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Impressive Defense In An Inspiring Week of WNBA Basketball

I was a bit NBA draft obsessed this past week so I watched less WNBA games…and I missed quite a week…

During the NBA draft was the triple overtime thriller between the Liberty and Fever. Overtime heroics from Tina Thompson who hit a game winning shot against the Silver Stars with a broken finger. The Sun and Shock split in their home-and-home series for first place. The Dream pushed a weary Sun team to overtime in search of their first win. And lest we forget, Candace Parker had those two dunks.

Toss in Pam McGee’s son getting drafted, and I think maybe you have a candidate for one of the most exciting WNBA weeks ever…? Not a bad follow up to last weekend which included outstanding performances by Deanna Nolan and Candice Wiggins last weekend.This was the kind of week of basketball I love to see as a fan: competitive, high quality basketball with a touch of drama.

I did get to see the back to back Shock and Sun games and that was some of the best WNBA basketball I’ve seen. Why? Although each game was pretty much one-sided, it featured some of the best team defense I’ve ever seen.

Defense is not the most exciting thing to watch, it might not even win championships, but since we so rarely see a team play a full game of intense defense I thought these games were worth a second look. And right now, I think the edge goes to the Shock in the Eastern Conference.

It’s sort of funny that I happened to catch a re-run of a certain cartoon that criticized the WNBA for being a slower version of basketball with minor talent...on a night on which such great basketball was played. Defensive basketball can sometimes come off as slow and boring, but it was hard not to appreciate the defensive intensity that the Sun and Shock displayed this week.

Game 1: Detroit at Connecticut

The X’s and O’s of Basketball covered the defensive schemes of the first game pretty well. Here’s a summary:
There wasn't one thing specifically, but I put together a few plays which showed what a good M2M defensive team looks like. They got their hands into the passing lanes to deflect and steal lazy passes, they had great help-side defense to stop penetration, and finally I liked the way they played tough against the Shock by bumping Katie Smith and making her work for her points.
So I was interested to see two things in the second game: 1) whether the Sun could bring the intensity a second time and 2) what adjustments the Shock would make.

Game 2: Connecticut at Detroit

What was amazing about the second game is that the Sun actually managed to bring the same defensive intensity in the second game, especially the denial defense. Barbara Turner was practically flying into the passing lanes on some plays, putting on a ton of pressure when she wasn’t getting her hand on the ball. They made smart double teams by waiting until post players dribbled the ball to bring the second player. Their defensive pressure triggered a number of fast breaks.

The big difference in this game was that the Shock responded well to the defense. They made two huge runs -- a 17-2 run that began at the end of the first quarter and an 11-1 run in the third quarter – that the Sun never recovered from. That was only worsened by the fact that the Sun also shot themselves out of the game in the first half going 1 for 8 from the three point line.

So what did the Shock do differently?

The main thing was that they got into attack mode early and just never let up. That was made by possible by much improved ball movement, which kept Connecticut’s defense off balance.

The Shock’s intensity extended to the defensive end. Commentator Matt Sheppard described it best as a swarmi defense. Although Tom Thibault said the Sun dug themselves a hole offensively, he should have credited the Shock defense with digging that hole. Connecticut got to a point where they were taking the best shots available.

But what impressed me most was the way Detroit attacked Connecticut’s defense with outstanding ball movement. It was an excellent demonstration of how to beat a strong man to man defense.

First, rather than panicking when Connecticut brought pressure, they were extremely patient. Second, people did an excellent job of moving without the ball to get open so the ball could keep moving. When they got the ball into the post, Connecticut often had trouble stopping them.

But what enabled that was outstanding guard play by Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith.
They are an amazing backcourt combination who are able to distribute the ball well, find their own scoring opportunities, and manage the tempo. When Cheryl Ford, Alexis Hornbuckle, or Tasha Humphrey are playing well too, this team is nearly impossible to stop. So when they’re moving the ball around against a man to man defense, it’s difficult to defend because almost every player is a threat to score. As a testament to their offensive balance, five players scored in double figures against the Sun.

There was one play in particular at the end of the first half where Deanna Nolan was double teamed on at the top of the key, back dribbled out of the double team to get the defender off balance, and used a crossover to get by the defender to the basket. That’s something I rarely see at any level of basketball. And she did it so smoothly that it seemed unspectacular.

Edge: Detroit

A team with two intelligent combo guards on the court, strong post play, and good defense is going to be difficult to beat. The Sun are good, but extremely dependent on Lindsay Whalen to win. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Whalen is an amazing player capable of carrying a team. They win based on effort, great coaching and outstanding team basketball. But stopping the Sun is predicated primarily on keying in on Whalen and Detroit did that well.

Over the long haul, especially in the playoffs, it will just be much easier for Detroit to adjust to what teams throw at them because their team is so balanced on both sides of the floor. They’re extremely difficult to plan for and what I think they showed this week is that when they bring their maximum intensity to the game, there’s nothing an opponent can do to stop them.

Transition Points
  • Back in the day, some professional games would be shown on tape delay. The WNBA needs to start thinking seriously about showing ESPN games on web delay. The NBA draft is equivalent to Christmas Day for me (makin a list, checking it 100 times…) so I didn’t catch the Liberty triple overtime thriller (and my DVR stopped recording at the end of regulation). It would have been nice to have such an exciting game available online so that I could see some of the most exciting play the league has to offer.
  • Again, if CNN can be convinced to have footage of their broadcasts posted on YouTube, there has got to be a way to convince ESPN to allow an online archive of games like that for the good of the WNBA (and their future ratings). It’s an agreement that works out for everyone – fans see the great games they missed, the WNBA showcases their best, ESPN gives people a reason to make it a priority to watch the network broadcast the first time in the future.
  • I realize that there are barriers to using the web more effectively, but as the Women’s Hoop blog highlights, there are some little things that would be relatively simple to accomplish.