It was easy to rib the new All-Star Game format in advance of its implementation. Every NBA game anyone has ever watched had worked the same simple way—whoever has the most points when the clock runs out wins. But this was different. It was new. It was also a bit more complicated (or at least enough to warrant explanation after explanation after re-explanation, all weekend long).
Yet in the end, it brought an unexpected playoff atmosphere to an exhibition game typically defined, in part, by a distinct lack of intensity.
For one timeless quarter Sunday night, 10 of the best players in the world sweated through tense possession after tense possession. They took charges. They bickered with referees. They soared for blocks and lunged for loose balls. And though Team LeBron won on the scoreboard, 157-155 over Team Giannis, the broader winner was the All-Star Game itself, injected as it was with a vigor not seen in some time.
“None of us knew what to expect,” LeBron James said after the game. “But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’”
Pretty damn fun indeed, and both the crowd and players caught on quickly to the new rules. Each of the first three quarters involved a “reset” of the score, with each quarter’s winner earning $100,000 for an assigned charity. Then, the fourth quarter used a variation of the “Elam ending” structure: The first three scores were added back together, the game clock turned off, and the teams began aiming for a target score—24 points higher, in memory of Kobe Bryant’s number, than the leading team’s score entering the frame. So because Team Giannis led 133-124 after the third quarter, the teams set their sights on 157.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Far removed from the quick, gliding possessions that flowed earlier in the game, the fourth quarter saw the two teams claw to the target, basket by painstaking basket. “Offensively, it was hard to get anything started,” said Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse. “Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”
Compare the fourth quarter’s statistics to those of the first three, and a completely different sort of game appears in the numbers: less efficient offense, more blocks and fouls, more turnovers than assists.
2020 All-Star Game Statistical Splits
|Statistic||First Three Quarters||Fourth Quarter|
|Statistic||First Three Quarters||Fourth Quarter|
|Free Throw Rate||6.5%||57.7%|
|AST per TOV||2.5||0.7|
For the entire fourth quarter, Nurse kept the same lineup: four starters in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, and Kemba Walker, and Kyle Lowry in place of Trae Young. Perhaps Nurse, Lowry’s coach on the Raptors, was playing favorites. Or perhaps he entered the frame with a defensive focus, opting to replace the league’s worst defender with a physical guard capable of taking two charges—including one that negated a would-be game-winner from James Harden.
Kyle Lowry with the stop!!!— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) February 17, 2020
The Team LeBron side, meanwhile, went to its closing lineup early in the fourth and didn’t make any substitutions thereafter. LeBron shared the court with fellow starters Kawhi Leonard (named MVP after scoring a game-high 30 points), Anthony Davis, and Harden, with Chris Paul replacing Luka Doncic to form a group of five veterans with length and wiles.
Like with Team USA in the Olympics, when the identity of the closing players reflects an honest assessment of their places in the sport’s hierarchy, Sunday’s lineup decisions exposed some judgment of the league’s starriest stars. Paul, for instance, enjoying a resurgent season in Oklahoma City, still belongs in that class. Ditto Lowry, underrated as ever.
It’s possible that the coaches, organizing under new goals and an uncertain time frame, erred in leaving those same players in all (or nearly all) quarter. “I got a little out of breath,” Giannis said postgame. “We played for like 25 minutes in the fourth quarter.”
Giannis attacked the rim with gusto, but he didn’t score at all in the final frame. Team LeBron swarmed him in the paint, and even the king of the rim couldn’t find space to operate amid all the All-Star bodies clogging his way.
On the other end, though, the Bucks star gave his opponents just as much trouble. Nurse said that Giannis asked him for specific defensive matchups down the stretch, and he didn’t disappoint. He stuffed LeBron on a fadeaway attempt. He stymied an attempted Davis jam. And in the closing possessions, he blocked a LeBron layup—and saw the ruling, initially called a goaltend, overturned after a replay review. (Yes, this new format meant replay reviews and coaches’ challenges. Frank Vogel screamed at a ref after one call. The coaches were in on the excitement, too.)
Giannis BLOCKS LeBron #NBAAllStar pic.twitter.com/l9nsbMOoRi— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) February 17, 2020
One obvious flaw of the format arose at the game’s very end, when Team LeBron scored its winning 157th point with a free throw. The moment still rocked with tension—both teams were one basket away and Davis missed the first of two shots from the line—but registered as something of an anticlimax, versus what a theoretical game-winner from the field would have meant.
After the game, the players were split on this outcome, albeit on predictable lines. Lowry, on the losing team, said, “It sucked to end like that. Honestly, maybe we’ve got to tweak that format a little bit more—you’ve got to end it on a field goal.”
The victorious LeBron, meanwhile, downplayed any criticism of the format. “At the end of the day, you can win a Finals game at the free throw line,” James said. “It’s all part of the game, and it was a hell of a way to win a game just from an All-Star perspective.”
Possible final issue aside, it’s clear that the Elam ending experiment succeeded in its first widely watched setting. (It had previously been used in The Basketball Tournament, a five-on-five competition over the summer.) As Vogel noted afterward, “It’s not uncommon for All-Star games to get competitive down the stretch when they’re close.” That’s true. But with the target score in mind, that “stretch” started at the onset of the fourth quarter. Everyone seemed more aware of the ending’s proximity than they are with a clock that starts at 12:00. It’s fair to say no recent All-Star Game has seen such heightened two-way play.
More broadly, the structural change delighted in a crucial moment, with the NBA examining more expansive changes to the overall schedule. The owners will not vote on proposals for an in-season tournament and play-in tournament to the playoffs this spring, but commissioner Adam Silver said at a press conference Saturday that those ideas were not dead or dormant. “I strongly believe we will end up with some sort of in-season tournament and a play-in tournament,” he said.
The All-Star Game displayed the clear promise of such invention. Critics of the in-season tournament worry that players won’t care about an arbitrary new competition; well, they shouldn’t rationally care about the result of an exhibition, either, yet that didn’t prevent the teams from exerting themselves fully Sunday night. “The good thing about our league is we’re always adding things and trying new things and trying to figure out from fans what they like,” said Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, who helped bring the Elam format to Silver’s attention.
As a basketball exercise, the fourth quarter almost seemed to exist in an alternate dimension: no game clock, (almost) no subs, no TV timeouts to interrupt the action with Budweiser ads and in-arena dance crews. At first, the quarter took on a near-surreal quality—NBA basketball but not quite, with a few key elements missing. The atmosphere soon became comfortable, however, and then raucously entertaining. The players grew exhausted and the fans didn’t relent. The United Center was almost intimately united after a weekend full of corporatized remove.
“The end was amazing,” Nurse said. “I think everybody in the whole place was on their feet watching each possession.”
The Elam ending won’t be installed in the regular season or playoffs, but for an in-season tournament, perhaps, why not? Certain corners of NBA nerddom have been enthused about the idea for a while, and for everyone else, the format was an instant hit. It’s hard to complain with an innovation that generates unanticipated, unencumbered competition between the best players on the planet.
“I hope we can keep the same format for a lot of years,” Giannis said. “I think people had fun. We had fun. So that’s what it’s all about.”