An event that had become a tired, trite exhibition in recent years was saved from jumping the shark Saturday; instead, Blake Griffin jumped a car.
And while some may complain about home cooking in the judging, the dunk contest has always been about entertainment rather than objectivity. This was the most entertaining one in years, and it had the best execution to boot.
The general pattern of the last several contests was to feature the same dunks embellished only by increasingly hokey pranks. This year's, in contrast, didn't feature cape-wearing or other bizarre, attention-seeking props. What it did have, instead, was several spectacular jams that we'll remember for years.
Washington's JaVale McGee didn't win, but he raised the bar several notches for future dunk contests by completing two of the most difficult dunks ever seen in the first round. He did a dunk on two rims separated by several feet, a feat that only a player with his incredible wingspan could pull off, and then did a dunk with three basketballs, two of which he dunked himself and the third he alley-ooped.
On both, McGee had to "no look" dunk with his left hand to focus on catching the ball in mid-air with his right. In the final round, he added to his performance with a swooping, cradling reverse dunk that required him to tuck in his head to avoid impaling it on the backboard.
Unfortunately, he knew the outcome was all but predetermined after Griffin jumped the car in front of the home crowd. Facing an act he couldn't follow, McGee's final dunk was a perfunctory off the backboard slam.
"He came prepared with the car," said McGee, "and nothing's going to beat the car unless I bring a plane or something."
Griffin's contest will be remembered for jumping the car, but his other final-round slam was no slouch either -- an up-to-his-elbow dunk that compared favorably with a similar one by Vince Carter in the 2000 contest. Unlike Carter, Griffin threw it off the board to himself first. A close-up afterward showed a rim-shaped impression on his inner arm.
In truth, McGee should have been facing DeMar DeRozan in the final instead of Griffin, but the hometown Los Angeles crowd swayed the judges heavily in Griffin's favor. In particular, Griffin received 46 points on a first-round dunk from a pass off the side of the backboard. DeRozan did the same thing, except he passed the ball between his legs after the catch -- a far more difficult maneuver. Nonetheless, he only got 44 points for his effort. Given that Griffin beat out DeRozan by a point for entry into the final, it was a grievous judging error.
DeRozan's other jam, titled the "Show Stopper," was spectacular enough to earn a perfect score of 50 without any props. He threw a bounced alley-oop on the right side the court, caught it one hand, swooped the ball under the hoop and reversed it one motion without ever bringing it back into his left hand.
Serge Ibaka came in fourth despite also submitting two fairly strong dunks. He might have fared better if he'd thrown it down more emphatically on his first, where he took off from the free throw line and juuuuuuust nudged it over the rim. This wasn't one of those fake free throw line dunks we've seen in past contests; he legitimately took off from the foul line, but he got only 45 points.
Between Ibaka's free throw line dunk, the DeRozan swoop, the DeRozan between-the-legs dunk and the McGee dunks with two rims and three balls, there were five iconic dunks in the first round.
None of those, you'll notice, were by the winner. Griffin had two misses on what would have been spectacular windmill dunks on his first try and ended up settling for a less emphatic jam on the one he actually made. Nonetheless, he received an incredibly generous score of 49 for that one.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure the excitement in the arena every time Griffin walked up could be accurately conveyed on television. It's not necessarily fair, but it's the reason he won.
The dunk contest was the last of four events on this All-Star Saturday. Aside from the dunk contest, James Jones' upset win in the 3-point contest the most memorable. To the delight of the Boston-hating crowd, he beat out Celtics Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in the final round. Jones' 20-point final round included four of the five moneyballs; in a remarkably consistent effort, he got exactly four points at every rack to top defending champion Pierce's 18. Allen scored 20 in the first round to top all competitors but was mathematically eliminated by the middle of the fourth rack in the finals.
The other three competitors shot blanks in the first round. Daniel Gibson continued a forgettable year for Cleveland by starting with nine straight misses and finishing with just seven points, and Kevin Durant (six points) was so bad you almost wonder if there's something mechanically wrong with his shot. A number of misses were to the side, which shouldn't happen with a good shooter. Golden State's Dorell Wright mustered only 11 points; Pierce just topped him with 12 by making his final three shots.
Golden State's Stephen Curry won the Skills Challenge with a near-perfect final round, missing only one pass to easily beat Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. Nonetheless, this event might be ready for the glue factory. Defending champ Derrick Rose only had two misses in the first round, but the Chicago speedster lazed through the course so slowly that he still failed to qualify for the finals. Fellow favorite Chris Paul seemed similarly under-motivated for this event -- Paul even missed the opening layup at the start of the course.
Finally, Atlanta won the Haier Shooting Stars competition, beating Team Texas in the final. The team of Al Horford, Steve Smith and Coco Miller prevailed when the Texans couldn't make a halfcourt shot despite trying for nearly a full minute.
Overall, however, this night will be remembered for the dunk contest, and especially for the car. In terms of technical execution, Griffin was only the third-best dunker of the night. But he's the biggest reason a flagging dunk competition has found new life.