ORLANDO, Fla. For a few brief minutes Sunday night, an actual game broke out at the NBA All-Star Game.
There were timeouts called and coaches took the time to draw up plays. Refs whistled fouls, and some of them were even committed intentionally. Players hustled back on defense and boxed out for rebounds. There was trash talk and even a little blood.
And after 45 minutes of unabashed bravado, ball-hogging and highlight reel dunks, the league's top players locked in, hunkered down and played together, showing a competitive spirit that had been absent over the game's first 3 12 quarters.
"We just wanted to go out there and get some dunks and throw lobs and shoot threes or whatever and just have fun," East center Dwight Howard said. "And then toward the end of the game we made the game competitive. We got the lead down, and we should have gotten the win."
The East team whittled a 21-point lead down to one in the second half, but Dwyane Wade's last-second 3-pointer was off the mark, and the West prevailed for the second straight year, 152-149. And as the final few ticks ran off the clock, some truly thrilling basketball genuinely engaged the fans for the first time all weekend.
But the best part of a captivating end to All-Star weekend is the fact that it represents the promise of much better basketball ahead. The last few minutes of Sunday's All-Star contest provided a fleeting diversion from the normal NBA grind, but it'll be nice to see the teams return to the court Tuesday with something at stake.
The All-Star product has largely become little more than a watered down publicity stunt, but when the players are actually motivated when their pride is on the line and a championship is at stake the game can be utterly breathtaking.
As much fun as it is to watch Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant jaw with each other during the All-Star game, it's infinitely more entertaining to watch a classic Celtics-Lakers showdown.
A head-to-head duel between LeBron James and All-Star game MVP Kevin Durant is always exciting, but it'll be even more exhilarating if they're doing it in the NBA Finals in June.
Watching Carmelo Anthony work his magic on the floor can be entrancing, but the bedlam he'll incite when he returns to the Madison Square Garden floor alongside new superstar Jeremy Lin is what the NBA's all about.
"I'm excited to get back," Anthony said. "I know how important tomorrow's practice is, I know how important Tuesday's practice is, just from the standpoint of getting everybody together and getting everybody back focused to make this second-half run."
Basketball fans have been treated to a magical first half of competition. The current NBA season that almost wasn't hasn't always produced the most refined basketball, but it has never been short on excitement. A compressed schedule means more action more often, and a 66-game docket underlines the importance of players leaving their hearts on the floor every night.
There are endless questions to be played out over the next two months, and there are millions of eager fans spread all across the globe waiting on baited breath to hear the answers.
Will LeBron James continue on his MVP tear, and will his Heat team finally get over the hump and take home their first NBA title of the Big 3 era?
Will the Lakers, Spurs or Mavericks represent the Western Conference in the Finals, or will the West's old guard finally make way for a young up-and-comer like Oklahoma City or the LA Clippers to take the reins?
What will become of Linsanity as the Knicks make their second-half push?
The thrill of the NBA down the stretch, especially in the playoffs, is an ecstasy that can't be matched in even the most gripping of All-Star games and certainly not in one like Sunday's.
Sunday's first half was an AND-1 mix tape gone wrong, as the Western Conference shot 60.3 percent and led 88-69 at the break.
The West's 88 first half points set an All-Star record, breaking the previous high of 87, set by the West in 1989, and the teams also combined to tie the All-Star record for points in a half. The West's 49-point second quarter was also just one off of the record of 50, which was set in 1970.
It's doubtful that Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau gave an impassioned halftime speech to light a fire under his players, but in the second half particularly in the fourth quarter a different Eastern Conference team took the floor.
"Being a competitor, no matter All-Star Game or not, you don't want to be blown out," said LeBron James, who scored 23 of his 36 points in the second half and hit six of his eight 3-point attempts on the night. "I just wanted to try to pick it up and see if we could make a run at it, and we did."
In the end Sunday, the fans finally got what they paid for a game that was well worth the price of admission. Durant scored 36 points and Bryant's 27 points made him the all-time leading scorer in All-Star history. Dwyane Wade recorded a triple double and the energy emanating from the crowd showed, once again, that people actually do care, and they want to see the players care too.
The shame is that fans who shell out big bucks to be part of All-Star weekend can't expect the kind of effort they saw in the fourth quarter Sunday for a full 48 minutes.
But effort won't be an issue come Tuesday. No way, no how. The All-Star break gave the players a chance to recharge, and the next eight weeks will make this weekend's lackluster All-Star events a distant memory.
There are legacies on the line over the next few months, and when rings and pride are at stake, no one has to remind the players how important it is to play hard.
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