NEW ORLEANS -- Five things to watch when the 2014 NBA All-Star Game tips off here Sunday night:
1. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. It isn't quite a full-fledged rivalry yet because Durant hasn't beaten James for a championship or an MVP award. But Durant is challenging his friend in both categories like never before while playing the best basketball of this season.
The entire weekend, and the featured game itself, will revolve around the NBA's two biggest stars. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played different positions and rarely guarded one another, but James and Durant -- driven by their competitiveness as well their sense for the theater -- figure to seek each other out. Their 1-on-1 isolations promise to be the main attraction.
Will James back him in and muscle Durant at times, in spite of the game's friendly nature? Will Durant seek to torch LeBron from the 3-point line?
"They don't compare me to K.D.,"said James when asked about their on-court relationship. "They just talk about the two best players in the game and which one is better -- which one can score better, who is the MVP, who is going to win the next championship. But they don't ever compare our games too much, we're two different players."
Their rendezvous will have zero impact on the more meaningful races to come over the months ahead, but it will be entertaining all the same to see them expressing themselves competitively in this entertaining environment. Three years ago in Los Angeles, James tried to chase down Kobe Bryant on a breakaway but failed to block his shot: Here's hoping we see one or more of those open-court pursuits involving the game's two biggest stars on Sunday.
2. Chris Paul returns to New Orleans. The former Hornet returns to the home of the Pelicans (still getting used to the name change?), where he is sure to be welcomed warmly. When Paul declined to commit long term to New Orleans, he essentially forced a trade to the Clippers in 2011. Yet he remains popular here as a star who was connected to the community.
"It may have something to do with the timing of when I got drafted during (Hurricane) Katrina, and then I tried to be a part of the rebuilding process,"said Paul. "My family and everything, we got close to the city really quick. And it will always be like that. I still have a lot of extended family here in New Orleans."
Paul doesn't take his games here for granted. "Probably the most nerve-wracking thing that I did was my first game back here," said Paul of the Clippers' 97-90 loss here in March 2012. "I wanted to win the game, but my emotions were crazy because there's a lot of relationships that I have here. It's a lot of people here that I miss."
Paul was recently sidelined for five weeks by a shoulder injury. He returned to the Clippers last weekend, and generated 20 points and 12 assists in a win against Portland on Wednesday. It was important to him to come back in time for this game in particular, another chance to see people he misses and another chance to play in New Orleans.
3. Will the East be destroyed? It's a fair question, based on the standings within the rival conferences. The West is loaded with playoff contenders (including nine of the 11 best teams in the NBA record-wise) and players deserving of All-Star consideration, while the East has two teams capable of winning the championship (Indiana and Miami) followed by 13 franchises that would all currently be out of the playoffs if held to the higher standards of the West.
The top guard in the East, Dwyane Wade, has been suffering from a mysterious foot injury and figures to play limited minutes Sunday. "I told him I'm going to get out there and have a little fun,"said Wade of his conversation with East coach Frank Vogel, "and then, if I have to, (I'll) sit down."
It sounds as if the responsibility for carrying his team will weigh disproportionately on James, and by now he should be used to that. This game will wind up being closer than the conference's combined win-loss records would suggest.
4. What will become of Carmelo Anthony? No decision on his future with the Knicks will be forthcoming from Anthony, who was sounding Friday as if he was leaning toward staying in New York. Nonetheless his impending free agency will be a source of conversation throughout the game, in part because he opened the season by predicting he would become a free agent. While James and Wade have fended off such speculation, Anthony has taken it on -- though not to the degree of the 2011 All-Star Game, which he played amid ongoing trade talks that wound up sending him to the Knicks shortly after All-Star Weekend.
5. Which newcomer will surprise? Stephen Curry, already named by Durant as the league's best shooter, will be making his All-Star debut. But he will be doing so amid the crowded roster of the West.
The player most likely to have a breakout game is Kyrie Irving, the starting guard point guard of the East who figures to have the ball in his hands almost as often as James. "Sunday is the time to put on a show, things you wouldn't do during a normal game,"said Irving. "It's a free environment."
Irving has the skills, athleticism and confidence to dominate. He played 25 minutes last year and finished his debut with 15 points and four assists. There will be a demand for him to take on a bigger role this year and he will not disappoint. The problems of his team in Cleveland will be irrelevant on this stage. He could challenge for the MVP on Sunday.