LeBron Stole the Spotlight, but NBA Walks Away a Winner After 2018 All-Star Game

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IFebruary 19, 2018

Team Stephen's Stephen Curry, left, of the Golden State Warriors, and Team LeBron's LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, stand together during the first half of an NBA All-Star basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — It had effort, intensity and a replay review—a botched one, at that. It had 28 free throws, 26 fouls and, yes, complaining to the referees.

It came down to the last possession and ended on, of all things, a defensive stop.

So basically it was like a real, live NBA contest, which is all anybody ever wanted out of the All-Star Game.

As he had done twice before, LeBron James emerged as the All-Star MVP on Sunday night. But this time was different—and better—than anything we'd seen in the league's signature midseason event for years.

James' former teammate, Kyrie Irving, summed it up best.

"This was pretty fun," Irving said after Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in an All-Star Game that refocused the eyes of the world on what the NBA is actually about.

Basketball.

"The game was so good…one of the best I've been a part of," said Kevin Durant, James' teammate on this night—and his partner in crime in double-teaming and harassing Stephen Curry into giving up the ball in the closing seconds.

"Two tall giants out there, not letting me shoot," Curry said.

His team trailing by three out of a timeout with 10.7 seconds left, Curry had no option but to pass into the corner to DeMar DeRozan, who wasn't able to get off a shot before the buzzer with Durant's 7-foot wingspan looming over him. James took off down the floor, bellowing with delight and spreading his wings as though he'd just won another championship.

It wasn't a sequence of events you'd normally see in an All-Star Game, especially in recent years, when the event had deteriorated into an unwatchable bore-fest with no effort, no defense and little respect for the game.

"The new format just gave us an opportunity to hit the reset button," Curry said. "We were able to take ownership of the game and understand there's a way to up the level of competition and intensity a little bit, protect each other and avoid injuries, put on a great show and have an actual game—not just an up-and-down, pseudo dunk contest."

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  Stephen Curry looks on during the NBA All-Star Game 2018 at Staples Center on February 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

To be sure, this was much closer to what everyone wanted (and needed) this game to be. This is why nine-time All-Star and National Basketball Players Association President Chris Paul called Commissioner Adam Silver after last year's 192-182 debacle in New Orleans and said, "We have to fix this."

Whether it was the new format—with top vote-getters and team captains James and Curry choosing sides, instead of the stale, by-the-book East vs. West—or simply a matter of effort and pride, consider it fixed.

"I think that having the captains selecting the sides and being able to mix them up gave it a more authentic feel of what we, as players, want to be a part of in an All-Star Game," Irving said.

You knew something was different almost from the opening tip, with James called for a reach-in foul on Joel Embiid's drive to the basket on the second possession of the game. The first half ended with James and Irving full-court-trapping James Harden, and then Klay Thompson, resulting in consecutive turnovers.

In the fourth, James found himself at the scorer's table, vehemently protesting a replay review—yes, a replay review—when the ball had bounced out of bounds off Embiid's leg but was awarded to Team Stephen, anyway.

"I think myself and Steph, we took it upon ourselves when we decided to do this format that we had to change the landscape of how the All-Star Game was played," said James, his voice understandably raspy after his 29-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist, five-alarm fire performance. "As you can hear in my voice, it was competitive."

Much to the delight of his coach, Dwane Casey, who saw the bigger picture—the one that millions of people were seeing on TV.

"We're shining a light around the world as far as basketball is concerned," Casey said. "AAU coaches, high school coaches, coaches in Italy all looking at our game and saying, 'Hey, no disrespect to the Harlem Globetrotters, but that's not a good narrative.' … We've put in too much time and effort to lose the image that we've built up."

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18: LeBron James #23 Of Team LeBron dunks the ball during the NBA All-Star Game as a part of 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend at STAPLES Center on February 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

This All-Star Weekend in L.A. will be remembered for several reasons, most of them good. The links between basketball, music and entertainment were on full display. (Kevin Hart's hokey player introductions and Fergie's butchering of "The Star-Spangled Banner" notwithstanding.)

A small group of players and referees sat across the table from one another at a downtown hotel Saturday morning and hashed out their differences, an important first step that could help end the scourge of constant bickering and incivility among the only 13 people who are allowed on the court during a basketball game.

From James to Durant and Curry, the biggest stars of the sport used their platform to speak loudly and poignantly on social issues facing real people in this country every day.

Whatever your political point of view, James' impassioned soliloquy about gun violence and gun control at media day Saturday spoke to the power of his voice and his growing confidence to use it. If that doesn't separate him from Michael Jordan—who was famously apolitical when he reigned supreme as the greatest basketball player on Earth—then I don't know if anything ever will.

It is these kinds of larger-than-life personalities who have always made the NBA unique—an ecosystem of viewpoints, voices and variety. On Sunday night in Los Angeles, 24 of them reminded everyone there's something else that's important, too—something for which they serve as caretakers, and something worth protecting.

The game.

   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA. 

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