NEW ORLEANS — How could the NBA thank a city that came through with a timely assist with the clock winding down? How could the league express appreciation for the way the Big Easy made a weekend that once appeared troubled look just that: big and easy?
Well, simple: Toss up the ball Sunday and let basketball happen. Let Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook connect on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle and at least temporarily thaw a rift that seems … puzzling. Chuckle as Giannis Antetokounmpo dunked not once but three times on Steph Curry and forced the two-time MVP to keep a safe distance the rest of the night.
Also, allow Anthony Davis to give his hometown fans relief from a tough Pelicans season with a record-shattering performance that was generously encouraged by helpful teammates who obviously felt sympathetic.
And so it was a win-win-win: For the league, which scrambled last summer to find a replacement city for Charlotte and landed in sure hands. For New Orleans, which smoothly pulled off the NBA’s showpiece event with Mardi Gras happening at the same time. And for the West, which outlasted the East in a pinball machine-like All-Star Game, 192-182, at the Smoothie King Center.
With all parties feeling satisfied, then, the night ended symbolically, with a lift: Davis holding the MVP trophy. This was poetic and fitting, for Davis is the unibrowed face of basketball in a city he loves and is one of a growing number of under-25 stars angling for a league takeover. His 52 points easily toppled the previous All-Star Game high of 42, which was held by Wilt Chamberlain, owner of several hard-to-comprehend records. What better way to end a night of basketball in New Orleans than that?
“Have fun, brother,” was the pre-game instructions given to Davis by Westbrook. “Just go out and compete and have fun.”
The race to Wilt’s record was actually a two-man contest with Westbrook, and the West teammates took turns delivering dunks (Davis) and three-pointers (Westbrook). With both players sitting at 41 and 40 points respectively, the conspiracy began: West coach Steve Kerr cooled off Westbrook permanently by sitting him with five minutes left, while keeping Davis in the game. Besides, Westbrook had own the last two All-Star MVPs. It was Davis’ turn, and his teammates made sure by force-feeding him the ball for easy buckets.
Good luck finding anyone to complain about that. Davis was a gracious host all weekend and eagerly embraced his ambassador’s role. He carries league-wide respect and the Pelicans, although playing better lately, are 23-34 and could’ve used a highlight (maybe more help is on the way: DeMarcus Cousins, who played only two minutes, will be reportedly be traded to the Pelicans for rookie Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway, Tyreke Evans and a future first-round pick.
“It was amazing,” Davis said. “That’s what I wanted to do. I stressed that to the guys in the locker room before the game that I wanted to get MVP for this crowd, for this city, and I ended up doing it. These guys did a great job allowing me to do this and I want to thank all of them. This definitely means a lot to me.”
The youngest player in the game has Davis beat by one year and was making his All-Star debut. What Antetokoumnpo did was confirm the obvious, that his combination of spring and speed with height and skill development gives of the scent of a superstar in the making. And if you doubt this, inspect the top of Curry’s head, which has evidence.
Antetokoumnpo unleashed a vicious dunk that nearly sent Curry into concussion protocol. On the very next trip downcourt, Antetokoumnpo approached Curry again on a breakaway but Curry made the wise decision to assume the position and lay on the floor and therefore escape further punishment.
“I just had to get out of the way,” Curry said. “I have no business challenging him at the rim.”
And form his vantage point, what did he see?
“Awesome talent, awesome to watch,” said Curry. “He showed how athletic he was. He’ll be back in this game for many times to come.”
Antetokoumnpo led the East with 30 points, missed only three shots and was the only player on the floor who put energy into playing defense. Which means, he’s new at this.
“I was just having fun,” he said. “I told the coach I was going to play hard no matter what. That’s the only thing I know how to do. I don’t think (the players) were mad at me.”
While on the topic of angry: No such emotion existed, visibly at least, between the two ex-teammates whose shattered relationship played out like a reality show since last summer. The only exchange between Durant and Westbrook came a week ago when Westbrook snarled in his direction during the most recent OKC-Warriors game.
Theirs was a once-tight, now tattered kinship, no thanks to Durant’s decision to leave Westbrook for the Warriors last summer. All weekend, they kept their distance, even though they shared the same locker room again. When the West gathered at practice or pictures, Westbrook often found refuge next to James Harden, his former teammate in OKC. Durant stayed attached to his three Warriors teammates on the West. It looked and felt uncomfortable to anyone who watched.
With plenty of eyes on the two players, wondering what would happen in the All-Star Game — a freeze out or a warm-up? — Westbrook subbed in midway through the first quarter and finally, both were on the floor. Then it happened: Westbrook passed to a cutting Durant, who instinctively threw an over-the-shoulder lob to a cutting Westbrook for a dunk. That was the extent of their night. Their total time together on the floor: two minutes.
After that play and during the next timeout, both players were celebrated on the bench by cheering teammates and Westbrook actually cracked a smile. Curry playfully tossed a cup of ice in an attempt to cool them off. Apparently, everyone suffered from KD-Russ fatigue.
“This stuff has been blown up, obviously, but they’re both great guys,” Kerr said. “It’s basketball. It’s a basketball game. It was funny with all of the talk going into the game. I guess that’s mind of the beauty of the game. You just let the game break the ice. That play, I thought, broke the ice and our guys were all making fun of them, and they were both laughing. It was a fun moment.”
Westbrook came as close to a reconciliation that he’ll get: “He threw a lob. Just threw a lob. It’s basketball. That’s it.”
Yes, that’s it. It’s basketball, which brought the NBA back to New Orleans on late notice, and jump-started the healing process — we think — between two great players, and elevated a young local star into the history books.
“It meant a lot to this city,” said Davis. “It was huge for this city.”