East Gets Serious In the 2nd Half

LeBron James blows past Tracy McGrady during second-half action at the 55th NBA All-Star Game in Houston. The 21-year-old James became the youngest most valuable player as he finished with 29 points and six rebounds.
LeBron James blows past Tracy McGrady during second-half action at the 55th NBA All-Star Game in Houston. The 21-year-old James became the youngest most valuable player as he finished with 29 points and six rebounds. (L.M. Otero - Reuters)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

HOUSTON, Feb. 19 -- Before the 55th NBA All-Star Game got underway at Toyota Center, the Eastern Conference starters shimmied and danced in unison -- "the original Jackson 5 step from the Michael Jackson video," Miami Heat guard and choreographer Dwyane Wade said -- and the Western Conference starters held hands and did the wave in succession, with Houston Rockets center Yao Ming punctuating the routine with a little jig for comedic affect. When the all-stars finally went on the floor, it resembled a nightmarish pickup game, as the out-of-sync players threw bad passes, missed dunks, shot a few air balls and failed to excite the celebrity-sprinkled crowd that included former president George H.W. Bush.

By the end of the night, the sloppy play was replaced by some suspense and intense duels between Cleveland Cavaliers swingman LeBron James and Houston's Tracy McGrady, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and the Detroit Pistons. But the game was finally decided when Wade gave the East a 122-120 victory when he rebounded a miss by Philadelphia's Allen Iverson and nailed a runner in the lane with 16 seconds remaining. "I was in the right place at the right time to get the bucket," Wade said after scoring 20 points.

With a chance to tie or win the game, McGrady (36 points) took a jumper from 20 feet but James appeared to deflect it, and the ball came up about five feet short. ("Yeah, on his way up, I got a piece of his arm and a piece of the ball, which made it short," James said.) Minnesota forward Kevin Garnett rebounded the ball and found Bryant, who lost the ball to Detroit's Rasheed Wallace. Wallace found Iverson racing up the floor and Iverson threw the ball off the glass and appropriately, New Jersey forward Vince Carter elevated for a backward dunk -- and missed.

The 21-year-old James became the all-star game's youngest most valuable player as he finished with 29 points and six rebounds, providing a nifty highlight in the final period when he came flying toward the basket for a rebound dunk. He scored 13 points in the third period as the East rallied from a 21-point second-half deficit to pull within 97-94 entering the fourth.

"We didn't want to get blown out on national TV," James said. "I just wanted to be assertive and just try to hit the open shots and drive to the basket, which I'm always capable of doing. So the MVP was never in my mind; just winning the ballgame."

The game took a turn at the start of the fourth quarter, when East Coach Flip Saunders of the Detroit Pistons changed the pace by putting in the group of players who knew each other better than any one else: the Pistons. Saunders sent out Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace -- the first group of four teammates in the all-star game in eight years.

With the Pistons and Boston's Paul Pierce on the floor, the East scored the first five points of the period and Rasheed Wallace gave the East a 99-97 lead with a turnaround bank shot.

The Pistons helped provide some fluidity to the game, with Billups and Hamilton trading assists on successive plays to give the East a four-point lead and Ben Wallace (two blocks) providing swarming defense.

"We only know one way to play," Billups said, "and that's hard and that's for the win. We can't play any other way. We're not the most exciting team, but we know what it takes to win."

The East extended the lead to 10 points when James rebounded Iverson's miss for the dunk, but the West rallied behind McGrady and Bryant. McGrady scored 10 of his points in the fourth quarter and brought the East within 119-114 when he caught an alley-oop from Bryant. After Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki made a layup, Bryant took over. He drove inside and dunked the ball off of his head to bring the East within two points, then he split Iverson and Carter to tie the game at 120 with 33 seconds left.

After Wade's layup, West Coach Avery Johnson gave the hometown favorite McGrady an opportunity to extend the game. McGrady said he was fouled. "Yes, absolutely, yes," McGrady said. McGrady spent most of the weekend talking openly about a personal problem that brought him down but failed to mention what was troubling him.

He added that being at the All-Star Game helped him forget about his worries for a while and promised that the all-star trophy was staying in Houston. He appeared to be a runaway candidate for the MVP after scoring 17 points in the first half to pace all scorers and give the West a 70-53 lead at the break.

"It was just good to get out and have some sort of a scapegoat, so to speak," McGrady said. "All of things that I've been dealing with, personally, and you know, this was just an opportunity for me to have peace of mind. Just go out and have fun."

The game certainly had its lighthearted moments. Bryant attempted a crossover dribble and Shaquille O'Neal delivered a hard foul while reaching in. That didn't renew their beef, which was quashed last month during a celebrated truce in Los Angeles. Not only did Bryant get up with a smile on his face, but O'Neal joked with him, sending Bryant into hysterical laughter. "We were laughing all weekend long. It's been good," said Bryant, who was shown doing a taped rendition of "The Jeffersons" theme song in the first half.

The first half was filled with eye-covering blunders, but at least O'Neal tried to be entertaining. After making the first of two free throws, O'Neal tossed an underhand pass off the glass then sprinted toward the basket for a vicious, two-handed, rim-rocking dunk. The only problem was the basket was nullified when he was called for a lane violation.

Late in the second period, Carter came flying for another dunk, but the ball rammed off the back of the glass and bounded to the other side of the court. Embarrassed by the miss, Carter leapt onto the back of McGrady and laughed. McGrady laughed with Carter, then ran down to the other end of the court to catch an alley-oop dunk from Bryant.

The sloppy play in the first half probably had many hoping for more dance routines. Wade said there was no doubt who won that competition. "The East," Wade said. "They had Yao at the end of the line."

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