LOS ANGELES — Following two years of NBA All-Star games that set records for points and indifference, this season’s edition finally teetered on the edge of competitive. There was more effort, more blocks, and a tight finish that brought the crowd to its feet in the final minutes.
Seems like that overhauled format worked, after all.
The players seemed to think so, with many of them sauntering into the interview room at Staples Center after the game to declare the 2018 game a big improvement on years past.
“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” said the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant, who played for Team LeBron. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”
He added: “The game was so good, it was so competitive, it was the best one I’ve played in.”
Sunday’s contest felt far from the 2017 All-Star Game, when the two teams combined for 374 points and Stephen Curry lay flat on the court to avoid being victimized by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dunk. That outcome prompted the NBA to shake up the game’s setup in hopes of making it more competitive.
Instead of dividing the players into East and West teams, two captains — LeBron James and Curry — drafted from a pool of players who had been voted as All-Stars. After the game — a 148-145 victory for Team LeBron, the closest margin since 2012 — Curry said the changes “really just gave us an opportunity to hit the reset button.”
James, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player (his third time winning the award), led all scorers with 29 points and also chipped in 10 rebounds and eight assists. DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers tied for the lead on Curry’s team with 21 points. Curry himself had 11 points, six rebounds and five assists.
In the end, it was the swarming defense of James and Durant that proved decisive. With Team Stephen down by 3 in the final seconds, the two former league MVPs cornered Curry and prevented him from getting a clean look at the basket.
“The new format was great,” James said. “The fans did a great job of reacting to it in a very positive way. That draft was something that hadn’t been done before, and the great thing about our commissioner is he is absolutely willing to do something new and change the format. It definitely worked out for everybody.”
This year’s game also had a bigger cash prize. The purse for the winning team was increased to $100,000 from $50,000 per player. Each team also selected a charity, and the winning team was awarded $350,000 to give to a charity of its choice. The losing team’s charity was given $150,000. (Team LeBron chose After-School All-Stars Los Angeles, and Team Stephen selected Brotherhood Crusade, also based in Los Angeles.)
Commissioner Adam Silver said that the change of format had come after a text exchange with Rockets guard Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union.
“I know I talked about it last year, that coming out of the All-Star Game, Chris and I had a discussion — he as president of the players association — and said we know we can put on a better performance for our fans,” Adam Silver said on Saturday.
It was not all serious, of course.
There were still between-the-leg passes, bounce-pass alley-oops and windmill dunks that jolted both benches to their feet. Curry even snacked on popcorn on the bench waiting for the second half to start, but the defenses on the court played tough — at least for an All-Star contest. Team LeBron and Team Stephen combined for 73 first-quarter points, the fewest in a first quarter since 2013.
Unlike last year, when both teams managed just two blocks and Anthony Davis racked up 52 points — many of them from uncontested dunks — this game featured eight blocks, with no player scoring more than 30 points.
The final two minutes finally got the crowd, which had been subdued all night, on its feet. After trailing by 133-120 late in the fourth quarter, James’ team went on a 21-9 run to pull within a single point. A layup by Russell Westbrook, the reigning league MVP, put Team LeBron up by 3 points, which, along with the defensive mastery of James and Durant, sealed the game.
Kyrie Irving, who played on Team LeBron, said he hoped that this game would serve as a building block. Some fans have called for even more changes, such as the league’s broadcasting team captains’ drafts, or voting in 24 players regardless of conference — instead of 12 each from the East and the West.
“The hope is that it’s only going to get better,” Irving said. “This was pretty fun. The game was kind of getting away, but I think a few of us took it a little personal that we wanted to keep the game still competitive and at a high level.”