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Shawn Marion, Mike D'Antoni and the West will turn up the speed Sunday.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
All-Star Games aren’t exactly a showcase for defense, as players instead opt to thrill the fans with highlight reel worthy dunks and dishes. This year should prove no different given the head coaches of two of the highest scoring offenses are prowling the sidelines. The Western Conference is led by Mike D’Antoni, whose Suns average a league best 110.7 points per game. Washington’s Eddie Jordan guides the East; his Wizards post 105.8 ppg, trailing only the Suns and Warriors.
So, how much coaching do the two plan to do to make sure fans enjoy a track meet?
“Like normal, none,” D’Antoni said, laughing. “We’re going to let ‘em play. Try to not let anybody run into each other; we don’t want to get anybody hurt. You just get them to play. These guys are the best in the world. They’ll have fun doing it. They’ll play hard. If they play hard, play together, they’ll be super.”
Jordan surely doesn’t want anybody to get hurt, either, but has another wish.
“I hope it’s not a tight game where I’ll be scrutinized for the last play and who takes the last shot,” he said. “That’s No. 1. I’ve said to myself, ‘I hope it’s a blowout either way, but, yet, an exciting game for fans to watch.’”
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Will the Draft class of 2003 go down as one of the best in history, rivaling the likes of 1996? If LeBron James has anything to say about it, it will.
“We want to be the best class to ever come into the NBA,” Cleveland’s young star said. “It's good for our Draft class. We just keep trying to do bigger and better things.”
It did one better than last season, by having four members represent it in this year’s All-Star Game. Joining 2006 All-Stars James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are the third overall pick, Carmelo Anthony, and the final pick in the first round, Josh Howard.
While Wade, James and Anthony have garnered most of the headlines, Bosh is quickly establishing his place among the game’s top players.
“He's playing very good basketball,” James assessed. “He's leading his team to a lot of victories and playing very inspired basketball in Toronto. The fans love him, and they should. The guy is a good player.”
WAY TO GO, JOE
Joe Johnson may wear a Hawks uniform these days, but he still sees an awful lot of his old ball coach, D’Antoni. Making his first All-Star appearance, Johnson will suit up opposite the Suns head coach for a spirited, good-natured run. Six short months ago, Johnson and D’Antoni were on the same side, part of Team USA.
D’Antoni was genuinely thrilled, though not surprised, Johnson earned an All-Star spot.
“We were going to give him a max contract,” D’Antoni said Friday. “We really didn’t want to, but … (laughter) Joe’s a heck of a basketball player. We knew that. We hated to lose him but one team can’t have all the max people of the world. So, no, I’m not surprised at all.”
Johnson isn’t alone in making his first All-Star appearance. Anthony, the Howards – Josh and Dwight – Caron Butler, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur are all experiencing the showcase event for the first time.
“This is definitely a dream come true,” Okur said. “I need to keep doing what I’m doing out there and I want to be here, on the All-Star team, a long time.”
As you might expect, there are bound to be some nervous youngsters when they take the court for the first time.
“I’m going to be so nervous out there,” Butler admitted, “but it’s a good nervous. I’ll be able to perform at a high level, but I’ll definitely be nervous out there.”
None of the aforementioned players, however, would trade the butterflies, dreams or obligations that come along with being an All-Star.
“It means a lot (to my country, Turkey),” Okur said about the excitement surrounding his participation. “It means a lot. Everybody’s happy for me. They keep supporting me out there. It means a lot for them. They’re going crazy for me right now. So far, I’ve had a lot of phone calls from the media, my friends, family. It’s been a long two days for me.”
Leave it to Gilbert Arenas to speak his mind. He does it throughout the season here on his NBA.com blog and is continuing to check in regularly throughout the weekend. Remember that little 50-point mark Gilbert fell just shy of in Portland? He said it first here.
Now hear this: “If I'm rolling, the hibachi is on, you know what I'm going for,” Gilbert said during a media availability session Friday.
What he’s going for is the MVP award, same as last year. Prior to the 2006 contest in Houston, Arenas told us that if he saw 20 minutes of action he would win MVP honors. It didn’t quite work out, but it’s good to see none of that has dampened his spirits.
Arenas’ M.O., as well as the whole Agent Zero business, stems from his perceived lack of respect at all levels of basketball: Some said he’d log zero minutes in college, he was bypassed by everybody in the first round of the draft, he logged only nine minutes in last year’s All-Star Game, etc.
But Arenas isn’t the only All-Star this year that heard their name called by Russ Granik. (The former deputy commissioner would relieve Commissioner Stern of his duties announcing picks at the conclusion of the first round.) A pair of Jazz players are singing a sweeter tune than on draft night now that all their hard work and achievements are being recognized on the big stage.
Carlos Boozer was having a monster year for the 35-17 Utah Jazz, averaging 22.1 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, before going down with a hairline fracture in his left leg. His injury opened a roster spot for Okur, who’s increased his scoring average each season he’s been in the league, posting 18.2 a night this year. The 6-11 center can score inside and out, able to hit from downtown as evidenced by his 39.3 percent average from beyond the arc this season.
Boozer was the 35th overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2002, while Okur heard the Detroit Pistons call his name 38th overall a year earlier.
Both will hear their names called when player introductions take place Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas.