The rosters for Sunday’s 2018 NBA All-Star Game feature players with a wide variety of backstories — firmly established superstars well on their way to the Hall of Fame, seasoned vets cementing their standing among the league’s best players, and young stars on the ascent aiming to earn their spot in the NBA firmament. Whether they’ve been in the game for two years or 20, each of them has a moment that has characterized their rise.
As we get ready for them to take the grand stage at Staples Center, here’s a look at the defining moments (so far!) from the careers of the players set to appear in Sunday’s midseason showcase. Next up: Team Steph. (Here’s one for Team LeBron.)
Stephen Curry: The overtime game-winner in Oklahoma City
Accepting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy as the first unanimous Most Valuable Player ever would be a perfectly reasonable choice. Ditto for the behind-the-scenes move of stepping into a meeting with Kevin Durant on the heels of that win, and of the Finals loss at the hands of LeBron James and company, and saying that he didn’t care if he was The Guy so long as it meant being The Champ.
On the court, though, I’m going with this: Curry scoring 31 points after returning from a third-quarter ankle injury, taking the ball with the score knotted at 118 and only a few ticks left on the clock in OT, taking one dribble past half-court, seeing Andre Roberson backpedaling and deciding, “Eff it.” Pull up from 38 — “I’ve shot the shot plenty of times” — and kiss everybody goodnight. Time to dance.
Nobody else shoots that shot, like that; nobody ever has. That shot earned Curry a share of the NBA record for most 3-pointers in a single game, with 12; broke his own NBA record for most 3-pointers in a season; and clinched the Warriors’ playoff berth on Feb. 27. Everything that’s been possible for Golden State during this golden run comes from Curry’s ability to do precisely this: distort defenses in a way unlike anybody the sport’s ever seen.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Literally dunking over Tim Hardaway Jr.
Blame it on recency bias if you must: this is a 6-foot-11 man with physical gifts rivaled by only a select few players in NBA history literally hurdling a 6-foot-6 defender to finish a one-handed alley-oop dunk during an actual NBA game.
“I did not see Tim Hardaway under me,” Giannis said after the game. Of course he didn’t. When you’re operating on that plane of existence, why would you notice anybody all the way down here?
DeMar DeRozan: Hanging 52 on the Bucks
DeRozan’s one of the sport’s more underrated aerial assassins, whether in games (just ask Timofey Mozgov, Rudy Gobert or Tristan Thompson) or in competitions (“The Showstopper” got robbed!). But the USC product’s nine-year career has been defined not by his dunking, but by his development into a legitimate All-NBA player who doesn’t need to rely solely on his athleticism.
That Jan. 1 explosion against Milwaukee — 17-for-29 shooting, 5-for-9 from the previously unworkable 3-point line, 13-for-13 on his hard-earned trips to the charity stripe, a team-high eight assists against just two turnovers — beautifully showcased his evolution into a true craftsman who can dominate games with precision, technique and guile.
No single game better demonstrated how irresistible a force Embiid can be than his 46-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist, seven-block devastation of the Lakers earlier this season. But no single moment better sums up our man “The Process” than his ridiculous tangle with the Jazz’s rated rookie just a few nights later:
Embiid slides over from the weak side and snuffs Mitchell, providing the menacing rim protection that’s elevated Philly to third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Then he adds insult to injury with a staredown and what we’re sure were a few choice words. Mitchell responds with a shove as he runs up the court … and Embiid, all 7-foot-2 and 275 pounds of him, dives like an evolutionary Vlade Divac, making sure the official trailing the play gets a full view of the contact.
Mitchell gets T’d up; Embiid punctuates the tech by giving an exaggerated T symbol from the seat of his pants; he then gets up and immediately starts exhorting the Philly faithful to crank up the volume and the heat on the unwelcome visitors from Salt Lake City. Clear transformational skill, a killer’s sneer, a comic’s timing and a main-event heel’s sense of how to work the refs and work the crowd into a frenzy. The total JoJo package, all in one fell swoop … or, I guess, just in one fall.
James Harden: The four-point play to seal a 60-point triple-double
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) January 31, 2018
You know what he’s going to do. He’s going to lull you to sleep with those low crossovers, feint you into one false move that gets you off balance, and then step back and pop the jumper. You know it’s coming, but you can never quite tell when, and you’ve got to be ready for him to blow past you into the paint, because with all those shooters everywhere, there’s nobody in the paint to protect the basket. Suddenly he’s shooting, and you’re lunging, and you’re hitting him, and wait, did he really hit that? And now he’s going to the line. Again.
Harden’s sleight-of-hand style has met with no shortage of grumbling over the years. Now, though — after three straight seasons of virtually unprecedented production, two runner-up MVP finishes in three years, an arguably even more impressive season that has his Rockets atop the West and has him looking like the leader in the clubhouse for this year’s MVP trophy, and the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history — there’s just not much left for detractors to say. He’s like the move that moved him into history: undeniable.
Jimmy Butler: The 40-point second half in Toronto
This wasn’t Butler’s first big game in a Bulls uniform. He’d popped for 30-plus seven times during his first All-Star season, and for 43 in a crazy quadruple-OT game against the Pistons a couple of weeks earlier. This, though? Scoring 40 in a half to lead Chicago to a come-from-behind, two-point win against a good Toronto team? This suggested Butler wasn’t just “one of the best two-way players in the game” — a term typically used to celebrate a player’s defensive skills and suggest that they’re Just Fine! on the other end — but also a player whose One-Way could really wreck your whole shop.
Draymond Green: Sticking his tongue out at Blake Griffin, all the way down the court
There are more glowing moments we could’ve picked — the triple-double in the Warriors’ title-clinching 2015 Game 6 victory, the game-of-his-life-in-defeat performance in 2016’s Game 7, the four-point triple-double that highlighted how he can dictate every term of engagement, even without scoring. (To be fair, there are a few perhaps less glowing moments we could’ve picked, too.)
But Green set the tone for the way we’d view him in early November of 2014 — just his fourth game as Golden State’s full-time starter, stepping in for the injured David Lee — when he drilled a 3 to push the Warriors’ lead to 29, and then stuck his tongue in Blake’s mug the entire rest of the way down the court. Draymond was here, and he was nasty, and he was in your face, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
These days, Draymond more frequently uses his tongue for yapping at the refs than for wagging in opposing power forwards’ faces. But three All-Star berths, two All-NBA selections, a Defensive Player of the Year trophy and two NBA titles later, the sentiment remains the same.
Al Horford: The game-winning putback to beat the Wizards in 2015
The Eastern Conference semifinals were tied at two games apiece. Paul Pierce was throwing daggers, John Wall had just come back from shattering his hand, and the Hawks were seconds away from a 3-2 deficit that would’ve put the greatest season in franchise history on the brink. So when Wall swatted away Dennis Schröder’s attempt at a game-winning layup, Horford just matter-of-factly bull-in-a-china-shopped his way to the front of the rim, made the play Atlanta needed, and saved the day.
It capped a characteristically low-wattage star turn — 23 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks, two assists — and neatly summed up what’s made Horford a five-time All-Star and a (perennially underappreciated) max player. He always seems to be there, providing exactly what his team needs, whenever it’s needed.
Damian Lillard: The series-winning shot to beat Houston
Some guys are just made for big moments. Lillard — the perpetual small-school underdog from Oakland by way of Weber State, forever seeking respect and turning slights into fuel — proved he was one of them on the grand stage of the playoffs, taking advantage of a sliver of daylight afforded by a moment of defensive confusion to break free, catch and release.
Kyle Lowry: The Game 7 exorcism against the Heat in 2016
The Raptors, as a franchise, have had their fair of problems in the postseason over the years. Lowry, a gifted bulldog who’d helped propel Toronto to its best season ever, had gone through his share, too. But after the Heat had forced a Game 7 north of the border, Lowry shouldered the load with the kind of do-everything game on which he’s made his reputation (and, now, a boatload of money): 35 points on 20 shots, nine assists, seven rebounds and four steals in 41 minutes, leading the Raptors to their first-ever conference finals.
NBA relevance hasn’t come easy for the Raptors. It’s been two decades of fits-and-starts progress, years of grinding through valleys in pursuit of a peak you could barely even envision, let alone actually see. The same was true for Lowry, who had to fight first for starting jobs in Memphis, Houston and Toronto, and then for recognition as a player of consequence when it matters most. They reached that point together in that Game 7; now, they’re reaching for more.
Klay Thompson: Game 6 against the Thunder
I know: I kind of can’t believe that didn’t say “37 in a quarter” or “60 in 29 minutes,” either. But there’s never been much question about whether Klay could get hot in a hurry. Whether he was truly an elite player in his own right, though, or just a really good complementary piece surfing in Steph’s wake? That’s another kettle of fish.
With the first 73-win team in NBA history facing elimination in Oklahoma, he answered that question by saving the Warriors’ life.
With All-Defensive teamer Roberson draped all over him, Thompson popped for 41 points — most by a player facing elimination on the road since LeBron’s vaunted Game 6 in 2012 — on an NBA playoff record 11 3-pointers. If Klay doesn’t turn in one of the most superhuman shooting performances the postseason’s ever seen, the Warriors never even get back to a Finals rematch with Cleveland (and maybe everything that happened in the summer of 2016 unfolds a whooooole lot differently). But he met the moment, utterly unfazed by its enormity, and just like he always does, he responded to it by taking aim and firing. Accurately. Again and again.
Karl-Anthony Towns: A glimpse of the future against the team of a lifetime
The real answer here — with Towns, Butler, Andrew Wiggins and company barreling toward Minnesota’s first postseason appearance since George W. Bush’s first term — is that Towns’ first proper career-defining moment is likely about two or three months away. For now, though, and with all due respect to some monster individual scoring performances that came for underwhelming and largely under-.500 Wolves teams, we’ll go with the night a 19-year-old went for 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks to help hand an all-time Warriors team their ninth loss of the season.
That night belonged more to Wiggins (32 points, six steals, five rebounds, four assists) and, weirdly, Shabazz Muhammad (35 points in 38 minutes off the bench). But as you watched Towns back down Draymond, bulldoze Andrew Bogut, come off pindowns and confidently splash jumpers, ball-fake and drive for late-game buckets, and do all of it like a 10-year vet rather than a No. 1 pick nearing the end of his first season, it was impossible not to think, “This dude’s going to be a problem for some very good teams for a very long time.” Woe betide the other fantastic beasts out West; that time’s just about to start.
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