New format — and Team LeBron — big winners in 2020 All-Star Game

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CHICAGO — “Throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.'”

LeBron James is right; that was fun.

And dramatic. And entertaining. And the best All-Star game in recent memory.

The NBA’s format changes to the All-Star Game — starting each quarter at 0-0 with money for charities on the line, then the target point ending — were the biggest winners of the 2020 All-Star Game. It changed the game from something that had been a soulless exhibition in recent years to something competitive and entertaining.

“It was dope,” Jimmy Butler said. “Damn sure got to compete at the end. It’s still fun to go out there and be known as one of the best players in the world in this league. Hopefully it stays like that.”

After this dramatic ending, Butler will get his wish and this format will be back.

Team LeBron beat Team Giannis 157-155, reaching the target number of 157 on a free throw from Chicago’s own Anthony Davis.

That ending didn’t feel satisfying, especially after the best All-Star Game anyone could remember.

The fourth quarter had everything: The fans in the arena were on their feet and loud like a playoff game. Joel Embiid tried to take a charge. Kyle Lowry did take a charge on Kawhi Leonard. Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry were barking at the officials over calls. Coaches were calling for reviews.

Giannis Antetokounmpo blocked LeBron.

Then the Greek Freak blocked a Davis shot. Then he blocked LeBron again.

It was a fourth quarter that was tied 152-152, making it a first-to-five game. In the end, it became next basket wins — and Davis got that basket.

Kawhi Leonard, who finished the night with 30 points, shooting 8-of-14 from three, walked off with the just-named Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP award.

“I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” Leonard said of winning the MVP the first year it was named after Kobe. “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 an inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.

The night started with a stirring pregame tribute to Kobe from Magic Johnson and Jennifer Hudson, and then Common came out with the best player introductions this game has seen in a long time.

Team LeBron pulled away in the first quarter — in part due to a string of Jimmy Butler turnovers — and won it 53-41 on a quarter short on great highlights. Leonard led all scorers with 12 points, going 4-of-4 from three. Davis had 9 points and captain LeBron had 7.

The best highlight of the second quarter? Chris Paul dunked. He finished a Russell Westbrook alley-oop.

It’s like seeing a unicorn. He hasn’t done that in a game since 2016, LeBron said it caught everyone by surprise, but CP3 has a bounce in his step this season.

Leonard kept draining threes, he had 25 points at the half and was 7-of-10 from three, but team Giannis led early on in the second quarter and pulled away late to take that frame. It was capped off by a Trae Young half-court buzzer-beater.

That had each team winning a quarter — so both charities, Chicago Scholars and After School Matters, each had $100,000 — and the overall score was 92-83 Team Giannis at the half.

The third quarter is when things got interesting.

Midway through the third, the intensity started to pick up a notch, started by Team LeBron caring on defense. The third was the first time one of these quarters was close and it led to real drama down the stretch. A Russell Westbrook bucket tied the quarter with :45 seconds, then a Rudy Gobert dunk put Team Giannis up by two. Nikola Jokic answered with a three to put Team LeBron up one with 22.9 seconds left. That led to Nick Nurse taking a strategic timeout, but Kyle Lowry lost the ball out of bounds, which forced Team Giannis to foul Westbrook, who made one-of-two, giving Team LeBron a two-point lead and Team Giannis a chance.

Trae Young threw a lob that Gobert finished to tie the game up with 2.2 seconds remaining. A Westbrook runner clanked off the rim and the quarter ended a tie. (The charity money rolled over to the fourth quarter.)

At that point, adding 24 points to Team Giannis’ three-quarter total, 157 became the magic number. Team Giannis needed to score 24 to get there, Team LeBron 33.

And then it was on.

You can bet this format will be on again next year when the All-Star Game heads to Indianapolis.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.