Anthony Davis sank the game-winning free throw to give Team LeBron the victory over Team Giannis. The i new format injected life into the All-Star game as the fourth quarter reached a level of competitiveness we haven't seen in years.
They finally put the game back in All-Star game, and it happened Sunday night in the United Center in a 157-155 Team (West) LeBron victory over Team (East) Giannis in the annual NBA All-Star game.
What in recent years had been an impersonation of the game that mocked its artistry and competition, a new format in a legendary basketball city returned dignity to the event and excitement to the spectators.
Especially in a fourth quarter in which there basically were few substitutions, players drew charges and coaches called for challenges to official verdicts. Players virtually had to be restrained questioning officials and the best players and captains, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo, faced off against one another on defense, Antetokounmpo blocking James' scoring attempt and James following Antetokounmpo the other 94 feet to cause a turnover. Fighting off fatigue and the emotion from the tributes to Kobe Bryant, about whom James said lent a spiritual presence to the game, the game finally ended in the revised format without a clock and with a target score as Anthony Davis made the second of two free throws in a tie game with each team needing a point or basket to win.
Giannis Antetokounmpo guards LeBron James in the fourth quarter of the 2020 All-Star game.
Though there also were the theatrics as Davis told the post game TV interview that he told teammates he would intentionally miss the first free throw to put more pressure on himself in something of a symbol of the game.
The All-Stars came to Chicago, and what do you know, a basketball game broke out.
Now that's worthy of a celebration.
"The new format was amazing," said Davis. "The game was fun. Bringing defense back to the game. Bringing excitement back to the game. We all loved it. I was happy that I was able to be the one to knock down the free throw to seal it. Joel Embiid was trying to say that we shouldn't have been able to win on a free throw, but, hey, that wasn't in the rulebook. He shouldn't have fouled me.
Anthony Davis sinks the game-winning free throw to give Team LeBron the win.
"I feel like playing in the end was a playoff game," Davis added. "It was a great competition. Chicago held it down. They held it down this weekend. They showed the league and everyone around the world about our Chicago history, the city. Everyone enjoyed it and you kind of respect Chicago a little bit more."
Kawhi Leonard with 30 points and eight threes won the inaugural Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP award for LeBron's winning team. James and Chris Paul each had 23 for the victors and Davis 20. Paul made seven threes as the LeBron team attempted 70 to 40 for the Giannis. For the Giannis team in the third year of the leading vote getters choosing All-Star players like in a playground game, Antetokounmpo led his team with 25 points. Kemba Walker had 23, Joel Embiid 22 and Rudy Gobert 21.
Though the teams virtually matched Eastern and Western Conferences.
The new format was suggested by players association president Paul to enhance the competitive level. And it worked as it produced one of the best games in many years. Still, there still were flaws. There was no natural division other than conferences, which made the teams somewhat confusing. There were just three players from opposite conferences —all reserves—on each team. The competitive result suggests a return to East versus West might be more natural. The teams wore either No. 24 or No. 2 to honor Bryant and his daughter, which obviously was a one-time tribute. But it made it difficult to many fans to determine who was scoring without an announcement. It became easier to identify the teams as red and blue.
But the result and the experience was a big time win for the NBA, fans and Chicago as James also praised the city's basketball roots.
"Chicago is right up there with one of the top cities in the world with producing some of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game," James declared. "You've even got Ben Wilson, who was on his way to being a star and obviously we know the story about that. So you got it all the way from the grade school era through high school (and) through college. And then so many pros and so many Hall of Famers. K.G. is about to go into the Hall of Fame soon. I seen his name on the ballot and he's from Chicago. The great Isiah Thomas. D-Wade at some point will go into the Hall of Fame. My teammate Anthony Davis right now will go in the Hall of Fame. This city is right up there as one of the best cities in the world as far as producing the best players we've ever seen."
LeBron James finished with 23 points in the 2020 All-Star game.
So it was only appropriate the All-Stars produced one of the best All-Star games, at least in this recent era.
With the helicopter tragedy that killed Bryant, daughter Gigi and seven others, there were respects paid to Bryant throughout the weekend and during the game, including the symbolic uniform numbers, eight seconds of silence for his initial jersey number, an opening song from Jennifer Hudson dedicated to the victims after a Magic Johnson homage. There also were remembrances dedicated to commissioner emeritus David Stern, who died last month. The canopy was the United Center flickering like a bright night sky illuminated by stars from the blinking lights multi-colored wrist bands held by spectators.
Though perhaps the actions of the players and not the words delivered the ultimate tribute to Stern and that Bryant would have welcomed most with the fierce competition, defense, steals and blocks providing the structure for the oohs and aahs. The game began to restore the credibility that Stern so desired for his weekend extravaganza and the soul and spirit of play that drove Bryant.
"Me and Russ (Westbrook) kept talking about it," said Paul. "That's one thing about Kobe. Whenever he was on our team in the All- Star Game, there wasn't none of that cool stuff. There wasn't none of that. It was like, as long as they throw the ball up, let's get to it."
And for the most part they did get to it after an exploratory first quarter of half court lob dunk play that resembled other desultory mid season games that were not such classics.
"Probably one of the best All-Star games ever," said Embiid, still a little annoyed about the loss. "Guys competed. It came down to basically the last shot. I don't agree that you should be able to win on a free throw, but overall it was a lot of fun. Besides the first quarter, I felt like everybody was playing hard. It was competitive."
There even was strategy and analysis.
"Especially in the fourth quarter, the defense got tighter," agreed Antetokounmpo. "Guys were hitting one another. Every possession counts. We had a little bit of playoff intensity out there. I hope we can keep the same format for a lot of years. Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding. That's who we thought we'd have the opportunity to score on."
It wasn't quite playoff worthy until the fourth quarter with the so called Elam Ending that is used in some summer tournaments and was suggested by a Ball State U. professor. Teams play to a final total without a clock, the NBA picking 24 points on top of the team leading total after three quarters. The Giannis/East team led 133-124 after three quarters in a format that started each quarter at 0-0. Quarters were played for charity with students representing Chicago Scholars and After School Matters. After an even third quarter, the charity money carried over to the fourth with the Chicago Scholars the victors. TV views of worried kids were priceless late in the game as the kids rushed the winning team as the game ended. The NBA does some good schmaltz, also.
"It was dope," said former Bull Jimmy Butler, who received a loud welcome for the Giannis team. "Damn sure got to compete at the end. It's still fun to go out there and be known as one of the best players in the world in this league. Hopefully it stays like that."
Miami Heat forward and former Bull Jimmy Butler had 4 points off the bench for Team Giannis.
Common, the Chicago native hip hop superstar, cleverly delivered the player introductions in a rap style.
"He handles the rock like Gibraltar, Kemba Walker."
"Like a protest on the court, he's an all-time interrupter. Give it up for Jimmy Butler."
"A league MVP who breaks ankles with no pardon, the league's leading scorer James Harden."
"He's a two-time All-Star so you know he'll get it done, from the Milwaukee Bucks Khris Middle-ton."
"KIA's Most Improved Player and tonight he's ready to rock ‘em, give it up for Pascal Siakam."
No, there haven't been many All-Star nights like this one.
Though there weren't any Bulls players in the game, the organization was intimately involved. Trainer Jeff Tanaka and his staff were with the Giannis team. Bulls stats staff regulars Pam Kunkel, Karen Ogean and crew worked the press rooms. Bob Rosenberg did his third Chicago All-Star game after 1973 and 1988. There were other familiar faces with former Bulls assistants Jim Sann and Adrian Griffin on the Raptors staff as coaches. Chicagoan Marc Davis was lead referee. Chicagoan Chaka Khan delivered a soulful national anthem. The players left the locker room to a "one-two-three Mamba" salute.
Chicago native Kanye West sat courtside of the All-Star game next to his wife Kim Kardashian and rapper J. Cole.
Former Bull Scottie Pippen got a huge ovation when introduced at center court with several Hall of Famers and Bill Russell in the stands. Celebrities were scattered about near the court, including Jon Stewart, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, Donnie Wahlberg, Spike Lee, Chadwick Boseman, Cardi B, and Chris Tucker.
The LeBron team in blue won the first quarter easily 53-41 in a casual All-Star way with Leonard making four three pointers with lots of lob dunks being admired. But also several worthy of gasps with fast break dunk finishes and underhand lobs high over the rim that were bashed through. It wasn't quite Isiah and Magic on the break, but there were enough behind the backs and look aways to take a look again.
Antetokounmpo with the red team turned the game 51-30 in the second quarter as he scored 14 points and you got the feeling the LeBrons wanted to make sure the other guys got some charity money. It was the Giannises leading 92-83 at halftime and then a Chance the Rapper halftime show with Lil Wayne, DJ Khaled and Quavo.
The game began to turn after halftime in a 41-41 third quarter, though the teams both were shooting above 50 percent through three, the Giannis team 59 percent. They would shoot 26 percent in the fourth quarter.
The NBA with the quarter scores hoped to get more urgency, and it did at the end of the third quarter with an intentional foul and some last seconds strategy. The fourth then became a gift to the game, LeBron trying some long threes for a dramatic close like Magic in the 1992 All-Star game and eventually a spin and dunk to get within a point. The Giannises still were four points away from the target 157. So Embiid got inside and was fouled, making both. Now they both needed a basket. Harden broke free to the basket and surprise, surprise, passed the ball. It circled the perimeter to James, who found Davis inside and was fouled by Kyle Lowry, who had previously earned the ball back with the kinds of charges that would have made Ryan Arcidiacono jealous. Yes, got a Bulls guy into the All-Star story!
"I didn't know what to expect because it was a new format, new year," said James. "None of us knew what to expect. But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.'"
Yes, it was.