Los Angeles • The people spoke. The NBA listened. And Sunday night, they all got what they wanted.
No, the 2018 NBA All-Star Game was not a defensive showcase. But it was competitive, and that was enough to keep a full house at Staples Center in their seats with two minutes to go.
They got to see Kyrie Irving make an assist to LeBron James, the teammate he successfully escaped last summer, for a go-ahead basket and the eventual victory for Team Lebron over Team Steph, 148-145. And they saw, of all things, effort on defense: James and Kevin Durant double-teaming Steph Curry on the final possession to keep the two-time MVP from getting off a shot.
“That was great defense by myself,” said Durant. “I’m patting myself on the back.”
The win itself wasn’t as notable as the reaction: Durant and James leapt up for a chest bump just after DeMar DeRozan missed the game-tying 3-point attempt. Steph Curry was not devastated by any means, but a glazed look showed he wasn’t happy, either.
The players cared. And as a result, the fans cared, too. A crowd that included such celebrities as Beyonce, Chadwick Bozeman, Jimmy Kimmel, Spike Lee and (of course) Jack Nicholson rose to its feet for the final sequences of the game.
“I hope everybody had a great weekend,” said James, who won his third All-Star Game MVP award. “I know I did.”
James (29 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) tied it up with a minute-and-a-half left, 144-all, by stepping back and hitting a 3-pointer in the face of Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.
The score was tied until Toronto’s DeRozan hit the second of two free throws to put Team Steph up by a point. But after a timeout, Team Lebron (and Toronto) coach Dwane Casey got to draw up the rare late-game in-bounds play with five All-Stars at his disposal.
Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was able to pass to Irving at the baseline, who was able to find James for the score. The history between them — when Irving requested a trade that landed him on the Boston Celtics — didn’t exist in that moment. They were just playing again, and Irving did the natural thing.
“We’ve played together for so many games,” James said. “If I just make myself available, he’ll be able to find me.”
It was the proud result of a change in format: Vote-leaders James and Curry picked their own teams, no longer bound by East or West. While the really juicy part — the player draft — took place behind closed doors, the game itself had a much more competitive finish than years past.
That much could be gained from watching James passionately argue the results of a video review (yes, a video review) on a late out-of-bounds call that went against his team. The final stretch had contested rebounds, scrambles for loose balls and the roar of crowd approval — all things lacking in years past.
“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”