NEW ORLEANS — The NBA’s best descended on The Big Easy over the weekend for the All-Star Game, with the league’s annual midseason celebration combining with the opening weekend of Mardi Gras to produce an excess of fun for a city known for exactly that.
That’s what made the ongoing drama surrounding the fractured friendship of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the only story anyone truly cared about here during the weekend — though, for the record, the Western Conference did beat the Eastern Conference, 192-182, on Sunday night — so ironic. In a city known for carefree merriment, the strife between the two longtime teammates-turned-rivals couldn’t be avoided — even if Westbrook and Durant didn’t want to talk about it.
“I don’t know what y’all need, but I’m in a great place,” Westbrook said Friday. “I’m having fun. I’m having a great time.”
When asked about it, both declined to comment in a variety of ways. Durant simply avoided the questions, while Westbrook chose to answer any questions directed his way by talking about fashion instead. When walking off the court after the Western Conference all-stars practiced Saturday morning, Durant, who chose to leave Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder behind this past offseason to join the Golden State Warriors, made a point of giving Westbrook as wide a berth as he possibly could when he came off the court.
So as Sunday arrived and the wait for the game to tip off began, the questions kept coming. Would Westbrook and Durant play together? Would they acknowledge each other? Would they get into a fight on the court?
It turns out they barely had any chance to do much of anything together. Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, the man in charge of the West all-stars, had Westbrook check into the game for the first time with Durant on the court with 6:07 to go in the first quarter. They only shared the floor for 80 seconds before Durant checked back out of the game, and they wouldn’t be on the court together again.
After the game, Kerr feigned indifference at knowing how often they were on the court together.
“I didn’t even notice,” Kerr said. “It wasn’t anything I consciously thought of.”
While that seems highly unlikely — if not impossible — the stars only needed those 80 seconds to finally begin to let some of the tension that had built up over the past seven months begin to dissipate — even if just for one night.
The signs had been there during warmups, when they slapped hands during layup lines and passed to one another. But then came the 4:58 mark of the first quarter, when Westbrook and Durant engaged in a give-and-go, with Westbrook passing to Durant at the high post and Durant then flipping the ball over his shoulder to Westbrook for a massive slam.
Afterward, though, both tried to downplay the importance of the moment.
“He threw a lob,” Westbrook said. “That’s all that happened. Just threw a lob. It’s basketball. That’s it.”
Still, if there was any doubt that the tension between the two of them spilled over into the Western Conference locker room, the reaction from the rest of the team in the wake of the dunk said it all. Stephen Curry jokingly yelled on the bench, “Oh my God! What just happened?” Then, as Westbrook and Durant came back to the bench a few seconds later during a stoppage in play, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green surrounded them and mock cheered the two stars for the play.
“Defining moment in history right there,” Anthony Davis, who would go on to win the MVP award by scoring a single-game-record 52 points, deadpanned afterward.
With that out of the way, the rest of the All-Star Game devolved into what has become an annual tradition of plenty of dunks and three-pointers — and very, very little defense. Westbrook came out gunning for a third straight MVP award, and he nearly got it by finishing with 41 points in just 20 minutes, while Durant had 21 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo, playing in his first All-Star Game, led the East with 30 points.
But as the game played out, the most interesting dynamic wound up being something that had nothing to do with what was happening on the court at all, as multiple sources indicated Sacramento Kings all-star Cousins had been traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package including shooting guard Buddy Hield and at least one first-round draft pick.
There were rumblings all night about a potential deal, which was first reported by The Vertical, after Cousins only played two minutes in the game and everyone else played at least 10.