Not every All-Star Game has a player sacrificing his body for not one charge, but two. Or players protesting calls as though a playoff berth was on the line. Or guys on the sideline, leaping and waving a towel to distract an opponent at the free throw line.
This game, however, was unlike any other in the 69 years the league has put on a midseason showcase. With a new format of play and Bryant on the mind -- and the backs of every player since Team Giannis wore No. 24 and Team LeBron wore No. 2, the jersey of his daughter Gianna -- the usual monotony of dunks, dunks and more dunks stepped aside for meaningful basketball.
“I didn’t know what to expect because it was a new format, new year,” said LeBron James, who scored 23 points. “None of us knew what to expect. But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’ ”
Anthony Davis sank the game-winning free throw in the Elam Ending format — in the fourth quarter, the target score was 157 points — even though members of Team Giannis tried their best to disturb him. Although Davis, the hometown kid, sealed the game, Kawhi Leonard won the renamed Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP award with a game-high 30 points.
“Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” Leonard said. “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.”
With the Elam Ending, every play mattered. And in this particular game, every play was scrutinized. In the fourth quarter, players directed their intensity toward the officials and complained for whistles, they hustled for loose balls and in a change of pace in All-Star Games, actually played defense.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 25 points but focused primarily on defense through the fourth quarter, rejected both James and Davis in separate plays. Kyle Lowry, who was also on Team Giannis, risked life and limb by taking two offensive fouls. Lowry’s second charge, though exaggerated, wiped away James Harden’s potential game-sealing three-pointer.
Lowry was not named an all-star starter but played the entire fourth quarter for Team Giannis in place of Trae Young, a first-time all-star. Team LeBron went a similar route, rolling with the veteran Chris Paul and sitting another first-timer, Luka Doncic.
“The weekend was special because for me I hadn’t played in the game since ’16 or ’17 or something," Paul said. “So you sort of take it for granted at some point. Me and Kyle Lowry talked about how nice it was just to get out there, the camaraderie, and talk to the guys.”
In the untimed quarter, the consistent rotation worked as the game remained competitive. Ultimately, Team LeBron overcame a nine-point deficit at the start of the quarter to win and make a lasting tribute to Bryant.
“You could definitely feel his presence just from the start,” James said. “From every moment from the fans chanting his name till you seen the numbers. Every time you saw Giannis’s team run on the floor, you saw the 2-4.”
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