WASHINGTON -- The much-hyped exhibition between the L.A.'s Drew League and the Goodman League of Washington, D.C., didn't go down as expected. It was played much more like an actual basketball game, different than what most fans are used to from summertime exhibitions, but entertaining up to its billing nonetheless.
The hometown fans were treated to a show from their local prodigy as Kevin Durant poured in 44 points en route to being named MVP in Goodman's 135-134 victory over Drew.
Durant was a magnet for fans before the game, hardly able to watch the Baltimore versus Washington/Prince George's County AAU preliminary game without attracting crowds that threatened to interfere with play. On the court, Durant was a magnet for the defense. His shot wasn't always falling, although the house certainly appreciated him knocking down two consecutive treys in the first half. What got Durant top honors was his willingness to throw down in the open court and to use his swift length to attack the basket.
The minute James Harden started getting extra physical with his Oklahoma City teammate Durant late in the first quarter, trying to deny him the ball, you knew the bragging rights on the line were serious. In-game strategy sessions among coaches and guards became abundant, some anxious players didn't even go to the locker room during halftime, and John Wall tried to take a charge, so you knew it was more than just a summer showcase.
It wasn't, however, all tense, even though the teams started expectantly tight -- with Goodman League commissioner Miles Rawls serving as MC, entertainment was guaranteed. If Rawls can make President Barack Obama smile from his good-hearted heckling at a past Washington Wizards-Chicago Bulls game, then he could surely get the denizens of the District eating out the palms of his hands.
At one point, it almost worked to the detriment of his team. Late in the first quarter Rawls took time to make fun of Team Goodman's Gary Neal, also of the San Antonio Spurs, for his recently clean-shaven head. Neal took it in stride, so much so, he laughed while handling the ball and turned it over.
The night was also about matchups, Durant versus Harden being the most prevalent. But there was also JaVale McGee versus DeMarcus Cousins and Wall versus Brandon Jennings. The Washington crowd, next to slowly raising their inner decibels every time Durant was warming up for a long-distance dial-up, was most anticipatory when streetball and second crowd favorite Hugh "Baby Shaq" Jones of Team Goodman squared up against Craig "Rhino" Smith of the Clippers. Baby Shaq took it strong to Smith a couple of times, but at other times had to settle for missing open jumpers when given plenty of room.
If it weren't for the friendly confines surrounding Durant, the game's MVP could have been Jennings. Countless times he was able to charge in the lane, making it hard to determine if he was finding space that wasn't there or if he was creating it with dexterity. Much of Jennings' damage came in the second half. With Goodman's Ty Lawson out after intermission due to injury, Wall had trouble keeping pace on defense.
Wall was no slouch in the end, though. He started strong, finished stronger, and certainly made good on the nickname Rawls dons on him often: the Game Changer. At around the 4:30 mark of the fourth, the sporadic disc jockey was blasting Tony! Toni! Toné!'s "It Never Rains In Southern California." Andre Miller of the Denver Nuggets, who sat in Team Drew's section naturally as an L.A. native, had several times before on the night pleaded with the DJ for in-game music. Can't imagine he was looking for that at that moment.
Wall proceeded to blast past Marcus Banks, a late addition according to Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley because of concerns about a backup for Jennings (Pooh Jeter was an iffy participant at one point). Wall then went right into the chest of shot-blocking Wizards teammate McGee and came out victorious, giving Team Goodman a 127-124 lead.
On the next possession, Wall got to the free throw line and made both. After a Goodman timeout with just under two minutes left, Wall, with Banks again playing him tough, hit a long jumper. Far from Michael Jordan shrugging his shoulders against the Portland Trailblazers long ago, but Wall did look toward the Drew bench with his palms up, wondering what they were going to do to stop him.
The difference on the night, fittingly, came down to one shot with the away team having a chance to steal the show. Step-back jumpers always seem to be the hero -- they forget the drives to the lane and chances for free throws -- and Jennings' game-winning attempt with Wall guarding closely fell short. A last-second rebound caromed to Harden, but Durant's length bothered him to futility. At the buzzer, Washington left with a one-point win.
The game was, however, not without controversy.
One came with the matchup of Cousins versus McGee. The willingness of Cousins to plant his body where he wanted provided a contrast to the unreachable length of McGee. McGee often played with an aura of apathy that seemed to balance his athleticism, while Cousins was the one to whom Miles referred as "Bad Attitude." Much to his chagrin, McGee was taken out with just over four minutes left in the game for Craig Smith. He shook his head in denial all the way to the bench. Later, when Team Drew thought Cousins had fouled out, only to discover that according to the game's rules, one could not foul out, McGee made his way back to the floor. The confusion over the rule was not lost on Smiley after the game.
"We wasted our big guys on the bench a lot in the first half," Smiley said.
The most important controversy came courtesy of Durant's game-winning free throws with 21.5 seconds left. The Drew League contingent, from bench to fans, were openly upset at several calls or non-calls on the night, to the point where Rawls make light of it on the microphone, effectively saying that whistles would be uniformly the opposite in Los Angeles. On the game-deciding play, Durant drove hard to the basket, and stumbled and/or got tripped up by Harden, who got called for blocking. After the buzzer sounded, Harden was still salty about the call as he made a beeline to the locker room. But if anyone might have had the most accurate, perhaps unbiased assessment, it would be Marques Johnson, host of the game for thebasketballchannel.net and one-time star of Los Angeles' Crenshaw High and UCLA.
"That's the thing about that call, that's why they say it's the most difficult call in basketball. Initially I thought it was a charge," Johnson said after the game. "But when we looked at it in slow-mo two or three times, you could see that James Harden wasn't set the way you need to be to draw a call against a Kevin Durant."
Smiley, who sounded content with getting a shot to win on the road, said a tentative date for a rematch has been set for Sept. 10 in Los Angeles. There's a 70 percent chance it happens, he admits. The key, he says, is exposure and sponsors. To win, Smiley might need a much whispered about secret weapon in Kobe Bryant.
"We were waiting on the Black Mamba, but hopefully in L.A., I think you'll see the snake rise up and go with us. I know he will," grinned Smiley.
When asked how he would respond to the presence of Bryant, Rawls said, "I don't care who plays, we comin'."