LeBron James helps spark new All-Star Game era

NBA.com Global on Feb 21, 2018 07:30 AM
LeBron James helps spark new All-Star Game era
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18: LeBron James #23 Of Team LeBron dunks the ball during the NBA All-Star Game as a part of 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend at STAPLES Center on February 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

LOS ANGELES -- Before tipoff at the 2018 All-Star Game, LeBron James took the courtside mic and thanked the fans and the city for showing out. Two hours later, when he accepted the Kia All-Star MVP trophy, he was barely audible, his throat too scratchy to explain what just happened.

Well: To quote an ex-All-Star and noted philosopher Rasheed Wallace, both teams played hard.

Those words were never used to describe recent All-Star Games, especially the last two, when defense (196 and 192 points for the winning teams) and the competitive spirit took an extended break, embarrassingly so. The league’s midseason showcase absorbed a rather well-deserved thrashing from fans and even players themselves. Nobody was fooled. Something had to change and someone had to volunteer to be the game-changer.

And so, on Sunday (Monday, PHL time), the NBA season took on an 83rd game, as in a real game, thanks to commissioner Adam Silver’s willingness to fix what was broken and LeBron’s desire to set the tone for the most meaningful All-Star Game in years. The players gave the Staples Center crowd the usual acrobatic thrills associated with the game, naturally, but also some spills. As in, bodies on the floor.

Every player who checked in did so with a strut and a mission to make a February game feel like June, or close enough, and not just during the close finish, either. Virtually from the start, when LeBron soared and swatted a cross-course pass just minutes into the game, this atmosphere had an edge.

As Kevin Durant said: “We just wanted to change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke.”

It was Team LeBron 148, Team Stephen 145 in the new format where sides were chosen regardless of conference and captains were assigned by fan vote. This created a new and fresh mix of players, intriguing tandems and raised overall interest for the game. It also helped that prize money, $100,000 to each winning player, was increased and lent a financial incentive. Yet it wouldn’t have mattered if layups went unchecked and jumpers were uncontested. Everything had to fall in line, and everyone had to cooperate.

And that’s what led to this, a game decided by defense when it truly mattered, with LeBron and Durant swamping Stephen Curry beyond the three-point line on the final possession, keeping Curry and his team from getting a potential game-tying shot off as time expired.

This is what the NBA needed, a more representative effort and result from the collection of the game’s finest players. It was a much cleaner look and it’s not a stretch to say the format and intensity rescued the All-Star Game from itself.

“The hope is that, as we go forward, it gets even better than this,” said Kyrie Irving. “The game started to get away and we took it personally.”

It’s hardly a surprise that LeBron was the force of change. His 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the win earned him his third Kia All-Star MVP trophy, yet those numbers didn’t accurately reflect how involved he was for four quarters.

He lost his voice because of constant yelling and instructing and prodding his teammates to finish the job. He actually influenced both teams; his own by motivating them to play harder, and Team Stephen’s by issuing a challenge.

Here’s the final sequence, dictated by LeBron:

- His step-back three-pointer tied the score at 144;
- He switched onto James Harden and forced the league’s scoring leader to badly miss a 3-pointer;
- He put his team up for good on a driving layup on a give-and-go, thanks to a pair of timely passes from Irving and Russell Westbrook;
- His double-team with Durant on Curry deep in the corner was the finishing touch.

LeBron encouraged his team to apply a full-court press to end the first half -- has that ever been used in an NBA Game, let alone an All-Star Game? -- and simply took charge throughout. It was a personal mission to keep folks intrigued and interested. This was his game, his tempo, his personality taking over.

“I believe I can make an impact and make a difference,” he said.

At 33, and winning his first All-Star MVP in a decade, LeBron helped launch a standard that the game badly needed and, if this spirit holds true in the coming years, he’ll serve as the torch-bearer for a new age All-Star Game. Just one more productive layer to his lengthy legacy.

“We all know how great a player he is,” said Team LeBron coach Dwane Casey. “I’m jealous of [Cavs coach Ty Lue] that he has someone like that. But tonight, he was on our team. He’s a joy to coach. He reiterates exactly what should be said, the right things. No BS. In the huddle, defensively, he got the guys jacked up and juiced as far as wanting to get a stop.”

There was help; Durant was LeBron’s teammate for the first time in an NBA-sanctioned game and scored 19 points (the two were Olympic teammates in 2012). Irving rejoined LeBron after bolting from the Cavs last summer and they connected on the game-winning shot. Paul George was terrific defensively and chipped in 16 points.

If not for Team LeBron winning, the MVP could have gone to DeMar DeRozan, who returned to his hometown and dropped 21 points (but threw an errant pass in the final seconds). Or maybe Damian Lillard, who matched DeRozan’s 21. Or Joel Embiid, a first-timer who supplied a big blocked shot right before LeBron’s layup.

Therefore, an exhibition game that had grown stale and suffered from lapses and a lack of energy suddenly has a new beginning. East vs. West doesn’t exist anymore, and players purposely feeding a specific player so he can win MVP, and maybe no more matador defense, either, at least not for 48 minutes. It’s a small sample size, and the game must prove itself each year, but this is a push from LeBron and Silver into the right direction. The only possible tweak, perhaps next year, will be with televising the team selection. But that’s a nit-pick. This worked out well.

“The format was great,” James said. “I think the fans did a great job of reacting to it in a positive way. It definitely worked out for everyone., not only for the players, not only for the league, but for the fans, everybody. It was a great weekend and we capped it off the right way.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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