That was a hell of an All-Star game! It had highlights, it had drama, it had by-God competition, it had a genuinely memorable finish. It also had a lot to overcome, in order to salvage what was otherwise a really uneven, occasionally bizarre and baffling weekend of events. It delivered, and in the process redeemed all the little tweaks put in place to avoid another dismal, half-assed slog. The game ruled.
But first, about the weekend: certainly whoever was in charge of producing the various pregame ceremonies was successful at turning them into spectacles. The dunk contest included a hype-filled pregame introduction ceremony for the judges that featured Dennis Scott doing awkward Alex Trebek-esque interviews with friggin’ Mark Wahlberg and Lisa Leslie and DJ Khaled. It was long and excruciating, and it was nowhere close to the most awkward and excruciating introduction sequence of the weekend.
The pregame show leading into the player introductions for the All-Star game itself was like something out of a particularly frenzied fever dream. At some point the entertainment world vastly overestimated the appeal of Kevin Hart, to such a degree that he was given like a half-hour live variety show attached to the beginning of the NBA All-Star game, featuring skits and music and some sort of narrative thread having to do with Hart dreaming of being an All-Star. By the time the player introductions came around, no one on earth wasn’t desperate for the damn basketball to finally start. Then the introductions took fucking forever:
Because apparently the NBA was hellbent on lowering expectations for the quality of the game to come, this unbearable sequence was followed, in short order, by what was very certainly one of the very worst national anthem performances you will ever, ever see.
But the game! The game was pretty good. As a response to last year’s alarmingly boring show, it succeeded in having actual competitive drama. Players were noticeably trying harder on defense, which may have been a response to last year’s game being so roundly panned, or it may have been because of the new draft format, or it may have been because of the financial incentives—the winning team’s chosen charity was gifted $350,000, and the losing team’s chosen charity was gifted $150,000. Whatever combination of factors wound up inspiring a not-insignificant increase in competitive intensity, the result was a basketball game that actually felt like a contest:
That this was a good thing wasn’t evident in the beginning. In the first quarter, and maybe through the first half, it seemed like the lesson of this All-Star game would be that a modest increase in defensive intensity would just mean a sloppier game, without any stepped-up offensive execution to offset a dramatic decrease in, you know, bitchin’ alley-oops. It turns out, when a group of guys without a drilled-in set of offensive plays or principles goes against a group of world-class players playing even vaguely organized defense, the result is a lot of step-back jumpers.
So the highlights were a little more spread out than usual, and the early stages of the game were rough. But having a foundation of basic competition through three quarters made the stepped-up intensity of the fourth quarter actually meaningful. Team Steph led most of the way, but the game had a certain rhythm: Team Steph would march out to a 10 or 15 point lead, then Team LeBron would surge back to make it a one-possession game, then Damian Lillard or Klay Thompson would bury a couple threes, and Team Steph would reestablish their lead.
It was once Team LeBron went to a tiny fourth quarter lineup, with either LeBron or Kevin Durant at center, and started trapping and switching and digging in on defense, that the game really took off. The end of the NBA All-Star game had actual drama! A swift and swarming trap of Joel Embiid, working a mismatch in the post against LeBron with less than two minutes left on the clock, led to a replay review. The refs got it wrong, and Team LeBron actually really gave a shit. The ensuing sequence featured a stop, then a frantic scramble to secure a rebound, with players throwing themselves around inside, and a palpable sense that no one on either team was prepared to accept a loss.
And the game even produced a satisfying final possession: Team Steph brought a shooting-heavy lineup on for the final play, down three points, with under 11 seconds on the clock. The ball found its way to Steph, who, in a crowd of long defenders, tried to force his way to the right wing for a pull-up three; he was hounded, aggressively, by LeBron James and Kevin Durant, until he had to throw the ball into the corner; no credible shot was possible, because Team LeBron’s defensive intensity and execution were too great. The NBA All-Star game ended on a gripping sequence featuring a ferocious defensive stop.
The game needed that fourth quarter, and the weekend needed that game. A sloppy exhibition that was short on slick passes and alley-oops because the players decided to play slightly-less-half-assed defense would’ve been unacceptable, if not for the fact that the teams were still close enough, down the stretch, to produce a memorable finish. The same combination of factors might produce a bullcrap game next time around. Who can say. But until it produces something less than what we got Sunday night, the NBA has to stick with it—the All-Star selection process, the captains, the draft, the financial stakes, the whole deal. It produced the most memorable All-Star game probably since the overtime thriller in 2003.
As soon as it was over all I wanted was for those two teams to turn right around and run it back. Maybe next time they could try it without Kevin Hart and Fergie. But other than that!