They played hard. They entertained. They didn’t get hurt.
When it comes to the NBA All-Star Game that ended with Team LeBron downing Team Steph 148-145 at Staples Center on Sunday night, that’s all anybody ever wanted.
Consider this hoops experiment a rousing success.
After all those years of lackluster exhibition basketball, with the game’s best players treating the centerpiece event of this featured weekend like a lazy shoot-around during the dog days of the regular season, they put some fire back in the game again. Instead of East v. West, the Chris Paul-inspired change meant that leading vote getters LeBron James and Stephen Curry would pick teams just like kids do every day on your local playground.
The debut was better than anyone could have hoped for. And how’s this for the perfect ending? Former Cavs teammates Kyrie Irving (13 points, nine assists) and All-Star Game MVP LeBron James (29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) paired up for the game-winning play.
With 34.5 seconds left, Russell Westbrook drove the lane and found Irving cutting underneath the rim. The Boston Celtics star who forced his way off of James’ team last summer tipped a pass to the cutting James, who hit the finger roll layup for a one-point lead that was enough. Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan couldn’t get a three-pointer off from the right corner at the buzzer, as Kevin Durant and his Team LeBron teammates played the kind of suffocating defense that you simply don’t see in this affair. Portland’s Damian Lillard and DeRozan led Team Steph in scoring with 21 points.
It didn’t take long to sense the new-and-improved vibe, and the revelatory moment came at DeRozan’s expense.
Not long after tipoff, the Toronto Raptors star threw a lob pass in the lane that was doomed from the start. James soared in from the left side and swatted it toward the stands, and a symbolic message had been sent. Enough with the circus plays and uncontested dunks. The unspoken agreement to clear the runway every time down the floor was no more.
This, better late than never, was a game again.
Durant was the next one to follow the new blueprint – Golden State Warriors allegiances be darned. On one early first quarter possession, he contested a three-pointer from Klay Thompson one second and dived back into the lane to defend the rim on a Draymond Green drive the next.
Yet there was no better sign that this was different than the end of the first half, when Team LeBron – with James himself directing traffic while waving arms from the bench – put the full court press on Team Steph (Team Steph led 78-76 at the half). Much like the signs of early sweat and players actually calling out defensive assignments, it was atypical in every way.
And somewhere, Paul might have been smiling. Even though he didn’t get to take part.
The Houston Rockets point guard who serves as the president of the National Basketball Players Association was widely recognized as the most influential force behind all these changes, as he was the one who called for a solution a year ago. The then-Clippers star had watched the 2017 All Star game from a distance because of a thumb injury, then called Commissioner Adam Silver afterward when he decided the lack of competition was a problem in need of a fix.
So Silver, Paul, and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts met in New York last September to share ideas, and even brought in Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan via conference call (he is chairman of the NBA’s labor relations committee). Before long, this new format was born. Paul, who missed out this time around in large part because injuries have cost him 18 games, was in Los Angeles during All-Star weekend but left town on Saturday.
And with that, the ball belongs to Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets as they prepare to host the 2019 game. Jordan himself made an appearance late in the fourth quarter, meeting with Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer at center court to receive the proverbial pass. This much is clear, though: This will be tough to top.