SALT LAKE CITY — We were well on our way to celebrating Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James as the biggest winner of the NBA's All-Star Game, until news broke he would not play in the second half.
The 38-year-old skipped the chaos that was media availability on All-Star Saturday, opting instead to spend a couple vacation days with his wife, and then he alone held a news conference prior to Sunday's game. If he was aiming to minimize his availability and maximize his visibility, he had executed his plan to perfection.
James was personable during the pregame draft, Jay-Z recorded a lengthy introduction to Sunday's exhibition that was exclusively dedicated to The King, and through two quarters of his record-tying 19th All-Star Game appearance, James had 13 points, positioning himself for a run at his third MVP award. Friend and former teammate Dwyane Wade lauded James in a halftime ceremony honoring him as the league's all-time leading scorer. The All-Star Game might as well have been The LeBron James Invitational at that point.
Then, the NBA announced shortly before the start of the third quarter that James would not return after suffering a contusion when he jammed his fingers on the rim trying to chase down a block in the first half.
"I'll be fine," James said in his postgame news conference, already showered and ready to depart. "I don't think it's too much to worry about. For precautionary reasons, I just had to take the rest of the night off."
James made the most of his short time in Utah, but the rest of us lost for not getting to see more of him. Team LeBron also lost to Team Giannis, 184-175. More winners and losers from All-Star weekend ...
Jayson Tatum vs. Jaylen Brown
Sporting the newly released first edition of his signature shoe line from Jordan Brand, Tatum scored an All-Star Game-record 55 points on Team Giannis, earning all nine media votes for the Kobe Bryant MVP Award.
As Tatum said, "It's a hell of a day," especially since he idolized Bryant as a child.
A masked Brown, fresh off a facial fracture (courtesy of Tatum's elbow), led Team LeBron with 35 points.
The two Celtics teammates were the highlight of the All-Star Game, and not just because they combined for 90 points, 24 rebounds and 11 assists. Over the final minute of the third quarter, the two went at each other for the last five possessions. Brown drilled a fadeaway over Tatum, hit him with a "too little" taunt and forced a Tatum turnover on the other end, adding a 3-pointer in his friend's face to finish off his sequence.
As was the case all night, Tatum got the last laugh, making a step-back 3-pointer over Brown to set another All-Star Game record (27 points in a quarter) and getting a stop on his Boston co-star to close the quarter.
"That was like another day at the office for us, right?" said Tatum, a four-time All-Star to Brown's two. "Been on the same team for six years now. We've played a countless number of one-on-one games and scrimmages against each other. We've always brought the best out of each other, so it was a normal day for us. Just millions of people watching on one of the biggest stages, so we had a little fun with it."
Hell of a way to enter the home stretch of the regular season for the East-leading Celtics, too.
"Those are the best All-Stars, to share it with somebody that you spend every day of the week with essentially," added Tatum, whose Celtics are 42-17. "Extremely happy for him. We talked about it. Now it's go time. We have to be on the same page. We've got to have one common goal, and that's to win a championship. This was a good break for us mentally and physically, but it's time to get back to work."
The first person I saw upon entering the hotel for All-Star weekend was Guillermo Rodriguez from "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He said, "It's so cold," and he was looking for some toothpaste. Welcome to Salt Lake City.
Where else but an NBA All-Star Game hotel can you see Pau Gasol holding court in the lobby less than an hour before he is named a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame, Julius Erving taking pictures with every kid who wanted one outside the hotel restaurant and Allen Iverson singing to himself in the elevator? This is a span of a few hours on All-Star Saturday, mind you, and legends just kept strolling down the corridor.
The pregame All-Star Draft
The captains came prepared for the draft, which for the first time took place live prior to tipoff. LeBron James pulled a scouting report scrawled on a piece of paper from his pocket, and Giannis Antetokounmpo did him one better, opening an entire notebook. Why the NBA did not do this sooner is beyond me.
Antetokounmpo took Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard first among the 14 reserves, and we were off and running, until Antetokounmpo tried drafting a starter (Ja Morant) to his bench. So much for preparation.
"Giannis is trying anything, y'all," said James, who entered the game 5-0 as a captain.
James leaned heavily into youth and athleticism as a general manager, drafting Anthony Edwards first among his reserves and adding other first-timers Tyrese Haliburton, De'Aaron Fox and Jaren Jackson Jr. to his bench. Team LeBron went from a -2.5 betting favorite prior to the draft to a -3.5 favorite after it, probably for the stacked starting five of James, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Whether it was the loss or some other reason, James was not the biggest fan of the televised draft.
"I thought it was OK," he said. "I liked the last format. I liked the format on TV."
Plenty of players acknowledged the draft was beneficial for fans while expressing some unease about the process, publicly because it prolonged warmups and privately because their egos can be bruised. But a little discomfort is worth the improved experience, and TNT does not need to make the draft last so long.
If the picks were televised earlier, for example, we would not have gotten the awkward moment when Jokic wandered toward Team LeBron as he and Lauri Markkanen were the final two starters left on the board, seemingly to avoid being the last starter picked. Not so, though, because Jokic admitted afterward, "I thought I was last. I just stood up because I thought I was last. And I felt bad, especially now that we lost."
The full draft order ...
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
10. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
12. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
14. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
16. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
18. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
20. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
22. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
4. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
6. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
8. Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
11. Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
13. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
15. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
17. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
19. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
21. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings
Lillard attended Weber State roughly half an hour from Salt Lake City, and he was easily the biggest fan favorite among non-Jazz players. He sported his Wildcats jersey for the 3-Point Contest and delivered a title, promptly retiring from the shootout after winning on his third appearance over the past 10 seasons.
The Blazers point guard fired 20 more 3-pointers during Sunday's All-Star Game and connected on eight of them, including one from halfcourt and four from beyond 30 feet. The last of them hit the target score for Team Giannis in the fourth quarter, rewarding the Utah crowd with an Elam Ending from their adopted star.
"One thing I struggle with is appreciating some of the things that I've accomplished and experienced in the moment, and I get months or years down the line and I look back, and I'm like, 'Man, that was pretty cool,'" said Lillard. "So, being here, I've actually kind of thought back to the moments of being on campus and being in the dorms and just being like, 'Man, if basketball don't work out, what am I actually going to do?' ...
"I've been thinking back to those times. You forget once you started experiencing so much success and so many good times. You forget those humble beginnings. You don't forget that existed, you just forget how you felt in those moments when you were uncertain. When I think about that, I look back at everything I've accomplished, everywhere I've been and what I've done, and I have a different level of appreciation for it."
McClung entered All-Star weekend saying, "We're staying the course and trying to make an impact in the league." He has played two career games in the NBA and only just signed a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers last week, having played most of the season for their G League affiliate in Delaware.
He left the weekend as the savior of a dunk contest that had been in decline for years. How anyone generously listed at 6-foot-2 can jump over two people, tap the ball to the backboard and dunk is beyond me, let alone adding a double-pump over someone else and throwing down another 540-degree dunk.
As the 24-year-old from the small Virginia town of Gate City said, it was quite the experience to win a dunk contest trophy named for Sixers legend Julius Erving on Saturday and introduce Post Malone to the crowd before Sunday's All-Star Game. To top if off, McClung received the ultimate praise from LeBron: "He solidified himself as one of the greatest Slam Dunk competitors that we've had in the history of the game."
Vivint Arena food choices
There are legitimately a dozen local restaurants to choose from in Vivint Arena, including three barbecue joints and a pair of Mexican stands, and every one I tried over the weekend delivered good food. Highly recommend the loaded mac and cheese topped with pulled pork from R&R BBQ. Not for the faint of heart.
As Barkley oddly enunciated names during TNT's pregame show, which was piped through in-arena audio and aired internationally, Shaquille O'Neal asked, "Why does it sound like you're drunk? You all right?"
Let's just say the comment was not well-received by Barkley.
O'Neal later led the arena in singing "Happy Birthday" to Barkley, who turned 60 years old on Sunday, so the night was not just a roast between Hall of Famers. It still wasn't a banner weekend for TNT broadcasts.
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) February 19, 2023
Prior to the pregame draft, TNT's Ernie Johnson asked Antetokounmpo if he was prepared to play, and the Eastern Conference's leading vote-getter said, "Whatever I have, I'm going to give. That's who I am, and it's not going to change." He started the game, dunked and checked himself out 20 seconds into his night.
What he had was a right wrist injury, which he suffered on a basket stanchion while trying to block a shot in the Milwaukee Bucks' final game before the All-Star break. ESPN's Tim Bontemps reported after Sunday's exhibition that Antetokounmpo will travel to New York on Monday to receive additional testing on his wrist.
He made the right decision, but the letdown from expectations to actuality brought to mind an issue that became a hot topic on All-Star weekend — load management and unexpected absences of star players.
Hours after Dallas Mavericks star Kyrie Irving said the term has "dehumanized" players, NBA commissioner Adam Silver recognized load management as a concern in his annual All-Star Saturday news conference.
"It is an ongoing conversation with the players' association," said Silver. "This isn’t a new issue. There’s nothing particularly happening this season that we haven’t seen happening over the last several seasons."
It was also not long after Indiana Pacers guard Buddy Hield said he would prefer not to shorten the season if it was going to cost him money that Silver said in one breath, "If we thought it made sense to reduce the number of games, we would," and in another, "If it means at some point we conclude that we’re better off elongating the schedule to reduce back-to-backs, for example, that’s something that’s worth looking at."
The league has significantly reduced the number of back-to-backs in recent years, and the problem persists. I'm not sure how elongating the schedule is any better for player health than reducing the number of games, but the reality is the league has not yet determined a way to address concerns from its fans.
"We think we can do a better job," said Silver, "but we don’t have a specific solution yet."
NBA pop-up shops
I must have visited five different NBA stores looking for Tatum's All-Star jersey in a size that would fit my 7-year-old daughter, and the only jerseys available in any size were James, Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry. The league wants to market a new generation of players, and they did not have jerseys for Ja Morant, the most electric player in all of basketball, or Tatum, the exhibition's eventual unanimous MVP.
Make this make sense.
There were some rather uninspired hats and T-shirts, too, all boasting the All-Star weekend logo. You couldn't find Chris Paul's children's book or much of anything beyond the most basic stuff you could imagine. Let's get creative, guys. Bring back the old caricatures of all the All-Stars on a sweatshirt. The NBA has access to so much sweet throwback gear. The idea was right in front of them, too, in the form of an NBA Jam-style T-shirt featuring Karl Malone, John Stockton and the slogan, "It must be the shoes."
One of the more bizarre All-Star weekend experiences was the omnipresence of Malone.
It makes sense, considering Malone is the Jazz legend. A street outside the arena bears his name, and his statue welcomes you into its doors. He also impregnated a 13-year-old when he was a college sophomore and repeatedly refused to accept any responsibility for it, not to mention more generally terrible behavior.
"I hated Karl Malone so much before I had a great reason, I only had good ones. Like just being a dirty player, elbowing people all the time." @bomani_jones on Karl Malone's involvement in NBA All-Star Weekend in Utah. #anyquestion pic.twitter.com/l8ZPvST6VI
— Game Theory with Bomani Jones (@GameTheoryHBO) February 18, 2023
The NBA asked that guy to be a judge for its dunk contest, and he genuinely appeared to be unhappy about being there. The league also invited Malone to join its halftime ceremony honoring LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the game's all-time leading scorers. Malone is third on the career scoring list.
So, there was Janelle Monáe, a decorated artist and human rights advocate, reading from a script, "In this game, greatness puts points on the board, and for those keeping score, nobody touches the greatness of these three legends." And there was LeBron James, the face of the NBA, rubbing shoulders with Malone.
It was almost enough to make the presence of John Stockton, a conspiracy theorist who Abdul-Jabbar has said makes "the public look upon athletes as basically dumb jocks," a welcome addition to the festivities.
Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid
The addition of Jokic to Team LeBron, even if it were mistaken, robbed us of getting to see the reigning two-time MVP and his two-time runner-up battle each other in the All-Star Game. As it were, Team LeBron boasted the game's only two traditional centers in the same starting lineup. The result was 32 points for Embiid, four for Jokic, and only Embiid on the floor for a competitive fourth quarter against Team Giannis.
"I think it's fun," said Jokic. It was not.
"I think we could play together," he said. They should not.
"He needs to play the four, of course, because he can defend a little bit more than I," he said. OK.
"I love to play with a big man who is really dominant, so I think it could work in the future," he said. No.
Jokic did connect with Embiid for the least exciting alley-oop of the game. All-Star is not a center's game.
During a break in the first-half action, a group of inflatable mascots took center court, at which point the representative of the Houston Rockets — for some reason a bear — fake farted into a microphone and ran to the locker room as if he had ... um ... let one slip. Here we were thinking bears save that for the woods.
So long, Salt Lake City.