NBA All-Star - Day 3: Leaning Into a New Format and Casual Exhaustion
Sunday started slow. Chalk that up to three-quarters (rough guess) of all the media in town taking a morning to sleep in. The temperature had climbed overnight and the wind, a Chicago mainstay, thankfully dropped off. A few small boats were slowly chugging up and down the river, sheets of ice that had frozen around the edges breaking up and bobbing gently in their wake.
Not everyone took Sunday morning off. Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler put in work at an early morning Jr. NBA event at Chicago’s Navy Pier, meeting with kids before they got ready to compete in a three on three tournament to offer advice and encouragement.
Even with the quieter pace of the day, there was a feeling as the morning slipped to afternoon of getting to what would be the bittersweet conclusion of the weekend, the namesake for it.
All-Star night started with a sense of anticipation—in who would be honoured, what would be said, how the new format would deliver and who would help do it. The lights went down and the crowd stayed quiet until a spotlight widened on stage over Magic Johnson and both All-Star teams and their coaches. Johnson started off with a personal story to honour David Stern, revealing that in 1992, after Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, Stern allowed him to play in that year’s All-Star Game. A testament to how supportive he was of players. Johnson then moved on to Kobe Bryant, and asked the crowd to stay silent for eight seconds and take the hands of the people beside them. The players on stage followed suit. With an arena that quiet, there’s always a question of whether someone in the crowd breaks to shout something, but you could’ve heard pin drop.
Common came out to MC a montage tribute to Chicago, and when he got to game introductions, short rhymes to bring out each player, he leaned into the camp of All-Star. There’s a point in the weekend where you’re so tired, overstimulated, and scheduled that you let yourself slip into the undertow of it. Hearing Common rhyme Kemba Walker with “Rock of Gibraltar” was like putting my brain in a bubble bath.
The All-Star Game started, at first, like it always does; a lot of unobstructed, leisurely sprints up and down the court that led to dunks so big the whole basket apparatus swayed in their wake. The perfect platform for splashiness from the team starters.
Around the start of the 2nd quarter, things heated up. Guys played closer and the speed suddenly felt familiar, like watching a tight game between two regular teams that happened to be stacked with superstars. Nick Nurse came in hot with a full-court press out of a timeout in the 2nd quarter, which is the appropriate flex for a first appearance coaching in the All-Star Game. And midway through the 3rd, the first using the new “Target Score” system, every Raptors fan’s dream came true when Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Giannis Antetokounmpo took the floor together.
The big question on everyone’s mind—“Can a Coach’s Challenge be used at the All-Star game?”, naturally—was answered when Frank Vogel pulled his out and won it in the 4th. Nick Nurse, however, waited to use his Challenge at exactly the right time, to overturn a goaltending call that would have cost Team Giannis the game in short order. The sequence got even wilder when Lowry took a charge from Harden, disrupting the shot and showing the world his instinctual knack for doing everything right.
The new format seemed a lot less confusing once the game was actually underway. Team LeBron took the first quarter and gained $100,000 for their charity, Chicago Scholars, Team Giannis took the 2nd for After School Matters. The 3rd quarter was a tie, which resulted in the 100k that would have been won being pushed ahead to the winner of the 4th quarter. The kids from both charities were seated at the end of the arena, split down the middle, in case there wasn’t enough pressure.
The way that the final quarter unfolded under the new rules, with players getting and staying visibly invested, felt like a high-stakes match. It was, of course, because of the money on the line for two very deserving charities, but there was a level of competition not typically seen in All-Star bouts. Players were getting heated, calls challenged. Lowry was in the face of LeBron James and James Harden to the point of pushing them around, it felt more like a post-season matchup than one at the start of a much-needed break. Siakam, too, had huge moments early on. Slamming down the ball, going up for lobs, putting himself in the mix early.
It was Lowry who helped script such a memorable finish. When Harden shoved off him and stepped back to take a winning three, a quick whistle came. Harden was frustrated at Lowry taking the charge, but there was a bit of a knowing smirk behind his pursed lips. Joel Embiid was asked about Lowry after the game, if he was surprised Lowry would turn it on like that, “That’s what he does.” He said. “Game on the line, he’s going to be there. He is going to do what he has to do. I love him.”
It came down to free throws, Anthony Davis took two in his hometown. The first missed. For a second it seemed like it might have been intentional, with Russell Westbrook on the ground beside the net laughing. But the second shot hit, and the arena erupted. The kids from Chicago Scholars rushed the court, swarming and jumping around with players to celebrate. With the velocity and neck-and-neck feeling in the final few minutes, it wasn’t an ideal end, but then we also got four full quarters of All-Star caliber basketball with no real lull to be had. Kawhi Leonard took the newly named All-Star Kobe Bryant MVP award and dedicated it to its namesake.
Ending All-Star weekend on such a lively game took what is typically a tapering off of energy toward its natural conclusion and spun it in a total 180. Fans stayed in their seats, the benches of both teams were on their feet and players on the floor went flat out. Guys were inventive and a new sense of ingenuity spread on the floor. It all felt in the moment. Nurse touched on the energy after the game, “It was really fun. Each and every quarter was, from a coaching standpoint, really fun. I thought the quarters got really interesting early in, because the game was moving pretty quick.”
He shed some light, too, on what was going on behind the scenes with the players during time outs and halftime, “There were a lot of little speeches by players about, let us set the tone. Don't worry about how they're playing, let's set the tone and make this a competitive game.”
Player reactions followed suit. Even though it was the end of a long night, long weekend, postgame interviews were perked up. Davis, who cinched the game, said, “The new format was amazing. The game was fun. Bringing defence 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.” Jimmy Butler kept it succinct, “It was dope. Damn sure got to compete at the end.” Kemba Walker, who was supposed to be on a minute restriction, wanted to stay in, because “the game got too close. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to compete. I knew down the stretch that it would get serious like that, and I wanted to be a part of it.” And Lowry, who liked how innovative the game felt, joked, "I’m 0-6 in All-Star Games now.”
Team Captains appreciated the new format too. Antetokounmpo acknowledged the physicality, “Guys were hitting one another. Every possession counts. We had a little bit of playoff intensity out there.” James, who has put in more All-Star appearances than anyone, agreed, “I didn't know what to expect because it was a new format, new year. 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.”
Running on fumes and with a brain I’d describe, and this is being generous, as addled, please take James’ parting words and apply them to the whole weekend. Happy All-Star.