While everyone once treated the NBA All-Star Game like a vacation, four-time MVP Kobe Bryant never stopped working, so his torchbearers honored him with the most competitive exhibition ever Sunday night.
In a tribute to Bryant, the league opted to turn off the clock in the fourth quarter and set a final target score by adding 24 points to the leading team’s total through three quarters. The first three quarters were also mini games within the game, each played for $100,000 to the leading team’s charity of choice. An additional $200,000 was reserved for the winning team’s charity.
It sounds more complicated than it was in reality. All-Stars actually tried. They argued fouls, drew charges and flopped. Giannis Antetokounmpo defended LeBron James with a vengeance. There was a coach’s challenge and a review that negated calls with the game in the balance. It worked.
In the end, it came down to free throws, and Anthony Davis made the second to seal it, 157-155.
“I told my team I was going to miss the first one and put a little more pressure on myself here at home,” Davis, a Chicago native playing at the United Center for the city’s first All-Star Game since 1988, told the TNT broadcast with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “So, I made the miss look good. Back rim. And then I went up to the line, crowd going crazy, Team Giannis booing me ... so I just wanted to make sure I put a little extra pressure on myself and knock down the second one.”
Kawhi Leonard won the game’s MVP award, the first named in Bryant’s honor. Leonard scored a game-high 30 points (11-of-18 FG, 8-of-14 3-pointers), with seven rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals.
“It means a lot to me,” said Leonard, who was a key contributor to Team LeBron’s closing lineup. “Words can’t even explain making this the first Kobe Bryant MVP trophy. I want to thank Kobe for everything he’s done for me. All the long talks and workouts. Thank you. This one’s for him.”
After Team LeBron and Team Giannis respectively split the first two quarters, winning $100,000 apiece for Chicago Scholars and After School Matters, respectively, the two squads played to a tie in the third. The tie added $100,000 to the winning team’s charitable donations. That left Team Giannis leading 133-124 entering the fourth, setting the target score at 157 with $300,000 on the line for the winner.
Riding a lineup of James, Leonard, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Chris Paul, Team LeBron closed the gap. A Kawhi pull-up jumper tied the score at 150, setting up a wild finish against Team Giannis’ lineup of Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker.
With the scored again tied at 152, Davis was whistled for a foul on Joel Embiid, but Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel’s challenge overturned it. On consecutive trips to the free-throw line, Harden made a pair, and Siakam missed one of his two. Team LeBron led 154-153 when Antetokounmpo was whistled for a goal-tend on a James layup, but a freeze-frame review confirmed Giannis’ chase-down block against the man who made the most famous one of all in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
LeBron left no doubt on his next touch, dunking to extend his team’s lead to 156-153. Embiid responded, posting up James and earning a trip to the line. He made both free throws to bring Team Giannis within one, setting up the NBA’s dream scenario — a next-basket-wins situation.
On the ensuing possession, Davis found a mismatch against Lowry under the basket, and the Toronto Raptors point guard was whistled for a takedown of the Los Angeles Lakers big man. LeBron celebrated at midcourt, convinced a Davis free throw would cap an anticlimactic ending. A Nick Nurse challenge briefly opened the door for a potentially flashier finish, but the call was upheld. Davis added a little suspense, missing the first, but connecting on the second for the win.
The first half looked an awful lot like All-Star Games of the past, bouncing between alley-oops and wild 3-point attempts opposite little defensive pressure. Team LeBron dominated the opening quarter with a record-tying 53 points, highlighted by Leonard’s 4-for-4 shooting from deep.
Antetokounmpo responded with 14 points in the second quarter, and Trae Young’s halfcourt buzzer-beater put a bow on a 51-point frame that gave Team Giannis a 92-83 lead at the break. Both teams dialed up the effort in the third quarter, playing to a tie that paved the way for a glorious end.
James and Paul both had 23 points and six assists, Davis added 20 points and nine rebounds, and Ben Simmons (17 points) and James Harden (11) rounded out Team LeBron’s double-digit scoring.
Antetokounmpo led his team with 25 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, and probably would have been named MVP had he emerged a victor. Joel Embiid (22 points, 10 rebounds) and Rudy Gobert (21 points, 11 rebounds) both had double-doubles, while Kemba Walker added 23 points.
The absence of a game-winning field goal aside, LeBron’s Chicago Scholars got $400,000, fans were treated to a hotly contested game, and players gave Kobe the All-Star Game he deserved.
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