When Phoenix Mercury Coach Corey Gaines took the blame for not getting his players enough open looks after his team lost Game 3 it sounded like "coach speak". He seemed to be trying to deflect the blame from his team shooting 17% from three and his star Diana Taurasi going 6-16.
It was an understandable but not particularly insightful comment.
Then in practice the day before Game 4 he said this when asked about improvements for his team, "I just make tempo a little bit faster, try to get to the line and make sure my players are in a position to get to the line. I have to help them out that way. That’s my job. They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do so I have to do a better job of getting them in the right positions."
More "coach speak"?
It sounded that way since it wasn't as if he was trying to slow things down in Game 3 (or Game 2 for that matter).
But then the Mercury came out and put up 33 points in the 1st quarter of Game 4 (a WNBA Finals record) in route to a 90-77 victory which forces an all-the-marbles Game 5 back in Phoenix on Friday.
Asked after the game in his press conference what he changed, Gaines dead-panned that he made one simple adjustment and ran only one play.
Suddenly, those previous comments were looking a lot more prophetic and a lot less evasive.
The one simple adjustment that Coach Gaines did to win Game 4 was to space the floor. A lot.
Here's an image from the early minutes of Game 3. Notice the spacing both on the ball and also on the weak side where Taurasi and Smith are drawn in. This allowed the Fever defense to cover less ground and made it easier for them to stop penetration and clog the passing lanes.
Now look at this image from Game 4. The entire Mercury team is spaced outside of the three point line.
By spacing the floor in such a manner for the first time that I recall all season the Mercury were able to run very simple plays. High center screens which forced the Fever to rotate and collapse in the paint which created wide open shot opportunities. If the Fever tried to stay home on the perimeter shooters the Mercury simply attacked off the bounce.
Few teams have so many players that can beat their defender, drive the lane and then either kick it out or finish at the rim. The Mercury have Cappie, Diana, Penny and Temeka who all can drive and kick and with Tangela Smith hitting her three's and either Willingham or Ohlde providing the occasional drive themselves this proved a potent look for Phoenix.
The fast recovering Fever help defense simply had too much ground to cover and they weren't able to bother the Phoenix shooters or help converge on the drivers like they did in previous games. This lead to the Mercury shooting 48% from the field with no post game to speak of.
Surprisingly, the spread offense also helped on the glass as the Fever weren't able to box out in the paint as they are used to doing. The Mercury only had 4 offensive rebounds but they were able to send one player into the paint to try and corral the board while the rest of the team was able to get back on defense and get set.
Indiana did a good job taking away the Mercury fast break opportunities and they took good care of the ball but in the half court game where their defense has been their bread and butter they looked confused and frustrated by the open looks that Gaines was able to create for his players.
The Mercury believe that their offense is their best defense. While they have been playing an effective zone in the last two games which has denied easy post entry passes and forced more outside shots, they ultimately feel that putting the ball in the hole is what allows them to get set and get stops.
It is still not how I like to see the game of basketball played, but there is no doubt that the Mercury feel this way and they are not going to change now. It is fitting then that their big adjustment before this must win game was on the offensive end.
It was a beautiful adjustment by the Phoenix coach and one that Indiana Coach Lin Dunn will have to counter in Game 5 if the Fever hope to win their first WNBA championship.