When I started watching basketball, the All-Star Game still had a competitive spirit to it, and of course this was largely helped by the killer nature of players like Kobe, Shaq, AI, KG, DWade, and LeBron (to name a few; there are so many honorable mentions that it would take a separate document to include them all). To this day, my favorite ASG is Phoenix in 2009. I was around 10 so the details are a bit foggy, but Shaq's intro with the Jabbawockeez paired with his dominate performance alongside co-ASG MVP Kobe was awesome. There's nothing quite like getting to see your favorite players in the league put on an absolute show, but over the last few years the annual event has gotten a bit stale. Players eventually stopped playing defense and went half-speed only to run up the score in an absolute snooze-fest, and mine and many others interests started to wane. If I missed some (or all) of the game, it honestly wasn't a big deal; if anything I saved three hours of my time. With the addition of the ASG Draft and captains, increased win payouts for players, and the charity-aspect all engrained into the weekend, the competitive nature of the game has slowly (but surely) returned, and last night was another step in the right direction.
Honestly, the whole weekend was pretty fun. Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge was actually a lot more exciting than I expected it to be, and I love that there's enough international talent in the league to pit Team USA against Team World; it adds an element of competition as the first and second-year players try and represent their respective nations and show where basketball dominance reigns from. It also helps that guys like Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, John Collins, and Kyle Kuzma (again, to name just a few) seem to truly love playing and realize the stage they're on; the league is in really good hands going forward, and I'm really excited to see how guys drafted in 2017-on perform throughout their careers. The Saturday night events (Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest, Dunk Contest) were amusing as they were filled with a lot of up-and-comers and usual staples, even if the Dunk Contest was a bit underwhelming. Hamidou Diallo leapfrogging Shaq and Dennis Smith Jr. taking an oop from J. Cole were actually really sick, but the rest of the event was lackluster and honestly took too long. The biggest takeaway for me from Saturday was that a lot of young, talented players want to compete in these events, so hopefully this sets a precedent for future AS Weekends. The better the players, the more fun it is for everybody. Next year the AS festivities will be taking place in Chicago; Giannis just expressed interest in doing the Dunk Contest, and Donovan Mitchell said he'd do it if Giannis does. If Zach LaVine is still #SeeingRed I'm sure he'll participate, and if the Basketball Gods grant Zion to the Bulls, he seems like a no-brainer to compete. Next year could be the year the Dunk Contest returns.
The culmination of the weekend was last night's All-Star Game. Team LeBron and Team Giannis took their (fairly) uneven rosters to battle in a game that ended up being much more entertaining than in years past. Right out of the gate the underdogs (Team Giannis) seemed to be playing with a chip on their shoulders, and Giannis himself looked like he was well on his way to his first ASG MVP (20 first-half points). He was running the floor and throwing down so many oops (including that jaw-dropped bounce-oop from Steph), and it only further solidified that if Giannis wanted to, he could be a full-time back-to-the-basket center and everyone in the league wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I watched the first half kind of sparingly while I (tried) getting some studying done, but I fully tuned into the second-half as I expected Team LeBron to finally turn things on and flip their first-half deficit (they trailed 95-82 at halftime). They did exactly just that led by a series of explosions from multiple players; Dame Lillard hit three-straight threes to eventually take the lead, Kevin Durant dropped a sneaky 31 en route to his second career ASG MVP, and we got a final off-the-glass DWade-to-LeBron oop (it was delicious). LeBron and Kawhi both dropped quiet 19-point performances, and it looked like Kyrie and Bron were getting along swimmingly, so hopefully there was some recruiting to reunite them in LA. As far as Team Giannis goes, obviously Giannis came out to play (he dropped 38 (!)), Paul George looked like the MVP at point (also the step-back on Harden was #noice), and Kris Middleton performed well-above my expectations with 20 points and really solid first-half production. Steph Curry had an uncharacteristic shooting performance, but it doesn't really matter; we still know he's the GOAT shooter. Joel Embiid (double-double) and rival Russell Westbrook not playing a single minute together is comical, but it's not as funny as Westbrook shooting Team Giannis out of the game (8-20, 1-8 (lol) from 3).
There wasn't as much defense as I anticipated (especially in the second-half), but the game had a real sense of fun around it. I truly think a big part of it is how wide the NBA reaches (over 1 billion social media followers across all platforms) and obviously capitalizing on the hip-hop culture surrounding the league brings in even more eyes. This All-Star Weekend had a relaxed, yet somewhat-competitive fire around it, and it only solidified that the NBA is by-far the best league in sports. Hopefully Burbs gets big enough by the Chicago ASG so Ralph and I can do press and get some studs on "The Fro + the Flow", but if not I'll sell my body for approximately $2,000 so I can make it there.