Martell Webster and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Play

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.

Steve McPherson

  1. //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.

    Well, they were. They lost 115-113 to Denver in a game last year in which they clawed their way back from double-digit deficits.

    They blew a 16-point lead in losing by 7 to Denver in December 2010. And the previous year’s 15-win team counted Denver among those wins.

    As you know, I don’t buy into the idea of using last year’s team as a yardstick to gauge this year’s team, so it doesn’t matter to me if last year they might not have been as close. But this year’s Denver team isn’t anywhere near as good AND three of their best players weren’t available to them.

    So I’m going to suggest that even using the previous two year’s lousy teams as a yardstick, last night is no moral victory.

    The Timberwolves should’ve won. They didn’t win. Martell is only a poster boy for a bad loss. There are plenty of those to go around.

    • I stand corrected completely on the point about being in a close one with Denver. I guess I need to get better with my homework. And I’m not trying to say last night was a moral victory–I don’t think there’s any way in which we won in some way other than the score. I also firmly agree with you that Martell is only the goat because he was there at the end; it shouldn’t have gone down to the wire.

      But on the other hand, given your distaste for moral victories and excusing losses, are there circumstances that would ever make you feel the team gained something from a loss? From following you on Twitter, it seems like there are only wins and games they should have won. Judging by your comments, it seems like their improvement means they should now never lose to teams they’re as good as or better than, but even excellent teams lose to bad teams. The ’96 Bulls lost to the Raptors (21-61). Damon Stoudamire dropped 30 on them.

      I guess what I can’t really tell is whether your stance on games they should’ve won is something you feel they should believe in as players or that we should expect as fans.

  2. //are there circumstances that would ever make you feel the team gained something from a loss?

    I’ve been pretty clear about my yardsticks of improvement and, yes, there are several situations in which I’ve said losses are victories. One is when the team comes out playing a level higher than its lower-quality opponent. That was one of the benchmarks I set for the team this season and they seem to have, finally, passed that point.

    They don’t HAVE to win to improve. They simply off to STOP making the same stupid mistakes that lead to losses.

    I also think it’s time to start using THIS year, THIS league, and THESE opponents as the yardstick for measuring a team.

    We’re halfway through THIS season now. This team HAS improved. It’s time to stop giving them a pass every time they’re NOT last year’s team.

  3. With tongue in cheek, I will point out that this was a very uniquely stupid mistake. And yes, they made some other mistakes down the stretch, but at least some of it was out of their control. Mostly, I think, Pek rolling his ankle. And I don’t consider citing that to be giving them a pass—I’m just looking at who was on the court.

    As far as looking at THIS year, I think back to a couple early losses where Love ended up shooting desperation threes and then look at the win against the Clippers where a good playcall resulted in a good open look that won them the game. So I think this team will learn from this.

    But to me, the real question is: How does giving them a pass affect them? For me, as a fan, I want them to win, but I also want to enjoy the experience of being a fan. Previous seasons have made that difficult, and so I want to be able to enjoy this season in the light of the failure of past years. Maybe that’s Minnesota Nice of me, I know. I doubt the Timberwolves care whether we excoriate them or excuse them and so in the end the question to me is how it’s important to YOU to take in the games. It’s just easier on my blood pressure to take the good with the bad and move on.

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