Sophomore slump, rookie sensation
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — When John Wall turned the Rookie Challenge into a personal playmaking clinic, his former Kentucky teammate and his fellow No. 1 pick eagerly soaked up everything he had to give.
Wall racked up a record 22 assists to win the MVP award, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins had 33 points and 14 rebounds, and the rookies rallied to beat the sophomores 148-140 at the NBA’s All-Star weekend Friday night.
Blake Griffin scored 14 points for the rookies in front of the high-flying Clippers forward’s ecstatic home crowd, sticking to his commitment to play in the game even after making the West team for Sunday’s All-Star game.
All three rookie stars were determined to give a little something extra, and they were rewarded with a win.
“Most people that have a good game here, it gives them confidence going into the second half of the season,” Wall said.
Before the game, the Washington guard looked up the Rookie Challenge’s assists record — 17, by Chris Paul in 2007 — and told Cousins he planned to beat it. Wall scored 12 points when he wasn’t repeatedly setting up his fellow rookies for acrobatic dunks and wide-open jumpers.
With relentless offense from Wall and Cousins, who teamed up for one season at Kentucky, the newcomers won the lighthearted contest between the NBA’s best rookies and second-year players for the second straight year.
“We were trying to work together,” Cousins said. “He wanted to break the assist record, and I wanted to be MVP.”
To the accompaniment of supersonic screams from thousands of children crammed into Staples Center’s lower bowl, both teams went through the usual array of alley-oops, breakaway jams and matador defense before the rookies pulled away in the final minutes.
Wall created the game’s biggest highlight with a jaw-dropping bounce pass to Griffin for an electrifying dunk.
“Whenever you see (No.) 32 in a Clippers uniform out of the side, you basically throw it anywhere in the gym,” Wall said. “I knew if I bounced it high enough, he will just attack the play.”
Although Griffin was the top pick out of Oklahoma in the sophomores’ 2009 draft class, he’s still a rookie after missing last season with a broken kneecap. Mindful of his workload during the busiest All-Star weekend for any player in recent memory, Griffin then watched his team’s late surge from the bench despite thousands of children chanting, “We want Blake!”
“I didn’t get to go to practice today, so that was all on the fly,” said Griffin, also the strong favorite in Saturday’s slam dunk contest. “(Wall) is a great passer, so he made it easy for me. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I’m making the best out of it. Being home for the All-Star weekend is a lot of fun.”
Wall and Cousins switched roles for the rookies’ final basket with 12.8 seconds left, with Cousins lofting a pass off the backboard for an emphatic two-handed dunk by Wall, who hung on the rim for emphasis.
Cousins went 15 for 24 in the fourth highest-scoring performance in Rookie Challenge history, matching LeBron James’ 33 points in 2004. Catching passes from Wall was a welcome respite for Cousins during a rocky rookie season in Sacramento, most recently including a suspension for fighting with teammate Donte Greene after a game last week.
“I had some flashbacks (to Kentucky),” Cousins said. “It was fun being out there with John. That year didn’t last long enough, but it’s over now.”
Los Angeles native James Harden scored 30 points for the sophomores, and San Antonio’s DeJuan Blair had 28 points and 15 rebounds.
Griffin was hit in the nose by an accidental elbow from Blair while playing defense in the opening minutes, but kept playing. He left the game wincing a few possessions later, but didn’t appear limited when he returned later.
In the final minutes of a tight game, the kids began chanting insistently for Griffin — with rookies coach Kevin McHale egging them on. With a towel draped on his head, Griffin responded with a sheepish grin, but sat out the final 12:25. “I wish I could have gone back out there,” said Griffin, the first rookie All-Star in eight years. “But they kind of put a limit on it, so that was that.”
Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans, last season’s MVP with 26 points for the rookies, sat out of the sophomores’ lineup with an injured left foot. Harden replaced him.
Updated February 18, 2011