By Rob Mahoney
The headlining event of NBA All-Star weekend didn't disappoint, as performers on both sides of the conference divide made the event well worth our time. Here are a few takeaways from that technically meaningless game, which the West won, 143-138:
• It's fascinating -- and fun -- to see Kevin Durant work in the background. KD didn't lead the West in highlight-reel sequences (that honor belongs to Blake Griffin), wasn't the best player on the floor (holy cow, Chris Paul) and didn't score in a concentrated enough burst for his performance to really resonate. But Durant poured in points almost effortlessly, to the point where his game-high 30 was oddly quiet. The game's frequent fast breaks afforded Durant a chance to give his showing some emphatic punctuation (see the dunk above), but even the occasional stretching, one-handed slam didn't elevate Durant's work to the forefront.
Durant's smooth style has helped him tally massive point totals beneath the radar in the past, but his all-around game has improved so much this season that his performances are rarely this understated. That's why it was nice to get a throwback performance of sorts from Durant; rather than assume creative duties on a team with so many talented ball-handlers, Durant just let the game -- and wide-open shots -- come to him. Really, no player in the All-Star Game was better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities presented. I don't find anything at all wrong with Durant working off of Westbrook in Oklahoma City, but there's a particular joy in seeing his work facilitated by so many other shot creators working in impromptu harmony.
• Kyrie Irving isn't "breaking out" -- he's been one of the best offensive players in the league all season. Many will undoubtedly claim that this year's All-Star Weekend was effectively Kyrie Irving's coming-out party, and for many that may be the case. Yet for anyone who has paid any attention to the Cavs over the last two seasons, this is hardly news; Irving has had a phenomenal start to his career despite carrying some barren teams, and has already risen to the league's elite in terms of off-the-dribble scoring and late-game performance. As Brandon Knight showed in Friday's Rising Stars Challenge, it's just too damn hard to stay in front of Irving. He knows just how to lull a defender into a position of disadvantage before using his handle to break open the play, and he has a great feel for execution both within particular sets and in a more spontaneous setting. He turned the Rising Stars Challenge into his playground, edged out Matt Bonner with blistering shooting in the Three-Point Shootout and stepped up to play with the NBA's finest, tallying 15 points and four assists as the East's most-played reserve. That's a hell of a weekend to be sure, but hardly surprising given the way that Irving has played all year.
• As entertaining as this game may be, the flash and flair bear a reminder of what we're missing. Both teams maintained a pretty decent effort level throughout this game, and I have no complaints whatsoever when it comes to Sunday's raw entertainment value. Yet games like these -- with no help defense, limited structure and so little coordination -- serve as a reminder of how much nuance there is to even regular season basketball. A pure exhibition like this one just can't measure up to the standard NBA game, in which every contest is armed with context and continuity. And really, that dynamic best serves the league as a whole. Spectacles like this one leave die-hard basketball fans satisfied but hardly satiated, as the glossy highlights serve to whet the appetite without completing the meal. It's perfectly placed within the season, beginning the march through the trade deadline and toward the playoffs and offering some narrative fuel for those hungry for a story outside the lines. Spin the affair as a hype reel for Chris Paul, leader of the contending Clips. Swerve into the impromptu grudge match between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, which improbably tilted in Kobe's favor. Consider it the inception of a new Chris Bosh meme, due to the fact that he unwittingly turned into the game's court jester. There's plenty to enjoy and to propagate from the All-Star Game as the NBA season marches toward its zenith, and thankfully this showcase does well to highlight some of the league's superficial greatness without overshadowing its holistic substance.