For nearly the first the entire first hour of TNT's telecast of the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, viewers likely felt like they had accidentally switched to their DVR copy of the 2004 Source Awards.
There was Pharrell, flanked by Snoop Dogg, Diddy, Busta Rhymes and Nelly, performing the hits that used to breathe life into your middle school dances. Nelly told us it was "Hot in Herre." Diddy and Busta passed the Courvoisier. And then Pharrell and Snoop told everyone they were "Beautiful," before the former broke into his recent-day hits "Get Lucky" and "Happy."
The pregame festivities lasted so long—about an hour, considering the 8 p.m. ET start time of the official broadcast—that it could have gone stale. A lesser talent (Hi, Aloe Blacc's live singing voice!) or someone without Pharrell's stable of hits or famous friends would have floundered. By allowing a concert to eat well into game time, the NBA set itself up for potential disaster that could have viewers tuning out to watch True Detective before tip.
Pharrell threw on his Smokey the Bear hat and put on a scintillating pregame show, setting the tone for an All-Star Game Sunday that left even the vile-spewing Twittersphere struggling for complaint.
Pharrell's performance gave way to a sterling first half of offensive showmanship, with LeBron James and Blake Griffin retroactively winning Saturday night's dunk contests with jaw-dropping feats of acrobatics. Griffin has never seen more open back-cut lanes. James has never seen players more willing to duck their heads and get out of the poster so he can contort his body and send the crowd into an uproar.
Sure, the defense was atrocious. And, OK, this wasn't actually entertaining basketball. It was a series of never-ending isolations, chucked up open three-pointers in transition and nonexistent defensive rotations. It was essentially like watching the world's best players run a Knicks simulator.
For those who only check in with the NBA for these types of high-profile events—and, seriously, who would just check in with the All-Star Game?—the game was everything "bad" about the NBA style. If you subscribe to the "all Blake Griffin does is dunk" narrative, hey, have fun gloating in the barbershop on Monday.
The weekend as a whole was a mixed bag. The celebrity game might have been the most watchable in history (Thanks, Arne Duncan!), the Marco Belinelli-Bradley Beal showdown in the three-point contest was great and the city of New Orleans is always a capable host. The Rising Stars Challenge was merely fine, neither offensively bad nor captivating.
But the new dunk contest format was an unmitigated failure, sucking every last ounce of life out of Saturday night. The crowd was dead and completely confused throughout, and by the time the East "won," everyone was eager to just move on. Expect the new format to be scrapped for a more standard look in 2015.
Sunday, though? Sunday was one of the more entertaining and watchable All-Star Games in history, even as the broadcast stretched for four hours.
When the Griffin-James dunkfest and Carmelo Anthony rainmaking took a break for halftime, Pharrell's brand of hit-making gave way to Gary Clark Jr. and a host of others in an appreciation of New Orleans-style music. The Janelle Monae, Trombone Shorty, Earth Wind & Fire and Dr. John was a little less my taste than the pregame show, but it was impossible to not appreciate the artistry. Even though it was a diverse assortment of talent, young and middle-aged, the chemistry between performers was obvious.
"We love music, we love funk, we love soul, we love to jam," Monae told Billboard prior to the performance. "We didn't really even have to rehearse [the performance] as many times as we did. Everybody's fans of each other's music."
While the music at times took precedence over the on-court play, it helped create a loose and fun atmosphere for the players. Guys were laughing, congratulating and dapping each other up with every display of one-upmanship. Joakim Noah even acknowledged the feats of LeBron James, which is a February Christmas miracle by itself.
Contrarians bawling around with their "back in my day, we played defense" complaints and hoping to see a higher competitiveness level were sorely disappointed—as they should have been. Expecting the All-Star Game to feature playoff-intense defense is nonsensical, unrealistic and takes away from the ultimate point of the game. The players have an obligation to give everything to their teams 82 games a year—not in a meaningless exhibition.
The NBA All-Star Game is a celebration. It is a reunion for league executives, writers and players. The average participant spends more time working on their 12-ounce curls than working on their game. The game should be as wide open as the smiles, the music and atmosphere should have as much prominence as the game itself and the final score should be secondary to the individual moments. If you come away from the weekend talking more about Pierre the Pelican's beak switch than the game itself, all the better.
Other leagues have attempted to give their All-Star Games meaning by attaching real-life consequences (MLB) or switching the format entirely. In New Orleans, the NBA steered right into the fun curve and set a blueprint for the future.
Pharrell wore hats. Janelle Monae had Janelle Monae hair. The world remembered that Busta Rhymes exists. The stat sheet was a never-ending series of broken records.
The East shattered the single-game record for points with 165. The conferences' 318 points, also a best. Griffin knocked down 19 field goals, Anthony drilled eight three-pointers—and neither player won the MVP, which went to the 31-point, 14-assist outing of Kyrie Irving.
The only disappointment is the one thing we didn't see on All-Star Sunday: a one-on-one battle between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Durant said Friday he was hoping to go one-on-one against the reigning MVP, and at certain points it looked like it would happen. But a James pass here or a Durant miss there killed the momentum before it could ever take off.
In the end, it didn't matter. The mere possibility was enough to carry a storyline through the entire weekend. And once the action of Sunday night got underway, there was enough happening that few even noticed the lack of Frazier-Ali moments between Durant and James.
The 2014 NBA All-Star Game was less of a basketball game than an offensive explosion and resembled the Grammy's way more than any sports spectacle in history. Whatever. It was fun. In the end, no matter what anyone says about the quality of play, that's all that really matters.
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