Irving, Horford Elated by All-Star Game's Increased Competitiveness

Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving did something Sunday night that would've been considered unusual by recent All-Star Game standards: As the final seconds of the first half ticked away at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the five-time All-Star applied an aggressive, full-court press on Houston Rockets guard James Harden, who was attempting to score one final bucket for Team Stephen before halftime.

Then, something even more unusual happened: Irving was joined by Paul George to form a trap. Together, the pair forced Harden to cough up the rock, leading to a steal-and-slam for George, which cut Team LeBron's deficit in half heading into the break.

Defense in the All-Star Game. It's been a while since those two concepts have been integrated, but Sunday night's showcase featured plenty of effort on both ends throughout. As a result, the NBA enjoyed its most exciting and competitive All-Star Game in recent memory.

In a newly formatted showcase featuring star-studded teams that were hand-picked by designated captains, Team LeBron ousted Team Stephen, 148-145, in nail-biting fashion.

The game had an unbelievably different feel compared to that of recent All-Star Games. Over the past four years, the East and the West combined to average 345.5 total points per game, including a whopping 374 combined points during last season's contest.

The high scores were due to a lack of defense, but Sunday's game featured a refreshing balance of effort on both ends, which is exactly what Irving and the rest of the stars were hoping for.

"The pains of what the All-Star Game has kind of turned into, I think we all took it kind of personal," Irving stated after contributing 13 points, nine assists and seven rebounds toward Team LeBron's win. "The individuals wanted to come out this time and be competitive."

Al Horford, who suited up against Irving on Team Stephen, agreed with his Celtics teammate.

"Guys were making it a point that they weren't going to let it be a punk fest," said Horford, who tallied six points, five rebounds and two assists off the bench. "Last year and the year before there was a lot of heat on how bad the game was, but I think this game was good. The guys were really trying to make things right."

The 23 participating All-Stars made things right, and there was plenty of evidence to back it up.

For the first time in five years, both teams were held to fewer than 150 points. During the four years in between, the winning team averaged 178.5 points per game, while the losing team averaged 167.0 PPG.

Total field goal makes dropped from 162 last year to 117 this year, and on 36 fewer attempts. Combined field goal percentage plummeted from 57.9 percent to 48.0 percent, while 3-point percentage dropped from 35.2 percent to 29.3 percent.

Sunday's game also featured four times as many blocked shots compared to last season's game, as well as three and a half times as many free throw attempts, further proving that there was an increased desire to contest shots.

But why such a drastic change in approach from one game to the next?

For one, Irving believes that the new format factored into it.

"The fact that you got a chance to see intra-conference rivals, East and West, it was pretty awesome because you get the unique opportunity to know people that you don't necessarily get to play against four times a year," said Irving. "There's a personal challenge of wanting to show guys what you can do that you don't get to see on a regular basis."

There was also a result-based charity incentive that was added, which would send $350,000 to a charity of the winning captain's choice, as well as $150,000 to a charity of the losing captain's choice.

In case you were wondering why James (29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) was playing out of his mind down the stretch of his team's comeback effort, it's mostly because he was fighting for the larger sum of money. The MVP's winning effort will benefit his chosen charity, After-School All-Stars Los Angeles, which provides out-of-school programs for more than 8,000 students in L.A. Meanwhile, Team Steph's earnings will go to Curry's chosen charity, Brotherhood Crusade, which works with underserved youth in South Los Angeles.

"I think the NBA hit it right on the head and did a great job of trying to get the most out of us," said Irving, who assisted on James' game-winning bucket with 34 seconds left. "This was pretty fun and I think that we showcased that tonight with the incredible competitive spirit."

"And," added Irving, "the hope is that it's only going to get better."