Having returned home from their three-game road trip to face the Chicago Sky tonight, the Connecticut Sun legitimately see their 81-79 loss to the Seattle Storm as the one that got away, to paraphrase a report by Marc Allard of the Norwich Bulletin.
"This would've been a special road trip if we were to have won this game," said Sun coach Mike Thibault after the last-second loss at KeyArena. "If we could've figured out a way to get one more stop at the end, it would've made our season really good right now. That's the way it goes. I hope we learn something from it."
Despite the loss though, the fact is that the Sun actually outplayed the Storm for large stretches of the game. In the first quarter - the one quarter that they lost on the scoreboard - the Sun played the Storm almost even (14-12) after getting down 10-2 early. Even in the second quarter when things seemed to be getting out of hand as the Storm extended their lead to 18, the Sun came right back with a 15-4 run to swing momentum the other direction.
The Storm were never truly as "in control" of the game as the scoreboard sometimes implied. So if there's anything the Sun could learn from it, it's the value of continuing to remain focused and focus on executing play-to-play even if the score isn't in your favor. And in that sense, although a final play like Bird's has the power to overshadow everything that came before it, the real story of the game was how the Sun managed to stay in that game on a night when the Storm dug a deep hole for them early-on.
The answer is familiar for Storm fans: turnovers; almost every turn in the game could best be explained by a flurry of Storm turnovers.
The turnover problem is nothing new for the Storm - it was the most significant problem in most of their six losses last year. The problem is that the pattern seems to be intensifying lately, particularly with the Storm's 29 team turnover performance in their 70-53 loss to the Atlanta Dream on Sunday.
Over the last five games - during which they have gone 3-2 - the Storm have turned the ball over a league-high 18.8 times per game. While that number is inflated by their performance against the Dream, it was essentially balanced out by a nine turnover performance against the 1-19 Tulsa Shock on July 30. Setting aside that Tulsa game, the Storm have been at or above their Western Conference-high season average of 17.19 turnovers per game in four of those last five.
So while it might be tempting to focus on the extreme case of the Dream game, looking at a closer to average game more easily reveals how badly the Storm are hurting themselves - the 29 turnovers against the Dream was more of a perfect storm of a pre-existing problem, the Dream's defensive ability on the perimeter, and perhaps playing on the road.
What makes the Sun game perhaps more interesting narratively is that their 21 team turnovers - six in the fourth quarter - were arguably the reason why the Storm almost squandered a rather dominant home court advantage at KeyArena on Friday night.
"The way the game went, us being up almost 20 at one point, them coming back, us making a run, and for them to get the lead with three seconds was really a killer," said Bird on Friday. "This was a game where if we would have lost we would have been sitting in this locker room talking about how we let one go. So to hit that shot and to get the win does mean a lot. We're fighting and jockeying for position just like everybody else. Every win is important."
But what's particularly troubling for the Storm is that many of these turnovers have seemed absolutely bizarre, particularly because it can be difficult for a spectator's eyes to withhold the impulse to judge them by last season's ridiculously high standard; it's not just the volume of turnovers in recent games that's hurting the Storm, but the types of turnovers they're making.
People often judge the cost of a turnover by the points an opponent scored off their turnovers. However, it's also helpful to look at them in terms of their potential to lead to transition points off turnovers - while "dead ball" turnovers result in a stoppage of play and an opponent inbounding the ball, "live" turnovers do not stop play and allow an opponent to immediately turn around and begin their possession with a fast break. Going a step further, we could categorize the causes of turnovers to further illuminate which are more costly than others. From there, it might be possible to determine with some gray areas whether a turnover was forced or unforced.
Using that as a framework of analysis, we could say that the worst type of turnover would be for a player to dribble the ball off their foot (ball handling error) without defensive pressure (unforced) leaving a loose ball (live) that an opponent picked up and scored from. So the value of such a framework is to get a better sense of whether it was great defense or poor offense that led to so many turnovers.
So, for example, the following is a look at all 21 team turnovers in the Storm's win against the Sun:
|Ball handling error
|Offensive foul (illegal screen)
|Ball handling error (in post)
|Bad pass (to Swin Cash)
|Bad pass (deflected by defense)
|Offensive foul (charge)
|Ball handling error (in post)
|Offensive foul (illegal contact in paint)
|Rushed pass (end of shot clock)
|Ball handling error (in post)
|Ball handling (drive)
|Offensive foul (illegal screen)
The Seattle Storm's 21 team turnovers vs. the Connecticut Sun on 8/5/11.
Only 8 of the Storm's 21 turnovers against the Sun were live turnovers, which certainly limited transition scoring opportunities (the Sun only had 2 fast break points) although the Sun did score 26 points off of turnovers. But beneath the surface of points scored off turnovers are signs of poor execution on the part of the Storm.
The shot clock violations - including Bird's rushed pass in the third quarter - could certainly be attributed to a combination of strong defense and poor offensive execution (in many cases against the Sun, apparent confusion and poor spacing). Maybe a handful or so of the remaining turnovers could be considered situations in which the defense had to make a play in order to actually create the turnover (e.g. stripping the ball handler in the paint or intercepting a pass). But no matter how you count it up, somewhere between 13-15 of those turnovers were unforced and, as such, preventable (e.g. rules infractions, losing a dribble,
When looking at the Storm's performance in terms of 60%+ of their turnovers against the Sun being unforced, it almost makes sense that they turned the ball over 29 times as a unit against the Atlanta Dream - it's not like the Sun are a high-tempo, helter skelter team that was pressing all game. Moreso than the Dream game, the Sun game reveals a team that is not taking care of the ball very well regardless of what the defense does.
However, it's also not as if the Storm are without hope in fixing this particular dilemma. Just looking at that list of turnovers without watching the game, it's apparent that a number of them occurred in situations where the offense was stagnant, which is another Storm pattern this year. And that might be the biggest way in which the absence of Lauren Jackson has been felt this season.
With Jackson on the floor, she has to be the primary focus of the defense, sometimes demanding attention from 2, 3 or all 5 opposing players. In that scenario, there's no way a team can afford to immediately double Little or Willingham upon receiving the ball in the post or trap Bird, Wright, or Katie Smith as they're trying to initiate the offense from the point or wings. With Jackson sucking up all the defensive attention, all the rest of the team has to be is be patient and wait for scoring opportunities to unfold.
But without Jackson, the Storm are objectively less of a threat in the post and defenses have adjusted accordingly, redistributing all their pressure elsewhere. While many teams have found success trapping the perimeter, the Sun did an outstanding job playing straight up defense and collapsing on players with the ball in the paint (especially in the second half). The effect of that over time is observable even over the course of a single game - the Storm slowly become more perimeter oriented, stagnant, settle for more quick long jumpers, and are thus less balanced as defenses take away the middle. And it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling cycle where the team becomes more impatient as they continue to struggle to score.
Perhaps ironically though, the key is not just to become more patient - as in more methodical and selective - but more dynamic.
The Storm are at their best this year when they limit the amount of time spent moving the ball around the perimeter and instead look for scoring opportunities going from the outside in. That's particularly true given that the Storm are not a particularly dominant offensive rebounding team that can expect to clean up missed perimeter shots easily.
Obviously, that's why their defense has been so important this year as they can create turnovers and turn those into quick scoring opportunities, either off a fast break or in an "early offense" situation. But even once in half court sets, the key for the Storm has been to spread the court and find situations in which someone can beat a player either off the dribble or moving without the ball toward the basket.
Cash is among the best at her position in the league driving from the wing and either scoring or getting to the free throw line. Wright has proven time and time again that she's best when handling the ball with a scorer's mentality, even if she's the lead ball handler. Players like Little and Robinson are often quick enough to score by beating their defenders to the basket off cuts. Their strength is not necessarily that they're a better one-on-one team than their opponents, but that they can keep opponents off balance by staying in motion and exploiting certain matchups.
In a way, the key to the Storm cutting down on some of these turnovers is simply looking for a high percentage shot moving toward the basket before they can turn the ball over. That might sound "riskier" in a way - a coach of mine once harped on the fact that a quick missed shot is as bad as a turnover, which is certainly true in that it's a non-scoring possession either way. However, a team has a better chance to score by heaving shots from halfcourt 15 times than they do by literally tossing the ball out of bounds - albeit facetious, at least the halfcourt shots might find their way through the rim every now and then and give you three points. And further minimizing the risk of running an offense predicated on quick scoring opportunities with players in motion is that the Storm happen to have one of the best point guards in the world to help facilitate that sort of action in Bird.
It's not really even that this is a novel idea - the Storm have talked all season about the importance of creating offense from their defense and it's obvious from watching them that they're at their best when they identify opportunities for someone to slash through the lane. It's just that particularly in the last five games, the Storm have shown how easily they can lose games when they don't maintain that aggressive, decisive scoring mentality.
So although the Sun walked away from this game thinking they let one slip away, in essence it was the Storm that gave this one away with their turnovers. It's just that once the Sun accepted the gift, Bird decided to take it back at the last second.