With all eyes on the city for NBA All-Star Weekend, Toronto was unprepared.
That’s not really a failure of the host city or the Toronto Raptors or even the NBA, mind you, because nobody was prepared for what happened at NBA All-Star Saturday Night. That’s not speaking metaphorically, either – not even the official judge’s scorecards for the main event were equipped to handle exactly what went down.
Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, and the greatest All-Star Saturday Night in recent memory, and likely ever, had the entire world working in the margins.
The night was strangely overwhelming, and it may take some time before the dust that lined the very bottom of LaVine’s bag of tricks for everyone to gain perspective and figure out where, exactly, this stands in terms of the best events in NBA lore. LaVine and Gordon put on a Dunk Contest performance that could only be rivalled, with the benefit of time to erase a primacy bias, by Michael Jordan-Dominique Wilkins and the Vince Carter 2000 event. This very well may have been the best Dunk Contest of all time, and if it wasn’t, it was in the top-three
“I think it was the best one ever,” LaVine said afterward. “In my personal opinion, man, we did some things that nobody else did…In my opinion, yes.”
Both had a pair of strong first-round dunks to set up their meeting in the final. They proceeded to trade six consecutive dunks that scored a perfect 50, shattering the former Dunk Contest record of three in a row. LaVine had five perfect 50s on the night, pushing him past Jordan with seven in his dunking career. Gordon forced a recalibration of the understanding of the limits of the human body when he leapt over Stuff the Magic Dragon with both legs, floating in the air like a chair, all while pushing the ball out of Stuff’s hands into his own for an emphatic finish. LaVine’s series of free-throw line dunks, if performed from anywhere on the court, would have won every pre-Carter Dunk Contest, and he did them all from within a half-shoe of the free-throw line.
They didn’t just put on a great Dunk Contest, they refused to let it end. Tied 100-100 after the final, they moved to a dunk-off. They exchanged 50s. On their fourth dunks of the finals and sixth of the night, Gordon scored “just” a 47 with an incredibly deep pump on a reverse that looks more impossible every time it’s viewed. That tiny window was enough for LaVine, who capped the night by going between his legs, a la Carter in 2000, but from the free-throw line.
“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50. We would have been here all night,” Gordon said, unable to cease beaming at his post-contest media session. “I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”
Nobody in the Air Canada Centre wanted it to end except for perhaps the participants, who hadn’t prepared for this many dunks and would have eventually run out of ways to wrinkle the brain, or would have eventually missed a dunk attempt (a pleasant rarity Saturday). At least, in theory they would have. In practice, who knows? Most of these dunks, as LaVine pointed out, would take professional dunk-circuit dunkers multiple attempts, and these two were trading them with flawless execution like the net was eight-feet high. Someone should actually check to make sure it wasn’t, because that would make comprehending the night a lot easier.
Focusing on LaVine and Gordon alone is entirely justified. With that event alone closing the show, there would be a claim to make that there’s never been a better All-Star Saturday Night.
Of course, there was also the matter of the two undercard events. (No, not Kevin Hart tying Draymond Green in a 3-Point Shootout or Dikembe Mutombo doing the nae-nae.)
The night began with Karl-Anthony Towns continuing his season-long warning to the league of what’s to come. The 20-year-old was the winner of the Skills Challenge in the first year the event included both bigs and guards. Generally guard-dominated, Towns took out Draymond Green, the favorite on the bigs side, DeMarcus Cousins, one of the best passing bigs in basketball, and Isaiah Thomas, who plays the position the contest is designed for and is somewhere north of a foot shorter than Towns, for the title.
The league’s best rookie showed off his unfair blend of speed, touch, shooting, and agility, providing quite the upset. It’s funny, almost, that the Minnesota Timberwolves had a guard win the Dunk Contest and a center win the Skills Challenge, all while their young star wing eschewed the events in his homecoming to Toronto to instead play cheerleader. The future’s bright for Minnesota, but the rest of the league is cast in a spectre of impending takeover.
Somehow, Towns’ performance still has the Skills Challenge ranked third for the night.
There had been some talk leading up to the weekend that perhaps the 3-Point Shootout should close the show. The proliferation of the 3-point shot, the accessibility of shooting as a skill over dunking, and the greater willingness of superstars to participate, the reigning MVP chief among them, all work in favor of the long-ball competition. The demise of the Dunk Contest has long been overstated, but with Steph Curry defending his title against a loaded field, on the backs of the Golden State Warriors leveraging Curry’s defense-bending offense and changing the shape of the league, this year stood as a potential crescendo of 3-point popularity.
For a few moments, the 3-Point Shootout cooperated with that script. For the second season in a row, Curry was set to meet teammate Klay Thompson int he finals, this time with rookie marksman and popular dark-horse pick Devin Booker joining them. The Splash Brothers, the most notable shooting tandem of all time and co-conspirators in the most impressive 18-month run of team performance since Jordan’s Bulls, were going head-to-head for the title of league’s best shooter for a second time in public, and surely the thousandth time in total.
It played out as almost a complete replay of the season prior, with the roles reversed. Curry led as Thompson took the floor, and it seemed Curry may have a repeat locked up through three racks. Then Thompson caught fire, finding a groove and clearing his entire money ball rack to not only defeat Curry and take his title, but also tie his record with 27 points in a round.
In terms of building to a final blow-off, having two teammates trade huge victories and share a league record, well, you’d call Vince McMahon out for making too bubblegum a main event story. Curry and Thompson are doing their own Rocky-Apollo, and the idea of those two meeting in the final again next season is a rubber match to end all rubber matches.
And yet, there’s not a soul suggesting the 3-Point Shootout should main event next year. Not anymore. Not with LaVine establishing himself as the best contest dunker since Carter and Gordon establishing himself as a worthy adversary. Maybe they’ll do it again next year – Gordon seemed open to it, though LaVine has his eyes on other competitions and would have little to gain from a third go-round – and maybe they won’t. Not all sequels work, especially when the original is perfect.
Saturday night was that: Perfect. The league’s most exciting and terrifying rookie put the changing face of big-man play at the forefront. Two of the best shooters ever went to battle and came out tied in their friendly war, living up to every bit of hype the 3-Point Shootout had built. And LaVine and Gordon made all of that a complete afterthought, delivering dunk after dunk, highlight after highlight, 50 after 50.
There’s no other grade to give the night. It was 10s across the board.