The real reason why the All-Star Game was finally competitive

LOS ANGELES — The NBA All-Star Game just needed LeBron James to care.

This doesn’t need to be overanalyzed. There is no need to overreact to the first competitive contest in years and declare that the league’s decision to tinker with its annual, midseason showcase solved what had been missing. No one should be fooled into believing that NBA players suddenly took more pride in representing mixed-up teams named after James and Stephen Curry than they had in previous seasons of Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference. Even the six-figure monetary incentives for winning players are negligible when most earn eight figures a year on nine-figure contracts.

This really was simple. Our entertainment came as a result of the effort and engagement of the man who remains the game’s best player, the man whose internal elevator continues to lift him to a higher floor than the rest, even at his supposedly advanced age.

LeBron James took flight during the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night. (AP)
LeBron James took flight during the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night. (AP)

James is the defining player of this generation, a dynamic presence who inspired the creation of super-duper teams built to take him down, and the creation of others to take them down. He is the respected figure who has inspired his peers with his ventures into social activism, outside business interests and ability to empower those in his inner circle. He was the can’t-miss prospect who decided to turn his legacy into a game of high-stakes H-O-R-S-E and continued to connect, regardless of how improbable the shot.

So, it can’t be overstated how much he has influenced those determined to take him down or driven to emulate at least some aspect of his career. That’s why all that mattered Sunday — when James delivered with the go-ahead lefty hook shot and teamed up with Kevin Durant to smother Curry on the final possession of Team LeBron’s 148-145 win — was that for the first time in a while, the game truly mattered to James.

James finally cared about criticism that the best players in the game were staging a sloppy scrimmage to the delight of none; that they were embarrassing the legacy of those who came before them by refusing to even pretend to play defense. They had been called out — by media, fans, retired NBA legends, commissioner Adam Silver, players union president Chris Paul — to give observers something else to complain about as it related to what should be the jewel of the league’s most opulent weekend.

All of the bloviation about the new format in which team captains selected their teams, all of the discussion about whether the choices should’ve been televised live were just distractions. The problem was never that players were part of some antiquated East-West structure. The problem was the game stunk. Players stopped treating it as an opportunity to establish the league’s true talent hierarchy. It had suddenly begun to resemble the inconvenient closing act to an exhaustive weekend of corporate-sponsored events, paid appearances for league partners, community service projects, and, um, incredible parties.

The responsibility of changing that perception rested with the leaders of the game and none carries the voice of James. He set the tone early in the victory over Team Steph by aggressively cutting off driving lanes, protecting the rim and giving the kind of defensive effort that has been lacking this season from his Cleveland Cavaliers. In the previous two All-Star Games, Russell Westbrook seemed to be all alone on a mission to destroy, while his peers were sleepwalking. But once James decided it was time to get back to what truly makes basketball fun — the competition — the rest followed suit.

James won his third All-Star Game MVP and first in 10 years because he remains determined not to cede anything to challengers, or even Father Time. He’s chasing down ghosts, chasing down the G.O.A.T. and giving every kid born this millennium an iconic figure from which to build their own mythology. James’ leadership has taken some hits in recent months — with Kyrie Irving choosing to leave rather than continue to chase rings and the Cavaliers struggling to incorporate Isaiah Thomas before general manager Koby Altman tossed a grenade on the roster. But his inspired play upon the arrival of some younger, hungrier teammates has reminded people of the difference in James’ performance when he believes he has a purpose.

James said “we’ll never know” if the players would’ve been able to bring a similar feistiness without all of the attempted fixes. He wasn’t asked after the game, but if the new format had any influence on the quality of play — or the quality of James’ play — it was probably that the team beared his name. Perhaps nothing would push a player with James’ pride to take ownership of what happened on the floor more than knowing that LeBron would’ve taken two losses otherwise — as a team and an individual. But James won on both accounts and showed his three children, who are old enough to understand their father’s greatness, that his best remains better than the rest.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the gap between All-Star MVPs coincides with the period of James’ career when he was most committed to winning — to the tune of two Olympic gold medals, three championships and seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Capturing another trophy doesn’t mean that he’s done with his primary objective, only that he was committed to another — upholding the traditions of a game that used to matter and now has a chance to do so again.

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