Even Splash Brothers Can't Overshadow Greatest NBA Dunk Contest Showdown Ever

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterFebruary 14, 2016

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13:  Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic and Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves react after the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Last year, Zach LaVine put the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest back on the map. This year, he and Aaron Gordon torched the map and drew their own.

After all of the hubbub over Klay Thompson upending Stephen Curry's pursuit of a Three-Point Contest title defense, LaVine held onto his crown by the thread of a few loose points from a star-studded panel of judges.

Not that Saturday night's second competition was at all a snoozefest.

Curry, last year's shooting champion, eked his way into the final round before Thompson stole the show—and the crown—from his fellow Splash Brother. Thompson hit eight straight shots, including his entire money-ball rack, to not only trounce Curry but also tie his Golden State Warriors teammate's final-round record of 27.

Having two All-Stars and championship teammates squaring off for the title added plenty of juice to the three-point contest. So did stocking the roster with recognizable names, from fellow All-Stars James Harden and Kyle Lowry to J.J. Redick—one of the league's deadliest marksmen by percentage.

That's a credit to just how much the three-point shot has done to revolutionize the NBA. Where once the stars of the game were synonymous with those who could most defy gravity—think Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James—those ranks are now replete with long-range assassins, with Curry chief among them.

But there's only so much excitement to be squeezed from launching balls from racks rather than over the best efforts of suffocating defenders in live game action. There's only so much room for ingenuity when the task of shooting from beyond the arc is whittled down to a science.

Dunking, on the other hand, is an art ripe for experimentation, no matter the venue. The thrill isn't just in seeing who wins, but how that victory is achieved. The suspense stems not from hot or cold streaks the likes of which have been seen before, but from superhumans pushing the bounds of imagination and athletic prowess all at once.

The dunk contest itself eschews the precision of shooting for pure showmanship, which LaVine expressed, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

So while Golden State's Splash Brothers pushed the three-point envelope about as far as it could go, LaVine and Gordon showed that, as far as anyone knows, there is no limit to what can happen when you combine a four-foot vertical leap, a standard Spalding, a hoop and the stakes that come with performing in front of millions of eager eyeballs.

LaVine and Gordon took distinct approaches to wowing the crowd. Gordon shined with props and assists. LaVine, on the other hand, flashed his hops with minimal distraction.

Gordon, a second-year forward for the Orlando Magic, set a new standard for mascot participation. His second-round dunk (a 49) and his first two of the final round (both 50s) featured Stuff the Magic Dragon on a hoverboard, holding the ball however Gordon saw fit. According to Gordon, he and Stuff are now "like best friends," per J.A. Adande of ESPN.com:

Once Gordon had used up all of the ammunition in Stuff's chamber, he brought out Magic teammate Elfrid Payton to bounce the ball off the corner of the basket to set up a spinning, two-handed slam. For his final feat, Gordon flew in from the baseline for a roller coaster of a reverse dunk that caught everyone's attention, including Dominique Wilkins', albeit while earning a less-than-perfect 47 from the legendary panel of judges:

Normally, dunk contests don't go six jams deep. And in most years, any one of Gordon's glides would have garnered hardware.

Except, this was no normal dunk contest. Neither was this most years, not with LaVine ready to rebut Gordon at every turn. For every way Gordon had of leaping over a mascot, LaVine found his own means of reinventing flight from the free-throw line. Per Warriors big man Festus Ezeli, LaVine has secured "a deal" with gravity:

There was the lunging lob from Minnesota Timberwolves elder statesman Andre Miller for a perfect score, a windmill dunk from the stripe for another perfect score and, to close out the competition, a between-the-legs jam from just inside the line.

Somewhere, Michael Jordan was surely shedding tears of joy. In 1988, His Airness set the standard with his iconic takeoff from 16 feet out.

In 2016, LaVine raised the bar. Gordon did, too, in his own way and perhaps without consciousness, according to his comments, per CBS Sports' James Herbert:

But there was only one trophy to go around, and LaVine came through with the higher score when it mattered most, as Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated pointed out:

As it happens, the credit for both brilliant performances—and, in turn, the return of the dunk contest's All-Star Saturday dominance—might belong as much to LaVine and Gordon as it does to Chuck Millan—the founder of Team Flight Brothers. As Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg revealed:

When Orlando forward Aaron Gordon reached out through Oladipo a couple weeks ago, Millan sent the second-year pro a compilation video of six dunks never done in the contest and well suited to his Dominique Wilkins-esque style. Millan has also texted back and forth with defending champion Zach LaVine about one high-risk, high-reward dunk that not even any of the members of Team Flight Brothers have managed to pull off yet.

If outside consulting could nudge the dunk contest to new heights, perhaps the league should find some way to help the three-point shootout keep up. Either way, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver can claim All-Star Saturday now features not one but two main events.


Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @JoshMartinNBA.