CHICAGO — When Giannis Antetokounmpo initially selected his team of NBA All-Stars, the narrative was how outmatched his group would be against LeBron James, who had his MVP caliber teammate Anthony Davis, the league’s leading scorer in James Harden and one of the best up-and-coming players in Luka Doncic.
Early on, that narrative held. Then Antetokounmpo opted to do what he does best: Carry a team. His second quarter outburst — scoring 20 of his 25 first-half points — put Team LeBron up against the wall.
Then as things heated up in the second half — with a new scoring format — it was James’ team that found a way to muscle out a victory in a down-to-the-wire thriller.
Here’s a look at the biggest winners and losers from Sunday night’s game.
Winner — Anthony Davis: The hometown kid had Team LeBron worried after he bricked his first free throw with the game on the line. But Davis nailed the game-winner on his second attempt to secure a 157-155 victory over Team Giannis and become the game’s hero in his native Chicago. Davis finished with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Loser — Referees: The goal of NBA officials is to stay off SportsCenter. That won’t be the case after this All-Star Game. James and Harden were visibly frustrated with a pair of controversial late calls. James was furious after he felt he got fouled on a 3-point attempt. The refs missed a jump ball call that was overturned on the ensuing possession. After Harden made what appeared to be a game-winning 3-pointer, the referees had a late whistle to wave it off and call an offensive foul as Kyle Lowry crashed to the floor. On the very next play, Lowry was called for an offensive foul. While players being able to challenge plays in key situations is a benefit and adds suspense, it doesn’t showcase the league’s refs in the most positive light when it’s at the center of an exhibition game.
Winner — New scoring format: One of the most exciting fourth quarters in All-Star history came as a result of the league’s newly designed format, which saw an untimed final frame that made for a much more thrilling finish. It also paid homage to Kobe Bryant in a fitting way after the pregame commemorations. “The format made it more competitive,” MVP Kawhi Leonard said.
Winner — Kawhi Leonard: The Los Angeles Clippers forward and reigning Finals MVP came out on fire, drilling his first four 3-pointers in the first quarter and hardly cooling off after that. His 25 first-half points kept Team LeBron in it. Leonard led all scorers with 30 points and made big plays in the closing stretch.
Loser — Luka Doncic: Doncic is an MVP candidate and one of the most popular players in the league. The All-Star starter didn’t live up to the billing, though. Doncic only scored one bucket in the first half and, despite a strand of 3s in the second half, he never got into the rhythm that’s made him a force with the Mavericks this season. Chris Paul replaced him late in the game during crunch time when it became clear the first-time All-Star wasn’t on his A-game.
Winner — Chris Paul: Back in his first All-Star game since 2016, Paul returned with authority, burying a barrage of early 3s and slamming home an alley-oop to give Team LeBron life off the bench in the first quarter. Then his barrage of 3-pointers late in the game were huge. He finished with 23 points and six assists, scoring 13 in the second half. Paul was overshadowed during his stint with the Houston Rockets but has reminded the league of his worth with Oklahoma City, helping a roster with little star power to sixth place in the West at the midway point.
Winner — Ben Simmons: The 23-year-old two-time All-Star had an excellent individual game, finishing on a handful of highlight-reel plays and leading Team LeBron’s bench with 17 points. His put-back dunk in the third quarter was one of the best plays of the game.
Loser — Russell Westbrook: Westbrook was expected to be a key reserve for Team LeBron, but the Rockets guard couldn’t find an offensive rhythm, was turnover prone and went scoreless until making a free throw at the end of third quarter. He finished with six points.
Winner — Rudy Gobert: Gobert was the main boost off the bench for Team Giannis, scoring 11 of his 21 points in the third quarter. His last-second alley-oop from Trae Young kept it tied at the end of the third.
Winner — Trae Young: Playing in his first All-Star game, Young showed some nerves but ultimately provided one of the biggest highlights of the game with a half-court buzzer-beater to give Team Giannis momentum heading into the half up 92-83.
Loser — James Harden: The NBA’s leading scorer couldn’t find an offensive groove, finishing 3-for-9 from beyond the arc and not taking an attempt inside the arc all night. Harden passed up on what looked to be a wide-open game-winner late. While he facilitated and finished with six assists, his offense didn’t ignite Team LeBron when it needed it, offsetting chemistry in the process.
Loser — Domantas Sabonis: The Indiana Pacers big man didn’t get much playing time, but he also didn’t do much, finishing with two points in 19 minutes. He also got severely crossed over by Kemba Walker in the first half.
Loser — Brandon Ingram: The New Orleans Pelicans first-time All-Star only played nine minutes, so there wasn’t much time to get anything going. But it was still a sluggish nine minutes that didn’t earn him more time when it mattered. Ingram has drawn Kevin Durant comparisons, but he wasn’t anywhere close with his two-point performance.
Follow Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.