Kawhi Leonard won the inaugural Kobe Bryant All Star MVP award on Sunday night, scoring a game-high 30 points to lead Team LeBron to a 157-155 win over Team Giannis.
This All Star game in Chicago was unlike those of recent memory, and that is for the best.
Just three years ago, the affair was lackluster. The West dominated the East and defense efforts were suspect at best. No one really cared what happened and that apathy was palpable.
So after 2017, then-Rockets guard Chris Paul approached NBA Commissioner Adam Silver about changing the format. These changes started with ending splitting the teams by conference, but instead by captains picking from the players voted in. This year even more changed with the Elam scoring system put in.
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The Elam system sets a target winning score for teams to reach in an untimed fourth quarter. The target score in this situation was determined by adding 24 points (in honor of Kobe Bryant) to the score of the team in the lead. With the score 133-124 in favor of Team Giannis, the first team to 157 points would win.
So yes, the game was still high scoring with high-flying alley oops and deep three pointers. But the winning team can’t dribble out the clock and there is incentive for late-game defense as their is no time limit for a rally.
“The good thing about our league is we’re always adding things and trying new things and trying to figure out from my fans what they like,” Paul said after the game. “This was an idea I brought to Adam. Thankfully, we tried it out.”
Along with the new changes to the game, there were more reasons to take this rendition of the All Star Game seriously.
With the recent death of Kobe Bryant, who took the All Star game more seriously than most, this year’s teams honored that. Players took charges and blocked shots. They argued with officials and there was even a coaches challenge. And they all vied for what Adam Silver named Kobe Bryant Trophy the day before the game.
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“You could definitely feel [Bryant’s] presence,” LeBron James said. “So he was definitely here.”
It seems right that Leonard would win the inaugural award in Bryant’s honor. Back in 2012 at All Star Weekend in Orlando, Leonard found Bryant at a Nike party. After bumping into the Hall-of-Famer, he took the opportunity to pick Bryant’s brain about how to stay in shape during the offseason.
When Bryant was in the midst of his retirement tour in 2016, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asked Bryant to look after Leonard now that they didn’t have to compete against each other.
It’s very special. I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” he said. “To be able to put that trophy in my room, my trophy room, and just be able to see Kobe’s name on there, it just means a lot to me.”
The game may have ended in an anti-climactic way with Anthony Davis sinking the final free throw. But the game was hard nosed and gritty. Players cared and while there was still much scoring, defense was not ignored.
They played the game for Kobe, and he would have been proud.