His coach was furious. Most of his teammates weren’t very amused. Nick Young praised him for having the bravery to even consider attempting such a play during a game. But JaVale McGee didn’t have any qualms about a third-quarter dunk during the Washington Wizards’ 114-106 loss to the Houston Rockets that revealed his incredible athletic gifts and also presented one of the many reasons why his team has been the most dysfunctional in the NBA this season.
With the Wizards trailing by six points, Trevor Booker dived to save a loose ball to John Wall, who threw it ahead to McGee, all alone on the break. As he approached the foul line, McGee tossed an alley-oop pass off the glass to himself, slammed the ball with two hands, then tapped his forehead to salute the crowd as he ran down the court.
Coach Flip Saunders appeared agitated as he placed his hands on his waist and grimaced. Wizards assistant Randy Wittman looked up, put his hand on his head and rolled his eyes. And the Rockets responded by going on a 19-4 run that turned a close game into a laugher — and made a career-high scoring effort by Wall just another footnote for a 1-12 team that continues to build upon the worst start in franchise history.
“I told him that’s unacceptable,” Saunders said about McGee’s highlight dunk. “I mean, maybe I’m too old-school, but save that for the all-star game. Not during the game.”
Afterward, McGee didn’t understand why Saunders was so upset as he explained, “Apparently, if you get a fast break and throw it off the backboard in the third quarter, and you’re 1-11, you’re not supposed to do stuff like that. . . . I felt like I was trying to get the team hype and trying to make a good play. I felt like I did that and we went on a run from there. But I guess not.”
When asked if he regretted the play, McGee quickly replied, “No.”
Six minutes after the dunk, the Wizards trailed, 83-64, after experiencing a meltdown that included several defensive breakdowns and saw them record as many technical fouls as field goals: Wall and Andray Blatche, back after missing the past three games with a sore right shoulder, were both assessed technicals for complaining about calls and awarded the Rockets two free points that would come back to haunt them.
“We’re the most self-inflicted team in the league right now. It’s like the team that’s the most penalized team in football, that’s what I feel like we are,” said Maurice Evans, who made his second appearance of the season. “Once we clean those things up then we give ourselves chances.”
Wall helped the Wizards rally by scoring 18 of his career-high 38 points in the fourth quarter. He played with an aggression and fire that hasn’t been seen often this season and his teammates and the fans fed off his running jumpers, driving layups, fist pumps and hoots. Wall stole the ball from Kyle Lowry, was fouled and made two free throws to bring the Wizards within 101-96 with 5 minutes 31 seconds remaining. On the Wizards’ next possession, Wall expected Jordan Crawford to cut to the basket on a fast break, but Crawford slowed as as Rockets guard Kevin Martin (25 points) knocked away Wall’s errant pass, which led to a layup on the other end by Luis Scola (18 points).
“I know it’s great to have those type of numbers but it don’t mean nothing if you don’t have a win,” said Wall, who also had eight assists and six rebounds. “We’re disappointed. Nobody wants to be losing, nobody wants to lose games. You don’t want to make it a habit. You come into every game and every season knowing you’re going to lose games, you just keep fighting, try to turn it around.”
The Wizards started to show some fight when Saunders benched McGee in favor of Blatche for the final nine minutes, using a lineup that also included Evans and rookie Jan Vesely. Rockets Coach Kevin McHale said he was “mildly concerned” during the Wizards’ run and Crawford certainly wasn’t pleased with the outcome. “We just made a little run. That’s pretty much it. Still an L,” Crawford said after scoring 17 points, including a buzzer beater just inside half court at the end of the first quarter. “I think we keep putting ourselves in a hole, then we make this little comeback, then everybody kind of feels happy with the little comeback every game. That’s getting old.”
Saunders said the reason he benched McGee (eight points, 10 rebounds) was because “we weren’t playing good when he was on the floor, basically,” and not the dunk. “I think because he’s a freak athlete and I think what happens, some of the stuff he does he doesn’t even know he does it. That’s just his nature. He’s gotten better. It takes time. We pounded him for 21 / 2 years not to dribble the ball full court, you know we haven’t seen any this year, knock on wood.”
Young defended McGee, explaining the center needs plays like that to get going and added: “I just want JaVale to keep his head. Don’t let it bring him down.”
Monday’s loss snapped a five-game home winning streak on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Afterward, Wall lamented on how all the losing is affecting the team. “You know when you lose, you really can’t do anything. You really can’t go out in the city, turn on ESPN or any kind of sports; they always talking about you losing games.”
But there is the occasional self-pass dunk highlight.