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Point Guard Play of Perkins & Sharp Help Deal the Sun a Discouraging loss

You could say that both the Sky and Sun made necessary changes to their starting lineup prior to Chicago’s 73-65 victory last night.

The Sky have lost starting point guard Dominique Canty at least until after the Olympic break and possibly for the season.

The Sun…well…something had to change for them so coach Mike Thibault chose to move Lindsay Whalen over to the shooting guard spot and go with Ketia Swanier as the point guard. However, the Sun never able to sustain a rhythm and played an uncharacteristically sloppy game.

The Sun commentators suggested taking the positive out of the second half – the Sun turned up the defensive intensity and managed to erase a 15-point deficit and make it a close game in the 4th quarter. However, a deeper at the game reveals that the Sun didn’t really get within striking distance until Perkins and Sharp left the game with small injuries midway through the 3rd quarter.

Although Perkins and Sharp had a major impact on last night’s game, it’s hard to say whether they are more effective than Canty. But from what I’ve seen of Chicago this season, the team looked much more fluid without Canty running the point as Perkins and Sharp made excellent decisions. They were able to limit mistakes and make enough point guard plays to lead their team to a win – the Sky had 0 turnovers as a team in the second quarter.

So in evaluating the backcourt adjustments of each team, I’d have to say that while the play of Chicago’s point guards was quite encouraging, the Sun’s entire offense was rather discouraging. While there are statistics to back that up, I think close observation of the point guards may tell the story well.

What on earth is wrong with the Sun?

The Sun started out the season on fire and had a number of commentators surprised about their success. Well, it looks like the nay-sayers may have been right – maybe they were playing a bit over their heads.

I’ve been wondering for some time about why exactly the Sun were struggling to such an extent. Barbara Turner has may embody the team’s recent struggles best. She started out the season apparently playing the best basketball of her career and then plummeted back down to earth and has subsequently been demoted from the starting lineup. Unfortunately, they still haven’t been able to replace Turner’s early-season production in their lineup…and it’s really hurt them as they’ve dropped 6 of the last 7 games.

Swanier was not effective as a starter offensively, though she did come up with some outstanding defensive plays in the second half. Whalen was non-existent but part of that was because the rest of the team has been so ineffective the last two games that Whalen is forced to take on the offensive burden almost entirely by herself. That’s a massive shift from the beginning of the season when they were winning on the strength of their ball movement. Perhaps looking at the lineup combinations with Turner and Swanier will provide some insight.

The Sun have done quite a bit of tinkering with their lineup this season -- this was Swanier's third start although she's also racked up a few DNPs. But when the Sun won 7 of 8 games in late May/early June, it was actually Jolene Anderson in the starting lineup.

So maybe a look at the playing styles combinations with Anderson (early season) and Swanier (last night) will be helpful:

Conn w/Anderson: Whalen (utility combo guard), Anderson (interior scorer), Holt (mixed), Jones (interior scorer), Whitmore (interior scorer)

Conn w/Swanier: Whalen (utility combo guard), Swanier (utility combo), Holt (mixed), Jones (interior scorer), Whitmore (interior scorer)

Anderson gets an interior scorer label because she is one of the top guards in rebounds per 40 minutes (#12). The problem is that her shooting percentages are rather low, which is probably why she was demoted.

Meanwhile, the Sun have lost all three games that Swanier has started (2 against Mercury, 1 against Sky). While the Swanier lineup appears to be more balanced, the Anderson lineup is more productive, especially on the rebounding front. As one of the league's top rebounding teams, it doesn't seem to make much sense to have a better rebounder in the lineup.

But the key seems to be that in games the Sun have won, Anderson is more productive than her average across the board -- shooting 40% from the three point line. That capacity to stretch the defense makes a huge difference for a team that is otherwise composed of tough interior players. The same goes for Turner -- in Sun wins, she has shot 43% this season. With neither of them shooting well and both having the impact of "interior" players, they can't stretch the defense and find a rhythm.

However what really stood out in watching last night's game -- especially in the first half – was their complete inability to defend Perkins and Sharp on the perimeter. That is likely due in part to Turner’s absence. But the Sky were getting to the rim almost at will and scoring easy points in the first half. Their second quarter performance in particular helps tell that story.

In the second quarter, the Sky had a true shooting percentage of 73.7% and 0 turnovers. Even though the Sun had an offensive rebounding rate of 63% during the quarter, the Sky were playing such efficient basketball that it was a moot point. The Sun just weren’t able to do much to stop the Sky.

As the commentators pointed out, they did perform better in the third quarter. They slowed down the Sky’s offense with much better pressure on the perimeter, and limited the Sky’s scoring opportunities. Even then the Sky were up 12 points when Sharp left the game. The Sun went up 2 points, but when Perkins and Sharp came back in the game, the Sky found their rhythm again and as we now know, took the game by 8. That’s a huge effect for two players.

So what did Perkins and Sharp do so well?

A two-pronged point guard attack kept the defense off balance…

The Sky were extremely reliant on their jump shooters early in the season, despite having Sylvia Fowles available in the post. Part of the problem was that their guards seemed to get so little penetration into the middle of the defense. So the Sky made themselves really easy to defend.

The difference in last night’s game – and the 2nd half of the Detroit loss this past Wednesday – is that Perkins and Sharp were aggressively attacking the basket and finding open shooters. With two players looking to initiate the offense and score, the defense is not able to focus on one point of attack and therefore is limited in the amount of risks they can take as a team.

That also opened up opportunities for Candice Dupree to get more involved in the offense with easy shots. In fact, they often opened opportunities for each other – they found each other on consecutive plays just before Perkins left the game due to injury.

This type of movement on offense is something that I didn’t see as much of when Canty was running the point. And when they don’t get penetration, Dupree starts to force contested jump shots because she is the team’s best offensive option. The major difference is that while Canty comes down the court and keeps the ball for a number of seconds or looks for her own shot, Perkins and Sharp have gotten the team into the offense extremely well over the past five quarters. But in looking at the early season lineups, there has been an additional change that I had forgotten about:

Early season: Canty (distributor), Perkins (perimeter scorer), Price (perimeter utility player), Dupree (interior scorer), Melvin (post presence)

Current: Sharp (distributor), Perkins (perimeter scorer), Wyckoff (utility player), Dupree (interior scorer), Melvin (post presence)

Again, the playing styles tell general statistical tendencies, but they require some additional interpretation. What the utility label indicates is that the player tends to shoot less than assist, steal, rebound or block shots. As a perimeter utility player, Price also picks up a number of steals.

But what's left out is the three point shooting story. Wyckoff is shooting 50% from the three point line in Sky wins. Price has yet to make a three this season. With or without Canty, Wyckoff is a huge asset for the team because she further spreads the court for Dupree to score inside (and I would also argue that Wyckoff is a better passer).

However, I have to return to the fact that it seems like Canty penetrates a lot less than Sharp and Perkins have over the last 5 quarters, stretching back to the Detroit game. When Sharp can drive and have the option of passing to two three point shooters (Perkins or Wyckoff) or finding Dupree on the wing, that puts a ton of pressure on the defense to defend multiple options. It was the same when Perkins drove to the basket as Sharp was 2-3 from the three point line last night.

Chicago is not going to be a great rebounding team, especially without Fowles, so it is essential that they play more efficient and energetic basketball than their opponents. Over the last five quarters they have done that and if they’re able to keep that up they’ll be a very effective team once Fowles returns to the lineup.

Being a good point guard is not about assists, but decision making

I suppose I’ve made this point multiple times, but being a good point guard is about making the right decisions to sustain the team’s rhythm, not just racking up assists. The Sky kept the ball moving and didn’t commit a lot of egregious errors, as you might expect from "replacement" lead guards. Anytime you can get through a quarter without turnovers, the point guards are doing something right (or the defense is weak). They picked their opportunities to score well so as not to disrupt the team’s rhythm with bad shots. Wyckoff effectively stretched the defense to create room for scoring opportunities. Overall, there was a lot to be encouraged by for the Sky.

It’s difficult to identify one or two key things that the Sun need to do better. But based on what they’ve displayed in this game, they need to defend the perimeter more effectively to stop penetration and they need to find a way to get more easy scoring opportunities. There were a few points when it looked like they could establish an effective high-low offense with Whitmore and Gruda, but they weren’t able to get that going consistently. With Turner’s production falling off, it might be worthwhile to get Gruda involved in the offense with that type of high low strategy.

Transition Points:

The plus/minus numbers also help tell the story of the impact of Perkins and Sharp. Perkins recorded a +13 while Sharp was +15. They were a combined 10-19 from the field and 3-6 from the three point line. Overall, very efficient play.

Armintie Price really needs to find her stroke from the free throw line. In the last 5 games, she’s 5 for 21. That’s bad by anyone’s standard, but it’s especially bad for her – her greatest asset is her ability to drive to the basket and get easy baskets. If she can’t hit her free throws, she’s not nearly as valuable an asset offensively because she’s essentially wasting possessions. She has all the talent needed to become a star but she has to hit her free throws.

Quianna Chaney had a career-high 10 points in some very effective minutes against the Sun. Apparently, that’s a far too regular experience for Sun opponents – the Sun have given up "9 or 10" career high games to opponents this season, according to the commentators. I wonder how many of them were perimeter players…