NEW ORLEANS -- And so the last would be first.
Not that it would count for anything. It will influence neither the remaining two months of the season nor the playoffs to come, but the weaker Eastern conference upset the West 163-155 in the All-Star Game Sunday. The East was led by its smallest star, 6-foot-3 Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers, who generated 31 points, 14 assists and a second-half comeback for the win.
Adam Silver became the first commissioner in 31 years not named David Stern to hand over the MVP award. When Irving grabbed it, he didn't know what to do with the trophy. He looked over his shoulder at LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who told him to lift it overhead. He obliged as the two Heat stars laughed.
"They were just telling me the proper All-Star pose," said Irving, who is 21.
Two of the more underperforming teams in the East have been the Cavaliers and the Knicks, but here was Irving taking over alongside Carmelo Anthony, whose eight three-pointers (on 13 attempts on his way to 30 points overall) were an All-Star record. "The history of the league is to reward the teams with winning records and the best players on those teams," acknowledged East coach Frank Vogel. "But there [are] certain players that stand out beyond that.
"Melo is definitely one of them. No matter what his team is doing, he's one of the best. And that's what Kyrie Irving is -- he's one of the best in the world, and he showed it tonight."
Not a lot went to plan. The West featured at least two times as many stars as the lesser East, and it exploited that depth to pull away in the first half and extend the advantage to 18 points deep into the third. That's when Irving pushed the pace while driving the East back into contention. He made up ground fast: When Joakim Noah bobbled a feed from Irving before recovering for a lay-up, the East was on top 127-126 with 11 minutes to go.
The comeback had something to do with a message from Vogel, whose Pacers have been the best defensive team in the NBA this season. In the huddle he told the Eastern All-Stars that they were going to have to get back in transition. "I did say it with half a smile," Vogel said, "and they all laughed at me. And I said, 'OK, I see what you're saying. So if you care about winning, you know, that's what you've got to do. It's up to you guys.'"
They cared, it turned out. "I've been a part of the last three in defeat," James said. "And we've been getting killed a lot this season, talking about the Eastern conference is pretty bad, it's a two-(team) race and we're not holding up our end of the bargain, so it was special to get this win."
Irving had been dogged by the issue of whether he deserved to be here, considering the horrible start of his 20-33 Cavaliers. He hadn't grabbed the starting assignment so much as it had been handed to him by default -- so depleted is the East that it was hard to find superior alternatives (short of Lance Stephenson, the triple-double shooting guard of the conference-leading Pacers). But once Irving was on this court, under these up-tempo circumstances, there was no doubt that he belonged.
"Kyrie is special," said James. "And I've always known that. And I'm extremely happy for him, extremely proud for him to receive this award. It's big time."
He dominated, in fact, while finishing a highly-entertaining variety of looping drives to create scores for his teammates when he wasn't finishing them for himself with a thick blur of English high off the glass, or -- with equally enormous confidence -- stepping back for a key fourth-quarter jumper. Irving has been injured for much of his first three NBA seasons, and his Cavs haven't come close to challenging for the playoffs, but a game like this will create hope of better days to come as Irving tries to replace the hole in Cleveland's heart left by LeBron. (It will also create fear, naturally, that Cleveland won't be able to keep him beyond his second contract.)
Until Irving's explosion, Sunday's show had been stolen by Bill Russell, for whom Magic Johnson led the arena in a rendition of Happy Birthday to celebrate Russell's recent 80th. Then, at Johnson's urging, all of the All-Stars came over to wish Russell well, including James and Durant, who inexplicably had left the league's greatest winner and founding father off their silly "Mt. Rushmore" lists of the game's most important players.
By local standards, the first three quarters were an entertaining but unfulfilling meal. The anticipated MVP duel of James (22 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds) and Kevin Durant didn't come to be, though it wasn't for lack of trying. James was especially aggressive early, coming up with the evening's highlight during an East fast break of three quick passes that ended with a volleyball tap from Carmelo Anthony to James, who windmilled it around behind his head for a dunk. The East was up 19-13 and LeBron had 8 points already.
But James' jump shot (0 for 7 on threes) was off all night, while Durant picked up where his torrid regular season left off. Through three quarters Durant looked the likely MVP on his way to finishing with a game-high 38 points (equaled by dunking teammate Blake Griffin, who appeared to convert his 19 field goals from a combined distance of something around 23 feet), 10 rebounds and six assists. Durant was matched up consistently down the stretch against James, but in the final 92 seconds his lefty runner (after evading LeBron) was obstructed by the help defense of Noah, and then, trailing by four, Durant was wide with a vital three-pointer.
And so the stars who won this night were those who have not been winning the games that matter this season. "Regardless of whether I won MVP of this game or not," Irving said, "my focus level is going to remain the same after the All-Star break, and that's trying to get as many wins as possible." The winner he was Sunday among the greatest of all players is the same player that Irving wants to be Tuesday at Philadelphia, when he's playing against the woeful 76ers. Ultimately, he wants the kinds of plays he made here to matter when it counts.