Why the three-point competition is the new slam dunk contest

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Just in case you were wondering whether the three-pointer has supplanted the dunk as the shot of choice, check Kevin Hart/Draymond Green’s heated twitter battle.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Remember Jordan vs. Dominique? Kenny “Sky” Walker’s ball through spandex’d legs in the air? Spud Webb frozen in time like thirty feet over the hardwood (all five foot seven of him) ready to mini-windmill his way to immortality? Dee Brown pumping it up? Young Kobe winning without trying? Vince Carter shaking the entire arena? And Blake Griffin (kind of) jumping over a Kia?

Yeah, for nearly two decades the Slam Dunk Competition was one of the more noteworthy sideshows in all sport. There were off years (I’m looking at you Cedric Ceballos and Jason Richardson and Jeremy Evans), but there are only so many things a man can do with a ball and a hoop and a bunch of people in the crowd pinching their warm Bud Lights between their eye teeth while holding up arbitrary Gatorade-sponsored number cards.

So they threw in the 3 Point Shootout and later the skills competition to fill out the TNT All-Star Saturday lineup this weekend in Toronto, both of which were met with slightly less anticipation than the final season of Glee.

Then the Splash Brothers happened.

In 2012-’13, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson set the record for most three-pointers (483) by a NBA pair. The next season, they became the first teammates to finish first and second in three-pointers, with 261 and 223, respectively. They also extended their combined three-pointer record by one (484), and together averaged 42.4 points per game.

Last season, they got a new coach, finished one/two in the All Star Weekend 3 Point Shootout Contest sponsored by Foot Locker (which, among other things, lets me know Foot Locker still exists) and won their first championship together.

Curry, the defending shootout champion, hit 13 in a row last year to best Thompson and Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving in the final. This year, all three will be back along with Clippers guard J.J. Redick, Bucks swingman Khris Middleton, Rockets guard James Harden, Heat forward Chris Bosh, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Suns guard Devin Booker. Notably missing will be Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard—who percentage-wise is currently the league’s best three-point shooter.

Why’s he missing out on the chance to go ABA money-ball ballistic behind the arc Saturday? If his curmudgeonly coach Gregg Popovich is to be believed, it’s because the three ball isn’t true basketball. “I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don’t we have a 5-point shot? A 7-point shot? You know, where does it stop, that sort of thing.”

Followed by this disclaimer: “But that’s just me, that’s just old-school. To a certain degree, you better embrace it or you’re going to lose. And every time we’ve won a championship, the 3-point shot was a big part of it. Because it is so powerful and you’ve gotta be able to do it. And nobody does it better than Golden State, and you know where they’re at. So it’s important. You can’t ignore it.”

Or maybe Leonard thinks a hand in the face would be a more fair way to run that contest. After all, along with being able to shoot ‘em, he and his Spurs give up the least amount of 3-pointers in the NBA.

Regardless of who’s participating beyond Curry, what makes the 3 Point Shootout work in 2016 is what originally made the dunk contest appointment basketball. There were dunks before Larry Nance picked up a ball signed by first-year commish David Stern in ‘84 and did a couple nice reverses (not to mention the “double-dunk”). There have been dunks after Michael Jordan floated impossibly along the tops of the hometown hearts and minds like Daisuke Katō in Seven Samurai on February 7, 1988. There, the 23 to end all 23s was in short shorts, running full court, taking off (just after) the free-throw line and putting together the type of immortal truth that has to be dissected frame by frame—like a Kubrick movie—to be fully understood.

But what the halcyon days of the dunk contest showed is that, unfettered, anything was possible on the basketball court. The term slam dunk—coined by Lakers’ play-by-play guy Chick Hearn in the late ‘70s and perfected in the fast-break Showtime ‘80s with a “no look pass from Magic, slaaaaaam dunk!”—for almost three decades was the game’s most utilitarian way to score. Jordan and his surrogates made it beautiful.

Curry is having his Jordanesque moment and not just because he’s surrounded by the right supporting pieces and coached by a former teammate of His Airness. He’s bending the game to his liking a way that hasn’t happened since Jordan and co. during the Bulls’ prime (1988-1993). He’s not only using the longball to do it, but he’s making it beautiful—this time from the perimeter instead of the paint.

The NBA three-point line is drawn 22 feet from the basket which for three or four generations of player was just far enough out that only specialists like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller thrived with any kind of consistency. Fast break meant take it to the hole, not pull up from 30 feet and fire while your power forwards are still entangled in a mess of laces and legs on the other end.

The conceit of the three-pointer is now beyond parlor trick, old school vs. new school or something you do when you’re feeling it. It’s a cornerstone of the game. Nobody took the three seriously enough up until about game six of the NBA finals last year when all of a sudden the sport’s most vocal pundits—from Sir Charles to Stephen A.—started to backpedal faster than whomever’s supposed to be picking up KD on a fast break. The three’s rise to prominence, unlike the dunk, is a result of fundamental basketball. It used to be three steps in the lane, a monster jam and a hopeful no offensive foul call, mouth wide open, jersey collar popping and cut away to the house party bubbling over on the sideways; the bench whipping towels into a gas station car wash frenzy.

The three elicits a different reaction. It can get the crowd up, yes. It can even make a man skip. But the action of it and the purity of its form is much less deliberate while being much more effective in tipping the score. The peer groups in the NBA didn’t let the three unleash because, well, it was the result of passing and timing—not necessarily of singular talent the league is so synonymous with celebrating.

It wasn’t what you did as a street kid balling in Rucker Park or messing around on NBA Jams. It was just drive and dunk and drive and dunk. Now you go out and the kids are passing around the perimeter. With apologies to Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle, step back and let it go in a Skittles-dripping rainbow just wasn’t sexy. Until, well, until you watched Steph Curry combine The Stroke with ball handling born from the And-1 Mixtape era and passes with more touch on them than Bob Ross criss-crossing his way to a perfect sky. In other words, it’s not the three as a stand-alone event, but as part of the overall game that finally put it in the spotlight. It’s like Christie Brinkley with the Ferrari sipping a bottle of pilsner. Seperately, those are all great things: fast red Italian car/swimsuit model/ice cold hopped beverage. Together, it’s the embodiment of something very elusive but seemingly approachable.

The three ball is as close as we’ll ever get to watching our best fantasy selves come to life because everyone, somewhere inside, has the ability to heave one and hope.

 

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