Why We Cannot Count the Monarchs Out…Yet

. Wednesday, June 17, 2009
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Prior to last night’s game against the Minnesota Lynx, Monarchs announcer Krista Blunk tried to put a positive spin on the Monarchs’ struggles to start the season.

I definitely think they’re better than a 1-3 team and I think it is early. If this is the way the season is going to go, there are going to be games that teams could have won and should have won and there are going to be games that just slip away. And that’s exactly what’s happened.

After the Monarchs let yet another game slip away losing to the Lynx in a closely played 86-83 game, Blunk reiterated her point and Chelsea Newton had more hopeful talk.

We will have everyone back and be healthier. We have a whole week to work on our defense and that is our focus.

Normally when I hear this kind of talk I dismiss it as irrelevant spin.

Clearly, the Monarchs are not in a pleasant situation right now sitting at 1-4 at the bottom of a very competitive Western Conference.

However, the optimism about the Monarchs is not entirely unjustified.

As of today, the Monarchs have played the toughest schedule of any team according to petrel’s RPI rankings on Rebkell, playing 3 of the top five teams in their first 5 games in the WNBA’s power rankings.

Given the injuries keeping players out and the number of players playing with injuries, it would be something of a miracle if the Monarchs were above .500 right now. Even with a healthy roster, they would have to be playing close to championship basketball to come out of that schedule with a winning record.

So beyond what has to be a disappointing start, what can we take away from the Monarchs’ first few games?

I’ve had the opportunity to watch them a few times this season – the road loss against the Storm, the overtime loss against the Mercury, and last night against the Lynx – and this does not strike me as a hopeless team. The problem right now is that with so many pieces banged up, it’s been difficult to establish a rhythm.

So the question is, how good might the Monarchs look once they hit their stride?

There’s no “I” in “team”…but there is in “win”…

The key to Monarchs basketball is their imposing frontline and that they play extremely well as a unit.

So as coach Jenny Boucek has said, even when they blew out the Mercury, the key to this team’s success is execution.

However, the biggest struggle the Monarchs have was touched upon by play by play announcer, Jason Ross. With the Lynx’s LaToya Pringle on the line late in the 4th quarter and the Monarchs up by 1, Ross said the following:
Every time it looks like the Monarchs may be establishing something here comes Minnesota to tie it…and Sacramento has had the lead for a lot of this 4th quarter but just can't seem to get any separation.
Ross’ description of the flow of the game itself is a perfect metaphor for describing the Monarchs’ on-court problems, especially without Ticha Penicheiro.

The Monarchs have a number of talented bigs who can score inside and dominate the offensive boards. However, that requires one of two things – either the perimeter players have to get good shots up within the flow of the offense or they have to get the ball to their bigs in scoring position.

Far too often, neither happened last night when the Monarchs needed it most down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Seimone Augustus was just reminding us why she got WNBA Player of the Week honors last week, almost scoring at will; she was in one of those zones where the defense couldn’t stop her, she just happened to miss occasionally.

As much as I personally love and value team basketball, a team cannot win without someone who can make plays when the team needs it.

The Monarchs’ guards were unable to penetrate and create openings to make plays for most of the game meaning they were making extremely difficult entry passes into the post.

That problem was only compounded by the fact that starting perimeter players Kara Lawson and Sholanda Robinson shot a combined 3-16 from the field and 1-6 from the 3 point line. Lawson did not get to the free throw line once and Robinson went 1-2 from the charity stripe.

In other words, all the Lynx defense had to do was pack it in and cut off the passing lanes. At the end of a close game, it becomes extremely difficult for a team to score when nobody is able to make a play beyond 5 feet from the basket.

At no time was that illustrated better than when the best shot that they could get down one point at home with 8.9 seconds left was a three pointer from Kara Lawson…who was 1-6 to that point.

A team simply can’t win when the defense is able to force them into relying upon a weakness.

Waiting for Ticha’s return…

One player mentioned in post-game interviews that the team is awaiting Ticha Penicheiro’s return and really that would address that problem of making plays.

Lawson is an efficient point guard in that she does not turn the ball over and can run the offense. But she isn’t the type of player who can really force the defense out of their comfort zone to make plays for others at the end of a game.

That’s what the Penicheiro of old could do. And she’s still got enough of that to really help this team.

Blunk suggested on a few occasions that she thinks the Monarchs should run more, but I would argue they don’t have the playmakers out there right now to make plays in space. However, something I was impressed with was the ability of the Monarchs’ bigs to make plays for each other.

Crystal Kelly and DeMya Walker did an excellent job of passing the ball in the post which helped to create plays that catered to their strength – post play. One idea would be to run some sort of high low offense where their post players play a hi-lo double post or some other scheme that would allow them to make decisions with the ball and free the perimeter players to get open in scoring position.

While Kelly still looks nervous with the ball and Walker sometimes looks hesitant to passing situations, the post game is absolutely their strength.

Defense still a work in progress, but offense needs help sooner

The Monarchs’ pointed to the defense as a reason for the loss to the Lynx and it was a problem. Anybody is able to penetrate the Monarchs defense: Augustus, Renee Montgomery, Candice Wiggins, Charde Houston, Nicky Anosike…even Kelly Miller made a cameo in the paint early on in the game.

Their perimeter defense was not just the failing of guards – it was like anyone caught in space with a Lynx player was destined to get beat. That has to be fixed…and likely will be.

But even if they play good defense, they have to be able to score on offense more effectively. Right now, they are almost too reliant on team basketball.

Transition Points:

Crystal Kelly never ceases to amaze me. Krista Blunk suggested she is better coming off the bench and I agree – Kelly is the epitome of a flow player. She sees the game extremely well and just identifies gaps in the defense and quietly puts herself in position to score. When she gets the ball, she’s decisive. As a result, she gets herself to the line extremely well and is able to contribute without appearing to be dominant. It’s really amazing to watch from such a young player.

Renee Montgomery looked solid against the Monarchs though she started off a little rough trying to establish herself by taking shots a little early in the offense at the end of the 1st quarter. In the second half, I thought she calmed down a bit and played within the offense much more effectively. The last three minutes of the 3rd quarter might have been her best performance of her short professional career – in the stat sheet, she recorded an assist, a three pointer, and a floating lay-up. Really, she should have recorded two more assists that were lost when her teammates missed makeable layups. In addition, she played extremely aggressive defense during that stint. Kelly Miller is the better fit as the starter for this team right now, but Montgomery stands to be an impressive point guard down the line.