Sky Offer Glimpse of a Bright Future In a Stunning Victory Over the Storm…at Key (!!)

. Monday, July 13, 2009
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Two of the three people I chatted with at Key Arena last night prior to the Chicago Sky’s surprising 86-81 victory over the Seattle Storm expressed similar thoughts with the news that Sylvia Fowles would be returning to the Sky’s lineup:

Well, hopefully they’ll be able to make a game of it.

On the court warming up was a young, sputtering Sky team that had lost four in a row. In their last two games, they traveled to Phoenix for the privilege to get trampled by a Mercury stampede and then got discomfited at home by the Indiana Fever.

There was no way a Sky team that looked so lost and confused would compete with Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird with those crazy Key Arena fans shouting at them.

So it’s a good thing that Sky team that got routed at home by the Fever chose to stay in Chicago. We may never know what they did to that old Sky team, but it’s doubtful that anybody will miss that disorganized and demoralized team.

There are a number of interesting themes and story lines that one could take from last night’s game in addition to Fowles’ return.

Sue Bird was missing in action, going 1-10 from the field. The Sky shot a scorching 63.2% from the three-point line. And a large part of that hot three point shooting was Kristi Toliver, who had a breakout game, keeping pace with fellow rookies Renee Montgomery and Courtney Paris who also formally introduced themselves to the WNBA this past week.

However, the overarching theme that struck me as I watched the game was that the Sky actually looked like a coherent basketball team, like they had actually played together before or practiced a few plays.

For the first time this season, I was not asking that same tired question: What exactly are they doing? That goes beyond Fowles’ return or Toliver’s hot shooting. It was like a shift in mindset or philosophy occurred after the loss to the Fever.

If the Sky played like they did last night all the time, they would be atop the Eastern Conference.

If the Sky continue to play that well, they will be a threat to make some noise in this year’s playoffs.

And if the Sky’s young players continue to develop individually as they become a stronger unit, they will be a perennial contender for a long time.

So what on earth happened?

Really, both teams played well overall last night, the Sky just played better. I say that acknowledging that the Storm did seem a little flat and confused on offense and had erratic defensive rotations. However, the fact is that they played well enough to stay within one or two shots of a team that shot 60.8% from the field. Which probably makes this a particularly tough loss for the Storm – as Sue Bird said, this was one they could have had and let slip away.

Part of the story for the Storm is that although Bird had an off game, Tanisha Wright played extremely well. She played by far the best game for the Storm and at times, the best player on the floor for either team. The most impressive element of her game on display last night was her ability to set up her teammates.

While Wright is not necessarily an exceptional ball handler, she is a very decisive ball handler and she attacks holes in the defense extremely well when she sees them open up. That allows her to get to the rim extremely well, but also set up open teammates when she draws help defenders.

Last night, she not only scored 18 points on 6-9 shooting, but also had an assist ratio of 32.34% and a pure point rating of 5.20, numbers that resemble those of the league’s top point guards. She was not only looking to distribute the ball to others, but she was doing it extremely well. While there is not really an adequate substitute for what Bird brings to the game as a point guard when she’s on, Wright did an admirable job of keeping the Storm in the game.

Given how well Wright played and that Jackson turned in a decent performance, if the Storm had gotten a better scoring performance from Bird, they could have won this game. Aside from Jackson, they went 1-10 from the floor as a team. From that point on, they didn’t shoot below 50%, shooting 73% in the second quarter. Their assisted field goal percentage was also relatively high, staying well above 70% after the first quarter.

The Sky were just far more consistent and kept the pressure on the entire game.

There’s a reason why I’ve said the Sky are my favorite team: they not only have all of the pieces in place to be a successful basketball team, but those pieces are extremely talented.

Two post players whose skills complement each other perfectly to put an enormous amount of pressure on the defense. A MVP candidate and one of the best all-around players in the league. And a number of perimeter players who can shoot the three, especially with Toliver playing well. All they needed to do was pick a system – and a rotation -- and run it consistently to maximize their talent.

In statistical terms however, what makes the Sky potentially great is that they have all the elements of the Four Factors covered as well as the Synergy rating metric that I added as part of my “Team Dynamics ratings” last year. While the key factors statistically for the Sky last night were shooting and synergy, the most important thing was the way they played the game.

First, they were looking inside to both Dupree and Fowles. In fact, it almost caught me off good when they went to Fowles right away, getting her the ball on four of their first six possessions. Yes, oddly that’s not the norm for this team – getting the ball their 6’6” center.

But last night, they chose to establish the post game early and work outward from that. In doing so, they put pressure on the Storm to constantly rotate and open scorers all over the court. And to Fowles’ credit, she was great at passing the ball back out of the post if she couldn’t make anything happen herself. Even though she didn’t score and didn’t record a lot of assists, she was responsible for setting the tone for the game and getting the offense going in the beginning.

But second, in order for an offense to work through the post, the guards have to throw it into the post. Post entry passes sometimes seem like a lost art, but the Sky did an extremely good job last night. In fact, one of the things that really made their offense look different last night is that they were actually looking to get it into the post.

They often run a dribble-weave type play where the three perimeter players weave around the three-point line passing the ball to each other. Normally it seems as though they get so caught up in just running the play – weaving in and out and handing the ball off – that they don’t look to actually create scoring opportunities. The main thing they did well last night was to actually recognize scoring opportunities when they arose and actually use the weave to keep the defense off balance and find passing lanes rather than just randomly running a weave.

By using their passing to break the defense rather than just looking for one-on-one opportunities, the defense was forced to rotate. Another quick pass forces a second rotation and by then the defense is scrambling. Keep moving the ball and eventually a scoring opportunity opens up. Having a player like Toliver who has a beautiful quick release only enhances the offense because she made the defense pay for poor rotations.

However, even though it should be clear by now that I am partial to maximizing ball movement, sometimes at the end of close games it just comes down to having someone who can take over the game. For the Sky last night, it was Jia Perkins. By my Credit numbers, she was the third most important player behind Dupree and Toliver. And while Dupree and Toliver definitely played better over the first three quarters, having Perkins on the court down the stretch was essential for the Sky.

Down two points with 4:48 left, Perkins just decided to take over. She scored 10 consecutive points on a mix of three point shots, drives, and jumpers. Then she drove and got an assist setting up a three for Dupree. When you have a player who you can trust with the ball in their hands for 13 consecutive points, it makes end of game strategy really simple – get the ball to Jia and run the offense. Perkins might not be the top candidate for MVP this season, but I cannot think of five better candidates than her for the award at this point in the season.

A strong post game complemented by strong perimeter shooting and a MVP candidate who can single-handedly drag the team across the finish line – if the Sky continue to follow the blueprint they followed last night, they will give the Fever a strong challenge for the Eastern Conference title.

Related Links:

Wright Fills Important Role for Storm

Transition Points:

There will be more on Toliver tomorrow…and watch out – Chen Nan too. (Click here to see those rookie rankings)

Fowles left the game late in the fourth quarter after a collision and did not return. I cannot find an official report anywhere, but I overheard coach Key talking in the tunnel after the game and he was saying that it was a dislocated shoulder that they popped back in and should be ok. Hopefully it does not become a long-term problem.

Tanisha Wright is quietly putting together a very good season and has been an outstanding complement to Sue Bird. I was looking at some league stats the other day and in addition to being in the top ten in assists this season, she has been among the most productive players overall. She probably will not get an all-star bid, but she deserves serious consideration.

Lauren Jackson played well in the first half, but was less effective in the second half. Part of that is that she got at least three scoring opportunities in the first half off offensive rebounds and three point play opportunities (although she missed the free throws). For some reason, she just got less scoring opportunities in the second half, getting off only four shots.

Janell Burse is also having a remarkably productive season. It’s hard to point to one thing she does well, but she just really does not make a whole lot of mistakes. She is one of those players who seems to have a sense of what she can do well and just puts herself in position to do that.

Someone recently suggested that I build my point guard rankings
around watching Sue Bird closely and figuring out how to evaluate point guards based on her performance. Actually, Sue Bird's shooting slump at the beginning of last year was what inspired the point guard rankings last year. And what stood out last year also stood out last night – Bird is at her best when she is in attack mode. When she gets in a zone carving up defenses and creating for others, she is almost unstoppable and it makes the Storm almost impossible to beat, even if she isn’t shooting well.

That is where my basic claim about point guards comes from: playing point guard, moreso than any other position, is all about decision making rather than purely measuring points, assists, and field goal percentage. To the extent that we can find ways to measure the effectiveness of their decision making on the floor, I really think we can come up with valid ways to quantify what a point guard does well. The fact is, when Bird is in attack mode, Bird is hands down one of the best decision makers in the game (I believe Penicheiro in her prime was probably the best ever).

Watching Bird’s defense was also useful to reinforce a point I (and others) have made repeatedly – it’s almost impossible to quantify defensive performance. Bird was guarding Toliver and “responsible” for a few of those threes Toliver made, but it was unclear what exactly was going on for the Storm defensively on many of those shots, especially in the second quarter. It looked like there was just confusion about who was supposed to rotate where and on at least two occasions, Bird looked like she was dropping off Toliver and nobody rotated to pick her up. Without knowing what they were trying to do, it was difficult to know whether Bird was to blame or someone else.

Because every point guard is part of a particular defensive scheme, it’s really hard to come up with a way to compare them that makes any kind of sense.

I forgot to check my camera’s batteries
before the game. Or let me rephrase – I checked them, but didn’t bother to walk the two blocks to the store to buy batteries before entering the arena. So no pictures. Idiot.

Key Arena offers Thai food now
and I decided to splurge on one of those dishes rather than go for the overpriced hot dog. This was a big ordeal for me – hot dogs and beer just seem to be necessary for any live ball game. However, the Thai food and Coke did me well and was much more filling (and healthy?) than a hot dog and beer.

They showed Part 2 of the Storm history series
last night and I really enjoyed that too. The best part was when they showed a clip of Lin Dunn responding to a reporter who asked if the Storm would be trading Sue Bird after she was drafted. Her concise, confident, precise, and simple response drew a loud response from the crowd -- "No."

A quick note on Jenny Boucek's firing from Sacramento: Baffling. As in I can't even wrap my head around how inexplicable it is. Fortunately, Mechelle Voepel is in a good position to make the argument that the decision goes beyond "baffling" to "senseless". I'll co-sign. Check out her blog post if you get a chance.