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Liberty's Big Win Still Shows Signs of Trouble

By most accounts around the web, the Liberty’s 90-87 overtime road win against the Comets last night was a great win coming off two tough losses. labeled it an "instant classic" and a "magical moment", coach Pay Coyle called it a great team win, and color commentator Mary Murphy called it a great moment for the franchise to "pull it together and end that losing streak." And on the surface of it, it had all the makings of a great game.

There were outstanding individual performances from Janel McCarville and Lisa Willis – McCarville had a career and franchise-high 33 points as well as a career-high 4 blocks and Willis had a career-high 22 points. Olympian Tina Thompson had 34 points and rookie Matee Ajavon had 16 and four assists off the bench.

But as I watched the game, I had a distinctly different feeling about it. Maybe I just had higher expectations for the Liberty or something. But prior to the game, I could find no reason to believe that the Liberty would lose…unless they continued to play poorly.

So the fact that they blew a fourth quarter lead and needed overtime to beat the Comets who were missing two starters (Roneeka Hodges and Hamchetou Maiga-Ba) and a key reserve (Sancho Lyttle) just doesn’t strike me as impressive. Even on the road and without Shameeka Christon and Tiffany Jackson this was a must-win and really a should win against a banged up Comets team for the Liberty.

Against tougher competition and into the playoffs, I can’t help but think the Liberty still haven’t broken out of their Olympics-induced haze, with or without Christon. They are a team that has relied upon a methodical offense for most of the season with hard cuts and crisp passes. For some reason, they haven’t been able to establish that rhythm since the Olympic break.

If they expect to challenge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference or get past the first round of the playoffs, they’ll have to get back to the style that helped make them the hottest team in the league before the break. Here are a few of my observations.

Individual performances are no substitute for a strong collective effort

Janel McCarville had an outstanding game last night. Really, it was another one of those games that you’d want to show to someone who believes that women’s players can’t create their own offense. She scored from everywhere – outside, driving layups, and strong post moves. Plus she had at least four potential assists that were lost because her teammates missed the shots.

In other words, the Liberty’s entire offense revolved around one player and that’s a shift from what’s made them successful for the majority of the season. It’s not just about points scored, but how they scored the points. When they face stronger teams and stronger defenses, they’re going to need more than one or two players to have career scoring nights – they’re going to need to get everyone involved.

McCarville and Willis shot a combined 21-30 or 70% from the field last night. The rest of the team shot 14-41 or 34% from the field. In their losses to Chicago and Detroit they shot 39% and 38% respectively. In other words, they didn’t play well enough as a team to win games consistently. Two players carried them…and even then they needed overtime to win. It would be unrealistic to expect two players to shoot that well again, even if McCarville continues to draw contact and score from the free throw line.

Where is the defense?

In the five games before the break in which they went 4-1, I had the Liberty with a 96.87 defensive dynamics rating. In the last three games, their rating has been 124.72. To put those numbers in perspective, the consensus best defensive team in the league – the Indiana Fever – had a rating of 99.57 for the season before the break whereas the worst – the Atlanta Dream – had a rating of 124.16 before the break.

They’ve gone from being a very good defensive team, to a very bad one. Last night, the Comets actually had a better team dynamics rating (132.82) than the Liberty (102.65) despite losing. In fact, the Comets outplayed the Liberty for the last three quarters of the game. And again, this was a Comets team that was missing three key players.

In the third quarter when the Comets started their comeback, the Comets had a team dynamics rating of 250.33. The third quarter against the Shock was similar – a team dynamics rating of 218.03. So what’s going on?

The common thread in both situations was that the Liberty were not stopping their opponents’ synergy, meaning their opponents had a relatively easy time moving the ball and creating opportunities to score. The reason that didn’t show up in the score as much as it did in Detroit is because Houston didn’t play that well defensively either and New York managed to keep their turnover percentage down.

I believe I heard Mary Murphy mention during the broadcast that Tiffany Jackson is a major part of their "55 press" defense and so perhaps her absence is affecting their ability to defend. But in the third quarter, the Houston got whatever they want going to the paint. If the Comets weren’t scoring inside, they were getting fouled and they made the shots – they shot 9-10 from the free throw line in the third.

It would be one thing to defend the Liberty by saying they had one off game, but it’s appearing ing to develop into a trend. Jackson can’t be the only reason for these kind of defensive lapses though so it will be interesting to see if they can improve on this in upcoming games.

Penetration to the basket

Just as penetration helped the Comets mount a comeback in the 3rd quarter, the Liberty definitely play better when they are able to penetrate into the teeth of the defense. Normally they do that with good passing through the defense. Last night, it occurred with McCarville driving to the basket from the wing or the elbow. But their guards are getting very little penetration.

In fact, the Liberty’s guard play might explain why they’ve been struggling so much over the last few games. If the guards were able to drive and kick out to shooters, it might be easier for the team run the offense and find open shooters.

Right now, we’re seeing point guards Loree Moore and Leilani Mitchell play more of the initiator style of point guard – they get the ball across half court and pass it to just initiate the offense. They’re not really doing much to force the defense to shift out of their sets and create scoring opportunities.

An example of how well penetration works for them was at the end of the first quarter when Leilani Mitchell was in the game running point guard. Mitchell brought the ball down the court and passed to McCarville in the high post. McCarville then turned and drove and passed back to Mitchell. And since the defense was then off-balance as the Comets collapsed on McCarville, Mitchell was able to turn the corner and drive to the basket, finding McCarville again for a nice assist and the layup.

Inside, outside, and penetration works best for the Liberty and for whatever reason they haven’t been able to do enough of that since the Olympic break. Point guards are the ones who have to be active to make plays like that happen consistently.

Some people may argue that the problem is Loree Moore and that Mitchell should replace her in the starting lineup or at the very least get more minutes. It’s hard to say whether Mitchell is ready for starter minutes, but there’s a strong argument for her to get more minutes.

Does Mitchell deserve Moore minutes?

Over the last three games, neither has played very well in terms of their pure point rating – Moore has a rating of -1.06 while Mitchell has a rating of -3.22. In plain terms, neither of them is doing much to create opportunities for teammates. But considering that Mitchell had a league best 6.09 pure point rating in my point guard rankings before the break, it might be reasonable to assume that will more minutes, she could be more effective as a distributor.

But the really troubling statistic is their points per zero point possession numbers. I find this metric to be important for point guards because it measures how effectively a player uses possessions – how often they end a possession with a score vs. how often they end it with a turnover. In simple terms, it’s about decision making – is this player overall helping more than they’re hurting.

The top point guard in the league before the break was Diana Taurasi with 2.62 pts/zero pt. poss. and the lowest was Shannon Bobbitt with .86 pts/zero pt. poss. Over the last three games, Loree Moore has had .33 pts/zero pt. poss. whereas Leilani Mitchell has had 1.74 pts/zero pt. poss.

So again in simple terms, Moore is hurting more than she’s helping in terms of putting points on the scoreboard and she’s not really creating many opportunities for others. Mitchell isn’t creating for others either, but she’s at least managing to score more than she ends possessions without a score.

Due to experience and leadership factors, I wouldn’t advocate for Mitchell to start. However, it’s clear that she deserves more than 10 minutes per game, especially when the team seems to be struggling to create offense.

Simple things rather than magical performances are what the Liberty need

The Liberty don’t need massive changes right now, they really just need to find a way to get back to doing the things that they do well and doing them consistently. Playing strong defense and finding their offensive rhythm are two things that they could easily adjust.

But I am still quite surprised that they’ve been playing so poorly since the Olympic break when you would have thought they had plenty of time to work on the little fundamentals that they need to win games.