Always thinking the game, always manipulating the floor, Thunder point guard Chris Paul is constantly surveying ways to gain an advantage on the floor. In a fiery, hotly-contested fourth quarter of the NBA’s 2020 All-Star Game, Paul noticed a way to generate a bucket for his team.
With Team Giannis’ Kemba Walker initially guarding him, Paul rushed up from the paint on multiple possessions to set a screen for his longtime friend and NBA colleague LeBron James. Paul’s screen forced the much smaller Walker to get switched onto James, who attacked for an easy driving dunk that gave Team LeBron a three-point edge at 156-153.
In the new All-Star Game format, proposed to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver by Paul himself, each of the first three quarters were played with normal rules, with the quarter’s winner earning the right to donate $100,000 to the charity of their choice. The fourth quarter, however, was played with the Elam Ending, which Paul learned about in the TBT league over the summer. The Elam Ending requires the game to conclude on a game-winning shot, with both teams needing to reach a target score in an untimed final quarter.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Team LeBron trailed Team Giannis 133-124, meaning that the winning target score was 157 – 24 more points than the leading team’s score – to honor the late Kobe Bryant. The result was a hyper-competitive fourth quarter, with intense defense, charges drawn, fouls taken and clutch buckets made.
“I'm always competitive whenever I play,” said Paul. “But the good thing about our league is we're always adding things and trying new things and trying to figure out from my fans what they like.”
Ultimately this game concluded on a game-winning free throw by Team LeBron’s Anthony Davis, a Chicago native who came up big in his city’s first All-Star Game since 1988.
Paul played his normal rotation off the bench to end the third quarter, but Team LeBron’s Head Coach Frank Vogel stuck with Paul for the entire fourth quarter as well. The Thunder’s maestro racked up 9 of his 23 points in the final frame, knocking down 3 of his 7 total three-pointers in the fourth as well. Paul shot an efficient 8-of-13 from the field and also added 6 assists and 2 rebounds for the game, including a crucial board during the fourth quarter’s final possessions.
“Chris Paul is a big reason for the win” He told me early in the day that he wasn't one of those vets that just likes to take a rest in a game like this, that he wants to come in and win a game and help our guys win a game,” said Vogel, who reported that Paul was motivating his teammates throughout the game and encouraging them to compete even harder. “He not only got us to the finish line but also provided great leadership and some big plays in the fourth quarter down the stretch.”
The play of Paul’s night though didn’t come from behind the three-point line. Instead, it was a play that Thunder fans haven’t seen him make yet this season – an alley-oop dunk. As former Thunder guard Russell Westbrook barreled down the lane, Paul took two strides from the baseline and leaped up to catch Westbrook’s pass and dunk it with both hands.
“It's got to be the perfect throw,” Paul grinned.
The emotion that brimmed on the floor was carried over from the pregame ceremonies, which recognized important Chicagoans and the city’s history with the game of basketball, but also stirring tributes for late NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who passed away in a tragic accident in January.
NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson gave a tribute to Stern, highlighting his willingness to let Johnson play in the All-Star Game in 1992 shortly after Johnson had announced his HIV diagnosis and noting that many lives were likely saved due to that gesture. Johnson also brought the entire crowd together and asked them to hold hands for eight seconds of silence to memorialize Bryant. The crowd in the United Center belted out a chant of “Kobe! Kobe!” after the eight seconds elapsed.
Chicago native Jennifer Hudson then brought not just the fans in the stands but people in their living rooms around the world to tears with a beautifully-delivered, heartfelt rendition of the song “For All We Know”, made famous by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. As Hudson sang, imagery of Bryant and Gianna moved across the jumbotron while the All-Star players stood by, all wearing either the number 24 or number 8 to honor Bryant.
“It was tough early, especially early,” Paul revealed. “For a lot of us, it's still surreal. It's not real until you start showing pictures and talking about it. But I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi, and everyone involved was to play like we played.”
After the tribute, Paul was announced in the opening lineups by the Chicago rapper Common, who crafted a rhymed line to introduce each player.
“A 10-time All-Star, he’s a general with the ball, from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the great Chris Paul,” Common waxed in perfect rhythm.
The introductions, the national anthem sung by Chicagoan Chaka Khan and the halftime performance delivered energetically by another Chicagoan, Chance the Rapper, were a part of the pomp and circumstance that kept the fans entertained all night. What gripped basketball lovers across the world though, was what happened between the lines.
In that tantalizing fourth quarter, both Team LeBron and Team Giannis demonstrated the type of fire, intensity, focus and legitimate basketball strategy that is often on display during the postseason, not on All-Star Sunday night. Thanks to Paul’s suggestion for the Elam Ending and the motivation to play with a little extra verve to honor Bryant, tonight’s game will be one that inspires greatness in future All-Star battles.
“Sometimes people lose sight of the purpose of All-Star Weekend. It's really a big "thank you" to the fans and all the people that support us,” Paul said. “We go out there and compete night-in and night-out, but there's no ‘us’ without the fans.”
Just like he does with the Thunder, Paul left it all on the floor on Sunday night. After missing out on being selected in 2017, 2018 and 2019, his efficient, productive and successful 2019-20 season in Oklahoma City earned him the right to participate in his 10th career All-Star Game. It was an honor and a privilege for the Thunder guard, who felt extra grateful this time around to get the chance to play with and against the best and brightest the NBA has to offer.
“The weekend was special because for me I hadn't played in the game since 2016,” said Paul. “It was fun, especially to have my family, my kids get a chance to experience this stuff with me.”
“It was nice to get an opportunity to play with those guys because in three, four days, we're going to be back to the grind, and it ain't going to be all that dapping up,” Paul concluded, nodding to the Thunder’s final 27 games in the regular season and its hopes for a playoff run in April and beyond.