TORONTO – Zach LaVine was fresh out of dunks, having been pushed to the limits by Aaron Gordon in an epic final round that put the slam dunk contest back on top at All-Star Saturday night.
In need of some magic, he reached deep down into his repertoire and found just enough left for one more go.
“We were looking in our bag of tricks. Ain’t nothing left,” LaVine said. “I just found a little piece of dust.”
LaVine pulled off a between-the-legs dunk from the free throw line on the second tiebreaker to take home his second straight dunk contest trophy, becoming just the fourth player to pull off that feat.
Earlier in the evening, Wolves center Karl-Anthoiny Towns won the skills contest in the first year that big men were invited to participate in the event. He beat Boston's 5-10 guard Isaiah Thomas in the finals.
The Minnesota Timberwolves guard had never tried the dunk before. Not in practice. Not at that playgrounds back home in Seattle. But he had already used all four of the dunks he planned to do when fellow contestant Will Barton told him to try it.
He pulled it off, putting an emphatic punctuation on a contest that instantly drew comparisons to the showdown between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in 1988.
“I just think that was the best contest,” LaVine said. “There was some stuff that’s never been done before. I don’t want to get into the greats -- Mike, they’re in a different breath. If you really look at it as a whole, we were doing dunks that professional dunkers take four or five tries to do and we were doing it on the first try. It was ridiculous, man.”
The night started as a coronation when on his first dunk LaVine grabbed the ball off the bounce, wrapped the ball around his back before cupping it with his right hand and threw it down. But once the contest was whittled to two contestants, Gordon put on a show every bit LaVine’s equal.
“I’m so happy I prepared some extras because usually you don’t need them,” LaVine said. “People usually aren’t that prepared to go up against you. But he deserved the title just as much as I did. He … did some crazy, ridiculous dunks. I’m just glad I got the last laugh.”
Gordon jumped over Magic mascot Stuff, who was standing on a hoverboard, for three of his dunks, including one in which he grabbed the ball and passed it underneath both legs before throwing it down. He also grabbed the ball out of a spinning Stuff’s hand and threw down a huge 360 to open the final round.
“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,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that.”
The door finally opened for LaVine when Gordon was awarded a 47 on his fourth dunk of the second round, a Harold Miner-style jackknife.
Then LaVine shut it down.
“Zach’s an incredible dunker,” Gordon said. “He went through the legs from the free-throw line. That is insane. So off that dunk, you’ve got to give it to him. That’s why the trophy’s with him and not with me.”
In the first year that frontcourt players were allowed to compete against the guards in the event that puts a premium on ball-handling, passing and perimeter shooting, Towns beat Golden State's Draymond Green and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins in the big men side of the bracket before edging Thomas in the finals.
"I'm glad I was able to help the bigs come out with this trophy," said Towns, the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft. "This is bigger than me. This is for all the bigs out there, with the game changing the way it is, to show that bigs can stand up with guards and skillwise."
It's been four years since the NBA decided to eliminate the center position on the All-Star ballot in response to the dearth of talent at the position and the evolution of the game from post-centric offenses to pace and space.
With his ability to handle the ball, shoot the three and make the extra pass, Towns is the epitome of the improving big man. But heading into the competition, there were doubts that the big fellas could keep up with the small fries. Even Towns' teammate, point guard Ricky Rubio, joked last week that he had no chance.
"I like proving people wrong, so I'm glad I was able to make a lot of people wrong," Towns said. "I was able to make critics wrong, Vegas wrong, Ricky Rubio wrong. So I'm just so ecstatic right now."
The course required players to weave through some obstacles, throw a pass through a target, dribble the length of the court for a layup and then make a 3-pointer.