By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
ORLANDO -- It began innocuously enough, Miami's LeBron James subbing back in with seven minutes left in what had been a typical NBA All-Star Game (electric in spurts, snoozy for stretches). The East team trailed by 15, much as it had by double digits all night, so it wasn't clear if Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau really was sending James in with legitimate comeback aspirations or maybe to run up mileage on the best player on the Bulls' biggest rival.
Eighty-five seconds later, though, the East had closed to within 138-130. Then to six with, hey, more than four minutes left. Three with three. Then one with a whole 1:44 to go, courtesy of Deron Williams' steal and layup on an East inbounds that made it 148-147.
Game freaking on. At that point, the unicorn of All-Star Games showed itself at Amway Center Sunday night: A robust, Madison Square Garden-worthy chant of "Dee-FENSE! Dee-FENSE!"
If it hadn't felt so right at that moment, it would have been cute, a crowd long on corporate sponsors and celebrities getting so lusty, so late. But real bsketball and serious intensity broke out in the nick of time, sending the West's 152-149 victory into the books with a deserving MVP (Kevin Durant), a frustrated James and the sense that this really had been a sports competition rather than a showy, channel-flipper's alternative to the Oscars.
"With all these great players on the floor, you never know what will happen," said Durant, who scored 34 of his 36 points in the first three quarters, helping the West build a fat lead that it never, not quite, lost. "Guys making big shots, and they cut it down to one. We were up 18 [21 actually]. ... It was fun. That's the type of All-Star Game you want to see. I'm glad I won. I'm glad I got MVP."
By the final minutes, that honor was going to be either/or: Either Durant if the West held on to win, or James if his spark off the bench late managed to get the East all the way back. Of course, with the drama squeezed into the final minutes of the fourth quarter -- let's repeat, the fourth quarter -- the scrutiny on James' performance and decisions at the end was extreme.
The Heat star did have the ball in his hands three times near the very end with a chance to win or tie -- and three times he passed it. The first went to Williams, the East within 151-149, but his 3-pointer from the wing clanged off with 8.9 seconds left. Williams got the rebound back to James, who tried to pass crosscourt right to left -- and had it plucked by the West's Blake Griffin. Kobe Bryant -- who scored 27 points to push his career All-Star total (271) past Michael Jordan (262) for No. 1 on the all-time list -- barked at James after that gaffe. The Miami star admitted he hesitated on the pass just an instant, resulting in the turnover.
Griffin was fouled with 1.1 seconds left and missed the first of two free throws. That left the East enough time to huddle and set up one last shot -- and James was the guy inbounding to Dwyane Wade in the left corner. Wade caught, fired -- and missed -- in one motion to let the West off the hook.
"Being a competitor, no matter All-Star Game or not, you don't want to get blown out," said James, who matched Durant's 36 points. "I just wanted to try to pick it up and see if we could make a run at it, and we did."
Thibodeau let the clock run on the rebound of Williams' miss, saying he felt confidence in James -- a free agent he tried hard to land in July 2010. "He made a lot of big plays. He made big shots, great reads," Thibodeau said. "You have a scramble situation and an open floor, and you have a very dynamic scorer and a guy with great vision and good decision-making. You can call a timeout and it allows the defense to get set, or you can trust his ability to make a play."
Durant had 21 points by halftime as the West set an All-Star record with its 88 first-half points. The teams' 157 to that point also was a record, and the 301 combined points by the end fell two shy of the mark set (in overtime) in 1987. The East's 14 field goals from beyond the arc was another record.
Wade finished with a triple-double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), becoming the third player to post one in an All-Star Game -- and the third to not win the MVP for his effort (like Michael Jordan in 1997 and James last year). Wade also bumped up the intensity Sunday early in the third quarter with a hard foul on Bryant, bloodying the Lakers star's nose. Considering how quiet the arena had gotten by that point, the move -- harder by half than All-Star standards -- set up the scrambling and urgency that was a quarter away.
Wade admitted that he fouled Bryant thinking about two less-physical fouls Bryant had put on him. "I obviously didn't try to draw no blood," he said. "I'm glad everything was cool and we got back to being competitive and having fun."
Some more than others. Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard scored only five points until late in the third quarter and ended with nine points, 10 rebounds, one block and a head-scratching four 3-pointers, all misses. (He is 1-for-33 in his career, plus 1-for-10 now in All-Star Games; even allowing for end-of-quarter heaves, that's not good.)
Howard's season has been largely joyless as the trade rumors and speculation about his looming free agency have weighed on him and the Orlando team. Big men are dependent on getting fed the ball, so All-Star games can be tricky, but Howard's shot at the MVP -- a mini-tradition in these things -- was gone early and the big event from him was, well, uneventful.
"The weekend for me was a lot of work, but I did have a lot of fun," Howard said. It just didn't show up in the boxscore, then.
Fortunately six or seven minutes of serious star-powered play did.
2011 (Los Angeles) Kobe wins MVP as West holds off East in All-Star Game
Nothing was going to stop Kobe Bryant from a victory in this All-Star game, not on his home floor. Shining brightest again among the stars, Bryant scored 37 points and tied a record with his fourth MVP award in the Western Conference's 148-143 victory over the East in the 2011 NBA All-Star Game.
2010 (Dallas): Wade takes MVP honors before largest basketball crowd in history
Everything's not just bigger in Texas -- it's gigantic, colossal, and don't forget -- humongous. The NBA All-Star Game came to the Lone Star State and a basketball nation broke out as a world-record crowd of 108,713 filled up the futuristic edifice that is Cowboys Stadium to see the East squeeze out a 141-139 win over the West.
2009 (Phoenix): Back together, Shaq and Kobe share MVP honors
Teammates for three championships with the Lakers at the beginning of the decade, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal teamed up once more to lead the Western Conference over the East 146-119. Bryant led all scorers with 27 points while Shaq added 17.
2008 (New Orleans): LeBron's MVP performance leads East to win
LeBron James earned MVP honors and nearly missed a triple-double (27 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) as the Eastern Conference downed the West 134-128.
2007 (Las Vegas): Kobe's 31 points gives West victory in Vegas
Kobe Bryant lit up the Las Vegas strip with 31 points to earn the MVP as the West romped past the East 153-132 at the first-ever All-Star game held outside an NBA city.
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