With the game on the line, none of it really mattered. Not the speculation mounting about the future of Coach Randy Wittman, not the players-only meeting earlier in the day in which they hashed out their differences, and not even their previous struggles in close games.
The Washington Wizards needed to find a way to finish, and no amount of talking would suffice. They had to make plays. And with the team trailing by one point in the final minute, John Wall saw Martell Webster in the corner of his eye and flipped a pass to Webster, who buried a go-ahead three-pointer that lifted the Wizards to a 104-100 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center.
“I really don’t care that it was them,” said Webster, who finished with a season-high five three-pointers and scored 17 points against the team that cut him two summers ago. “It could’ve been anybody. And it could’ve been anybody shooting that shot. It’s just John found me. I don’t know. He literally, like an owl, turned his head completely around to see me on that pass. My teammates have confidence in me to knock down shots like that. The fact that I got one, feels good.”
The victory snapped a season-high four-game losing streak and allowed the Wizards (3-7) to finally exhale after a challenging period that threatened to shatter the season. During the skid, the Wizards had blown a 10-point lead with three minutes left in regulation in Oklahoma City and let another game at home against Cleveland slip away with a series of last-minute blunders. But for one of the rare times this season, the Wizards managed to make shots and get stops when it mattered most.
Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin gave his team a 98-97 lead with 71 seconds left, but Webster made a three-pointer, Bradley Beal and Nene both made free throws and Washington completely shut down the opposing team’s star, with Kevin Love going 0 for 4 and scoring just one point in the fourth quarter.
“Everything, balled up into one, that we haven’t been doing in close games, leading up to this,” Wittman said. “It’s just belief and faith. That’s all I kept telling them in the huddle. You’ve got to believe you’re going to make the play. If you’ve got a shot, you’re going to make it. If you get free throws, you are going to make them. We are going to get a defensive stop. You got to believe that. If you believe that, then a lot of times, good things are going to happen.”
Wall has been struggling with his shot in recent weeks, but Wittman reminded him that he can impact the game in more ways than just his scoring. Wall responded by matching his career-high with 16 assists, getting his teammates involved and keeping the Timberwolves on their heels. He scored 14 points, including a huge jumper in the final 90 seconds.
Beal led the Wizards with 25 points and Nene finished with 20 while teaming with Jan Vesely to defend Love.
“Our attitude was amazing. We came here with a fire in our eyes and play really hard and help each other,” Nene said. “You saw the game, but for sure, it was a big step, but we need to maintain, the focus, the trust the hard work, the pride with each other.”
Wall denied that the Wizards were struggling with the pressures of playoff expectations, but the losing was beginning to wear on the players. Veterans Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington are both sidelined with injuries but they don’t want their teammates to lose focus of the task at hand as they seek to rebound from their early underachieving.
Before the team’s morning shoot-around, Ariza and Harrington organized a players-only meeting to discuss what needed to be done to turn around the season. The meeting lasted about 30 minutes, going so long that they were unable to have the film session. Every player had a chance to speak up and Ariza and Harrington made it a special point to have Wall address his teammates and let them know what their roles and responsibilities will be going forward.
Wall said he contemplated calling his own meeting but was thankful that two of the team’s established veterans stepped up and took the initiative to say something. “I’m a leader but I really don’t say much. I’m more laid back. And between him and Al, those two are always going to get something out of me,” Wall said of Ariza and Harrington. “We just kept it 100 with each other. Telling each other where they had to be. Didn’t sugarcoat nothing. I think we all understood, everybody here is a family, we respect and we protect each other like we’re our own brothers.”
After clearing the air, the Wizards responded with better ball movement and maturity. In claiming its second win against a team that entered the game with a winning record Washington had 31 assists on 41 field goals. But it took some time for the talking to translate on the floor as the Wizards played lethargically in the first half, letting Love erupt for 16 of his 25 points in the first period. The Wizards fell behind 53-37 in the second quarter and trailed by 12 at halftime.
“I thought he was going for 70 in the first eight minutes,” Wittman said with a laugh about Love. “After halftime, I was going to have them have another [players-only meeting]. I wasn’t going to go in there. I’ll do whatever it takes for a win. Trust me.”
Beal felt that Wall took a major step with his words in the morning and his play at night.
“As a leader that’s what we need him to do,” Beal said. “We need him to speak up. As long as he continues to lead by example, and continues to communicate with us, and everybody is on the same page. We’re going to be a pretty good team.”