One of the worst kept secrets in the WNBA is that Seattle Storm head coach Brian Agler is a bit of a "defensive stickler".
This year is no exception as the Storm have ridden their defense to an 8-1 record.
"I think we're really locked in and focused in on that end," said guard Tanisha Wright about the defensive effort after practice on Wednesday. "Every year we try to come in and do that, but we're just trying to be focused and ready to go every night, every minute, and every second on the defensive end and we really know if we can do that then the rest of it will come."
However, over the last two games that "every night, every minute, every second" part has been a bit of a challenge - Storm coach Brian Agler has commented after Sunday's big 97-74 win over the Phoenix Mercury and after practice on the last two days that their defense in the fourth quarter has been sub-standard.
"Last two games, I think our defense in the fourth quarter has been subpar," said Agler on Wednesday. "We've been outscored against LA 28-16 and against Phoenix 26-10 in the fourth quarter. And that's not acceptable. So we gotta get back to doing what we do best. Trying to get back to that level for 40 minutes - not 30, 40."
Of course, it might be reasonable to suggest that part of the reason for the defensive let down in Sunday's blow out victory against the Mercury was that Agler pulled the starters in the 4th quarter since they were already up 87-48 to end the third quarter. However, everybody wearing a Bing jersey is expected to perform defensively for Agler, whether you're an All-World player or the rookie coming off the bench.
"In both cases, we're playing against good teams, one," said Agler when asked about whether having reserves in the game explains the defensive let down. "Secondly, it's not an excuse to have that happen like in the Phoenix game because you're up by x amount of points because that's your opportunity to play and shine and you need to take advantage of that opportunity. So that's why you can't accept that. So we've addressed it and we'll see if we can make some improvements."
After going through film and addressing the point in practice, the message has apparently not been lost on the players.
"I think we can all take it up a notch and hopefully we'll do that," said forward Camille Little yesterday.
One of those players who got an opportunity to shine in the 4th quarter was rookie forward Abby Bishop. She was neither satisfied with her own performance nor that of the team's defense.
"I guess last game it was their bench against our bench so it was kinda they had that step up on us getting full court layups and rebound putbacks and stuff," said Bishop, who played 8 minutes in the fourth quarter on Sunday. "So I guess we've just gotta work on those things: transition, being stronger around the basket. But in the game before it was our starters vs. LA's starters. So it's not just five people, it's everybody."
So as the Storm prepare to play the Sparks for the 3rd time in 10 games in Key Arena tonight the focus is clear. Of course, they need to focus on defending forward Candace Parker and the strategy for that hasn't changed significantly since the last game: Parker is good and it takes a team effort to stop her. However, they are also looking to work on playing Storm defense for a full 40 minutes.
"I think that's one thing we just need to work on and not letting our guard down - we just need to play 40 minutes at the same pace instead of getting comfortable with our lead and dropping off a bit," said Bishop. "So I think that's something that we've worked on the last couple of days - trying to have a good full practice and not having any lapses and I think that will help us tomorrow coming into the game."
One of the reasons that Agler has said the team can't relax -- and one of the biggest differences in this year's Los Angeles team -- is their three point shooting. So although they no longer have the double post threat that Parker and now-retired Lisa Leslie posed last season, they do have thee point shooters on the perimeter while still running the offense through both Parker and Thompson. It presents opponents with a choice of either doubling off Parker or risking three point baskets.
"You gotta pick your poison - you gotta try to stay in plays with people one on one," said Agler after yesterday's practice, also noting that LA's one on one play hurt them last time. "They need support but you also can't help away too much. So it's sort of a happy medium that you have to develop. And it's harder to get done than it is to talk about - it's not easy. So we'll see if we can make some improvements."
So although the Sparks have been either without Penicheiro or limiting her minutes recently, having Kristi Toliver start in her place presents a different challenge and one that makes the Sparks differently difficult to defend. Further, it's not just Toliver who can shoot the three but Betty Lennox, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Noelle Quinn and Tina Thompson as well. Although the team only shot 2-12 from the three point line in the Sunset Showdown, those two made shots came during the 4th quarter, when the Sparks shot 65% from the field. What saved the Storm was arguably that they had 10 free throw attempts to the Sparks' 1.
Thompson might be particularly important for the Storm to watch - in both previous games against the Sparks, she was the second biggest statistical contributor behind Parker. The common theme in the first two games has been Thompson's rebounding ability - in both instances she was the Sparks' second leading rebounder. And although she didn't shoot very well from the field in the first game, she shot 10-10 from the line for a team-high 19 points while the Storm locked down Parker. Conversely, although Thompson didn't get to the line much in the second game, she shot 8-13 from the field to score 17 points, second highest on the team. In other words, Thompson is a player to keep an eye on in addition to Parker as the Storm look to defend the Sparks.
Yet for all the focus on the poor defense in the last two fourth quarters, it's also worth noting the team's offensive struggles - against the Mercury the Storm shot 25% from the field and had a turnover percentage of just over 30%, among their worst quarters of play for the season. Things were a little bit better for them offensively in their last game against the Sparks turnover-wise, but not by much in terms of shooting - they only shot 30.8%. Of course, that just stems from the poor defense for Agler.
"I think we've had some good moments offensively, but I also think a lot of it stems from our defense when we play well defensively," said Agler. "I think there's a lot of areas we can get better at - our spacing sometimes is not good, our timing is off sometimes in our offense. There's times that we don't play up to our capabilities. Is it just for us to be more consistent? That could be. Is it for us to sharpen up our execution? That could be. But there's a lot areas and that's what we gotta focus on right now."
In summary, although there's increasing clamor about the Storm as a championship contender, they still have flaws to work out and are plenty aware of them, especially as they try to beat a team for a third time.
"Yeah, it's hard to beat any good team multiple times," said Agler. "So I guess what I try to do is not look at how many times you gotta play them...what can we do to play better against them I guess is the key."
Transition Points (Australian Edition):
- After battling illness for the last two games, rookie point guard Alison Lacey will be able to play tonight. On a related note, Agler's comment about whether she'll play hints at his satisfaction with some of his new reserves.
"Alison's had two good days of practice," said Agler after practice yesterday. "But is she breaking that rotation? We feel strong about the seven people that are in that tight rotation right now."
For more on Lacey's development, please click here.
- As mentioned previously, Bishop didn't think she "was all that great" in her extended minutes against the Mercury, but remains ready to play.
"Overall, I don't think I was all that great, but it's just one of those things - learning to come off the bench -- and I think for our group that got in in that last quarter we've gotta maintain the lead and I guess get out there and be strong and don't let everybody else down," said Bishop after practice yesterday. "I'm more than happy just to be getting out here doing my best in training and, when my opportunity comes, getting on there and trying to do well. But I don't think I expect anything. When it comes and Brian walks down the bench, I'll be ready. But definitely not expecting anything."
- During the team huddle at the end of Storm practice on Wednesday, Agler put the Sparks game in perspective reminding the team that there were two teams at the beginning of the season that they wanted to be sure to win the regular season series with: the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks. With a win tonight, they will have accomplished one pre-season goal.