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2018 NBA All-Star Game

The defense never rests in decisive moments of All-Star Game

With new format, James and Durant team up to hold off Team Stephen

LOS ANGELES — Stephen Curry got the sliver of daylight he needed at the top of the key to get off a potentially game-tying shot, but LeBron James stepped up and quickly closed the gap. As Curry dribbled toward the right corner to find an opening there, he found himself being smothered by both James and Kevin Durant.

A new format introduced defense back to the fourth quarter of the NBA All-Star Game, following two straight years where the winning team scored more than 190 points. Defense forced Curry to pass in the final seconds, and his team was never able to get off a shot as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen, 148-145, in the tightest All-Star Game in six years.

The verdict: an improvement, but far from a perfect game. You can probably find a more competitive game featuring NBA players at the intense summer pickup games played at UCLA or at the Drew League games played down in Compton.

But it was a start. Especially after the embarrassing game last season when the West defeated the East, 192-182, in a game that resembled a glorified layup line where players acted as if they’d receive a life prison sentence if they even thought about playing defense. “A pseudo dunk contest,” is how Curry described the game that saw Anthony Davis score 52 points, most of those on dunks. James scored a game-high 29 in winning the MVP on Sunday, and the high scorers for Team Stephen — DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard — each scored 21.

The defensive effort on Sunday? We’ll give the teams credit for playing token defense for the first three quarters, building up to the more intense defensive effort over the final eight minutes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team Stephen defends Kyrie Irving #11 of Team LeBron during the NBA All-Star Game 2018 at Staples Center on February 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“The game was kind of getting away, but I think a few of us took it a little personal that we wanted to keep the game competitive and at a high level,” said Kyrie Irving, who played with Team LeBron. “So that last eight minutes, nine minutes, that was extremely fun. The fact that we’re asking for instant replays in the All-Star Game and guys are just going at it, I was truly appreciative that I could be a part of it.”

Most basketball fans are familiar with what prompted the change: a “we need to fix this” text from Chris Paul to NBA commissioner Adam Silver following last year’s unwatchable game. Paul suggested team captains, and thus was born Team LeBron vs. Team Stephen with players selected via draft regardless of conference.

The money was different: The pay for each member of the winning team was doubled to $100,000, while the losers received $25,000. And there was a difference in the amount of money received by the charities the two teams played for: Team LeBron wound up donating $350,000 to the After-School All-Stars Los Angeles while Team Stephen gave $150,000 to the Brotherhood Crusade.

Overall, the players appeared happy in having a game that — for at least the final minutes — could legitimately be mentioned in the same sentence as “All-Star.”

“I think we laid the foundation tonight how well it works,” said DeRozan, who grew up in Compton and played college basketball at USC. “That changed it up, gave it a newfound energy, and we carried that over to the court.”

On Feb. 16, the last two picks of the draft were revealed (Curry selected Al Horford and James picked LaMarcus Aldridge with the last pick). On Sunday, James revealed the order of his picks that made up Team LeBron’s starting five: “I took Kevin [Durant] first. Then I took Anthony Davis, and I followed that with Kyrie and DeMarcus [Cousins].”

Cousins missed the game after tearing his Achilles last month, but he was represented in the game as Davis, his New Orleans Pelicans teammate, wore his No. 0 jersey at the start of the game.

Cousins, moved by the gesture, sent this tweet:

Overall, the NBA is moving in the right direction with the format as the players believe they’ve made a start to drawing fans back to their premier midseason event.

“I think the new format really just gave us a chance to hit the reset button and take ownership of the game and that there’s a way to do it to up the level of competitiveness and intensity,” Curry said. “To have an actual game and not just up and back, the olé defense.”

A year ago the olé defense would have given Curry a chance to tie the game.

This year? Curry never had a chance as he was forced to pass the ball to DeRozan, who failed to get up a shot.

“Team LeBron had length and quickness all over the court, so once I got the ball … I saw LeBron and K.D. try to double-team me,” Curry said. “It’s obviously great defense by them and they just made one more play than we did to get the win.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.