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The NBA All-Stars actually cared, which is what we always wanted

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The play that defined the game was a defensive stop.

NBA: All Star Game-Team LeBron at Team Stephen Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After what was one of the better All-Star Games in recent memory, LeBron James answered the question of why this game was more competitive than usual. First was the format, which the players asked for themselves, turning what had become a stale East vs. West competition into something more like pickup basketball. That was part of it, for sure.

But the improvement went beyond James and Stephen Curry picking the teams. James said that the players wanted to rewrite the story of the game itself. That they wanted to take pride in the showcase and put more effort in as a token of appreciation for the fans.

It was the same sentiment that he made during his in-car interview with Cari Champion a few days before the game, and something that Russell Westbrook echoed in his own postgame interview.

The format change is wonderful as an effort to start a new tradition. It can act as the engine through which something better and more exciting is made, because the suspicion with the old way was that players got so used to it that it became boring. The older group of players had played with and against each other for so long that they got used to it, and the younger ones — or the guys who would only make one or two appearances — didn’t have the voice to try to inject some energy and call for a change.

It’s a delicate balancing act. The game is an exhibition — it’s not supposed to be serious. It can’t be serious because it doesn’t have the stakes of an actual game, and no one wants to get injured.

During a sideline interview, James said that his mission was to make sure that all of his players returned to their teams in good health, and that’s one of the main problems with the game. If DeMar DeRozan had been injured after he fell because Paul George was hounding him in the fourth quarter, then it would have tarnished the whole weekend. And pissed off Raptors fans (and really pissed off Raptors management).

At the same time, if there is no effort by the players, the event turns into a mockery and a waste of everyone’s time. Even when it’s fun in the way that last year’s was, with the players using it as a chance to complete physical feats that regular human beings could only dream of doing, the missing competitive edge still makes it feel empty.

So it comes down to the players, like James said. Regardless of format, they decide the manner in which the game will be played.

NBA All-Star Game 2018 Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

To his credit, James did come out playing hard, and like he expected, everyone else followed suit. There was still space for the fun and spectacular dunks, as we saw with Kyrie Irving’s dribble and Victor Oladipo’s fastbreak dunk, but there was also actual competition. Both teams were trying to win. We got to see a continuance of the in-season rivalry between Westbrook and Joel Embiid, with the big man making a three on one end before blocking Westbrook’s shot at the other end. Then in the fourth quarter, Westbrook, as a matter of pride, got an and-one on Embiid before going out to defend him one-on-one and forcing the ball out of bounds.

There were a lot of fouls. Actual plays were called and executed. There were halfcourt traps. Instant replay was used (!) and the referees even played their part by awarding possession to the wrong team.

The play that best represented the pride these players took is this game came on the last play, when Team LeBron managed to contain Curry and then DeRozan by playing intense defense. The play saw James defending Curry one-on-one before shading Curry into Durant. With the two giants swarming him, Curry gave the ball up to DeRozan, who couldn’t find any space in the corner with Durant’s hand in his face. This happened with all the other players on the floor switching and harassing their own men to keep them from getting open.

That the defining play of this year’s All-Star Game was a defensive stop isn’t a thing that happens because of a format change. The change is welcome, and it did bring new energy to the whole ordeal ... but that play was a result of the players simply trying harder.

It’s a hard task to balance the safety of the players and the celebratory nature of the All-Star break with the desire to make the game competitive. The players must avoid disaster without boring the audience, and they have to raise the stakes while knowing that it’s still all for fun.

At least for this year, the first year of the new chapter, they succeeded.