Since we missed last week, this column will feature the breakdown of two games instead of the usual one, and two player examinations instead of one, as well. We'll be looking at the Los Angeles Sparks v. New York Liberty and the Phoenix Mercury v. Chicago Sky games.
For the players, we'll be analyzing Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks) and Elizabeth Williams (Atlanta Dream). This column will be broken down into two parts: one for Tuesday, and one for Wednesday, because I know y'all ain't reading ten thousand words in one sitting. Y'all welcome.
NEW YORK v. LOS ANGELES
The Sparks ganked New York on June 7th, beating them by 23 points. The key to their victory was the total shutdown of the Liberty offense, especially in the second and third quarters, in which New York scored a total of 29 points. Though Los Angeles played good defense, it's also a product of how limited and constrained this Liberty offense can be.
Take this play, from the first quarter:
The Liberty are in a spread set, with all five players on the perimeter; the idea of this sort of offense is to help clear space so that players can drive to the basket and/or cut freely. But the problem with running this type of set is that the Liberty are not a threat from deep.
They shoot 11.7 three-pointers per game, and though they make them at the second highest clip in the league at 36.2%. However, they take the second-fewest in the game, and derive on 15.6% of their points from beyond the arc, compared to the 61.6% they get from two point shots.
The Sparks are not going to hang out on the perimeter, knowing that the Liberty don't shoot them that often; why would they? When New York runs their pick and roll at the top of the arc, Los Angeles packs the paint, stopping whatever momentum and eliminating any space that the ball handler got from an excellent screen.
The play results in free throws, but the shot itself is contested by multiple yellow jerseys. This is not a play that you can base an offense around.
This clip, from the second quarter, further illustrates the Liberty's problem:
I'm not even sure what New York was trying to do here. They have the ball in the corner, with two of their own players standing near the low posts, creating a line of Sparks defenders near the basket. The ball handler decides to drive, and immediately, four yellow jerseys are on top of her.
They've corralled her so completely that a final defender doesn't even bother turning around, instead of keeping her focus on her assignment, the only place where the ball handler could pass out to. It's total control, and just puzzling offense.
The last clip comes from the third quarter, where things have already gone very poorly for the Liberty:
Holy crap, Los Angeles! I'm not even really sure what New York is supposed to do here, because the Sparks are all over them. When this ball crosses center court, things really start happening; a Liberty player runs along the perimeter, going all the way across the floor to pass in front of the ball handler.
That same player then sets a pick in the middle of the lane, trying to free up her teammate, but the Sparks player slips the pick and stays with her assignment. The original Liberty player, who has, by this point, run in nearly a giant circle, cuts back out to the perimeter, only to be chased and covered by her original Sparks defender; she receives the ball, and tries to drive, and loses the ball.
The Spark were not fooled, nor were they impeded, by anything the Liberty did. They stayed on their assignments hips for nearly ten seconds, and when that Liberty player began her drive to the hoop, they all sank backward into the paint.
It was incredible to watch in the moment, and even more so when I can rewind the clip over and over again. This was good movement by New York, and would usually open up more space and a better outcome; a far cry from whatever they were thinking with that spread set in the first quarter. But the Sparks played better defense.
We've already seen that the Sparks can play excellent defense, but that's not the only skill they possess. They did score 100 points against one of the best defensive teams in the entire WNBA, and that's not an easy feat.
One of the things that they have going for them is Candace Parker:
At first glance, this doesn't look like much; it's a good pass from Parker to the roller, sure, but it seems more like a defensive lapse from the Liberty than anything else. However, I don't think that's the case.
This is a near-dead possession; Los Angeles was stymied by the Liberty, and passing out to Parker was a classic ‘bail us out' sort of maneuver. It's reasonable, too, considering that Candace Parker is one of the best players in WNBA history and is quickly working her way up to one of the all-time greats (if she isn't there already).
But Parker doesn't drive the lane, or take a forced three-pointer. She doesn't have to do anything, because the sheer threat of her having the ball in her hands gives the Liberty pause.
Parker is able to hit the rolling Sparks player because the Liberty were too afraid of Parker to drop back into the lane to defend that possible roll. Parker wasn't and did not play well offensively in this game, and yet she pulled everyone towards her like a black hole.
This next one is perhaps my favorite play of the game:
What a cool play. Two Los Angeles player meander to the weak side high post, almost as if they're not playing basketball at all. A Sparks player runs all the way from the perimeter on strong side, weaving her way behind the two LA players, who now set screens. She catches the ball, as free as a bird, and drains the three.
A well-designed, well-executed play. The Sparks are not just Candace Parker and a collection of solid players. They have talent up and down the board, and a coach who can draw up plays that put the players in good position to succeed. They are so tough to beat, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, and that is why they are undefeated nine games into this season.
Nneka Ogwumike has been one of the best players in the league this season. She's improved on every stat from 2015, and has done so in five fewer minutes of playing time per game.
She leads the league in field goal percentage at 67.9% (!!!!), blowing away second-place Crystal Langhorne by 5.4%. She has been one of the biggest reasons for the undefeated dominance of this Los Angeles team.
Her play against the Dallas Wings on June 11th was near-perfect. She did not miss a shot, going 12-12, or a free throw, gong 7-7. Her biggest asset as a power forward is her ability to move on the court; she's not some great lumbering beast, but someone who possesses wing-like athleticism to go along with her length. Watch this clip, from the opening Sparks possession:
She moves fluidly around the perimeter, and cuts to the basket, receiving a perfect pass fron the top of the arc. However, what makes this all possible is that her defender is much too slow to take her on, leaving her to beat only a much smaller Wings player for a layup. Her speed and size create a mismatch across the board.
This next clip comes just after she was fouled grabbing a rebound. Twice, she boxes out her opponent with ease, grabbing the ball and laying it up without any struggle whatsoever. She establishes position in the post and then effortlessly pivots to catch the rebound when it comes her way. Nothing can be done to stop her.
This last clip is just an awesome one-on-one move to the basket:
Remember: this is a power forward taking her man off the dribble and spinning into the lane. She doesn't make the shot, but she draws free throws, making both of them. She is such a skilled, athletic offensive player that she opens up what the Sparks are capable of doing.
She's also a good defender as well. This clip is a flashy representation of her athleticism, but encapsulates what she's able to do on that end as well:
She reads the pass, tips it away, and then beats a Wings guard to the ball. She breaks into the open court, taking it all the way to the hoop. She's too fast, and too big; I know I've said it a million times by now, but it bears repeating. The Sparks are a good team, and would be without her, but Nneka Ogumike takes them to another level.