On Sunday night the 2013 NBA All-Star game followed a familiar arc. For 3.5 quarters, it was a wide open game with little defense played on either side. Help-side defenders were willing spectators as drivers soared to the rim. Breakaways and alley-oop passes, along with comfortable three-point looks, were the story as both teams lit up the scoreboard. Then, for the final minutes of the game, things were markedly more competitive. Defenders clamped down and both teams looked for the best shot. An exhibition transformed into a real contest.
Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul excelled in both styles of play, earning MVP honors and leading the Western Conference to a 143-138 victory. Paul totaled 20 points, 15 assists, and 4 steals with a combination of flashy plays in the first half and gutsy plays in the second half. Other than the number of alley-oops which he tossed to teammate Blake Griffin, the lasting image of Paul from this night is likely the step-back three-pointer that he drilled over Joakim Noah in the 4th quarter to seal both the game and the MVP honors.
The story-line that will likely dominate as talking heads look to fill sports's version of the 24 hour news cycle is the late match-up between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. After the birthday boy, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, expressed a preference for Bryant earlier this week, it appeared that the "Black Mamba" wanted to validate Jordan's opinion. He insisted on defending James late and stared him down after two key blocked shots. In the end this story had little to do with the final outcome and is utterly manufactured.
Analysis and energy would be better spent on the impressive play of a guy like Paul George, who proved late in this game that he truly belongs among the league's elite at this moment. With James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade all on the floor for the Eastern Conference, it was George who drilled back-to-back threes in the final minutes to give the team a final gasp of hope. Young Kyrie Irving also impressed, scoring 15 points of his own in his All-Star debut. Though it was not in the final moments, Kevin Durant did what he does and scored a bunch of points. He did so with dazzling dunks as much as he did outside jumpers.
Finally there is Dwight Howard, whose lack of self awareness is baffling and maddening at the same time. The subject of so much tumult so far this season, Howard acted as if everything is jiffy. He fired two three-pointers and joked around on the bench. TNT's announcers were appropriately critical of his carefree attitude. To him it was as if he had done no damage to his reputation over the last year and a half.
In the end this game established that the key stories of the NBA season up to this point will remain front and center for the next four months: the greatness of LeBron James, the emergence of Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers, and the disaster that is the Los Angeles Lakers. As for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who did not have an All-Star, they will resume their regular season schedule against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.