CHICAGO — Leading 154-153, Team LeBron was a 3-pointer away from ending the 69th annual All-Star Game in Chicago on Sunday night, and Houston Rockets star James Harden, with the ball in his hands, turned the stomachs and curdled the blood of every fan in the packed United Center with every successive dribble he took up the court and closer to the 3-point stripe. Harden, one of the league’s most prolific pull-up shooters nailed a three in Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry’s face, and for a moment, the game looked like it was over.
The changes the NBA implemented to the All-Star Game format came into play. The winner of every quarter raised $100,000 for the charity of its choice — $100,000 for Team Giannis and $400,000 for Team LeBron, which was awarded an extra $100,000 for winning the game — and the score reset at the end of every quarter. At the start of the fourth quarter, the scores were all added up, and, in a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the first team to score 24 points on top of the leading score won the game. That figure ended up being 157 points.
As straining as it is to explain now, in the moment, the stakes were easy to understand. And despite being heavily criticized beforehand (by myself, included), the gambit worked. The end of the game was nerve-racking, becoming an endorsement for experimentation itself. Until the ball is rolled out on the floor, you never actually know what’s going to happen. And there’s no better venue to simulate new ideas than Sunday’s game. Not only are the stakes low, but everyone is watching. Fans can provide instant feedback on what does and doesn’t work.
Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers is fouled by Kyle Lowry late in the All-Star Game on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Nam Huh)
They did. Prior to Harden’s three dropping through the net, the whistle sounded. Kyle Lowry, the league’s leader in charges drawn per game, dropped to the floor. The packed arena stood in unison, waiting for the results of the play review. When it was revealed that Lowry indeed successfully eliminated Harden’s dagger, the crowd roared. There are few real allegiances in the All-Star Game now that the conferences no longer face off against each other. I can only assume the fans were rooting for the same result as me — despite a long-standing curmudgeonly distaste for overtime — and everyone else on press row: more action.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “As we played, it was great. That’s what everybody wants to see. They want to see a competitive game. That’s what it was in the fourth. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
It was 9:58 p.m. CT in Chicago when Harden nailed two free throws put his team three points away from victory. The next half hour produced weak knees, shortened breath and tense muscles. Despite the meaninglessness of the game itself, the experience was dizzying. You didn’t want it to end.
The NBA changed the rules to engineer a care factor, but in the final moments of the game, players always care. It wasn’t able to get them to ratchet up the intensity in the first three quarters, but what the format inadvertently stumbled into was a playground-style, next-point-wins standoff that got fans to care more.
For half an hour, the end of every offensive possession for Team LeBron could end the game. When Joel Embiid hit two free throws for Team Giannis to make the score 156-155, every possession became defend-or-die. The result, instead of being beholden to the clock, was solely determined by the action on the floor. The experience maximized anxiety, the ultimate goal of the end of a close game.
The end couldn’t have been more anti-climatic, given the format. Team LeBron needed one point to win when Anthony Davis was fouled. He missed his first shot but nailed the second one, and at 10:30 p.m., it was finally over. But consider how most games end: with the clock dwindling down. The fact that the game ended — no, had to end — on an action is a huge improvement on that.
“The end was amazing,” said Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who coached Team Giannis. “I think everybody in the whole place was on their feet watching each possession, and they were really going at it. Offensively, it was hard to get anything started. Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool, I thought.”
The result was far too irresistible to be limited to one meaningless game. On that note, here’s a modest proposal for next season: change the format of the regular season and playoff overtime games to something similar to the fourth quarter we just witnessed. The NBA can experiment with the perfect score. Maybe it’s 24. Maybe it’s fifteen. Imagine the defensive intensity that would be produced in a game with real stakes.
The NBA is constantly tinkering. They intuitively understand a truth that’s hard for most people to believe: Rules are made to be broken. We tend to believe certain things should be set in stone, until something changes and the next thing feels just as self-evident. “The good thing about our league is we’re always adding things and trying new things and trying to figure out from my fans what they like,” said Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul after the game.
If The Basketball Tournament, as LeBron James pointed out after the game, can play to a set score, why shouldn’t the NBA try it out? Rules can and should change all the time. On Sunday night, we discovered a kernel that could be the birth of the NBA’s next great idea.
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