That was the absolute wackiest possible end to an NBA All-Star Game imaginable.
Good job, NBA.
The NBA instituted an Elam Ending to the All-Star Game this season, declaring that the winner would be decided by whichever team hit a target score set 24 points from the leading team’s score entering the fourth quarter. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s squad led by nine entering the final frame, but LeBron James’s team stormed back to take the win in a grueling, bonkers fourth.
The fourth quarter featured:
- 26 free throws
- No transition offense
- Very few, if any, lobs
- 35 percent shooting
- Actual defense
- Antetokounmpo almost fouling out
- Two coach’s challenges
- Kyle Lowry flopping twice
- Meaningful replays
- Legitimate call arguing
- Two Lowry charges drawn
- And a game-winning free throw
This was not your normal All-Star Game fourth quarter. Team LeBron, coached by Frank Vogel, finished the game (what seemed like about 15 minutes of actual game time) with four starters (LeBron, James Harden, Anthony Davis, MVP Kawhi Leonard) and Chris Paul. Team Giannis, coached by Nick Nurse, finished with Lowry on the court with four starters (Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, Joel Embiid and Kemba Walker). Both teams clearly wanted to win.
That’s good, right? The game was extremely exciting and had to be just about impossible to turn off. (I’ve never been one to tune out of the end of an All-Star Game, but I’m told it happens.) All of the usual silliness of the All-Star Game faded away and this looked like a very serious pick-up game between 10 of the best players in the world, going for blood.
Like, literally for blood. There were a couple moments where he looked like someone was injured or someone was legitimately mad at a play by an opponent. On the foul that led to Davis’s game-winning free throw, Lowry was making a lot of contact. Paul was up in opponents’ chests throughout. Team LeBron swarmed Embiid in the post a few times. James tried to draw a foul on a three. The transition game completely dried up as players stopped trying crazy passes (some of which actually work during the All-Star Game!). The teams weren’t exactly running offense per se — more high pick-and-roll and iso with mismatches — but it looked like real NBA basketball, for better or worse.
Ending on a free throw was slightly less amazing than had it happened with a shot from the floor, but the game was impossibly close and tight for the final dozen minutes or so of action. It was tense! There were strategic timeouts and everything. The Elam ending worked.
It won’t work every time, of course — Team Giannis was only up nine starting the fourth, and you can imagine an anticlimactic ending if one team needs to score 24 and the other needs to score, like 48 or something. It’s going to be hard to come back from every deficit, but at least it still won’t feel exactly like garbage time. There’s also the unspoken fear that with these elite players competing like their legacies depend on it, someone is eventually going to get hurt. That would be completely awful! Let’s hope it never happens. You can’t really guard against it, though, as long as banged-up players aren’t thrown out there for ultra-competitive minutes.
(Antetokounmpo definitely played more in this game than he did many Bucks games this season, huh? With no game clock on the fourth quarter, it’s hard to track. But he played A LOT.)
It’s also pretty fascinating to see which players did and didn’t play in the closing minutes. The two starters who didn’t close were Trae Young (who had 10 assists, many of them spectacular, and a halfcourt shot) and Luka Doncic, both second-year players with plenty of All-Star ahead of them. Embiid closed over Rudy Gobert, who was fantastic throughout the game. (Gobert, excellent all-star. Who knew?) Both Nurse and Vogel closed with their own players, and it was interesting that Vogel kept Paul (who was great to start the fourth with other reserves) in over Ben Simmons (electric on both ends all night) or Russell Westbrook (two-time All-Star MVP). Jimmy Butler didn’t get back in for Team Antetokounmpo late despite his excellent defense and reputation as a closer. Bam Adebayo lingered on the bench too, with his epic switchability. Lots of interesting choices!
That’s really what the whole thing came down to: it was interesting. Good job, NBA. You gave us an all-star ending to enjoy and think about. Keep the innovations coming.