LeBron James and Kevin Durant trapped Stephen Curry, then Curry got the ball to DeMar DeRozan, who found himself stuck behind a defensive effort not expected in the All-Star game.
Then, after the final buzzer, there was joy and pain, as if this were a real game.
"We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star game being a joke," said Durant, James' first pick in the All-Star draft. "Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game."
There were moments in the game when it felt like the same old story — a game that didn't matter in front of fans who didn't care. But it didn't end that way, and the teams didn't play that way. They played defense. They schemed and called plays. And in the game's final minutes, both the players and the crowd rose to the occasion.
Team LeBron beat Team Stephen, 148-145, and the game's new format, and new financial incentives, seemed to work.
"They'll probably bring up the cash prize, but, $100,000 to $25,000, I think everybody in this room would be doing the same things we were doing," Kyrie Irving said laughing. "I think it did give some incentive, but also surrounding and circulating kind of the opinions of what the All-Star game has kind of turned into, I think we all took it kind of personal."
James was named the game's MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. DeRozan scored 21 points with six rebounds and two assists.
"What I take pride in is taking care of my body," said James, at 33 the oldest player in the game. "Taking care of my body, making sure I'm available every night and continue to get better and better. I don't really take it as a young guy, OK, I need to show him that I'm still able to do this. I need to continue to show myself."
This year, the NBA abandoned the traditional All-Star game format, which pitted the Eastern Conference all-stars against the Western Conference all-stars. Instead, 12 players were chosen from each conference before two team captains — James and Curry — drafted players in an untelevised draft.
Players on the winning team would earn $100,000, while players on the losing team would earn $25,000.
It was all part of an attempt to change the conversation about the game.
"It was mandated by the league and also by the players," said Toronto coach Dwane Casey, who coached Team LeBron. "The Players Association wanted it to be better, and I thought — I didn't expect tonight to be as competitive as it was."
Houston coach Mike D'Antoni coached Team Stephen.
"The Golden State guys kept taking my clipboard and trying to draw up plays, and I had to fight them," D'Antoni said, feigning ignorance of a recent game when Warriors coach Steve Kerr allowed his players to take over the huddle. "I don't understand that one."
For a while, a more competitive game didn't mean a more electric atmosphere. The crowd was so quiet at times that it was possible to hear the players' conversations. During player introductions, the crowd cheered for Paul George, a player the Lakers and their fans hope to lure in free agency, but had little reaction when he checked into the game.
The energy in the building suddenly changed late in the fourth quarter. Lakers governor Jeanie Buss and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer handed off All-Star responsibilities to the host of next year's game. As soon as Michael Jordan walked onto the court, the fans in the building began to roar. They stood up and cheered, and the players on the court joined them in their ovation.
That moment infused the building with an energy that hadn't been present. It was rewarded with a finish that saw both teams invest themselves in the outcome.
James had the ball near the three-point line, dribbled a bit, thought about shooting then licked his lips before sinking a step-back three, tying the game at 144.
"So I've got [Joel] Embiid on me, knowing that he's going to give me a little space and I'm going to create a little bit more space once I get to that step-back," James said. "It just felt good when it left my hands."
Team LeBron pulled ahead by three moments later, then James asked for real defense from his team as the game ended.
"Very competitive game," Curry said. "I think we did it the right way, showcased our talents and our skills, and put on a show, so that was fun."