Posted Feb 25 2012 8:10PM
ORLANDO -- As a distillation of everything NBA, the All-Star Game has it all: Talent, glitz, athleticism, hype, superstars, celebrities, hangers-on, hoops, highlight plays, one-upsmanship and afterparties.
Everything, that is, except blood.
What normally passes for serious basketball in this one special game would, almost any other day of the year, validate the laziest, hoariest cliché about the NBA -- namely, that the final minutes are all that really matter in terms of urgency and seriousness of purpose. There is a casual, wink-wink, I'm-great-you're-great, fraternal feel to the event that puts show biz above competition on the All-Star agenda. Defense? Might as well toss a Baby Ruth into the pool at the Ritz-Carlton, for as welcome as that is at the ASG.
But what if ... they played this game for blood?
More precisely, what if the 61st All-Star Game were played with the same intensity and passion as a Game 7 NBA playoff game? (Let's picture a conference championship on the line, since just being in The Finals is a reward of sorts.)
What if each of the two All-Star squads, as is, had a month of training camp to learn how to play as a team? Y'know, fill roles, sort out a pecking order, learn their coaches and slip comfortably into a defined rotation?
And last but not least, what if the stakes were, uh, considerably higher Sunday at Amway Center? Imagine if the losers went home with the same checks they get now: $25,000. But the winners, instead of walking off with twice that per current rules ($50,000), pocketed 40 times the losing share. That's right, a cool $1 million per man for the winning team.
Now what sort of All-Star Game might we see?
"Much different," said Phoenix guard Steve Nash, an eight-time All-Star.
Miami's Dwyane Wade had a couple questions in return Saturday, just to get the parameters straight. "How much money we talking about? A million bucks a man? Wow! I don't know. But I'll tell you, I talked to [Heat owner] Mickey Arison last night and he said, 'Take it easy.' He's sending us out e-mails delivering that message."
Arison's cautionary words for Wade and Heat teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh are typical of the way many players approach the ASG. With or without their owners' or coaches' urgings, a lot of them view the event as a light-hearted affair, a showcase for their skills and (ahem) brands, a reward for a season's first half or a career well-played and a gold star for their resumes, next round of contract talks and future Hall of Fame consideration.
"I'm not really a big fan of having competition in this game," Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki said. "I think this is more a weekend to have fun. We're not supposed to be out here going hard and really killing ourselves. I think where it's at is it's a fun game and, in the fourth quarter, it steps a little bit up and gets a little more heated. But I like where it's at."
Said Wade: "Hey, our competitive nature will always pump us up. But we've still got a competitive season ahead of us. We've got big games and not enough rest time. So you want to have fun, you want to compete, but you've got to be cautious as well."
Of course. One Sunday in February, no matter how thrilling it might be, isn't worth scuttling the second half of the regular season or jeopardizing the ambitions a team -- not just the All-Star players but their worker-bee teammates and all the fans back home -- might have for the postseason.
Too often, though, the All-Star Game plays out like a meeting of the Justice League of America that never gets beyond cocktail hour. Superman, Flash, Batman, Wonder Woman hang out at the bar but no sinister arch-enemy bent on total global domination ever phones in an imminent threat to, say, melt the polar ice capes or steal Thursdays from everyone's calendars.
"I always think, the more competitive it is, the more exciting it would be, as a competitor myself," Minnesota's Kevin Love said. "From a fan's standpoint, maybe it would be less exciting because you wouldn't see the off-the-backboard dunks or the making-the-guy-fall crossovers. But if it was a Game 7 atmosphere, you'd see, really, who the best players in this world are."
Love has talked before about linking the outcome of the NBA's annual extravaganza to something tangible, the way baseball does in awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that prevails in its ASG.
Then again, a million bucks a man would be seriously tangible. For the sake of this hypothetical, anyway.
Said Love, playing along: "You'd shorten the rotation. Obviously it's Game 7, so you have to play your best players extended minutes. You would see guys really going all out. It would still be a show, but like [Celtics legend] Bill Russell said in our meeting for the Western Conference, 'We almost came to blows with the other team [in All-Star games] because we wanted to kick their asses!' That still holds true -- we still want to win in the end. But it's show business now."
There have been close All-Star games, tight scores and frantic finishes. Two years ago in Dallas, the East won 141-139 when Carmelo Anthony's 3-pointer to win at the buzzer missed. In 2006, LeBron James scored 29 points and defensively messed with Tracy McGrady late in a 122-120 East victory at Houston. The finish in 2001 in Washington was wild, with Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury leading the East from 21 points down to a 111-110 comeback.
Imagine if we got that all the time in a well-prepped, winner-takes-most format.
"Man, it would be a good game to watch," said first-time All-Star Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls. "It would be a high-scoring game, I think still. Whatever the fourth quarter's like, I think, that's what the whole game would be like."
Deng, new to the All-Star scene, faces a big challenge Sunday: How much defense is too much defense? He plays for one of the NBA's stingiest teams and his Bulls coach, Tom Thibodeau, will be on the side with the entire Chicago staff for the East squad, so Deng might be tempted to play both ends as hard in this one as he does at United Center. But, Deng said, he risks having Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant look at him like, "What is this guy doing?"
"If someone plays tough D on me, on the way back down I'm going to play tough D on him," Deng said. "I think that's how it works."
Guard Chris Paul of the L.A. Clippers wasn't feeling the what-if's of a leaner, meaner All-Star Game. "You think guys don't want to win? Money ain't got nothin' to do with it," Paul said. "[The $1 million payday] wouldn't change things significantly, because we still have the rest of our season and obviously that's our emphasis. No one wants to get injured out here in this game. ... We got a game on Tuesday night. Your contract is already set when you step out on the court. There ain't no extra incentive for winning."
There is some incentive at work already, beyond pride or the extra $25K in pocket change (NBA standards, remember), for a few players. Bryant has a chance to achieve some all-time All-Star supremacy. Consider: if the Lakers star scores at least 19 points for the West squad, he will surpass Michael Jordan's All-Star record total of 262. If he takes at least 22 shots and makes more than eight, he'll top Jordan's records for field goals (110) and field-goal attempts (233). Bryant needs five steals to catch and break another Jordan mark (37). And if Bryant were to be named All-Star MVP again, it would be his fifth, breaking his tie with legendary Hawks power forward Bob Pettit.
James, meanwhile, probably wouldn't mind scoring enough points for the East to keep his All-Star scoring average -- currently the best in history at 24.4 points through seven appearances -- beyond the reach of Bryant (20.3).
Dwight Howard, as the East's starting center and the lone Magic player in Sunday's game, is the only guy with a shot at continuing a semi-tradition of All-Star MVPs from the host team. Bryant did it in 2011, and Shaquille O'Neal (Phoenix, L.A.), Karl Malone and John Stockton (Utah), Michael Jordan (Chicago) and Tom Chambers (Seattle) are among those who did it.
Orlando fans probably would settle for a game in which Howard a) doesn't get hurt, and b) falls in love again with the building, the city and his Magic team, as a way of averting an unpleasant parting via trade or free agency when the real season resumes.
But a certain percentage of basketball fans would welcome an All-Star Game in which shots are contested, dazzling moves get met with some resistance, defense plays a role and the score stays close. Whether there was a bonus jackpot attached or not.
"If you threw a million bucks a player out there, you wouldn't see a minute of bad basketball," Oklahoma City's Durant said. "In All-Star Games, you're always seeing stretches of no defense. But if you did that, it would be a great game. You might have to go and talk to Mr. [commissioner David] Stern about that idea."
NBA.com's Fran Blinebury contributed to this report.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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