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A Fate Worse Than Death: Wizards-Raptors

Grantland's series on unwatchable NBA games begins with a very special night in Washington

Almost two decades ago, on one of The Simpsons‘ early Halloween specials, Homer was sent to Hell, where a blue demon in the “Ironic Punishments Division” forced him to eat all the doughnuts in the world. The joke was that Homer happily finished them, but the concept has always frightened me. To have whatever is dearest to you — a food, a pastime, or, presumably, your loved ones — turned sour and used to torment you would be a fate worse than death.

Well, NBA fans in certain cities face this soul-crushing fate a few times a week. If you live in Milwaukee or New Orleans or Sacramento or any of a dozen other North American cities, you live in one rung or another of NBA hell. It’s not so bad on nights when you can flip to a nationally televised game and catch a glimpse of Derrick Rose darting through the middle of a double team or James Harden leading the break. But on nights when it’s just you, trying to make it through the third quarter of Bucks/Pistons, that’s when the despair creeps in.

At Grantland, we decided to watch some of these games along with you. It’s not because we want to mock bad teams and their fan bases. It’s about sharing the pain and finding slivers of joy in otherwise ugly basketball. Of course, we’re going to make fun of Nate Robinson’s shot selection, Boris Diaw’s postpartum weight gain, and Hasheem Thabeet’s everything. In hoops as in life, laughter is a release valve — how else to deal with a player like Andray Blatche? And we won’t just parachute in for the bloopers. We’ll still be watching when Nate rises for a momentum-swinging tip dunk, when Boris drops 30 on the Knicks, and when Hasheem figures out which side of the court is offense and which is defense. And we’ll feel the same iota of satisfaction that you will; we’ll see the same light at the end of the tunnel.

For someone looking for a bad basketball game, Tuesday’s NBA calendar offered an embarrassment of riches. The Charlotte Bobcats were hosting the Houston Rockets in a matchup of teams that were fewer than 10 games into their respective seasons but already planning for the draft lottery. The Sacramento Kings were facing a likely rout on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers. And the Dallas Mavericks brought their championship rings and weary legs to Detroit to play the Pistons, who are beginning to make more sense as performance art or as a practical joke than as an attempt to create a winning basketball team. But even amid this wasteland, there was never any question which game would be chosen to christen the “Fate Worse Than Death” series: the Washington Wizards versus the Toronto Raptors in our nation’s capital.

As you may have heard, the Wizards were winless coming into Tuesday’s game. The incredible part was that the Wizards had somehow managed to seem worse than their 0-8 record. Their personnel contained such a toxic mix of me-first chuckers, defense-averse louts, and plain-old knuckleheads that Washington actually felt worse than winless. Tuesday morning the Washington Post published a front-page column by Mike Wise that quoted Blatche saying, “Damn, Kevin Love shoots 42 percent from three-point range?”1 an hour before the Wizards’ 21-point home loss on Sunday to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Between Rashard Lewis’ rumored refusal to play, John Wall’s dismal start, and JaVale McGee’s Twitter campaign for All-Star votes, the 2012 Wizards gave off vibes so bad that they created good buzz. Like the pre-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers squad with Darius Miles and Ricky Davis,2 this was a train wreck you had to witness to believe.

The Raptors were 4-5 before Tuesday’s game, their second in a back-to-back-to-back stretch, and they hoped to build on a win Monday over the Timberwolves. Andrea Bargnani was a top-10 scorer and Jose Calderon’s season had gotten off to a fine start, but it takes more than that to convince NBA fans that the Raptors aren’t just another jump-shooting Toronto team destined for a late lottery pick in the next NBA draft.

The stage was set: Wizards versus Raptors. Winless versus hopeless. After the tip, both teams missed jump shots on their opening possessions. I fought the urge to raid a tiny stash of prescription painkillers I glommed from my father’s refrigerator over the holidays. A few minutes into the game, John Wall drove right, pulled up for a mid-range jumper, and watched the ball sail over and past the rim. Two minutes later, as if to give Wall a do-over, the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan toed the 3-point line, caught a pass, and shot the ball a few feet over the basket. Dueling air balls.

Near the end of the first quarter, Washington rookie Chris Singleton made a move to the elbow, picked up his dribble, and got stuck. First, he looked to shoot, but he reconsidered when it became clear that the only way to get the shot off would be to launch a turnaround fadeaway. Unfortunately, while Singleton held the ball and looked for an open teammate, none of the other four Wizards on the floor moved to get open. Maybe they were thinking, Take the shot! That’s what I’d do! It was only their ninth game of the season, but the Wizards seemed to have already internalized the lesson that once a teammate started attacking the basket, moving without the ball was not worth the effort. Singleton eventually passed to Wall, who had about two seconds left on the shot clock to launch a contested 3. The ball bounced off the top of the backboard, followed by a close-up of Flip Saunders’ aneurysm face.

Before the second quarter began, the Toronto broadcast team discussed a graphic depicting the Raptors’ injury problems. Jerryd Bayless would return in a week, Aaron Gray was two weeks out, and Linas Kleiza would see action in the “near future.” In other words, help is not on the way.

In the second quarter, Raptors analyst Jack Armstrong went in on Blatche. It started late in the first, actually, when Blatche threw the ball to Nick Young. “He passed the ball,” Armstrong said. “Wow.” I don’t think I’d ever made myself watch a full Blatche game before Tuesday night. If you’re like me, you probably wondered if all the things people wrote about his shot selection and near-total refusal to pass were exaggerated. Well, they weren’t. Within minutes, I had scribbled “Blatche hole?” in my notebook, and not once in the game did I feel the need to revise or amend that description.

But why single him out? When Armstrong told viewers, “I have a hard time watching Blatche play,” he could have said the same thing about almost any other Wizards player. I’ll see your Blatche and raise you Nick Young and Jordan Crawford, two unconscionable gunners who shoot as badly and pass as reluctantly as Blatche does. Who would want to watch any of them? It turns out that Young, who spent Monday visiting Wizards season-ticket holders, is the favorite player of some young Washington fans, who love his turnaround jumper. He’s poisoning kids’ minds! The Wizards are an NC-17 team, not suitable for impressionable children who might try to play like them.

You know what, I’ll also throw John Wall onto the list of hard-to-watch players. He runs very fast and finishes a few-jaw dropping drives every game. He makes some astounding defensive plays, too, like when he got caught on a high screen against Calderon in the third quarter. Calderon rose for what looked like a wide-open jumper, only to have Wall recover and fly into the play in time to block Calderon’s shot. The rest of the time, however, Wall mostly commits turnovers and badly misses pull-up jumpers. His teammates aren’t much help, but I don’t believe they deserve as much of the blame as they’ve been getting for Wall’s 34 percent shooting and an efficiency ranking that puts him 178th in the NBA.

The Wizard to watch, of course, is Czech “Dunking Ninja” Jan Vesely, the lottery pick who had an eventful week even before Tuesday’s game. In his NBA debut Sunday, Vesely air-balled his first career free-throw attempt — the shot went 14 feet high, but traveled only about 13 feet long, two feet short of the hoop. After the game, he was interviewed for a Czech sports website and fielded the question, “Will you have your body tattooed, in order to fit in among teammates?” The answer is no,3 but Vesely played well enough against the Raptors to steer the subject of his interviews back to basketball. He didn’t attempt any shots that weren’t dunks, and I remember him stealing the ball more times than dribbling it, which is actually plausible because Dunking Ninja was credited with a whopping five steals in 16 minutes of play. He also played better defense against Bargnani than any of his teammates and sparked a second-quarter run that basically won the game for Washington.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Wizards led 46-34, DeRozan was shooting 10 percent from the field, and Wall wasn’t doing much better. I started stress eating a two-pack of YoGo Tuxedo Cakes I bought at Walgreen’s before the game. My notes became vague and occasionally illegible. The second half was a blur of Toronto turnovers — some created by Washington’s length and activity — and easy transition baskets for the Wizards.

I calculated the number of calories in one Tuxedo Cake — 340, in a three-ounce pastry — and vowed not to eat more than one. It took a JaVale McGee moment to rouse me from my corn syrup-and-Raptors-induced torpor. On offense, McGee — who is nothing if not adventurous — attempted to slash in from the wing and swing the ball past a reaching help defender. There aren’t a lot of NBA centers who can pull off a move like this, and although McGee is extremely agile and quick for his size, he still isn’t one of them. But he comes close, and McGee seems to gain some satisfaction from almost executing euro-steps and dunks from the free throw line, even though his near-misses typically cost his team buckets at the other end. So after a Raptors defender stripped McGee of the ball and passed it ahead to start the break, McGee didn’t give up on the play. He had coughed up the ball, and he decided to get it back. McGee dashed after Rasual Butler and caught him just in time to goaltend a layup attempt after Butler drew a foul, giving Butler an unearned opportunity for a 3-point play.

Over the years, several players have been called “coach killers” for feuding with and eventually getting their coaches fired. McGee, with his talent, his boundless but frequently wanton enthusiasm, and his apparent disconnect with reality, may literally kill a coach someday by attempting some foolish play at the worst possible moment that leads to a sideline stroke or heart attack.

In the fourth quarter, Shelvin Mack connected with Vesely on an almost alley-oop that gave Washington a 27-point lead. There were still nine minutes to play, but it was clear that the Wizards wouldn’t be winless any longer. Leandro Barbosa got some garbage-time minutes for the Raptors and handled the ball like he’d lost three fingers to frostbite in the Canadian winter. I buckled and ate the second Tuxedo Cake. When Barbosa hit a 3 that cut the Wizards’ lead to 15 with five and a half minutes left, play-by-play man Matt Devlin said, “I’m not ready to give up on this, to be honest with you.”

I hate to say it, Matt, but I gave up an hour ago.

Rafe Bartholomew is an editor at Grantland and author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. On Twitter, he is @rafeboogs.


Previously from Rafe Bartholomew:
Report From Manila: The Last Days of the Triangle Offense
Did Manny Pacquiao Just Become the Villain?
Pacquiao-Marquez III Fight Preview
Fight of the Year?
Spoelstra in the Philippines
Kobe Takes Manila; NBA Not Invited

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