When the Timberwolves fell in overtime to the Denver Nuggets last night, they did it in a very unique way. Over the course of the game, each team looked pretty bad—you can even tell that from the final score. When an OT game ends 103-101, you know things were rough. Regulation ended at 93-93 and nobody from either team could score for the first couple minutes of the OT. There were any number of sloppy or loose plays in this game, but the only one anyone’s going to remember is Martell Webster’s dunk.
Here are the basic facts of it: With 4.9 seconds left in OT and the Wolves trailing by three (102-99), the Nuggets were running a sideline out-of-bounds play. The Wolves defense really stepped up, with Martell Webster reaching up to intercept the pass from Julyan Stone. Webster went streaking down the court, appeared to hesitate at the three-point line, then drove straight to the hoop for the dunk, the two points, and the (inevitable) loss. If you watch the play here—
—you can see Ricky Rubio throwing his hands up back at the three-point line in disbelief. Now, of course, this play ignited a firestorm of tweets about what a boneheaded play it was. To his credit, in an interview after the game, Webster said, “I just wanted to be aggressive, get to the rim, possibly get a foul … Most people probably would have pulled up for the three-point shot. Yeah, I can see why they would. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably pull up for a three. Why not?”
So why didn’t he pull up for the three? The answer is as simple as adrenaline and as complicated as the sum total of the moves that have made the Timberwolves what they are this season. But let’s get a couple things out of the way: any game is a conglomeration of good and bad decisions, of lucky and unlucky breaks. This thing could have broken a bunch of different ways such that this play never even happened, so to pin it all on one play is shortsighted. Secondly, the Wolves played a tough division rival into overtime and had a chance right up until the end. Thirdly, their defense on the inbounds play was spectacular. Without that defense, Webster doesn’t even get the chance to be the hero or the goat. I find it very hard to believe they would have even been in a position to blow a close one to the Nuggets last season.
Let’s also dispense with trying to parse exactly what Webster was thinking. Even based on what he said after the fact, in the heat of the moment after a big steal with just a few seconds left in the game, there’s very little actual thought going on. Webster’s split second of hesitation at the three-point line shows he considered the three and decided to drive the rim and hope for contact. In almost every other situation in the flow of a normal game, this is a decision to be applauded. Almost any time Wes Johnson has pulled up for a three this season he would have been better off driving.
Which brings us to who the Wolves had out there. With Love at center, Beasley at the four, and Rubio and Ridnour at the guard positions, Webster was guarding Al Harrington, who is 6’9” and 250 lbs. Webster is 6’7” and 230; he gives away height and weight, but not nearly as much as the other options. Given his recent struggles, there’s no way you want Wes Johnson in there on Harrington. Although Webster is a worse shooter based on eFG% this season (.408 vs. .415—not a huge difference), he’s a much better defender. He almost doubles up Johnson’s steal percentage and block percentages and is three points better in defensive rating. That’s a whole lot of numbers, but it’s also easy to see just by watching that Webster, while no Bruce Bowen, is simply a more engaged defender than Johnson.
But you also don’t want Webster taking that last shot. Up until that point in the game, he was 1-6 from three-point range. For the season, he’s only shooting 28% on threes. That’s a pretty wide gap from the guy not on the floor who you’d probably want to take that shot: Wayne Ellington. Ellington is hitting three at a 36% clip. But last night, Ellington hadn’t played a minute and he’s also a much worse defender than Webster, especially if he’s tasked with guarding a player as big as Harrington.
And that right there is the crux of the problem with the Wolves roster right now. The guy you want in the game to steal the ball is not the guy you want shooting the ball. In the wake of David Brooks’ abysmally bad column on Jeremy Lin, I joked on Twitter that Thomas Friedman’s column on Rubio was going to say that the Wolves small forward rotation was hot, flat, and crowded, but it’s actually sort of true. Amongst Johnson, Webster, Michael Beasley and maybe Ellington if they’re going small, which can you honestly trust? Webster stepped up and did his job on defense but gambled on offense and lost.
As a team improves, the stakes get higher. The emergence of Love and Rubio (and now Nikola Pekovic) as the pillars of this team only serves to highlight how rickety some other parts of it are. A trade this season might help, but I’m also willing to take the longview. The Wolves are in games now, often down to the wire, and they’re going to win some and lose some. If they’re sitting around .500, that’s not so bad.
Now: about Webster’s hair.