Manimal lets loose in Houston

HOUSTON -- A lackluster Rising Stars Challenge was crawling to a conclusion, with Team Chuck way out in front and the biggest roar from the crowd coming from a clip of Harrison Barnes' regular-season dunk over Nikola Pekovic on the video board, as Kyrie Irving took a quick behind-the-back dribble outside the right corner of the 3-point arc and paused.

Irving, the game's reigning MVP and the lone rookie or sophomore with a spot in Sunday's main event, had largely gotten what he wanted when he wanted, but had done so with the intensity of a walkthrough practice.

That was all about to change.

"Just happened, honestly, a couple of plays down, going down the court with him," Irving said after the Rookie of the Year's Team Shaq fell hard, 163-135, at Toyota Center on Friday night.

Irving glared at Brandon Knight, the point guard selected seven spots after the Cleveland Cavaliers made Irving the first overall pick in 2011, readying him for what was to come. Like a firecracker, Irving began a flurry of crossover dribbles, made a sharp jab step toward the paint, jolted back and drilled a jumper as Knight tumbled to the ground, reaching out to stop him but touching nothing but the hardwood.

After Irving got the best of Knight again on the next possession, Knight sought revenge on the other end, and just like that, a dull affair had turned into one magical duel.

All eyes fixated on the matchup. The 20-year-old wunderkind had again stolen the show in closing time, like he has so often this season, which has become almost as much about the annointing of a new star in Cleveland as the previous one's brilliance in Miami.

Kenneth Faried, meanwhile, went about his business. Just like he always does.

Though Knight was able to get by Irving on his two attempts at besting the best young point guard in the game -- just barely the first time but with a clean look at the rim the second -- he couldn't connect on either running attempts. But Faried, one of the league's most tenacious rebounders, was there to clean up each time to pad the statline (40 points on 18-for-22 shooting, 10 rebounds, two assists) that would earn him the game's MVP honors.

"He just played like he usually plays," said Isaiah Thomas, a late add to the Rising Stars pool who added 18 points and 10 assists for team Chuck. "One-hundred ten percent, 100 miles per hour, rebound, getting put-backs. That's what he's good at."

A product of Morehead State, a largely forgotten Ohio Valley Conference school in Wildcat-crazed Kentucky, Faried carved out a place among the big boys in the college basketball landscape largely through effort. He didn't have great size, didn't have great strength or much of an offensive game. But because of his motor and work ethic, along with powerful leaping ability and a wide wingspan, he was able to break the NCAA's rebounding record, and then turn that into a 22nd overall selecton in the draft.

Little has changed thus far in the pros. Faried, 23, quickly endeared himself to Nuggets coach George Karl, and the 6-foot-8 muscle-bound power forward they call the "Manimal" has turned that ferocity into a full-blown starting gig, with the numbers to back it up – 12.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, with an 18.96 player efficiency rating.

But nights like the one he had Friday are still foreign to a player largely overlooked for the bulk of his college career.

Irving has had two 40-point games already this season, against real defenses, and eight 30-point performances. Faried's season high is a solid 26, and he rarely tops the 20-point plateau more than twice a month.

"I would say never in my life," Faried said when asked if he'd ever scored that many points. "I never got over 30. Well, actually I never got to 30. I always would be stuck at 29, 28; can never get to 30. Missed too many free throws."

But it's becoming harder and harder not to see something special behind the untamed hair and the fanged teeth and the procession of vicious dunks.

He may not be the chosen one, like Irving seems to be. But he's certainly proven he's one who belongs.

"I came out with the intent to put on a performance," said Faried, who will take part in Saturday's slam dunk-contest for an encore. "But I wasn't thinking MVP type of performance. I was just thinking about winning the game and enjoying myself. And pretty much enjoying the game. I love to play."