The NBA All-Star Game has no bearing on the rest of the regular season, but that does not stop certain players on either side from stepping up their efforts when called upon. A great deal of pride is still on the line, and X-factors still come into play.
Both the Eastern and Western Conferences have a great deal of depth, and watching the squads face off should provide one of the best All-Star Games in recent history. However, just who will step up and be the difference-maker?
On the West's end, it could be any of the fine scorers on the bench. Russell Westbrook is as dynamic as they come, while Tony Parker and James Harden can go into play-maker mode in the blink of an eye.
The East's depth is a bit different. Rather than stockpiling scorers, the coaches opted to go with a deeper set of reserves who focus on defense.
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler or Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah could come in and provide some solid play in a game usually defined by offense, while the ever-electrifying Paul George could come off the bench and simply do it all.
This game is definitely going to be close; the enormous talent of both sides starters all but ensure that. Thus, the margin actually depends on the performances of the following bench players.
As great as it would be to see Chandler and Noah have great defensive performances in their first All-Star Game, it's just not going to happen. This game is all about offense, and Irving is going to provide plenty of it.
The second-year point guard out of Duke has been great for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, posting 23.5 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting an astounding 42.5 percent from long range. Just what his role will be tonight remains to be seen, but fans should definitely expect great things from the former Blue Devil.
As we saw in Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge, Irving's ball-handling skills are top-notch along with his ability to create off the dribble. He also just happened to win the Three-Point Shootout on Saturday as well.
He's going to be guarded by some experienced Western Conference veterans, but mark my words: Tonight is only the beginning of Irving's All-Star career, and he'll give fans a small taste of why he's going to be around for a long time to come.
Blessed with good size and phenomenal athleticism at 6'8", 221 pounds, George has done a great job of stepping up in teammate Danny Granger's absence this season, posting 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game while shooting a respectable 39 percent from long range.
George is also one of the league's premier dunkers, and fans should expect plenty of action above the rim from him tonight. Moreover, he might bring just enough defense to keep the score close from start to finish. He is an excellent pest, and fans can expect him to have at least one steal that leads to one of his legendary slams.
Throw in some three-point shooting and excellent drives to the basket, and George may be the man the Eastern Conference relies on in the third quarter.
One of the best scoring point guards in the league, Westbrook's job tonight will be simple: Be an offensive spark off the bench. This is similar to his role with USA's 2012 Olympic-winning team.
The former UCLA Bruin has posted 22.6 points, 8.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game, plus 1.9 steals, and he won't have to worry about being too trigger-happy on offense in the All-Star Game.
The man's job is to score points, lots of them if he can. He needs to create off the dribble, drive the lane and maybe break out some three-point shooting.
Westbrook must also not be afraid to showcase his excellent dunking abilities, of which he has plenty despite standing just 6'3", 187 pounds. His athleticism is off the charts and a huge reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder have become a Western Conference powerhouse. In tonight's game, he just has to remind people of that.
Harden may be a 2-guard, but like future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, he can go into playmaker mode in the blink of an eye. In his first season with the Houston Rockets (also his first season as a full-time starter), Harden has posted 26.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game.
In his first All-Star appearance, the man is likely going to be a scorer and dunker off the bench. However, just think of the three years Harden spent in Oklahoma City.
While he was a great scoring spark, Harden was also an excellent second-unit playmaker. At times, just when a defender thought he was going to shoot, the man would instead quickly dish the ball off to an open teammate, who would make the basket to the delight of Thunder fans.
To ensure a West victory, Harden needs to be in that form tonight. Instead of trying to score points nonstop, he must also be willing to get his teammates involved. It's a game all about pretty plays thanks to single-coverage defense, so this should not be a problem for Harden.
With the rest of the action slated to go down tonight, expect him and the rest of these X-factors to have great games.