Let’s take a trip back in time.
It’s December 1st, 2010. The 6-12 Nets are without Devin Harris and are competing against the 12-6 Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant is also out, but the Nets don’t really stand a chance in this one, so we think. By “we,” I mean my lady friend and I, who watched this game together. I highlight that point because I’ll always remember this night as the one that she – a die-hard Celtics fan – started using the word “we” when referring to the Nets. She’s a fan first, and she started chanting things like “we’ve gotta get this stop!” or “what are we doing out there!?” It was in this tumultuous game that she became emotionally invested in the Nets. The biggest of small victories.
Anyway, we picked it up late. I had a game of my own to play that evening, and as a result I don’t start watching the Nets until the fourth quarter. I turn it on, and see the Nets down 77-69 with about eight minutes to go.
I figure it’s over, but the Nets don’t die right away. Brook Lopez carries the Nets through the fourth. Anthony Morrow hits an improbable three as regulation expires. The Nets quickly build a lead in the first overtime, but Russell Westbrook brings the Thunder back, and the game goes into a second overtime. Again, the Nets build a lead, and look to have it in the bag, until…
We’ve made some silly notes about the incompetence of Stephen Graham on the basketball court before, and I’d like to make it clear: he seems like a very nice man that has absolutely no business being on an NBA roster. To his credit, he can hit an open 18-footer about 50 percent of the time, and occasionally bug opposing guards into poor shooting nights. At his essence, though, Graham is a 6’7″ mass that, in the most literal sense, occupies a space on the floor. He’s what Ron Artest would be if Artest had no work ethic, desire, or trace of insanity; just a lifeless mass floating across the landscape of basketball courts.
By this point, December 1st, 2010, I didn’t really mind Stephen Graham all that much. This is mostly because he hadn’t really played yet – outside of a blowout victory against the lesser Los Angeles, Graham hadn’t been a regular in the rotation. He’d only played in 11 of the first 18 games, and had played less than five minutes in over half of them. He was playing his role as an 11th man, and in that role, I found solitude.
But at this moment, Stephen Graham did the unthinkable, and set the tone for the remainder of his season.
With five seconds left in double overtime, the Nets held a 110-107 lead and a foul to give. The Thunder, inbouding in their halfcourt, set a double screen on Travis Outlaw & Kris Humphries, allowing Jeff Green to catch the ball at the top right of the key. Graham starts off doing the right thing, immediately sensing the screen and picking up Green as he catches the ball.
At this point, Graham has 2 options:
1) Play Green up tight, but since he’s 29 feet from the basket and not the best offensive player on the floor, keep your hands up to contest and don’t foul right away
2) Give the foul, but do so in a way that absolutely prevents Green from shooting
Graham, of course, chose door number three.
Graham grabs down but without strength (see right), allowing Green to shoot. The shot is wild but surprisingly close, bouncing on the rim a few times before finally falling out. The foul is obvious, though Graham appears to gesture at the referee in disagreement. The crowd is in shock. Rookie Damion James shakes his head in disbelief. I slumped back in my chair, almost laughing at the utter madness of the play. Graham is quickly taken out of the game, Jeff Green hits all three free throws, and Westbrook takes over again in the third overtime. The rest is history.
In case the status granted to this play by this award doesn’t make it clear, the moment Stephen Graham reached in to foul Jeff Green was perhaps the single greatest mental lapse by any Nets player in a season chock-full of them. If you foul in that situation, you take a guy down. There is no way he gets a shot up. Either way, fouling that quickly is a huge question mark, especially considering that it would have taken at least another second to create a real shot, more if he decides to pass it off to James Harden.
Instead, Jeff Green recognized the contact being initiated, quickly formed a shooting motion, and was a rim-bounce away from turning Graham’s mishap from the Nets’ worst play of the year into the Nets’ worst play of the decade.
* * * * * * *
What’s even more shocking to me than anything else when looking at this in retrospect was how this game somehow predicated Graham’s inclusion in the lineup. Morrow’s injury had a part in that, but the Nets also had Sasha Vujacic at this point and didn’t need Graham to play a bunch of minutes. He wasn’t really providing anything at any point that made his inclusion in the lineup a necessity.
(Read those last two sentences again. Try to fight the urge to drown yourself.)
That said, this game seemed to have the opposite of the expected effect on Graham’s playing time. Before this game, Graham played in 11 of 18 contests, averaging less than 7 minutes per game. Afterwards? 18.7 minutes per game, in 46 of the 62 games. According to Basketball-Reference, Graham had a Game Score of less than 0 in 20 of these 46 post-play games (25 total). Ironically, one of Graham’s best Game Scores came in this triple-overtime game – and that score was 7. I guess those scores just don’t count mind-numbingly stupid fouls that completely change the course of the game.
But alas, I wasn’t the genius that summed it up. That credit goes to the lady, the newfound Nets fan. After 22 years of watching the Celtics, she was unsure of how to react to Graham’s error. It was like she couldn’t process what had happened; she was used to intelligent basketball at this point and these sorts of mistakes just did not compute. After a second or two, she sighed, turned to me, and said something I don’t think she’d said in a long time:
“Wow, we suck.”