Despite records, 2016 All-Stars — except one — failed Kobe Bryant

(L-R) Russell Westbrook lived up to the standard set by Kobe Bryant.

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After the absolutely outstanding event that was 2016 NBA All-Star Saturday night, Sunday’s actual All-Star Game in Toronto faced a tall task in trying to measure up. Yet if LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the rest of the All-Stars had listened to Kobe Bryant, things could have been a lot better.

Sunday’s game wasn’t bad by any means. It was by all accounts a typical All-Star Game, with zero defense and slam dunks galore — although one which set an NBA record for most total points in an All-Star Game in a 196-173 win for the Western Conference. It was a fun contest, if nothing special, summed up in large part by this uncontested Paul George dunk:

It was also Bryant’s final All-Star Game, as you’ve probably heard by now. And he deserved better than this. Or, rather, he asked for more than this. Before the weekend began, Bryant told his fellow All-Stars that this isn’t the setting to pass and defer to anyone, even a future Hall of Famer like Kobe who’s planned to take in all the sights and sounds one last time (via LA Daily News):

Yet, Bryant did not sound thrilled on the idea that his Western Conference teammates could help him. Bryant reported dismissively questioning Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry after the NBA's reigning MVP told him, “I have a lot of assists for you.”

“I said, ‘No. What are you doing? You're a shooter. You grew up watching me. What the hell are you talking about that you want to pass me the ball at an All-Star game. Are you crazy?”

No, my friends: The All-Star Game is for looking out for No. 1. It’s for embracing the Black Mamba mentality and trying out what it’s like to be Kobe, even for just one night: 

That’s how the NBA’s All-Stars should have honored Bryant one final time — by going at each other with a competitive fire usually seen in games that matter. We’re not asking for lockdown defense and guys risking injury, mind you; we simply would have preferred one-on-one gamesmanship and a little bit of pride being displayed in place of the hot-potato passes and lobs that too often ended in half-hearted layups.

Again, the basketball was fine, for the most part. Sure, Paul George (game-high 41 points and five rebounds) and Anthony Davis (24 points and six rebounds) put up numbers, and it was great to see those two in elite form. It just wasn’t the sendoff we’d hoped Bryant would receive.

Yet there was one player who did right by Bryant on Sunday night. Without him, the night would have been wholly forgettable. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook brought the noise early, often and, fittingly, via Bryant:

He stared down opponents and uncurled his trademark smirk. He destroyed all who stood in his way — and by the end of the night, Westbrook had would-be defenders completely shook:

You might watch that dunk and imagine it’s just typical All-Star defense. Make no mistake, however; anyone who watched this game knows that was a reaction to the ferocity with which Westbrook was looking to embarrass people.

It didn’t hurt that Westbrook had his Thunder teammate Durant to set him up, of course:

Or that West coach Gregg Popovich gave him the clipboard and let him call the shots:

Not that Westbrook needed designed plays, naturally; with the way his fellow All-Stars performed, he was easily the best player on the floor by nature of his enthusiasm and desire to destroy the world. Every time that Westbrook had the ball, he had his eye on complete and total domination. In the end, it earned him the 2016 All-Star Game MVP, joining four-time MVP Bob Pettit as the only back-to-back winners in All-Star Game history.

On Sunday night, the NBA began to bid farewell for real to Kobe Bryant. And at least one player gave Bryant what he was looking for. We salute you, Russell Westbrook. Kobe does, too.