Playoffs' 1st round expands to best of seven


ATLANTA - Usually jovial NBA commissioner David Stern was even happier yesterday as he made two announcements at his annual All-Star Game news conference.

First, Stern said the first round of the playoffs, which had used a best-of-five format, will expand to best of seven, starting with this year's postseason.

Second, he reported that the league will meet with the National Basketball Players Association in April in an effort to negotiate an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which has up to two seasons to run.

"We've agreed that we're going to take a bunch of owners and players away at the end of the season someplace, away from the glare of the media, and try very hard to extend our collective bargaining agreement," Stern said.

The last negotiation between the league and the union, which came at the end of a lockout that shortened the 1999-2000 regular season to 50 games, was acrimonious.

While both sides claim to not like all parts of the current agreement, Stern and players union executive director Billy Hunter said they wanted to try to reach common ground before the deal expires. The contract has one more year to run, and the league can extend it an additional season if it chooses.

"I guess it's important to maintain the vitality of the game, particularly in view of the ominous and distressful circumstances that are occurring throughout the world," Hunter said. "So I think it is important for us to sort of be on the cutting edge, and if we can all avoid having to go to war two years from now, that's obviously our intent and purpose."

The playoff expansion came in response to complaints that the first round had been drawn out in recent seasons to accommodate television. This year's series likely will take place during the same time frame, but with two potential additional games.

Explained absence

Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace, voted a starter in tonight's game, has been away from All-Star festivities because of the recent death of his mother, whose funeral was yesterday in Selma, Ala. Wallace is expected to play tonight.

A clutch dunk

With a subpar score in the bank, Golden State Warriors guard Jason Richardson needed to pull out a jam that no one had ever seen to repeat as slam-dunk champion during All-Star skills competitions yesterday.

Richardson rose to the occasion, slamming home a masterpiece that echoed a dunk J.R. Rider used to win the 1994 contest. It garnered a perfect score for Richardson and the victory over 2001 champion Desmond Mason of the Seattle SuperSonics.

On the final dunk, Richardson tossed the ball off the floor from the right wing, caught it, then cycled the ball through his legs before slamming it in with his left, or off, hand.

The dunk drew a perfect score of 50 from a panel of judges that included former winners Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins and Dee Brown. It also made Richardson the first dunk contestant to get as many as three perfect scores in one contest.

"Instead of going back to front [between the legs, as Rider did], I went front to back," said Richardson, the first player since Jordan in 1987 and 1988 to repeat as the slam-dunk winner.

More skills

Peja Stojakovic of the Sacramento Kings repeated as winner of the three-point shootout, defeating Memphis Grizzlies forward Wesley Person, also for a second straight season.

But this win, unlike last year's, carried some controversy. The players finished tied after the second round and went to a shootout. However, 24 seconds into Stojakovic's turn, a horn sounded, appearing to end his round. Stojakovic stopped shooting, then resumed. Judges decided to give him a make-up round after Person's shootout.

Richardson's Golden State teammate, Gilbert Arenas, was named Most Valuable Player of the Rookie Challenge game, won by a collection of the league's best second-year players, 132-112, over some of the NBA's best rookies.

Arenas had 30 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals to help the sophomore team erase a 12-point halftime deficit.

Richardson scored a game-high 31 points in the game.

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