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Fever Collapse Under the Pressure Of "Playing Not To Lose"

I chose to watch the Fever-Lynx webcast last night instead of the Sparks-Sun game because I figured it would be more interesting to continue following the Fever without Tully Bevilqua that the Sparks without 4/5 of their starting lineup.

I ended up feeling pretty good about that decision, but it came at the Fever’s expense as they blew a 9-point lead with less than 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter and ended up losing the game 84-80 in overtime

The game wasn’t especially "exciting", but very interesting from a strategy perspective. Blowing leads has apparently been a problem all season for the Fever and the first thing that jumps out on the stat sheet and in recaps is the Fever going 16-for-16 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter. After the game Ebony Hoffman described the problem…and rightly pointed out that "it had nothing to do with the refs".
"This is maybe the third or fourth game we haven't closed them out at the end and had a team come back. And we just foul them and send them to the line. We really can't have them shoot 36 free throws and make 31 of 'em and we only go to the line 16 times. It had nothing to do with the refs, just some bonehead plays we made."
I think Hoffman is correct – for whatever reason, the Fever started fouling instead of executing down the stretch and that cost them the game. But the flip-side of the fourth quarter collapse was a shift in offensive strategy predicated on playing it safe. And it was Indiana Fever color commentator Debbie Antonelli’s observations that brought it to my attention.

Tan White's point guard play a concern for some

Part of the reason I was intrigued by the Fever game is that they tried Tan White at point guard, which was their best replacement option for Tully Bevilaqua, judging by the numbers. But for a large portion of the Fever-Lynx webcast last night, Antonelli focused on a major difference between Bevilaqua and White: whereas the former tends to quickly bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, the latter has a tendency to play with the ball too much before distributing.

While I agree with the observation about Bevilaqua and White’s playing styles, I disagree with her assessment of the situation – White’s energy and efforts to penetrate were a huge benefit to the Fever and actually one of the reasons (along with Tamika Catchings) the Fever were able to build a lead late in the fourth. Conversely, Antonelli wanted Catchings or Katie Douglas to handle the ball because they tend to initiate the offense more quickly.

So when Douglas entered the game to run the offense with 3:31 left in the fourth and the Fever up 7 points, it was one of those fun opportunities to directly challenge basketball assumptions. And Antonelli made a comment that I think foreshadowed the reason for the Fever’s downfall:

Lin Dunn discussing with Katie Douglas what I believe will be, "Manage the point a little bit for us, Katie. Handle the basketball in the late game situation. Katie Douglas a good three point shooter, as is Tamika Catchings, under pressure.

Prior to that point, Antonelli and play-by-play announcer Chris Denari had wondered when the Fever would start taking time off the clock with their 9-point lead in hand. And once the Fever actually implemented that strategy with Douglas entering the game, the collapse ensued.

With football season on the horizon, the Fever’s late-game strategy reminded of the old cliché that "the prevent defense prevents you from winning" – when you start "playing not to lose" and inexplicably stop doing what got you the lead in the first place, you’re asking for trouble. And although Tan White is not a perfect point guard by any means, I think the late game collapse demonstrated the value of her attacking instincts.

Why hurry to initiate one of the league’s worst offenses?

In summarizing last night’s game, Fever media relations director Kevin Messenger (who provides us with the disclaimer that he’s not an X’s and O’s guy) wrote that despite solid defense, "Offensively, we don't get to the line." You don’t have to be an expert strategist to figure out that the reason the Fever don’t get to the line is their inability to penetrate the defense. And in skimming through Kevin Messenger’s blog this season, he has mentioned repeatedly that one of the Fever’s biggest problems is their lack of a point guard who can penetrate. It’s a major problem for the Fever offense.

It’s no coincidence then that the Fever are one of the worst offenses in the WNBA, right ahead of the Washington Mystics. They score the second least points per game, have the second worst offensive rating, and the third worst synergy score. So when Tan White chose to follow her instincts and do something other than run the typical offense, it seemed like a good thing – at the end of the fourth, their 75 points exceeded their season average of 70 points per game.

Tan White is by no means a perfect point guard, but she brought a bit of that ability to drive to the basket and set up others that the Fever have lacked all season. White was one of the players I kept track of last night because she got the surprising (to me) start at point guard. What I kept noting is that she did an excellent job of penetrating and either making assists or setting up scoring opportunities for teammates.

The energy and rhythm that comes from a point guard that is able to penetrate is huge and it was noticeable for most of the game last night. White’s ability to get to the basket also put a lot of pressure on the defense to stay in front of her while also keeping an eye on scorer’s Catchings and Douglas. It kept the Fever off balance because there were three players on the court at most times that were all able to create offense for themselves and others.

They built their 9-point lead in the 4th quarter with Bond, White, and Catchings in the game driving or cutting to the basket finding each other for quality scoring opportunities. It was by far the most fluid stretch of Fever basketball of the entire game. It wasn’t just because White alternated playing the lead guard with Bond and Catchings, but they were in attack mode, forcing the Lynx defense to rotate and guard multiple options. With five minutes left in the fourth, they already had their highest assist total of the season.

So even though White was indeed playing with the ball (and turned it over 6 times), they were doing an excellent job of moving the ball and finding enough scoring opportunities to take a decent lead despite poor shooting. I was also following the Yahoo box score at that time and it keeps track of plus/minus numbers – White led the team with a +15.

So why change what's working?

The likely reason Katie Douglas came into the game at 3:31 is because Tan White had just committed a particularly bad turnover…because she was playing with the ball in traffic. I say that only because after the turnover, Lin Dunn threw up her hands in disgust and then called Douglas off the bench.

I’m not saying Douglas is the problem and I actually thought she would be one of the best replacements for Bevilaqua. But it seemed that the shift in strategy from attacking the basket to "managing the clock" was motivated by a fear of losing the game after White made a particularly bad turnover.

From that point until the end of the game, the Fever were outscored 12-3 and 21-8 if you include the overtime period. During that time, the Fever spent the majority of their time firing jumpers while the Lynx lined up for a parade to the free throw line. It was the result of very little ball movement, protecting the ball instead of trying to score, and a failure to convert on the scoring opportunities that led them to build the lead.

It just seemed like they overreacted when they didn’t need to and decided to play it safe instead of taking the risk that attacking the basket wouldn’t work. And you don’t win basketball games by always playing it safe – the fact that the Phoenix Mercury are defending champions should demonstrate that.

Inefficient personnel or poor strategy?

There is no doubt that the Lynx’s 16 free throws caused the Fever to lose. And (thankfully) the fouls in the last 3:31 – when the Fever had a 7-point lead – were good calls and bad plays by the Fever. But it didn’t help the Fever to shift to a strategy of milking the clock while they were up 7.

They probably did that because, as Messenger points out, they have repeatedly lost leads on their home floor. So it’s understandable that Lin Dunn got worried when it appeared that it could happen again. This was also an important game for them to create separation from Washington and Chicago, whom are now two games behind the Fever for the 4th playoff spot in the east.

But it seems inaccurate to claim that Bevilaqua’s absence or White’s non-traditional style of play is responsible for this loss. The Fever had lost 3 of 5 prior to Bevilaqua’s absence and their offense has been a problem all season. Somehow they need to find a way to keep up the driving energy on offense that helped them build a lead.

The problem is bigger than just one player when you blow three consecutive leads at home to teams playing without key players (Lauren Jackson, Dominique Canty, and Candice Wiggins got injured after 30 seconds last night). This does not bode well for their playoff chances down the stretch – the Mystics are something of a wild card now with their new coach and the Sky have Sylvia Fowles back and are playing good basketball.

This is good for the league of course because it sets up a very exciting fight for the playoffs involving a team with high expectations and two teams who look rejuvenated. Unfortunately, it has to be nerve racking for Indiana fans.

Transition Points:

Had the Fever been able to take care of the ball more effectively (they turned the ball over on approximately 20.5% of their possessions) they might have mounted a larger 4th quarter lead. 4 of their 5 starters, who played the majority of the game, had at least 3 turnovers. Ouch.

Candice Wiggins went down with 3:19 left
in the 1st quarter almost immediately after entering the game. From the Horton Report:
Injury Update: Candice injured her lower back in the 1st quarter on a drive through the lane, she collided with Tan White, got knocked off balance and hit the floor hard on her right side. Candice was in tears as she left the court in a wheelchair, it looked particularly awkward as she couldn't straighten her right leg. Last word we got was that she was headed to the hospital for further evaluation.