CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It must be deflating for 29 teams to see the NBA stage its annual, purely-for-fun midseason exhibition and the Golden State Warriors steal that game, too.
The league’s All-Stars gathered Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., to put on a show at the Spectrum Center, only to see members of the two-time defending champions become the ringleaders once again.
There was Steph Curry, raised in Charlotte and anxious to impress the old neighborhood, making the two prettiest bounce passes of the night, one to Giannis Antetokounmpo and one to … himself.
There was Klay Thompson, wearing a different uniform than Curry for the first time in their careers. He was trying hard to bring trash-talking rights back to Oakland and came close to making a down payment.
And there was Kevin Durant. He’s the real MVP.
All told, the 68th All-Star Game had some cold stretches and needed to be rescued, and — wouldn’t you know — three members of the most decorated team this decade did what they do. It was super for entertainment value and dreadful for championship hopes held by anyone with ideas of tripping the Warriors come spring and summertime.
At least the weekend wasn’t a total Warriors romp: Curry did lose the MTN DEW 3-Point Contest to Joe Harris of the Brooklyn Nets.
The All-Star weekend was a few years late coming to Charlotte, originally scheduled for 2017 prior to a politically charged delay, and the league hustled to do right by the city and also Michael Jordan, owner of the Hornets. The showcase gave the NBA some temporarily (and much-needed) relief from competition, not only the first two-thirds of the regular season, but also from the Anthony Davis sweepstakes.
The centerpiece of the weekend was the game itself, and let the record show all of social media and the Los Angeles Lakers that LeBron James is indeed capable of picking players that can help him win. There was some question about that over the last few dramatic weeks. LeBron captained his team, perhaps notably containing four stars who’ll become free agents this summer, to a 178-164 win over Team Giannis.
The game was unique in that it contained 13 players on each squad instead of the usual 12. That’s because Adam Silver used his commissioner’s power to add two legends, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki — one of whom is definitely retiring (Wade) and the other is expected to, but hasn’t made anything official yet.
When Team LeBron coach Mike Budenholzer sent Nowitzki to the scorer’s table to check in, Mike Malone, not to be outcoached, immediately signaled for Wade. It was a staged photo-and-applause op and it worked; Wade and Dirk received standing ovations from the Spectrum Center as they jointly walked on the floor for the final time as All-Stars.
What happened next was pure: Dirk hit his first three shots, all 3-pointers, as his teammates rose from the bench and celebrated each one.
“I just wanted to play a few minutes and hoist up a 3,” he said. “The first shot I figured, ‘Hey, last time on stage, I’m going to go for it,’ and it went in. The second one, I said, ‘I’ll get a little deeper,’ and it went in. The third, I wanted to see what happened and it went in too. It was a pleasure to compete one more time with these guys. A great weekend for me.”
Shortly thereafter, Wade connected with his BFF and former teammate LeBron on a few lob passes, reminiscent of their winning combinations on a pair of championships in Miami.
“Like I’ve been saying the last couple of days, it’s been a bittersweet moment for me and him,” LeBron said. “The bitter part is obviously this being the last time on the same floor together and the memories we have as competitors and teammates.
“And then the sweet part of it is seeing him be able to go out on his own terms, saying when he’s done and nobody forcing him out and or anything of that nature. He’s able to hang it up when he wants to hang it up and be at peace with it.”
It was fun and fitting and the two future Hall of Famers were clearly affected and choked up, especially as they accepted framed All-Star jerseys during a brief ceremony prior to the fourth quarter.
But make no mistake, this was more about the Warriors here at a critical checkpoint, flexing their talent for all to see and envy and ultimately respect.
Thompson found himself in a playful one-upmanship with Curry and, well … Thompson came up short. He did drill a 3-pointer from the corner, while Curry, sitting nearby on the bench, yelled for a miss. But Curry dropped a deep 3-pointer while being hacked by Thompson, falling to the floor at the feet of rapper Quavo and then completing the 4-point play.
“It was good to see Steph knock down that shot over Klay because Klay is always talking trash to him,” said Durant. “It was fun to see. Those guys are always joking around and seeing who can make the most shots. Their chemistry together is second-to-none. So we know we’re going to be talking about that play for the next two days.”
Durant snagged his second All-Star Game MVP, and first with the Warriors, by tallying 31 points, including some big buckets down the stretch. There isn’t a major trophy Durant hasn’t won: two Finals MVPs, two All-Star MVPs, a regular-season MVP, two NBA titles.
His next might be another title this summer, and after that it’s time for a new contract … somewhere.
For Curry, the weekend was a dream. It was 27 years ago that he watched his first All-Star Weekend from the lap of his father, who was a 3-Point Contest participant in 1992. He came from humble basketball beginnings, a scrawny teenager who couldn’t draw much interest from Division I schools, and then took nearby Davidson College to national prominence.
The entire Curry family soaked it all in: Steph, Dell, brother Seth — who battled his brother in the 3-Point Contest — and the rest.
Appearing in Charlotte for the All-Star Game served as a career highlight to be checked off a rather long and growing list for Curry. Feeling a bit pressured to perform, especially after being upset in the 3-Point Contest Finals, Curry unloaded with a pair of plays made for YouTube.
On the break, he bounced the ball off the floor and high in the air, thereby qualifying as a lob pass, which was dunked by Giannis.
“I think that pass was going to Joel (Embiid) but I was able to sneak in there and make it look like a good pass to me,” Giannis said. “It was a nice play.”
And then, with the clock ticking off the final seconds of Charlotte’s basketball weekend, Curry bounced another pass high, grabbed it, twisted in the air, and dunked a reverse.
“All y’all saw me in LA a couple of weeks ago” said Curry, making mention of his embarrassing slip and fall while attempting a fancy breakaway dunk against the Clippers. “Well, I redeemed myself.”
With that, the game and weekend were wrapped for Charlotte, by a kid from Charlotte. Everybody go home. Everybody prepare for the season’s last two months. And more of what’s coming from the Warriors.