Little Things Mean A Lot: How Unsung Heroes Stepped Up in Game 1

Mccoughtry-sequence-sw_medium
Angel McCoughtry's 14-foot jumper that could have given the Dream the lead with 23.6 seconds left in the fourth.
(Photo by Kailas Images)

When I saw Seattle Storm forward Camille Little isolated at the top of the key on Atlanta Dream forward Angel McCoughtry with less than 30 seconds left and the game tied at 77, I immediately recalled comments about the Dream's young star from Storm coaches in the previous few days.

"I don't know if we have that answer right now," said Storm coach Brian Agler when asked about stopping McCoughtry after Saturday's practice, echoing the words of assistant coach Nancy Darsch from the day before. "We do have people that are pretty good individual stoppers, but that doesn't always get it done. So we have to do it more from a team concept than from necessarily a one-on-one situation."

And there stood Little in exactly the situation Agler probably hoped to avoid with Game 1 of the Finals - and the Storm's undefeated home record - on the line. You have to imagine that a dynamic scorer like McCoughtry - one of the most confident and intense competitors in the league - saw this as something of an advantageous opportunity to steal a game in KeyArena.

And yet Little didn't show any sign of backing down.

Not giving ground as McCoughtry sized her up, Little stayed on her toes, moved her feet and was able to keep the league's leading playoff scorer from getting past her. Yes, McCoughtry did get off a shot, but the fact that Little held her ground and kept McCoughtry from driving and setting up someone else or getting to the free throw line is what's most important.

Little managed to mostly prevent any significant forward progress on the play - had McCoughtry hit that shot, it would have simply been a great shot from a great player.

That shot, of course, was the 14-foot missed jumper with 23.9 seconds left that set up the play that we will now hear about for ages: the 18-foot jumper on a pick-and-roll that might be remembered as one of the most clutch plays in the league's history and undoubtedly among the many defining moments of Bird's career.

While that clutch shot will likely overshadow Little's clutch defensive play, Bird didn't allow Little to go unnoticed after the game, as described by Mechelle Voepel.

Camille Little comes up huge for Seattle Storm in WNBA Finals - ESPN
"She was the key to the game," Seattle guard Sue Bird said. "Every time they made a run, every time we relaxed, Camille was the one to step up. Whether it be a defensive stop or a 3-point play. And she had the energy; she was encouraging the rest of the team.

"That's something Camille has done for us the entire season. If I had to pick an unsung hero for our team, it would most certainly be her."

As she has quietly done all season, Little was everywhere last night and it's hard to imagine the Storm escaping Game 1 of the WNBA Finals with a win.

Storm Statistical MVP: Camille Little

Former Storm rival Lisa Leslie recently described Little as the type of player who might fly under the radar and that's pretty much what defined her performance yesterday.

The play that really stood out for me was a play just under two minutes prior to her big defensive play in which Storm guard Tanisha Wright drove hard to the basket from the right wing and hitting a cutting Little just as the Storm collapsed on her. Little made the layup to keep the Storm up 6 points at the two minute mark.

Then there's the play two minutes before where Little blocked Dream guard Iziane Castro Marques. Little also ended up in my notes late in the third quarter for a beautiful pass to Svetlana Abrosimova that put the Storm up three points.

In other words, Little is the type of player who is everywhere doing almost everything for her team and last night was an example of her doing it on the WNBA's biggest stage.

Little finished with team-highs of a 76.53% true shooting percentage and 40% free throw rate, an excellent 30.36% defensive rebounding rate, a strong 14.33% offensive rebounding rate, and an assist ratio of 13.55%, impressive given the mostly interior role she plays on the team.

By no means can one say that Little "carried" the team, but her all-around contributions in a tightly contested game were critical as Bird noted.

Key contributor: Lauren Jackson

Of course, Jackson was no small factor in helping the Storm win Game 1. Most impressive about Jackson is that, as might be expected, she used a high percentage of plays when on the court (27.64%) but also shot well (61.66%).

However, she did the majority of her damage in the third quarter and the Dream limited her quite effectively to a rather pedestrian 3-for-10 shooting the rest of the game.

Dream statistical MVP: Sancho Lyttle

A large reason the Dream were able to effectively limit Jackson was the play of Sancho Lyttle who, like Little, had as big an impact statistically as she did in more subtle ways.

What stands out most for Lyttle statistically is that once again she dominated the boards with a defensive rebounding percentage of 51% and five steals.

However, what she also did extremely well is playing help defense on everybody including Jackson. One of the first things you notice about Lyttle in practice is how quick her feet are. In the Dream's defensive schemes, her ability to move quickly to play help defense and get to the boards is essential. When she is on the ball, her ability to recover is equally valuable on smaller players.

The Dream thrive off turnovers and Lyttle's activity made a big contribution to that.

Key statistics: turnover percentage

People have taken notice of the rebounding margin in Game 1, partially it seems because the Dream have been so dominant with that all season. However, people have forgotten that during the entire regular season, the Storm were the best rebounding team and during the playoffs they've been second. That the two teams matched up and played even on the boards is no cause for alarm - it might be what one would reasonably expect.

But the bigger matter in this game and one that Storm players and Agler noted was the turnover margin, which was quite significant.

"Yeah, it was a little fast, and we started playing pretty well early, started throwing the ball away a little bit and, you know, they scored some transition baskets off our turnovers and there were a little too many," said Agler. "They're going to get baskets from transitions, but you don't want it from a turnover standpoint because it's hard to get your defense set at that point."

The Dream beat the Storm 13 to 4 in fast break points and, as Agler said, it seemed as though that frantic pace took the Storm out of their comfort zone in half court sets on both ends.

The result is a statistical oddity: I briefly mentioned after the game that the Dream "outperformed" the Storm statistically and someone noted that the Storm outplayed the Dream in 3 of the 4 Four Factors. And they did.

             eFG% TO%    OReb FTR
              ----       ----       ----     ----
ATL      .442    .165      .297    .117
SEA     .486    .228      .303    .157
Four Factors for WNBA Finals, Game 1


However, when you look at a weighted Four Factors analysis - which almost always favors the winning team, even in close games - they played almost exactly even with the Dream ahead by hundredths. In addition, the Dream had a higher MEV than the Storm.

Final eFg% Fta/Fga Oreb% Tov% Team Factors MEV
Atl 44% 12% 30% 15% 4.64 68.16
Sea 49% 16% 30% 22% 4.61 62.79
Weighted Diffs eFg% Fta/Fga Oreb% Tov%
Sea .44 0.08 0.02 -0.59
Four Factors analysis for WNBA Finals, Game 1. Click here for explanations of these numbers.

 

It wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that close games are bound to be even and that makes a lot of sense. But the Storm have gone 15-1 in these close games. The only one where the opponent managed to outplay or play even with them in both of these metrics in a win was the home win against the Connecticut Sun.

I don't have these numbers for every WNBA game of the season, but in tracking them for this season and the college season that's a rarity and generally means a team played poorly and got a few breaks to win. In this situation, the Dream pulled off the rather odd feat of establishing a significant advantage in turnover differential that allowed them to play even with the Storm despite disadvantages in the other three categories. As for MEV, the combination of the turnover differential and steals -- the Dream had 10 to the Storm's 5 -- contributed greatly to the differential there.

In other words, it's not as though the Storm played an absolutely horrible game overall; the Dream however did make this into the frantic, sloppy game they thrive on while the Storm were significantly disrupted by the turnover problem.

So looking at Game 1 to frame expectations for Game 2, might be a matter of perspective.

If you're rooting for the Storm, perhaps you look at Game 1 as further evidence of the Storm's resilience.

"It's a 40 minute game and runs happen throughout those 40 minutes," said Bird after Saturday's practice. "To me a championship team is one that can win even when they aren't playing well. We've proven that, but hopefully we can put together a full 40 minutes in the Finals."

On the other hand, from the Dream's perspective, Game 1 could be taken as an encouraging sign that they can not only hang with the Storm, but also establish their style and make the Storm play a subpar game - if McCoughtry's minutes hadn't been limited by foul trouble and injury, one might reason, the Dream would have won that game.

"It's unfortunate that Angel got into foul trouble then she got hit in the head so she was out of the game for a long time," said Meadors of McCoughtry's 21:22 minutes during the post-game press conference. "I think if we could keep her in the game on Tuesday night, she will have a better chance of getting into some type of rhythm. But I was proud of our team, I thought we fought hard throughout the game and, you know, we'll come back on Tuesday night and give it our best."

But the potential differences in perspective are what make this game so weird - there were so many unusual variables at play in this game that it's difficult to determine much about the matchup. Yes, McCoughtry was in foul trouble and injured, but Storm forward Swin Cash was also in foul trouble and limited to 19:19. Alison Bales and Yelena Leuchanka who had been significant contributors off the bench during the playoffs only played 4:10 each during the same stretch, which certainly means the Dream could stand to leverage their depth more effectively. The Dream put Kelly Miller on the floor for the first time in a while during the fourth quarter, which worked out well overall - it was arguably the team's best quarter - but that might have changed things.

Then back to the Storm, if you truly believe that a team can consistently hold Lauren Jackson to 3-10 shooting even over three quarters - even discontinuously - you haven't been paying much attention to the Storm this season. It doesn't happen often.

All of that is before standard game adjustments.

And perhaps all the higher than usual uncertainty about what we might see in  Game 2 is exactly what makes it so exciting.

Related Links:

Photo Sequence & Video: Was Sue Bird's Shot The Result Of A Great Or Moving Screen?

Swish Appeal Statistics Glossary 

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