By: COOPER ALBERS / STAFF REPORTER
A game once described by the late-great Kobe Bryant as “the greatest pickup game in the world,” the NBA All-Star Game has become unrecognizable.
The 72nd Annual NBA All-Star Game was held on Sunday, Feb. 19, in Salt Lake City, Utah. The last time the event took place in the Beehive State was 30 years ago, when the Western Conference All-Stars took down the East 135-132 in overtime. Homegrown Utah Jazz Duo John Stockton and Karl Malone shared the MVP honors.
Making its long-awaited return to Salt Lake, the NBA brought a weekend’s worth of festivities to celebrate the momentous occasion. All-Star Weekend was kicked off on Friday with the Ruffles NBA All-Star Celebrity Game and the Jordan Rising Stars Showcase, held at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center.
WWE Superstar The Miz came to play, sinking a half-court bomb to end the All-Star Celebrity Game. However, he didn’t release it in time, and Team Dwyane Wade secured the victory over Team Ryan Smith 81-78. Seattle Seahawks Wide Receiver DK Metcalf took home the All-Star Celebrity MVP, notching 20 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocks.
Shifting to a new format, the Rising Stars Showcase featured a tournament instead of a standalone game. Team Pau Gasol defeated Team Jason Terry in the championship game 25-20, and New Orleans Pelicans Guard Jose Alvarado was named the MVP of the Tournament.
State Farm All-Star Saturday Night is when the weekend took a turn for the worse. Fans and celebrities filled the seats of Vivint Arena for skills challenges meant to embody the NBA’s defining qualities. However, rather than celebrate these skills, the events seemingly mocked them.
The night began with the Kia Skills Challenge, a three-round challenge played between Team Jazz, Team Rooks, and Team Antetokounmpo. The teams competed in Team Relay, Team Passing, and Team Shooting, all of which were absent of any sense of urgency. On commentary, Golden State Warriors Forward Draymond Green observed Team Jazz member Jordan Clarkson during Team Relay, noting:
“Look at him, look, he’s going to play it cool… I’m not even sure those are game shorts he has on. I’d be so mad if he was my teammate right now” (House of Highlights).
The lack of urgency amongst all teams came to a head in the final round of Team Shooting, a 1-minute shooting circuit from spots around the court that corresponded to points ranging from one to five. The shooting effort from each team was abysmal, prominently seen from the two total points tallied by Team Rooks. Team Jazz managed to win the round with a measly 13 total points and ultimately won the Skills Challenge.
Among the other blunders of All-Star Saturday Night included the AT&T Slam Dunk Contest. An event stuffed with missed attempts, unnecessary theatrics, and a lack of star power, the sacred contest has seemingly lost its prestige. A second-round dunk from New York Knicks Center Jericho Sims epitomized the night, a dunk that fans have deemed one of the worst in NBA history.
The Dunk Contest got bailed out by an electric performance from Mac McClung. According to NBA Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neale and Magic Johnson, the NBA G-Leaguer “saved” the otherwise dull contest. McClung put on a near-flawless performance with three perfect-scoring dunks, including a miraculous 540 slam to solidify his victory.
McClung was among the few high points of the night. Alongside McClung’s Dunk Contest domination was an impressive shooting display from Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who took home the Starry 3-Point Trophy. Lillard notched 26 points in the Championship Round, besting Indiana Pacers teammates Tyrese Haliburton and 2020 3-Point Contest Winner Buddy Hield. Aside from McClung and Lillard, though, there was little to be excited about at All-Star Saturday Night.
Following the precedent set by All-Star Saturday Night, the 72nd All-Star Game was nothing short of controversial. Team Giannis defeated Team LeBron 184-175 in a game that Denver Nuggets and Team LeBron Coach Mike Malone deemed “The worst basketball game ever played.”
From the opening jump, it was clear that the showcase would be a glorified layup line. The opening half was full of dunks and alley-oops, and nearly every star got their shot at throwing one down. Defensive poise was a rarity, so much so that some players were upset if their shots got contested.
The second half saw a more spaced-out shot chart, ranging from the 3-point line to just behind half-court. After LeBron exited the game due to a hand injury, the teams traded 3-point bombs for the entire third quarter, combining for an unheard-of 126 total 3-point attempts on the game.
The game concluded with a Damian Lillard 3-pointer that reached the target score and secured the victory for Team Giannis. Boston Celtics Forward Jayson Tatum received the Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP Award, setting an All-Star record with 55 points.
The game received backlash from fans and analysts alike. ESPN Analyst Stephen A. Smith described the effort as “arrogant” and one that took the fans for granted. Even the All-Stars themselves were unhappy with the game and criticized the contest.
“That wasn’t basketball,” said Celtics Guard Jaylen Brown, who tallied a team-leading 35 points and 14 rebounds for Team LeBron. “That was just highlights and layups and jump shots. Probably just two foul calls the entire game. For me, I’m sure people would like to see a little bit more than what we displayed. But I guess that’s the format of what we’ve been doing and I’m not sure how to change it.”