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How Two Of The Best Moments In Rising Stars Challenge History Actually Might’ve Ruined It

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TORONTO — The 2016 Rising Stars Challenge was a bit of a challenge to sit through if you were a member of the media, or just a fan crazy enough to travel north of the 42nd parallel in February. Don’t get us wrong, it was an experience, sure, but the actual game wasn’t a game at all. Neither is the All-Star Game for that matter, but at least with the adult exhibition on Sunday there’s not that adolescent shroud of insecurity that advocates indolence as protection against embarrassment.

The same thing happened Friday night when Zach LaVine won the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge, after his USA team beat the World squad, 157-154. Our insolence about the game shouldn’t take away from LaVine’s 30-point performance, or his Minnesota teammate’s dunk-heavy win the year before. Oddly, LaVine wasn’t even as efficient from the field as Andrew Wiggins this year, or Kristaps Porzingis (who dropped 30), but his USA Team got the win — we thought Devin Booker, who also shot better than LaVine and actually had a positive on/off number, got jobbed a little bit on the MVP vote — and so he held the MVP trophy aloft and we all pretended for a few minutes this mattered.

Of course none of these guys played defense. And taking a charge is almost heresy over the entirety of All-Star weekend; someone ran into us coming out of an elevator on Thursday and got pretty heated because we didn’t do enough to avoid the collision (we must’ve been in the restricted area). The point of All-Star weekends is to entertain and avoid injury, but the defensive loafing on display in the Rookie – Sophomore Rising Stars Challenge just isn’t basketball, and it’s turned the whole Friday affair into simply another event in a weekend packed with them.

If this sounds like a tired refrain, that’s because it is. It’s been happening since the Rookie Challenge was changed to the Rookie-Sophomore game after the lockout in 1999. It continued to happen when it changed again to the USA vs. World format in 2012, which is the iteration we saw on Friday night at the Air Canada Centre. But, in the last four years there have been a couple of moments when we lifted our head and took note; sequences that got fans buzzing on Saturday and Sunday and even populated “best of “All-Star roundups that predominate your Twitter timeline on the Monday after.

The Rising Stars Challenge seemed to really entertain in those cases, but it also might be the reason the last two years of the game have been so hard for basketball fans to watch.

The two brief in-game moments we’re talking about saw guys giving a crap on the defensive end, but they resulted only after team-oriented basketball — which we worship at DIME (it’s not a coincidence we’re named after an assist) — disintegrated completely. It was those mano a mano battles that stimulated the most talked-about moments of the Rising Stars Challenge, and may have precipitated the game’s fall over the last two years.

The first moment we distinctively remember was in 2013 when Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight went at each other during the second half. Except, looking at the footage, the individual battle was pretty one-sided and it wasn’t as mythic as it felt at the time. Even the widely heralded ankle-breaker Kyrie pulled on Knight was a bit ho-hum when we saw it again.

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And while the exchange took place over a three-minute window, Knight is only able to sink a single shot in that time, and a lucky, banked three-pointer, at that. Sure, he dribbles by Irving on two occasions but blows the ensuing gimmes at the rim. And dribbling by Irving during an exhibition isn’t a highlight, either; it just means you’re a passable NBA player.

After the game, Knight said of Irving during the one-on-one fete, “I guess he wanted to be interested today.” Brandon and Kyrie are friends, too, but the type of embarrassment Knight experienced can sting — especially for players just finding out what it’s like to legally purchase alcohol. (Less than a month later, Knight would get punished even more severely when trying to defend DeAndre Jordan.)

Except, Knight was hearing the catcalls during the game, too, even though — as we’ve already said — it wasn’t some supernatural crossover that caused him to trip while trying to contest Irving’s shot. But what young player new to the NBA scene wants to put themselves at risk when they can just loll the game away on the defensive end?

The next exciting Rising Stars moment came from Dion Waiters and Tim Hardaway the following year. Unlike Irving’s pair of crossovers, this was a duel in the truest sense of the word. From the 7:31 mark of the second half to 2:35, Dion and Hardaway exchanged some spectacular shots and it really felt like a basketball carnival, which is probably what the NBA is hoping for every year.

None of the three-pointers that rained down in that time were more amusing than when Dion faked Hardway to the floor. Instead of taking advantage of the lane to the basket, he pulled the ball out and seemed to call Mason Plumlee out for interfering with their one-on-one game.

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Then, after Hardaway had gotten up and dusted himself off, Dion hit a three-pointer in his face for good measure.

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The play bookended a shot of James Harden giddily flapping his arms in joy next to Kevin Durant.

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That’s what you want in the Rising Stars Challenge! You want some craziness that’ll get the NBA stars in attendance amped! The entire five-minute stretch — again in the last part of the second half — was some fun playground brio from both sides. But it never would have happened if Dion and Hardaway hadn’t taken on the challenge of trying to stop each other (they even fouled each other) during the game.

Even though both Waiters and Hardaway remained a few feet back on defense during most of the possessions, thereby allowing the torrent of triples that followed, they were doing so to avoid any further embarrassment from an ankle breaker (Hardaway’s trip, notwithstanding). And that’s the problem: guys would rather feign disinterest and protect from the shame of getting roasted by a peer than play hard on the defensive end. There’s no incentive to try, and a whole lot of motivation not to. That is, except for those rare moments when players get carried away with the competition of the whole thing — similar to the last five minutes of an All-Star game.

Where was that fearless playground style on Friday night in Toronto? Where was the competition for competition’s sake? Where was the defender who wasn’t gonna pull the red cape away on a charging player intent on getting to the iron? Better question: Without googling, can you tell me the name of the Rising Stars MVP the year Dion and Tim went at each other?

We didn’t think so, but we bet most of you remember their five-minute game within a game. Congratulations on the MVP, Zach. We know you have better stuff to focus on now. Most of us feel the same way about the Rising Stars Challenge.

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