CHICAGO — The NBA’s new All-Star Game format has an inherent flaw. In the event that all of the first three quarters weren’t captivating, it was going to look like a failed experiment to some extent, even if there was money being allocated to charities based on whichever team won. Through the first two quarters of the 2020 midwinter classic, that looked to be the case — Team LeBron won the first quarter by 11, while Team Giannis won the second by 21.
But while that flaw stuck out like a sore thumb for a half, the third and fourth quarters were everything the league could have hoped for. There was excitement, there was drama, there was (unfortunately) a tie at the end of the third, and most importantly, those in attendance were treated to a pair of wonderful games within a game.
Team Giannis was in prime position to win its second straight frame in a row, as Pascal Siakam laid the ball in to put them up by 14 with 2:34 left in the third quarter. From there, LeBron’s bunch — with their captain seated on the bench — ripped off a torrid comeback, and by the time the quarter came to an end, the two sides were tied up at 41.
It was legitimately astounding to watch. Team LeBron, behind a Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook-Jayson Tatum-Ben Simmons-Nikola Jokic quintet, turned their effort up to 11 and cut up Team Giannis with crisp passing, intense defense, and a general energy that you don’t normally see in these sorts of exhibitions, something that ending up being being a harbinger of what the fourth quarter would turn into.
In fact, both coaches played the timeout game in the quarter’s waning moments, and with Team Giannis down by two in the quarter with less than 20 seconds left, they actually had to foul to regain possession in the gosh darn All-Star Game. The gambit worked, as Russell Westbrook made one of two shots from the charity stripe, Trae Young found Rudy Gobert for a lob (Gobert had 12 points off the bench in the quarter), and the quarter ended deadlocked at 41.
As a quick reminder, the fourth quarter followed the Elam Ending, a format that is used in The Basketball Tournament in which the winner is determined by reaching a target score and the clock getting turned off. With Team Giannis leading and having 133 points, 24 (in honor of Kobe Bryant) was added for a target score of 157. Team LeBron, meanwhile, entered the fourth with 124 on the board. And because of the tie, the $100,000 that would be allocated to charity for winning the frame was added to the pot at the end, so instead of $200,000 being on the line, the winning charity would receive $300,000.
All of these raised stakes meant we got, legitimately, one of the best (untimed) quarters in All-Star Game history. Team LeBron scratched and clawed their way back, eventually tying things up at 146 on a triple by James Harden. The two teams went back-and-forth for the rest of the frame, and in a pair of firsts — well, at least one of these things seems like a first — Kyle Lowry drew a pair of charges and Team LeBron used (and won) a coach’s challenge.
LeBron put his team within one point of a win after getting matched up against Kemba Walker on the perimeter, getting him into a position on his hip, and blowing past him to the rim, where no one was waiting to challenge him.
The two teams then traded misses, followed by Joel Embiid making two of two free throws to make the game 156-155. With things in next basket wins mode, Team LeBron had the opportunity to come out on top as long as the ball made it through the cylinder. They got a mismatch, with Lowry checking Anthony Davis in the post, and the Toronto Raptors’ star had no choice but to foul the Los Angeles Lakers’ big man. Davis clanked his first shot at the line, igniting the crowd in his hometown, but drilled the second, getting Team LeBron to 157 and giving them a two-point win.
There were a few imperfect moments — a tied quarter meaning $100,000 was put into the final pot and not allocated to both charities seemed like the wrong decision, the game ending on a free throw, etc. — but once things got intense in the final few moments of the third quarter, it could not have gone much better. While it looked like an All-Star Game through the first 24 minutes, a proper basketball game eventually broke out. On a weekend dedicated to showing love to two titans of the game, ex-commissioner David Stern and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Kobe Bryant, there isn’t a better way to pay tribute to them than that.