ATLANTA — If the night could be captured by a single jump shot, then it was a 3-pointer from 26 feet in the first half by Giannis Antetokounmpo, which banked in. Giannis was surprised by this, based on his “Oh-my-goodness” expression of joy and disbelief. That shot proved symbolic in multiple ways.
One: The NBA All-Star Weekend, compacted to fit into one day instead of the usual three and hastily placed here at State Farm Arena, was helped by some good fortune.
Two: That shot, one of 16 attempted and made by Giannis, helped him go perfect from the floor and capture the Kia NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award.
— NBA (@NBA) March 8, 2021
There was some concern whether the NBA could pull this off during a pandemic without issues, and also if the league should’ve even bothered. And the event started cryptically when Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were scratched from playing because both Sixers ran afoul of contact tracing in Philadelphia by a barber who later tested positive for coronavirus.
Simmons and Embiid were red-flagged before they arrived and came in contact with any of their fellow All-Stars, which of course would’ve been problematic, somewhat embarrassing and forced a last-minute plug-pulling of the game itself.
And yet, Sunday started and finished without any further flare-ups. Team LeBron, captained by LeBron James, claimed a 170-150 win over Team Durant, captained by the absent Kevin Durant. Team LeBron winning every quarter and the game itself earned $1.25 million for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, with $500,000 going to the UNCF. Everyone left Atlanta … but not before exhaling.
It didn’t look like a typical All-Star event and certainly didn’t feel that way, either. The scale of the mid-season gala was shrunken to fit the times, all in the name of safety. There were no league-sponsored parties, or corporate events with player appearances, or gaudy halftime performances by musical groups.
“The prior (All-Star) experiences were more exhausting,” said Stephen Curry, noting that players have heavy schedules because of sponsorships. “Having everything in one night was kind of cool.”
Imagine: A few weeks ago, some players were against the game, and afterward, players such as Curry and Paul George and a few others actually enjoyed the one-day version, which was far less taxing.
This was an All-Star Weekend on a diet, done with business obligations in mind between the league and Turner, along with an opportunity to shine some light on (and extend some funds to) Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and to keep the “NBA brand” vibrant.
It’s probably impossible to quantify what the league gained by refusing to cancel the weekend, but just the same, the league really didn’t lose anything in the process, so in that sense, the weekend didn’t come at a steep cost.
Jaylen Brown of the Celtics, born and raised about 20 minutes away from State Farm Arena, on all the pregame concerns from fellow players and whether those fears were warranted: “To be honest, I felt nothing. Just playing a game that I love to play. You just get out there and you just have fun. You’re on the floor with some of the best players to ever play. It’s fun for me. I like that.”
As for the game: Team LeBron was stacked with shooters and Giannis and predictably eased to victory. LeBron was a captain for the fourth time, and for the fourth time his team won, despite LeBron benching himself late in the second quarter for good.
Curry and Damian Lillard, normally rivals, were teammates and put on a show that only they are capable of doing. They each took turns dropping shots from the mid-court logo, and took delight in doing so, with Curry sinking a half-courter that beat the halftime buzzer and Lillard finishing off the game with a 40-footer and a wrist tap. They combined for 60 points and 16-for-32 from deep. These two guards dropped more bombs Sunday than Prince Harry and Meghan.
“You couldn’t draw it up any more perfect,” Curry said about the back-and-forth with Lillard.
Curry also had fun mocking LeBron’s iconic moment from earlier this season; LeBron took a shot from the corner and before the ball fell through, turned and looked at his Lakers teammates. That received lots of internet and TV replay … although it was actually Curry who originated that shot years before. So Curry executed a corner no-look shot Sunday and earned a hand-slap of approval from LeBron.
It was a fun day for Curry, who earlier won the 3-point contest by sinking the last ball to edge Mike Conley. He served notice as the best shooter in the game, if not all time, as if anyone wasn’t convinced before Sunday.
Ordinarily, given their twin performances, Curry and Dame would be required to arm-wrestle for the MVP award — or at least shoot it out in a side contest after the game — but when someone else doesn’t miss in 16 attempts, that’s tough to top.
Giannis, their teammate, was perfect, and in the process set an All-Star Game record for players who attempted at least 10 shots. True, a handful were courtesy of lax defense, but Giannis did also make all three of his 3-pointers, which in itself is impressive for someone who often struggles from that distance.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Giannis. “I wanted to win the one last year really bad and I had a chance to win because I felt like I wanted to have the trophy in my house, but this year I wasn’t even thinking about winning it, I was just thinking about having fun, and I had the opportunity to play well.”
About those 3-pointers, he added: “Hey, man, I’m trying to do this back home, too, but they’re not letting me. So, you guys got to put the word in and tell them to let me shoot more 3s. No, I’m joking.
“I was just having fun. Sometimes when you’re not having fun you’re not thinking about the outcome, it just happens. I just let my instinct take over. Obviously, I’ve been working on it a lot over the summer, but I haven’t used it as much in the season, but it’s something I feel like I can do it. Today was like a game that did not count, so okay, I’ll try it. It worked out.”
In other words, Curry and Dame didn’t have a strong case for being robbed, not like Cassius Stanley in the dunk contest. Anfernee Simons of the Blazers claimed that contest with a final dunk where he attempted to kiss the rim.
So maybe that’s the symbol of the night, then: A kiss by Simons and a kiss off the glass by Giannis.
The 2021 All-Star Weekend, which was actually an All-Star Day, was pulled off. Normally, that doesn’t sound like a recap that’s glowing or memorable or applaudable.
In this case, an exception can be made. Given the forces against it and the challenges it faced, the All-Star event won just by surviving, and that required a heavy inhale and a bit of luck.
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