In between the first and second round of the NBA’s slam dunk contest Saturday night, NBA Hall of Famer and dunking icon Dominique Wilkins took the court, highlights from his two previous wins playing on the scoreboard above. When Wilkins battled with Michael Jordan, people were on the edge of their seats, waiting to erupt the second the ball got thrown through the basket.
There were moments just like that Saturday too — they just had nothing to do with slam dunks.
The marquee event, maybe of the entire weekend, saw Golden State’s Stephen Curry lose to Brooklyn’s Joe Harris in the finals of NBA’s three-point contest. Curry made nine consecutive shots to open the final round before cooling off while Harris, who was nearly out of the NBA before finding a place in Brooklyn, closed out his round by making all five “money” balls on the final rack.
“It’s a make-or-miss league, a make-or-miss competition. It’s a tough way to end it, but Joe shot the lights out,” Curry said. “It was a great show. Knowing how strong the field was going into this, whoever won was going to have to earn it, and that’s what happened.”
The 10 players in the NBA’s marquee shooting contest were the most accomplished competitors of the night.
Some, such as Curry, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, will participate in the All-Star game Sunday. Others like Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Sacramento’s Buddy Hield could be All-Stars sometime soon. And another, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, undoubtedly will end up in the Hall of Fame.
The quality of the contestants makes sense when you consider the way the NBA has changed in the last five years, with the three-point shot the primary weapon in the game. A great dunk — a truly jaw-dropping dunk — happens once a night. An impossibly difficult step-back three or a 35-footer? Those happen every game.
Lillard, one of the few players to compete in both the dunk and three-point contests, said he thinks the three-point shot has “probably” become the game’s most exciting play.
“People aren’t just shooting threes anymore, catch-and-shooting,” Lillard said. “They’re off the dribble. They’re contested. They’re from deep, way behind the line. It’s two in a row. Three in a row. People enjoy seeing people get hot.”
And people enjoyed watching Curry and Harris torch the nets in Charlotte.
Harris opened the contests by making 17 of 25 shots for 25 points, including a stretch of eight in a row to finish. Curry outdueled him later in the first round, scoring 27 points by making 19 of 25 shots, including 10 consecutive to finish.
Harris set the bar in the championship round by scoring another 26 — including a stretch where he made 12 in a row that moved from the right corner all the way to the top of the key. Curry tried to answer when he made his first nine shots in the finals before coming up two points short of forcing a shoot-off.
Hield finished third in the finals with 19 points after scoring a second-best 26 in the first round.
“Obviously, it’s incredible,” Harris said. “Steph is the greatest shooter of all time.”
Harris, for one contest, was just a little better.
Diallo captures dunk title
None of this is to say that there weren’t highlights in the slam dunk contest.
Oklahoma City guard Hamidou Diallo delivered an all-time great dunk on his way to the title, with the 6-foot-5 rookie jumping over 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal before slamming the ball and hanging by the rim from his elbow.
He scored a perfect 50, one of three awarded in the contest, on his way to a win in finals over New York’s Dennis Smith Jr.
Without access to someone as mountainous as O’Neal, Diallo and his partners had to try to simulate O’Neal’s massive frame before the competition.
“It was tough. My man, Chuck [Millan] from Team Flight Brothers, we tried a bunch of things. We tried having people stand, putting basketballs on top of them, just to make sure I could clear the shot,” Diallo said. “So it was tough…” But “I was definitely sure. I wouldn’t have brought him out there if I wasn’t sure.”
Tatum shows skills
Boston’s Jayson Tatum, the subject of trade rumors in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, hit one of the biggest shots of the night in the first competition, sinking a half-court prayer to stun Atlanta rookie Trae Young in the skills challenge.
The event requires players to weave through a course that ends with a made three-point shot.
Young jumped out to a big lead over Tatum, but before he could even attempt a contest-winning shot, Tatum fired from beyond mid-court.
“I didn’t want to give Trae a chance,” Tatum said. “I honestly didn’t know I was going to hit the shot, but I had to give myself a chance, throw it up there, and it worked out for the best.”
The win capped a strong weekend for Tatum, Boston’s second-year forward, that also saw him score 30 points in Team USA’s win Friday night in the Rising Stars game.