New format for All-Star Game produces some drama as Team LeBron wins
On Day 3 of All-Star Weekend in Chicago, it got a little warmer, so at least visiting reporters could stop complaining about the weather.
Was the weekend a success? Well, the NBA All-Star experience met its own goals.
In one sense, this was bad timing for the All-Star Game's return to Chicago, since the Bulls are in a bad state and didn't have anything to offer besides Zach LaVine in the 3-point contest.
At the same time, maybe the city needed a reminder of what the NBA's best looks like. If nothing else, All-Star Weekend is a celebration of the league's star power.
The weekend ended with the game itself, which was certainly livened up by the new format. The untimed fourth quarter went down to the wire and had players on both sides, along with the fans, fully engaged.
Team LeBron beat Team Giannis 157-155 on a free throw by Chicago native Anthony Davis after the game came down to a "next basket wins" scenario. Kawhi Leonard led all scorers with 30 points and won MVP, while Giannis Antetokounmpo topped his own squad with 25.
"That was fun, having to play for a set number," LeBron James said.
The game ended when one team reached a "target score," which was set by adding 24 to the leading team's total through three quarters. The 24 was an homage to Kobe Bryant, a figure who loomed large over the entire weekend.
The new format also brought drama to the third quarter, which went down to the wire. Both sides used timeouts and Team Giannis fouled intentionally in the waning seconds. The quarter ended with a nice flurry -- go-ahead 3-pointer from Nikola Jokic, lob dunk for the tie from Trae Young to Rudy Gobert, then a missed runner by Russell Westbrook at the buzzer.
Traditionally, the All-Star Game is not especially friendly to local fans. A couple of Bulls season-ticket holders told me they would have had to pay several thousand dollars to attend the three events at the United Center this weekend, and not in their usual seats. Many of the best seats are given to the league's sponsors.
So it didn't feel like the "Fire GarPax" crowd from Navy Pier on Friday made it into the United Center. The crowd felt more like people either with connections or a great appreciation for the NBA, along with deep pockets.
On Sunday, most fans at the United Center sat silently during the first half. The league reserved two sections of seats to represent the two charities involved. The gimmick was the winner of each quarter would get $100,000 for their charity, with Team LeBron representing Chicago Scholars and Team Giannis with After School Matters.
But that was awkward. After the first quarter, the Chicago Scholars section cheered their good fortune, while After School Matters sat silently, having won nothing. But it evened out in the second quarter.
Local rapper Common rhymed the pregame introductions for both teams, which met with mixed response on social media. Ex-Bull Jimmy Butler definitely got the loudest cheer from fans, with Chicago native Anthony Davis likely second.
As usual, the contests on All-Star Saturday night created the most interest. The biggest conversation seemed to be about judging in the dunk contest. ESPN.com suggested the judges planned to make it a tie, but they unexpectedly gave Aaron Gordon a lower score after his final dunk over 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall.
Suspicion soon focused on Dwyane Wade. On the final two dunks, he gave former Miami Heat teammate Derrick Jones Jr. a 10, then gave Gordon a 9. When the votes were announced following Gordon's dunk, fellow judge Scottie Pippen shot a look in Wade's direction.
Anyway, here's some advice for future dunk judges: Stop passing out so many 50-point scores. The 50s were passed out like Halloween candy on Saturday. Lower the scores slightly and it will be easier to subjectively choose a winner.
What should have happened was Gordon winning in regulation time. His fourth dunk was the best one of the night, the one-handed 360 off the side of the backboard.
That should have been the walk off winner, 50-point dunk, everyone goes home happy. But 50 points could only tie Jones and lead to the sudden death dunk-off that created the controversy.
At the same time, Jones was a worthy champion. On Gordon's extra dunks, he repeated an earlier move, then made a lot of contact on the jump over Fall. So it wasn't that egregious a decision.
Overall, not a bad weekend for Chicago. It may not return for another 30 years and there's no hurry.