CLEVELAND - The NBA All-Star Game is about anarchy. It is the kind of basketball you would see if all the coaches were substitute teachers, and all the rules were made to be broken.
This is the one day during the year when the finest players on the planet are allowed to forsake their fundamentals to try preposterous passes and silly shots. The point is not efficiency, but entertainment.
''When you come to an All-Star Game, it's like you're out on the playground,'' said Seattle guard Gary Payton. ''This is for the fans ... and oohs and aahs.''
What the NBA needs now is a fresh supply of the kind of free-form fun that was on display Sunday night at Gund Arena. The East defeated the West 132-120, but the real winners were those able to watch.
Like most NBA All-Star Games, this contest featured more of the improvisation of the playground and less of the calculation of the coaches; more stuffs and less stuffiness. If the play was less precise than purists might wish, it was a lot more viewer-friendly.
''I think one of the things we want to do is have a lot of fun,'' said Charlotte's Glen Rice, the game's Most Valuable Player. ''We wanted to give the crowd a great show. Then, toward the end, we try to concentrate on winning the game.''
This is opposite the natural order of basketball. Garbage time usually begins after the outcome is decided. Talent levels separated Sunday's game from the standard NBA fare, but so did tactics.
Defense? What defense?
Freed of the micromanagement that afflicts the modern game, the players ran the court with few interruptions. The game had a driving rhythm that reminded spectators that basketball was not designed as a staccato sport. The pace afforded so few breaks that both Grant Hill and Chris Webber felt compelled to pause in the middle of play (on defense, of course) to tie their shoes.
This was the kind of tempo that can be attained when no traveling violations are called, when no illegal defenses are detected, when coaches resist the temptation to turn the game into free-throw tedium. Without the time to draw up full-court defenses, Doug Collins and Rudy Tomjanovich were forced to defer to the open-court skills of their stars. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
''My main concern here,'' said Tomjanovich, the West coach, ''was to make it an enjoyable experience for all these players.''
Defense may be the bedrock of team sports, but it isn't worth the bother at the NBA All-Star Game. Players can hardly be expected to coordinate their movements in one practice. By mutual agreement, All-Stars neither press nor attempt to draw charging fouls.
''I don't want to play defense that hard,'' said Pistons guard Joe Dumars. ''We do that all season in Detroit. So I'm looking to let somebody blow by me if he wants to.''
Thus Michael Jordan was able to jam home a missed free throw en route to a triple-double, because no one bothered to box him out. Thus Los Angeles' Eddie Jones dared a behind-the-back bounce pass to just-for-a-day teammate Latrell Sprewell.
Rules may need changing
Sunday's game was in stark contrast to a season of offensive stagnation. The downward spiral in scoring has caused so much concern that Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik says the NBA may tinker with the three-point line, the width of the lane, even the 24-second clock in an attempt to restore offense to a game trending toward trench warfare.
As the Competition Committee seeks solutions, it should score some All-Star video for clues. Its only solution at a meeting Friday was not to rule anything out.
''I think the feeling in the room was that our game remains pretty strong and very good,'' Granik said. ''A lot of what we're seeing has to do with coaches who have gotten much better at teaching players how to play defense, and the players playing defense.''
The problem with defense is that it is dull. The advantage of an All-Star game is no one pretends to play it.