LOS ANGELES — Heading into All-Star Saturday Night, Donovan Mitchell said that the Verizon Slam Dunk contest promised to be “the most star-struck I will be ever in my life.”
“I’ve been watching this since I was like, eight,” the Utah Jazz rookie phenom told Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune. “And now that I’ll be a part of it, it’ll be crazy.”
Mitchell ensured Saturday that he’ll be a part of it forever, outpointing Cleveland Cavaliers big man Larry Nance Jr. in the final round to go down in history as the winner of the NBA’s 33rd annual slam dunk contest.
In the two-round contest, participants get three tries to perform any dunk they want, with five judges scoring every dunk on a scale of six to 10. (This year’s judges were kind of an odd crew, ranging from the respectable and understandable — Hall of Famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Lisa Leslie — to, um, Mark Wahlberg, DJ Khaled and Chris Rock.) All four competitors got two dunks in the first round, with the two dunkers who tallied the highest combined scores advancing to the head-to-head final round.
Mitchell and Nance advanced to the finals by outshining Indiana Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo and rookie Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks.
Oladipo stumbled out of the gate in Round 1, attempting an ambitious off-the-bounce, two-handed reverse windmill, but missing all three of his tries to start behind the 8-ball with a 31:
He tried to make up the lost points by making a savvy pop-culture pull with his second attempt, having “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman bless him with a Black Panther mask …
… before taking to the paint, cocking the ball behind his head, pumping it, swinging it around and throwing down a two-hand slam. Evidently, though, the judges weren’t swayed enough by the nod to Wakanda to ignore that he missed his first try, as Oladipo snagged just a 40, ending his night early. (Given that he’s working Sunday night this year for the first time in his career, maybe that’s for the best.)
The electric Smith also got off to a somewhat rocky start by coming up short on his first attempt, an attempted 360-degree windmill from the right-hand side of the court. He changed course for his second try, switching to the left-hand side and going with a somewhat safer double-pump reverse:
It still looked cool, but not enough for the judges to award it top marks, as they granted it a 39.
Smith brought the goods for his second dunk, though, turning in an incredibly difficult, technically impressive and flat-out fool throwdown — racing in from the right, spinning against the grain for a 360, then going through his legs from his right hand to his left, and spiking it down with his off-hand.
He missed the first try, but nailed the second, earning the evening’s first perfect 50 from the judges for a total of 89 first-round points.
The degree of difficulty.
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Smith might have had the best single dunk of the night, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the more consistent early-round performances by Mitchell and Nance.
The Jazz rookie started the evening by unveiling a second basket, just behind the main one on the court at Staples Center, throwing the ball off that backboard, catching it in mid-air, windmilling it, and slamming it on the other basket:
That earned Mitchell a 48, meaning a solid second effort would likely send him through to the finals. He decided to call in some help to get him there.
First, he donned a Darrell “Dr. Dunkenstein” Griffith Jazz throwback uniform — complete with very short shorts — and tried to throw down an off-the-backboard dunk, but came up empty. So he switched things up, pulling three people out of the crowd — his little sister Jordan, comedian Kevin Hart, and Hart’s son — and having them crouch in the lane under the rim while a helper threw him a pass off the side of the backboard. Mitchell flew in from the baseline, corralled the pass with one hand and crushed it:
That got Mitchell the night’s second 50, giving him a total of 98 points and moving him onto the finals.
There, he’d face Nance, who opened the competition by enlisting beloved halftime act Quick Change to help him pull off a costume switcheroo, shedding his Cavs warmups for a Phoenix Suns throwback uniform — short shorts, high socks, the whole bit — so he could pay homage to his father, 1984 Dunk Contest champion Larry Nance Sr., by rocking the cradle:
Junior missed his first try but hit his second, earning a 44 from the panel of judges. On his second dunk, he nodded to Vince Carter’s sainted 2000 contest, flying in from under the basket to throw down a giant windmill:
That impressed the judges enough to earn him a 49 — DJ Khaled, a notoriously tough critic (I guess?), was the lone dissenter — which gave him 93 total, enough to move on the finals.
Nance went back to the father-son well to open the finals, having Dad throw him a lob pass in the lane. After a false start — Senior wasn’t exactly a lob passer, you know? — Nance successfully caught it and threw down a very big windmill:
It was loud, but not that loud. The judges gave it a 46.
Mitchell had some trouble getting his off-the-backboard toss right on his first dunk in the final. He nailed it on the third try, though, catching his self-alley-oop waaaaay back on the way down, and brings it all the way back with a one-handed hammer:
Nance knew he needed something special on his second dunk … and, to his credit, he delivered:
He lobbed it to himself off the glass, caught the ball with two hands, put it back off the glass with two hands, and then dunked it, a double-tap that called to mind Dwight Howard’s version from the 2008 contest. It earned Nance a 50, giving him 96 total points and putting Mitchell’s back against the wall a bit; he’d need a 47 or better to win. So he, too, reached back to Vince’s 2000 contest for some inspiration … and for a wardrobe assist.
Mitchell yanked off his Jazz jersey, unveiling a purple-dinosaur Vinsanity throwback, and threw down his version of Carter’s unforgettable 360 reverse windmill dunk, following it up with Vince’s signature “it’s over” throat slash. Mitchell didn’t get up as high as Carter did back in 2000 — I mean, who has? — but he did enough, earning a 48 from the judges to best Nance and get crowned the champion of the evening’s main event.
“I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know?” Mitchell said after his victory. “And actually, funny story is, I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. […] But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”
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