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NEW YORK — Asked what advice he'd offer Russell Westbrook, LeBron James kept things simple and plain.
"Be Russell Westbrook," the Cleveland Cavaliers star said. "Stop caring about what everybody else thinks. He doesn't have to change [...] Russell Westbrook is one of the best talents, [most] gifted talents this game has ever seen, and he goes out every night and proves that and shows it. I don't need to tell him anything. He's doing great."
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Reasonable people can differ about Westbrook's demeanor and fashion sense, but it's indisputable that the Oklahoma City Thunder guard most certainly did great things on Sunday, earning Most Valuable Player honors after leading the Western Conference to a 163-158 victory over the East in the 2015 NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Just how supercharged was Westbrook at the World's Most Famous Arena on Sunday? Amped up enough to literally hit his head on the backboard while throwing down a monster dunk:
You can understand Westbrook feeling especially energized about the opportunity to make an impression after missing 2014's midseason exhibition due to the knee injuries that limited him to just 46 games last year.
"Definitely a blessing, man," Westbrook told reporters after the game. "You never want to take no games off, especially an All-Star Game to get a chance to go out and show your talents. I'm blessed to be able to play the game that I love, and definitely happy we got the win."
Westbrook scored a game-high 41 points on 16-for-28 shooting, including a 5-for-9 mark from 3-point range in just 25 1/2 minutes of floor time. He set a new All-Star record for points scored in a half — 27 after two quarters, besting the 24 managed by Glen Rice in 1997 and Kyrie Irving in 2014 — and fell one point shy of the all-time All-Star scoring record set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962.
"Russ got that 40-piece," said Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, five assists and a steal. "It was cool to see."
Westbrook joins Wilt and Michael Jordan, who dropped 40 at Chicago Stadium in 1988, as the only players ever to hit the 40-point mark in an NBA All-Star Game.
"It's definitely an honor to be grouped with those two guys, especially in the All-Star Game," Westbrook said.
In the early going, James looked like the one on track for a historic scoring performance, kicking off the proceedings by hyping up the MSG crowd with a pair of very loud dunks to open the scoring:
James got off to a white-hot start, scoring 12 points in the first six minutes and returning the favor to Washington Wizards point guard John Wall up for an alley-oop of his own on a fast-break give-and-go:
But despite LeBron putting up 15 points in the opening frame, the West held a 47-36 lead after 12 minutes, thanks in large part to Curry's playmaking wizardry and the scoring skill of fellow 2014-15 MVP candidate James Harden, which converged on this beautiful hookup on a lob by the Warriors triggerman that led to a lefty hammer by the Houston Rockets star:
The West also benefited from Westbrook's near-boundless athleticism, as he linked up with 2013 All-Star Game MVP Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers on this halfcourt reverse finish:
... and later beat the first-quarter buzzer with a signature rim-punishing tomahawk:
Westbrook continued his energetic act in the second, throwing down dunks and draining deep triples en route to 27 points by halftime on 11 of 15 shooting in just 11 minutes, 21 seconds of floor time.
"It was spectacular show of athleticism and he kind of got a little hot in the second quarter [...] shooting three threes in a row," Curry said. "He showed a lot."
Even so, the West couldn't pull away, as the East rode a balanced attack — every member of head coach Mike Budenholzer's club scored in the second besides Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap — to draw within one point at the break, 83-82. (The 165 total points tied an All-Star record for total points scored in a half, which was also set last year in New Orleans.)
Perhaps the half's greatest highlight: long-in-the-tooth Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki dunking an alley-oop feed from Curry, which is the sort of rarity that merits massive celebration:
The M.J. tongue, the Vince celebration, Tim Duncan's unbridled joy ... everything about it was just magnificent, the result of a well-designed plan by Warriors and West coach Steve Kerr.
"We were actually joking," Curry said. "Coach was going to write up an alley-oop play for [Dirk], but he needed to get a couple of up-and-downs to get loose. When that play happened, when I threw it, I saw him at the last second. I didn't know who it was. When I made my mind to throw it up, I looked to see who it was. I already committed to throwing it. I just hoped he could get up there, and he did.
(Kerr, for his part, denied after the game that he had any designs at all: "I had no plan. It's an All-Star Game.")
"The celebration was even better than the dunk, pulling out the old Vince Carter celebration," Curry added. "So that was pretty clever."
So too was Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry — evidently looking to show that, like fellow point men Wall and Westbrook, he too can muster some bounce — throwing down a tip dunk that represented his his first slam since April 2008:
(Well, that sure shut me right up.)
With the atmosphere in MSG flagging a bit early in the third quarter, Lowry and LeBron provided a shot of adrenaline with a long-distance connection for a double-clutch reverse slam by the King:
The two sides traded blows in the third, finishing the frame knotted at 122 heading into the fourth. Neither side could gain much separation in the first half of the final stanza, but the West began to pull away late in the proceedings, keyed by a pair of 3-pointers from Harden and five Westbrook points in the final 2:22 — including a pair of free throws in the final seconds, with an extra bit of arc on the second one — to seal the victory.
"The East was trying to get me to miss the first one, so they could have the chance to win the game," Westbrook said with a smile. "We wanted to win. I had to try to miss the second one. But I guess I couldn't miss tonight, huh?"
Not even the backboard, apparently.
Harden finished with 29 points on 11-for-16 shooting, including a 7-for-12 mark from 3-point land, to go with eight assists and eight rebounds. Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a late addition to the West's starting lineup, added 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting in just 18 minutes of work.
The Hawks' Kyle Korver scored 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting, with all of his makes and all but one of his misses coming from 3-point land, off the East's bench. Wall added 19 points, seven assists, three rebounds and two steals in 29 minutes.
Carmelo Anthony, the lone representative of the New York Knicks and the de facto host of All-Star Weekend in New York, scored 14 points on 6-for-20 shooting in 30-plus minutes in what might be his final game of the season, as he weighs shutting down to get surgery on his troublesome left knee.
2015 NBA All-Star Game coverage from Yahoo Sports:
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