Lauri Markkanen finds his first All-Star Game ‘pretty surreal’

“The Finnisher” starts fast in his first All-Star appearance, then fades into the background as Jayson Tatum and ex-Jazz star Donovan Mitchell lead Team Giannis to a 184-175 victory over Team LeBron.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lauri Markkanen at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Lauri Markkanen’s first-ever All-Star Game experience got off to an inauspicious start when he became the last player chosen in the live draft preceding the game Sunday night at Vivint Arena.

After that …

Things quickly got better.

In a bit of fate, he got his first-ever ASG points on an alley-oop, off a lob pass thrown by — who else? — the man on the other end of the trade that brought him to Utah, Donovan Mitchell.

“It’s just one of those moments. It’s funny how things work out,” Mitchell said postgame. “I’ve known Lauri for awhile, and it’s great to see him thrive here and have that moment.”

The temporary teammates wound up on the winning side, as Team Giannis beat Team LeBron 184-175.

“Pretty surreal,” Markkanen said after the game. “I was excited to get out there the whole weekend. I mean, [Saturday], I got to participate in the 3-Point Contest, but this was what we were waiting for.

“… Just a great experience to be a part of,” he added. “I can’t wait to be here again.”

The first-ever native of Finland to make the All-Star Game, Markkanen was initially selected as a reserve on account of a long-awaited breakout performance in his sixth overall season and his first with the Jazz, but got moved into the starting lineup by commissioner Adam Silver when the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson withdrew from participation due to injury.

Following his lob from Mitchell, Markkanen kept up his hot start, throwing down another alley-oop, this time from the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, then quickly firing up and burying a wide-open 3.

Not that there’s really any other kind in an All-Star Game, but regardless …

His production slowed down a bit when he re-entered in the second quarter — he put in yet another lob, this time from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, then added an a solo jam, doing a reverse pump, but couldn’t get several 3-point tries to drop.

The current Jazz star became content to progressively settle into the background, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds.

His Team Giannis predecessor in leading the Jazz, however, had different ideas.

Mitchell made a hard charge at MVP honors — dropping 16 points in the first half, then 14 in the third quarter alone, and 10 more in the fourth — totaling 40 points while adding 10 assists.

“Grew up here as a player, as a person, as a man,” Mitchell noted. “And then to be back here as a starter … to come back here for All-Star, it makes sense.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donovan Mitchell scores at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

He came up short in his bid for an epic return to the place where his career started, though, as Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics won MVP honors by setting a new All-Star Game scoring record with 55 points (including 10 of 18 from 3-point range), to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists.

Markkanen had a shot at the game-winning shot, given the Elam Ending format, with a corner 3 had that he perhaps had a few too many moments to line up — as it rimmed out.

“I was just [debating] if I should go dunk it or shoot a 3,” he explained. “Joel [Embiid] was trying to maybe get me in the paint and go for a dunk, and that’s why it took me so long to shoot that 3. It would have been cool to knock that one down.”

Another player with local ties, however, settled it for good. Weber State product Damian Lillard — who won the 3-Point Contest on Saturday — made his eighth trey in 20 tries to finish with 26 points and wrap up the NBA’s second-ever All-Star Game in Salt Lake City.

Markkanen also joked about being the last pick, noting that two-time MVP Nikola Jokic — the penultimate selection — mistakenly got up and started walking toward the Team Giannis side, believing himself to be the last player left, having forgotten that Markkanen was still available.

While initially saying he “I did’t really care” about being picked last, Markkanen eventually poked some fun at Jokic, who was waiting in the wings in the postgame interview room.

“He thought he was the last pick and stood up early — made me look even worse. I blame it on him!” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.