Performances like the one Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird had on Tuesday night do a lot to strengthen her argument for WNBA MVP, even in a tough 78-61 loss to the Indiana Fever on the day that long-time teammate Swin Cash was deservedly named Western Conference Player of the Week for last week.
Obviously, Bird's third quarter performance in which she kept the Storm in the game with two timely threes and scored eight of the team's 20 points certainly stands out. But she also made a series of crisp pinpoint passes through Fever defenders on fast breaks that few point guards would have the skill, let alone awareness, to execute. She finished with 21 points including 5-for-6 three point shooting, which was refreshing for a team shooting poorly from beyond the arc.
But despite an outstanding individual performance, the Storm were unable to get a coveted road win. And what the Storm have shown more than anything in their last four games since center Lauren Jackson's injury - which they've split - is that superlative individual performances are not necessarily going to be a recipe for success.
Although it's great to see Bird and Cash turn in such strong performances, what's noteworthy about their two wins (albeit against the 1-9 Tulsa Shock and 2-6 Washington Mystics) is balance. And for those that have watched the Storm closely this season, that has little to nothing to do with Jackson's absence - it's something that has been plaguing them from the beginning of the season.
Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird accounts for 50% of the Storm's statistical production
Statistics aren't everything, but they certainly help to layout the landscape of a team's season and pinpoint patterns more easily than re-watching game film. Just to put things in perspective, the top individual players on a team account for somewhere around 20% of a team's overall statistical production with center Sylvia Fowles currently leading the league with responsibility for 27.64% of the Chicago Sky's production. But as the Sky are probably well aware, WNBA teams with one player responsible for nearly 30% of their production typically don't fare so well (e.g. 2008 Phoenix Mercury vs. 2007 & 2009).
Against the Los Angeles Sparks - still the Storm's worst loss of the season - Bird accounted for 72% of the Storm's statistical production. In their loss to the Sun last Friday, it was Cash accounting for 36.40% of the team's production in a much closer game, but still one in which Bird, Katie Smith, and Tanisha Wright shot 8-for-24 from the field. The final box was much more balanced in their first game against the Minnesota Lynx, which was a first half disaster, but the fourth quarter was still defined by dominant play by Bird.
In last night's game, Bird accounted for 50% of the Storm's production. Although the Storm's shooting efficiency was above league average for the second consecutive game - they had an effective field goal percentage of 50.86% last night - if you take out BIrd's shooting they shot 18-for-49 overall and had an effective field goal percentage of 40.82%.
Compounding the poor shooting last night was that the Storm weren't attacking the basket the way they did in the previous Mystics game, something embodied by their free throw rate of only 3.4% (they shot 2-for-4 for the game. Another part of the problem for the Storm is that their bench is being consistently outplayed by opponents - last night, the Storm bench was outscored 26-7 and all four of reserve center Ashley Robinson's points came in the first quarter.
However, a much bigger and uncharacteristic problem for Bird and the team was turnovers.
Key statistic: Storm turned the ball over on more than a quarter of their possessions
Katie Smith was the Storm's most efficient ball handler on Tuesday, with 3 assists to 1 turnover (pure point rating of 4.00). Bird had 4 turnovers to her 5 assists (turnover ratio: 21.18%, assist ratio: 26.48%, pure point rating: -1.96) while Wright had 5 turnovers and a game-high 5 assists (assist and turnover ratios of 27.77%, pure point rating: -5.20).
Obviously, you can't blame the starting backcourt alone for the team's for a loss, but in a game in which the Storm turned the ball over 19 times (26.54% of their possessions) it certainly would have helped to have better ball handling from the backcourt, or really any of the starters: Bird's pure point rating was the best among Storm starters.
The Storm were rather uncharacteristically turnover prone, whether it be due to indecision, rushed decisions, trying to squeeze the ball into traffic, or over-dribbling. Getting the ball into the post seemed to cause problems, even if deflected passes didn't turn into turnovers.
Of course, a lot of that is due to the fact that the Fever are just a good defensive team. So another factor was definitely that both Bird and Wright were seeing more traps than usual, which makes sense strategically: 1) if her teammates aren't shooting well, forcing one of them to beat you is a sound plan and 2) without Jackson drawing attention inside, it's easier to turn more attention to Bird. On a number of occasions, ball handling errors or getting into the offense late resulted in empty possessions (this was particularly evident during the second quarter).
The turnover problem is not related solely to missing Jackson though; the Storm weren't exactly a model of exemplary ball control in early losses to the Lynx and Sparks with Jackson. Like the way teams have used zone defense against the Storm, trapping Bird is something they could also see more of and, if so, they'll have to find ways to handle that as a team without committing so many turnovers.
Key player: Tamika Catchings brought an attacking mentality that the Storm lacked
Tamika Catchings' defensive presence didn't exactly help the Storm either. Set aside her game-high 4 first quarter steals because while impressive, the majority of what she does to opponents can't be quantified.
For a team that thrives on rapid rotations, traps, and 3/4 to full court pressure, having a player like Catchings on the floor can be extremely helpful, either as a help defender or off the ball. On some occasions, she looked like she was playing free safety. On the defensive boards, if she wasn't retrieving the ball she was making a play to make sure that a teammate could get it.
But her offense was also particularly valuable for the Fever - while the Storm looked indecisive and tentative at times, Catchings was the exact opposite on most occasions. She didn't have a big game from the free throw line (one of her free throws was on a technical foul shot), but did an excellent job of driving and kicking out in addition to finding scoring opportunities for herself.
In the fourth quarter, the Fever shot 80% from the field and Catchings was a big part of that, both scoring and setting up scoring plays (even without getting an assist).
However, while Catchings has been a MVP candidate in the past because, like Bird, she's accounted for so much of her team's production, the continued development of center Jessica Davenport was vital to beating the Storm.
Fever statistical MVP: Davenport beat the Storm inside and outside
Davenport was another major part of the Fever's fourth quarter effort that put the game away and while she finished with a team-high 15 points, along with 7 rebounds, game-high 4 blocks, and team-high tying 3 assists, how she got her points was more impressive.
She wasn't just scoring from the low post, where she definitely had a size advantage over the Storm frontcourt - it was drives from the wings and low post as well as a few mid-range shots. And with everything else flowing for the Fever, her all-around game was simply too much for a Storm team that is still trying to establish a consistent rhythm.
Could post defense be a problem for the Storm without Jackson? Possibly. But a game like their loss to Indiana shows that the team has problems that were both present with Jackson this season or have little to do with Jackson.
That just wasn't a particularly good basketball performance, by any standard.
Perhaps what's most frustrating is that we're not used to seeing this from this collection of players the Storm have. But the reason to remain optimistic about their improvement is that these are all correctable errors and there's still plenty of time left.