Tatum All-Star Thriller
This year’s All-Stars gave the late Kobe Bryant their most fitting tribute possible by playing the most competitive All-Star game NBA history.
Sunday’s showcase featured a walk-off free throw from Anthony Davis that gave Team LeBron a 157-155 win over Team Giannis in front of a sellout crowd that was on its feet for the majority of the untimed final quarter.
This fourth quarter felt much like an NBA playoff game with regard to its competitiveness. Each team fought tooth-and-nail to reach the target score first.
Charges were drawn. Fouls were furiously argued. Calls were challenged by both teams’ coaches.
In the end, it was a free throw from Davis that ended the most competitive and entertaining All-Star game ever played – one of which Bryant surely would have been proud.
“We definitely felt his presence,” Kemba Walker, a member of Team Giannis, said of Bryant. “Growing up, watching Kobe in those games, I felt like he was always competitive, and he was kind of the one who got the game going. I think we kept that going tonight. I think he definitely would have loved to watch the way we went out there and competed tonight.”
This year’s game featured the implementation of a new rule – the Elam Ending – that was responsible for the high level of competition. The Elam Ending requires one team to reach a target score to win the game, which guarantees the presence of a walk-off basket. Sunday’s target score was set at 157, and Team Giannis entered the final untimed period with a 133-124 lead.
Walker, Boston’s point guard who was appearing in his fourth All-Star game, was right in the middle of the competition. He played the entirety of the final period despite doctor’s orders, as he revealed after the contest.
Walker told reporters that he entered the game with a minute restriction, but couldn’t abide by it once he experienced the competitive nature of the fourth quarter.
“I was actually supposed to be on a minute restriction, but the game got too close,” he said with a grin. “I wanted to be out there. I wanted to compete. I knew down the stretch that it would get serious like that, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Walker was a couple made shots away from potentially earning the game’s MVP award, which this weekend was named after Bryant. He tied LeBron James and Chris Paul for the third-highest scoring total in the game with 23 points, which trailed only MVP winner Kawhi Leonard’s 30 points and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 25 points.
Walker’s 23 points blew away his previous high scoring effort in an All-Star game, as he did not score more than 11 during any of his first three appearances in the contest. He spoke after the game about how it felt to play at a high level on the world’s brightest basketball stage.
“It's always a blessing and an honor to get here,” he said. “I've come a long way in my career. This is my fourth All-Star. I'm blessed, and it's always an exciting time to get a chance to be a part of this.”
Walker’s teammate in Boston, 21-year-old Jayson Tatum, was also blessed to be a part of the action for the first time in his career. He didn’t quite have the same level of success as Walker, but that didn’t sour the taste in his mouth.
After logging six points, three assists, three steals and a rebound in 13-plus minutes of action for Team LeBron, Tatum was all smiles while recounting his night on the court and on the sidelines.
“It’s different, especially my first one,” he said with a wide smile. “I’ve played against all those guys, sometimes in the Playoffs, and now we’re laughing and joking together on the bench. It was fun.”
The highlight of the night from a Celtics perspective was when Tatum and Walker shared the court for a couple of minutes at the start of the second quarter.
Walker got out to the advantage in the matchup, as he grabbed Tatum’s quarter-opening miss and went coast-to-coast for a layup. Shortly thereafter, Tatum tried to answer when he and Walker were matched up in transition in a one-on-one situation.
Tatum caught the ball on the right wing and immediately began to wave his teammates off so that he could go at Walker. He turned to post Walker up all the way out beyond the 3-point line and eventually backed his way down to the paint. Tatum then turned over his left shoulder toward the baseline and fired up a fadeaway jumper that missed off the front of the rim.
“I locked him up, like I told him,” Walker joked after the game.
It’s Tatum who got the last laugh in this one, however. He was a member of the winning team, while Walker’s 23 points were futile. Tatum was blunt after the game while commenting on the bragging rights between he and Walker. He said simply, “We won. He lost.”
Regardless of the outcome, there is no doubt that both Walker and Tatum enjoyed every minute of Sunday night.
They were a part of a collection of the greatest basketball talent in the world that played the most competitive contest in the history of the NBA All-Star game. It was a thrill to everyone who participated in it or watched it, and it was a perfect tribute to Bryant.