ATLANTA — Even in the strangest NBA All-Star Game of them all, LeBron James was still the perfect captain.
Team LeBron showed off its high-flying and long-range skills during a dominating run to close out the first half, setting up a 170-150 romp over Team Durant in the league’s 70th midseason showcase Sunday night.
This one sure was different than the previous 69 All-Star contests.
Determined to pull off an exhibition that is huge for TV revenue and the league’s worldwide brand, the NBA staged the game in a mostly empty arena in downtown Atlanta, a made-for-TV extravaganza that was symbolic of the coronavirus era.
Even with intense safety protocols in place, two players didn’t even make it to tipoff. Philadelphia 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out because they got haircuts from a barber who tested positive for COVID-19.
But once the game began, it fell right in line with the three previous All-Star outings with the captain format. The top vote-getters in each conference pick the teams, a duty that James has earned all four years.
He’s now 4-0, having defeated Stephen Curry’s squad in 2018 and teams selected by Milwaukee’s two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo the last two years.
This time, James drafted his two former adversaries to assemble a dominant squad that blew away Kevin Durant’s team.
Antetokounmpo was the game MVP after shooting 16 of 16 for 35 points. Curry chipped in with 28 points, while Damian Lillard had 32. James spent most of the night admiring his drafting skill, playing less than 13 minutes and finishing with four points.
The only good thing for Durant: He didn’t have to participate in this shellacking, sitting out the game with an ailing hamstring.
Former Florida standout Bradley Beal led Team Durant with 26 points.
On a night highlighting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Team LeBron swept the first three quarters and was first to reach the final target score, earning a total of $750,000 for its charity, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
The game got out of hand late in the second quarter.
With scant defense being played, Team LeBron took turns dunking off alley-oop passes. Chris Paul delivered back-to-back lobs that Lillard and Curry slammed through. Then, it was Paul on the receiving end of a payback pass from Curry.
After showing they could handle shots up close, Team LeBron headed outside in the final seconds of the half.
Lillard pulled up for a 3-pointer from the half-court line. Not to be outdone, Curry knocked down one from virtually the same spot.
The atmosphere at State Farm Arena was downright eerie compared to a normal All-Star Game.
Instead of a packed house, with A-list celebrities crammed into prime courtside seats, this game was attended by a smattering of hand-picked guests. They had plenty of room to spread out in a 17,000-seat venue that was essentially transformed into a giant television studio, with socially distanced spectators kept far from the court.
Towering video screens were set up behind the benches. Vegas-style lights flashed around the arena. Recorded crowd noise blared over the sound system. The entertainment was provided by the host Atlanta Hawks, who didn’t have any players in the game but were represented by their cheerleaders, drum line and DJ.
To address fears that one of its biggest events would become a super-spreader for a virus that has killed more than a half-million Americans, the NBA pared down its usual weekend-long ritual of extravagant parties, gridlocked streets and people watching
This All-Star Game was a one-night-only event, with a pair of skill competitions held shortly before the game and the Dunk Contest squeezed into the halftime break. The players flew in Saturday afternoon and were largely confined to a nearby hotel except for their time on the court.
“This is when everyone in basketball all over the world comes to one city,” James said during a Zoom call before the game. “We’re able to sit back and go, ‘Wow, this is the game we have built.’ It’s a beautiful weekend for all walks of life, on the floor and off the floor.
“But I’m sitting here in my hotel room, isolated. My family’s not here. I’m by myself. It’s just different, to say the least, compared to previous years.”
Team Durant: Zion Williamson of New Orleans started the game in place of Embiid. The Pelicans forward had 10 points.
Team LeBron: Paul had 16 assists. ... Lillard ended the game with a 3-pointer, taken from just over the halfcourt line.
The 71st All-Star Game will be held Feb. 20, 2022, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland. The 2023 game is set for Salt Lake City, followed by Indianapolis in 2024.
Curry wins 3-point title on last shot
Stephen Curry shot his way to another 3-point title, and Domantas Sabonis made sure the Skills Challenge still belongs to the bigs.
Then Portland’s Anfernee Simons sealed his final, winning dunk with a kiss. Well, almost.
Curry, the Golden State Warriors superstar, provided a dramatic preview for his seventh All-Star Game appearance when he sank his final 3-pointer to edge Utah’s Mike Conley for the title. Curry also won the 3-point content in 2015.
Conley had the lead with 27 points before Curry was the final shooter of the contest. Curry had 26 points before sinking his final shot from the corner for 28 points and the win.
“I could hear the temperature rise a little bit,” Curry said of the reaction from the small crowd allowed in State Farm Arena.
“It was some awesome competition,” Curry said. “I’m glad I got it done.”
After a runnerup finish to 2020 Skills Challenge winner and fellow big man Bam Adebayo of Miami, Indiana’s Sabonis returned to win the title.
The 6-foot-11 Sabonis did not miss a pass or 3-point shot in elimination wins over Julius Randle of the New York Knicks and Luka Doncic of Dallas in the test of passing, ball-handling and shooting ability. Doncic fell behind by missing in his first two tests of his passing accuracy.
Sabonis beat Orlando’s 7-foot Nikola Vucevic in the matchup of big men for the skills title. Each missed two 3-point shots before Sabonis sank his third attempt and then clinched his fist in victory.
“It was fun,” Sabonis said. “I wanted to come out and make sure I got it done this time.”
Curry had 31 points in the first round to lead the 3-point contest. Also advancing were Jayson Tatum, with 25 points, and Conley, with 28.
Tatum led off the final round with 17 points while making only one shot from the “money ball” rack. Conley nearly duplicated his first-round total, and it appeared it might be enough until Curry solidified his reputation as one of the top shooters in NBA history.
Simons, who is from Altamonte Springs, showed off his leaping ability and creativity to beat New York’s Obi Toppin and Indiana’s Cassius Stanley in the two-round dunk contest that started off with Stanley’s spectacular slam that received a surprisingly low score.
The 6-foot-3 Simons soared, almost kissing the rim, on a powerful right-handed jam to beat Toppin in the final. Simons puckered his lips as if kissing the rim, even though he was a few inches away.
“I tried to get close enough so obviously I wouldn’t hit my head on the rim too hard,” Simons said, before acknowledging he has never “actually kissed the rim” in practice.
“I had to commit to it,” Simons said.
Simons also paid tribute to a former star by wearing Tracy McGrady’s jersey on a jam that earned a score of 49 to earn his spot in the final.
“He was my hero growing up, so I wanted to honor him as well,” Simons said.
The contest was judged by five former dunk champions: Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins (1985, 1990), Spud Webb (1986), Dee Brown (1991), Jason Richardson (2002, 2003) and Josh Smith (2005).
There was some early controversy when Stanley’s first dunk, a left-hander after he moved the ball between his legs in the air, scored only 44 points. Toppin then scored a 48 on a two-handed reverse.
On Simons’ first dunk, he positioned the ball even with the top of the square above the rim. He then showed off his leaping ability by grabbing the ball for the jam which earned 46 points.
“I just wanted to show I could jump up pretty high and be creative, so it was fun,” he said.
Toppin also showed creativity, jumping over his father, Obadiah Toppin, and teammate Julius Randle on a dunk which earned 46 points.
In the final, Toppin took off from near the free-throw line, inspiring comparisons to Wilkins’ winning form while with the Atlanta Hawks.