CHICAGO — The N.B.A.’s 69th All-Star Game played out just as it was billed — and it also veered wildly off script to a delicious degree.
The evening, as promised, served as the emotional culmination of a days-long Windy City tribute to Kobe Bryant, the former All-Star killed in a helicopter crash last month. There were songs. There were speeches. There were shoes, all part a moving pregame program devoted to the memories of Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died along with seven other victims in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash.
And then, without warning, the All-Star Game managed to deliver a second-half dose of the best, most competitive basketball seen on this stage in years. The result was the sort of spiritual lift, however fleeting, that this All-Star weekend, and frankly this league, needed.
League officials were cautiously optimistic that a significant format change to the game, with a Kobe-inspired twist, would infuse its All-Star proceedings with a much-needed dose of competitive spirit. What they gratefully got Sunday night was a fourth quarter that had a United Center sellout crowd on its feet and led to countless participants raving about the changes afterward.
There was unprecedented defensive intensity for an All-Star Game. Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors took multiple textbook charges. Both teams agonized over numerous whistles as if something was truly riding on the outcome. Each side formally protested a call through — get this — a coach’s challenge in what is still an exhibition game. All of it added up to a crunchtime of high drama that was totally organic.
“We had a little bit of playoff intensity out there,” said Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who captained one side, Team Giannis, against the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James and his Team LeBron.
Said Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul, who helped Team LeBron escape with a 157-155 victory: “I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved was to play like we played.”
It was Paul, in his role as president of the N.B.A. Players Association, who initially proposed to Commissioner Adam Silver that the league adopt what is known as Elam scoring. Based on the league’s adaptation of the concept, a so-called target score of 157 was established by adding 24 — a nod to one of Bryant’s jersey numbers — to the total of the team in the lead after three quarters.
So with Team Giannis holding a 133-124 edge on Team LeBron at that stage, Sunday’s winner would thus be the first to reach 157 points in an untimed quarter.
That commercial-free quarter wound up lasting nearly 40 minutes.
Leading Team Giannis, Coach Nick Nurse of the Raptors played the same five All-Stars for nearly the entire period, while Team LeBron, led by Coach Frank Vogel of the Lakers, used only seven players. Two veterans, Paul, of Team LeBron, and Lowry, of Team Giannis, played all the important minutes over second-year stars who actually started the game: Dallas’s Luka Doncic and Atlanta’s Trae Young.
In perhaps the most telling illustration of how serious the fourth quarter was, both teams combined to shoot an under-duress 35.5 percent from floor — after connecting on a combined 55.5 percent of their shots through three quarters.
“Offensively it was hard to get anything started,” Nurse said of the final period. “Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”
The fact that the Lakers’ Anthony Davis registered the clinching point for Team LeBron with a free throw naturally turned off some, most notably Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. The same was true for the fact that Davis’s free throw followed a failed coach’s challenge by Nurse after uncharacteristically heavy referee involvement, for All-Star conditions, throughout the fourth quarter.
Yet there was no disputing how much energy the new format gave a game that has increasingly troubled the league office in recent years. Silver himself, in March 2019, once described the previous round of big All-Star format changes — instituting a player draft and abolishing the East vs. West concept — as putting “an earring on a pig.”
“None of us knew what to expect,” James said. “But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’”
“The change helped the whole experience,” Lowry said, even though the narrow defeat dropped his personal record in All-Star Games to 0-6.
Lowry, of course, was referring to the in-game experience. Nothing could have completely offset the somber tone that prevailed over what is typically a celebratory convention for the league.
As James put it, given Bryant’s immense stature in the game, anything other than a steady stream of tributes and a melancholy vibe “would be uncivilized.”
Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers took home the first All-Star most valuable player trophy to bear Bryant’s name after leading Team LeBron with a game-high 30 points. Everyone on Team Giannis wore No. 24, in Kobe’s honor, while everyone on Team LeBron wore No. 2 — Gianna Bryant’s number.
Before the game, the former Lakers great Magic Johnson called for an eight-second moment of silence dedicated to Kobe Bryant and the former N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern, who died Jan. 1 after sustaining a brain aneurysm in December. The singer and actress Jennifer Hudson and the rapper Common, both Chicago natives, followed with powerful performances in Kobe’s honor.
The occasion, with or without the wild finish, was always destined to morph into a pre-memorial for Bryant: a prelude of sorts to the Lakers’ official ceremony, scheduled for Feb. 24 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
On Saturday, I crossed paths with the former 76ers star Allen Iverson at a Panini trading card signing. On the eve of his usual stint as a front-row spectator at the All-Star Game, and bracing for how much sadness was looming, Iverson insisted he would be taking measures to mask his emotions from the cameras.”
“Trust me,” Iverson said. “I’m going to have my glasses on, because I have an idea of what it’s going to be.”
Yet when Sunday arrived, so much and so little went as planned. Iverson was a good example of that.
For starters, he called an audible on his eyewear intentions. Iverson indeed packed some sunglasses with all the requisite winter gear he brought for a weekend that featured the coldest Valentine’s Day on record in Chicago in 77 years. But the Hall of Fame guard decided to ditch them for his Sunday ensemble and lean into the bittersweet mood.
Sitting right near the Team LeBron bench, Iverson wore a purple Los Angeles Lakers hat pulled down low and a rookie-year Kobe Bryant jersey in Lakers gold.
Then came the big surprise: A beautiful basketball game broke out, filled with genuine animus between the ultra-talented teams and too many fist pumps to register.
It was a most welcome surprise.
“Probably one of the best All-Star Games ever,” Embiid said.