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Three Lessons from the Raptors at All-Star Weekend

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Though there was no Raptors basketball played, there was plenty to learn from All-Star weekend. The Elam Ending fascinated, Kyle Lowry wowed, and the dunk contest left us cold.

NBA: All Star Game-Team Lebron at Team Giannis Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Every NBA season is a learning experience. We gather information about players, teams, and the game itself, and take away lasting lessons from this information. As fans of the Toronto Raptors, the lessons that we care about involve the team north of the border. Each week, this column will identify and explain new lessons that we learned about our favourite team from the last week of action.

With no actual Raptors basketball occurring since last week’s lessons, this iteration will draw from All-Star Weekend. In doing so, I will examine one Raptors-centric lesson and two lessons learned about the general All-Star festivities. We begin with the new ending tested out in the game:

1. The Elam Ending is Fascinating, and More Illuminating Than We Thought

To get a thorough explanation of the Elam Ending, its conception, its purpose, and where you might see it, check out Zach Lowe’s excellent piece on it. If you’re tight for time, however, I’ll try my best to give a quick synopsis. When three minutes remain in the game, the clock shuts off. Seven points are added to the winning team’s score, and that becomes the target score. For example, in a 105-102 game, whichever team reaches 112 first wins, as that is 105 with seven points added.

By switching the end of game format to pursuit of a target score as opposed to timing on a clock, Nick Elam’s goal was to maintain the aesthetic flow of a good basketball game in the closing minutes by eliminating a comeback strategy born out of necessity.

That strategy, of course, is intentional fouling in hopes of some missed free throws and an essential guarantee of getting the ball back much quicker so the trailing team will have more time to mount their comeback. It slows down the game and make for an unappealing few minutes for the viewer. With a target score, however, that trailing team does not have to worry about the time, and instead, it is in their best interest to focus on playing good defense without fouling. The Elam Ending in its ideal form eliminates the constant stoppages that come with the traditional end of the basketball game, and allows for high-paced, consistent action until the final buzzer, or, rather, the final swish.

The All-Star Game slightly altered the format in a tribute to Kobe Bryant, as 24 points were added to the winning team’s score after three quarters to determine the target score. This created an extended Elam Ending, with roughly 40 minutes of untimed basketball, and it was truly a success. In a game where true competition is rare, the heat of battle that this format created is typically only reserved for the playoffs.

The format naturally added an element of pressure and intensity. The defense ratcheted up significantly, and the offensive players looked apprehensive. The players acted like any slip up could swing the game, because, well, they could. They gave full effort in the fourth quarter, as the tension of the format brought out the innate competitor that is inside every professional athlete much more than any had predicted. In addition to being entertaining, the Elam Ending clearly created, as I mentioned a moment ago, a playoff-like environment.

When projecting the playoffs, analysts always like to talk about what will happen “when the game slows down, and defenses tighten up.” If the All-Star Game is any indication, the implementation of the Elam Ending in the NBA will give us many three-minute samples of what that might look like for many teams. We often question what will and will not translate from the regular season to the playoffs, and this format might create a clearer picture.

In the playoffs, some players shine with the added weight, and others shrink. Some strategies fall apart, and others thrive. Perhaps the Elam Ending was what we needed all along to discover which players were most suited to that intensity.

On that topic, I would not be doing my job if I did not mention two perennial regular season killers who have underachieved in the playoffs struggled in this format. Giannis, dominant in the first three quarters, disappeared offensively, although his defense remained impressive. James Harden also struggled, and showed some bizarre decision making on a possession that could have ended the game — can we say he got Elamboozled?

Yes, it was just one game, and the All-Star game for that matter, but that stood out to me, and that environment was created by the Elam Ending. Whether or not that holds up if this is ever implemented in the NBA, the format is intriguing. The biggest complaint I hear from casual basketball fans involves the pace of the final minutes and all of the fouling, and this is a wonderful way to eradicate that. Tradition aside, it creates a better product, and you can move me firmly into the pro-Elam Ending camp, even if it is years away from even being considered in a normal NBA game.

2. New All-Star format is a Much Better Fit for Kyle Lowry

Believe it or not, the Elam Ending was a perfect fit for the World’s Angriest Toddler. Though a well-deserving six-time All-Star, Kyle Lowry’s skill set had never really lent itself to an exciting All-Star Weekend individually.

A career 37 percent three-point shooter, his shooting has never translated to the 3-point shootout, and he has turned in some truly horrendous performances in that contest. Though I believe he could still dunk if he wanted to, he has never had the ups or the flash for the dunk contest. In the game itself, he has shot like it was Game 1 at home in the playoffs, averaging 10 points and shooting 19-52 overall prior to Sunday night’s game. Those numbers are helped significantly by a 19-point performance on 7-of-11 shooting in 2017.

It makes sense that Lowry has not thrived in this environment. The All-Star game of late had become a showcase of dunks, crossovers, and wild shot attempts. It has more resembled a supercharged game of HORSE than a competitive basketball game. Lowry’s lack of panache in his game has made his only ticket to All-Star Game relevance hot shooting from 3. Other than the 2017 game, however, this just has not happened.

Much has been written about the little things that Lowry does to impact winning so there is no need to dive into detail, but putting in the effort to do those little things in a glorified pickup game has been faux pas unless you want to look like Bradley Cooper in the Wedding Crashers football scene:

That is until the Elam Ending was implemented for this game. In the fourth, the game tightened up, and the little things that Kyle Lowry does loomed large. Every possession was crucial and plays that could swing one of those possession’s changed the status of the game.

After absorbing a full-speed LeBron to the chest without getting a charging call, Lowry doubled down on his playing style. He got the charge call in another transition play and then, when isolated on James Harden, the foul drawer became the foul drawee. Lowry baited Harden into a charge on a play that was far more exciting than any lazy alley-oop.

His physical play also cost Team Giannis a couple possessions down the line, but at that point, his impact had already been felt, and his presence — largely questioned on Twitter — justified.

I thought it was highlight reel plays and athletic marvels that made the All-Star game fun. All along, it was grit and competition that brought the game to another level. The game format forced every player to tighten up, and Lowry was among the few who looked comfortable in the pressure cooker that the fourth quarter became. In my opinion, Lowry was the most exciting player in the final frame.

I hope this becomes a trend, and Lowry rides this momentum and starts dominating All-Star Weekend into the twilight of his career. Perhaps he has done enough to justify a Kyle Lowry Skills Competition, involving taking charges, getting continuation calls, and contesting layups in transition without fouling. I would absolutely watch that over the current iteration.

3. The Dunk Contest is Broken

Just as in 2016, Aaron Gordon had the more memorable dunking performance in this year’s contest but found himself on the losing end yet again (don’t underrate Zach Lavine’s 2016 performance, however, as that was also otherworldly.) Aaron Gordon losing by leaping over a 7’5” (!) Tacko Fall after a bizarre judging decision where one of the five seemingly went rogue was enough to once again call the format of the contest into question.

Now, everybody and their mother has a solution, and I would like to throw mine into the hat. The problem with the contest lies with the perfect score, a 50-point dunk. When the judges see a spectacular dunk, I understand the inclination to give it a 10/10. Heck, if I saw this, I’m sure I would too!

If every judge follows suit, the dunker gets a score of 50. What happens, however, when the next dunker does something better? Look at the history of the dunk contest, and you’ll see just how wide of a disparity there is in 50-point dunks. Some are good, some are great, and some will absolutely blow you away.

So why not wait?

Why not wait for the round of dunking to finish, then rank the dunks? I understand that it may take away from the instant gratification of a 50 after an amazing dunk, and recency bias may incline the judges the pick the most recent dunk. If they have time to watch them back however, the judges are more likely to come up with the right answer and crown the proper winner. As far as the excitement of an instant 50 score goes, the excitement comes more from the dunk itself anyways.

Another concern might be the elimination of the dunk-off. Though we’ve only seen it this year and in that 2016 classic, it certainly is exhilarating. That can stay as well! If the judges truly believe there is a tie and they need to see more, send it to a dunk off!

If the game can have the Elam Ending, why not change up the dunk contest as well and try to eliminate injustices?

Bonus Lesson!

If you win a title, then lose the best player in the world and another starter, then lead an injury riddled roster to a 40-15 record on your way to being head coach of an All-Star team, you can play whoever you damn well please in crunch time.