Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the start of a new era: The All-Star Game is good now, and all of the basketball world, in Chicago and beyond, witnessed it on Sunday night. In the middle of countless 3s and alley-oops, the game actually became about the game. Here are the winners and losers from the thrilling affair.
Winner: The Format Change
I can admit when I’m wrong, and boy, was I ever wrong about this year’s NBA All-Star changes. Yes, it sounded complicated when it was announced, and it seemed like the league was doing too much to overcorrect for a game that had become drab. But it worked?
The real excitement began with less than a minute left in the game’s third quarter, as a Nikola Jokic 3 gave Team LeBron a one-point lead in the frame. The two teams had already split the first two quarters (scores reset to 0-0 at the end of each frame), and the winner of the third would get $100,000 for their charity of choice. Team Giannis followed Jokic’s 3 by turning the ball over and fouling Russell Westbrook. He made one of two free throws. Then, on the ensuing possession, a perfect Trae Young–to–Rudy Gobert alley-oop tied the score. It felt like the end of a competitive game, but with elite players at every position. And because the third quarter finished tied, the money was simply moved to the fourth quarter, upping the stakes even more.
The fourth carried a special meaning on its own: The teams were playing to 157—a number 24 points higher than the leading team’s score at the end of three quarters, in honor of Kobe. Team Giannis was ahead by nine, so Team LeBron came out of the gates like their rings were on the line. They even played full-court defense, and came all the way back to tie the game. The fourth had everything you could ever want from an All-Star Game: Giannis guarded and blocked LeBron not once but twice, including pinning him against the backboard. LeBron returned the favor by locking Giannis down on the other end and forcing a turnover. Kyle Lowry tried—and failed—to take a charge, only to try it once again and successfully take one on LeBron. There was a coach’s challenge! And Frank Vogel won it! Players got mad at the refs. Vogel played Chris Paul over Russell Westbrook. Nick Nurse played Lowry over Jimmy Butler. Someone almost got a technical. As Team LeBron tied the game and it became a race to 11, the intensity was palpable.
Do the rules maybe need to be tweaked so that the game can’t end on a free throw, like it did with Anthony Davis draining the game winner from the line? Yes. But was the fourth also the best, most exciting quarter of basketball we’ve seen this season? Yes. And it happened in an exhibition game, no less. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait for the All-Star Game next year. Shout-out to Adam Silver and the league office for making this move—all hail the Elam ending.
Loser: The Lakers’ Dream Scenario
Ah, yes, nothing like some pinpoint perfect assists from LeBron to Kawhi to make Lakers fans wonder what could have been had Kawhi picked the Lakers over the Clippers this offseason. The two connected on the first basket of the game in a play that went so smoothly it looked like they’d run something similar 100 times before.
As Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Davis, Kawhi, and LeBron had 28 of Team LeBron’s first 30 points. Those three combined to finish with 73 total points. That’s nearly half of all the points Team LeBron scored in the game. I’m all for parity, or rather, the seemingly open field we have in the league this season, but a small part of me still wishes this three-headed monster had come together in real life.
Loser: Jimmy Butler in All-Star Games
Remember when Jimmy Butler got selected for 2018’s All-Star Game and just straight up didn’t play? Well this year, he stepped on the floor in the first half and immediately turned the ball over three times. He finished with as many points as turnovers (four) and got benched during crunch time. I’m not saying Butler didn’t deserve to be an All-Star selection, but either he just hates playing in this game or he’s treating it with the indifference it has deserved in the past.
Winner: Chris Paul
I love that Paul, at age 34, earned his spot on the All-Star roster by thriving within Oklahoma City’s fountain of youth. And as is fitting, one of his first acts in the game was to intentionally foul a player in transition so he couldn’t get off a shot. No petty days off.
After that, Paul caught an alley-oop from Russell Westbrook and finished the dunk. This is a little thing we like to call plant-based power:
Chris Paul alley-oop dunk? What? pic.twitter.com/1Unq7Dxtfp— gifdsports (@gifdsports) February 17, 2020
Paul kept playing all the way through crunch time and finished with seven 3s and 23 points. Eat your greens, kids. Point God forever.
Winner: Common’s Commitment to the Bit
If you’re going to delay the tip-off of the All-Star Game by a good 45 minutes, the pregame ceremony had better be worth it. Common and his AI voice stepped up to the mic and didn’t disappoint. First, he put on a lovely performance to honor the city of Chicago and Kobe Bryant. And then, when it came time to introduce both teams’ rosters, he rhymed each player’s intro with their last name. Every last one of them. It’s OK to admit that right as he hit the second or third player, the thought went through your head: Is he really going to do this for all of them? The answer was hell yes, and as he continued, the corniness became impressive. The commitment to the bit actually made it good?
You don’t simply rhyme “he handles the rock like Gibraltar” with Kemba Walker, or find a way to rhyme “style” with “Adebayo,” or even “mogul” with Frank Vogel and not deserve some admiration. A few, like those for Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo, didn’t work as well, but at that point I didn’t care. Now I want the NBA to record Common introducing every single player in the league. Put it on a podcast and let me listen. My kingdom for Common finding a rhyme for Furkan Korkmaz and Boban Marjanovic. Take my money!
Winners: Kawhi and Giannis, Going All Out
Even through the slightly more tepid first two quarters, Kawhi and Giannis played like they were in a real game. Giannis did his work unassumingly, simply targeting the rim over and over and over again. He had 20 points by halftime. He scored only five more in the second half but did his damage on defense instead. He was a padlock on LeBron and Davis on multiple possessions, and for all the talk about how bad his draft choices were, his team led for most of the second half. LeBron may still hold the league’s torch, but Giannis has a hand on it now as well.
Kawhi, for his part, came out gunning. He hit his first four 3s and was 7-of-10 from beyond the arc by halftime. He finished the game with 30 points, the most of any player. To go all out in a meaningless game was an off-brand move for Kawhi, the king of load management, but given that he, an L.A. guy who looked up to Kobe as a kid, ended up with the inaugural Kobe Bryant MVP Award felt like a fitting ending to a surprisingly exciting weekend.