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All-Star ball movement ignites orgy of offense

TORONTO – Well, what else would you have expected? One night earlier, NBA fans had left the Air Canada Centre and walked out into the frigid Canadian night, still buzzing over an epic show of three-pointers and dunks.

So you had a feeling that the best basketball players in the world would respond with a suitably stunning spectacle in the culminating event, a game that had hoop lovers calling this the best All-Star weekend yet.

The All-Stars performed right to the script. The teams put on the best offensive show in All-Star history Sunday night, shattering records for points and assists as the West prevailed over the East, 196-173.

OK, so defense was an afterthought. Sting, the halftime act, probably could have scored 20. Players would step aside and permit an opponent through for an uncontested dunk,as if waving another car through at a four-way stop sign.

This wasn’t about stopping offense, but making the scoreboard sing like a pinball machine. NBA players are the best defenders in the world, but they save it for the regular season. People wanted a show and they obliged.

“I think tonight capped a great weekend,” said Kyle Lowry of the host Raptors. “The Slam Dunk, Three-Point Contest, tonight being Kobe’s last All-Star Game … Toronto put ourselves on the map a little bit around the world.”

Kobe Bryant got the win in his final All-Star Game, though he didn’t get a storybook fifth MVP. That went to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, who won it for the second straight year after putting up 31 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five steals.

“It was fun, man,” Westbrook said. “It was great for the fans. I was just real happy to be a starter, for all the people who voted for me.”

If Saturday night was a tribute to dunks and long-range shooting, the 65th All-Star Game was a celebration of passing, of the game’s playmakers.

Not long ago, the NBA was ripped as a plodding, defensive slog, a bunch of clearouts and postups. But in recent years, a legion of skilled all-around players has lifted the sport to new levels of popularity.

It’s mainly passing that distinguishes the game from its recent past. The league’s two best teams, the Warriors and Spurs, are renowned for their exquisite ball movement, with all five players on the floor taking part.

The best players in the game, LeBron James and Steph Curry, might well be the game’s two finest passers. Many of the top big men – DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol, to name a few – are gifted passers.

The NBA has the best All-Star Game, because the athletes make sure to give the public its money’s worth. Defense is a low priority, so the players give each other the space to showcase their speed and creative skill.

They created plenty Sunday. It was one extended highlight reel, a carnival of lobs, no-look passes and dunks. It was impossible to keep up. If you put your head down for an instant, the crowd roar snapped you back to attention.

Westbrook lobbed to Kevin Durant for a dunk. Dwyane Wade answered by feeding Paul George for a slam. The teams exchanged two more alley-oop buckets. James threw down a reverse dunk on a feed from George. There were several possessions where the ball never touched the floor.

West coach Gregg Popovich, an advocate of the extra pass, had a big smile on his face. The boys were having their fun; they were in a giving mood.

“They had a ball,” Popovich said. “Great young guys. You can tell how much they love it, and just seeing them interacting with each other and the humor back and forth and everything, it was a great show for the fans.”

During one staggering 28-second stretch, Westbrook and Durant combined for six points in a row. Maybe the Thunder teammates wanted to remind the league that Oklahoma City, which won 20 of its last 24 before the break, intends to be a factor in the West down the stretch.

Popovich should have been smiling. How many coaches can bring Chris Paul and Anthony Davis off the bench? Paul, the career All-Star assist leader at 12.9 per game, came on and fed Davis three times in a row for dunks.

Paul grabbed the ball to the right of the key and flipped it back over his head. Davis came soaring down the lane to slam it home. On the next West possession, Paul threw a pass off the backboard to Davis, who dunked.

The West missed 13 of its first 14 threes and still scored 40 points in the first quarter. Imagine if they’d been shooting well. The West led at halftime, 92-90, as the teams set an All-Star record for combined points in a half.

That didn’t last long. They broke the record an hour or so later by combining for 187 points in the second half. The West had 104, another record.

The West, perhaps stung by being held under 100 at halftime, outscored the East, 26-12, in the first 4:08 of the third quarter to jump to a 118-102 lead. They were on pace to get 200 at that point.

They didn’t make it, but the teams sailed past the record for combined points midway through the fourth quarter. The West shattered the team scoring record at one point, but it went by so fast, I barely noticed.

The only issue left was whether George would break Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record of 42 points. George, who did set a record with nine made threes, scored to get to 41 with 1:34 left. His teammates were clearly trying to get him the record.

George, who missed almost all of the 2014-15 season with a broken leg, missed a fallaway three-pointer with a minute left – his 19th three-point try of the night. He finished with 41 points.

On an unforgettable All-Star weekend, it was about the only thing that came up a little short.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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