SALT LAKE CITY — There was one sequence on Sunday night that stirred an otherwise restless crowd at Vivint Arena, where a little competition emerged from a morass of largely undefended, half-speed highlights.
Jaylen Brown bided his time, dribbling up against his Boston Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum before launching a top-of-the-key 3-pointer in his face. On the jog back, Brown laughed underneath his black face mask as he put a hand toward the floor, the “too small” gesture for his 6-foot-8 fellow Celtic.
The fans, however, really got into it when Tatum issued a response nine seconds later, finding Brown on the other end and launching his own 3-pointer in his teammate’s face.
“We’ve played countless number of one-on-one games, scrimmages against each other,” said Tatum, who wound up taking home the Kobe Bryant MVP award with a record-setting 55 points. “We’ve always kind of brought the best out of each other. So it was a normal day for us. Just millions of people watching on one of the biggest stages, so we had a little fun with it.”
The biggest problem with the game, however, is that these fleeting moments were so few and far between.
Team LeBron coach Michael Malone might have been stirring up a little fire when he called the 184-175 Team Giannis win over his squad “the worst basketball game ever played,” but the comment prodded at a sentiment that seems to follow the All-Star Game every year. Less defense, less intensity, less watchable for the casual fan.
These cliched comments about NBA players not caring about defense might be less about the nature of the NBA than the nature of All-Star games: The NFL downgraded its annual Pro Bowl to a flag football event this year and the NHL has dealt with similar lack-of-intensity issues with its All-Star event. But it made some take notice that Sunday’s participants were among the game’s harshest critics.
“They put on a show for the fans,” Malone told reporters at his postgame scrum, “but that is a tough game to sit through, I’m not going to lie.”
There was no lack of highlights: Early on, LeBron James threw an alley-oop off the backboard to himself. Ja Morant and Lauri Markkanen had first-quarter highlight-reel dunks. Damian Lillard set a new bar for even his lengthy range with a shot not at the midcourt line, but rather behind it.
But other lowlights cast a shadow over the exhibition, designed at its core to showcase the best NBA talent. MVP candidate Luka Doncic during several intervals didn’t cross the halfcourt line with the rest of his team on offense. MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic was talking to someone on the sideline when an outlet pass from Doncic sailed past him, causing him to duck. Bam Adebayo, at one point, bounced an inbounds pass off of Jokic’s back.
For the league, that’s an eternal faucet drip: The game has always been heavier on highlights than hustle, especially among a group of All-Stars who want to avoid injury and take a mental break before the final stretch of the season. The NBA instituted the pick-the-team format, the Elam ending and finally bringing the player draft product to the stage this year to liven up the affair. But even then, fans were probably more interested to tune into the draft itself than the game.
And the playground live format? It got mixed reviews.
“It makes you want to work to become an All-Star captain,” Donovan Mitchell said, “so you get to choose and decide.”
The flat competition was a signal to many in the building and watching elsewhere to tune out. And there seems to be some understanding among the players and stakeholders that it’s a problem. Even though his matchup with Tatum was one of the game’s best moments, Brown had a similar sentiment to Malone.
“It was just a glorified layup line,” he said. “We got to figure out how to make the game a little bit more competitive.”