Los Angeles Kobe Bryant needed only a quick survey of the All-Star rosters for the names to jump out at him.
“We’re playing the Celtics and the Heat,” he said. “And the Hawks.”
Forget that last one. It’s those first two that should spice up Sunday night’s game on Bryant’s home floor, particularly the presence of a record-tying four players from that hated team in green.
“I think there will some boos in the stands. I’m expecting that,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who will coach the Western Conference.
Boston’s Doc Rivers will lead an East team that includes Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. He also gets Miami’s Big Three, including LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in his starting lineup.
“I can get used to that,” Rivers said.
Chicago’s Derrick Rose, Orlando’s Dwight Howard and New York’s Amare Stoudemire are the other East starters, with Atlanta’s Joe Johnson and Al Horford rounding out the reserves. But most eyes will be on the Celtics and Heat, both of whom already won at Staples Center this season.
Bryant denied gaining extra motivation from seeing them again, insisting he gets up to play anybody. But Lakers fans might feel differently if Rivers goes ahead with his previously mentioned plan and puts the four Celtics on the floor together.
“Four of them going out there, it might get your blood going,” said former Celtics All-Star and current Turner Sports analyst Kevin McHale. “I’m sure they’ll look out and think the Celtics are invading again.”
The Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7 of last year’s NBA finals at Staples Center. An exhibition game could never replace that, but Rivers and his players would love to walk off their longtime rivals’ court as winners ahead of the chance they really want in June.
That will require the Celtics and Heat, developing their own rivalry, to play nice for a night. James said that’s no problem, recalling that his East winners in 2006 had four Detroit Pistons, the only other team to have four players picked by the coaches as reserves.
“For that weekend, as hard as it is, we’ll kind of put the rivalries and the dislikes aside for the better of the fans and the better of the game,” James said.
Rivers is glad to hear it — even if he doesn’t necessarily buy it.
“I’ve always been amazed by it, even when you know guys don’t like each other,” he said. “In this case, I don’t know if that’s true, but there are certain guys on different teams that don’t like each other. And then they’re in the All-Star game. I’ve always laughed when you see ’em like laughing and joking. You know, boy, they’re so ... phony right now. That’s what you want to say. But that’s good. As long as we win the All-Star game, too, that’ll be fine.”
Joining Bryant in the West lineup will be the Hornets’ Chris Paul, NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City, Denver’s Carmelo Anthony — yes, he’s still in the West, at least for now — and San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, whom Popovich chose Thursday night to replace Yao Ming. The Houston center was voted in by fans despite being injured.
Among the West forwards are Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, the Lakers’ Pau Gasol and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, the first rookie since Yao in 2003 to be picked for the All-Star game.
Griffin headlines the field for the slam dunk contest during All-Star Saturday night, and his high-flying style should fit perfectly in Sunday’s game, where defense is usually absent for the first 31⁄2 quarters. Setting up the hometown player is an All-Star game tradition, so what do you think, rook?
“I heard there’s another hometown guy,” Griffin said with a laugh.
That would be Bryant, who returns in front of his frenzied fans after having to sit out last year’s game at Dallas Cowboys Stadium with an ankle injury. A three-time MVP of the All-Star game, he is one shy of the record held by Bob Pettit.
Wade won last year, and James earned the award while helping the East win two of the previous four contests. They could be even better together on the All-Star stage after a half-season as teammates in Miami — and would be OK with sharing the celebration with the Celtics.
“Every All-Star that I’ve been to, guys always put the season aside and focus on that weekend,” Wade said. “Being an All-Star, when you’re there, it’s special. It’s special to look around in that locker room and say, ‘Man, I’m blessed to be one of the best players that this game has to offer.’ It’s just a special time.”
As usual, there’s business along with the festivities. Representatives from the owners and players will meet Friday to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires June 30. They’ve made no progress since a heated meeting last year in Dallas, but hope more frequent talks over the next few months will prevent a work stoppage.
And perhaps Denver will move closer to finding a deal for Anthony, who has refused to sign the contract extension they offered him last summer, forcing them to consider trading their leading scorer before Thursday’s deadline to avoid losing him for nothing when he becomes a free agent in July.
The events today include the three-point contest, where Pierce and Allen could go head-to-head. Pierce is the defending champion, Allen won a decade ago and will be back on the floor where he set an NBA finals record last year by making eight three-pointers in Game 2.
They’ve exchanged some playful trash talk, but the feud with the Heat that has to be set aside the next night is real.
“I don’t think you truly relax and say, ‘Hey, we’re best buddies,’ because we’re in the All-Star game together,” Allen said. “There’s an honest camaraderie amongst all of the players, but there’s a hatred that exists.”
McHale predicts some players will get caught up trying to dazzle what’s sure to be the usual celebrity-filled crowd Sunday night, especially if the game becomes one-sided. But if it’s tight, he and Popovich agree that both teams will be focused on trying to win it.
“I think these guys are pretty happy to be doing what they’re doing, but if the game is close and it’s down the stretch, I think they’ll go after each other and play to win, I really do,” Popovich said. “They’re all competitors; that’s what they do.”