All-Star 2016

Zach LaVine wins Slam Dunk Contest in incredible dunk-off with Aaron Gordon

The continued growth in popularity and star power of the NBA’s 3-Point Shootout continued to put pressure on the incumbent headlining act of NBA All-Star Weekend at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Saturday. For the second year in a row, Golden State Warriors teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson went toe-to-toe in an incredible finals showdown, with Thompson coming out ahead this time around, tying Curry’s single-round points record in the process. It was awesome.

But the supposed demise of the Dunk Contest has always been grossly overstated, and as Thompson and J.J. Redick warned this weekend, there’s one major factor standing in the way of the 3-Point Shootout taking over marquee status: Zach LaVine.

Zach LaVine. Zach LaVine. And my shammgod, Zach LaVine.

Said differently: Aaron Gordon. Aaron Gordon. And for the sake of all that is holy, Aaron Gordon.

Coming off the greatest individual dunk contest performance since Vince Carter, LaVine set out to defend his title in Carter’s former home. He’d have to do so against an exciting challenger group of Aaron Gordon, Andre Drummond, and Will Barton. It’s not the list of superstars that some call for, but it’s a field of four incredibly springy and diverse young dunkers, including, again, the single greatest dunk-contest dunker of the last 15 years. At least one of those challengers was up for the challenge of unseating LaVine and, failing that, providing him the foe all heroes need to truly be great.

The contest was judged by George Gervin, Dikembe Mutombo, Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O’Neal, and Magic Johnson, judges who have seen a great numbers of dunks in their collective time. So when they give out high grades, well, it probably doesn’t mean much in relative terms, but damned if these dunkers didn’t put on one hell of a show for a lively, energetic, and raucous ACC crowd.

And again: Zach LaVine. Oh…and Aaron Gordon.

“To a lot of people, I’m a mystery man. But they don’t call me Will the Thrill for nothing,” Barton warned in a video package. Barton opened with a between-the-legs reverse, executed with nearly perfect form for a 44. It was a modest start, but he probably deserved a better score, and his face said as much afterward.

“A lot of the guards can do fancy tricks, but little do they know, I’m capable of doing the same things,” Drummond foreshadowed, while also noting he’d bring the renowed Detroit power to the proceedings. After entering to the sounds of Eminem, Drummond missed a pair of baseline self-alley-oop between the legs reverses. He needed to hit a safe dunk, coming baseline with a self-aleey-oop pump reverse with a one-handed finish for a 36.

“I have a lot of creativity. I have a lot of bounce. And things people have never seen before,” Gordon teased, then came out in a suit with a cane, which is that, I suppose. He tore it off and then went between the legs on a reverse with his head in the mesh on his first attempt for a 45. It was clean but perhaps too similar to Barton’s to really resonate, but the crisp, fluid delivery earned him a higher grade.

“I feel like I can top myself. I saved a little bit for this reason,” LaVine issued as a self-challenge, entering to “Back to Back” and giving Drake love, knowing how to play a crowd. He then threw a self-alley-oop behind-the-back reverse on the first try for a perfect score of 50, the third of his young dunking career.

Drummond led off the second set after posting the lowest first-dunk score. He brought Steve Nash out to do some footy dribbling, but Nash couldn’t manage to throw him a rainbow pass for an alley-oop. Nash then kicked him an alley-oop but Drummond missed the jam. All’s well that ends well, though, as Nash finally threw a perfect rainbow pass into a Drummond two-handed windmill for a 39.

Looking to fight off elimination, Barton responded with a high-arching self-alley-oop into a 360 windmill on the catch at the rim. He missed his first two attempts, giving him one last shot to finish. He threw another high-arcing self-pass but missed a pretty standard one-handed dunk, which the judges gave a pity 30.

Gordon enlisted the help of the Orlando Magic mascot, Stuff the Magic Dragon, who stood on a hoverboard and held the ball above his head. Gordon leapt over him, grabbed the ball, and went between the legs. It took two tries but goodness, did that ever deserve the 49 it received.

The Professor Andre Miller came out for LaVine’s second dunk, looking every bit an old man. He threw LaVine an alley-oop as LaVine tried to take off from the free-throw line for a one-handed slam. He hit it on the second attempt, taking off from half a footprint inside the line, a ridiculous leap for an alley-oop with a flush finish. Damn, dude. He got a 49, by the way.

Round One
Will Barton – Between-the-legs reverse (44), three misses (30)
Andre Drummond – Self-alley-oop pump reverse (36), Nash rainbow-oop windmill (39)
Aaron Gordon – Between-the-legs reverse (45), between-the-legs over Stuff (49)
Zach LaVine – Self-alley-oop behind-the-back reverse (50), free-throw alley-oop (49)

The final most anticipated started off with the challenger, Gordon, who once again asked Stuff for a hand. With Stuff spinning in circles on a hoverboard, Gordon timed his run perfectly, taking the ball out of his hands for a hand-behind-the-head 360. He got a 50 and GOOD GOD IS IT LIT.

LaVine answered promptly, throwing a self-alley-oop and throwing down a one-handed 360 windmill for a 50 of his own.

No pressure, Gordon and Stuff. Stuff held the ball out, and Gordon leapt over him, putting the ball under BOTH LEGS AT ONCE

Finally put with his back to the wall, LaVine took off from the free-throw line for a WINDMILL. He got a 50, giving us all one more dunk each. We’re all truly blessed.

Gordon called on Elfrid Payton next, who threw a perfect pass off the side of the backboard into a Gordon windmill reverse. I mean…what? 50, again.

LaVine answered by coming from the baseline with a self-pass into a between-the-legs reverse. It was flawless. It got a 50. Let’s keep going forever.

So back to Gordon, who slowed the pace and thought about his next move. He opted for a huge deep-pump reverse with his head at the rim. It “only” got a 47, giving LaVine an opening.

He used it to get between the legs from as far as humanly possible, hardly a foot inside the free-throw line. Another 50, and another Dunk Contest title for LaVine.

Aaron Gordon – Hand-behind-the-head 360 from Stuff (50), under both legs (50), side-backboard windmill reverse (50), deep-pump reverse (47)
Zach LaVine – One-handed alley-oop 360 windmill (50), free-throw windmill (50), baseline between-the-legs reverse (50), near free-throw line between-the-legs (50)

So LaVine wins and retains, but he grabbed the mic immediately after and suggested they share the trophy, saying the crowd just witnessed history. Umm, yeah. Gordon had the night’s best dunk with the under-both-legs, a completely original offering he nailed perfectly, and it still wasn’t enough, somehow. The depth of LaVine’s arsenal, the fluidity, the power, the leaping, it’s all magical.

And really, we all won. It’s the first time in Dunk Contest history there have been four consecutive dunks scored as 50s, and we got six instead. Gordon and LaVine were nearly perfect, trading 50s and truly making history, putting together the best Dunk Contest since at least 2000 and perhaps ever.

Prior to Saturday, only three dunkers had ever scored five 50s in their dunk careers. LaVine had five on Saturday alone, giving him the all-time record with seven perfect dunks. He also joins Michael Jordan, Jason Richardson, and Nate Robinson as the only players to ever win back-to-back contests.

I can’t overstate how good this was and how much fun it was. It was perfect.

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