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Camille Little & the anatomy of a momentum swing: How the Storm beat the Mystics

Seattle Storm head coach Brian Agler said forward Camille Little came into the second half of last night's 82-76 win over the Mystics with increased focus and poise. The result was a massive swing in what some might call "momentum".
Seattle Storm head coach Brian Agler said forward Camille Little came into the second half of last night's 82-76 win over the Mystics with increased focus and poise. The result was a massive swing in what some might call "momentum".

I understand why some people consider basketball monotonous -- up and down the court, putting the ball through a rim at ten feet high, over and over again.

However, I suppose what I find fascinating about watching and playing basketball is that at any given moment an event that might seem insignificant to the casual fan can change the entire course of a game. It's what many people would refer to as the nebulous phenomenon of a "momentum swing".

Of course, I am sympathetic to the notion that what we most often refer to as a "momentum swing" -- similar to the "hot hand" -- is nothing more than a series of events that happen in a sequenced manner such that randomness appears to constitute a pattern. Although it may appear to observers that the perceived pattern seems to crescendo to a point where the team benefiting from the sequence experiences an increase in confidence and the opposing team gets demoralized thus affecting the performance of both, instead -- some would say -- it's all an illusion that can be explained by random chance. Fair enough, I get that.

However, anybody who's played a sport has also experienced that eerie feeling of a lead "slipping away" against an opponent that seems to be "heating up" or even worse "on fire". So to deny that emotional factor in favor of quantitative or tactical reasoning would be somewhat obtuse. So what might really be going on when these moments occur?

Given the number of times momentum at Key Arena seems to swing -- often times in favor of the Storm -- I actually went into last night's game with an eye not only on the plays that trigger runs, but the things that seem to precipitate their runs. That's not to say I expected them to be down at halftime, but it has gotten to a point where every time I walk into Key Arena I Expect Dramatics. So hopefully you're not tired of me saying this, but once again a Storm game seemed to perfectly illustrate a basketball concept that I find fascinating: a shift in momentum that seems to catalyze a rally.

The major plot lines for the Storm's 82-76 victory last night are numerous and quite clear: with the win, the team moved to a franchise-best 4-0. The bench -- particularly Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'coe Willingham -- stepped up big on both ends of the floor. In the raucous fourth quarter, the Storm went 4-4 from the three point line and 14-15 from the free throw line. Despite star forward Lauren Jackson having a bit of an off night, the starting backcourt of Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright pitched in a team-high 16 points apiece. Bottom line, it was yet another furious second half rally in Key Arena that got the Storm back into the game.

That's what happened in the game. However, the reason why the momentum swung might be an additional story.

When asked about what happened in the second half, Storm coach Brian Agler insisted that it was nothing he said that led to the change in the game.

"I said the same thing at halftime that I did before the game, except I was a little more pointed," said Agler. "The message was exactly the same. I don’t consider whatever I said to them the difference maker, but they regrouped and that was a little bit different team playing in the second half. There was no change of message from pregame to halftime. The words were almost identical."

However, it's uncontroversial that forward Camille Little's 11 point third quarter performance was a significant part of why the momentum shifted in the Storm's favor.

"Obviously we didn’t have a great first half and sometimes it just takes one person to spark the rest of the team and I think Camille was one of those people in the third quarter," said Bird. "Again, everyone made big plays."

Certainly the most easily identifiable moment for Little that seemed to shift the tide was the offensive rebound and layup that she scored with a minute left in the third quarter to ignite a three minute 10-0 run that bled into the fourth quarter. Instead, I'm going to suggest that the momentum began to shift after an offensive rebound and put back also -- perhaps not so randomly by Camille Little.

However, in talking to the Mystics, there have been a more specific and elongated shift in the game:

1. The Storm immediately increased the physicality in the second half:

Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans compared the game to a prizefight with the Storm getting knocked around in the first half but sticking around to use a flurry of punches in the second half to score a KO in the final round.

Storm | Storm rallies for 82-76 victory over Washington | Seattle Times Newspaper
"It was a little bit more like Tae Bo, because you have to use your legs a little bit more, too," said Storm forward Swin Cash of the aerobic exercise that felt like the game. "We felt their presence out there tonight, and once we settled into it in the second half, we were used to it. They punched us, we punched back."

Going into the game, Agler knew it was going to be a physical game. However, the Storm struggled with that in the first half.

"It was very physical and that was what I told them before the game," said Agler. "I said, 'They are going to challenge your toughness both physically and mentally.' And they did."

Mystics center Crystal Langhorne suggested the Storm's adjustment to the visitors' physicality in the second half was what led to the shift in the game. She came in trying to be physical with Lauren Jackson in the first half, helping to hold the WNBA's Player of the Week to 2 points on 1-6 shooting while also holding Little and Jackson to a combined zero rebounds. However, that first offensive rebound in the second half represented the Storm finally "punching back".

"I think they were just a little bit more physical than us -- they did a really good job on the glass, especially Le'coe and Camille Little," said Langhorne. "They came in and really gave them a spark especially on the offensive glass."

2. The Mystics didn't return the Storm's increased physicality and steadily lost control of the boards:

Unfortunately for the Mystics, they didn't adequately "punch back" in the second half.

"We didn't get physical with them, we didn't go after the ball, and we gave them a lot of second chance opportunities," said Mystics head coach Julie Plank.

As a result, they not only lost control of the boards as a team, but also gave up second chance points.

"I think they really got on the offensive glass -- the first half, I thought they controlled the boards and I think it was even at the half," said Plank, referring to the total rebounding of 15 apiece at halftime. "They outrebounded us by four (offensively), but I thought they got some second shots that hurt us."

In the second quarter -- arguably the Mystics best all-around quarter -- the Mystics beat the Storm by an offensive rebounding margin of 33%-0%. In the third quarter, that literally flipped to 36% to 0% in favor of the Storm. Yes, that's only a +3 to -4 margin on the offensive boards between the two teams, but it also contributed to a +6 to -6 margin in terms of 2nd chance points.

"It just sucks because we were playing great in the first half and then in the second half we just kind of fell apart a little bit," said Langhorne.

3. The Mystics began to overcompensate and gave up threes

Returning to the beginning of the third again, Little hit another shot inside with 8:34 left, and then Wright managed to sneak in for an offensive rebound off a missed three from Swin Cash on the next possession. Bear in mind, they were still down 11 points after Wright's offensive rebound. However, on the next play Bird found an opening for a jumper, Little found herself open for a three point shot, and then with 4:25 left in the third Jackson for herself so wide open for a three that she had enough time to look both ways before she shot it as though she was about to cross the street.

"The momentum changed when they were getting offensive rebounds and they got a few wide open threes," said Monique Currie who had a game-high 25 points. "The crowd got into it, they were into it and the momentum shifted and we just weren't able to bounce back from that."

The made threes from Little and Jackson ended up being the only two of the 3rd quarter, however the three point crisis continued in the fourth quarter and when Le'coe Willigham came in for the Storm in the fourth quarter and continued the aggressive play inside.

"I thought Le'coe Willingham came in and was big for them, especially in the fourth quarter," said Plank. "We can't get down like that. We had a good lead and we need to hold on to it."

So I'm going to sit in a middle ground on the momentum issue-- I do think there are situations in which swings in momentum can be explained by a patterned change, but I think the reasoning behind that is not as mystical or cliched as saying one team has "Ol' Mo'" on their side. Instead, there might be times when one team finally "figures out" how to either close the floodgates or exploit a weakness in an opponent that changes the tenor of a game in ways that influence the outcome. Those type of swings might not immediately show up in the form of "runs" or "demoralization", but a change in the way the game is played possession to possession-- even with the exact same personnel on the court -- forcing the team "on their heels" to adapt. Sometimes the adaptation occurs and sometimes the change simply happens to late or the change results in giving up something else.

Other notes:

Key stat: 3rd quarter turnovers

Nobody mentioned this as a reason for why the game turned around, but the third quarter was by far the Mystics' worst quarter of the game and a large part of that was their turnovers in addition to the rebounding. The Mystics had 6 turnovers in the third quarter for a turnover percentage of 35% compared with the Storm's 1 turnover for a percentage of 5.7%. Although it didn't lead to fast break points because 5 of those 6 turnovers were dead ball turnovers, it obviously cost the Mystics possessions and was part of the reason why they got off only 9 field goal attempts in the 3rd quarter. More interesting in connection with the physicality theme: 4 of the 6 turnovers came from the Mystics' front court -- 2 for Nakia Sanford and 1 apiece for Langhorne and reserve Chastity Melvin.

Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird

Given the above assertion that Little keyed the change in the game, this might strike some as odd. However, Bird had a solid game statistically after getting off to a slow start along with the other starters. Her scoring and free throws -- much of which came in the 4th quarter when the game had already swung in the Storm's direction -- certainly influence that heavily. But before dismissing that, Bird's 3 4th quarter assists -- as well as one in the third for Jackson's three -- were huge. Put simply, the team still runs better with Bird even if she has an off night.

Mystics statistical MVP: Monique Currie

There are some that might consider Currie a WNBA MVP candidate after her hot start and she only added to her case for that honor last night, despite the loss. There are many great things to say for Currie's game-high 25 point performance, but in addition to her scoring, Currie went to the boards hard grabbing five defensive rebounds for a percentage of nearly 30%.

Key player: Camille Little

See all that jazz above.