HOUSTON — Defense is usually at best optional in NBA All-Star Games, and passing secondary.
But it was the passing of Chris Paul and the defense of Kobe Bryant that ultimately are what will be remembered of the 62nd NBA All-Star Game, won by the West over the East, 143-138, in front of 16,101 at the Toyota Center.
Paul, the point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, captured Most Valuable Player honors thanks in large part to 15 assists, the most in an All-Star Game since Seattle’s Gary Payton also had 15 in 1995.
Paul also chipped in 20 points, and the combo proved enough to win him his first MVP.
“I definitely didn’t come into the game trying to achieve that or even think it would be possible,” said Paul, 27.
Bryant, meanwhile, turned in the game’s highlight play with a block of a LeBron James shot near the top of the key that led to a Kevin Durant breakaway dunk with 2:33 left, part of a run that helped tip the tide to the West.
“I haven’t really seen any MVP get a jumper blocked like that,” Durant said. “It was a really great play.”
It came during a five-minute game-ending stretch in which James and Bryant — maybe the defining players of the current generation of the NBA — went at each other.
James joked that Bryant told him “a little bit of everything” in the aftermath of the block. “It was all in good spirit,” James said. “It was just two guys who love to compete, love to go at it. It was a lot of fun.”
Said Bryant of his defensive success on James down the stretch: “I don’t know if it was signature. I’m known for my defense. I can defend. I’m pretty smart with my defense. I don’t know if it was signature though.”
The dunk by Durant gave him two of his game-high 30 points, which had him positioned for much of the night for a second consecutive MVP award before Paul’s play at the end won out — Paul scored nine points in the fourth quarter as the West held on.
Durant, who began his career with the Sonics in their last year in Seattle in 2007-08 now has scored 30 or more points in three consecutive All-Star games, the first player to achieve that feat.
Asked why he’s been so successful in All-Star games, he joked: “I’m shooting a lot of shots.” He had 24, making 13, Sunday.
Durant also said he had no complaint with Paul winning MVP honors.
“He deserved it,” said Durant. “He had great passes, making steals, made big buckets.”
For much of the night, it was a typical All-Star Game, replete with players largely content to let each other trade off making highlight-reel dunks and uncontested shots.
Blake Griffin of the Clippers had dunks for all six of his first-half field goals, generally with no one within camera shot.
“I think all the players were aware that they did not want to be posterized and forever seen on a wall,” said East coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat with a wry smile.
Spoelstra protested that assertion a little bit.
“The guys brought it for the most part,” he said.
Paul, ultimately, most of all. Only four times has a player had more assists in an All-Star Game — three by Magic Johnson (including a record 22 in 1984) and the other by John Stockton. He also sparked the West’s late run with a three-pointer.
“Any time you are mentioned with those guys, it is an honor and a privilege,” said Paul, who with Griffin is helping to lead a revival of the Clippers, who have the third-best record in the West at 39-17.
James said the MVP honor only further validates Paul as “the No. 1 point guard we have in this league and it doesn’t surprise me what he did.”
It was the third consecutive All-Star victory for the West, which never trailed by more than two and led by as many as 11 in the fourth quarter. Now the All-Stars return to their day jobs before meeting again next year in New Orleans.