Denton: 2012 NBA All-Star Game, Weekend a Slam Dunk

By John Denton
February 26, 2012

ORLANDO – As it turns out, Saturday night’s Slam Dunk Contest, which was given a lukewarm at best response from the Amway Center crowd, was just a warm-up for the dunk show that unfolded Sunday night in the 61st NBA All-Star Game.

This time around, with the brightest and biggest stars in the NBA soaring through the air most of the night, a dazzling display took place on basketball’s biggest stage inside the Amway Center.

Surprisingly, Orlando Magic hometown hero and dunk specialist Dwight Howard didn’t figure heavily in the aerial assault, but that didn’t stop others from producing a night full of oohs and aahs for the fans. The Western Conference blew out to a lead as big as 21 points before the East made a furious second-half rally to get within one.

Eventually, the West held on down the stretch and defeated the Eastern Conference 152-149 in a thrilling finish before a sellout crowd of 17,125 fans at the Amway Center.

But the big winners on Sunday night were the City of Orlando and the Magic, co-hosts of the game for the first time in 20 seasons. Orlando and the Magic got to show off the Central Florida community and the sparkling Amway Center to a television audience from 215 countries in 45 languages. With rave reviews for the city and the arena, assuredly it won’t be another 20 years until the All-Star Game is in Orlando again.

``The whole weekend I did (soak in the environment). Thank you to everybody in Orlando for everything we did this weekend because we all did a good job. I haven’t seen it like this here in Orlando since The Finals,’’ said Howard, who had nine points, 10 rebounds and three assists. ``Me and (Magic CEO) Alex (Martins) talked and we haven’t seen anything like this since The Finals. The city was on fire. It’s just been great. A lot of celebrities came out and I know a lot of them had fun. My teammates just loved the whole experience of being down here in Orlando. They had a good time and loved our arena.’’

Superstar forward Kevin Durant ran away with the Most Valuable Player award by scoring 36 points, while Kobe Bryant added 27 points to pass Michael Jordan as the all-time leading scorer in All-Star Game history.

Bryant was involved in a colorful moment late in the game when he stepped to the free throw line with 18 seconds left and a chance to push the West ahead by three points. Boston’s Paul Pierce chirped at Bryant from the sidelines, reminding him he had missed two free critical throws on Wednesday in Dallas. Bryant glared at the East bench when he made the first free throw, but Pierce celebrated wildly when the Lakers’ star misfired on the second attempt.

``I was just heckling (Bryant). I was good, friendly heckle between two old rivals,’’ Pierce said. ``I was having fun with it. I was just trying to get him to miss a shot to give us a chance and he did. We went to one another after the game and laughed about it. It was just two veterans going at it.’’

The East had a chance to win the game with nine seconds remaining, but Deron Williams’ 3-pointer came up woefully short and a second possession ended in a LeBron James’ turnover. Dwyane Wade missed a desperation 3-point attempt at the buzzer that could have tied the game.

Howard, the unofficial host of the game and the focal point of much of the media attention because of his uncertain future, went into the game hoping to be the 18th player ever to receive the MVP award while playing on his home court. Howard’s East teammates said on Friday and Saturday that they would feed the Magic center the ball in hopes of helping him get the award.

But Howard’s first shot was blocked and he was never really a factor after that. He made four of nine field goals – with three of the field goals on putbacks until finally getting an alley-oop dunk of his own in the fourth quarter.

``I wasn’t really tripping about (not getting the ball). I just wanted to have fun. For me, it was just about being out there and I didn’t really care about having the ball,’’ Howard said.``The guards have the ball and they are the one who pass it. Unless you want me to bring the ball down the court every time? The show was the whole weekend and not just about the game. Me and my team we did our best to put on a show for the city and the rest of the NBA. I just thank all of the fans for coming out to all of my events and supporting me.’’

James, a two-time All-Star MVP, scored 36 points by making 15 of 23 shots. Wade, his Heat teammate, made 11 of 15 shots and scored 24 points. They took turns throughout the game playing what Boston point guard Rajon Rondo called ``buddy ball,’’ throwing lob passes to one another repeatedly.

The NBA’s All-Star Game returned to Orlando for the first time since 1992. The game played inside the old Amway Arena is still considered one of the most memorable games in all-star history because it featured the return of Magic Johnson following his diagnosis for the HIV virus. A video tribute to Johnson was shown at the end of the first quarter and the Hall of Famer was given a standing ovation as he walked to midcourt.

Later in the night, the NBA honored the 1992 Team USA ``Dream Team.’’ Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Johnson were given rousing ovations.

``Thank you goes to the basketball fans of Orlando and Orange County for all of your basketball hospitality,’’ NBA Commissioner David Stern said before presenting the MVP award to Durant.

The dazzling state-of-the-art Amway Center was on display for the basketball world to see and received rave reviews throughout the four-day event. Martins, who oversaw the design and construction of the facility, said securing the first major event for the Amway Center should pave the way for others to follow, including a return of the NBA’s All-Star Game again in a regular rotation.

``It was really important for us to get this first big event in the Amway Center, which is why this facility was built. And then leaving a big economic impact on our community is icing on the cake,’’ Martins said. ``I’ve heard nothing but praise for how Orlando has hosted. Everyone seems excited to be here and I’m sure the city will really shine. I think we’ll find ourselves in that regular rotation because everyone from the players, to the owners and sponsors will look forward to coming back here.’’

Howard’s pregame introduction was saved for last and it was easily the loudest of the night for any player. Minutes later, Howard took the microphone, addressed the crowd and thanked the crowd and the NBA for bringing the game to ``my city of Orlando, Florida.’’

Asked after the game about his glowing comments for Orlando, Howard said: ``I said it exactly how I felt and I said it from the heart.’’

When he checked out of the game late in the first quarter, Howard went and sat next to iconic Magic owner Rich DeVos rather than the East bench. Howard threw his arm around the man he calls ``Boss,’’ and chatted for nearly 5 minutes during a break in the action.

``There was an open seat there and I went to say hello,’’ Howard said. ``I can’t go speak to my owner? We have a good relationship, so I decided to speak to him. He’s a great guy and we talk a lot. I wanted to say hi to him.’’

As is often the case in All-Star Games, Howard had few scoring chances early in the game because the action was dominated by guards hoisting alley-oop passes and 3-point shots. Howard even got into the action, putting up seventh and eighth 3-point attempts of his All-Star Game career. Needless to say, both shots missed.

East coach Tom Thibodeau had to be somewhat appalled with the lack of defensive effort that he saw in the first half as the West all-stars poured in 88 points in the first 24 minutes. Thibodeau’s Bulls give up 87.9 points per game during the first half of this season, but he saw the East surrender that many in the first half.

Led by 21 and 17 points respectively from Thunder teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the West held a commanding 88-69 lead at halftime.

Bryant hit six of his first nine shots and had 14 points in the first half to pull within four points of Michael Jordan’s all-time scoring record of 262 points in the NBA All-Star Game. He tied Jordan with two free throws in the second half as his nose was bleeding following a hard foul by Wade. And he broke the record in the third period on a breakaway dunk.

In a game where the first half seemed like a mild-mannered practice, the intensity crackled late in the game with hard fouls, defensive stands and some spicy trash talk. In the end, it was a game that had it all for the city of Orlando – plenty of high-flying dunks, star performances from Bryant, Durant, Wade and James and a stellar finish.

``At the end of the game it was very competitive,’’ Howard said. ``Our defense picked up. In the first half guys were trying to get dunks, throw lobs and shoot threes. But in the second half we did a better job and got it close, but we missed a couple of shots at the end. I just wished we could have gotten the win.’’

John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at

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