The rosters for Sunday’s 2018 NBA All-Star Game feature players with a wide variety of backstories — firmly established superstars well on their way to the Hall of Fame, seasoned vets cementing their standing among the league’s best players, and young stars on the ascent aiming to earn their spot in the NBA firmament. Whether they’ve been in the game for two years or 20, each of them has a moment that has characterized their rise.
As we get ready for them to take the grand stage at Staples Center, here’s a look at the defining moments (so far!) from the careers of the players set to appear in Sunday’s midseason showcase. First up: Team LeBron. (Here’s one for Team Steph.)
LeBron James: “The Block”
Picking one moment from James’ career is a daunting task. There are a lot of right answers: scoring the Cavs’ final 25 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, the championship-sealing jumper in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals that iced his first title, “The Decision,” “The Essay,” and so on. This, though, feels most right.
Score tied at 89 and just under two minutes left in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Andre Iguodala sprinting toward the basket for a go-ahead layup, and then all of a sudden, there’s LeBron, teleporting from half-court in a half-heartbeat to envelop Iggy’s layup like a total eclipse. The most iconic version of LeBron’s signature defensive play, in the most pivotal moment of the season, to preserve his team’s chances of completing an unprecedented comeback and delivering the Cavs’ first-ever NBA championship. No individual play better encapsulates the truth of LeBron James: in an instant, he can change absolutely everything.
Kevin Durant: The shot that ended the 2017 Finals
Listen, if the man himself views this shot — and not the MVP season that came before, or the Finals MVP that followed — as the moment in which he took “the torch” as the sport’s best player and locked in his legacy as an all-time great … well, far be it from me to argue.
Anthony Davis: 59 and 20
For a guy who’s still somehow just 24 years old, Davis has had plenty of memorable moments. The double-clutch buzzer-beater against OKC. The last-night-of-the-season gem against the Spurs to get the Pelicans into the playoffs. The “remember me?” 50-15-5-5-4 on 2016’s opening night. But his utter domination of Andre Drummond’s Pistons two Februarys ago stands as the most complete document of just how devastating he can be: 59 points on 24-for-34 shooting, 20 rebounds, four assists and a block in 43 minutes of annihilation.
The complete list of other dudes to put up that many points and that many boards in one game: Wilt and Shaq. There’s the kind of company AD can keep.
Kyrie Irving: “The Shot”
The artist at work, staring the unanimous MVP dead in the eye in his own gym, in the final minute of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and freezer-burning him with a step-back and a quick “Hold that.” If you’d done that on the biggest stage possible in your chosen profession, just three months after your 24th birthday, maybe you’d start talking wild reckless and looking for a new Everest, too.
LaMarcus Aldridge: Blitzing the Rockets for 79 points in two games
There’s never been much flash to LMA’s game. He plays below the rim, living with his back to the basket and feasting on turnarounds and fadeaways; he rarely offers tasty individual highlights. He’s plenty willing to deal in bulk, though, and man, did he provide a wholesale ass-whooping in the first two games of the 2014 playoffs:
Forty-six points on 31 shots in Game 1. Forty-three on 28 shots in Game 2. A veritable Costco of buckets, dropped directly on the heads of Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Omer Asik and whoever else wanted to come get some. There’s a reason the Spurs backed up the Brinks truck for Aldridge in 2015, and why Gregg Popovich swallowed his pride to mend fences with the disgruntled star this summer: employing guys who can generate that kind of offensive avalanche tends to be much more fun than being on the receiving end of it.
Bradley Beal: Putting 51 on the Blazers
We’ve known since Beal’s time in Gainesville that he was a sniper, but over the course of the last six years, he’s developed into a more complete player — one who can lock up opposing scorers, run the offense and facilitate for teammates, get downhill and force the action rather than just relying on his sweet stroke. The 6-foot-5 off-guard showcased all those gifts in December, knocking down 21 of his 37 shots to lift the Wizards past Portland on the second night of a back-to-back, and without John Wall.
“I think I knew at halftime that I had to carry the team, for sure,” Beal said.
After responding to a challenge like that with a game like this, is it any wonder Beal was confident that he could repeat the procedure when his All-Star running buddy went down? Or that, on balance, he’s been right?
Goran Dragic: The 23-point fourth quarter against the Spurs
It’s taken years, and a few injured All-Stars, for the Slovenian playmaker to get his due. But anyone watching ESPN on May 7, 2010, has long known exactly how bad a dude Dragic is:
“Be aggressive,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry told Steve Nash’s 23-year-old sophomore backup. Twenty-six second-half points and nearly eight years later, Dragic still hasn’t stopped, living by that mantra on his way to becoming a bona fide starter, an All-NBA selection, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and now an All-Star.
Andre Drummond: When he finally made them stop hacking
For years, an inability to hit free throws stood as the glaring weakness that helped keep the hulking Drummond from reaching the heights many envisioned for him coming out of UConn. And then, this year, through a combination of mental and physical work, he got stronger.
Clinging to a 100-99 lead with 5:36 left in the game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens elected to foul Drummond intentionally to try to disrupt the offensive momentum. Drummond made one of the free throws and the Pistons held on for a stunning 118-108 victory over Monday night. […]
“I laughed. That was the last time they fouled me — and the last time they had the lead,” Drummond said. “They fouled me when they were up one and I tied the game up. I picked my intensity up and if they did it again, I would have [made] two more.”
He finished that game with 26 points, 22 rebounds, six assists and four steals. At the All-Star break, he’s leading the league in rebounding and shooting a career-best 62 percent from the stripe. A confident Andre Drummond’s a hell of a thing, y’all.
Paul George: Dapping up LeBron
We already knew George was a star on the rise by the 2014 playoffs. The just-turned-23-year-old had made his first All-Star appearance, emerging as the best player on a Pacers team built on brutalizing defense and egalitarian offense. It was in the conference finals, though, that he’d prove capable of reaching new heights when the moment called for it — against the defending NBA champions, with all eyes trained on his one-on-one matchup against the best player in the world.
And with the clock ticking down in the third quarter of Game 2, George drove left, blew past LeBron, gained the lane and absolutely crushed one directly in the mug of Chris “Birdman” Andersen. It was primal, a dawning force making an unmistakable bid for dominance.
So, naturally, LeBron responded by racing up the court, pulling up from the inner rim of the Heat’s half-court logo, and beat the third-quarter buzzer with a nothing-but-net 3. Asked and answered. Now it was on, and LeBron knew it … and he dug it.
George has gone on to put up monster performances on major stages, including 28-8-5 to force a Game 7 later in that series, and to have more amazing duels with LeBron, and to return to the ranks of the world’s best players after a horrific leg injury. But this one — the annunciation of his presence, to the point where LeBron showed him love in the middle of a conference finals game — felt like George’s official entry to the short list of Players Who Matter.
Victor Oladipo: “This is my house”
After a summer of being discussed primarily as an underwhelming return in the trade that sent George to Oklahoma, Oladipo opened this season on fire. He dropped game-winners on the Spurs and Bulls, and helped turn Indiana into one of the season’s most pleasant surprises.
Somewhere in the midst of all those late-game heroics, Oladipo developed something of a signature move:
“I don’t say it,” Oladipo told Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports. “[The fans] say it. I don’t say anything, I just do the gesture. They do the rest of the work for me.”
It’s kind of perfect: a prospect who skyrocketed to the top of draft boards with his frenetic play at Indiana, only to see his development stall a bit during stops in Orlando and Oklahoma, found his way, his game and himself once he returned to the Hoosier State. Bankers Life Fieldhouse is Victor Oladipo’s house now. He’s home, and he’s whole, and that means the Pacers still have a shot.
Kemba Walker: 52-9-8
Walker grabbed the nation’s attention a decade ago at UConn with liquid movements, a heart-pounding handle and a vicious step-back that reduced opposing defenders’ ankles to rubble. (Poor Gary McGhee.) What’s made him special, though — and, now, a two-time All-Star — is how he’s built on that foundation.
Kemba could always break you down and get where he wanted to go. The question was what he could do once he got there, and what else he could do to help you win. Games like last January’s tidal wave against the Jazz — 6-from-11 from beyond the arc, where he used to be a liability but has since become a rocket launcher, and 14-for-15 at the line, trips he earned through a willingness to sacrifice his 6-foot frame among the tall trees in the paint — reveal the fruits of Walker’s years of labor.
Russell Westbrook: The exclamation point game-winner against Denver
Westbrook had already locked up his piece of history two nights earlier, posting eight assists in a win over the Suns to ensure that he would join Oscar Robertson as the only players ever to average a triple-double over the course of a full season. But Westbrook still saw fit to deliver a coup de grace — a grand finale to punctuate a campaign he’d made his own.
First, Westbrook set up teammate Semaj Christon for a fourth-quarter 3-pointer that gave him his 42nd triple-double of the season, blowing past The Big O to take the single-season triple-double record all for himself. Then, to put a cherry on top, he outscored the Nuggets 15-4 in the final 3:35 of the game, finishing Denver — and extinguishing their playoff hopes — with a 36-foot bomb over the outstretched arms of Gary Harris to win the game at the death.
As our Ben Rohrbach put it: “In a season when Westbrook has made the triple-double appear routine and led many to wonder if the statistical anomaly had lost some of the meaning it gained as part of Robertson’s folklore, the Thunder point guard found a way to write a storybook ending to his season-long chase. He reminded everyone just how incredible the achievement is and how near-impossible a player you have to be to complete it.”
It can be tough to find the right words to describe Russell Westbrook sometimes. “Near-impossible” seems about as good a working definition as any.
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