- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

HOUSTON — It took LeBron James only 2 seasons to make himself the best of the best.

The 21-year-old Cleveland star became the youngest NBA All-Star Game MVP in league history, scoring 17 of his 29 points in the second half to lead the Eastern Conference to a 122-120 victory over the Western Conference at Toyota Center.

James’ performance, coupled with a sound second half of basketball by his East teammates, prevented hometown hero Tracy McGrady from winning the award.

“LeBron does things so easy,” East coach Flip Saunders said. “He gets his shot at will. He’s such a remarkable player, and he’s going to get better. He can be scary.”

For much of the game, it looked like McGrady, who finished with a game-high 36 points, would be the MVP. The East trailed by 17 at halftime and by as much as 21 overall.

“It was just good to get out and have some sort of escape from all of the things I’ve been going through personally,” said McGrady, who spent much of the weekend talking about his personal troubles.

James, however, scored 13 of the East’s 41 points in the third quarter to trim the lead to 97-94 heading into the fourth quarter.

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas finished with just one point.

Saunders stayed true to his word, substituting all four of his Detroit players — Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups — as a unit late in the first quarter and again in the fourth.

The four Pistons combined for 11 straight points as the East moved in front in the final quarter, part of a 23-10 run that gave the East a 117-107 lead.

With a little less than a minute to play, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant hit a jumper to pull the West even. But Miami’s Dwyane Wade (20 points) followed a miss by Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson with a short putback with 16.6 seconds left for the final points.

West coach Avery Johnson called a timeout, but the West got only an errant shot by McGrady, who was guarded by James, and Bryant (eight points) lost the ball in traffic to seal a second straight victory for the East.

“We wanted to win the game,” said Johnson, coach of the Dallas Mavericks. “We wanted to put a team of all 7-footers on the floor at one time. But overall I think it was a great week for the NBA. I guess in about an hour the slipper will come off my foot and reality will set in.”

Indeed, the weekend was quite good for the NBA, which next season will take its midseason showpiece to Las Vegas.

The game used to be the high point of the weekend, but now it’s about bling-bling and celebrity visibility.

That was the case again last night. Grammy-winning group Destiny’s Child reunited for what was billed as its last performance to belt a memorable version of the national anthem.

Lining the court were the usual stars from the entertainment world, from “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria, the lady friend of San Antonio’s Tony Parker, to Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx.

The biggest posse, however, might have belonged to former President George H.W. Bush, who is from Texas and was escorted here and there by a rather large security detail.

Arenas, who was making his second All-Star Game appearance, was happy just to be in Houston.

After Eastern Conference coaches deemed the league’s fourth-leading scorer undeserving, Arenas was placed on the team by commissioner David Stern as a replacement for injured Indiana forward Jermaine O’Neal. Almost as if he were making up for the slight, Arenas made himself very visible over the weekend.

He was a late addition to the 3-point shootout Saturday night, replacing Phoenix’s Raja Bell, and wound up finishing second to Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki.

“I’m enjoying every bit of it,” Arenas said before the game, still beaming over his second-place finish. “When I was shooting yesterday, I was telling them that I wasn’t losing. This is just a great feeling to be a part of this.”

Despite his elation, Arenas still was a little bitter about not being named to the initial team. His plan for the second half of the season? To get back at the Eastern Conference coaches who overlooked him, though he did not reveal whether he knew who did not vote for him.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They better have a good game plan because I’m coming for them.”

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