Once upon a time, the NBA’s All-Star Rookie Challenge was easy to call. The rooks would have their highlights here and there, but inevitably the Sophomores — older, stronger, more accustomed to the NBA grind, not yet burned out after 40-something games, plus a year of experience after playing together in the previous year’s Challenge — would take control and turn it into something like a Harlem Globetrotters game.
That’s not the case this year. Or at least nobody thinks that will be the case. Because of Blake Griffin, because of John Wall, because of Landry Fields and DeMarcus Cousins, the Rookies appear to have a shot to not only make it competitive, but actually score a win. However, they’re up against a Sophomore squad that won this game last year as Rookies and has those advantages I mentioned earlier.
Then again, the biggest name on the second-year team, reigning Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, is out with a foot injury. And DeJuan Blair and Taj Gibson just played last night. And Brandon Jennings has been somewhere between inconsistent and invisible with the Bucks since returning from foot surgery last month. And Stephen Curry can’t seem to be on a basketball court for 48 minutes without turning an ankle. (I think he even got hurt in that “Where Amazing Happens” commercial; we didn’t see the part where he landed on Dell Curry‘s foot.) But I’m still gonna predict a Sophomores win.
* The TNT intro was kind of cool, except the actor they had playing the “actor” looked just a tad too insane.
* Chris Webber is introduced to the child-filled crowd and gets a lukewarm response. I just realized how old I am when there is a generation of kids who have no idea how nasty C-Webb was at Michigan or even with Sacramento.
* Sophomore roster: Taj Gibson, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings (“born in Compton, California!”), Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Wes Matthews, DeJuan Blair (more popular than you’d think in L.A.) and DeMar DeRozan. Coached by Lawrence Frank.
* Rookie roster: Greg Monroe (wake up!), Eric Bledsoe (big pop from the crowd), Wes Johnson (probably the oldest guy on the court), Derrick Favors, Landry Fields, DeMarcus Cousins, Gary Neal (no wait, he’s the oldest guy), John Wall and Blake Griffin (HUGE crowd pop). Coached by one of the Spurs assistants.
* I just had two people who don’t know each other text me saying, “They should have introduced Derrick Favors being from the Denver Nuggets.”
* Not sure I’m feeling the court where everything inside the three-point line is dark brown and everything else is light. It looks clean, just weird.
* Blake Griffin’s first touch results in an 18-foot jump shot that travels 15 feet. That was an ugly airball. Blair answers with a jumper that gets where it’s supposed to go to open the scoring.
* DeRozan blows by Neal, whose effort was surprisingly lax considering Gregg Popovich might be around here somewhere. But then again, Blair is trying crossovers and floaters, so obviously the Spurs guys are allowed to cut loose.
* Remember last year when Blair was robbed of the MVP? He’s not going for it this time. I think he’s shot the ball every time he’s touched it, and has the sophs up 10-4. By the way, it took less than three minutes for somebody (Webber) to bring up Blair’s lack of ACLs.
* DeRozan bricks a dunk, and in the time it took my to type that, Wall went coast-to-coast for a layup. Then Fields missed the entire rim on a layup, Curry and Gibson botch and alley-oop, and Wall goes flying into the crowd for a loose ball while the Wizards coaching staff collectively needs a change of pants. Sloppy sequence.
* The first “OH S***!” dunk comes from Cousins, who gets it on the break and crams on Curry. When I posed the question earlier this week whether people would rather have Cousins or Andrew Bynum if they were an NBA GM, I was surprised how even the answers were. I was sure it would be an overwhelming majority for Bynum, but that lets me know I’m not crazy for thinking Cousins may be the better pick. He’s not yet shown to be injury-prone, he’s MUCH more affordable, and he’s not that far behind Bynum in terms of talent. If he is behind him at all.
* Blake took an elbow to the nose, but he’s OK. He even gets an alley-oop dunk to prove it. Then he gets a more powerful alley-oop to put the rooks up 23-22.
* Favors goes to dunk on Ibaka but gets rejected. Somebody forgot to tell Serge that we don’t play defense in the Rookie Challenge. Hasn’t he been paying attention?
* Remember about a year ago when people were saying Jennings was better than Derrick Rose? I didn’t just imagine that, did I?
* I don’t know what’s up with these socks. I didn’t know my great-grandpa’s swag someday would become a hit in the NBA.
* So Blake probably isn’t getting MVP of this. He interviewed with Craig Sager and just said he’s sitting out the rest of the first half, which is just about halfway done. Rookies up 37-35.
* Blair goes high off the glass to himself for the best dunk of the night. “Who needs ACLs?!?” Kevin Harlan screams. That was pretty ill. I thought Blair was gonna throw it up for somebody else.
* Swear I went to get a hot dog and both teams scored like 30 points apiece in about six minutes. It’s 62-57 Rookies.
* Carmelo is interviewed by Sager on the sideline. He says “no meetings” are scheduled between him and the Knicks or Nets or anybody this weekend, and says, “I’m not thinking about any of that.” Really? Sager tries to go hardball on him and says he could make all this go away by just committing one way or the other, but ‘Melo plays it off politely.
* Curry feeds DeRozan a behind-the-back pass for a tomahawk dunk, as the sophs cut the lead to 65-63. They take the lead a couple possessions later on a Harden three. Everybody is in walk-the-ball-up mode in thee final minute of the first half.
* The Rookies get the lead back, then Wes Matthews sticks a three to close the first half scoring. It’s 71-69, Rookies. The camera doesn’t even let us see whether Wes did the Three Goggles.
* Cali Swag District performing. Seriously, does anybody out there know any of the words to the song besides the chorus? Does anybody care? Did they even write verses? I’m not hating on these kids for having fun and making money, but they make Kris Kross look like Rakim and Nas.
* Wes Johnson leads the Rookies with 16 points, while Cousins has 10 points. Blair and DeRozan lead the Sophomores with 14 points apiece. Harden has 13 points.
* I love how C-Webb is more excited than anybody in L.A. right now. He loves all of this. Total opposite of those last few years in Philly and Detroit/Golden State when he seemed miserable all the time.
* Blair cuts through the lane for another dunk that puts the Sophomores up 76-75. Blake gets an alley-oop on the other end, then gets a one-hand lob finish off a pass from Gary Neal. Blake is going about 60 percent tonight, and with good reason. He has the dunk contest and the All-Star Game this weekend.
* Harlan says Gary Neal “is an interesting guy” before going into the story of how he bounced around colleges due to a rape charge that was later dropped. That’s a nice way to put it.
* Wall, outside the three-point line, bounces it off the floor for Griffin, who finishes with a backwards dunk. There’s your No. 1 play of the day. Wall does the Dougie, Blake acts like he’s done that a million times before.
* Wall already had 14 assists with 15 minutes left. The Rookie Challenge record is 17 dimes by Chris Paul.
* Brandon Jennings, who would have been my pick one of these years to break that record, switched shoes at halftime, going from red to what looks like ice-blue.
* Wes Johnson goes baseline and misses the dunk that could have punctuated an MVP performance. The Rookies go up by eight on an Eric Bledsoe finger roll.
* Am I the only one who wants Kevin McHale to replace Jeff Van Gundy on the ABC/ESPN broadcasts? McHale is hilarious and he isn’t playing a character like Van Gundy.
* Monster dunk by Harden draws a “Something stinks” look from Carmelo. “I didn’t know Old Man had that!” C-Webb says. Harden then throws down a windmill dunk. He has 17 points.
* Curry cuts the Rookies lead to one with a three, but Fields comes back with a three to make it a four-point margin again. “Is he 18 yet?” Webber asks about Curry. “His goatee don’t connect.” Shoot, I’m 29 and I still have that problem. Some of us just don’t grow a lot of facial hair.
* The Sophomores grab the lead on a three by Ibaka. (Yes, it’s an exhibition game.) Sager tells us Derrick Favors was given socks to match his Nets uni, but he wore yellow and black shoes and socks in honor of Georgia Tech. Or he’s just done with the Nets.
* After Couins and Blair trade buckets for a while, Harden hits a three to put the Sophomores up three with 5 minutes left. Lots of walking up the court. Wasn’t this supposed to get more competitive in the final minutes?
* The Rookies regain the lead on a three by Fields with 4 minutes left. Now guys are actually getting fouled when they go to the rack, so it’s starting to pick up in intensity.
* I think the kids are chanting “We want Blake!” He’s on the bench and I’m pretty sure he’s done for the night.
* Neal hits a runner to make it a five-point game, and Wall racks up his 21st assist. Then Jennings misses a wide-open three and Blair lets a rebound slip out of his hands. This isn’t the Sophomores night.
* With one minute to go, Neal rebounds his own miss and hit a fadeaway to put the Rookies up by eight. Harden hits a three to cut the lead to five and Wall bricks two free throws (Those Calipari guys…), but Cousins rebounds and dunks it. That may have been the dagger.
* Did Harlan just say DeShawn Stevenson “doesn’t even look human” with all his tats? I mean he’s right, but I didn’t think I’d hear anyone say that on TV. Webber says about Birdman, “He’s starting to look like a real bird!”
* The Kentucky connection puts on the exclamation point as Cousins goes off the glass to Wall for a two-hand dunk where he hangs on the rim for about a minute. Then after the buzzer, Wall goes between the legs and off the glass for Wes Johnson for a dunk. Rookies win, 148-140. Wall is the MVP. So at least he’ll get something over Blake this year.
* Stat lines:
DeMarcus Cousins – 33 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals
John Wall – 12 points, 22 assists
Wes Johnson – 25 points
Landry Fields – 15 points, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Blake Griffin – 14 points
Gary Neal – 20 points
Derrick Favors – 9 points
Eric Bledsoe – 6 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals
Greg Monroe – 14 points, 8 rebounds
James Harden – 30 points
DeJuan Blair – 28 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals
Wes Matthews – 15 points, 6 assists
Taj Gibson – 8 points
DeMar DeRozan – 14 points, 3 steals
Stephen Curry – 13 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists
Brandon Jennings – 8 points, 7 assists
Serge Ibaka – 14 points, 2 blocks
Jrue Holiday – 10 points