Ben,’ and I just said ‘ok,’ because I had no idea what he meant by that. But then I asked someone on the team and they said there’s a guy named Ben Monroe that played for New Mexico, and maybe he’s thinking you’re Ben Monroe. And he kept saying ‘good play, Ben’, ‘nice shot, Ben.’ And we lost the game to the Lakers, but I had 56 points, and he had 47. After the game, he came and he shook my hand and said ‘good game, Earl.’ So, that kind of let me know that I had made it into the NBA, that I had been welcomed into the NBA.”

The following season was individually Monroe’s best as a pro, as he averaged 25.8 points and 4.9 assists, while leading the Bullets (along with a rookie named Wes Unseld) to 57 wins – up 21 from his rookie year – and their first playoff berth in three seasons. Monroe continued to put up numbers, averaging 28.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4 assists in the playoffs, but shot just 38.6% as the Bullets were swept by the Knicks. The 1969-70 season mirrored its immediate predecessor, as the Bullets – led by Monroe’s 23.4 points and 4.9 assists per game – notched 50 regular season wins and once again crossed paths with the Knicks in the opening round. As they had the previous season, the Knicks proved too much for the Bullets, though an excellent showing from Monroe – 28 points and 4 assists per game, 48.1% FG, and a playoff career high 39 in Game 1 – pushed the eventual champs to a decisive seventh game.

As a team, the Monroe-era Bullets “peaked” in 1970-71, his last full season in Baltimore. Monroe’s scoring average dipped, to 21.4 points per game, and the team won eight fewer regular season games – though their 42-40 record was good enough to win an awe-inspiringly bad Central Division by six games. Upon landing in the postseason, however, the Bullets’ worm turned, as they outlasted the Hal Greer/Billy Cunningham-led 76ers and the now-familiar Knicks in seven games apiece to reach the NBA Finals, where they were dispatched in four games by Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson and the Bucks.

After the 1970–1971 season, amid a salary dispute with owner Abe Polin, Monroe’s agent informed the Bullets that his client would no longer play for the team, and that he wished to be traded to either the Lakers, Bulls or 76ers. In the opening days of the 1971–1972 season, with a deal yet to be made, Monroe traveled to Indianapolis to discuss a transfer to the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. The trip wound up serving as something of a wakeup call:

I had given the Bullets three teams that I wanted to be traded to: Philadelphia – which is where I was from – Chicago and L.A. I went out to Indiana to just see about maybe playing for the Pacers. And it was all well and good, great team, good organization. But after the game, I went to the locker room and over the top of their regular lockers there was a smaller locker, and guys were taking guns out of there. (Note: Monroe did not get into this with me, but in the book he mentions that the Pacers players brought to his attention, a certain threat). And I got really apprehensive. Back in those days we didn’t have cell phones, so I had to walk around the building to get to a pay phone, where I called my agent, Larry Fleischer, and told him, ‘Larry, I don’t think this is where I want to play!’

That’s when he informed me that ‘well, I’ve got a deal in place for you with New York.’ I thought he was kidding, because we had played against New York [in the playoffs] for the last three years, you know, like tooth and nail, they were hated, and I said ‘I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it.’ I went home and thought about it, talked to some friends, my mom, my sister, and what I came away with is that, I was always a scorer, so I had to think about that, but I could play anywhere, you know? I was a basketball player. I always prided myself on being from Philadelphia and really knowing how to play basketball. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do all the stuff I wanted to do as an individual, but I thought this would be another challenge.

Despite his wish list, the immediacy of the deal, along with his rapidly waning desire to join the Pacers, Monroe accepted the proposed trade to the New York Knicks. Understandably, there was initially some trepidation about joining not only a bitter rival – Monroe had faced the Knicks 45 times in his first four NBA seasons, 18 of those meetings in the playoffs, including seven-game battles in each of the last two postseasons – but one that featured an established core of veteran stars, including a dominant lead guard. With Walt “Clyde” Frazier in the driver’s seat, Monroe handled the ball less than ever. During the 1971-72 season, Monroe was hobbled by knees and ankle problems, which cut both his playing time (21.2 minutes per game) and scoring (11.9 points per game) nearly in half. However, the injuries that initially limited him in New York proved perhaps blessings in disguise, as Monroe was able to observe the team, learn its rhythm and acclimate to his new role and new mates – Clyde Frazier in particular:

They came in on my first day and welcomed me into the core. I’m sure Clyde had some apprehension, because here’s this guy who’s coming in to play the same position that he’s playing. But I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t stepping on any toes, because I was coming to his team, he wasn’t coming to my team, so I had to make the adjustments to make sure that this worked.

There wasn’t any real friction, it was just a matter of learning how to play with this new cadence. In Baltimore, I kinda judged everything through music, and I had my own cadence. When I came to New York, I had to adjust to Clyde’s cadence. And that was really the hard part, because when you have your own team, you know when to take over the game, you know when to give guys the ball, or different things that need to be done during the course of a game. Clyde had that here, and I needed to learn how to fit in with that.”

After playing a limited role in 1971-72’s near-title run, Monroe bounced back in 1972-73, playing nearly 32 minutes per game, regaining his efficiency (48.8% FG, v. 43.6% in 1971-72) and exhibiting his grasp of Clyde’s cadence en route to “Rolls Royce Backcourt” status and the 1973 NBA championship. By the end of the 1972-73 season Monroe had become a Madison Square Garden favorite. Although he averaged a relatively modest 15.5 points, his moves still dazzled, and he’d taken on added responsibilities as a perimeter defender. He routinely guarded the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, allowing Frazier more freedom to play the passing lanes.

The Knicks finished second in the Atlantic Division in ’72-‘73, setting the stage for another the Knicks-Bullets playoffs clash – only this time, Monroe was on an unfamiliar side. The Knicks made relatively short work of the Bullets, taking the series in five games, with Monroe averaging 21.8 per game, though it’s worth noting that he lit up his former mates to the tune of 27 per game in three victories at the Garden (including 32 – his career high as a Knick – in Game 2), while in Baltimore, he (not surprisingly) received a rather cool reception and (not coincidentally) managed just 27 points in two games. Monroe played a supporting role in the attack for the remainder of the postseason, as the Knicks topped the Boston Celtics, they of an NBA-best 68 game in the regular season, in six games, before toppling the defending champion Lakers in five to claimed the 1973 NBA title. Monroe eclipsed 20 points just three times in those final 11 games, but he played a vital role in helping the Knicks secure the crown, tallying 21 points in a Game 3 victory and a team-high 23 in the Game 5 clincher.

When they [the Lakers] won the championship in 1972, that was disheartening – that was very, very disheartening – but at the same time we felt as though we could come back and compete. We got the opportunity in ’73 to come back, and they had a great team, with Wilt and Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillan, actually I think Pat Riley was on that team, though he didn’t play much, Keith Erickson, Bill Bridges… they had a real formidable team and we knew that it would hard to beat them, but we felt confident after the first year because we really felt as though we should have played much better. And we won it in five games. It was a reversal of the way it had happened the year before. I think we won the first game and lost the next four, if I’m not mistaken (he’s not), and then in ’73 we lost the first game and won the next four.”

During the mid-1970s, Monroe continued to produce. He averaged 20.9 points per game in 1974-75, 20.7 in 1975-76, and 19.9 in 1976-77, and was twice named an All-Star. The Knicks, however, had seen their best days, and by 1979 were failing to qualify for the playoffs. Slowed by a series of serious knee injuries, which had plagued him throughout his career, Monroe retired in 1980, after 13 years in the NBA.

HOWEVAH…

The final chapter of Monroe’s career just happened to coincide with the arrival of another charismatic young playmaker, one who, like Monroe, was not blindingly fast or great leaper. As Magic Johnson prepared to take the NBA by storm, Monroe – now no longer commanding a star’s minutes – was seen as a potential mentor to the young superstar, and nearly a decade after first making eyes at the West coast, nearly wound up in forum blue and gold:

“It was my last year here in ’79-’80, and a guy from Philadelphia that played for the Lakers at one point and was working for them was a guy by the name of Walt Hazzard, and Hazz came into the locker room – we had played them here first – and he pulled me aside and told me ‘you know, we’re thinking about trying to trade for you, so that you can be like a caddy for Magic. Would you be amenable to that?’ At that point I wasn’t playing too much here in New York, and I thought about it and figured ‘Yeah!’, it would be a great way to leave the game, out there in Los Angeles. Later, when we played them in L.A. – I think it was January or February – he came back to me and asked me the same thing – ‘are you still ready to do that?’ – so I’m thinking it’s all ready to go down (laughs), and eventually, from what I understand, Jerry West put a word in and it wasn’t done. But that’s just speculation. I would have loved to go out there – Magic played pretty much the same type of game that I had, with the razzle-dazzle and no-look passes and what not…”

Asked if he ever asked Jerry West about that:

“No. Because I’m not sure that he did that, and even at that, for the most part Jerry’s a great guy, and we have a lot of respect for each other.”

In my final minutes with Mr. Monroe, having already spoken about the Lakers’ legends of the ’60, ‘70s and ‘80s, I had to get his thoughts on the latest Laker legend, and fellow Philly guy, Kobe Bryant:

“I’ve watched his career for a long, long time, since he got into the league, specifically because I played with his father, Jelly Bean, Joe Bryant. So, I’ve seen his game change and I’ve seen his attitude change, and the fact that he worked so hard to get to where he is, when you think about guys coming out of high school, some of those get the opportunity to play early on – he didn’t get that opportunity. He worked at it, and I was very impressed with that. And once he started playing, he set a new standard for how to play the game. I mean, when you think about Michael Jordan, you also have to think about Kobe Bryant.

And this year – I said it before the season (chuckles) ‘Kobe’s gonna have a bad back by the end of the season if he’s going to try and carry this team.’ But, to his credit, he willed them into the playoffs. There was so much controversy this season, with Howard coming in, he changed his game for a little bit of the season, he shot less, and then, later on, picked it back up when they needed it. So, you know, he’s one of my all-time guys, and I’m happy to know him, and to know that he’s from Philadelphia.”

Sincere thanks to Earl Monroe for his generosity, with both his time and his memories.

Sunday night marked the arrival of a new, long-term houseguest in Lakerland – the ghost of roster future.

In the absence of Kobe Bryant – a scenario initially not expected to come to fruition for handful of years – all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to recapture his MVP form of years past and anchor the team at the both ends of the floor. In short, after having the luxury to allow Howard to acclimate to his new surroundings and battle back from injuries at his own pace, the Lakers now need their franchise center to act the part. Sunday night marked Howard’s first game as the team’s long-term anchor, and Dwight delivered, devastating the Spurs to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds (6 offensive) and three blocks (plus a dubious goaltending call on a Tim Duncan hook I the lane), flashing his once-unrivaled speed and power in the post, and truly dominating on the glass. The result from a team perspective was no less encouraging, as the Lakers, in the maiden voyage without their superstar and leader, took a major step in sealing the postseason berth has at times seemed so elusive, with a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

However, Dwight was not alone in elevating his game in Kobe’s absence. Steve Blake turned in crowning performance as a Laker, connecting on four of eight 3-point attempts en route to 23 points, to which he added five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Providing a much-needed spark off of the bench was Antawn Jamison, who kicked in 15 points, burying three of five 3-pointers himself, and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes of burn. Lending additional support were Jodie Meeks, who despite hitting just three of 11 shots, hit a massive pair of 4th quarter 3-pointers, as well as Pau Gasol, who simply could not get a thing to drop. However, despite a putrid 3-for-17 showing from the field, Pau left a positive mark on the game with 16 rebounds (5 offensive) and three blocked shots of his own.

It must be said that the Spurs were far from their best on Sunday night, with just two (Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner) of 10 players that took the floor making at least half of their shots. Duncan, though outquicked by Dwight in the early going and unable to keep him off of the glass, played a fantastic game, scoring 23 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including a pair of thunderous throwdowns in the second half), grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out four assists and swatting three shots. Of historical significance, with his final bucket of the night, the greatest power forward the league has ever seen ran his career tally to 23,759, good for 22nd on the NBA’s all-time list, two points ahead of the previous holder of that distinction, Charles Barkley. Unfortunately for Duncan, who, like pre-injury Kobe, is more than a decade and half in and still playing some of the best ball of his career (24.4 PER, 21.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and career-best defensive rebound and block rates), he received little support from his normally reliable running mates.

Chief among the struggling Spurs were Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor (1-for-10 for Parker, 1-for-5 for Leonard) and combined for just 12 points, though it worth noting that the duo combined for 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Also, despite managing a double-double of his own (11 and 10), Tiago Splitter missed eight of the 13 shots he attempted, more than a couple of which were seemingly easy layups. Danny Green managed an identical 5-for-13 from the field, hitting just two of seven 3-point attempts, while Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair managed just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect two of the Spurs’ top three starters to shoot worse than 15% from the field while one of their starting bigs blows numerous chances at the rim, but a fair amount of credit is owed to the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, who challenged the Spurs’ on their 3-point attempts, forced an inordinate number of long 2-point jump shots and, in perhaps the greatest testament to their performance, held the Spurs to a single unsuccessful corner 3-point attempt.

That the sustainability of some of the offensive efforts can be called into question, and the Spurs did little to help themselves in a game that was certainly winnable are true, but tonight, wholly irrelevant. With the playoffs in the balance, in the absence of their emotional talisman and offensive catalyst, the Lakers put forth excellent effort at both ends, and ultimately had enough to gut out a massive victory against an elite Spurs team playing for its own playoff positioning, setting the stage for a win-and-you’re-in showdown with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night at Staples.

 

Halfway (well, 65.8%, but who’s counting) through its annual marathon, the NBA bestows upon its rank-and-file (players, coaches, hell, fans) a much-needed four-day respite from the mental and physical grind of 82 in ~175. In 2013, nowhere is this midseason oasis more welcome than in Lakerland, where, in depressingly short order, euphoria and stratospheric expectations have devolved into the most disappointing campaign in franchise history, a nightly nut-punch mad lib on the floor outdone only by incessant upheaval behind closed doors.

On a far brighter note, the NBA convenes this weekend in Houston, to celebrate its present and future, flaunt its athletic wares and, presumably, provide tuition assistance to certain ilk of “law student.” Last night, behind 40, on an unreal-even-against-All-Star-D 18-for-22 from the field, and 10 rebounds by the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried and 20 apiece from Cavs and Spurs sophs Tristan Thompson and Kawhi Leonard (who also had 10 and 7 rebounds, respectively), Team Chuck laid the wood to Team Shaq in a still-entertaining Rising Stars Challenge. This evening, the All Star festivities shift into top gear, with the always-meh Shooting Stars, underrated (seriously, I love it) Skills Challenge and All Star Saturday mainstays, the 3-point and slam dunk contests.

Though likely for the best, given the manner in which the pas three months have unfolded, conspicuously absent from tonight’s proceedings will be the Los Angeles Lakers.  Not here! Infusing your day with memories of brighter days, a look back at the Lakers on All Star Saturdays past:

1984 Slam Dunk Contest

Three decades ago, the NBA lifted a(nother) page from the ABA playbook with a revival of the slam dunk contest. Fittingly, the event (re)debuted in the Rockies, where eight years earlier, at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, a Spurs’ greats George Gervin and Larry Kenon, Kentucky Colonel Artis Gilmore, Denver’s own David Thompson and then-New York Net Julius Erving. The Doctor returned to headline the nine-man field, which included the preeminent perimeter defender of his (and maybe all) time and author of many a Coop-a-Loop, Michael Cooper. Suffice it to say, the Lakers’ inaugural All-Star Saturday performance was less than auspicious:

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Though still immortalized:

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1987 3-Point Contest

Three years after the slam dunk dud of ’84, Coop was back at All-Star Saturday, this time to take part in the second annual Larry Bird Invitational, err, 3-Point Contest. Accompanying Cooper to Seattle for the festivities was fellow sharpshooter Byron Scott. In a star-studded eight-man field featuring a who’s who of the game’s great shooters – and Danny Ainge (some grudges die hard) – Scott stumbled, while Cooper more than held his own, outscoring Bird, Dale Ellis and future three-time contest champ Craig Hodges in Round 1, before exiting in the Semifinals, the third place finisher.

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1988 3-Point Contest

This time flying solo, Byron Scott returned to the 3-Point Contest the following year in Chicago. Scott rather emphatically avenged the previous year’s last place finish with a first round performance that paced a similarly power-packed field. Not surprisingly, as the stakes ratcheted up, so did Larry Bird’s performance. Though light years behind Bird, Scott and Dale Ellis engaged in battle for the second spot in the final round, with Ellis advancing by the narrowest of margins.

Is it wrong that this burns me up as much as any Lakers-Celtics battle of which we were deprived?

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1994 Rookie Game

In a stirring homage to Michael Cooper’s showing the inaugural NBA slam dunk contest a year earlier, in the first-ever (at the time) Rookie Game, Nick Van Exel, in 20 minutes of burn, handed out six assists but turned in a rather impressive goose egg, whiffing on all eight of his shots (have you seen the defense in these things?!?), including three 3-point attempts. Oof. Let’s move on.

1995 Rookie Game

The Lakers’ first-ever lottery pick, the unheralded Eddie Jones (selected #10 overall in the 1994 draft) had quickly established himself as not only one of the league’s best young players, he’d almost immediately etched his name in the NBA’s top tier of perimeter defenders. This NBA ready defense, along with his stellar athleticism in slashing to the bucket earned him an invite to the second annual Rookie Game, where, sharing the floor with the top two picks in the draft, Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd (Grant Hill had been voted into the big-boy game), Eddie stole the show, racking up 25 (including 4-of-8 on 3-pointers), six swipes, and handing out four assists en route to the game’s MVP award.

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(I’d planned to include a highlight video of this game, but sadly was only able to find the full telecast, chopped into 20-minute clips. You can find those here.)

1995 Slam Dunk Contest

In the first round of the 1995 Slam Dunk Contest, Antonio Harvey almost set the desert ablaze, but instead became the Andy Reid of All-Star Saturday.

1997 Rookie Game

Far be it for me to gloss over an excellent performance by Young Bean – a then-record 31 points, plus eight rebounds (seven turnovers, though) – but quickly run through this game and you’ll find quite a bit going on.

1997 Slam Dunk Contest

Later that night, Bean returned to floor as the second Laker ever to take part in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest. With the contest on the ropes (it would actually be shelved the following year), the league had implemented the latest of what ultimately became a comedic laundry list of gimmicks, allowing each competitor 90 seconds in Round 1 to do with as he pleased, with the best of two dunks making up his final round score. Sadly, this resulted in our being limited to a scant three dunks by Kobe in his lone appearance in the contest. As one would expect, however, Kobe made good, delivering as emphatic and technically perfect a one-hand reverse as you’ll ever see for an opening salvo. By the way, the whole “keep the warmups on” bit looks a lot cooler when it’s Kobe instead of Brent Barry.

After edging out now-assistant coach Darvin Ham (perhaps owing to a bit of judging generosity, but whatever), Kobe set the house ablaze with a thunderous between-the-legs number – remember, this is before Vince Carter and Jason Richardson made a mockery of the skill – which earned him 49 points and dunking supremacy

(Bonus points for aggressively flexing with the sub-Durant physique and openly cheering Michael Finley’s last miss)

2004 Skills Challenge

Ok, who had Open Court Legend placing second in a competition that rewards speed, quickness, agility and outside shooting?

Seriously, I remember guffawing upon discovering Fisher’s inclusion in this field (in large part, probably, because the Lakers were that year’s host, but still), and simply hoped he could out-duel Earl Boykins and avoid last place. Taking out Boykins, Stephon Marbury (when this was still an impressive thing) and making prime-Baron Davis work in final?

Well played, Fish.

2007 Rising Stars

Really not a lot to say here. 12 points for Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum with 7 points and 4 boards in 18 minutes.

2007 Skills Challenge

Anyone else kinda totally forget that this happened?

With the notable exceptions of the Malice at the Palace and the 1984 Draft Lottery, I’m not sure there’s an event the NBA’s worked harder to bury in history than 2007’s All-Star Weekend in Vegas. Without going into detail, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly public relations coup for the league.

That said, it was there that one of the most stealthily cool competitions in ASW history took place. It’s over in a flash (pun possibly intended), and it’d have been awesome if Kobe hadn’t flubbed the opportunity to make a run at Wade’s final time, but simply having Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul – and no one else – in a test of basketball fundamentals is pretty awesome.

2008 Rising Stars

A year after posting a solid, if unspectacular 12 points as a rookie, Jordan Farmar returned to All Star Weekend as an NBA soph, and quietly turned in a stellar playmaking performance. In a game whose narrative was dominated by Kevin Durant (23 and 8), Rudy Gay (22 on just 12 shots), Brandon Roy (17 and 7 assists), LaMarcus Aldridge (18 and 9 rebounds) and MVP Boobie Gibson (33 on 11 threes), Farmar played a central role, feeding (among others) Gibson to the tune of 12 assists, scored 17 points on 10 shots, ripped four steals, and made the play of the game (#8 below).

It might even have been recognized as such had that lob found, say, Kevin Durant instead of Ronnie Brewer.

2010 Slam Dunk Contest

They Let Shannon Dunk. It… was.

Enjoy the festivities everyone – no Laker losses tonight!