Even though the game is an exhibition and the rosters aren’t perfect and the whole thing is incredibly – perhaps obnoxiously – over-produced, the talent on display on Sunday was truly remarkable. As usual, defense was at a premium, but even in an All-Star game, the true greatness of NBA stars can still stand out. You have to keep everything in perspective, but when the best in the world compete, it’s pretty special. Jason Frazier already recapped the game, but here are a few more thoughts on what turned out to be a pretty entertaining night:
-Kobe. The most significant development in the game had to be Kobe’s stunning Black Mamba performance. Whatever his superhero alter ego claims to be, he was that good. Energized from the beginning, he seized his fourth All-Star MVP award from among a worthy pool of younger challengers. He finished drives to the hoop with emphatic dunks and put on displays of technical mastery with the precision of his offensive attack. In a game that showcased athleticism, Kobe was as explosive as anyone, a terrifying sight for the rest of the league. He had 37 points on 26 shots, ahead of Kevin Durant (34 on 23) for game highs in both categories. Probably the two most dangerous scorers in the game, and neither came to mess around.
-Chris Paul. As good as Chris Paul is, it really gets scary when you watch him go against the best in the league, where his handle and passing ability set him apart. Starting at about the six-minute mark of the second quarter, he just took control of the game. He got in the lane at will (impressive how easily he did so even against halfhearted defense) and hit teammates in perfect position to score. Some highlights from the last six minutes of the first half:
A one-handed bounce pass across his body to Pau for a perfectly in rhythm, mid-range jumper. Then he takes an outlet at half court and hits Manu Ginobili in stride for an easy dunk. A perfect lob to Durant only missed because Pau unintentionally jumped into him. A long offensive rebound, dribbles behind his back then whips a one-handed pass right into KD’s hands cutting down the lane. Maybe his best play, with about a minute left, he steals the inbound pass drives and lobs to a KD jam from under the hoop, while falling to the floor. He then steals another inbound pass, drives through the lane, hits Westbrook in perfect position for corner three (miss). 10 seconds left, takes inbounds, bounce pass right on the money to Kobe for layup. Finishes off the half with a Kevin Love half court outlet pass (more on that in a minute) and buzzer-beating runner, all in 1.4 seconds. He finished the game with seven assists, but, by my count, that’s seven perfect passes in a six-minute span that served to remind everyone why he is probably the top point guard in the game.
-Blake Griffin. For a Clipper fan, it may never get old, continually reaffirming that Blake not only belongs in the game, but is most likely an “inner circle” All-Star for years to come. Physically, he is as imposing as anyone, and brings the all-around package that maybe only LeBron James can match. Along with his athleticism, it was his passing and poise that continued to show in his first All-Star appearance. He comes in at with 4:21 left in the first to cheering from the hometown crowd (although not as loud as I would have expected. When he entered the game for the second time it actually sounded louder) he made his impact felt immediately with an assist to Dirk. Then he runs floor for easy dunk. With 50 seconds remaining, he hits cutting Deron in stride (miss), then on the next play he takes outlet at half court, makes a cross-court bounce pass on the run between defenders to Deron and flies in for the alley-oop.
At the beginning of the second, he grabs a one-handed rebound and in the same motion, flips to Westbrook for layup. At (10:26, Q2) he skies in to a forest of All-Stars to tip a long rebound out to Manu. At (9:33), he squares up Amar’e, on the elbow and hits Westbook cutting under for layup. At (8:36) he contests a Derrick Rose layup, pulls down a monster board pinned up against the glass, with Horford, LeBron and Amar’e jumping over his back, dribbles out to the free throw line, hits Westbrook across half court in stride for a jam. He separates himself on defense against Amar’e, when the East’s starting power forward tries to back him down on the block, Blake is so strong Amar’e has to fall away and misses short. In his first All-Star game, he made a strong claim to being the best power forward in the league, and on the short list of players around whom you would hope to build a franchise.
-Kevin Love. Along with Blake, Love was my favorite story of the game. His inclusion came with some resistance, but seeing him on the floor with the rest of the best was a nice visual representation that he belongs. And it being an exhibition game, of course, gave us the one-of-a-kind opportunity to marvel at the phenomenon that is his outlet passing. I counted at least two that went to half court or further, my favorite being the one after a made shot where you can hear Westbrook (Love’s UCLA teammate) calling for the outlet, then Love hitting him in stride at the other free throw line. His skill set is unique and deadly, and we can only hope to see him playing relevant games before too long.
-A true All-Star moment: About 3 minutes left in the first quarter, Deron Williams picks Rajon Rondo’s pocket on a sloppy behind-the-back move, then drives the length of the floor, finds himself under the hoop and looks to throw it to the trailer, which happens to be Ginobili, who is not yet across half court. In Manu’s defense, Blake didn’t even enter the frame until a few seconds later.
-Living in New York, and with plenty of friends who are Knicks fans, I find it a delicate situation whenever I suggest that he lacks something that the top NBA stars have. You could call it “defense” or “rebounding,” but the fact remains that he is 6’10” and can score the ball. He’s a deserving All-Star, without a doubt in the East, but his one-dinensional-ness is really apparent to me when surrounded by so many players who do so much more than score. Two moments stood out to me (yes, in a game where he scored 29 on 20 shots), that illustrate the “it” that I believe Amar’e lacks. On one play, he tries to back down Blake on the block, but when Griffin uses his strength to body Amar’e, he is unable to keep his balance, falls back and leaves his shot way short. Later in the game, a little further from the hoop, he gets a little resistance from Durant – who is not the strongest player in the league, as we know – and instead of continuing to attack, he settles for an off-balance fadeaway jumper that doesn’t go near the hoop. Now we find out that he will team with ‘Melo on the Knicks, and I’m fascinated to see how two players like them will be able to lead a team without many other weapons to speak of.
-LeBron. In a game of stars, LeBron stood above all as the perfect blend of size, athleticism and skill, with that killer instinct that only a few players are capable of showing when they realize their team is going to lose in a meaningless game. He should be the league MVP, the player you would take over any other if starting a team.
-Joe Johnson. He is the type of player who gets into the game because he scores a lot and plays in the Eastern Conference. There just isn’t that much depth to choose from (see: four Celtics in the game), and he has a recognizable name, if not the production to match (23rd in the league with 19.6 points per game). In the game, he scored 11 points on 11 shots (including nine threes), and it just struck me that he could really be helpful on a team with a top-flight point guard. That, of course, is the opposite of the case for him in Atlanta, playing with Mike Bibby, but wouldn’t it be fun to see him play off of a guy like Paul, Williams, Rondo, or Rose?
-Melo/Sager. For the first time during this whole ‘Melo trade speculation, I actually felt bad for him having to answer questions (questions that, for the most part, I believe he brought upon himself with his trade demands). He should be able to sit on the bench and enjoy his time during the game, and I thought it was cool to see Kobe come to his defense when Craig Sager kept hounding him with the same speculative questions. Now that the trade has gone through, I’ll be glad to see all the talking stop, and it’ll be up to Amar’e and ‘Melo to show if they can lead (carry) a team to real playoff success.