(Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)
LeBron Dunks His Way to All-Star Victory
CHARLOTTE — It was his first time representing the Lakers among basketball’s elite. But for LeBron James, his 15th All-Star Game was just another opportunity to test himself against the best.
“You put me on the floor, I love to compete,” James said. “I’m a competitor, no matter what it is.”
James went on to jokingly boast that he was the first player to make it to the postgame podium. It was his second victory of the night, having already captained Team LeBron to a 178-164 all-star victory.
It was the second straight year that James was voted captain by the fans, meaning that he was tasked with picking the players for his team. And he made it-back-to-back years of choosing the winning squad.
LeBron himself had 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists. His first “draft pick,” Kevin Durant, was named All-Star MVP after scoring 31 points with six 3-pointers.
At first, it didn’t look like anybody on James’ side would be in MVP contention, as Giannis Antetokounmpo (who had 38 points) captained his team to a 20-point lead.
But in a game that saw both teams combine for 342 points, ample opportunity for a comeback was provided by defensive indifference.
Team LeBron coach Mike Malone — a former Cavaliers assistant during James’ first stint in Cleveland — also attributed much of the surge to the team’s leader.
“LeBron is the greatest player in the world,” Malone said. “And he can do and he makes all of his teammates better. Tonight was just another example of that.”
Malone — who is the head coach of the Denver Nuggets — even unleashed James on his own star: Denver center Nikola Jokic.
“He was guarding LeBron at one point and I called for the iso, and LeBron scored,” Malone said. “I don’t think Nikola liked that very much.”
Highlights came often for James, most notably a sequence early in the second half that saw him feed former teammate Dwyane Wade for an alley-oop, and then have Wade return the favor by throwing it off the glass for a LeBron slam.
James frequently caught air, throwing down five dunks on a night when he hit all nine of his two-point attempts. And while he went just 1-of-8 from deep, he provided from both inside and out in crunch time.
Team LeBron tied the game with seven minutes left, and then seized a five-point lead with four minutes remaining. Then the team’s namesake went to work.
First, James found himself isolated onto Joel Embiid and caught the 7-footer with a step-back triple. On the next possession, he got out in transition and threw down a slam from former teammate Kyrie Irving.
And with Team Giannis searching for a last-minute comeback, LeBron provided some backline defense by swatting Embiid — the league’s highest-scoring center — at the rim.
With this game, LeBron tied Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan for the second-most All-Star appearances in history (15), behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (18).
Now James has his focus locked on leading the Lakers through the final 25 games of the season and back into playoff position, where they were before he missed five weeks due to a groin injury.
“Looking forward to the second half of the season,” James said. “Looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back in this playoff race. That’s my only mind set.
“That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months … how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”
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