INDIANAPOLIS — Over the past few days here, NBA VIPs implored this year’s All-Stars to up the effort in this weekend’s marquee event.   

“The one thing I would really like to see is they play hard tonight in this All-Star Game,” Larry Bird said Sunday morning from the stage at the annual All-Star weekend Legends Brunch. This echoed comments made by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver the day before during his annual All-Star weekend news conference. 

“We’re not necessarily looking for players to go out there as if it’s the Finals necessarily,” he said, “but we need players to play defense, we need them to care about this game.”

The NBA made a point of paring things down this year, and tying it all back to the host state of Indiana and its strong basketball tradition. The player draft was replaced with the traditional East-vs.-West format. The Elam Ending and its target score format was replaced with a traditional 48-minute format. Pregame player introductions took place on the court — there was no giant stage or elaborate pyrotechnics or slam poetry from Common, which, Silver said on Saturday, was something players told him had contributed to the sloppy play. (All of it, not just Common.)  

“We’d gotten carried away a little bit with the entertainment aspect,” Silver said, adding, “I think we’re going to see a good game tomorrow night.”

He thought wrong. The players, it turns out, had no interest in putting on a more respectable performance. This year’s All-Star Game was as ridiculous as any in recent memory. Defense, and any semblance of it, was non-existent. It seemed like every shot was either an open 3 or easy dunk. Every shot, that is, except when Luka Doncic, seemingly on a quest to be named Least Valuable Player award, decided to launch a three-quarter heave for, well, no discernible reason. 

The Gainbridge Fieldhouse crowd was mostly silent throughout the game. The loudest it got inside the arena was when free T-shirts were launched into the stands. The final score read like something you’d see in an NBA 2K game with 12-minute quarters: A record-setting 211-186 victory for the Eastern Conference.  

[The NBA dunk contest is broken — how can the league fix it?]

“Two hundred [points] is a lot,” said Damian Lillard, who scored 39 points and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. “It just shows we didn’t go out there and compete like I guess you’d want us too or whoever would want us to. That’s just what it is.” 

That’s not to say there weren’t fun moments or electric plays. Watching Lillard drill shots from halfcourt, which he did twice Sunday, is always a treat. 

And Trae Young’s nutmeg of Kevin Durant was pretty cool.

But none of that was or is enough to make up for the slop that fans were subjected to. To be fair, the NBA isn’t the only professional sports league that in recent years has struggled to figure out how to handle its All-Star Game. The NFL, after all, has basically abandoned its version and transformed it into a flag football game instead. 

There are two differences here, though. One is that this sort of performance plays into the narrative out there that NBA players mail in too many games and that nothing that happens in the NBA before May matters. The other is that Silver, recognizing this issue, spent the past week telling the public that this year’s game would be better — only to be embarrassed by the players. You could see his frustration during the on-court postgame ceremony. 

“You scored the most points,” he said to the Eastern Conference team. “Well, congratulations.” 

In the ensuing days, we’ll no doubt hear all sorts of ideas for how the NBA can fix the game. Some will suggest a fat cash prize. Some will say that the NBA should emulate Major League Baseball and give the winning conference home-court advantage in the finals. Others will suggest a U.S-vs.-The-World format. 

In the meantime, what we can all agree upon is that the game is broken. And after the contest, Doncic summarized why. 

“They don’t want to get injured, everybody just get out of the way,” he said. “I don’t know how to fix that. I just follow the lead.”

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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