The strangest NBA All-Star Game in recent memory came and went Sunday night, with Team LeBron (James) besting a Kevin Durant–less Team Durant 170–150 in the exhibition. James is now 4–0 as an All-Star captain.
Despite all the chatter from the players themselves about how unnecessary the game was, for the most part, everyone on the floor seemed to be doing their best to enjoy themselves. That didn’t necessarily mean it was a good game. Without Durant, his squad was pretty overmatched. And without the usual fourth-quarter tightening, the night lacked the high drama of 2020’s classic contest. With all that said, let’s run through some winners and losers …
Winner: HBCU Marching Bands
Honestly, my favorite part of the night may have been the player introductions. We didn’t get the usual pomp and circumstance that come with the All-Star starters, but the HBCU marching bands playing over the intros were a nice touch. Hearing live horns perform the Lil Jon classic “Snap Yo Fingers” was a great nod to the host city of Atlanta, and I hope the marching bands come back in future years. It was a little uncomfortable in general how the NBA seemingly tried to offset the controversy surrounding the game by continuously bringing up historically Black colleges and universities. That being said, the charitable donations are obviously great; the marching bands have staying potential and the court design should also be used in the future to help break up some of the corporate feel.
Loser: The Elam Ending
Last year’s big winner couldn’t go back to back. The Elam Ending—which has teams chase a final score in the fourth quarter as opposed to playing a timed period—was a huge hit in 2020. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same verve this year. That was in large part due to the lopsided nature of the teams. Durant’s group was in a hole without him. And on top of that, LeBron didn’t play at all in the second half, which on some level was probably a commentary on how he felt about this event. His absence is always going to be conspicuous, and it was a sign that the end of the game—usually the only part of All-Star to look forward to—wasn’t going to be the best it could be. I certainly think the Elam Ending should be in place for the future (and heck, use it during the play-in tournament). But any fourth-quarter drama demands a certain level of buy-in from the players. While there may not have been an open rebellion to playing the game, it was also obvious nobody had any intention of going above and beyond in ways that had happened in years past.
Winner: The Three-Point Contest
The three-point shootout always delivers, and it’s become the marquee event of what’s typically All-Star Saturday Night. Stephen Curry’s 2–5 record in the event is truly confounding considering he’s the greatest shooter in the history of everyone who’s shot a basketball. Would it be unfair to say Steph is the LeBron of the three-point contest?
Loser: Dunk Contest Scoring
The new format of having judges pick a winner in the final round actually makes a ton of sense, because scoring dunks has never been more difficult. Whoever goes first is always in a weird spot, because Cassius Stanley may have had the best dunk of the night, but the judges didn’t have anything to compare it against. My idea for a fix: Keep the current format, but don’t score the dunks from the first around until everyone has gone. That way the dunks get judged against one another more fairly. And letting the panel pick the winner in the last round is a good way to avoid what happened in 2020. Now the league just needs to get its sponsors to put $5 million cash in a briefcase at center court so higher-profile players actually want to take part.
Winner: The Steph-LeBron Duo
We didn’t get to see a lot of it, and still the coolest part of the actual game was seeing LeBron and Steph as teammates. Hopefully this happens again in a full arena with the players actually engaged. James and Curry are definitely more so frenemies than best buds or pure rivals. Though both are still right at the top of the league, who knows how many more years they have left at their current level. The two just scratched the surface as teammates. In an ideal world we’ll see James and Curry take on Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2022.
Loser: Tweets About How Bad the Game Is
Look, I can’t convince you the 2021 All-Star Game was entertaining in the conventional definition of the word. We still got to see Steph and Dame pulling up from half-court, Jaylen Brown going one-on-one against Jayson Tatum, Giannis literally not missing, and a parade of point-guard dunks. Just because a game isn’t a classic doesn’t mean there was nothing redeemable about it.
Sorry, sorry, wrong winners and losers story.
Three anthem performances and then a musical interlude before the fourth quarter. I’m so grateful to live on the West Coast.
Winner: Long-Distance Threes
The confidence with which Damian Lillard pulled up from half-court—legitimately a half step behind the half-court line—and drained a three leads me to believe he’s going to uncork that shot in a game at least one time in his career. He’s certainly earned the right to let it fly from that range. Dame and Curry taking turns pulling up from comically deep was the most exciting sequence of the entire night. More evidence that threes are the new dunks.
Loser: This Feeling
Ultimately, it’s impossible to separate this All-Star Game from the greater malaise of this year. There are definitely nights when the NBA feels like the NBA. But for the most part, this pandemic-affected season just hasn’t felt right. We are obviously all longing for the days of normalcy in many ways. Perhaps last on the priority list is the NBA (or any other sport). Whatever the league hoped to showcase Sunday by keeping the All-Star Game going in the face of ambivalence, the night itself was more than anything a reminder of how far we have to go before all of this feels fun again.