CHICAGO — The 2020 All-Star Game saw Kawhi Leonard win the first Kobe Bryant MVP Award and saw both teams honor the late Los Angeles Lakers legend in the most fitting fashion: by playing hard to the last second.
Under the new Elam Ending rule instituted this season, with the game ending when one team reached a specific target score, the game ended when Chicago native Anthony Davis sank the second of two free throws to lift Team LeBron to a 157-155 victory over Team Giannis at the United Center.
The format change provided all the drama the league could have hoped for, with the final few possessions leaving the crowd hanging on every bounce of the ball and players on both teams playing the untimed fourth quarter full-bore.
“It felt like playing in the league in a playoff game,” Davis said. “It’s a great competition, and it’s 24 players who go out and compete at a very high level, and to do it in front of a crowd like this, with a new format that we were a little skeptical of, we didn’t know how it was gonna go, but everyone, at the end of the day, they loved it. It brings back the competition, so it was great.”
After James Harden made two free throws to make it 154-152, Pascal Siakam went 1-for-2 from the line to make it 154-153. From there, the two teams — playing without the benefit of TV timeouts during the fourth quarter — went back and forth trying to make a basket. Eventually, the score reached 156-155 in favor of Team LeBron, which meant that the next basket for either side would result in a victory.
In the fourth quarter, the game took on a thrilling, desperate edge. Both teams were called for multiple offensive fouls and settled for contested, ugly shots that looked as if they were taken with tired minds and legs.
Eventually, it ended shortly after a foul when Davis, a 7-footer, posted up 6-foot Kyle Lowry in the post. After Lowry was called for a foul, Davis missed the first free throw while being booed by almost the entire crowd. After he walked away from the line and smiled, he made the second one, spreading his arms wide as his teammates mobbed him after what was an anticlimactic ending to an otherwise thrilling game.
That led to split opinions on how the ending played out.
“I think we definitely can’t end on a free throw,” Siakam said.
“I mean, we try to do whatever to get the win,” Davis said. “They shouldn’t have fouled me. Joel Embiid was trying to say we shouldn’t be able to win [on] a free throw, but hey, that wasn’t in the rule book. I’m glad we got the win.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced during his news conference Saturday night that the All-Star Game’s MVP trophy would be permanently named after Bryant, who won the award a record-tying four times during his 20-year career.
Leonard, a Southern California native, scored 25 of his 30 points in the first half to win his first All-Star Game MVP award. He went 8-for-14 overall from 3-point range.
“It’s very special,” Leonard said of winning the award named after Bryant. “I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am to be able to put that trophy in my room, in my trophy room, and just be able to see Kobe’s name on there.
“It just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”
The even more fitting tribute to Bryant was the way the game played out, as the NBA’s decision to change the format to give each quarter meaning. The untimed fourth quarter, played to a target score, provided all the drama the league and fans could’ve wanted after years of complaints about the lack of effort or interest in the game.
Because of the Elam Ending, after the score was Team Giannis 133, Team LeBron 124 through three quarters, whichever team got to 157 points first — Team Giannis’ score plus 24 to honor Bryant — would win the game.
There were tactical fouls made by both teams. Players clamored for calls to be made. There was hard defense, including Giannis Antetokounmpo blocking LeBron James on a fadeaway jumper and Davis at the rim on a dunk attempt. There was even a charge taken by Lowry on a Leonard drive and a coach’s challenge used during the fourth quarter that took two free throws away from Embiid.
All of that preceded a frenetic final few possessions that saw both teams scratching and clawing for every opportunity.
“At the end, everybody was so ready to win the game,” Harden said. “We were coming up with different strategies every time we scored or didn’t score. It was pretty cool to actually strategize the possession.”
In an attempt to revive interest in the game and cause the players to have more at stake, the NBA enacted two significant changes to the All-Star Game. The first was making the score reset to zero after the first, second and third quarters, with the winning team from each quarter earning $100,000 for a local charity selected by the team captains, James and Antetokounmpo.
Children involved with both charities were sitting courtside during the game, and before the game, each player was given a letter from a child from his team’s respective charity.
The second change was the introduction of the Elam Ending, which has become popular over the past few summers thanks to The Basketball Tournament.
“This was an idea I brought to Adam,” Chris Paul said. “Thankfully, we tried it out, so I was asking the guys how they enjoyed it during the game and at the end of the game. So you all [the media] be sure to ask him.”
The combination of the rule changes and Bryant’s death hung over the festivities and created the expectation that this year would see more effort by players on both sides.
As it turned out, those expectations were justified. The teams engaged in a back-and-forth affair that had the crowd invested, with the teams taking turns winning the first two quarters before they tied in the third, carrying the $100,000 prize to the fourth quarter as a result.
“I think it was really interesting,” Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse said of the format. “It was really fun. Each and every quarter was, from a coaching standpoint, really fun. I thought the quarters got interesting really early in the quarters because the game was moving pretty quick.
“With the cumulative score, even though we were down in the first quarter, we thought we had to keep plugging to keep it close so it didn’t get too far away. Then, when we were on the other side of it, we said, ‘Let’s keep increasing our lead,’ and get as big of an advantage going into the fourth.”
The end of the third quarter showed how different the format was — and how much more intensity it generated. Team LeBron took a 40-39 lead with 22.2 seconds left after a Nikola Jokic 3-pointer. Nurse called a timeout to draw up a play, only for Lowry, his point guard with the Toronto Raptors, to throw a bad pass and turn the ball over.
Team LeBron then fouled Russell Westbrook to get the ball back, and he made one of two free throws, making the score 41-39. As Team LeBron tried to press, Lowry kicked the ball ahead to Trae Young, who threw up a perfect alley-oop to Rudy Gobert for a slam to tie the score at 41 with 2.2 seconds left in the third. Vogel then called a timeout to draw up a play, but Westbrook’s runner missed, meaning the teams tied.
Given Bryant’s legendary competitive streak, it came as little surprise that players on both sides went all-out in a game centered on honoring his legacy.
“I mean, anything else would be uncivilized,” James said. “He’s one of the greatest basketball players, one of the most impactful players, and the inspiration that he has, it’s showing.
“Obviously, we all saw what he was able to do on the floor as a competitor, as a champion, someone who strived for excellence every single day, but we also saw the father he was as well to his beautiful daughters and to his wife. The things that he was doing, winning an Oscar, just doing so many things that was just, that people would aspire to do, and gaining inspiration from him because of his drive.
“I think it’s been amazing, and I’m happy to be a part of it this weekend. Obviously, me being a Los Angeles Laker myself, it’s going to be a part of me for the rest of my life and our franchise and any player to ever wear purple and gold until the end of basketball, which is never.
“So it’s a beautiful time. It’s a beautiful day. And his presence was felt here in Chicago.”
ESPN’s Eric Woodyard and Malika Andrews contributed to this report.