WASHINGTON (AFP) – Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo and NBA scoring leader Joel Embiid lead a record-tying four international starters in Sunday’s 71st NBA All-Star Game.
Greek star Antetokounmpo, last year’s NBA Finals MVP after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in 50 years, will spark Team LeBron James in the elite talent showdown at James’s home area of Cleveland, Ohio.
James called Antetokounmpo “the hardest playing player in All-Star history” upon taking him in a player draft and the “Greek Freak” has the Bucks contending for another crown.
“I just try to play as hard as I can, play for the team and always play to win,” Antetokounmpo said.
“We’re happy we won the championship last year, but we’re not satisfied. We’re trying to put ourselves in a position that we can be one of those teams that play down the stretch in June.”
Embiid, the Cameroonian forward who leads th NBA with 29.6 points a game for Philadelphia, will ignite Team Kevin Durant, whose namesake captain is injured and will not play.
The Sixers star could be the first center to win the scoring title since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.
“You have to do whatever it takes to win,” Embiid said. “I know my role and it’s to go out there and dominate. I’m going to get the ball a lot and I’m going to make things happen.
“It’s all about making the right plays, finding my teammates, looking to score and just being aggressive.”
Serbian center Nikola Jokic, the 2021 NBA MVP, will also start for Team LeBron while Canadian forward Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors is also in the opening lineup for Durant’s squad in his first All-Star appearance.
Memphis standout guard Ja Morant, averaging 26.4 points a game, makes his first All-Star Game appearance as a starter for Team Durant, which also features Boston swingman Jayson Tatum in Durant’s place and Atlanta guard Trae Young, who ranks fifth in the NBA with 27.8 points a game and fourth in the league with 9.3 assists a contest.
LeBron’s other fellow starters include eight-time NBA All-Star Stephen Curry of Golden State and five-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls.
Each team has has a global big man among the reserves with Utah’s Rudy Gobert, a Frenchman who leads the NBA with 14.8 rebounds a game, on the bench for Team Durant and Slovenian playmaker Luka Doncic of Dallas among Team LeBron substitutes.
– Team LeBron is 4-0 –
This becomes the fifth consecutive year that James has served as captain of an All-Star team since the format changed from an East versus West matchup and he is trying to stay unbeaten.
Team LeBron beat a Curry-captained squad in 2018, another guided by Antetokounmpo in 2019 and 2020 and defeated Team Durant 170-150 last year with Antetokounmpo taking All-Star MVP honors.
Philadelphia guard James Harden is injured and will not play for Team LeBron while Team Durant lacks injured Golden State forward Draymond Green.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will coach Team Durant while Phoenix’s Monty Williams coaches Team LeBron.
Among veteran All-Star reserves are 12-time All-Star Chris Paul of Phoenix and six-time All-Star Jimmy Butler of Miami for Team LeBron and Team Durant’s three-time All-Star Devin Booker of Phoenix and two-time All-Star Zach LaVine of Chicago.
First-time All-Stars include Charlotte guard LaMelo Ball for Team Durant and Cleveland guard Darius Garland and Cleveland center Jarrett Allen for Team LeBron.