Lillard sizes up skills contest favorites
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Damian Lillard didn’t enter all three NBA All-Star skills competitions just for the fun of it.
”If I didn’t think I had a chance to win all of them, I wouldn’t put my name in them,” Lillard said. ”But I really feel strong about the 3-point shootout.”
The Portland guard is the reigning champion of the skills competition, which will take place Saturday night, along with the 3-point shooting contest and the dunk contest. This year, though, Lillard sees the tandem of the Phoenix’s Goran Dragic and Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson as potential favorites.
Four two-man teams will compete in the skills challenge, going through the course in a relay format with a single time. The competition consists of dribbling around obstacles, passing to targets as well as hitting close and mid-range shots.
As well as Dragic has played this season, averaging 20.3 points, 6.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game, Lillard said the Suns guard should have been on the Western Conference roster for Sunday night’s main event.
If Lillard had to pick a favorite other than himself to win the 3-point shooting contest, he said it would be Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who has made 41.5 percent of his shots from 3-point range and whose 3.4 3-pointers made per game leads the league.
As for the dunk contest, which this season will be a competition between conferences, Lillard expects his Western Conference team that includes Golden State’s Harrison Barnes and Sacramento’s Ben McLemore to come out on top. The East’s dunk squad consists of Indiana’s Paul George, Toronto’s Terrence Ross and Washington’s John Wall.
Lillard also agreed to participate in Friday night’s future stars game, meaning the All-Star game itself will have been his fifth event of the weekend. In other words, he won’t be giving his body much of a rest during the All-Star break.
”I’ll be fine. I’m not concerned with it. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the court, to be honest with you,” Lillard said. ”I’ll shoot for two minutes (in the 3-point contest), skills for two minutes and we’ll dunk for maybe five minutes.”
DAVIS’ DEFENSE: In addition to representing the hometown Pelicans, Anthony Davis is hoping to inject a little defense into the All-Star game.
The NBA’s marquee midseason even has been known to morph into a high-scoring exhibition of uncontested, high-flying dunks and wide open transition jumpers. In each of the last five All-Star games, at least one team has eclipsed 140 points, and there have been three such games in which both teams did it, including the 2012 game that saw the West beat the East, 152-149.
But the late addition to the Western Conference roster of Davis, who was added by new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in place of injured Kobe Bryant, brings the NBA’s leading shot-blocker to the game.
”It’s not really a defense-oriented game. We just go out there and have fun, but I’ve played against all these guys already so they know I love to block shots,” Davis said. ”It’s going to be tough. Maybe I can get a couple blocks on the perimeter when guys shoot jumper.”
Davis indeed has blocked inside and outside shots all season, averaging 3.1 blocks per game.
HOMETOWN PRIDE: Former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson is a New Orleans native, and said he was relieved the Benson family, which owns the NFL’s Saints, also decided to add the city’s financially struggling NBA franchise to their portfolio in 2012, securing the Big Easy’s future as an NBA city and allowing the All-Star game to return for the second time in six years.
”It’s a great beacon of light to have two major sports franchises here in New Orleans, and now to have the NBA All-Star game return here,” Johnson said.
This year, the usual All-Star Friday media availability with every player participating in the All-Star game, future stars game or skills competitions was held in the Hyatt Hotel neighboring the city’s sports complex that includes the Superdome and the basketball stadium (now called Smoothie King Center).
During the 2008 All-Star game in New Orleans, the Hyatt was still a few years away from reopening after many of its floor-to-ceiling windows had been blown out by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
”Think about what kind of shape this hotel was in post-Katrina,” Johnson said. ”To see the great remodel of this hotel, this shows the strength of New Orleans, and me being a New Orleans native … I just can’t sleep at night knowing the economic impact that this All-Star weekend is going to have on New Orleans could exceed $85 million.
”This is a celebration of basketball, but it’s also a celebration of how a community is continuing to get stronger and stronger.”
SMALL-SCHOOL SALVATION: Some of the younger players on this season’s All-Star rosters played at some relatively small college programs, and take pride in that.
Lillard played at Weber State, Curry played at Davidson and George at Fresno State. They hope serve as examples to other players at small or mid-major college programs who dream of playing in the NBA.
”We’re kind of putting the light on the mid-major players,” Lillard said. ”What you’re getting is guys playing at that level, dominating at that level and they have the confidence to play in this league.
”I’m just happy that guys like Steph and Paul and myself, we might be helping a guy five years from now that goes to a smaller school,” Lillard added. ”Five years back, he probably wouldn’t have had a chance, but now we’ve probably given him a better chance.”