The Storm defense swarms Candace Parker during Game 2. Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Storm's Defense Never Rests
For the first 20 minutes of Sunday's Game 2 loss, the Los Angeles Sparks had no answer for the Seattle Storm's defense. In a first half that tied the WNBA postseason record for fewest points scored by a team, the Storm found every way to disrupt the Los Angeles defense, whether it be stripping post players with quick double-teams, intercepting passes or simply playing sound position and help defense and forcing the Sparks into tough shots. Even when the Storm defense briefly lapsed, allowing fleeting open looks, the cumulative effect of the defense was enough that Los Angeles missed anyway.
While coaches on both sides pointed afterwards to the poor Sparks shooting, in a real sense Sunday's first half was the culmination of a season-long effort to improve a Storm defense that had lapsed in the years since the team's 2004 championship run. As the Storm looks to advance past the first round for the first time since 2004 by winning Tuesday's winner-take-all Game 3 (6:00 p.m., ESPN2, 1150 AM KKNW, ), the team's stingy defense is the biggest reason Storm players are confident.
"You have to have the players that are going to dive on the floor to get loose balls, that are going to get that big rebound, that are going to get that big defensive stop," said forward Swin Cash, who won two championships while part of a Detroit team that frequently won with defense. "I think our group, collectively, we buy into the fact that each and every one of us can get something done. If that's the mindset, I'll take my chances with our team."
The 2004 team relied heavily on the defensive presence of veterans Adia Barnes, Tully Bevilaqua, Sheri Sam and Kamila Vodichkova. By the following season, Barnes had been released and the other three players had left as free agents for more lucrative offers. The Storm's defense took a major hit and continued sliding until last season the team finished 10th out of 13 teams in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.
In the wake of that disappointment, defense was the Storm's offseason priority. Every decision, starting with naming Brian Agler the third head coach in franchise history and continuing with the additions of veterans Cash, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes, was made with defense in mind. The results were immediate. The Storm held opponents to 39.8 percent shooting, second-best in the league, and ranked fourth in Defensive Rating. Compared to league average, the Storm posted the best defensive season in franchise history.
"You can look at the stats and right away see a difference between this year's team and teams in the past," said Sue Bird. "With that, I don't think anyone planned on having the injuries that we had, but you lose the top scorer on the team and what's kept us alive and what's kept us going is our defense. There's no doubt about that. I think, had this happened in years past, our defense wasn't there to keep us going."
The Storm's improvement on defense has also allowed the team to win on nights when the offense hasn't clicked. Four times in the regular season, the Storm won while scoring fewer than 70 points, something that never happened once in 2007. The most recent "ugly" win came Sunday, when the Storm was limited to 36.2 percent shooting and still won comfortably because of the defensive effort.
"Sometimes, on any given night, shots won't fall," said guard Tanisha Wright. "There will be a lid on the rim or whatever the case may be. But if you can get stops and get easy buckets, that will take that lid off."
"That's a comfort thing because for me, that was the great thing about being in Detroit," added Cash. "Whenever we didn't make shots, we always knew our defense was going to be there. That's how you win championships is to be able to defend even when your shots aren't falling."
Along with their defensive mentality, Cash, Griffith and Swoopes have also helped make the Storm better equipped to compete in the physical style that is to be expected in the WNBA postseason. After Game 2, Swoopes pointed out that in the past teams have felt that they could use contact to take the Storm out of its game, something Cash agreed with. Swoopes wasn't about to let that happen this time.
"What I said in the huddle before we stepped on the floor was, 'Whatever they give us, we've got to give it back to them,'" Swoopes said. "I think everybody on this team kind of held their own."
Indeed, after the game it was the Sparks who accused the Storm of being the aggressors in terms of turning up the intensity in the paint, a dramatic change from years past.
While the Storm effectively picked spots to double-team Los Angeles stars Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker in the post in Game 2, for the most part the team is doing nothing exotic defensively. The Storm's success is testament to the value of simply playing hard at the defensive end and the importance of the tight rotations Agler has gone over time and again since the beginning of training camp.
In Game 1, Los Angeles did not need production from Leslie and Parker to win because the team's guards were so effective from the perimeter and in transition. In Game 2, those same guards combined to shoot 6-of-21 from the field and score 18 points.
"They got some open looks," said Bird. "We're going to try to limit those as much as we can, but with the frontcourt the way it is, I'd rather them not get off. If it means some perimeter shooters get some open shots rather than Candace, Lisa, DeLisha (Milton-Jones) get going, I think that's what we're willing to risk."
With two teams amongst the league's top four defenses squaring off, and two that are both stronger on defense than offense, this series has been less than aesthetically pleasing much of the time. After Game 2, Bird joked that ESPN2 probably wanted to see more points, though she was happy with the score as long as it meant a win. Game 3 doesn't figure to be any different, and that fits the Storm's newfound style perfectly.
"I don't think this game is going to be about our offense," Bird said. "Brian kind of hit it on the head. He mentioned earlier that he thinks we're a good enough defensive team to hold them to whatever that number may be. 50 was great. 15 in the first half was unbelievable. But you know, to hold them to maybe 60, 65 points. Then obviously we have to score more than that. That's the other side of it, but we're really focused on our defense, and hopefully let our defense kind of create our offense."