MVP Durant leads West stars by East
ORLANDO - It’s safe to say that the NBA leaves Orlando and embarks on the second half of its abbreviated season feeling more heartened and confident about its image than just a few months ago.
While this lockout season has been the source of plenty of injuries, subpar play, and the dreadful back-to-back-to-back, the league pushed its worries aside and celebrated its improving health over the weekend, culminating in the 61st All-Star Game last night at Amway Center.
In a stunning display of talent and athletic prowess, the teams took turns tossing alley-oops, launching 3-pointers off the fast break, and breaking nearly every other fundamental rule to entertain their fan base. Kevin Durant scored 36 points en route to his first All-Star MVP as the West staved off a frantic East rally for a 152-149 victory.
The two Celtics who participated made minimal contributions compared with the big numbers of their counterparts. Paul Pierce, in his 10th All-Star Game, scored 3 points for the East on 1-for-8 shooting in 11 minutes. Rajon Rondo contributed eight assists off the bench and added one of his nifty head-fake layups in the fourth quarter.
Rondo sparked the East’s rally early in the fourth quarter until being replaced by Dwyane Wade. Rondo, who just served a two-game suspension for tossing a ball at official Sean Wright, said he enjoyed his first game action in seven days.
“I had a good experience,’’ said Rondo, who was a late replacement for the injured Joe Johnson. “It’s always an honor to be named an All-Star. I had fun. I spent a lot time with my family, enjoyed myself, tried to live in the moment really.’’
The Western Conference took a lead on a Kobe Bryant jumper 16 seconds into the game and never trailed. The West coasted when the East made the customary All-Star rally. The lead was 17 when East coach Tom Thibodeau reinserted LeBron James and Wade for one final push with six minutes left. James put on a 3-point display similar to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics.
His scoring, along with stellar defense, sliced the West lead to 1, and Wade broke away from the pack on a fast break. James flipped a lob pass for a potential go-ahead score, but Wade bobbled the ball as he tried to gather it one-handed and dropped it out of bounds with 1:16 left.
Blake Griffin then followed with a putback dunk off a Russell Westbrook miss for a 150-147 West lead. After two Wade free throws sliced the lead to 1 again, Bryant missed the second of two free throws to give the East a chance to tie or win the game.
Pierce admitted afterward that he egged his teammates to foul Bryant because he missed two late free throws last week against the Mavericks.
“I was just heckling him,’’ Pierce said. “A good, friendly heckling between two rivals.’’
Deron Williams barely grazed the rim on a wide-open 3-pointer and then James tried to make a spectacular cross-court pass to Wade, but Griffin picked it off with 1.1 seconds left. Griffin made a free throw and Wade missed a double-pump 3-point attempt at the buzzer, concluding what was a successful weekend for the NBA.
Durant dominated the first half with 21 points, attacking the basket with several thundering dunks. The MVP award could be a sign that Durant has emerged along with James, Wade, and Bryant as one of the game’s elite players.
“It’s just exciting to be named the All-Star, but to step up another level and become MVP, it’s only something that as a kid you dream about,’’ Durant said. “Coming where I come from, I didn’t think I would be here. I’m glad to be taking this back to Oklahoma City.’’
The league spent the weekend celebrating its success after months of uncertainty last summer whether there even would be a season. If the season had begun any later than Christmas Day, there was speculation that the All-Star Game would have been canceled, as it was after the 1998 lockout.
Instead the weekend went on as planned, with the addition of the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin adding some intrigue and attention to a series of events that have been heavily criticized the past few years. Last night’s game, as expected, began as a dunk fest with James and Wade taking turns exchanging alley-oops while Bryant and Durant provided all of the offense for the West.
Durant’s position as a league MVP candidate is secure, but he still remains somewhat overshadowed by James and Bryant in popularity. He obviously wanted to make a statement last night, showing little hesitation in attacking the basket or launching 3-pointers. He scored 10 of the West’s first 34 points.
Thibodeau’s team definitely did not adopt one of his major tenets of coaching, because the East played no defense in the first half, allowing an All-Star Game record 88 points in the first 24 minutes. The West shot 60 percent in the half and scored a whopping 49 points in the second quarter.
The NBA basically adopted the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime model and iced the players for nearly 30 minutes while performers such as Pitbull, Chris Brown, and Ne-Yo hit a specially designed stage. It was a celebration, the league’s first-class attempt at showing the fans that all of the bitterness and anger generated from the lockout has dissipated.
“Like I said, I haven’t seen this [excitement in Orlando] since the Finals [in 2009],’’ Magic center Dwight Howard said. “The city was on fire from Thursday night to tonight, and it’s been great.’’