After the Tulsa Shock's 78-72 loss to the first place Minnesota Lynx last week, head coach Teresa Edwards said that it was possibly their best performance of the year.
And yes, they definitely had showed signs of improvement.
But still, it's hard to know what's more surprising: that the Shock ended their 20-game losing streak in Los Angeles on the back end of a back-to-back or the fact that they followed it up with an 83-72 win against the almost certainly playoff-bound Connecticut Sun on Sunday.
Far more surprising is that a Shock team that has shot 39.7% for the season suddenly shot 73.1% in the second half on Tuesday, as Jessica Lantz described yesterday. And if you've been following the Shock closely since their move to Tulsa, you might find it unbelievable that they played near-playoff level basketball in the third quarter.
Early in the third quarter against the Sun, the Shock found themselves down 15 points and history seemed to be repeating itself. But then they woke up.
"I think at that point they probably thought we've got a 15 point lead, we can take it easy, they're going to give up," said Swoopes, who had eight of her team-high 22 points in the third quarter. "Why would a team that can't make the playoffs or anything, why would they come back and fight."
Key stat: The Shock shot 73.1% in the second half
It's hard not to begin with the Shock's shooting efficiency as the reason for their victory, particularly their 3-point shooting.
The Shock are the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the league this season at 28.36%, but over the last two games they have shot 41.66% from beyond the arc. In the second half they shot 4-for-5 from deep (80%), including 3-for-4 in the third quarter.
And just to help illustrate how important that improved 3-point shooting was in their third quarter, comparing their raw field goal percentages in the third and fourth quarters is interesting - while the raw field goal percentages suggest the fourth quarter was better, their effective field goal percentage shows that they were equally efficient.
Qtr FG% 3pm-3pa eFG%
2 35.29% 0-4 35.29%
3 69.23% 3-4 80.77%
4 76.92% 1-1 80.77%
Obviously, 15 threes might not look like a lot, but that's a higher rate of three point shooting (26.78%) than most teams in the league shoot on average this year (24.10%). But this is about the Shock's normal three point rate this season (27.43%).
Regardless, an effective field goal percentage at 80% is remarkable on its own for any period of time. To sustain that level of efficiency for two quarters - with or without the help of threes - almost never happens.
On the one hand, we could look at this as a two game fluke hot streak that will just subside. On the other hand, there is something the Shock is actually doing to help themselves shoot better independent of what's going on beyond the arc.
MVP: Ivory Latta has been a much more efficient distributor
While shooting efficiency might jump out on paper, what stood out in watching the game was how well the Shock moved the ball.
Not only did the Shock assist on 77.78% of their field goals, but they only turned the ball over once (5.6% turnover percentage) in the third quarter. That starts with the play of Ivory Latta who has been an extremely efficient over the last four games for the Shock.
Latta had 6 assists (31.57% assist ratio) to only 2 turnovers (10.52% turnover ratio) for a pure point rating of 5.71. Just to put it in perspective - keeping the sample size in mind - that PPR is not too far from what Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen has been doing this season.
No, Latta is not challenging Whalen as the best distributor in the league. But she is giving the Shock the type of point guard play that they've needed to direct their offense simply by looking to pass more often and shooting a bit less (19.42% usage rate on Sunday).
More importantly, that's been a pattern over the last four games.
v Minn 28.64% 8.18% 8.60 27.25%
@ Sea 21.42% 7.14% 4 22.24%
@ LAS 6.66% 20% -7.5 21.42%
v Conn 31.57% 10.52% 5.71 19.42%
Bear in mind that Minnesota and Seattle are two of the top defenses in the league, with the Lynx in particular among the best at forcing turnovers.
But in plain terms, the team is playing better with Latta looking to pass more. They won with her usage hovering right around average and had that scorching hot second half with her both not shooting as much and creating assists more often.
What the statistics reflect is that Latta is doing a much better job lately of looking to find open teammates, getting the team into the offense quickly, and dribbling less often. Did she still take some questionable shots? Of course, this is still Ivory Latta, not Lindsay Whalen. But with a point guard moving the ball, the team doing a much better job of spreading the court and moving without the ball, and with a consistent rotation and clear goal on most possessions, the team is much more fluid offensively.
Yet it's not all Latta that makes that happen.
Key player: Amber Holt's playmaking from the wing is also critical
Having a point guard that's willing to pass and a team hitting threes to stretch the defense is great, but to take advantage of that in the WNBA it helps to have other players around the court who can be relied upon to make plays when necessary.
Obviously, when a player on the wing is able to effectively identify and hit cutters or handle the ball occasionally without turning it over, it's much easier to score.
The Shock aren't the San Antonio Silver Stars in that regard, but Amber Holt is a player who's been huge as that alternate passer lately, leading the Shock with a 8.08 PPR against the Sun. When Latta had an inefficient game against the the Sparks, it was Holt stepping up with a 4.76 PPR, tops among players that played significant minutes (Andrea Riley led the team with a PPR of 7.40 in about 9 minutes).
The Shock over the last few games have been a prime example of synergy, a team that has been in near perfect sync - not only moving the ball, but doing so in a way that sets people up for good scoring opportunities that they can convert. In that third quarter, their synergy rating was 1.59, which is a testament to all of the above: players looking for teammates, teammates getting open for shots, teammates hitting shots.
It's hard to say what exactly has led to this somewhat dramatic shift in performance from the Shock - they've had a league-low synergy of 1.01 this season, tied with the similarly woeful Washington Mysitics. But the play of their guards, a consistent roster and rotation, more consistent execution of something resembling an offense (they're relying heavily on Tiffany Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes as the focal points of their offense) and having a full coaching staff are certainly factors.
But synergy is more descriptive than explanatory - San Antonio has the third-highest synergy in the league (1.11) and is in danger of missing the playoffs. The bigger reason for their success is their play on the interior.
MVP: Tina Charles neutralized after 11 point, 3 rebound first quarter
In the last 13 games, approximately the same number of games that Teresa Edwards has been coach, the Shock have been beating opponents on the offensive boards 28.85% to 24.57%. That's significant on its own for a team struggling to find strengths, but that 24.57% mark is the second lowest in the league behind Minnesota.
They actually got outrebounded by the Sun on Sunday - and got beat 43% to 0 in their dynamic third quarter - but that aggression they're showing on both the offensive and defensive boards is what helped them contain Charles.
After her big first quarter, the Shock held Charles to 10 points and 7 rebounds the rest of the way. But the key is that they didn't let her get near as many easy baskets around the basket off of offensive rebounds and Edwards showed quite a bit of faith in her roster in guarding Charles.
Tulsa Shock 83, Connecticut Sun 72 - The Shock Start a New Streak - Swish Appeal
"The great thing about this team is we had other players that could come off the bench and contribute and we definitely needed that," Latta said. "This girl right here (Abi), came in and gave us big minutes and Karima Christmas played great."
Edwards is well aware of the impact Olajuwon had on the outcome of this game, regardless of what the stat sheet says.
"Abi's size is proving to be a big difference in a lot of games during the close of the season for us," Edwards said. She's learning how to use her body. Coach Murray is really hard on her in practice about using what she's got ... It's going to pay off for her. She's not afraid to do it. She's not afraid to sacrifice herself for her team."
Christmas' work on the boards in particular was impressive as she was simply quicker to spots and off the floor in leading the team with a 20.20% offensive rebounding percentage in her 12 minutes of play.
Overall, what we're seeing from the Shock is a team that is more focused, fluid, and simply outworking opponents in ways that have led to consecutive victories.
Whether that carries over to a third consecutive win against the Phoenix Mercury is hard to know - the Mercury have been outrebounded in their final 13 games and allow the highest effective field goal percentages in the league. If the Shock are able to execute in the half court with Latta continuing to be as efficient as she has been as a distributor, a win is not out of the question.
Regardless, we can say that this is a team that has not given up and they're not looking to make any more history.
"The thing about this team is it doesn't matter if we're up by 15, down by 15 we're going to continue to play hard and continue to fight," said Swoopes. "Coach T called a timeout and was like guys we've been here before. Come on, we can win this game. She believes in every single person on this team. We really wanted to go out and get another win for her and for ourselves and more than that just for the fans.
"They've been here and they deserve to see us play well. It just feels really good to get a win today."
Which was most surprising?
The Shock beating the Sparks in L.A. on the back end of a road back-to-back (3 votes)
The Shock following their win in L.A. with a win against the Sun at home (15 votes)
The thought that they might be able to get a third straight win against Phoenix tonight (4 votes)
Equally surprising (or not surprising) (1 vote)
23 total votes