MANILA, February 21, 2006
(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - HOUSTON — I had a good feeling that the East would beat the West in the 55th National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game at the Toyota Center here Sunday night (yesterday morning, Manila).

I stuck out my neck and predicted an East victory in this column and my section in the Blog Squad last week. I figured East coach Flip Saunders had the advantage of chemistry and athleticism — two key factors that determine the outcome of a contest that is typically up-and-down.

An hour before the game started, Solar Sports vice president for marketing Jude Turcuato and I were on live satellite TV talking about the annual classic with guest Brian Viloria.

Fresh from retaining his World Boxing Council lightflyweight crown the night before, Brian flew in from Las Vegas to catch the game on Solar Sports’ invitation. It didn’t look like he’d been in a brawl. He sported a slight bruise over his right eye, the only stain in his face. His right fist was swollen but he kept it away from camera range.

Our introduction, called the unilateral stand-up, was for two minutes, no more, no less. And the NBA gave us only one take. Any mistake in our delivery wouldn’t be edited out.

Solar Sports vice president for production Erick Tam rehearsed us twice then gave his thumbs-up. We were ready to rock.

On TV, Jude got the ball rolling by congratulating Brian for his big win over Jose Antonio Aguirre then asked him which team he would cheer for. Without hesitation, Brian said the West. He’s lived the last few years in Los Angeles so he’s become a rabid Lakers fan. Off camera, Brian said he’d been to only one other All-Star Game — at the Staples Center in 2004 when Shaquille O’Neal was the MVP.

Brian mentioned Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady are among his West heroes.

From Brian, Jude turned to me and quickly put me on the spot. What was my fearless forecast? Although I shuddered at the thought of the West’s five seven-footers lording it over both boards, I stuck to my prediction. I chose the East and swallowed hard.

Finally, it was time to play ball. Erick, Jude, producer Donna Reyes and I were on the front row just behind Carlos Bernard (Tony Almeda of TV’s ‘24’) and Eva Longoria (Tony Parker’s girlfriend of TV’s "Desperate Housewives" fame). Former President Bush sat a few seats to Longoria’s right. Someone said Queen Latifah was in their row but I missed her despite her size.

The NBA always gives preference to the Solar Sports commentary team because it knows how much the game is appreciated by Filipino fans. That’s why we were on the front row.

I noticed Saunders selected Vince Carter to start in place of injured Jermaine O’Neal. NBA commissioner David Stern tapped Gilbert Arenas to fill in O’Neal’s spot in the East roster but Saunders chose the replacement starter. The choice only reinforced the theory that Saunders would play a small and quick lineup to offset the West’s size advantage. The gambit was to wear out the bigger West All-Stars and steal the game in the end.

As expected, the West dominated the boards and raced to a 17-point lead at the half. The margin ballooned to 21 at 74-53 with 11:24 in the third period on Tracy McGrady’s fadeaway.

But the East slowly came back with stifling defense that produced three West turnovers on three consecutive possessions to reverse the tide. When the third quarter ended, the East had whittled down the lead to only three.

The East regained the driver’s seat on Rasheed Wallace’s seven-foot bank shot to make it 99-97, with 10:56 to go. The gap widened to 10 but the West refused to roll over and die as McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant combined to spark a comeback that knotted the count at 120-all with 32.3 ticks left.

Allen Iverson, taking over the point guard chores from Chauncey Billups, missed a 15-foot jumper but Dwayne Wade grabbed the offensive rebound and sank a floater to push the East back on top, 122-120, time down to 16.6 ticks. After a timeout, the West inbounded for a make-or-break possession. T-Mac took a 20-foot jumper that missed badly. Kevin Garnett took the rebound and passed to Kobe who lost the ball on a Rasheed steal. Carter broke away for a reverse dunk that missed at the buzzer.

I would’ve eaten my words if the East lost and I barely escaped. I’d also predicted the Sophomores’ win in the Rookie Challenge last Friday so my All-Star crystal ball was on the money twice.

Defense got the job done for Saunders. The East forced 24 West turnovers which led to 31 points and shot .505 from the floor compared to the West’s .455. The West had more rebounds, 68-49, more second chance points, 26-18 and more fastbreak points, 27-24 but succumbed down the stretch to the East’s unforgiving defense.

LeBron James spoiled T-Mac’s efforts to win MVP honors before the Houston homecrowd and took home the trophy for scoring 29 points, 13 in the third period. King James also compiled six rebounds, two assists and two steals in 30 minutes.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about our exhausting journey from Las Vegas to Houston.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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