No defense for what NBA All-Stars intentionally did to the record books

INDIANAPOLIS — Here’s the worst part about the East All-Stars making the wrong kind of history Sunday night: It was by design.

While scoring the most points possible in a basketball game has been the goal since the James Naismith days of the peach basket, now was not the time for this. A 211-point game, coming in the wake of all this discussion about how the NBA’s scoring surge is doing a disservice to the game? Read the room, guys.

But as if the defenseless debacle wasn’t bad enough, with the East winning 211-186 and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Damian Lillard taking MVP honors with a 39-point performance in which he hit 11 of 23 3s, it was made worse by the revelation that it was more intentional than it was organic. As the New York Knicks’ Jalen Brunson shared afterward, the East players talked about hitting the unprecedented 200-point mark at halftime when they led 104-89. After said discussion, it became their shared goal.

“It’s never been done before, and that was a goal of ours to do, (so) I’m glad we did,” Brunson had shared with reporters.

My ears perked up, so I asked for more details about this ill-timed chat.

“Team meeting, and (with) the way we played in the first half … we saw how we were playing, (so) we were like, ‘All right, let’s get 200,’” he said.

Who spoke up?

“Everyone in the Eastern Conference locker room,” he replied. “It’s cool. It’s definitely cool. And I’m just excited to be part of it. And this whole experience was awesome. To be able to do something like that is really cool. I just think that whenever you could do something like that, why not? So I’m just happy I was a part of it.”

Sigh …

To be fair to the East players, this part of the flawed program falls mostly at the feet of the West. It was their atrocious effort, and their lack of defense, that allowed the East to accomplish such a memorable feat. But the East still gave up a total that would have tied the league record for most points scored in a regular-season game, so perhaps a little more of that energy could have been applied to the other end of the floor?

The messaging wasn’t much better in the West, where Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards made it clear that the notion of players actually competing was never in the cards. No matter how many former greats had implored them to care.

“For me, it’s an All-Star Game, so I don’t think I will ever look at it like being super competitive,” Edwards said. “It’s always fun. I don’t know what they can do to make it more competitive. It’s always fun. But I don’t know what they can do to make it more competitive. It’s a break. I don’t think nobody wants to come here and compete.

And then there was the perspective from LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers star who played just 14 minutes in his record 20th All-Star Game. The takeaway? No one got hurt, and that apparently constitutes a success.

“Obviously from a player’s perspective, it’s fun to get up and down,” James said. “But at the end of the day, our competitive nature (doesn’t) like to have free-flowing scoring like that. But I think the good thing that came out of tonight was none of the players were injured and everybody came out unscathed or how they were before the game started.

“So it’s a deeper conversation.”

One that Adam Silver will yet again be forced to lead.

The postgame speech from the NBA commissioner said it all, as he couldn’t have looked less enthused to (faux) congratulate the East for the historic mark.

After all this talk of the All-Star Game being redeemed, with the league returning to the East-West format this time around while eliminating the Elam ending, this was as bad an outcome as they could have imagined. Even Larry Bird couldn’t persuade these guys to get in a defensive stance and make a few stops along the way, to compete with a modicum of concern about the future of this exhibition that’s so vital to the league.

“The one thing I would really like to see is they play hard tonight in this All-Star Game,” the Celtics great and longtime Pacers front-office executive said at a Sunday morning Legends brunch. “I think it’s very important when you have the best players in the world together, you’ve gotta compete, and you’ve gotta play hard, and you’ve gotta show the fans how good they really are.”

Instead, they did this. The fallout of it all will be interesting to monitor in the months to come.

It wasn’t just the fans who were rolling their eyes, or even Silver. Team executives who were on hand groused about the continued struggles on this front, with pressure building yet again to find answers going forward.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth: In this season in which the league’s inaugural In-Season Tournament paid players of the winning team $500,000 apiece, that may be the only way to fix this problem. This, apparently, is the pay-for-play era. Even if the league already has players topping the $50 million mark in annual salary and a seven-figure minimum ($1.1 million).

As one league source shared afterward, when the players had talked privately about why they’d chosen this tough-to-watch style of play, the IST set the kind of precedent that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

But, hey, at least the East team’s halftime plan came to fruition. Yay.

(Photo of Paolo Banchero and Jalen Brunson: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)

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