For a fuller summary of the game, check the storystream on SBN Seattle.
When Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault came out of the locker room shortly after last night's 83-82 loss to the Seattle Storm to talk to the media, he was visibly agitated.
The normal routine for opposing coaches after suffering losses to the Storm in KeyArena is to linger in the locker room talking to the team (or avoiding the media?) or to come out quickly and put the media's questions about the story of their loss behind them. But as one of the more entertaining personalities of the league, Thibault did things a little differently.
Thibault emerged from the locker room relatively quickly after the game, but rather than taking a few steps outside the door and having the media come to him, he walked briskly toward the small group of media standing about 10 feet away. After getting a final boxscore from a Sun staff member, he walked away from the media to study the boxscore a few feet away for a few moments. When he finally did approach the media, he maintained a light demeanor and a grin despite exuding a calm frustration. He quickly confirmed verbally what was already evident from his body language.
"I'm agitated, obviously," said Thibault with a not-so-light chuckle.
It was hard not to feel for the Sun after a loss like that.
The Storm didn't need this game and quite honestly were lucky that they managed to survive it with their imposing 14 game record at home remaining unblemished. Their Western Conference playoff position is all locked up and all they have to play for before resting their starters for the remainder of the regular season is home court advantage through the WNBA Finals.
"There's not that significant drive to fight for a playoff spot right now," said Storm coach Brian Agler prior to the game. "It's a good thing, it's a comfort level, but it's not on a nightly basis -- you can lose your edge pretty easy."
But the Sun arrived at KeyArena yesterday desperate for a win just to get into the Eastern Conference playoffs at 13-13. That they actually outplayed the league's best team -- both outshooting them and winning the turnover battle in addition to finishing with a huge 96.61 to 79.6 MEV advantage -- and still went home with a loss is more than enough justification for demoralization.
In trying to make sense of the loss, it's hard not to consider the distinct possibility that the anxiety of playoff desperation might have gotten the best of them when confronted with the opportunity to close the deal on a huge road win against the league's best team.
"Bad poise," said Thibault when asked about his team's performance down the stretch. "Shot clock violation, go to sleep on a three by Sue Bird, get beat to a loose ball and a ridiculous foul. That’s my take. It was a great game, but we didn’t win. And now it puts us under .500 and we got a lot of ground to make up."
Although he made mention of the team's youth as part of their recent struggles, in the final moments of the game their "bad poise" was clearly about more than age and experience. Down one point with 2.5 seconds left, It was five year veteran Tan White with the ball in her hands after an inbounds who botched the final play that had been called in the huddle.
"The play was for Renee in the corner, Tina (Charles) coming back to the post and if wasn’t there, to take a timeout," said Thibault. "Obviously we didn’t take a timeout."
So ultimately, it's hard to come up with a singular coherent explanation for this loss other than a generalized failure to remain poised in a KeyArena atmosphere that can so quickly reach playoff-level fanaticism as soon as there is any hint that the Storm might be establishing momentum in a tight game. Whether it be the youthful indiscretion of fouling a guard well beyond the three point arc while up one point, failing to execute a play as designed, or getting killed on the offensive glass 36.4% to 20.7%, which led to a 28 to 4 disadvantage in second chance points, the Sun just weren't able to find a way to get it done and the Storm's veteran confidence gave them a slight edge.
"We really had to dig down to pull that off," said Storm point guard Sue Bird. "They were playing very well in that second half and had control for most of it and it just came down to a couple of possessions and us getting the scores we needed and the stops we needed. In terms of confidence, the one thing I can say is that -- and we've talked about this a million times at this point -- we've had a lot of experience in these games, we've been in a lot of close games, and therefore we never kind of just roll over and die. Again. You can probably just quote me on the last time I said that."
As much as it seems to be a similar pattern for the Storm, it was just as much representative of a troubling pattern for the Sun.
"They’ve played enough games that those kinds of things should not happen," said Thibault. "When you have a lead, why would you foul? When you have a timeout to use, use it if you don’t like what you have. If you have a key player you’re supposed to block out on, block out. Right there is a microcosm of what’s happened to us a couple times."
As a microcosm of the Sun's struggles this season, the game illuminated what Ned Griffin of The Day wrote prior to the game and what Thibault elaborated upon prior to the game: their wins and losses have nothing to do with their performance.
"Along with the fans, I think probably I thought we would gel a little bit more consistently -- we haven't," said Thibault when asked prior to the game about his comments in The Day regarding the difference in how coaches judge their team compared to fans and media. "It's been good, they've been upbeat, they've worked hard, I have no complaints, but we're inconsistent in shooting and we're inconsistent turning the ball over.
"Now, the other thing I said was is that, when we were whatever we were to start the season -- 9-4 or whatever the record was -- I kept saying to my staff and I told our players it's a little bit of Fool's Gold because I remember going home 3 or 4 times after wins where I'm not feeling great about things. And there were a couple times after games I addressed it directly to them because sometimes winning camouflages some sins and we won some games where the other team was worse than us. I mean, played ok, but we didn't play anywhere capable of what we thought we could do. And I think sometimes when you're a young team and you win some of those games, you get a false sense of security or a false sense of who you are and how hard it is."
In addition to the Storm's late game confidence, the performance of Storm center Lauren Jackson was one of those factors that made winning hard for the Sun.
Storm statistical MVP: Lauren Jackson
Thibault described how early in the season the Sun were catching breaks, not just playing teams that were worse than them on a given night, but missing key players on more than one occasion.
"We played Minnesota early and they didn't have (Seimone) Augustus and (Candice) Wiggins," said Thibault before the game. "We played LA in LA the first night that Candace Parker didn't play. We may or may not have won those games, but I don't think you sometimes understand how hard it is...Every team in our conference is good and if you're not playing your best basketball, it's hard."
Even though the Sun played some of their best basketball of the season -- particularly during a 3rd quarter in which they outscored the Storm 29-17 -- they had to contend with the play of Jackson who finished with 31 points on 11-22 shooting and a solid offensive rebounding rate of nearly 14% in addition to three rather difficult three point shots.
For all their talk of bad poise, their ability to come back from being down 9 at halftime after allowing 24 points from Jackson in the first half was quite impressive. While vastly improved offensive efficiency in the third quarter was a large part of that, the increased defensive intensity in the third quarter to contain Jackson a bit was no small part of that either.
Key player: Asjha Jones
It's actually rare that a player from the losing team emerges as a key player statistically beyond the MVPs, but Jones performance was impressive and not just in the numbers she put up.
"I played with Asjha in college and she's one of the best defensive people on big players," said Storm forward Swin Cash, a former teammate of Jones' at UConn. "We were all like 6 feet and she would always defend the tallest most athletic post player. It's because she just has very good footwork. So I actually said that before the game -- everyone was thinking it was going to be a Tina-Lauren matchup and I said, 'No, it's probably going to be Asjha.' And I was right."
Although Jackson did finish with 31 points, Jones helped hold Jackson to 4 points on 2-4 shooting in the 3rd quarter and 5 points on 2-7 shooting in the decisive fourth quarter. As Cash mentioned, on the surface it might seem like a mismatch given that Jones gives up a few inches to Jackson, but Thibault placed his confidence in Jones for her footwork and sense of spacing.
"She’s always played her well," said Thibault. "She understands positioning. Tina doesn’t have the experience, even though she’s bigger. We brought DeMya (Walker) in to play her some and did a pretty good job on her for awhile. I thought we did a good job in the second half, but we gave it back at the end."
On the offensive end, Jones was also extremely efficient, finishing with 13 points on 6-8 shooting and a team-high 3 offensive rebounds. Agler noted that her ability to knock down jumpshots -- as well as centers Sandrine Gruda and Tina Charles -- throughout the game was a huge plus for the Sun. Jones even made her 4th three point shot of the season last night.
Sun statistical MVP: Renee Montgomery
However, the third quarter -- and, in an unfortunate twist -- really the fate of the game belonged to Montgomery. Montgomery had a 6 assist, 4 point 3rd quarter and finished with a turnover percentage of 3.2% and an assist ratio of 32.50, which led to an outstanding pure point rating of 17.17. If you ignore her 1-6 three point shooting, she had a 2 point percentage of 66.66%, which is indicative of her ability to get to the basket.
It was just unfortunate that despite all the confidence she demonstrated in leading the team in the third, one bad play at an inopportune time ultimately hurt the team.
"My age will never affect my confidence on the court," said Montgomery when asked about her team's confidence on the floor. "I’m sure they were confident, but I know we were confident as well. Maybe our age might affect some of our decision making … it’s a tough loss."
Key stat: offensive rebounding
The most glaring statistic in the Sun's tough loss has to be the Storm's considerable offensive rebounding advantage of 36.4% to 20.7%.
However, it's worth noting that most of those offensive rebounds came in the first half -- the Storm dominated the offensive glass in the first half 47% to 6%, holding the Sun without an offensive rebound in the second quarter. During that pivotal third quarter, the Storm were held to one offensive rebound by Jackson with 8:37 left and then shut down.
Nevertheless, in the fourth quarter, the Storm beat the Sun 8-2 in second chance points and obviously in a one point game, that makes a huge difference. Whether it's a matter of the Storm making the right plays at the right time or a matter of simply having the confidence to make plays that count, numbers like that show why the Storm are so adept at pulling out games in the fourth quarter at the expense of some prominent fans' heart rate.
"First of all, I worry about my heart," said Storm CEO Karen Bryant who was sitting in the locker room after the game with her pink shirt on. "It's just awesome, it's just a true testament to the fact that not only do they have a lot of talent, but they have great character. And one of the greatest things about this season is not only the number of wins, but the type of wins. This team has been able to win at home, on the road, with their backs against the wall, coming from behind, and I think it's great preparation for the playoffs. We have one goal in mind and every time we can gut out a win like that, it's a step in the right direction."