How The Mercury Beat the Sparks in LA: From 0 to 22 in About 5 minutes 30 seconds

. Monday, July 6, 2009
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The Phoenix Mercury’s impressive 104-89 road victory over the Los Angeles Sparks last night was one of those games that simply cannot be appreciated by reading the box score or even the play by play alone.

It’s not just that the Mercury posted a season-high 36-point third quarter, that they managed to out-rebound the Sparks 40-31, or that they ran off 11 straight points to start the fourth quarter. It’s how they did it that is noteworthy.

Although the game ended up a blow out, it was going back and forth until about three minutes left in the 3rd quarter when DeLisha Milton-Jones was whistled for a touch foul on DeWanna Bonner that forced Jones to the bench with her fourth foul.

After Bonner made the two free throws, the Mercury were up five. Then the shifting tide of momentum that the Sparks had seemingly held off for the previous three and a half minutes, swung completely in the Mercury’s favor.

What the Mercury did to the Sparks during the ensuing five and a half minute stretch spanning the 3rd and 4th quarters really cannot be measured, quantified, or even fully articulated without watching it.

To describe it as the Sparks “falling apart” would be to completely ignore that the Mercury got into a zone in which they seemed to be optimally coordinated as a team while almost effortlessly taking control of the game.

Commentator Tracy Warren may have described the sequence of events best at the end of the third quarter after Cappie Pondexter set up Bonner for a three to put the Mercury up 10.

You could see with that three a little bit of deflation from the Sparks. They’re feeling like wow. We’re can’t stop Taurasi, we’re having trouble with Pondexter, and now you’re us the rookie Bonner is gonna hit from outside. Tough matchup problems for the Sparks right now in the third.
That was before Cappie Pondexter took an outlet pass without about 6.5 seconds left, beat Shannon Bobbitt down the length of the court, and hit a seemingly ridiculous floating jumper from the wing with 1.2 seconds left to put the Mercury up 11.

That’s demoralizing. And sometimes that just means more on the court than anyone off the court can understand rationally.

What the Mercury did to the Sparks during that stretch was not just Mercury basketball at its best, but it was an almost perfect realization of what a fast paced offense should be. All the elements of what it takes to run successfully were on display: defense (to prevent the other team from making shots), rebounding (to initiate the fast break), and high percentage shots (to keep the pressure on the opposing defense).

When a team with three all-stars (yes, Temeka Johnson is having an all-star season) gets in that kind of zone, it’s difficult to imagine anybody stopping them…even if they are on the road.

From an analytical standpoint, the Mercury’s play during that condensed period of time is perfect for a case study of what the Mercury do at their best. However, it also reinforces the argument that the Sparks are simply not a running team but a team designed to thrive off of their Olympic frontcourt. And once they get all their pieces back in game shape, a team like the Mercury might not even get the opportunity to run them like that.

A tale of two halves

Obscured by the final outcome of the game is that the Sparks played a very strong first half despite Candace Parker returning to play her first game after pregnancy and Lisa Leslie still sidelined by injury. Forget whatever you thought about the Mercury prior to the season – the Sparks were playing neck and neck with the best team in the West without a full roster. That’s impressive.

In the second quarter, when the Sparks built a six-point lead, the Sparks completely neutralized the Mercury – the Mercury only shot 26.7%, made four unforced turnovers, and gave up five offensive rebounds. The Mercury were forced into a number of contested shots or bad decisions just from the aggressive defense of the Sparks. With 3:22 left in the second quarter, I wrote the following note to myself: “pho falling apart”.

Granted, the Sparks needed a miracle shot at the halftime buzzer to take a 5 point lead, but they played well and kept the Mercury at bay.

But of course a five point lead is not what one would normally consider “safe”.

With 8:56 left in the 3rd, the Sparks were up 8 after a layup by Kristi Harrower. What allowed the Mercury to cut the lead was the Sparks settling for perimeter shots or getting contested shots inside. Meanwhile, the Mercury were starting to heat up, getting open looks from the three point line within the flow of their early offense and getting to the free throw line 12 times. They were getting easy points.

And that was before the Mercury started demoralizing the Sparks.

How the Mercury can demoralize an opponent

Last season I noted that the Mercury were best when they started moving the ball. While Taurasi can certainly single-handedly take over games, when she can get help it makes the Mercury extremely difficult to defend, as described in the aforementioned Warren quote. However, both ball movement and rebounding are what made the Mercury’s run possible.

The Mercury’s six third quarter assists matched their assist total from the first half. That’s not including at least four other “lost assists” – missed open shots or plays on which a player got fouled on a shot after receiving a pass -- that I counted. When the Mercury get into their uptempo zone, it’s not just one player leading the way, it’s a team effort.

There are at least three key reasons for the Mercury being so effective in the open court this season. First, the addition of Temeka Johnson has been perfect for the Mercury’s system. She not only has the speed and ball skills to get out on the break and find players in rhythm, but she can also spread the defense by hitting perimeter shots.

Second, the addition of Bonner was perfect for this team. Bonner is able to beat everyone down the court for easy baskets, which only enhances the Mercury attack. However, another key asset Bonner brings is offensive rebounding. Bonner had five offensive rebounds in the game, three of which came in the third quarter.

The Mercury as a team are not known for their rebounding, but they out-rebounded the Sparks 25-10 in the second half. In the third quarter, they grabbed 57% of all the available offensive rebounds, which is dominant. That means they were not only getting easy baskets and wide-open shots, but also extending their possessions and giving themselves second chances to score. Bonner’s tenacity in the paint despite her slight build was a large part of that.

Third, the other major “addition” to the Mercury is Cappie Pondexter’s improvement as a facilitator. It is well known that Johnson and Taurasi are playmakers with great court vision, but Pondexter has been an outstanding playmaker in her own right this season. Whereas last season she spent a lot more time looking for her own shot, often literally bulldozing her way to the basket with her head down, this season, she's looking to set up her teammates. Last night, she recorded a pure point rating of 5.74 to lead the team.

That means that not only do opponents have to keep up with the pace of the Mercury, but they also have to find a way to defend a team with three perimeter players that can facilitate plays for all the other moving parts like Bonner, Le’Coe Willingham, and Tangela Smith.

It’s not easy.

However, most important is the Mercury’s defense. As coach Corey Gaines said in the pre-season, they are employing the Rover defense differently this season, choosing to alternate between that and a man-to-man defense. With about 4:30 left in the third, they briefly started alternating between the two defenses which worked to slow the Sparks down just as the Mercury were starting to heat up.

The Sparks looked as though they were having trouble recognizing exactly what defense the Mercury were in. When they play the Rover effectively and use it as a tactic to sway the tempo rather than their base offense, they further keep their opponents on their toes.

In the last 2:58 of the third quarter, all those pieces came together at once, along with Taurasi being Taurasi. That is near unstoppable.

Of course, with Leslie and Parker healthy, one would imagine that the Mercury could not possibly have been so dominant on the boards and that would definitely have changed the face of this game. Not to mention the fact that Milton-Jones was out for much of this third quarter stretch after picking up her fourth foul.

But at the end of the third quarter, this is the Mercury you saw: working extremely well together, scoring from all over the floor, and limiting the Sparks’ scoring opportunities on the defensive end. That team is going to be competitive any night of the week.

Anatomy of a fourth quarter run: The Sparks’ search for someone to step up

However, things just worsened for the Sparks at the beginning of the fourth. And what became obvious at that point is that the Sparks are still trying to figure out their roles on the team.

Warren mentioned that Tina Thompson has said that she would defer to Leslie and Parker as the leaders on this talented team. Lennox is a good scorer, but usually inefficient. Milton-Jones was clearly the third wheel on last season’s Sparks team.

In other words, when the Sparks still had a chance to get back in this game despite the demoralization process, they didn’t know where to look to get out of the rut. There is a leadership void without Leslie and Parker at full strength.

Meanwhile, Taurasi and, to a lesser extent, Johnson had a field day.

However, as I was watching I took note of who was taking the shots for each team. Here’s an excerpt from my notes in the 4th quarter until the 6:30 mark when the Sparks found themselves down 22:
LA to Hayden
Pho to Taurasi 83-70
LA to Quinn for 3
85-70: TJ for 2, open free throw line J
Lennox missed j
TJ to Bonner, fast break lay 87-70
Mercury switching zones
DMJ bad throw in, Swanier fast break lay + ft 1-1, 90-70
DMJ to, Taurasi fast break lay, 92-70
LA timeout
While the Sparks are looking for Vanessa Hayden, Noelle Quinn, or Betty Lennox, the Mercury have the ball in the hands of Johnson and Taurasi and getting layups or free throws. I’ll take Johnson and Taurasi in that contest any day. Warren made the following comment late in the fourth quarter that sums up what happened to the Sparks.
This is a team that has shown they’ve got multiple offensive weapons and unless someone can stop them all, they’re going to have their hands full.
There is no way the Sparks could have matched up with the Mercury last night, given their personnel. But again, it’s important to reiterate that if the Sparks had one of their designated leaders on the floor during that stretch, the play by play would look a lot different.

Last night’s game should not Spark panic in L.A.

However, the easiest thing to focus on in the Sparks’ loss is the fourth quarter when they looked completely discombobulated and without leadership. One could imagine that the 11-0 fourth quarter run is what motivated Milton-Jones’ post game comments (quoted in the LA Times), that seemed to have a sense of urgency about solving the Sparks’ problems.
As a team that has already played nine games and had their coach question their effort, the Sparks know their own rebuilding effort can't take too much time.

"We cant keep patching up the leaks," said Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who tied her season high with 15 points but was scoreless in the second half.

"We need to re-pipe the system with copper piping to make sure there is no more damage later on. Right now we're suffering a lot of water damage and our foundation is slowly cracking. But we have to find ways to get wins, bottom line."
While Milton-Jones is probably correct that there are leaks that need to be fixed in the Sparks’ foundation, one could conceivably modify the metaphor – it’s as though the Sparks’ foundation of Leslie and Parker was removed altogether and the water is just creating a mudslide in the dirt below.

This season’s team was put together with the assumption that they would have Leslie and Parker playing together in the post. Without that, they will have an extremely difficult time finding wins. Until that point, it’s difficult to critique the Sparks, coach Michael Cooper, or the personnel.

They have to remain patient and looking forward to establishing their system so that they are ready to win once Leslie and Parker return.

Warren’s comment with 50.3 seconds left speaks directly to that point:
Now I think It’s a different game if you get a healthy Lisa Leslie and a healthy Candace Parker and you see what happens in August and September.
The Sparks will still have to fight their way into the playoffs and likely need help…but if they do get in with a healthy roster, they will absolutely be dangerous.

Transition Points:

BobsScoutingReport made a post on Rebkell saying that Nikki Teasley will be working out with the Sparks today for a possible signing. One would assume that means the Sparks will be dropping a point guard. That brings up two obvious questions: 1) would Teasley add anything to their existing group? and 2) if so, which point guard should go?

First let me say that I think Teasley's performance in Atlanta was inconsistent, but not nearly as horrific as some Dream fans make it out to be. But anyway...

My vague general opinion: it depends on how the Sparks want to play.

A more specific analysis:

If they're looking for a distributor who can protect the ball, Kristi Harrower is by far the best of the bunch -- she has an outstanding pure point rating of 9.55 and an assist ratio of 37.05...while only turning the ball over on 3% of the possessions she uses. Quinn is by far the odd person out if they want a distributor.

If they're looking for a point guard who can distribute and score, Teasley is the best shooter of this bunch with a 56% true shooting percentage, but again Harrower is more efficient -- she has a 2 point shooting percentage of 45% and scores 2 points for almost every possession she ends with a missed shot or turnover. Quinn is not nearly the playmaker of the other three, but is by far the best shooter, with a 52% true shooting percentage and a 54% 2 point shooting percentage.

Quinn's scoring ability makes her the best player overall according to any overall metric I use and has the highest plus/minus rating. In addition, coach Michael Cooper has said that he likes her versatility. So she's probably not going anywhere.

That leaves Shannon Bobbitt without any obvious statistical value to the team over any of the other players. However, while she is probably the least effective scorer of the bunch, she's by far the quickest player, as she's able to get the ball up the court quickly, distribute the ball efficiently (pure point rating of 7.16) and apply pressure defensively. And hmmm...isn't she friends with Candace Parker?

The only thing that Teasley offers is a higher true shooting percentage than any of the current Sparks point guards at 56.68%, which is among the best of any point guard in the league.

So if it comes down to the Sparks choosing between Bobbitt, Harrower, or Teasley to fit their style of play, I would probably opt with maintaining team chemistry and just not signing Teasley -- I'm just not sure what she adds to what they already have. But if they're looking for (very little) additional scoring and size, while not losing much on the distributor end, waiving Bobbitt and signing Teasley does make sense. Either way, I'm not sure it's a move that would substantially improve or hurt this team.

Fast break points: Phoenix 23, Los Angeles 4

Warren commented on Phoenix’s style of play
with about 2:20 left in the 4th quarter: “And you wonder how long Phoenix can keep this pace up? They really go about 7, maybe 8, deep – but typically about 7 players deep. So in August, can they still keep up this high-powered offense? They’ve done it the past three years.” So an interesting tidbit from last night's game: Phoenix used nine players for significant minutes. Those four bench players put up 37 points to the 22 points of the Sparks' significant bench players (Wisdom-Hylton didn't come in until late in the game).