LOS ANGELES – The NBA and its players association have stumbled onto something. And they shouldn’t let it go by the wayside.
The out-of-the-box thinking for the All-Star Game — scrapping the traditional East vs. West format and allowing the players to choose sides to create more competition — worked.
Sunday’s game, won by LeBron James’ team 148-145 over Stephen Curry’s squad was more than a showcase. It was actually a competitive game.
And not a laughable display of nine players standing around and choosing whose turn it is to fly to the rim or take a 35-foot jumper.
After a slow start — though not nearly as slow as the pregame show featuring the overexposed Kevin Hart — the players warmed up to actually playing defense, an art that had been lost in the last four All-Star games.
“The beginning of the game was basically no difference, a little bit of highlights,” said Heat guard Goran Dragic, who had two points, four rebounds and an assist in his All-Star game debut. He played 11:28.
“But then when the game was getting to the end, the last six, seven minutes was really a competitive game. We were down (13) points and we were really competing on defense. I think that’s good for the fans. You want to have a close game and we had one. It’s fun. You can see some highlights — alley-oops, crazy dunks — but I think the fans wanted competitiveness.”
They certainly got it.
Team LeBron trailed 133-120 with just under seven minutes to play, but went on a 24-17 run to tie the score with 1:30 remaining. Then, with the help of a finger-roll layup by MVP LeBron with 34.5 seconds to go, his team took a one-point lead.
Following a turnover by DeMar DeRozan, Team LeBron got the ball back and a Russell Westbrook bucket gave them a three-point lead with 10.7 seconds left.
Team Stephen, though, had one last chance to send the game into overtime. But Curry let his boys down when he could not get a shot off with LeBron and his Golden State teammate, Kevin Durant, smothering him. Curry was forced to give up the ball to DeRozan, who couldn’t get a shot off before the buzzer.
The last time an All-Star Game was decided by one possession was 2010.
“We tried to set the tone early of playing a little bit of defense, creating that competitive environment that was a great change for the fans,” Curry said. “I think we accomplished that all the way down to the finish.”
Yes they did. There was defense (a shocking concept for an All-Star game). There were strategic timeouts by coaches Dwane Casey of Toronto and Mike D’Antoni of Houston (again, something the All-Star game has not seen in awhile). There was James shouting out defensive calls. There were eight blocked shots, 20 steals and the first ever All-Star Game referee’s review (which, by the way, they got wrong).
Oh, and there were 28 free throws, another indication that defense was being played at the rim. The last two All-Star Games, which turned into unwatchable slam-dunk contests, had 16 free throws combined.
And the winning team the last two years, the West on both occasions, scored 196 and 192 points, forcing the NBA to get out ahead of this deteriorating snoozefest before someone cracked 200 points.
DeRozan and Durant both said it was the most fun each has had playing in an All-Star Game. And most players had to agree especially when the winning team has averaged 178.5 points the last four years.
“Both (teams) competed and they went after it, and that’s what you want to see,” said Heat general manager Andy Elisburg, who was part of the team’s contingent at the game to support Dragic.
“You want to see a game where there’s excitement and you got a one-possession game at the end.”
Elisburg doesn’t know if the format will continue — although with the positive reviews coming from the Hollywood crowd and beyond, the NBA has no choice. Now the league must take this format one step further and televise the draft.
Make it part of All-Star Weekend, say Friday night. Have all 24 players shooting around on the court and the two captains at midcourt pointing to a player and that player dropping the ball and walking over to stand next to his captain.
Just like they probably did hundreds of times on the playground.
Talk about ratings!