Following three quarters of recreational defensive intensity, the closing stretch of Sunday's NBA All-Star Game mimicked many of the fourth quarters of All-Star games past: The players got serious about winning.
And as is usually the case, that effort was most evident on defense. While Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant pushed the Western Conference's lead to 136-126 with his late breakaway dunk, it was Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant who ignited the fast break with his block of Heat forward LeBron James.
"I'm known for my defense," said Bryant, who recorded two blocked shots and two steals in the Western Conference's 143-138 win over the Eastern Conference. "I can defend. I'm pretty smart with my defense."
All-Star Game rookies were served noticed of the shift in seriousness once the starters began trickling back into the game midway through the fourth quarter. Following a first half punctuated by alley-oop dunks, the fourth quarter served as a stark contrast, particularly on defense.
"In these timeouts, and we're in an All-Star Game, there's four minutes to go and the focus of a guy like Kobe Bryant is very evident," Golden State Warriors forward David Lee said. "The entire team that was in there was focused, knew what they wanted to get accomplished, and I think you saw the defense in that fourth quarter pick up, and that's why we won the game."
--Along with professional pride, there were other motivations as play.
"Fifty stacks, man," Bulls center Joakim Noah said, referencing the $50,000 awarded to members of the winning team. "That's a lot of stacks, man."
The players on the losing team each earned $25,000.
--Houston Rockets guard James Harden made the most of his All-Star Game debut, posting 15 points and six rebounds despite uncertainty over his availability after he sprained his right ankle last week against the Warriors.
"It felt good to go out there and just play with all those great players," Harden said. "For my first time, I tried to make as many shots as possible. I couldn't make a layup, but I had a couple 3s fall, so it felt good."
West coach Gregg Popovich spoke with Harden prior to the game and Harden shared that he had progressed rapidly enough to participate.
"He felt it was no problem," Popovich said. "We tried to give him a little bit of extra time here in Houston."
--At least one former teammate appreciated the opportunity to share a bench with Harden. Last season, Harden earned Sixth Man of the Year honors with Oklahoma City, but his offseason trade to the Rockets broke him away from Durant and Russell Westbrook.
"Playing with him today made me miss him a little bit," Durant said of Harden. "I'm happy he was an All-Star, especially in the city he plays in. It was a lot of fun. I didn't want it to be over."
--Of the six first-time All-Stars representing the East, Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George delivered the best individual performance with 17 points and four assists.
"Hopefully I did enough to have some followers continue to follow us, meaning the Pacers," George said. "Hopefully I had a good showing tonight so we can get on the national stage."