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Monday, February 17, 2020

Kawhi Leonard Leads Team LeBron to 157-155 Win over Team Giannis as New Format Results in Exciting Fourth Quarter Competition

After three quarters, it seemed that the new NBA All-Star Game format had not inspired many players from either team to even pretend to play at a fraction of their full capabilities. Fortunately, the fourth quarter--a race to 157 points based on adding 24 points (in honor of Kobe Bryant) to the 133-124 lead enjoyed by Team Giannis over Team LeBron at the end of the third quarter--featured high level play as both teams looked fully engaged: Team Giannis' Kyle Lowry seemed to try to take a charge on every defensive possession, players from both teams contested almost every shot, and the level of physicality ramped up to top notch regular season levels, if not even first round playoff levels.

It is mystifying that most NBA players seem to need external motivation to play their best in the All-Star Game, but with a substantial portion of the weekend's festivities dedicated to the memory of Bryant--including naming the All-Star MVP award for him--it would have been a travesty for the players to just sleepwalk through the entire proceedings. Kawhi Leonard is a pioneer of the less than commendable load management scourge, but at least he always plays hard when he is on the court. Leonard scored a game-high 30 points on 11-18 field goal shooting (including 8-14 from three point range), grabbed seven rebounds, dished for four assists, and received the first Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP Award as his Team LeBron won, 157-155.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul always play hard, but it took a while for their colleagues to join the party. After the game, Paul said, "I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved was to play like we played, you know what I mean? Me and Russ [Westbrook] kept talking about it. That's one thing about Kobe: Whenever he was on our team in the All-Star Game, there wasn't none of that cool stuff. There wasn't none of that. It was, like, as long as they throw the ball up, let's get to it."

Paul scored a team-high nine fourth quarter points (all on three pointers) for Team LeBron. Earlier in the game, Paul caught a lob from Westbrook and threw down a two-handed dunk, his first dunk in an NBA game since 2015. Paul finished with 23 points and six assists. Westbrook had a quiet game statistically (six points on 2-10 field goal shooting, plus three rebounds and three assists), but his energy helped Team LeBron to keep the game close during the first three quarters (Westbrook had a +1 plus/minus number despite not being on the court during Team LeBron's fourth quarter comeback, which means that during the majority of the game Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis by one when Westbook played even though Team Giannis outscored Team LeBron overall during that portion of the game).

LeBron James finished with 23 points, six assists, and five rebounds, but he shot just 1-7 from the field in the fourth quarter.

Antetokounmpo led his squad with 25 points and 11 rebounds, and he added four assists, but he shot 0-2 from the field in the fourth quarter--though he did play strong defense. Joel Embiid finished with with 22 points and 10 rebounds, leading both teams in both categories in the final quarter with 10 points and five rebounds.

It was very interesting that with the money (for local Chicago charities) on the line, Team Giannis repeatedly ran their fourth quarter offense through whoever James Harden was guarding. Harden can be a stout post defender when he feels like it, and he is more active and engaged playing post defense than playing perimeter defense, so Team LeBron--with top defenders like James, Leonard, Paul, and Anthony Davis on the court to help out--survived the Harden targeting.

The new format is not perfect--the first three quarters were hard to watch for anyone who enjoys basketball competition more than empty, uncontested showmanship--but the idea of playing for charity is great and the fourth quarter was a superb example of NBA basketball at its finest: elite athletes giving full effort at both ends of the court. I wish that the regular game format combined with the traditional East versus West rivalry would be sufficient to inspire high level basketball competition, but because we have seen on multiple occasions a significant decline in the game's competitiveness (see the game recaps below for recent examples of this), it made sense for the NBA to institute changes to motivate the players to compete at a higher level.

Recent NBA All-Star Game Recaps:

Kevin Durant Wins his Second All-Star MVP as Team LeBron Overcomes 20 Point Deficit to Defeat Team Giannis, 178-164 (2019)

"The All-Star Game sunk to such depths a few years ago that there were even whispers that it might be discontinued. Instead, the league changed the format from East versus West to a format in which the top two vote-getters conduct a draft consisting of a pool of other All-Stars selected by fans, coaches and media members. LeBron James faced off against Giannis Antetokounmpo in this year's All-Star draft. Popular consensus was that James, whose draft strategy seemed to be focused on acquiring every major player who will be a free agent soon, got the better of Antetokounmpo--but it did not look like that initially, as Team Giannis led 53-37 after the first quarter and 95-82 at halftime. Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 38 points on 17-23 field goal shooting, including 10 dunks. He also had 11 rebounds and five assists. He set the tone in the first quarter with 16 points. Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee teammate/All-Star teammate Khris Middleton added 20 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, including 6-10 from three point range. Middleton scored 12 first quarter points.

To coin--or repeat--a phrase, it seemed like Team LeBron was in "chill mode" during the first half, but in the second half they exerted at least some defensive effort and they rained down a barrage of three pointers. Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis 96-69 in the second half while shooting 22-49 from three point range. The teams combined to attempt 167 three pointers during the game, compared to 108 two pointers attempted.

Kevin Durant earned MVP honors by scoring 31 points on 10-15 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from three point range) while also contributing seven rebounds. He had 11 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Durant's Golden State teammate Klay Thompson finished second on Team LeBron with 20 points on 7-16 field goal shooting (6-12 from three point range) and he had eight rebounds and four assists as well."

LeBron James Earns Third All-Star Game MVP as Team LeBron Outlasts Team Stephen, 148-145 (2018):

"LeBron James scored a game-high 29 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high tying 10 rebounds and dished eight assists as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in the first year of the NBA's new All-Star selection format; instead of the traditional matchup featuring the Eastern Conference facing the Western Conference, a team of All-Stars picked by LeBron James faced a team of All-Stars picked by Stephen Curry. The NBA tweaked the All-Star Game in the wake of several subpar All-Star Games, culminating in last year's farce.

Before the 2018 All-Star Game, James already held the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (314 points) and yesterday he surpassed Julius Erving (321 points) to set the record for most points scored in ABA and NBA All-Star Games combined. Bob Pettit (1956, 58, 59, 62) and Kobe Bryant (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011) share the record with four All-Star Game MVPs each, while James joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as three-time winners; James previously earned the All-Star Game MVP in 2006 and 2008."

The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce (2017):

"The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark"

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:50 AM

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