Should the NBA have even staged All-Star festivities this year? The most recent editions in MLB, the NFL, and the NHL were all canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic; a number of superstars—including LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard—previously expressed their dissatisfaction with the event; Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were held out of Sunday’s game because of contact tracing.
But the NBA forged on nonetheless, cramming the All-Star Game and three individual competitions into one supersized TV event that served to underscore just how much bloat usually invades the full All-Star Weekend. On to the winners and losers.
Winners: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anfernee Simons, Steph Curry, and Domantas Sabonis
These guys all literally won their respective competitions: the All-Star Game MVP for Giannis, who scored 35 points on 16-for-16 shooting; the dunk contest for Simons; the 3-point contest for Curry; and the skills challenge for Sabonis. You didn’t need me to tell you that. So let’s move on to the next-level winners and losers on the night.
Winner: Curry, for Real
Curry was the obvious favorite in the 3-point contest, and he wasted no time living up to that status. In the first round, he nailed nine consecutive shots at one juncture and finished with 31 points after hitting his last moneyball. That finish foreshadowed the final round, when Curry again hit his final moneyball—this time to edge past deserving first-time All-Star Mike Conley, 28-27, and claim his second 3-point championship.
Since Curry last participated in the contest, it added “deep” shots from each wing, 6 feet beyond the arc. Nobody in the NBA is better suited for those bonuses, worth three points apiece, than Curry; he made three of his four deep attempts, including both in the final round en route to his trophy.
And that early victory was just an appetizer for his All-Star showcase. Curry scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers in the game itself, including some deep pulls from his bag of tricks. He and Chris Paul (!) traded alleys and oops. He made two 34-footers, from the “T” in ALL-STAR at midcourt, and completely turned his back on the basket after releasing a corner 3. He sank a 43-footer after watching Damian Lillard hit one from the same distance moments before.
Giannis was a deserving MVP, but Curry collected the best highlights of the night. It’s not like anybody needed another reminder of Curry’s excellence. Yet on a fairly lackluster night of competitions, he provided a dash of drama and a splash of showmanship—and won another trophy, to boot.
Winner: The Steph-Dame Rivalry
Curry and Lillard have posted nearly identical numbers this season on two teams that are surviving because of their all-world guards.
Steph Curry vs. Damian Lillard, 2020-21
|Offensive On/Off||+20 (#1 in NBA)||+15 (#2 in NBA)|
And on Sunday night, even as they played for the same team and one-upped each other with half-court attempts, Curry and Lillard posted near-identical numbers once again.
Steph Curry vs. Damian Lillard, 2021 All-Star Game
Trying to separate them this award season will be a nightmare.
Hahahaha Steph and Dame cut it out man
— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) March 8, 2021
Loser: Elam Ending (but It’s Not the Ending’s Fault)
This was the second year the All-Star Game employed a variation of the Elam Ending. After three quarters, 24 points were added to the leading team’s score to set the “target” for a clock-free fourth quarter; because Team LeBron led 146-125 at the time, whichever team reached 170 points first would win.
Last season, this wrinkle led to an intense, protracted quarter, with stout defense from both teams—Kyle Lowry took a game-saving charge! Giannis blocked LeBron! Twice!—and ended with Team LeBron winning by just two points.
On Sunday, however, Team LeBron led by 21 points after three quarters, and the margin never grew close enough in the fourth to warrant anywhere near the same level of intensity. The final score was 170-150; the Elam Ending fizzled out, rather than sparking.
Yet with a normal 12-minute fourth quarter and no target score, a blowout like this wouldn’t have produced any more drama. The sputtering finish wasn’t the fault of the format, but rather the fault of general manager Kevin Durant, who let LeBron craft a far superior roster (even if, admittedly, he lost himself, Embiid, and Devin Booker from the initial selection). Which leads to …
Winner: LeBron James, General Manager
Since the NBA switched from an East vs. West format to a two-captain system, the All-Star Game winners are:
2018: Team LeBron
2019: Team LeBron
2020: Team LeBron
2021: Team LeBron
Toss in a Lakers title last year, and a rather clear pattern emerges. He even spent the postgame period recruiting:
Winner: The 3-Point Contest
Loser: The Dunk Contest
The dunk contest has long served as the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday night, but for a certain subset of NBA viewers—myself included—the 3-point contest is a more consistently entertaining draw. In certain years, the dunk contest reaches a higher ceiling, but the 3-point contest never drags or suffers from controversial judging; it’s quick, objective, and these days, more stocked with star power.
The 2021 competitions were a solid point in the 3-point contest’s favor: While it climaxed with a Curry winner on his final attempt, the dunk contest saw Simons attempt to kiss the rim on an otherwise mundane dunk attempt, miss with his lips, and win the trophy anyway.
Even Magic Johnson’s Twitter feed wasn’t impressed with the dunk show, which is the greatest indictment I can imagine.
TBH this wasn’t the most exciting Slam Dunk competition I’ve ever seen. ♂️
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 8, 2021
Loser: The “Challenge” of the Skills Challenge
I will complain about this every year; I don’t care if I’m yelling at clouds. The skills competition used to involve twice as much zigzag dribbling, a bounce pass, and two chest passes of varying lengths. Now, it’s functionally a contest to see which player can make a single 3-pointer first. It’s not nearly the same challenge of skills—and that’s the name of the contest!
Luka Doncic and Chris Paul, the lone guards in the skills challenge, both received byes to the semifinals. There, they were promptly eliminated—Paul, after missing a layup and succession of 3-point attempts; Doncic, after lollygagging through the course in warm-ups like he thought he was in a dress rehearsal.
For the fourth time in six years, a big man won this silly competition. In one of those other years, the winner was Jayson Tatum, more a forward than a guard. Where are the little guys’ skills? (Ah, right, Simons won the dunk contest and Curry the 3-point contest. They’re just competing in the other events.)