SALT LAKE CITY — The All-Star Game was shaping to be a lot like most game LeBron James plays: At halftime, he was leading his team in minutes.
But unlike the 23 games he has left in the regular season, the one he played on Sunday doesn’t really have any stakes.
So while James was ruled out of the second half of the NBA’s premier exhibition with a right hand bruise, it might be rightly taken with a grain of salt as more precautionary than substantial. James finished the game with 13 points and 4 assists, but hit the bench long before the 184-175 loss, with Team LeBron falling to Team Giannis.
Boston’s Jayson Tatum set a new All Star Game scoring record with 55 points, besting the record set by Anthony Davis.
Minutes after the news leaked out that James would not play after halftime, James walked onstage to be honored by longtime friend Dwyane Wade for breaking the NBA’s career scoring record, alongside his now top-two runners-up, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. James shook the hands of all three men – with no apparent sign of discomfort.
James caught his right pinky finger on the hoop in the second quarter on an attempted chase down block, an injury not believed to be serious. But James was not planning on playing big minutes anyway – saying pregame he wouldn’t “go crazy” in his 19th All Star appearance with an ailing left foot injury – and the moment seemed as apt a reason as any to remove James from any risk of further incident.
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“I tried to get one little chase-down block, and got my finger caught in the rim,” James said after the game. “But I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I don’t think it’s too much to worry about.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo played barely at all himself, dunking on the first possession of the game, then committing a take foul 20 seconds in to get subbed out. The Bucks star had suffered a wrist injury in his last game before the break.
Unfortunately for James, the defeat blemished his perfect record when picking his own team. His first two picks among the starters were his best: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid had 32 points and Dallas’ Kyrie Irving had 32 points. Boston’s Jaylen Brown had a team-high 35 points. Clipper Paul George had 8 points.
The other big gun besides Tatum for Team Antetokounmpo was Donovan Mitchell, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard who scored 40 points in a return to Utah, where he was a star with the Jazz.
There were hijinks in the drafting process – televised live on the day of the game for the first time – that were more entertaining than any of the basketball. Antetokounmpo gaffed in the reserve-picking round, mistakenly trying to select Ja Morant, who was a starter. James poked at the Bucks star for picking Damian Lillard first among reserves when his teammate Jrue Holiday was still on the board.
James could hardly hide his enthusiasm in the starter round when he picked his former teammate Irving – James recently admitted he was “disappointed” when the Lakers didn’t trade for him – after his first overall pick Embiid. Denver’s Nikola Jokic, the two-time defending MVP who could win a third this season, essentially picked himself by walking over to James when it was down to him and Utah forward Lauri Markkanen.
Jokic, who finished with 4 points and was at one point caught off-guard by an outlet pass that sailed past him, kept a light heart about going late in the draft: “No, I would not draft myself either. I’m not meant for this game.”
James said he preferred the pre-taped televised format before All-Star weekend, but didn’t argue with experimentation.
“It’s always good to try some things and see how we can get better with things,” he said. “Especially with our game. It’s always great to have an opportunity to try new formats, new ways to spice up the game, spice up the viewership and things of that nature.”