The chant started in a far upper corner of the Amway Center. A strange “D” word rarely spoken or talked about in the All-Star Game. Defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau did not even run his team through defensive drills in the All-Star practice at Jam Session on Saturday.
This is not the time to yell at a player for a late rotation or a botched box out.
Yet, the chant picked up steam. The East was in a wild comeback from a 21-point deficit scoring 84 points in the second and third quarter and 80 points in the second half. the East was in position to win the game and to take the lead for the first time.
The chant grew louder as the heavily partisan East crowd in Orlando wanted desperately for its conference to pick up the win and make this a truly memorable All-Star Game. It certainly was, if not for the defense played late in the game to make it one of the most exciting finishes in recent All-Star history, then for the records that fell, the performances that occurred and, finally, the finish.
The East trimmed a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit — yes offense was still king in this one — to three points after LeBron James found Dwight Howard on the pick and roll for a dunk with 1:47 to play. It was the typical close game with Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin making plays. In a game where offense mattered so much, it was, in fact, the defense that won the day.
After Bryant missed a free throw with a chance to put the West up three with 16.3 seconds left (and Paul Pierce heckling the Laker from the sidelines) Deron Williams missed an open 3-pointer from the wing. He got his own rebound and worked the ball to LeBron James. James saw Dwyane Wade in the corner and tried to fling it quickly to his teammate.
Blake Griffin was there to intercept it and show the East that the West could play some defense too. Griffin made one of his two free throws and Wade missed a shot from the corner at the buzzer to tie. The West held on for a 152-149 victory to cap off an exciting All-Star Weekend.
“Well, I don’t know if there was much defense played early on, but it was a great game, and everything that happened you sort of anticipated,” East coach Tom Thibodeau said, laughing at the thought of defense in the All-Star Game. “The West played very well. They got off to the lead, and I thought our guys got going in in the second half. And then it came down tot he end, and I thought both teams played extremely hard int he fourth quarter and both teams were trying to win.”
Indeed, that is often how these All-Star Games go. Those competitive juices get going and guys start really playing for pride and for the win more than the highlights. That was for early in the game. The fourth quarter was all about winning.
Playing in front of one of the crowds that hates him most — yes, Orlando does not really like LeBron James after topping his Cavaliers in the 2009 playoffs and his venture to South Beach and their division — James caught fire and turned them to his side for the finish.
James scored eight points in a 18-6 run in the fourth quarter to bring the lead down to three points. Each shot seemed more improbable than the next as he threw in a bank shot from 22 feet with ease, and then pulled up from 26 feet for a three and then another from 28 feet for another. James finished with a game-high 36 points and added seven assists and six rebounds. He hit six of his eight 3-point attempts.
“Being a competitor, no matter All-Star Game or not, you don’t want to get blown out,” James said. “Of course not when you’re going against your peers and you’re going against great players and you’re playing with great players. I just wanted to try to pick it up and see if we could make a run at it, and we did.”
The game did look like a runaway right from the beginning. The West scored the first seven points of the game and seemed to turn the thing into a dunk fest. of course, that is what everyone loves early in the game from the starters.
Blake Griffin had a few feeds and lobs that he finished with alarming ferocity. The star of the night was Kevin Durant though, the game’s MVP. Durant matched James with 36 points and added seven rebounds. He had 21 in the first half alone and made eight of his 13 shots. Durant once again lifted himself to another level, perhaps confirming his spot among the elite of the elite in the NBA.
“It’s just exciting to be named an All-Star,” Durant said. “But to step it up to another level and become MVP? It’s only something that as a kid you dream about. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t think I would be here. Everything has just been a blessing to me.”
Durant said he was excited to go home and share it with Oklahoma City. And certainly more dreams will come true if Oklahoma City continues to play well.
There were plenty of records to fall tonight too.
Durant and James came a scant five points short of breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game mark for points scored in a single game. Dwyane Wade joined rarefied air with a triple double in going for 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Lobs were a plenty between teammates Wade and James, but Wade took on the point guard role at the end (him and Deron Williams, at least).
Kobe Bryant was the one who made real history. He scored 27 points on 9-for-17 shooting and became the All-Star Game’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Michael Jordan early in the third quarter. Of course, Bryant would be the guy to do that. Although, I am sure he is still seething from missing that free throw late. Bryant was not available to the media after the game because he was feeling dizzy following a third-quarter whack tot he head from Dwyane Wade that drew a bloody nose.
The West also broke a single half record with 88 points in the first half, snapping the record the West set in 1989.
It was everything you could expect from an All-Star Game: lots of highlights, tons of entertainment, some sloppy play and, you hope, competitiveness at the end. The All-Stars put on a show in Orlando.
“It was great, I talked to (Magic COO) Alex Martins today and talked about how the city was just on fire,” Dwight Howard said. “It felt like the Finals. It was great for our city, we had a great time. We haven’t seen it like this since the Finals.
“There is no vacation for us. This is a great time for the fans. That is what we all want to do is just make the fans happy. I hope everyone had a good time. We did our jobs and they saw a good show tonight.”