LOS ANGELES -- On a night when the NBA wanted to restore a showcase event to its rightful glory, the league's most visible superstar, LeBron James, ignited the team that carried his namesake to a 148-145 win in the most satisfying All-Star Game in years.
The NBA and its athletes have become the most ingenious league in the world at generating buzz and stoking narrative conflict, but after the All-Star rosters are named and hands are wrung over snubs and slights, the game in recent years has been stale toast. To heighten the stakes, the NBA injected some more intrigue -- it assigned the task of divvying up the talent to James and Stephen Curry, the leading vote-getters in the All-Star balloting.
There was sufficient doubt the novelty of a new format would translate to the court after tip-off. Would LeBron and Steph sincerely be motivated by a desire to prove their mettle as savvy talent evaluators? Would a teammate selected by one of the NBA's two mega-superstars be driven to justify his selection? Would raising the financial incentives offset a packed weekend of events in Los Angeles, or is demanding full effort of All-Star Game participants like asking attendees of a raucous wedding weekend in Cabo to run a 10K on Sunday evening?
As promised, the competitors in the 2018 All-Star Game brought much greater vigor than the carefree 192-182 abomination that prompted this year's reform.
"It definitely worked out for everybody," James said. "It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league, but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way."
It's entirely possible that the game's competitiveness is largely unrelated to the new format. One can imagine a blowout in either direction robbing the game of its newfound intensity. But as early as the first half, spectators could witness something that approximated actual shot contests and man-to-man defense -- Russell Westbrook swiping at a dunk attempt by Giannis Antetokounmpo; Joel Embiid blocking Westbrook in flight; and less than a minute before halftime, Kyrie Irving and Paul George of Team LeBron unleashing a vicious half-court trap on James Harden that forced a turnover, with a nearly identical sequence to follow on the subsequent possession.
"We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke," Kevin Durant said. "Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game."
A thrilling fourth quarter had an even greater "real-game feel," in the words of James, who checked back into the contest with just over nine minutes remaining and his team trailing by seven points. James led a 28-12 charge in the final 6:36 that was packed with highlights, tension and defensive stands as James effectively played center for his team opposite Joel Embiid.
The mano-a-mano was the stuff of "real-game" theater, with Embiid bullying his way to the bucket with his balletic footwork, blocking a layup attempt by George at a crucial moment, and LeBron avenging with a step-back 3-pointer over the Philadelphia center to tie the score at 144-144. Had the outcome favored Team Stephen on Sunday, it's plausible that votes for a Most Valuable Player in an All-Star Game could've been cast for Embiid, who also scored 19 points, in part because of defensive contributions -- a first.
If the league needed any additional evidence to prove its All-Star Game offers a legitimate facsimile of honest-to-goodness NBA basketball, basketball's most talented superstars howled to demand a video replay when a ball that replays seemed to reveal went off the foot of Embiid was nevertheless returned to Team Stephen with just over a minute left.
NBA All-Star Games don't normally lend themselves to X's and O's analysis, but there was LeBron at the postgame news conference in Staples Center breaking down the decisive possession that produced a finger-roll lay-in for him at the rim and vaulted his team to a one-point lead with 34.5 seconds left.
"We had two crossers at the top to just get the defense moving," James said. "Then we wanted to get it to Russ. Russ being so dynamic in his ability to break down defenses, we wanted to get it to him. Russ was able to make one move, they switched, and Russ kind of was left up in the air. He was able to hit Kyrie on the baseline, and playing with Kyrie for so many games, you know, if I just make myself available, he would find me. He found me and I was able to make the left-hand layup over Draymond [Green]."
Trailing by three with a final possession, Team Stephen put the ball in the hands of its captain, but a smothering defensive trap -- again, an All-Star rarity -- confined Curry to the far reaches of the perimeter.
"Team LeBron had length and quickness all over the course," Curry said. "So once I got the ball from Joel and turned and looked to get a clear shot at the rim, I saw LeBron and K.D. try to double team me. At that point you're just trying to make a play, and nothing really surfaced."
On a weekend that's typically about trivialities and whimsy, James arrived in Los Angeles in the NBA spotlight for the second consecutive week. But whereas the focus on LeBron following the trade deadline to prove he could resuscitate a Cavs team that had cratered from contention -- with LeBron's apathy a contributing factor to the malaise -- in Los Angeles he was a political flashpoint, one that rippled through the larger culture this weekend far beyond the league's realm.
Told to "shut up and dribble" by a conservative cable news commentator, James responded on Saturday that he had a moral imperative to do no such thing. He insisted that there are simply too many kids with too little hope to forfeit a platform as large as the one his stardom affords him. The notion that his expression should be reserved for matters pertaining to basketball was belittling not just to the substance of that expression, but to the craft itself.
So when it was time for LeBron to exhibit his talents Sunday night, he displayed the full breadth of his gifts. Midway through the second quarter, he raced out ahead of the field with the ball, then skidded a bounce pass across the floor to Westbrook just beyond half court before continuing in stride to collect a return lob at the rim for a reverse jam. And mounting the big fourth-quarter comeback, he streaked along the baseline to snag a pass from a penetrating Irving, finishing with a monstrous and-1 dunk.
For those who believe athletic achievements don't entitle an individual to comment on current affairs -- as if any American should have to show credentials for admission to the public square -- nothing James demonstrated Sunday will likely change minds. Yet James' performance and the accompanying third career All-Star Game MVP award further solidified his presence both in the game and outside of it at a moment when both he and basketball were in the public's consciousness.