By Kurt Helin (NBC Sports)
CHICAGO — “Throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’”
LeBron James is right; that was fun.
And dramatic. And entertaining. And the best All-Star game in recent memory.
The NBA’s format changes to the All-Star Game — starting each quarter at 0-0 with money for charities on the line, then the target point ending — were the biggest winners of the 2020 All-Star Game.
It changed the game from something that had been a soulless exhibition in recent years to something competitive and entertaining.
“It was dope,” Jimmy Butler said. “Damn sure got to compete at the end. It’s still fun to go out there and be known as one of the best players in the world in this league. Hopefully it stays like that.”
After this dramatic ending, Butler will get his wish and this format will be back.
Team LeBron beat Team Giannis 157-155, reaching the target number of 157 on a free throw from Chicago’s own Anthony Davis.
That ending didn’t feel satisfying, especially after the best All-Star Game anyone could remember.
The fourth quarter had everything: The fans in the arena were on their feet and loud like a playoff game. Joel Embiid tried to take a charge. Kyle Lowry did take a charge on Kawhi Leonard. Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry were barking at the officials over calls. Coaches were calling for reviews.
Giannis Antetokounmpo blocked LeBron.
Then the Greek Freak blocked a Davis shot. Then he blocked LeBron again.
It was a fourth quarter that was tied 152-152, making it a first-to-five game. In the end, it became next basket wins — and Davis got that basket.
Kawhi Leonard, who finished the night with 30 points, shooting 8-of-14 from three, walked off with the just-named Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP award.
“I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” Leonard said of winning the MVP the first year it was named after Kobe. “Able to put that trophy in my room, in my trophy room, and just be able to see Kobe’s name on there, it just means a lot to me. He’s an inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.
The night started with a stirring pregame tribute to Kobe from Magic Johnson and Jennifer Hudson, and then Common came out with the best player introductions this game has seen in a long time.
Team LeBron pulled away in the first quarter — in part due to a string of Jimmy Butler turnovers — and won it 53-41 on a quarter short on great highlights. Leonard led all scorers with 12 points, going 4-of-4 from three. Davis had 9 points and captain LeBron had 7.
The best highlight of the second quarter? Chris Paul dunked. He finished a Russell Westbrook alley-oop.
It’s like seeing a unicorn. He hasn’t done that in a game since 2016, LeBron said it caught everyone by surprise, but CP3 has a bounce in his step this season.
Leonard kept draining threes, he had 25 points at the half and was 7-of-10 from three, but team Giannis led early on in the second quarter and pulled away late to take that frame. It was capped off by a Trae Young half-court buzzer-beater.
That had each team winning a quarter — so both charities, Chicago Scholars and After School Matters, each had $100,000 — and the overall score was 92-83 Team Giannis at the half.
The third quarter is when things got interesting.
Midway through the third, the intensity started to pick up a notch, started by Team LeBron caring on defense. The third was the first time one of these quarters was close and it led to real drama down the stretch.
A Russell Westbrook bucket tied the quarter with :45 seconds, then a Rudy Gobert dunk put Team Giannis up by two. Nikola Jokic answered with a three to put Team LeBron up one with 22.9 seconds left.
That led to Nick Nurse taking a strategic timeout, but Kyle Lowry lost the ball out of bounds, which forced Team Giannis to foul Westbrook, who made one-of-two, giving Team LeBron a two-point lead and Team Giannis a chance.
Trae Young threw a lob that Gobert finished to tie the game up with 2.2 seconds remaining. A Westbrook runner clanked off the rim and the quarter ended a tie. (The charity money rolled over to the fourth quarter.)
At that point, adding 24 points to Team Giannis’ three-quarter total, 157 became the magic number. Team Giannis needed to score 24 to get there, Team LeBron 33.
And then it was on.
You can bet this format will be on again next year when the All-Star Game heads to Indianapolis. (IA/sovereignph.com/NBC Sports)