Ashley Robinson and Tanisha Wright have made individual improvements over the last four games even as the Seattle Storm went 1-3. Photo via Kailas Images.
It's an exaggeration to say that the Seattle Storm were in total control of last Thursday's 73-55 win over the San Antonio Silver Stars from "start to finish".
But in watching the game, it did feel like the first time this season they had grabbed a hold of a game in the first quarter and never let go.
Their 28-point fourth quarter lead was the largest of their largest of the season, the Silver Stars' 27.7% field goal percentage was a season-low shooting percentage for an opponent (among other lows), and it was the Storm's second largest margin of victory.
It was a truly dominant performance that could almost have made a KeyArena fan feel like it was 2010 again. Almost.
For all of that dominance that had to be encouraging heading into the All-Star break, it's hard to take too much from that game. And not only because they just lost in San Antonio a week prior.
"You know how this league is; you can play a team on two consecutive nights and have two completely different games," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "It's just one of those things. They have been traveling like we have."
So part of what makes it hard to take much away from the win is that it stands as just another up in the Storm's up and down season.
A little more than two weeks ago, the Storm followed up handing the Los Angeles Sparks a 19-point beat down that ended up being the last of game of Jennifer Gillom's coaching tenure with a battle at home against the 3-11 Washington Mystics and then a three game road losing streak.
"Always a difference at home," said Storm point guard Sue Bird. "It was a rough road trip. We played three tough teams, three rough games where even though we were down at times we had a chance to win all of those games."
So the other part of what makes reading into that big win somewhat difficult is that as much as playing in KeyArena might be an advantage for the Storm, winning on the road anywhere is tough in the WNBA and could easily explain away the Silver Stars' season-worst performance.
So with that in mind, what was actually more interesting about the Storm's win against the Silver Stars were some patterns of improvement that actually carried over from their 0-3 road trip.
Ashley Robinson making a huge impact as a starter
Storm center Ashley Robinson is making a huge impact since Storm coach Brian Agler inserted her into the starting lineup in Chicago Sky on July 19. In that first game against the Chicago Sky, she put up career numbers with 14 points and 10 rebounds in a season-high 30 minutes. She followed that up with a solid performance with 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 0 turnovers which gave her a plus/minus rating of +30.
Robinson is playing so much better overall that listing the statistical areas of improvement is probably less important than how she's playing - she has shown much more confidence in scoring around the basket, not only in making cuts, but with her back to the basket. That confidence also shows up in the way she's much more willing to handle the ball around the perimeter, which helps spread opposing defenses for the Storm and make their offense a bit more dynamic in the absence of Lauren Jackson.
But here's the even more interesting thing: in both of her games as a starter, Robinson has been the Storm's second most valuable player statistically (what I'll usually call the "key player" in my game summaries). Over the last four games (the road trip and the San Antonio game) Robinson has been the third most valuable on the team, behind Bird and Tanisha Wright.
Top Storm players by Marginal Victory Produced from 7/14-7/21. Click here for an explanation of MVP.
Three things are noteworthy there: first, we see you A-Rob. Second, the Storm were competitive in all three of those losses without Sue Bird having to dominate the game, which means they were far more balanced than they've typically been even in losses - Bird was only the team's MVP once in four games (the effect of that, which is a separate discussion, is that Bird's efficiency as a distributor goes way up). Third, Wright is playing much better basketball.
Tanisha Wright's scoring aggression taking the burden off Bird and Cash
From watching Wright play over the last four games, my initial thought was that her free throw rate would have gone up - that's not necessarily true though. In the two games against San Antonio, she had a total of two free throws. Her shooting efficiency was up over those last four games, partially because she's just getting to the rim and making buckets to increase her 2-point percentage.
But the most noticeable change is that her usage percentages are up over the last four (with the notable exception of that Chicago game). Wright continues to be less efficient as a lead ball handler than Bird during the last few games, but two positive things have happened as a result of Wright using a large percentage of the team's plays:
- As Wright's usage percentage has gone up, her assist ratio has dropped a bit, but her turnover ratio has dropped rather significantly as she scores on more possessions. Wright has gotten more efficient as a distributor as her usage percentage goes up.
- Bird's efficiency as a distributor tends to go down as her usage percentage goes up. So with Wright looking to score more often and Bird's usage percentage going down, Bird becomes a more efficient distributor.
In other words, Wright assuming more of the scoring load has made the Storm a more efficient ball handling team in the last four games overall. That was true even in Wright's poor performance against Chicago - her usage percentage then was below season average.
Katie Smith is finding her shooting stroke
But Wright isn't the only scorer improving over the last four games - Katie Smith has too.
If we regard Smith's 2-for-11 performance in Minnesota game as an outlier (Smith started with Camille Little not with the team), Smith is shot 9-for-19 (47.36%) over the other three games. But even if we go ahead and include that Minnesota performance, Smith is just shooting better lately: after shooting 26% through the first 11 games, she shot 36.6% over the last four, three of which came on the road. That, while still not great, is a rather significant increase especially given that it seems as though she found her touch on the road.
As some people suspected, it's moreso that a great shooter is finally finding a rhythm after struggling early on. If these small, yet significant, individual improvements continue for the Storm, the team as a whole could be poised for a similar trajectory in the second half of the season.