LOS ANGELES — After Paul George buried a three-pointer in the dying seconds of the first half of Sunday night’s NBA All-Star Game at Staples Center, he and Kyrie Irving trapped James Harden in the backcourt. The result was a steal that turned into a George dunk. On the next possession, the same duo harassed Klay Thompson, who proceeded to try to throw a pass to Stephen Curry — only for it to sail out of bounds instead.
In those 15 seconds, more defense was played than in the entirety of the last two All-Star Games combined.
The final score may have been 148-145 in favor of Team LeBron over Team Stephen, but this exhibition was a massive departure from the snooze fests the NBA’s midseason spectacle had devolved into in recent years. The result was the kind of entertaining performance basketball fans and NBA decision-makers hoped they would get but wondered if they ever actually would.
LeBron James finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists en route to deservedly winning his third career All-Star Game MVP award, but he just as easily could have earned it for helping set the tone for how the game would be played in its opening minutes.
On his first defensive possession, he attempted to steal the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo in the post and then leapt into the air at midcourt to steal a pass and instantly start a fast break moments later.
Later in the first quarter, he was barking out defensive calls and telling players where to be. Russell Westbrook fouled Antetokounmpo to prevent him from throwing down a tomahawk dunk, and Antetokounmpo threw a layup into the third row that was called back for goaltending.
“I think myself and Steph, we took it upon ourselves when we decided to do this format that we had to change the landscape of how the All-Star Game was played,” James said, his voice raspy. “As you can hear in my voice, it was competitive.”
The changes came after last season’s game in New Orleans, a 192-182 victory for the Western Conference that was so sloppily played that everyone involved became convinced that adjustments needed to be made to try to bring some modicum of effort back to the festivities.
So the NBA did just that. In collaboration with the National Basketball Players Association — and specifically its president, Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul — the league decided to blow up the traditional format of East vs. West. In its place was the creation of the concept of team captains — James and Curry this year, chosen as the top vote-getters from the Eastern and Western Conferences — who would then draft their own teams from the pool of players selected from each conference.
The adoption of the new format — not to mention increasing the payout to the players on the winning team to $100,000 each and the league donating $500,000 to the charities of the two captains’ choosing — was accompanied by the major parties involved, from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to the players themselves, saying in the run-up to the game that the changes would lead to the players giving a more representative effort.
It turned out to be more successful than even the league’s most optimistic hopes.
“The opinions of what the All-Star Game has kind of turned into, I think we all took it kind of personal,” Kyrie Irving said. “Individually, we wanted to come out and be competitive. Last year . . . that’s just not as fun as communicating with guys you don’t necessarily play with every single day, bouncing ideas off [each other] in timeouts.
“It’s just that competitive fire we all share.”
There still were plenty of highlight plays and plenty of three-pointers taken. But after the two teams shot 58 and 56 percent, respectively, in last year’s All-Star Game, Team LeBron needed a late spurt to finish at 51.7 percent, while Team Stephen combined to shoot 44.4 percent — yet another indication of the newfound level of intensity with which both sides played.
And, on top of everything else, the NBA got a competitive game down to the end.
There were 11 lead changes and five ties, including when — after spending most of the fourth quarter chipping away at what was a 13-point lead for Team Stephen — James tied the game with 90 seconds to go with a three-pointer on the left wing.
After Team LeBron managed to get another stop, George tried to drive to the rim against Joel Embiid, only to badly miss a layup — leading to a scrum for the rebound. Then DeMar DeRozan, like George a Los Angeles native, wound up with the ball and was fouled by George.
DeRozan made one of the two free throws with 40.2 seconds left to give Team Stephen a 145-144 lead — only for James to score on the ensuing possession to swing the game back in his team’s favor. DeRozan had a chance to potentially win the game, only to pass up a potential game-winning shot by passing to Antetokounmpo, who lost the ball out of bounds.
Westbrook made a layup to give Team LeBron a 148-145 lead with 10 seconds left, setting up one final possession for Team Stephen to tie the game. But, in a moment fitting of the differing mentality for how this game was played, James and Kevin Durant swarmed Curry, forcing him into the corner and preventing a game-tying three from ever being attempted.
As the buzzer sounded, Team LeBron celebrated the victory, and the league celebrated the return of actual competition to its annual midseason spectacle.
“That was something we wanted to do tonight, have the defense be a little more of an emphasis,” James said, “and that was the case all the way down to the last play. It had a real game feel to it.”