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ESPN and NBA's H-O-R-S-E tournament has its issues, but it's a good thing for charity

Zach LaVine of the Bulls goes to the

Zach LaVine of the Bulls goes to the hoop for a basket in the first half against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 28, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

There are so many parts of life that cry for a return to normalcy that it might seem like a slight part of it, but nights like Sunday show just how deeply folks are longing for a return of sports.

In a slight step up from the competitions that ESPN has been airing on the Ocho — Slippery Stairs, Stupid Robot Fighting League and the Annual Cherry Pit Spitting Competition — the network and the NBA teamed up Sunday for a H-O-R-S-E tournament matching current NBA and WNBA players and former players.

And in retrospect, is that the Marbles Run on the Ocho?

The best thing about this H-O-R-S-E Challenge was that it was leading to a charitable donation from sponsor State Farm after Thursday’s semifinal and championship round. The better thing might be if sports somehow could return before Thursday and call this whole thing off.

In theory, this was a great idea. Eight contestants — four current NBA players, two former NBA players, a current WNBA player and a just-elected Hall of Fame WNBA star — all playing on their home courts to safely remain in isolation in a lighthearted game, trying to top each other with an assortment of trick shots.

But as soon as it began with Atlanta Hawks second-year star Trae Young, the difficulties of putting on a show like this in the middle of a quarantine were on display — or more accurately, barely on display. With Young playing in his driveway, a static iPad filmed some of the “action” and a friend with a phone recorded erratic, halting, freezing video from various spots.

Young went up H-O-R to nothing but fell apart as Chauncey Billups, playing on a home court that was adorned with his nicknames in the pavement — Smooth and Mr. Big Shot — recovered to win the game and knock out one of the best young shooters in the game. He finished it off with some shots that might be more familiar to Young’s dad than to Young — an underhand free throw and then a banked-in shot from the top of the key.

“All this gray hair, this is wisdom here,” Billups said. “I’ve got a home- court advantage. I never panic. Even if he was knocking shots down, all I can do is my best. I was a big-time underdog against this kid. Today was my day.”

Mike Conley Jr. of the Utah Jazz then took advantage not only of the best shooting of anyone in the tournament but the best conditions — he was the lone player with an indoor gym — to beat Tamika Catchings, who was playing in cold and windy Indiana. Unlike Young, who played around when he got a lead, Conley showed no mercy.

That was a lesson that was on display at Chris Paul lost to Chicago Sky three-time All-Star Allie Quigley, who repeatedly went with old-school basics to put Paul in a hole and finish him off.

In what was the most entertaining match — again, low bar, above Tiger King and below Slippery Stairs — high-flying Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine beat Paul Pierce.

The game itself wasn’t close, with LaVine skirting the “no dunking” rule by creating an assortment of trick shots that required the retired Pierce to try to tap the backboard on one side of the rim and finish a layup on the other side, and then dropping in a shot from directly above the rim without touching it.

Pierce, who never was known for playing above the rim even in his prime, had to try to do it while wearing a down vest and on a rain-slicked court with a huge Celtics logo on his Los Angeles home court.

“You know what, I’m going to give credit to him,” said Pierce, who now serves as a commentator for ESPN’s studio show. “He was very creative today with the shots. Then the rain — it never rains in California. I was going against tough conditions on top of Zach’s creativity.”

If it made it easier for one person to handle social isolation, that was a win. Even if the NBA kept one person from watching Tiger King, there was some good done here.

New York Sports