Thanks to a perfect 16-for-16 performance from the field — including banking in multiple jump shots — Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo won his first NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award, as Team LeBron cruised to a 170-150 victory over Team Durant on Sunday night in Atlanta.
“You know, usually it is closed [on Sundays],” Antetokounmpo said with a smile, when asked about the banked-in jumpers, “but for me, it was open extended hours.”
According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Antetokounmpo shattered the previous record of most makes without a miss in an All-Star Game, set by Hal Greer when he went 8-for-8 in 1968. But Antetokounmpo said his perfect shooting night wasn’t something that was on his mind during the game.
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“It actually wasn’t,” he said. “I was just trying to just play. When you’re around guys like [Damian Lillard] and [Stephen Curry] and Chris Paul, it’s just easy. Nobody is worrying about me. I’m just playing one-on-one, nobody is double-teaming. If you feel good, then I feel good that it will be good. I just get up and have fun and just try to get as many shots as I can.”
In a game Team LeBron controlled from start to finish, it was Antetokounmpo (who finished with a game-high 35 points), Curry (28 points and eight 3-pointers) and Lillard (32 points and the game-sealing 3-pointer) who led the way. The three fought for the MVP trophy down to the end, with Antetokounmpo ultimately winning it.
In addition to it being the first time he has won the award, it also was a chance for Antetokounmpo to take home an honor named after Kobe Bryant — something that made it extra special for him.
“Obviously, I’m extremely happy at just having the award with the name of Kobe Bryant in my house,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. I wanted to win the one last year really bad, and I had a chance to win because I felt like I wanted to have the trophy in my house. But this year, I wasn’t even thinking about winning it; I was just thinking about having fun, and I had the opportunity to play well.
“My team played great, and I was able to just win it. And to have the trophy with the name of Kobe Bryant, it’s amazing, and I know he would be happy. Yeah, I know he’d be happy.”
This All-Star Game, like everything else about this season, was inescapably altered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Originally scheduled to be in Indianapolis, it was instead moved to Atlanta. Only a handful of fans were in the stands, and strict quarantines were in place for everyone involved.
That, however, didn’t prevent the virus from infiltrating the event, as contact tracing forced the league to pull Philadelphia 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons out of the game — and potentially kept away from the Sixers when the second half of the season begins Thursday.
The situation involving Embiid and Simmons was the exact example NBA commissioner Adam Silver mentioned Saturday when discussing why, he believes, most NBA players will eventually get the vaccine. While Silver said the NBA will not mandate players get the vaccine, if they do get vaccinated, they would no longer have to quarantine — and, thus, be unable to play — if they come in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
“That’s a conversation that my family and I will have. Pretty much keep that to a private thing,” James said. “Obviously, I saw Adam had his comments about the vaccination. But things like that, when you decide to do something, that’s a conversation between you and your family and not for everybody. I’ll keep it that way.”
James, who said early last month that the NBA’s choosing to hold an All-Star Game amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was a “slap in the face,” lived up to the other quote he had about the game that day.
“I’ll be there if I’m selected,” James said. “But I’ll be there physically, but not mentally.”
James, who hadn’t scored fewer than 13 points in any of his prior 16 All-Star appearances, had only four points on 2-for-7 shooting — including whiffing on two wide-open layups — in 13 minutes. James said after the game he would be taking advantage of every second he had to recover before the Lakers open the second half of their season.
“I hope so,” James said, when asked if he had enough time to recover. “Is it enough time? I’ll take any time, obviously. So, I’ll take full advantage of the time that we have. Is it enough time? No, it’s never enough time, but we’re not on the side of time. I’m not on the side of time. I’ll take full advantage of what I have and be OK with it.”
Team LeBron, with its victory, donated more than $1 million to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, while Team Durant donated $500,000 to the United Negro College Fund. James also has now been on the winning team in each of the past four years since the NBA switched to the captains format in 2018.
“I hope that they allow me to retire from being an All-Star captain, so I can retire with a perfect 4-0 record,” James said afterward.
“I always try to pick the right team, and I’ve been lucky enough for four years to pick the right team. Guys go out and compete and play to win. I’ve been on the winning side of all four.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo mimics LeBron James’ 2016 title speech by raising his All-Star Game MVP trophy and exclaiming, “Milwaukee, this for you.”
Curry, meanwhile, showed he was ready for business by winning the 3-point contest for the second time in his career. He then couldn’t miss in the first half, scoring 22 points and initially giving himself a shot at the MVP award.
Curry and Paul George said they preferred the one-day All-Star format, as compared to the usual weekend full of pomp and circumstance. They did want one change: having fans in the stands.
“[The game] felt the same,” Curry said. “The only thing is you can’t really see the crowd in normal years, outside the courtside rows, but the energy is definitely louder, more engaged with more people.
“But the only thing that was really missing was the courtside kind of vibe. The who’s who sitting down there, and just the energy down on the court. I remember watching it last year in Chicago, and that was half the fun of the new format, the ending, was everyone who was courtside or in the lower part of the stands just all locked in and engaged in the game, and there’s some dope photos of that. That’s the biggest piece that was missing.”
Several players also expressed their happiness that Mike Conley, now playing in his 14th NBA season, made his All-Star debut. He did so in a unique way: by contesting a jump ball at center court with another point guard, Paul, to start the second quarter.
“It was great to get out there,” Conley said. “I was not prepared for the tip. I was getting ready to guard someone, and they’re like, ‘Mike, go jump, go jump!’
“I wish I’d won the tip, but other than that, I had a great time.”
Still, Utah Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t help but give Conley a hard time for it taking a bit before he finally made his first basket.
“He’s 65 years old,” Mitchell quipped, “so it took him awhile to get going.”
After last year’s thrilling conclusion in the debut of the “Elam Ending,” Team LeBron’s control over the game made it academic this time around. Thanks to winning the second quarter by 19 points — sandwiched between one-point victories in the first and third quarters — Team Durant started the fourth quarter needing to score 45 points to win, while Team LeBron needed only 24.
The only drama in the end was whether Curry or Lillard, who both spent the night trading half-court 3-pointers, would hit one to win the game. After Curry tried, and missed, Lillard — who has made game winners his forte — lined one up and buried it to give Team LeBron the victory.