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Among the west forwards are Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, the Lakers’ Pau Gasol and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, the first rookie picked for the All-Star game since Yao in 2003.

Griffin headlines the field for the slam dunk contest during All-Star Saturday night, and his high-flying style should fit perfectly in Sunday’s game, where defense is usually absent for the first 3 1/2 quarters. Setting up the hometown player is an All-Star game tradition, so what do you think, rook?

“I heard there’s another hometown guy,” Griffin said with a laugh.

That would be Bryant, who returns in front of his frenzied fans after having to sit out last year’s game at Dallas Cowboys Stadium with an ankle injury. A three-time MVP of the All-Star game, he is one shy of the record held by Bob Pettit.

Wade won last year, and James earned the award while helping the East win two of the previous four contests. They could be even better together on the All-Star stage after a half-season as teammates in Miami _ and would be OK with sharing the celebration with the Celtics.

“Every All-Star that I’ve been to, guys always put the season aside and focus on that weekend,” Wade said. “Being an All-Star, when you’re there, it’s special. It’s special to look around in that locker room and say, ‘Man, I’m blessed to be one of the best players that this game has to offer.’ It’s just a special time.”

As usual, there’s business along with the festivities. Representatives from the owners and players met Friday to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires June 30. Though there wasn’t much progress, there also wasn’t the acrimony of a year ago, when the players shot down the owners’ original proposal for a new deal at All-Star weekend.

And perhaps Denver will move closer to finding a deal for Anthony, who has refused to sign the contract extension they offered him last summer, forcing them to consider trading their leading scorer before Thursday’s deadline to avoid losing him for nothing when he becomes a free agent in July.

The events Saturday include the 3-point contest, where Pierce and Allen could go head-to-head. Pierce is the defending champion, Allen won a decade ago and will be back on the floor where he set an NBA finals record last year by making eight 3-pointers in Game 2.

They’ve exchanged some playful trash talk, but the feud with the Heat that has to be set aside the next night is real.

“I don’t think you truly relax and say, ‘Hey, we’re best buddies,’ because we’re in the All-Star game together,” Allen said. “There’s an honest camaraderie amongst all of the players, but there’s a hatred that exists.”

McHale predicts some players will get caught up trying to dazzle what’s sure to be the usual celebrity-filled crowd Sunday night, especially if the game becomes one-sided. But if it’s tight, he and Popovich agree that both teams will be focused on trying to win it.

“I think these guys are pretty happy to be doing what they’re doing, but if the game is close and it’s down the stretch, I think they’ll go after each other and play to win, I really do,” Popovich said. “They’re all competitors, that’s what they do.”


AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen and Howard Ulman in Boston, and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.