TORONTO — The Air Canada Centre’s jumbotron played two extended highlight videos. Magic Johnson took center stage to deliver an appreciative speech. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry urged the crowd to rise to its feet for a standing ovation when he checked out, and the fans responded by chanting his name.
But the All-Star Game’s defining Kobe Bryant tribute came when both teams decided to play apathetic defense like the Lakers.
All of the elements for a memorable send-off for Bryant were in place on Sunday, when the West smashed the East 196–173 in a record-setting performance, except for the most critical one: intensity. All-Star Games are exhibitions, of course, but even by an exhibition’s standards this one was lax—way too lax.
Most importantly, the dream mano a mano showdown, a la Michael Jordan vs. Bryant in 1998, never materialized.
“I’m 20 years in and it’s different [from 1998],” said Bryant, after his 18th All-Star Game appearance. “These kids, they’re so many generations removed from that, that it’s not even about that anymore because they’ve literally grown up watching me since the age of seven. So it’s different than when I went at Michael.”
Different indeed. No one was really going at anybody on Sunday because no one was willing to provide resistance. There was only one Bull on the court, Pau Gasol, but there were too many matadors to count.
The 2016 NBA All-Star Game set records for total points (369), points by a winning team (196) and points by a losing team (173). Paul George scored 41 points, falling one shy of the all-time record for an individual scorer, and he hit a record nine three-pointers. LeBron James surpassed Bryant to take over the top spot on the All-Star Game’s career scoring list. Russell Westbrook finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and five assists to become the first player to win back-to-back All-Star Game MVPs since Bob Pettit in 1958–59.
And yet, for all of the history and for all of the high water scoring marks, there wasn’t much of a buzz in the building. Don’t blame the crowd: it’s hard to get too excited about uncontested layups and wide open three-pointers, no matter how authoritative or pretty they might be.
Yes, there were flashes of excitement when Bryant took James and Anthony into the post, when Westbrook cut through the monotony with his signature ferocity, when Anthony Davis reached high to finish a seemingly impossible alley-oop, when George really got it going in the second half and when Curry drained a deep three right before the final buzzer.
The general tenor of the contest, though, failed to reach Summer League or even preseason levels of competitiveness. At one point, Bryant drove into the paint and looked almost surprised that James was merely waving at him rather than rotating over to play defense. Later, he lofted a half-hearted jump hook that air-balled badly. Both teams cherry-picked all night. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich turned over play-calling duties to his players, and Tyronn Lue opted to sit James down the stretch rather than pursue a comeback.
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This game wasn’t close to the best that the NBA has to offer because the action never picked up. By the time the contest reached the fourth quarter, when both teams usually kick it up, the West was already so far ahead that everyone was ready to call it a night. The Warriors, the league’s paragons of two-way excellence, have put on a more entertaining show than this All-Star Game at least 20 times during their record-setting 48–4 start.
High-scoring affairs have become the norm in the All-Star Game. The 2014 game set a record with 318 combined points. That mark was quickly surpassed last year in New York City, when the two teams combined to score 321. This year’s jog fest smashed that mark by a whopping 48 points. In fact, the teams had combined to score 324 points with more than five minutes remaining in the game. No one expects these teams to compete like it’s the middle of June in the middle of February, but there are plenty of gears between first, where this game was played, and sixth.
Perhaps both teams were deferring to Bryant on his big night, hoping that he would set the tone and carry the headlines. That didn’t happen: he departed to a healthy chorus of cheers, but scored just 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Perhaps the West’s clear talent advantage was simply too much for the East. Perhaps both teams simply love jacking three-pointers and were willing to take turns on their way to a whopping 139 three-point attempts. Perhaps a lackluster halftime performance from Sting contributed to the general malaise. Perhaps the frigid weekend temperatures sapped some of the energy.
Whatever the case, the 2016 All-Star Game clearly went too far in the offense-only department. Celebrities departed early from their courtside seats. The building reached its peak moments of electricity when Bryant was being acknowledged, rather than during the game action. Even the high-flying alley-oops and transition slams—aided by invisible opposition—failed to stir the building. Again, don’t blame the crowd: A powerful James windmill during a flat showcase game pales in comparison to the acrobatics performed by Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon on Saturday night.
It’s safe to say that Toronto’s time as All-Star Weekend host will be remembered for that sensational Slam Dunk Contest and for the extended, classy multi-day send-off to Bryant. Sunday’s All-Star Game, despite its prolific scoring, will be quickly forgotten.
On Saturday, James said that Bryant’s All-Star finale was “bittersweet” because it was a celebration and a goodbye. As it turned out, bittersweet was the perfect word for Sunday’s game, too. Bryant was honored and exalted by the NBA, but he was never challenged or even really pushed by his peers, rendering the night a bit hollow.
In an ideal world, a touching farewell really should have felt more substantial and fulfilling.