THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The impact of not having fans in stadiums and arenas is quite evident across the sporting world, but one sport that's adjusted quicker than most is basketball, and once the National Basketball Association got to grips with Covid-19 testing - and finished last season in a coronavirus Disney World bubble - the stage was set for this season to go ahead in a more normal state.
The 2021 season is still one of change though. It has been reduced by 10 games to 72 regular season matches and will still be played out in front of largely empty arenas. At least the teams are playing in their hometowns now, instead of the enforced camp at Disney. After the regular season there will be a "play-in" tournament for the teams ranked 7-10 in each conference to take up the last two places in the main postseason schedule. The NBA Finals, if a Game 7 is needed, will finish no later than 22 July.
To try and keep a sense of normality the All-Star Game was also penciled in, to be played at the State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. The location was switched from Indianapolis after the pandemic had caused the entire NCAA Men's Division I Tournament to be played there. Despite some games being postponed and delayed due to contact tracing across the League this season, the last of which was on 1 February, the showcase of the best talent in the league went ahead this past weekend. It was the 70th version of the game. No fans were present, apart from the virtual ones shown on screen on the lower areas of the seats behind the benches.
To keep things fresh there have been some changes to the way the All-Star game is played, with even the names of teams different. Instead of being just East v West we had Team Durant v Team James. The Brooklyn Nets' Kevin Durant led his "East" side, although a hamstring injury meant he couldn't participate, against LeBron James from the Los Angeles Lakers and his "West" superstars. Durant and James were named captains after receiving the most votes in each conference. The coaches were added as both the teams leading their respective conference had their play caller on the sidelines. So, we had Doc Rivers from the Philadelphia 76ers, and Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz.
The game, taken semi-seriously by those wanting to get "one up" on a rival, is usually remarkably high scoring. To encourage this an extra incentive was introduced - the winner of the first three 12-minute quarters was awarded a cash prize that was to be awarded to charity. The last period of play was an untimed one, that instead was a race to a target score. Team LeBron won each of the opening three quarters, and therefore all the prize money, which also led to them winning the overall game. They hit the target of 170, winning by a margin of 20 points.
The Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo was the game MVP as he hit 35 points, hitting all 16 of his field goal attempts, and 100% of his three efforts from behind the three-point arc, as he led the way for Team LeBron. Despite being an East player, he was drafted by James in the games special Draft held on 4 March. "I'm just having fun. Sometimes when you're having fun and not thinking about the outcome, you just let your instincts take over" he said of his record-breaking night. His achievement beat the 82% shooting from Blake Griffin in 2014.
The captains could select the first 8 of the players that were chosen by fans to be the starters, despite their conference allegiance, then the NBA coaches would fill the gaps. Antetokounmpo was selected first, and the Durant picked his Nets teammate Kyrie Irving. Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers scored 32 points including a 40-foot three-pointer to end the game, with the Golden State Warriors' Steph Curry adding another 28 for LeBron's side. Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards led Durant's team with 26, with Irving backing him up with 24 points.
The weekend's festivities also include the Skills Challenge, Three-point Challenge, and the Slam Dunk contest. The Skills challenge was won by Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers. Anfernee Simons from the Portland Trail Blazers posted the highest score in the Slam Dunk contest, and somewhat predictably Steph Curry won the three-point contest. The Rising Stars game was not played due to the scheduling of the day, but rosters were named by the assistant coaches, recognizing those that have been in the league as rookies or in their sophomore year - 10 home grown players are chosen as well as 10 from overseas.
The NBA season resumes this coming Thursday, March 11, 2021.