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2014 WNBA Finals: Why Sylvia Fowles struggled against the Phoenix Mercury

After a dominant first half performance in Game 3, Sylvia Fowles struggled to find a rhythm in the second half as the Phoenix Mercury beat the Chicago Sky to sweep the 2014 WNBA Finals. So why did Fowles struggle even with Brittney Griner out of the game?

Photo by Getty Images.

In her preview of Game 3 of the 2014 WNBA Finals, Patricia Babcock-McGraw of the Chicago Daily Herald reported that 6-foot-6 Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles was frustrated with her performance in Game 2, during which the long arms of Griner kept her "in check".

"They're both really strong. The difference is, Griner has more length -- a lot more.

"Syl rushed things early in Game 2 and I think she got frustrated. She was anxious to do well. We just want her to relax (in Game 3) and be one of the best post players in the world, like we know she is."

But Game 3 ended up being an even more frustrating reminder of something that has been a constant problem for Fowles throughout her career with the Sky: after dominating the paint for 14 points on 7-for-8 shooting and grabbing 4 rebounds in the first half, Fowles had just 6 points on 2-for-5 shooting along with 4 boards in the second half during which she played the full 20 minutes. During the fourth quarter of Game 3 - the only decisive on of the series - Fowles went 0-for-1 with an over the back foul against a fundamentally sound box out from 6-foot-1 Penny Taylor.

Of course, you could argue that's a minor quibble because the Sky shot 50% from the field in the second half anyway - a 5% improvement over their first half performance and 9% better than the Mercury (41.2%) in the second half. But if you're going to beat the winningest team in WNBA history, you have to be near-perfect, especially when Taurasi is going off on you.

With Brittney Griner out due to an eye injury suffered in Game 2, Fowles was being guarded by 6-foot-4 Ewelina Kobryn and 6-foot-3 Mistie Mims. That she only managed five shots over 20 minutes is a problem; that she didn't make either of her two second half field goals on a post-up with Griner out is somewhat troubling. And although it might not explain the Sky's Game 3 loss, Fowles not getting shots is such a consistent issue that it becomes hard to ignore.

Fowles' inefficient second half performance

Her first three touches of the second half were disastrous. On her first shot she was blocked by Kobryn at the basket after a well-timed cut into the paint. On her second shot, she took a short jump hook over Kobryn within five feet that clanked off the front rim. On her third touch, she mishandled a tough pass from Vandersloot off the drive and ultimately ended up on the floor struggling for the ball before turning it over (she wasn't credited with the turnover probably because she never truly got a handle on the ball).

After a possession in the first three minutes of the second half when Fowles stood in place around the elbow out of a pick-and-roll, ESPN commentator Rebecca Lobo suggested that fatigue might be a problem - that would certainly help to explain the outcome of those first three touches. But her standing around wasn't just fatigue: there were a number of plays were Fowles was entirely uninvolved as the Sky looked to Delle Donne or used Fowles as a glorified screener.

This might be second-guessing at a micro level, but - to Lobo's point - if they wanted to run 2-3 consecutive possessions to Delle Donne or had an out-of-bounds set that wasn't going to someone else anyway, why not give Fowles an opportunity to rest? That is a bit of an oversimplified premise - even if she wasn't getting the ball, she was drawing so much attention that she made it easier on others to get shots - but with the number of sets they ran deliberately for Delle Donne after one or two passes, it seems they could have found opportunities to rest Fowles.

Three reasons why Fowles wasn't more productive

Fatigue notwithstanding there were at least 10 possessions on which Fowles did not get a field goal attempt despite being open in the second half of Game 3 alone. But it's not quite as simple as saying that her teammates just weren't looking to get her the ball - there were actually three primary reasons that Fowles didn't get more shots in the second half of Game 3.

1. Credit the Mercury's defense.

There were a number of plays when the fact of having DeWanna Bonner guarding Vandersloot made getting the ball into Fowles nearly impossible. No play was a more glaring example of that than this one with 5:57 left in the third quarter.

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Figure 1: Epiphanny Prince handling the ball with Sylvia Fowles posting up.

The 5-foot-9 Prince was staring right at Fowles and trying to figure out how to get the ball into her but didn't really even try to figure out how to get the ball around the wiry 6-foot-4 Bonner. Instead, the Sky ended up getting a shot clock violation as they kept trying to find a shot after this moment - Prince dribbling time off the clock while apparently looking for Fowles was a major contributor to that. (Possibly noteworthy: Prince left the game less than 30 seconds after that play and didn't return until 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter.)

Second, there were also plays when Kobryn did an excellent job either fronting or just fighting with Fowles to make her work to establish position. Fowles won that battle more often than not, but even when Kobyrn could simply push her out of the paint and front or deny it made making a pass far more difficult, as shown in Figure 2 below.

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Figure 2: Elena Delle Donne preparing to shoot as Sylvia Fowles fights for post position.

2. Little ball movement. What can still be most frustrating is when Fowles' teammates appear to ignore her altogether, either because they've committed to running another play or someone else shoots the ball.

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Figure 3: Elena Delle Donne dribbling while Sylvia Fowles posts up.

In Figure 3 above, Delle Donne is dribbling from left to right around the arc while Fowles is fighting for position with Kobryn. What's stunning about this is that the entire set was designed to get Fowles open and Delle Donne took one look at her before deciding to look to the second option. The play worked out fine -- Vandersloot hit a big jumper off a Fowles screen -- but this was one of those cases where the Sky had a two-pass possession (back and forth between Delle Donne and Vandersloot) and shot without getting Fowles a touch when she was open.

Part of that is absolutely good defense, even in Figure 1: the play began with Vandersloot setting a back screen on Kobryn at the right elbow, which the Mercury read perfectly and didn't switch while fronting Fowles on her cut from elbow to opposite block. By the 2:21 mark above, Delle Donne simply decided she wasn't going to be able to get the ball there. Had Delle Donne waited even a second, maybe she could have been able to get the ball in there. Yet even then, Dupree crowding Delle Donne and Bonner ready to help made that a tough play.

Nevertheless, the Mercury's defense -- which was very good even without Griner just in terms of communication footwork, rotations, and figuring out when to double -- doesn't negate the responsibility of Sky teammates to make a concerted effort to get the ball into Fowles. And what's especially interesting about the Sky is that they took so many contested jumpers early in the shot clock instead of getting it into Fowles.

It's the lack of ball movement that stands out about Figure 3. You see the same thing in Figure 2 - there are 14 seconds left on the shot clock and Delle Donne took a contested long two, which she happened to make. And you see the same thing in Figure 4 below: Fowles working to get position and Delle Donne shooting a well-contested three with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, which she misses.

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Figure 4: Elena Delle Donne shooting while Sylvia Fowles fights for post position.

As it turns out, Delle Donne is good enough to have earned the right to shoot when she thinks she has an opportunity - she's able to make things happen on her own and she took advantage. But what stood out on a few of Delle Donne's 12 second half field goal attempts was that they were one- or two-pass possessions - there was no attempt to work the ball around to get it to Fowles. That stands in very stark contrast to a team like the Mercury that will whip the ball around quickly for a few passes (when Taurasi isn't in beast mode) to get the shot they want. The Sky tended to go one-on-one a lot throughout the playoffs (which hurts when Delle Donne isn't in beast mode).

3. Poor play by Fowles. Last, some responsibility for Fowles' poor second half falls on Fowles herself -- she flat out dropped three balls that hit her hand(s). It isn't quite football where you can say that anything that hits her hand should be a catch, but that contributes to the missed opportunities. And, contrary to the feeling that the team didn't do enough to get her the ball, there was a stretch of about two minutes in the fourth quarter where the Sky looked to Fowles almost every time she was open.

With 6:32 left in the game, Fowles dropped a ball off an inbounds pass near the end of the shot clock that resulted in a shot clock violation. She missed a layup off a pass from Vandersloot on the Sky's next possession with 6:04 left. And less than a minute later Fowles mishandled a pass with Bonner on her back for which Allie Quigley got charged with a turnover, which is the play shown in Figure 4 below.

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Figure 5: Allie Quigley preparing to pass the ball to Sylvia Fowles in transition.

Again, credit Bonner for that - despite being at a huge height and strength disadvantage, she "pulled the chair" on Fowles and jumped around to contest the pass, which clearly caused Fowles to lose her balance just enough to make the catch difficult. But it's a case where the ball was there inside the restricted area with plenty of room to work and Fowles failed to make the play.

Sky MVP: Elena Delle Donne

In light of everything above, it might not seem very surprising that Delle Donne ended up as the team's MVP for the finals statistically. But it's striking that Delle Donne ended up contributing more to the Sky than anyone in the series while really only playing two games.

Certainly there would be those who would argue that Fowles was the MVP on the basis of her Game 3 numbers alone: looking at the final box score, she was the team's best player statistically in the team's only remotely competitive performance. But that becomes a far more difficult case to make when combining that second half performance in Game 3 with a "frustrating" Game 2 performance.

Playing just 10 minutes in Game 1, Delle Donne was essentially a non-factor; playing 23 minutes in Game 2, Fowles was a negative factor as she went 2-for-11 with just five rebounds. With there being no question that those two were otherwise the team's top players - Fowles being the clear MVP of Game 1 and Delle Donne being the MVP of Game 2 with the two effectively being even in Game 3 - Delle Donne being a non-factor in Game 1 outweighed Fowles hurting the team in Game 2. I would show you a chart for Game 2, but that's sort of difficult when four players (Fowles, Jamierra Faulkner, Sasha Goodlett and Courtney Clements) combined for about -18% of the team's production; it's best we just leave Game 2 alone and just agree that it was an ugly situation.

On the bright side, Delle Donne accounting for nearly a quarter of the team's production in the Finals shows just how good she was in those two games she played: although she couldn't help her team avoid a historic blowout in Game 2, she was by far the team's best player as she accounted for 48% of their production. The problem was that it was a one-woman show and that's just not nearly enough against a team like the Mercury that consistently divides the work between 2-3 players (with the specific combination varying from game to game).

The Mercury were just better

None of this criticism of Fowles is to blame her alone for the loss in Game 3 - it was a team failure to establish a post game with Griner out. Fowles could've done more herself, but her teammates could have made a more concerted effort to get her the ball and the Mercury played solid defense. And part of that lost opportunity is a matter of foul trouble: Kobryn picked up her fourth in the third quarter and had to sit. Although Mistie Bass played admirably, she wasn't nearly the defensive presence that Kobryn was and was a -11 for the game, only needing to play four minutes in the second half.

Would doing better on any of those fronts change the outcome? It's never easy to prove a counter-factual like that, especially not against a historically good team. But what remains unfortunate is that the Sky weren't really able to take advantage of Griner's absence to the extent that they could have. It was a golden opportunity to extend the series and get one more home game.

For more on Game 3 and the series, check out our Mercury vs. Sky storystream.