Star Wars

Only LeBron James can call the U.S. president “U Bum” and be considered a hero. Voted by his peers as “The Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team,” only LBJ can manufacture a “3 in 1” deal: absorb the shocking loss of Kyrie Irving and emerge with three replacements: Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Dwayne Wade.

D-Wade? Yes. It’s no secret that the former Miami Heat teammates are best friends. For four years while together in Florida, they made the trip to the Finals each season and won twice. Can D-Wade’s reported entry into the Cavs elevate this squad to rival Golden State? Absolutely.

What we’re seeing is the beauty and defect of the NBA. The strong become stronger while the weak turn powerless. There’s GSW. Has there ever been a stronger bunch in the league’s 71-year history than the formation of Steph, Klay, Draymon and Kevin? Probably not. I’d rank this gang higher than MJ-Pippen.

The NBA has 30 teams. The idea is to distribute the talent so no one team dominates completely. But we know the world doesn’t operate this way. Some have more money. Others have the clout of a Magic Johnson who can lure a Lonzo Ball.

The NBA has entered the era of the “Super Teams.” Of the 29 U.S. cities plus Toronto competing in the NBA, these “super teams” are a handful of squads whose roster includes at least three superstars. And unless you’ve assembled such All-Stars, you’re doomed.

This 2017-2018 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder has emerged as a super team. Joining the MVP Russell Westbrook is Paul George. And if that one-two punch isn’t potent enough, Carmelo Anthony leaves New York to form their Big 3.

The Houston Rockets is another. James Harden is joined by Chris Paul. How about the New Orleans Pelicans, with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis? My question is: Why the lopsided strength of the Western Conference? GSW, OKC, Houston, Spurs. And there’s the Minnesota Timberwolves with Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins.

The East? We might as well proclaim the Cavs as East Champs because of their lack of competition. It’s unfair and lopsided, this West vs. East pendulum.

As for LeBron and Wade, their bromance started in Miami and is continuing in Cleveland. But these two aren’t young; LeBron turns 33 in December and Wade celebrates his 36th birthday the month after.

“I would love to have D-Wade a part of this team,” James said of his 12-time All-Star best friend. “I think he brings another championship pedigree, championship DNA. He brings another playmaker to the team who can get guys involved, can make plays and also has a great basketball mind.”

Come October 17 when the NBA’s first regular season game kicks off and, perfectly-scripted, the Cavs face the Celtics, LeBron’s face will be smirking at Kyrie as if to say, I got Isaiah, Derrick and my man D-Wade to replace you, boy!

Fast forward to the 2018 NBA Finals, imagine a line-up featuring Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Iguodala against James, Rose, Wade, Thomas and Love. Like the intergalactic movie series, I can’t wait for this real-life Star Wars, Part 4.

Sure NBA champion

Let’s talk business. Regardless of the Final Four outcome (my heart goes for the Cavs as repeat champs but my mind says it’s the Warriors), there’s one sure winner in the NBA.

Founded 53 years ago by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, the company was originally named “Blue Ribbon Sports” until it was changed to “Nike” in 1971. It is the No. 1 most valuable sports brand on Earth and, last year, it grossed a colossal $32.4 billion. It’s logo — the swoosh, patterned after the wing of Nike, the goddess of victory — is the world’s most iconic, defeating Coca-Cola, Apple and McDonald’s. Chances are, when you look down at your feet or you open your closet or you attend a game of volleyball or football, a pair of shoes designed with a “check mark” is being worn.

With the NBA, the undisputed winner is Nike. Because while Steph Curry wears Under Armour, James Harden dons Adidas, Rajon Rondo and Klay Thompson wear the lesser-known brand Anta (from China), all the other superstars wear Nike.

KD, ‘Bron, Kyrie, Isiah “King of the Fourth” Thomas, Kevin Love, soon-to-be-announced MVP Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Blake Griffin, CP3 (Chris Paul), and Jimmy Butler all wear Nike or Nike/Jordan-branded footwear. Even three names (John Wall, Draymond Green, and J.R. Smith) who don’t have shoe endorsements wear the same Oregon-based brand.

In the Forbes article, “Nike Will Come Out On Top After The NBA Finals, Regardless Of Who Wins” by Daniel Kleinman published last May 17, the winning moves of Nike were explained.

Why, you ask, does Nike pay Durant an incredible $300 million for 10 years? It’s because of all those KD-labeled high-cuts that Nike will be selling in a decade. (Also, because of the fear of losing out to Under Armour, who was ready to $265M.) It’s also about the millions of eyeballs from Beijing to Bacolod to Berlin to Bangkok who’ll be watching the Warriors as Durant shoots a 3-pointer while wearing Nike.

The largest Nike deal of any kind appropriately belongs to LeBron James. In 2015, Nike awarded him with a sponsorship for life, the first time ever that they’ve agreed to such a lifelong deal. The cost: P25 billion. In dollars, that’s $500M that they’re paying LeBron, for him to never wear the Three Stripes or UA.

Expensive? Who says the best player is cheap? As the cliche goes, “You get what you play for.” And look at the dividends — I can imagine the thousands and thousands of $200 LeBron James 14 shoes that will sell this month.

So here’s the conclusion: Warriors or Cavs, Durant or James, the company named after the goodess of victory will claim victory.

Who’s basketball’s most valuable player?

It’s over. Let’s pop the champagne, ignite the loudspeakers, switch on the spotlight and proclaim the winner. It’s Russell Westbrook. He just recorded his 34th triple-double, leads the NBA in scoring with 31.7 PPG, and has sparked the Thunder’s lightning with an impressive 39-29 record (sixth in the West) — all minus Kevin Durant. Impressive? No. We need a better adjective. How about the letters M-V-P?

Let’s discuss that triple-double (which means, to the non-basketball fan, that he reaches double digits in three categories, usually in points, assists and rebounds). The all-time record for one season belongs to Oscar Robertson’s 41, which he achieved in 1962. Fifty-five years later, Westbrook has 34 ‘TDs’ with 14 games left. This means that if he records a triple-double in every other remaining game, he’ll at least tie “The Big O’s” milestone.

Given that his jersey number is “0,” will Russell break that record and be crowned today’s “Big O?” I think he will. I hope so. As each game passes, fans will watch. It’s like Golden State last year when we kept score until they won No. 73. With his latest triple-double, recorded last Thursday against the Raptors, that was his fourth straight. In that game, despite sitting out the 4th quarter, he made 16 assists — more than the entire Raptors squad. How ludicrous is that? And he’s not a hulking LeBron; he’s the same height as the 6’3” James Yap.

“I think he (Westbrook) is very conscious of the achievement,” said Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN. “He’s such an electric player with so much stage presence. And, like, from the moment he struts into the arena, usually in this outrageous outfit, he has this sneer on his face. He’s an athlete that likes to play angry. And you get the sense if he didn’t, it might even compromise his production.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

HARDEN. But, wait, because the NBA has 30 teams with 15 per squad for a total of 450 players, who else is vying for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named after the league’s first commissioner? There’s Mr. James of the defending champs. Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 16.2 PPG in his career, now averages 26.4 and has spurred the Spurs to battle GSW for No.1. But the best rival for Westbrook?

“James Harden is my MVP choice,” said Dennis Que, a huge basketball fan who’s watched nearly 20 live NBA games, including last year’s playoff game between the Clippers and the Trail Blazers. “He’s averaging close to triple double, leading the league in assists (11.3) and leading his team on top of the West (currently 3rd). He doesn’t have superstars around him like the Cavaliers and Warriors but because of his presence, his teammates are playing well. That’s Harden’s edge over Westbrook.”

A possibility that Dennis foresees? If last year the NBA had it’s first unanimous MVP in Steph Curry, how about its first co-MVPs in Westbrook and Harden?

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Russell Westbrook as sub is a snub

After yesterday’s Super Bowl and Lady Gaga show, this weekend it’s the NBA All-Star Game with John Legend in Louisiana. It’s the 66th edition of this star-studded show, when 7-footers fly to dunk, when the defense is absent and nobody wants to foul, when last year, the West defeated the East, 196-173. Can you believe that offensive output? Are we about to see the league’s first-ever score exceeding 200? It’s possible.

This 2017 All-Star Game has been controversial. Let’s talk about Russell Westbrook. Last year and the year before, he was named the All-Star MVP. Thus far this season, the 6-foot-3 OKC Thunder guard has been averaging incredible numbers: 31 PPG, 10.3 APG and 10.4 RPG. Against Memphis last Friday, he recorded his 25th triple-double. If he continues at this pace, he’ll become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to achieve double-figure in rebounds, assists and points. Consider this: Westbrook is achieving triple-double stats while averaging 31 points per game.

“Such a feat (is) a remarkable achievement.. if not the greatest individual season in NBA history,” said Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports.

So what’s the controversy with Westbrook? It’s this: While he’s en route to possibly winning the year’s MVP trophy — Westbrook was not picked to start for the West in the All-Star Game. He’ll be a reserve, waiting in the bench, clapping for the First 5 to jump ball.

“It is what it is,” Westbrook said. “That’s the nature of the business, the game. I just play. I don’t play for All-Star bids. I play to win championships and every night I compete at a high level, and it’ll work out. I just continue doing what I’m doing and play the game the right way, and everything else will work out.”

Here’s what happened: For the first time, the NBA changed the rules on how the All-Star players get selected. The voting system this season is comprised of the media (25%), the players (25%) and the fans (50%).

In summary, James Harden and Steph Curry were picked and Westbrook was dislodged. Understandably, this issue is debatable; Harden and Curry are top-notch. Still, given Westbrook’s outlandish start, he deserves to be a starter.

“His absence from the starting lineup,” said Nicholas Goss of NESN, “is arguably the worst snub in All-Star game history (in any sport).”

Agree. I’ve never been a Westbrook fan. But how can you deny someone who’s achieved triple-double in 25 of OKC’s 52 games?

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NBA Power Rankings: Who’s on top?

If you think the two finalists from last season — the Cavs and Warriors — are tops after three weeks, you’re slightly wrong. Cleveland, no thanks to LeBron sitting out in their defeat to Indiana, lost twice and won 10 times. Golden State sports a similar record. Impressive.

But not as remarkable as the Los Angeles Clippers. Is the team owned by billionaire Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO, for real? En route to their 11-2 record, they obliterated the Trailblazers, 111-80, humiliated the Spurs by 24 points and against the hapless Kings yesterday, the Sacramento squad was hopeless.

Wrapping up Week 4 of the season’s 82 weeks, it’s the Clippers at the No. 1 spot followed jointly by Kevin Durant’s team and Kyrie Irving’s group. Sitting in No. 4 is the Spurs, winner of their last five and sporting a 10-3 scorecard. Fifth spot is handed to the Atlanta Hawks (9-3). No surprises in the Top 5.

With the Clippers, you may ask, what’s different and better this season, other than the triumvirate excellence of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan? The addition of Marreese Speights. Wrote Andrew Sharp and Rohan Nadkarni for SI.com: “Mo Buckets is a solid 98% responsible for the Clippers’ hot start. Who else can give you such a perfect combination of mean mugs and line-drive threes off the bench? … Seriously, I have no clue why Golden State let Speights walk, especially considering he signed for the minimum.”

As hot as the Clippers are, we know that they are less glittery and popular compared to the other Los Angeles squad. This belongs to the “over-performing” Lakers.

Who’d have expected that the Lakers would win three of their first four games, including a 20-point drubbing of their California neighbors, the Warriors? While they lost yesterday to the Spurs (mainly because D’Angelo Russell, with his 16.8 PPG average, was out with a sore knee), the Lakers are still carrying a surprising 7-win, 6-loss clip.

Kudos to our Filipino-American star Jordan Clarkson. The 6-foot-5 guard whose mom Annette is half-Filipina is averaging 15 points per game. Without Kobe Bryant in the spotlight, this youthful team has blossomed.

“We’ve kind of moved on,” Clarkson said of the post-Kobe era. “It’s almost like breaking up with your girlfriend. It’s kind of weird without them around and stuff. But it’s just us. We’re in our own space now. We’re creating something new.”

DEROZAN. Moving to the individual statistics, who have performed best?

For points, it’s the Raptors’ shooting guard DeMar DeRozan with 33.3 PPG, followed by Russell Westbrook (31.8) and Anthony Davis (30.5).

With DeRozan, what’s fascinating is that he’s accumulating points (including two 40-point games) minus the use of 3-pointers. Beyond the arc, he’s only made six shots in 11 games! So unlike last year’s top-scorer, Mr. Curry.

“I don’t shoot 3s because I choose not to shoot 3s,” DeRozan said. “If I shoot them, I know I can make them. I feel like every time I get the ball I can get to the rim or I can get fouled. That’s just what my mindset is.”

Paul Flannery of SBNation.com added: “DeRozan is one of my favorite players because he’s A) a really nice guy and B) he makes everyone so damn mad with his style of play. It’s like they take it personally when he pulls up from mid-range. How dare he!”

With Anthony Davis, while his Pelicans are the second-to-the-lowest team in the West (3-10), he’s tops with 2.91 blocks per game. And while you’d consider Russell Westbrook as a ball hogger and selfish I-can-do-it-all player, his 31.8 PPG average is complemented by a league second-best in assists, 9.8 APG. Not bad, especially after somebody said this of him earlier this week: “I am truly a fan of his. If you can ever say – being as we’re so many years apart – that when I watch him play, I see a lot of resemblance of his passion for the game of basketball, the way I played the game of basketball.”

The man complimenting Westbrook? Michael Jordan.

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Sweep 16 for the Cavs and LeBron?

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(Photo by Tony Dejak/AP)

Like Boston and LA, or Crispa versus Toyota, or the Red Sox against the Yankees in baseball, or La Salle-Ateneo, or the Spanish neighbors Barcelona and Real Madrid — we all crave for rivalries.

Are we en route to seeing another mega-clash when Cleveland meets Golden State in The Finals starting June 2? Yes. While the Game 1 shocker of OKC was an aberration that will be corrected this week, all hopes and bets point to a repeat of last year’s final.

Here’s the interesting narrative: While Golden State shattered the record of Michael Jordan & Co. by winning 73 this regular season, it’s not them but Cleveland who’s been spotless in the playoffs.

Ten-oh. Will be it 11-0 this morning when the super-confident Cavs play in Canada? I wouldn’t bet my dog Bolt against it.  All season long, we doubted the Cavs. Kyrie Irving was absent for the first 23 games, recovering from a fractured kneecap. They fired David Blatt in January — and it’s never a good omen when you terminate a head coach midway through the intramurals.

It turns out — possibly like our political scene — that change is good. Since Tyronn Lue assumed the coaching honors, the team from Ohio has become, like the Olympic motto… faster, higher, stronger. They’re obliterating the East with a winning margin of 13.4 points per game. Their 10-zero record is the third-longest ever to begin the playoffs.

One major reason, scribes have written, was because in the beginning of his stint, Lue confronted LeBron James to “STFU.” If you don’t know what that means, experiment with an expletive-laden line that begins with “Shut the…” The coach meant to set the tone early with the 4-time MVP, as if to tell him, “Hey, ‘Bron, you may be the orchestra’s star violinist, but I’m the conductor.”

With Kevin Love healthy and Kyrie’s injuries healed, the Cavaliers have transformed themselves not only as challengers but as true title-holder contenders (the latest odds by pollster Nate Silver still puts GSW on top with a 44 percent chance of winning the trophy against 30% for the Cavs).

Now 10-0, can the Cavs go all the way and win 16-0? There’s a funny story of how LeBron’s “prediction” is coming true. Six weeks ago, he was asked by ESPN if the Cavs are ready to do battle for 20 to 25 games in the playoffs.

LeBron turned to his seatmate.

“Tristan (Thompson), how many games do we need to win in the playoffs to win a championship?” James asked.

“Sixteen,” Thompson said.

“Exactly,” James told the reporter. “Sixteen.”

Ha-ha. Almost impossible to “Sweep 16” but it’s not improbable. (Just a far-fetched thought: If they win their next six, they’ll steal this record-breaking season from GSW. The best-ever playoff run belongs to the 2001 Lakers who went 15-1.)

The main question amidst all these queries is this: Can Stephen Curry stay healthy?

Everybody but the Ohioans hope so. It would be a pity if he’s hobbled and not 111 percent. Thus far, Curry has missed six of 12 playoff games. And, if the ankle injury and the MCL sprain weren’t enough, he jumped into the stands in Game 2 against OKC that resulted in a “tennis ball” knot on his right arm. Ouch.

SC’s painful response? He inflicted pain on OKC; the league’s first unanimous MVP scoring 15 points in two minutes. Curry has to stay healthy. In the same way that LeBron went solo 12 months ago when he dribbled without Love and Irving, the same thing can’t happen to GSW. To fans of both squads, the perfect scenario would be having both teams injury-free in the finals.

(If you think I’m getting ahead of myself by discounting the Thunder, yes, that’s what I’m predicting. Based on the most forecaster Nate Silver, the Warriors have a 59 percent chance of advancing to the NBA Finals.)

Back to our assumption… A Warriors-Cavaliers finale will be one of the most exciting sporting events (not limited to the NBA) this decade. With no offense meant to OKC, I hope Durant and Westbrook don’t silence Golden State’s thunder.

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Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry

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Even Hollywood, whose calls the Los Angeles Lakers as neighbor, could not have scripted a better ending.

Sixty points! 73-9!

Kobe Bryant, starting out as a lanky 17-year-old fresh off high school, played with one and only one of the NBA’s 32 teams. He’s loyal. But beyond his 100 percent allegiance to the gold-and-purple team, he’s produced numbers that will rank him among the greatest: 5-time NBA champ, 18-time All-Star, 1997 Slam Dunk winner, and 2-time Olympic gold medalist.

How about shooting 30,699 times? Yes. It’s incredible how the statisticians have kept score but they counted each one of No. 24’s shots and that’s how many he took in 20 years.

And how about that final game last Thursday morning? He rallied LA from a 15-point deficit and converted on six 3-pointers and 10 free throws. In all of sports, I don’t think there’s an ending that can rival that ending.

Of Kobe’s goodbye, the game was so in-demand that one fan reportedly paid $27,500 (P1.26 million) for a ticket. And guess how much worth of Kobe merchandise the Staples Center sold that day? $1.2 million. That’s a single-day record for any stadium in the world (besting Led Zeppelin’s $1 million at the O2 Arena in London in 2007).

Remember those moments watching Kobe, grinning ear to ear, hugging and kissing his wife, Vanessa, and daughters, Natalia Diamante and Gianna Maria? Very touching.

That was at the Staples Center. Northward, about 370 miles farther, was a game simultaneously being played at the Oracle Arena.

Which was better to watch? Steph throwing that ball almost carelessly but always finding the net, the MVP scoring 20 and six treys in the first quarter? Or Kobe scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter?

My answer: Both. I swapped channels every other minute. (But based on the TV ratings by Nielsen, the Lakers game scored more at its peak with 5.38 million viewers compared to 4.16 million for the Warriors.)

Was this the greatest day in NBA history? I think so. There are some Game 7 cliffhangers that are more thrilling — but where can you find one night (played at the same time) when the slithery Black Mamba retires with 60 and The Baby-Faced Assasin parlays an accummulated 402 three-pointers to lead the team from Oakland/San Francisco to 73 wins?

I cannot think of a day that’s more compelling and momentous. One legend retires; one team eclipses MJ and Chicago.

Speaking of the Bulls, in their 72-10 season 20 years ago, they did one thing that the Warriors have yet to achieve: win the season’s very last game. If, for some unfortunate scenario, GSW gets upset by Houston in the first round or the Clippers in the next or gets eclipsed by LeBron and the Cavs when the finals commence starting June 2, all the hoopla disappears. As high as the season unfolded, it will be recorded as a failure. And so the pressure is on; nothing less than a back-to-back trophy is needed by cast that includes Klay, Draymond and Andre.

With Mr. Curry, the overused word “Wow” is an understatement; he’s outshining the limits of greatness. As I’ve said in the past, he should win the league’s “Most Improved Player” award. This, apart from being the first in history to be a unanimous MVP.

In one word, he’s golden. Down by a percentage point (29.9 PPG average) heading towards the last game against Memphis, he scores 46 (and sat out the entire 4th quarter). The result? It pushed his regular season average to 30.1.

His jersey number? The same. Thirty. And how about the extra “1.” That’s the sign he makes, pointing a finger to the sky to acknowledge and thank God. For as the Philippians 4:13 passage that’s enscripted in his Under Armour shoe reads: “I can do all things… (through Christ who strengthens me).”

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The state of the golden Warriors

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(Photo by Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

Oh, no. Given an astronomical 85 percent chance by the oddsmakers of winning at least 73 games prior to their outing yesterday against the Boston Celtics, the Golden State Warriors lost. Now, the age-old saying, “Every game counts,” is more than consequential. It’s imperative.

GSW now stands at 68-8. The math is simple: Win the next five or six and they best the all-time record set by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1996. If they lose two out of six, they equal the record. Worse than that and it’s huge, huge disappointment for the defending champions.

Yesterday, when Steph Curry unleashed that 28-footer with 5.3 seconds left in the ballgame, we all believed it would land inside the hole. Wasn’t this the MVP who made six consecutive threes in the 3rd quarter?

Curry missed. He’s human. “Every one of them I think is going down,” said Curry. “But it didn’t.”

Golden State trailed most of the game. Although they converted on 20 three-point shots (imagine, that’s a total of 60 points), they committed too many errors (Curry alone made nine of the team’s 22 turnovers). Boston played well; they drove the lane often for uncontested lay-ups and played tough all throughout. They weren’t rattled, even if the Warriors had never lost at home the last 54 games (and 14 months).

The heartbreaking sequence involved Draymond Green: While he stole the ball from Amir Johnson with 30 seconds to go, in the next play (seven seconds later), it was his bad play that resulted in a steal by the same Amir Johnson.

You know the saying of marathon runners? The toughest part of the 42K is the last kilometer. It’s the same for this Californian squad. As the media questions intensify and as the world’s eyes zoom towards their history-shattering feat, the pressure rises. The opponents possess an I-have-nothing-to-lose mentality while the Warriors have everything to lose.

Six games remain and every one of those six meetings is crucial for GSW. What’s their schedule like? They play their next three at home (in Philippine time: against Portland on Monday, versus Minnesota on Wednesday, and against San Antonio on Friday) before a two-game road trip that takes them to Memphis (next Sunday) and San Antonio (next Monday) as they cap off the regular season with a final Oracle Arena game against Memphis.

The game against Portland tomorrow is all-important. Remember that the Blazers was one of a handful of teams to have defeated the Warriors. This was last Feb. 19 when GSW lost by 32 points. And, in that game, while Steph made 31, his nemesis Damian Lillard scored 51. The consolation for the Warriors: they lost that game not at home but at the Moda Center. Expect the Splash Brothers to avenge that defeat and their loss yesterday with a W tomorrow.

In GSW’s remaining six outings, we know which two are most pivotal: against the Spurs. And you know what the Warriors are hoping for? That coach Gregg Popovich will rest the starters. One player thinks this will happen.

“I think no one will play (against the Warriors),” said Tony Parker, in a recent French radio show. “To Pop, the most important thing is that the players are rested for the playoffs… We are sure we will be the second seed and we can all rest before the playoffs.”

If this happens (and given that they play four of the six at home), chances are that the Warriors will break the record. For sure, NBA fans worldwide will be glued to the internet or the TV to follow GSW’s finale.

What’s next? The playoffs, beginning April 16. For now, Steph Curry is compiling incredible numbers. One of those amazing stats is this: He’s averaging exactly 30.0 points per game. And you know his jersey number, right? What accuracy!

Here’s another inconceivable (but-who-knows-it-may-happen) theory: Curry will win a 2nd MVP award — plus the Most Improved Player trophy.

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All dunks and all 3-pointers among all stars

What an NBA All-Star Weekend! First, the 3-Point Shootout. Who would have bet that it wouldn’t come down to a Splash Brother vs. Splash Brother contest? It did. Steph Curry buried 23 points in the final and, with the pressure on the sweet-shooting hands of Klay Thompson, the 6-foot-7 son of former pro Mychal Thompson did not disappoint. Klay converted 19 of 25 in the final round for a record-tying 27 points. In all, he shot a whopping 74 percent. Incredible.

The Slam Dunk Contest? Wow. Have we seen a more electrifying mano-a-mano than the one we witnessed last Sunday morning? While defending champ Zach LaVine was the favorite, nobody expected Aaron Gordon to flutter his wings, drift on air and swoop down for those monstrous slams. (In an online survey which pitted LaVine/Gordon against the 1998 rivalry between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, the oldies got clobbered: they garnered 11,000+ votes while last Saturday’s high-flying skirmish scored over 30,000.)

I don’t know about you but I thought that the 6-foot-9, 20-year-old from the Orlando Magic won. One article penned it just right: “Aaron Gordon is the greatest dunk contest loser of all time.” That sums up my sentiments, too; and my wife Jasmin’s, who sat beside me in jaw-dropping awe at his acrobatics.

Gordon scored a perfect 50. That singular dunk — sprinting to steal the ball from the green magic dragon’s spinning hand, swirling to a 360-degree turn, holding his left hand at the back of his head and slamming the ball one-handed — that lone move has to rank as one the greatest of dunks since Larry Nance won the first Slam Dunk competition in 1984. But, no. Zach LaVine matched his 50. And, after several more make-shift, on-the-spot acrobats, LaVine defeated Gordon. Too bad.

ALL-STAR GAME. Finally, Valentine’s Day in North America, it was the most awaited game — possibly other than those played in the NBA Finals.

The setting was historic: Toronto, Canada. Although it was the first-ever All-Star hosting for a city outside the U.S., this I didn’t know until yesterday: Canada invented basketball. It was Dr. James Naismith, born in Canada, who invented the game of basketball in 1891. And this you probably also didn’t know: the first NBA game (on Nov. 1, 1946) wasn’t played on U.S. soil but in Toronto. And so the 65th staging of the All-Star Game was a homecoming.

What a scoring exhibition! You thought the Slam Dunk and 3-Point Shootout contests were conducted Saturday night? No, it was Sunday night. Dunks reverberated inside the Air Canada Centre as Chris Paul lobbed balls to Anthony Davis for the slam, as Dwayne Wade flew on air for a millisecond before tossing the ball to a soaring LeBron James for a ring-destroying boom.

Fifteen-footers were disallowed. All shots had to be dunks and three-pointers. From beyond the arc, what a shooting display by these best of the world’s best. By game’s end, the East converted 20 three-pointers while the West made 31. For the West, can you imagine scoring 93 points in a game — just on 3-pointers? Curry shot six, James Harden shot seven, Chris Paul made four, Paul George made nine and Russell Westbrook coverted on seven — and these are just 3-pointers.

On Westbrook, this guy is buaya. He attempted 40 times. (By comparison, Kobe Bryant only attempted 16 shots.) Sure, Westbrook topscored with 31 — but he’s too much of a one-man act. He wanted to repeat as MVP and he got it. My choice? Although the East lost, I’d have chosen Paul George, who scored 41.

The game was so fast-paced that when I switched to the next TV channel — Solar Sports showing a replay of the Gilas vs. Kuwait game — it felt like slow-motion. The All-Star Game was fast-forward, all offense and no defense. Another statistic that’s unbelievable: The East shot only 3-of-5 from the free throw while the West made 1-of-2. Nobody was fouling; nobody wanted to get hurt. Overall, it was pure basketball entertainment. My only regret? The East not scoring 200.

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This Valentine’s, a lovefest for Kobe Bryant

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On the 20th anniversary of his NBA career, Kobe Bean Bryant is saying farewell. His 37-year-old body is battered. His pro career began on Nov. 3, 1996 when, at the age of 18 years and 72 days, he became the youngest ever to dribble a basketball in the world’s premier league.

Fast forward two decades later, Kobe has amassed so many records that it would fill the entire Sun.Star sports section: League MVP (2008). Five-time champs with the Lakers, 2000-2002 and 2009-2010. Eleven times All-NBA First Team. Nine times All-Defensive First Team. Slam Dunk winner in 1997. Two Olympic gold medals (Beijing and London). Twice the league’s scoring leader, in 2006 and 2007. And possibly the achievements that stand out the tallest: 18 times an NBA All-Star and four times the All-Star MVP.

Speaking of All-Star, you know what’s happening this weekend. It’s that one moment of the whole year when all the world’s greatest basketball artists gather to dunk, slam high-fives, laugh and clap and celebrate each other’s greatness.

And no greater star shines brightest this weekend than the retiring Mr. Bryant. He amassed 1.89 million All-Star votes (besting Steph Curry’s 1.6M). It’s Valentine’s and all the love is showered upon the Los Angeles luminary whose stardom in the city that houses Hollywood rivals that of Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith.

Over 750,000,000 TV viewers are expected to watch the various activities of the NBA All-Star and all eyeballs will be centered on this shooting guard who played all his 20 years with the same squad. Yes, think about it: In this era when LeBron James jumped from Cleveland to Miami and back, when players hop from one city to another based on who offers the largest millions, Kobe has remained loyal to one and only one gold-and-purple team.

Of his longevity, Kobe said this the other day: “I’m looking around the room and I’m seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like 4 for my first All-Star game. How many players can say they played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations? It’s not sad at all.”

Amidst the standing ovation when the NBA All-Star Game unfolds tomorrow morning at 9:30 (Phil. time), let’s see if Kobe doesn’t shed a tear of sadness and fulfillment.

This weekend, in effect, is not a time to honor the dozens who’ve trooped to Canada — it’s a time to honor one man who’s called by many names: KB24, Black Mamba, Kob-Me, Lord of the Rings and Mr. 81. The last nickname refers to that time when Kobe scored 81 in one game — the second-highest in NBA history, after Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. Coincidentally, those 81 points were scored 10 years ago in Toronto.

Of Toronto, the host of the All-Star Weekend, their welcoming all guests at the Air Canada Centre is historic — the first time ever for a city outside the U.S. to host.

The All-Star, as we know, is not only about one game. There are dozens of side events that culminate with the East vs. West finale. There was the Celebrity Game between Team USA and Team Canada. It featured a dunk by Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic. Another attraction was the Rising Stars Challenge featuring Team World versus Team USA. Fil-Am Jordan Clarkson scored 25 points, leading the US to a high-scoring 157-154 win.

Today (Sunday, Phil. time), we can witness three exhilirating events: the Skills Challenge, the Three-Point Contest and the Slam Dunk competition.

Everybody is waiting for Zach Levine’s gravity-defying second act; he’s hoping to become the first back-to-back Slam Dunk champ since Nate Robinson. But the most anticipated contest is the one “from downtown.” It’s the long-range shootfest that will feature eight beyond-the-arc experts, among them Stephen Curry, his teammate Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kyle Lowry, J.J. Redick. Last year, Curry scored 27 (the highest ever output since the contest started in 1985). Can he repeat? Let’s watch the action today at 9 a.m. Then, tomorrow, it’s the All-Kobe Show.

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Categorized as NBA