Face it: The NBA All-Star Game will never be what it used to be. No one who has received the honor of traveling across the country to take part in a weekend-long series of basketball-related activities while their teammates and peers are taking ATV tours in Costa Rica is interested in playing defense. The All-Star Game is about seeing who can make the deepest three, or who can embarrass whom with the wildest alley-oop to themselves, or perhaps the most popular endeavor, who can score the most points.
Jayson Tatum answered the latter call and then some.
He cruised to the 2023 All-Star Game MVP with a contest-record 55 points on 22-of-32 shooting, plus 10 rebounds and six assists to lead Team Giannis to a 184-175 victory. Tatum’s 27 points in the game’s third period broke another record on a night where he looked unstoppable (what else is new… you know, other than the phantom defense).
The rest of All-Star weekend belonged, naturally, to Mac McClung. If you have yet to see the dunks that won him this year’s Slam Dunk Contest, you’ll understand why the internet immediately became a shrine to his artistry.
Every dunk by MAC MCCLUNG in his almost flawless victory at the 2023 NBA Dunk Contest
Tap the glass over 2 people: 50
360 windmill: 49.8
Double Pump Reverse: 50
And made every dunk on the first try
SHAQ: “He saved the dunk contest” pic.twitter.com/5RGjujUCMU
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 19, 2023
Now, given that this wasn’t exactly a recap that covered a wide array of games, I figured I’d offer some thoughts on a few teams I think make for the most interesting squads to watch as we enter the final portion of the regular season. Some may be on the play-in bubble, while others are squarely in the playoff race but can’t seem to vault their way into title contention. With that latter point in mind, the Cavs seem like a good place to start.
The NBA world seemed mildly surprised to see the Cavs remain dormant at this year’s trade deadline, especially given how sure everyone seemed that they’d make a move to fill their “vacant” wing position. But Feb. 9 came and went, and Saddiq Bey was shipped to Atlanta, OG Anunoby remained a Raptor, and Isaac Okoro stayed in Cleveland. A combination of Okoro, the newly-bought-out Danny Green, Caris LeVert, Dean Wade, and Cedi Osman isn’t exactly prolific. Any one of those players is far more likely to be ignored on the offensive end than Donovan Mitchell or Darius Garland. That’s why so many people assumed Mike Gansey and Koby Altman would look to fill that hole: to take some pressure off of their two offensively-burdened stars.
Despite standing pat at the deadline, Cleveland surged as the All-Star break approached, winning eight of its final 10 games before the break, including a seven-game win streak before falling to the Philadelphia 76ers in the final game before the annual leaguewide pause. Now, it sure looks like the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and 76ers will finish as the Eastern Conference’s top three squads, but the Cavs are just two games back from the third seed and five from Boston’s top spot. At least one round of homecourt advantage isn’t out of the question for the Cavs should any of those teams stumble out of the break. Anything can happen when you have a player who can pull a 50-piece — or more — out of his bag of tricks on any given night.
Don’t look now, but the Clippers remain fourth in the West and just a few games back from the second seed in the conference, despite season-long uncertainty about Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s collective availability. The Clippers were active at the deadline, departing with Reggie Jackson, John Wall, and Luke Kennard while acquiring Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland, and Mason Plumlee via trade. Ty Lue’s rotation now features a mishmash of wings, sure, but Plumlee offers some Ivica Zubac security, and Hyland should serve as a much-needed scoring punch at the guard position. Gordon hasn’t been happy since 2011, so being back in L.A. should serve him nicely.
Also, despite Kawhi’s intermittent load management schedule, he’s been on a tear of late, serving as a more present force on a semi-nightly basis. Since the start of 2023, he’s averaged 26.4 points on 51 percent shooting (45 percent from three) along with 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and just a tick under two steals per game. That’s MVP-level basketball; the Clippers are undoubtedly hard to beat when he plays like that. How often he can do it might define their season.
Since starting the season 5-20, the Magic are 19-15. It’s not an exemplary mark, by any means, but it’s a winning record, which is something that not many iterations of the Orlando Magic can say they’ve managed at any point of a season for the better part of the last decade. Let’s say they continue to remain afloat at this pace for the remainder of the regular season. Who says they can’t be a play-in team?
At the moment, they’re just four games out of the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference, which is currently occupied by the less-than-inspiring Toronto Raptors. Standing in their way to that spot are the Chicago Bulls — losers of six in a row prior to the break — and the Indiana Pacers — an odd concoction of a team that can’t quite contend, yet is too talented to tank.
The Magic find themselves in a similar position, but they’ve been putzing about the bottom of the East for far too long and continue to waste the youths of talented young contributors thanks to lottery trip after lottery trip. Why not let this budding core see how far it can push itself? A play-in exit is likely, given their inconsistencies, but you can’t tell me this Orlando team — led by Rookie of the Year shoo-in Paolo Banchero, a rejuvenated Markelle Fultz, and the mild-yet-exciting Franz Wagner, among others — can’t feasibly take down either the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards. It’s certainly not far-fetched to me.