Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Best All-Star Game in Sports

I enjoyed Sunday's NBA All-Star Game. Seems like there's a fair amount of hand-wringing by folks wondering what can be done to make the players play harder. My first reaction is: Geez, it's an All-Star Game, for Jesus Shuttlesworth's sake. It's not going to be playoff intensity in any sport, it's just meant to be, you know, fun.

I really just ask for a good show for the first 40 minutes, and then hopefully it's close and we can get 8 or so good minutes of first-rate basketball.

I thought that that's about what we got. As much as the "entertainment" aspects of the NBA All-Star Game have veered toward ridiculous excess in the past few years, I really enjoyed the player intros with Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth Brass Band setting a festive Nawlins tone.

Then I settled in and watched as I usually do: followed the opening minutes to catch the starters and see which star of stars might be setting the tone for the ballgame (it was D-12 and LBJ early). Then, as we got into the second and third quarters, my attention started to drift and I was reading a little, still keeping one eye on the game and certainly listening to hear if Marvelous Marv alerted me to a highlight-worthy play.

Then we got the thing that makes it all worth it: a contested ballgame in the fourth quarter. First you had Amare's ferocious dunking display bringing the West back, along with youngster Roy doing the little things and youngster Paul doing everything.

Then you had Walter Ray Allen splashing 3s from everywhere, hitting three in a row, each of which put his team back in the lead. Then you had this:

And don't forget D-Wade coming up with a huge block on Dirk's subsequent three attempt.

I mean, maybe my expectations are low, but that's all I really needed from my all-star game: lots of highlight-reel material in the first three quarters, followed by one quarter of genuinely high-quality basketball, punctuated by a spectacular playoff-worthy crunch-time dunk in traffic that drew an exclamation from me on my couch.

To me, that's what makes the NBA All-Star Game easily the best all-star game in sports. I'm an NFL fan, but I don't know how people can sit through the Pro Bowl (though god bless em, they drew higher TV ratings than the NBA Finals; it is unquestionably the NFL's world - or country, at least).

And I think the disadvantage that baseball's midsummer classic has is that, by the time close games are on the line in the late innings, the superstars of the game have long since hit the showers, and the second- and third-tier All-Stars are the ones on stage.

That's what I love about our game: when it comes down to the wire, it's an alpha dog v. alpha dog battle among the best in the game, and we get to see who steps up. Sure we get some duds sometimes, like last year's blowout in Vegas, but often we get a nice battle down the stretch, like yesterday, and sometimes we get a classic, such as when Iverson, Marbury and Dikembe led the East back from a huge 4th-quarter deficit in 2001, in what was the most ferociously contested All-Star Game in any sport since Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse.

Other random ASG thoughts:
• Speaking of alpha dog v alpha dog battles - man, how badly did Dirk Nowitzki shrink from the occasion on Sunday??? With the game tied at 125 in the last minute or so, he had a terrible TO followed by the LeBron posterization and then D-Wade snuffed out his three attempt in embarrassing fashion. Following an airball three earlier in the quarter. Just an All-Star Game, I suppose, but that surely was an ugly display when the competition heated up.

Weird lineup, too, in that Byron only made one substitution - Duncan for Boozer - in the entire fourth quarter. Otherwise, Paul, Roy, Dirk and Amare went the whole way.

• I've seen several calls to switch to a U.S. vs World format, and while I grant that the novelty might increase the competition level for a year or two, I just can't support it for this reason: out of the 26 All-Stars this year, only 3 came from outside the U.S. (4 if you count Tim Duncan, and I guess maybe 5 b/c Manu should have been there too).

It would cheapen the accomplishment of being an NBA All-Star - an achievement which defines careers - for some, and be wildly unfair to those are snubbed simply due to geography. When at least half the NBA All-Stars are consistently from outside the U.S., we can talk. Until then, may we suggest actually watching international competition in the summer?

• Man oh man oh man, do I love watching Chris Paul more and more each time I see him. The guy was the clear catalyst for the West in the fourth. In my mind, he has become the best point guard in the NBA because of how he gets it done on both ends of the floor so thoroughly.

But speaking of international play, I think it'll be interesting to see who gets the prime minutes for Team USA at the Olympics this summer. One of my lasting memories of the 2006 loss to Greece is of Paul repeatedly getting picked off while Coach K checked his program to try to figure out which Greek player was which. The addition of Kidd at point guard was widely considered to be a main reason Team USA was perceived to be much better in 2007. But Paul is clearly a better player right now, isn't he? Will be interesting to see if Kidd's experience is ultimately more valuable than Paul's complete skill set. I foresee a lot of zones coming if it's J-Kidd up top.

• Bill Simmons made this point in his All-Star Weekend wrapup:
    As one NBA higher-up whispered to me last weekend, "People still think we have an image problem, I just don't get it. Do they even watch us? Do they see the caliber of the guys we have now?"

    That's the issue gnawing at everyone working for the league right now. The NFL has considerably more thugs, Major League Baseball has a steroids scandal that basically has tainted the past 15 years of games, yet somehow the NBA is still perceived as the league with an image problem?
What I would add is that I'm still surprised that there's so much sentiment that college basketball is better than the pros, such as this post on the Sporting Blog that the Duke-Wake Forest game was "approximately 1,000 times more entertaining than what was going on in NOLA."

I mean, the featured clip shows a hell of a finish on an alley-oop by L.D. Williams. It's not Amare dunking on Dwight Howard's head or LeBron in traffic at crunch time, but it's damn good. And I didn't see this particular game, so I guess can't really comment specifically.

But I will say that I'm still angry that I recorded the Duke-North Carolina game two weeks ago instead of Hornets-Suns, when they were playing at the same time. I have been watching and enjoying Duke-Carolina games for probably 25 years now and I have to say that this year's matchup was absolutely the worst one in terms of sheer talent level that I've ever seen. Horrendous decision-making on both ends, too (though NC was hampered in this regard with PG Ty Lawson out due to injury). Took me about a week to slog through it on the DVR.

Meanwhile, the Hornets beat the Suns 132-130 in 2OT with Paul going for 42 and 9 and Nash going for 32 and 12. That's one of the beauties of the League right now: so much great point-guard play, especially out in the West. And one of my many problems with contemporary college basketball: so much disorganized offense, with so many teams unaware of who should be getting the ball when and where.

Basketball Gods, I vow to never again forsake a Chris Paul vs. Steve Nash matchup to watch a bunch of no-talent Dookies hoist up a bunch of 20-foot threes. Please forgive.

• A friend of mine was in NOLA this weekend and toured the Lower Ninth Ward a little bit. A random fact of life is that the only noticeable rebuilding seems to be due to one of two sources: Habitat for Humanity or Brad Pitt. Which jibes with the Inside the NBA segment where Charles went out into the neighborhood, and residents were praising Mr. Pitt for his work.

As much as that reflects well on Pitt, it also seems to spotlight how completely feckless government has been on all levels, in that with all the resources at their disposal, they've been less effective in rebuilding than a single movie star. I'd highly recommend Dan Baum's story "The Lost Year", from the New Yorker in Aug. 2006 for a chronicle of how the powers that be shamefully seemed to block rebuilding efforts more than encourage them in the first post-Katrina year.

• Finally, just enjoy the Top 10 plays of the game:


At 9:28 AM, Blogger kellydwyer said...

I can't get behind the 2001 version being better than this one. It had a good 4th quarter, but that was it.

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honestly, I'd like to see a Young Guns vs. Veterans matchup instead of East/West or USA/World... It would be a great way to pay tribute to the past and the older players (i.e. Shaq probably would've gotten in and we could've enjoyed his presence there) while showcasing the league's young talent. Something like 7+ years in the leage on one side and less on the other? I dunno, but I think it would also make the game more competitive because of the inherent "we'll show you who's old/young" in these kinds of matchups. A team of Iverson, Kobe, KG, Duncan, and Ray Allen against Dwight, LeBron, Wade, Melo, CP3... there's lots of good possibilities there.

Just a thought.. I actually got the idea from watching the East practice on Saturday morning -- Doc Rivers split them up into groups of 8+ in the league and the younger guys and had them do different drills.

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Start rant ...

I've had it up to here with people claiming college ball's superiority over pro just because a bunch of 18-22 year old kids jump up and down in place for two hours, the players play "hard" and play defense (bullshit ... dropping three guys around a dominant post player isn't playing defense...)and some play-by-play shouts hosannahs instead of actually analyzing the game.

Not only are such arguments tiresome, they're wrong.
... end rant

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow - that was a comprehensive post about the All-Star weekend. I'm new enough to BBall to love every bit of it; can't get enough of these flying men.

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