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Game 1 of the WNBA Finals Shatters Expectations: Rethinking the Matchup

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Indiana Fever forward Ebony Hoffman -- who poured in an unexpected  career-high of 27 points on 12-14 shooting -- scores over Phoenix Mercury guard Cappie Pondexter (bottom) and center Tangela Smith (left).
Indiana Fever forward Ebony Hoffman -- who poured in an unexpected career-high of 27 points on 12-14 shooting -- scores over Phoenix Mercury guard Cappie Pondexter (bottom) and center Tangela Smith (left).


During ESPN’s WNBA Shootaround last night, studio host Pam Ward framed the Game 1 of the WNBA Finals with the following question:

The question therefore is can Indiana score enough points, when you know the other team is scoring 93 points a game? Indiana plays good defense, but can they score enough points to keep up with Phoenix?


Well, I think we got our answer with the Phoenix Mercury's 120-116 victory.

"Before the game everybody's talking about offense vs defense," said Fever wing Katie Douglas. "Again we showed we're capable, we have a nice arsenal of offensive weapons and Phoenix is capable of playing defense. I don't think we want to get into a run and gun contest…We need to know when to run and when to pull back."

What we (should have) learned from Game 1 of the WNBA Finals last night is that this series is not reducible to merely "Taurasi’s Mercury" vs. "Catchings’ Fever", not simply "defense vs. offense", and certainly not an inept defense vs. an inept offense.

Instead of what most people expected, the Fever pushed the tempo and stayed right with the Mercury for most of the game, the Mercury out rebounded the Fever, and both Catchings and Taurasi struggled for most of the game, meaning both teams had other players step up.

"It wasn't the defensive versus offensive game people were expecting, clearly," said Mercury forward Penny Taylor. "Anyone who saw this game (Tuesday night) could tell you that. It was just amazing displays of talent especially down the stretch."

The 2009 WNBA Finals features two of the best all-around basketball teams you could hope to assemble competing for the title of the best women’s professional basketball team on U.S. soil.

It is just good basketball…and as has already been said elsewhere, if you can’t appreciate a game like that, there is good reason to believe you don’t actually enjoy the sport at all.

For those interested in comparing last night’s game to an NBA game, consider this from a league source: "If the game was played for an NBA-regulation 48 minutes (plus 5 in OT), Phoenix was on pace for 141.3 points.  Indiana was on pace for 136.6 points. Phoenix scored 2.67 points per minute last night and Indiana scored 2.58 per minute."
 
I make this point knowing full well that framing a game as "offense vs. defense" is far more effective rhetorically than saying, "Come appreciate great basketball!" Marketing simply requires something catchier than that.

But at this point, we have got to acknowledge that sticking with the whole offense vs. defense framing would just be dishonest. Now that an actual game has been completed, perhaps we can stop pontificating and base prognostications on fact because, well, facts matter.

Lieberman’s response to Ward's question

ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman’s immediate response to Ward on Shootaround might have been among the most honest analyses of the series.

"Indiana can score enough baskets, but they cannot score enough points because the Mercury if they’re gonna be true to form and hit three pointers – they get 24 points a game in the playoffs off threes – the Mercury are getting threes and Pam the Fever are getting two point shots. And I said last time I did a game: it’s almost like fool’s gold cause you see yourself scoring, but you cannot match the points of the Mercury. You’ve gotta hope they have an off series shooting threes."

Lieberman’s first sentence might strike you as odd, but it is essentially what happened in the game…sort of.

The one thing that is definitely true about the Fever is that they are not a great perimeter scoring team. As evidenced by the Detroit series, they rely heavily on loosening up the defense with drives to the basket, getting themselves to the free throw line, and (as weird as it may sound) getting some production center Tammy Sutton-Brown in the paint. Simple math tells us that trading 2’s for 3’s is not particularly efficient.

However, what actually happened in Game 1 is slightly different – the Fever not only scored more baskets than the Mercury (45 to 38), but they also managed to stay close from the three point line (Fever: 10, Mercury: 12).

The big difference was at the free throw line, were the Mercury went 32-38 compared to the Fever’s 16-19. As such, they ended up doing what Lieberman said – outscoring the Fever even though the Fever managed to make more baskets from the field.

As I observed it and Stan reported it, the game seemed to be called tight, but not egregiously unfairly. And if you accept that the refs called a semi-fair game, then there’s only one other explanation for the free throw differential.

Phoenix went into attack mode during the fourth quarter and overtime

Phoenix Stan wrote me sometime during the third quarter and said that this is the pattern the Mercury have followed all season – their goal is to push the tempo the whole game, wear their opponent down, and then finish the game strong while their opponents gasp for air.

What we saw last night is when the Fever seemed to slow down toward the end of the game, the Mercury kicked in to another gear and started attacking the basket rather than solely settling for perimeter shots. The result was the Mercury drawing more fouls and getting themselves to the free throw line.

However, the big difference in this game – as expected from the Mercury – was bench production, led by Penny Taylor. The Mercury bench was responsible for 44% of their team’s production, whereas the Fever’s bench was only responsible for 15% of their team’s production.

While Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi dominated the headlines for making big plays at the end, it was undoubtedly Taylor who was most responsible for helping the Mercury to victory, as evidenced by the Sparks credit statistics and the plus/minus numbers. Taylor’s efficient scoring from both the field and the free throw line not only made her the Mercury player most responsible for the victory (11.66%, compared to Pondexter’s 9.72%), but her performance also got her an astronomical +25 plus/minus rating (compared to Pondexter’s -10 and Taurasi’s -6). 

As described by Lin Dunn on Monday, the Fever’s goal was to take the ball out of the Mercury’s all-stars hands and force someone else to beat them.

"I would prefer them to be dribbling. Because I know if they’re dribbling they’re not shooting threes. As they’re driving, now we can get some help – make them give the ball up make them pass it to someone else."

Well, that someone else was Taylor last night and whether Dunn maintains the same defensive strategy remains to be seen.

What we learned about the Fever

There are two things that the Fever established last night – first, that they get offensive contributions from multiple players and second that they are willing to run with the Mercury.

While Douglas and forward Ebony Hoffman deserve most of the credit for the victory and were definitely the Fever’s top performers, Sutton-Brown and point guards Tully Bevilaqua and Briann January also scored in double figures. January continued to display the composure of a veteran with 7 assists and 2 turnovers for a pure point rating of 9.87.

While Catchings had an off-game, the Fever found ways to score even in the uptempo game that seemed to favor the Mercury, which brings up a point I made just prior to the Finals: this is one of the most balanced offensive teams in the WNBA right now in terms of the diversity of ways they can score.

Put it this way: What offensive option do you try to take away from the Fever?

That’s not to say that the Fever are an offensive juggernaut, but that they have multiple options to turn to if one is denied.

Clearly, if you force Catchings into going 2-7 for 8 points, the team is still able to put up 116 points. And 116 points is not merely explained by chance or poor defense – it means that this is a more capable offensive team than people have given them credit for.

Aside from that, they are not full of offensive star power the way the Mercury are, but they have multiple options on the offensive end: perimeter, mid-range, post, and off the drive. None of those stands out as necessarily stronger than the other for this team, but it is not possible to take away all of those options at once. Furthermore, they move the ball well enough that if one option is shut down, they will find another.

The problem for the Fever last night is something that was probably unexpected: they gave up 24 second-chance points to the Mercury. What makes this especially odd is that during the regular season the Fever kept opponents to a league low 9.9 second-chance points per game while the Mercury hovered just below average in second chance points scored with 11.1 per game.

Lessons for Game 2

Three things figure to change in Game 2:

1.    The WNBA scoring record will probably not be broken again…that would just be ridiculous.
2.    The Fever will adjust their game plan and get back to the type of defensive play that led them to keep opponents to 9.9 second-chance points per game during the regular season…or at least somewhere closer to reasonable.
3.    The Fever will probably not try to run as much with the Mercury…or simply look to their bench more…

Either way, this will be an exciting basketball game between two very teams that are very proficient at playing basketball. So how about this one:

"WNBA Finals Features Two Really, Really Good Basketball Teams"

That’s all the framing I need.

Transition Points:

  • Kevin Pelton of Stormbasketball.com also had a nice review of Game 1 this morning. 

    In contrast to what I suggested in my preview, Lin Dunn essentially eschewed smallball, choosing to make Corey Gaines match up with her personnel rather than the other way around. Dunn deserves a lot of credit for making that gutsy decision, and I generally tend to prefer dictating the matchups. Indiana did use Tully Bevilaqua and Briann January together in the backcourt at times, but only to give Douglas a break. The Fever never put Catchings at the four spot, going with a three-post rotation of Ebony Hoffman, Jessica Moore and Tammy Sutton-Brown. It worked brilliantly.

  • Pelton also had one of the best breakdowns of the Fever's offense in his Finals preview, which is worth reviewing now: "While [the offensive] end of the floor is not a strength for either team, it was Indiana's improvement on offense that took the team to the WNBA Finals. Remember, the Fever had the league's best defense a year ago, but was undermined by an inability to put the ball in the hoop. A healthy Catchings, better chemistry with Douglas and better play from the point guard spot meant Indiana was actually one of the league's best offenses most of the year. The Fever slipped down the stretch when Douglas was bothered by a sprained ankle. However, Indiana hasn't entirely rebounded during the postseason, struggling at times to score against Washington and Detroit."
  • Max Simbron's photos of the game are also a must-see.