During the Seattle Storm's 79-66 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, a media member mentioned that Storm forward Jana Vesela reminded him of Michael Lewis' description of Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier as a "No-Stats All Star".
Not necessarily in the particular sense that she studies game film to the point where she's able to challenge shots from the best wings in the league within millimeters of their palm, but moreso the fact that it appears that she has some "invisible strengths" -- an impact on the court that might not quite show up in the boxscore.
Do what you will with that observation, but Storm forward Swin Cash -- who coach Brian Agler has compared Vesela to in terms of function -- has a more flattering comparison.
"Yeah," said forward Swin Cash after practice yesterday with a tinge of hesitation in her voice when asked about the Battier comparison. "She has that Shane game, but if you ever see her run, it's hilarious -- we always call her 'Dirk' because I swear, her swagger, is just like you're never going to see her screaming and yelling. You're never gonna see her too low. She's just like [even] and it's just so smooth. But she's so long, she'll do things like get a block or get a deflection and you're like, 'Where did Jana come from?' And she just has these long arms and the way that her body is -- I mean, she's taller than A-Rob. So that's a versatile player that I'm happy that we have on our team that we can really go to and give teams fits with the mismatches."
Key contributor: Jana Vesela
The mismatches that the 6'3" Vesela caused playing on the perimeter were most prominent during the second quarter of their win on Wednesday, with Vesela scoring all of 11 of her points in that one period primarily on the strength of 3-3 shooting from the three point line. It was definitely something that the Sparks have noticed.
"We tried some of everything tonight -- we tried double teaming the post and they'd kick it out and they'd knock down the threes," said Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom on Wednesday after the loss. "That was our game plan -- we wanted to limit Lauren's touches and limit inside players that score a lot of their points. I thought Vesela came off the bench and hit some huge threes that we didn't expect. So they capitalized on our double-teams and we definitely have to make some adjustments to that and maybe not leave so many people open next time."
However, as Cash alluded to, as Vesela has gotten more comfortable in the offense, her contributions are sometimes showing up in more subtle ways. One number that the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looks at according to Lewis' article is plus/minus. Although Vesela's plus/minus numbers lately have been somewhat erratic -- partially due to the Storm using uncommon rotations -- in Saturday's regular season finale win against the Sparks, Vesela only score 2 points, but finished at +10, second on the team behind Svetlana Abrosimova.
Although Storm coach Brian Agler is clearly more comfortable with his bench this season than he ever has been in the past and certainly hopes to get production from others, Vesela looks like someone who will cause the Sparks some problems. Cash isn't concerned about whether Vesela is capable of repeating the performance.
"You obviously give her positive reinforcement," said Cash. "Jana's had some ups and downs, really trying to learn the system and figure out what her role was on this team. But for a lot of players who have played in Europe, you understand what she's done -- she has a lot of experience. So you don't expect her to be nervous -- at this point right now, you expect her just to play free. When Lauren is getting double-teamed and everyone else is doing their thing, she can come in and it's like you have to defend her. So she felt I thought really comfortable yesterday and I was really happy that we were able to get her in position to really contribute."
Storm statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson
As much of a threat as Jackson was on offense to the Sparks, as usual, she was also a defensive threat. On Wednesday, part of that came on the defensive glass with Jackson grabbing a game-high 9 rebounds -- all defensive -- for an outstanding defensive rebounding percentage of 35.46%.
"Rebounding was part of our game plan," said Cash during the post-game press conference on Wednesday. "If we rebound the ball efficiently enough we can get out in transition and we did that early on and got some baskets and that really got our momentum going."
Although Jackson's rebounding wasn't necessarily the sole reason for the Storm's ability to get out in transition, it certainly helped keep the Sparks off the offensive boards. The Sparks' 20% offensive rebounding percentage on Wednesday night was lower than their regular season league-low 23.6% offensive rebounding percentage. That means the Sparks needed to shoot the ball well the first time because there wasn't a second chance very often. Unfortunately, they didn't end up shooting the ball well.
Key stat: effective field goal percentage
If we accept the point made by the Sparks that they essentially dug a hole for themselves early that they weren't able to climb out of, then the Storm's 64.7% field goal percentage in the first quarter is pretty much the chief factor in what buried them.
"Well, I think in the first quarter they were up by 10 points and it was a deficit that we weren't able to get past," said Sparks forward Tina Thompson. "I do think that the second, third, fourth quarter were pretty evenly matched. But you go down 10 and you can't get past that then you're definitely going to look at the first quarter and think, 'What could we have done better?' Unfortunately, the game is played in four quarters instead of three."
The Storm's hot shooting continued over the next three quarters - on the strength of Vesela's strong three point shooting they had an effective field goal percentage of 69.23% in the second quarter. In the third quarter, they had an effective field goal percentage of 61.54%. Meanwhile, the Sparks had effective field goal percentages of under 40% in the first and third quarters. Thompson attributed their poor shooting to nerves.
"I think we were just a little bit anxious," said Thompson, who knows a thing or two about playoff basketball. "We were kind of going a really fast. We were kind of making things happen too quickly instead of just taking our time. I know in the locker room, everybody was ready and pumped up and excited but I think we were a little too pumped up. And when you come out and you just have high anxiety like that and go too fast I think things like that will happen."
Sparks statistical MVP: Kristi Toliver
Perhaps ironically then, on the veteran-laden Sparks roster, it was a player who hadn't been to the playoffs that ended up coming up big for the Sparks.
Second-year guard Kristi Toliver had a true shooting percentage of 84.74% and it was pretty much her second quarter scoring that helped the Sparks withstand Vesela's hot shooting.
"I’ve told Kristi all season, ‘You’re definitely a factor on this team. When you’re scoring, we’re a better team,’" said Gillom after the game. "Unfortunately with her having a good shooting night, the other players weren’t having a good shooting night. We’re hoping we can get a combination of the players that can score with her. When we have our inside game going and our outside game going, it’ll definitely be a much better game."
The Sparks finished with a 40.7% field goal percentage, which was obviously exacerbated by the Storm's hot shooting primarily due to some of those early transition baskets and Vesela's shooting. Perhaps it was a perfect storm of strong defense mixed with an off shooting night.
So the question might be whether Seattle repeat the defensive effort?
While the Storm pride themselves on defense, it would certainly be reasonable to attribute the Sparks' struggles to having an off night.
"Seattle is a good defensive team but I think a lot of the turnovers and things that we did were our own fault," said Thompson.
But part of the defensive effort -- and part of what makes the steady performance of Bird so important -- is good offense, which forces the opponent to slow down and execute in the half court against a set defense. With the advantage the Storm have on the interior, that's huge.
"I hope we can keep them from shooting a high percentage," said Agler after practice yesterday. "Offensively, you want to execute to get open shots. Then you can't predict whether you're going to make shots or not, but you can try to control how you execute and try to create the shots that our good for yourself. So we want to try to stay in plays with them at the defensive end and then offensively we want to execute and create open looks."