The 2021 NBA All-Star experience was as close to typical as you could reasonably expect, but much like every other sporting event that has taken place in the last year, things just felt a little off.
Instead of a high level of excitement, multiple players expressed apprehension about gathering in Atlanta. The skills competitions and All-Star Game occurred over the course of a few hours as opposed to a few days. There were incredible feats of skill and athleticism, but the main reactions came in the form of fake crowd noise. The genuine “ooohs” and “aaahs” were sorely missed.
It wasn’t all bad, though. TNT’s All-Star broadcast delivered some entertaining moments, and the NBA committed millions of dollars toward historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and COVID-19 relief. Similar to the regular season itself, you could find brief, wonderful stretches of normalcy — even if the strangeness of reality inevitably came rushing back.
Before NBA teams resume play, let’s break down the biggest winners and losers from Sunday’s All-Star festivities.
NBA All-Star winners
Four appearances as an All-Star captain, four All-Star Game wins. James did such a good job constructing the Team LeBron roster that his squad crushed Team Durant despite the fact that he only scored four points in less than 13 minutes of action.
“I hope that they allow me to retire from being an All-Star captain, so I can retire with a perfect 4-0 record,” James said during his postgame press conference. “I’ll keep that forever. But we’ll just see what happens. I always try to pick the right team, and I’ve been lucky enough for four years to pick the right team. Guys go out and compete and play to win. I’ve been on the winning side of all four.”
James gave shoutouts to his teammates on Twitter after the win, including All-Star Game MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who told James he has a future as a general manager. Hard to argue with the results.
Speaking of “The Greek Freak,” how about that stat line? Antetokounmpo finished with 35 points on 16-of-16 shooting, setting the All-Star Game record for most makes without a miss.
Beyond the numbers, it looked like Antetokounmpo was having the time of his life.
“You know, like once you start having joy and you don’t worry about the outcome of the game, everything takes care of itself,” Antetokounmpo said. “I believe fear and fun cannot go together. It’s either one or the other. This year I’ve chose for it to be fun. Every game I step on the floor, fun. Pregame, fun. With my teammates, fun. I want to have around my team, fun, energy.”
Be like Giannis. Always choose fun over fear.
Given the Jazz’s record and Conley’s performance through the first half of the season, it felt as though this was his best (and perhaps final) shot to finally earn that elusive All-Star nod. He didn’t make the cut initially, but Devin Booker’s injury opened the door for the 33-year-old.
Now we only introduce him as “NBA ALL-STAR MIKE CONLEY.” Come on. How can you not be happy for this guy?
Long range 3-point shooting
Stephen Curry, who won the 3-point Contest earlier in the night, joined Damian Lillard in putting on an outrageous All-Star Game shooting display.
Cue the footage.
Curry and Lillard each went 8 of 16 from beyond the arc with Lillard draining the 3-pointer that ended the exhibition game.
“I think with me and Steph being two guys that shoot a lot of threes, we shoot deep threes, we play an exciting game,” Lillard said. “A couple shots can change the game like in the second quarter of the game tonight, it was close, and then in two and a half minutes it was like three, three, three, three, three, and it was a 20-point win in a quarter.
“It was fun. It was exciting just to run around out there with a guy like that, and that’s what makes All-Star Weekend All-Star Weekend.”
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 8, 2021
Nikola Jokic’s goofiness
So we’ve got Jokic dancing.
We’ve also got Jokic talking about not getting an alley-oop pass off the backboard.
Jokic on Giannis not throwing the alley-oop off the backboard to him in the second quarter: “That dunk would be remembered if he passed me the ball.”
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) March 8, 2021
And, of course, we’ve got Jokic taking Giannis’ trophy and pretending he is the true MVP.
“The Joker,” indeed. Delightful.
Robert Covington’s HBCU pride
Covington, a Tennessee State University graduate, is the NBA’s only current HBCU alum, so naturally that aspect of the All-Star events meant a great deal to him. He was seen rocking a Tennessee State jersey for the Skills Challenge.
More importantly, Covington announced he would be giving $25,000 scholarships to Michael Thompson and Micahlea Njie, both of whom are student athletes at Tennessee State.
“I was there before and I never had somebody like this to really make that change and have that opportunity,” Covington said. “This is me using my platform. I love Tennessee State.”
Well done, RoCo.
NBA All-Star losers
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
Embiid and Simmons were not available for the All-Star Game in accordance with the NBA’s health and safety guidelines. Both players reportedly visited a barber who tested positive for COVID-19, forcing them to remain isolated in their hotel rooms before traveling back to Philadelphia.
As of Sunday night, it was unclear if Embiid and Simmons will miss multiple games following the All-Star break.
“They feel great. They both obviously wanted to play,” 76ers and Team Durant coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re disappointed. Both of them, their biggest concern would be if they could play the first two games when we get back. So we don’t know the answer to that yet. That’s going to be really important for us. It would be tough to start the second half of the year and not have either one.”
How rough was Doncic’s showing in the Skills Competition? He got beaten so badly by Domantas Sabonis that Doncic’s own Mavericks teammate, Jalen Brunson, publicly called him out.
I didn’t warm up 😂😂😂😂 the pressure got me 🙁
— Luka Doncic (@luka7doncic) March 8, 2021
If you’re an All-NBA player and you don’t escape the first round, then the tweets will be fired off. Those are the rules.
Slam Dunk Contest judges
The Slam Dunk Contest scoring system is a mess.
Last year, the event ended in controversy when Aaron Gordon received a 47 for dunking over Celtics center Tacko Fall. This time around, Cassius Stanley got a 44 for his opener, a between-the-legs jam that seemed superior to the first attempts of the other participants.
“I think my dunk was pretty darn good, and the judges thought it was the lowest dunk of the round,” Stanley said. “That is what it is. It’s an opinionated thing. … Pretty much everyone around me thought I got a 50.”
Want to set a high bar for a 50? OK, sure. That’s fine. But that’s not what happened here.
Magic Johnson will not stand for this!
TBH this wasn’t the most exciting Slam Dunk competition I’ve ever seen. 🤷🏾♂️
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 8, 2021
The cloud hanging over everything
At his All-Star press conference on Saturday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver started with a statement explaining why the league moved forward with its All-Star plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve sought to find the right balance between the health and safety of our players, the community that’s involved in producing NBA basketball, and of course our fans, along with the economic interests as well of our community,” Silver said. “Add into that social justice issues. So all of that has been on our mind since almost a year ago when we shut down the NBA. … We feel we’ve struck the appropriate balance here, looking out for the interests of everyone involved.”
Silver has a difficult job. The financial impact of not holding an All-Star weekend (or night, in this case) would have been significant. The NBA saw a chance to use this stage to promote causes that matter to its executives, coaches and players. Maybe LeBron was bored, but for a first-time All-Star like Conley, this experience was special.
Still, it was hard not to watch the broadcast without periodically wondering whether any of this stuff should be going on. The Embiid-Simmons situation didn’t turn into a superspreader event, but it could have. Players went along for the ride, but a lot of them weren’t exactly pumped about it.
The dark cloud didn’t ruin all of the fun, but it did bring the enjoyment factor down a few notches. Let’s hope next year’s All-Star festivities see more sunlight.