In the aftermath of the recently concluded 2018 NBA All-Star Game in which Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145, fans applauded the competitive match-up they had just witnessed. Clearly, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind on Sunday night that the league’s World-famous exhibition game was back to its former glory.
The NBA and the players recognized that last year’s 192-182 snooze fest was not what anyone had in mind when the All-Star Game was established. Even though no one expects the game to be played with the competitive fire of a playoff game, some token defense would be nice rather than watching a two-hour layup line that was being displayed in recent years.
As hilarious as it was that Stephen Curry lay down on the floor to avoid being posterized by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2017 game, seeing everyone else figuratively doing the same throughout the game was downright boring.
Sorry, Anthony Davis, but the record-setting 52 points you scored will always have an asterisk for everyone, including your opponents, wanted you to win the MVP. They might as well have laid out the red carpet every time you touched the ball.
The fact is, the game isn’t entertaining because it features dozens of dunks and wide-open threes hitting nothing but net. It’s entertaining because fans see two teams fighting to win a game. The occasional slam dunks are part of the show, but it should never be the show.
Last Sunday was a breath of fresh air, the quintessential example of how the All-Star Game should be played. It had the right mix of highlight-reel dunks (see Victor Oladipo’s breakaway reverse slam, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ in-your-face dunks), game-changing threes (Klay Thompson’s five three-pointers, LeBron James’ game-tying three), and dribbling exhibitions (Kyrie Irving’s ball-handling wizardry for example).
“It definitely worked out for everybody,” James said after the game. “It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league, but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”
How did everything change so quickly and so dramatically?
According to Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger, National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul called Commissioner Adam Silver the day after last year’s game and said, “We have to fix this.” Paul was injured and was unable to play that year but that afforded him the opportunity to watch the game like every other fan. Knowing how competitive Paul is, he likely cringed at the lack of competitiveness shown by his peers.
Silver found his partner-in-crime in the form of the union president who he didn’t need to coerce to help make changes as he, too, felt the need to revise the game’s greatest show.
“It was almost a relief,” Silver and the league office thought. “It was like, ‘Thank God, they feel this way, too.'”
It also helped that the game’s most famous alum was also one of the most invested. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan is the chairman of the league’s labor relations committee and, as Berger noted, “Michael was heavily involved [in the meetings]”.
As a result, it was determined that the best way to have players invested is if there was a team captain for each team. It creates a sense of accountability where the team captains are responsible for bringing out the best in their teammates.
The players are more than familiar with this process. It’s a throwback to their younger years when they played pick-up games on the playgrounds. The best players “drafted” the kids who will play for them.
The selection process was narrowed down by the league’s traditional voting procedure but with a bit of a twist.
The fans, the media, and the players voted for the best players from each conference. The highest vote-getters from each conference were the team captains. As with previous seasons, the roster was filled out by the head coaches who voted for the remaining spots.
James and Curry, the highest vote-getters, then handpicked their teams from the pool of players, but the draft wasn’t televised.
There was more at stake this year to put more pressure on the players to try and win the game. The winning team would have the opportunity to give $350,000 to the charity of their choice rather than the smaller amount of $150,000 to be handed by the losing team.
At his core, James is a humanitarian and one of the most generous athletes in sports. In 2015, he donated $41 million to send kids to college. And this is just one of his many contributions to the less fortunate. That $350,000 donation to charity must have lit a fire under him to compete in the All-Star Game.
Curry is not a pushover when it comes to donating to charity, too. Among his many endeavors, he holds a yearly golf tournament called ThanksUSA which sends the proceeds from the event to the Ada Jenkins Center. It’s a crisis center that provides for families in need in Davidson, NC. He, too, was highly motivated to give that $350,000 check to his team’s charity.
Team LeBron chose “After-School All-Stars Los Angeles” as the recipient of their charitable donation while Team Stephen selected “Brotherhood Crusade,” which is also based in L.A.
Everything was set for the new All-Star format to change the quality of the game to be played. It was up to the players to make it happen.
“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”
And it was very real in the eyes of the viewers. The players played defense like they actually cared.
There was Giannis Antetokounmpo blocking Kemba Walker’s shot after he escaped his defender. It was called a goal-tending violation by the referees even though replays showed that it was clean. Westbrook cared enough to try and swat away Antetokounmpo’s shot at the other end despite being called for a foul. Later, Embiid showed no regard for Westbrook or his pride as he stuffed away the smaller player’s layup during a fastbreak.
Of course, these two had extra motivation to go after each other after having a staredown during a regular season match-up. They showed that there was no love lost between them whenever they went head-to-head in this game.
Other than the final few minutes of the game, the best example of the players’ desire to win the ballgame was before the halftime break. There were only 14.3 seconds remaining in the 2nd quarter when Irving and George swarmed James Harden at half court for the steal and the uncontested dunk to get bring them to within two points 76-78. But there was still 7.2 seconds to go.
They trapped the ball handler which was Thompson who doesn’t normally dribble the ball and he turned the ball over to give it back to their opponent and 1.5 seconds to play. George took a turnaround shot from the corner that was way off. But the important thing was, he cared enough to give his best. The whole team did, actually.
And guess what was happening the whole time on the bench? The players were having fun as evidenced by the smile on their faces as their teammates were playing hard-nosed defense.
Then, there was the epic final quarter that indicated that the new format was a raving success.
With 6:36 to go in the 4th quarter, Team LeBron was down by 13.
In recent years, no one would have cared enough that they were down by 13 points as long as they didn’t get injured or that they were able to put on a show with some fancy dribbling, a behind-the-back pass, or a long-range three-pointer from half court. The games ended with lopsided wins and no one was bothered enough to think twice about what the outcome should have been.
Not this year.
Led by their captain, Team LeBron went on a furious rally that included George making a three-pointer, Irving driving the lane for a layup, and George making another shot from deep. Not to be left out, the Cavaliers star attacked the baseline and made a basket plus the foul. He converted the ensuing free throw and later, Westbrook was also at the line to make two more.
All of a sudden, Team Stephen was only up by three, 136-133 with 4:24 remaining in the game.
That set up the final sequence in which James delivered a dagger three in front of Embiid to tie the game at 144-all, 1:31 remaining. Down by one, 144-145, with 40.2 seconds left, Team LeBron drew up a play for Westbrook to drive to the basket.
James was asked by Celtics Wire at his post-game press conference, to walk us through the final moments of the game.
“I was taking the ball out, and then we had two crossers at the top to just get the defense moving,” James explained. “Then we wanted to get it to Russ. Russ being so dynamic in his ability to break down defenses, we wanted to get it to him. Russ was able to make one move, they switched, and Russ kind of was left up in the air. He was able to hit Kyrie on the baseline, and playing with Kyrie for so many games, you know, if I just make myself available, you know he would find me. He found me and I was able to make the left-hand layup over Draymond.”
After another defensive stop, James found Westbrook for a layup to give them a three-point lead.
Team Stephen had one last shot to tie the game. Trailing 148-145, Curry was smothered by his Warriors teammate Durant and James. By the time DeRozan received the ball from his team captain, there was less space to take a three-pointer than there was time to take a shot.
“Team LeBron had length and quickness all over the course,” Curry said. “So once I got the ball from Joel and turned and looked to get a clear shot at the rim, I saw LeBron and K.D. try to double team me. At that point you’re just trying to make a play, and nothing really surfaced.”
When the final buzzer sounded, James ran down the court with his arms raised in glee. He was met by his equally joyous teammates who celebrated as if they won the championship.
After the smoke had cleared, James was named the All-Star Game MVP for the third time in his career.
Aside from the players at the podium, both James and Curry were on the court with the charities that they represented. James had his photo taken together with the kids and representatives from After-School All-Stars who were more than delighted to receive their prized donation.
Just one year removed from the most-maligned exhibition game in NBA history, the All-Star Game is back in business. It’s a testament to the league office and the Players Union’s desire to make the game matter again. They took a risk by changing up the teams from the traditional East vs. West format to one that resembled two Team USA lineups.
If the end result is any indication, then drafting players from different conferences rather than the usual East-West format was a win for the league, for the fans, and for the kids.
For the first time in years, the NBA players cared much more than they ever did in years past and that is why the All-Star Game mattered once again.