While chatting with a friend about Los Angeles Sparks point guard Ticha Penicheiro's 10.8 assists per game through August last night, he commented, "I'm still wondering though, after all these years, why she can't shoot."
There are times when she forces me to wonder if she just doesn't want to shoot.
On one play in the first half against the Storm, Penicheiro found herself in the middle of the key with nobody defending the basket and didn't even look toward the rim choosing instead to pass the ball out in stride. Of course, that's an extreme example but it definitely puts Penicheiro's game in its starkest terms.
What makes her August assist average most remarkable is not just that the 35-year-old point guard has peaked at a ridiculously elite level at the end of her 13th regular season, but that she is able to be so effective while looking like she is consciously avoiding scoring opportunities at times. It's that she continues to epitomize the notion that a point guard can control the game without scoring at all.
We might normally imagine a point guard "controlling" a game in the sense of controlling the flow of the offense by facilitating scoring opportunities for others, Penicheiro takes it to another level. Whereas she might have been flashier in her younger days, she has become the master of subtlety using every single movement to her advantage.
The Sparks ran a rather simple play for most of the first half of their 76-75 loss to the Storm on Saturday night with Penicheiro coming down and dribbling toward the right sideline just outside the three point arc with a guard cutting past her for a hand off opportunity. There are few simpler plays in basketball but it's Penicheiro that made it work.
Early in the game she'd just hand the ball off. After a while when she caught the defense in a complacent spell, she'd hesitate for a moment and turn her shoulders away from the basket like she was going to hand the ball off and then quickly turn the corner and head to the rim. Later she would hesitate with the exact same shoulder fake and let her teammate cut in front of her and then shovel it to her anyway.
A lot of point guards use angles, pacing, and timing to their advantage but the way Penicheiro does can keep a defense wondering what balance of those rather basic elements of basketball she'll use at any moment is fascinating to watch.
There's a point to which long-time women's basketball fans will look at Penicheiro's movement around the court and yawn as though it's akin to a tired cliché - it's what she does on a regular basis and "nothing new". And that's exactly the point: it's nothing new as in nobody has mastered the subtlety of the game and the ability to simply make defenses look silly even without blow by speed or a huge scoring threat.
To put it in a friend's terms: Penicheiro punks fools without them even knowing they're being punked in a league where punkin' fools isn't exactly the norm.
By the second half, she was in complete control of a relatively simple and routine moment of basketball activity without doing anything particularly spectacular. One possession was used to set up the next which was used to have the defense mired in a fog of uncertainty five possessions down the road.
So if you love point guard play as much as I do, watching Storm point guard Sue Bird go up against Penicheiro is always a treat and last night was no different.
Storm key player: Sue Bird
Of course, Bird said after the game that playing against Penicheiro was no big deal to her.
Nevertheless, when she looked at the box score, she did compare her 9 assists and 0 turnovers to Penicheiro's 8 assists and 3 turnovers.
Similar to Penicheiro, Bird managed to influence Saturday night's game without scoring.
While Bird only finished 3-for-12 on the game with 7 points, she was involved in a number of plays that helped to shift the momentum of the game, including the game winning play to Tanisha Wright with 50.7 seconds left for which she wasn't credited with an assist but was responsible for.
"I asked Brian if we had any timeouts and I knew there were five seconds on the shot clock," said Bird. "So when I got the ball, I had this array of thoughts boom, boom, boom. Timeout? No. Can I shoot it? No. Then I saw T. To be honest, I wasn't hitting my shot tonight and I know T is very good at getting in and creating. Everybody was in the lane, so when I saw her kind of open, boom. She created something and got a good look, so it worked out."
It didn't result in an assist and Wright should definitely be credited for hitting a shot that looked nearly impossible -she lofted the ball toward the basket while fading out of bounds on the right baseline. Nevertheless, the decision making Bird went through in a high pressure situation is not something an average point guard could do.
In the course of finishing the game with an excellent 42.85% and no turnovers for an outstanding pure point rating for 16.67, Bird exhibited much of the same subtlety as Penicheiro - more often than not, her assists are a matter of finding the right player in the right place at the right time. The passes themselves never look spectacular and passing to All Stars Lauren Jackson or Swin Cash for more than half of those assists is not exactly a chore, but there's a reason why so few point guards are even able to post a pure point rating of 16.67 for a game - it's hard for any star player who is seen as a focal point of the defense to consistently create 9 assists without turning the ball over in big minutes.
What both Bird and Penicheiro - who finished with an excellent pure point rating of 7.07 - have mastered is the art of making the right decision. If you can't appreciate the complexity of that or find their performance boring because it's "unsurprising", it's very possible that basketball is simply not the sport for you.
Storm statistical MVP: Camille Little
One beneficiary of Bird's ability to distribute was Camille Little who scored 11 of her career-high 22 points in the third quarter and got a beautiful assist through a narrow lane in the defense from Bird for a 16 foot jumper with 7:47 left in the period. Her game-high 16.16% offensive rebounding percentage was also a key factor in the game especially considering that she had three of her four offensive rebounds in the third quarter when the Storm played their best quarter of the game.
Key statistic: turnover percentage
Although the most significant factor in the game was probably the Storm beating the Sparks 31% to 19% in offensive rebound percentage, the more interesting factor was definitely turnovers.
Aside from the fact that the Storm won the turnover battle for the game 16.09% to 21.62%, once again they managed to just stop turning the ball over in the fourth quarter with one turnover at a rate of 6.25%. A large part of that could be attributed to Bird, but it's also a credit to the unit as a whole.
Sparks statistical MVP: Tina Thompson
However, as much an impact as the play of the veteran point guards had on the game, when crunch time came the veteran of four championships with the Houston Comets was the one to step up.
Thompson had a big three pointer with 1:47 left off a pass from forward DeLisha Milton-Jones that put the Sparks up one point with before Wright hit her shot. Her 4-for-6 three point shooting for the game helped lift her true shooting percentage to 67.20%. Perhaps needless to say, two of her four threes came off of Penicheiro assists.
Yet the most interesting thing about this game aside from Thompson's clutch shooting overall is that the Sparks as a whole seemed to be playing some of their best basketball of the season. After handling the Sparks pretty well in their first two meeting at KeyArena, the Sparks had the Storm on the ropes with under two minutes left in the final game of the season. As the Storm look to a few days in a row of practice time, preparing for their improved first round opponent has to be a factor.
"It's a clean slate, it really is," said Wright. "We're confident in ourselves and our abilities and what we can do. That's basically all we can control. We'll take tomorrow off, come in Monday and Tuesday, get some practice time, work on some things and we'll be ready to go Wednesday."