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Orange and Oatmeal: Playoff Edition

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August 17, 2006
Good morning, afternoon, and evening everybody and welcome to the eighth edition of Orange and Oatmeal, the WNBA Internet exchange between Kevin Pelton, interactive marketing coordinator for the Seattle Sonics and Storm, and John Maxwell, director of basketball operations and public relations for the Detroit Shock. Be sure to check back for infrequent postings and general East vs. West musings with a statistical bent on the W during the 2006 season.

Kevin Pelton: I'm here to preview the Eastern Conference Semifinals matchups, but might I begin with a diatribe?

It's an annual WNBA right that when the playoffs begin, we hear from coaches and the media alike about how unfair the WNBA's 1-2 setup for all playoff series before the WNBA Finals is to top-seeded teams who must start out on the road.

The WNBA move to best-of-three series in the opening round in 2000. Since then, there have been 41 best-of-three series played. The higher-seeded team has won 32 out of 41. Twice, including last year's heartbreaking Storm loss to Houston, the higher-seeded team has gone on the road and won before losing twice on its home court. That means this scenario everyone supposedly dreads - the lower-seeded team wins Game 1 at home and then steals one of the next two games - has happened seven out of 41 times (17.1%).

What is not noted is that, Anne Donovan aside (she's participated in both of the series that have seen the road team sweep after going down 0-1, defeating New York in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals while with Charlotte), when the higher-seeded team wins Game 1 on the road, the series is nearly over. The higher-seeded team has won Game 1 of a best-of-three series 26 times in WNBA history and gone on to win 24 out of 26 times.

Are there ways that the pre-Finals series could be more advantageous for the home team? Sure. But teams would certainly still rather have home-court in Games 2 and 3 then just in Game 1. There's nothing wrong with coaches thinking worst-case scenario, but I don't think the facts bear out this complaint.

Anyways, I digress. Connecticut and Washington is the 1-4 matchup in the East, and on paper it's by far the biggest mismatch of any first-round series. If you look at Pythagorean Wins based on points scored and allowed, seven of the eight playoff teams are between 19 and 22 Pythagorean Wins. Only Connecticut, with an expected record of 26-8, is outside of this group. Meanwhile, Washington clocks in with a middle-of-the-pack 20 expected wins, is outclassed in terms of overall talent.

Both of these teams are talented offensively, posting the second- (Washington) and third- (Connecticut) best Offensive Ratings in the league. However, the Sun owns an enormous defensive advantage. The Sun also ranked second in the WNBA in Defensive Rating, while the Mystics were the only below-average defensive team to qualify for the postseason.

Why, then, should Washington have reason to be optimistic? The first reason is a healthy DeLisha Milton-Jones. Milton-Jones had the best net plus-minus of any Mystics regular at +7.0 points per 40 minutes, and Washington went 13-7 with Milton-Jones (who missed 11 games with a sprained MCL) in the starting lineup.

The second reason is an unhealthy Katie Douglas. The Connecticut star injured her right calf late in the regular season and sat out the last two Sun games. Douglas has been limited in practice this week, and Connecticut desperately needs her not only because Douglas owns the Sun's best net plus-minus (+14.5, though inflated to some extent with reserves getting heavy minutes after Connecticut clinched) but also because she faces a key matchup with Mystics All-Star Alana Beard in this series. If Douglas is limited or absent altogether, the Sun could turn to Megan Mahoney to defend Beard, but that would mean sacrificing a lot offense. Fellow rookie Erin Phillips has been starting alongside Lindsay Whalen in a dual-point guard lineup, but that undersized lineup means serious matchup headaches for Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault in this series.

The other critical matchup is at the point, where both teams feature great distributors in Whalen and Nikki Teasley who thrive in transition. Teasley totaled 15 points and shot poorly in two losses at Mohegan Sun, but had 16 points (albeit with seven turnovers) in a win at the Verizon Center.

Verdict: As when these teams met in the first round two years ago, Washington runs to a win at home but can't get anything going in Connecticut. Sun in three.


"When Nolan is on, few in the WNBA are better."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
As for the other East matchup, yes, there are differences between the Shock and the Fever if you look hard enough. Detroit is a slightly better offensive team, while Indiana posted the WNBA's best Defensive Rating (those Shock slackers were third). Still, this is close to a matchup of equals.

Unfortunately, while this is likely to be a hard-fought series, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be an entertaining series. Both teams have a tendency to bog down offensively in half-court sets, and when you consider that they'll be going against each other's stout defenses, points could be at a premium. It's a matchup that favors lunch-pail players, and Cheryl Ford and Tamika Catchings are two of the best in the WNBA. Expect both to play key roles, even if it's not by scoring the basketball.

With two teams this close, X-factor players become particularly important. Tan White fits that role for Indiana, capable of providing either scoring or missed shots in bunches off the bench. White struggled down the stretch last year and this year was more of the same, as she shot 27.1% from the field in August. Has one of the league's smallest shooting guards worn down? On the other side, Deanna Nolan is the player in this series most likely to dominate with her offense. When Nolan is on, few in the WNBA are better, and just one of those games would probably be enough for the Shock.

Verdict: In a series this tight, home-court advantage usually makes the difference. The home team won all four matchups of these teams during the regular season; don't expect that to change in this series.

John Maxwell: I’m with you on the format of the playoffs Kevin. I looked at it a few years ago in much the same way you did, but I also looked at the results of NBA series where the first round used to be a best two-out-of-three affair, but a 1-1-1 format. As I recall, WNBA teams with home court were much more likely to win their series than NBA teams. One of these days I’ll dig up that research and slap it on the web. For now, however, it’s on to the Western Conference preview.

Los Angeles (25-9) vs. Seattle (18-16) If you just look at the team’s won-loss records, this seems like a pretty big mismatch, and in fact, if Seattle were to win the series, it would match the biggest upset in the history of the WNBA playoffs (Sacramento defeated a Sparks team with the identical 25-9 record in the first round two years ago). However, a closer examination of the numbers reveals these teams aren’t as far apart as their records might indicate.

Yes, Los Angeles won 25 games this season, but their Pythagorean winning percentage had them pegged as merely a 20-win team. Part of that difference stems from the first six games of the season when the Sparks played without perennial All-Star turned Super Sub Chamique Holdsclaw. They spilt those six games, but their points scored and points allowed had them as a 1-5 team during that stretch.

But Los Angeles did win those 25 games, and with it earned the home-court advantage, which, as you have articulated, has been rather important over the years in the playoffs.

Despite the presence of Lisa Leslie and Holdsclaw, the Sparks offense was average at best this season. It is on the defensive side of the ball that they make their mark. The Storm offers the exact opposite, bringing a league-average defense to the table while boasting an above-average offense. As they say in the boxing game “styles make fights” and these teams certainly offer contrasting styles.

In terms of individual match-ups, this series has plenty of star power with the likes of Holdsclaw, Leslie, Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. For all the accolades heaped on Leslie this season, and she had a great year, it was Jackson who I had pegged at the All-Star break as my nominee for league MVP, and if it weren’t for the fact that she missed some games down the stretch and played limited minutes in other games, I’d be screaming from the hilltops about the injustice.

All Jackson did this year was make 57.8 percent of her two-point field goal attempts and 37.7 percent of her three-pointers, while turning the ball over on less than 10 percent of the possessions that she impacted and 40 times on the year. Forty turnovers for a player who is the focal point of her team’s offense is astounding. By way of comparison, Leslie turned the ball over 41 times over the last eight games of the season.

Throw all of Jackson’s offensive numbers into the Efficiency blender, and you get an Individual OER of 132.2 – the second best OER figure in the history of the league for a player impacting as many possessions as Jackson does: better than Cynthia Cooper’s best years; better than Sheryl Swoopes’ top campaigns; better than just about everybody. But you’d hardly know it.

It sounds a little like I’m short-selling Leslie here, but that’s not my intention. She was her usual All-Star self while having to shoulder a greater load of the offense this season, and in three games against the Storm this year she averaged 23.3 points on 60.9 percent shooting from the field. Seattle’s starting center, Janell Burse, had just four points in her only game against the Sparks this season.

Bird is the other member of Seattle’s dynamic duo, and she also put together another workmanlike All-Star season. She is simply the best offensive point guard in the game not playing in the Paul-Ball system.

As previously mentioned, Holdsclaw’s season got a late start as she dealt with personal family issues through the month of May, but once she hit the court she showed that she is still one of the best players in the league. Her role has changed, though, as she now comes off the bench in Head Coach Joe Bryant’s system.

The rest of the Sparks roster is formidable as well. Mwadi Mabika’s per-game averages are among the lowest of her career, but she was still one of the team’s most efficient offensive performers. Tamara Moore was claimed off the WNBA scrap heap and has been a steady addition to the LA roster. Last year’s Rookie of the Year Temeka Johnson had another solid year in her first season in Tinseltown, as did Murriel Page.

For Seattle, Betty Lennox already has one Finals MVP trophy to her credit, but consistency has always eluded the seven-year veteran - in 2006, she posted a league average Efficiency Rating. Outside of her three games against the Sparks, Burse posted above average shooting and rebound percentages, and Iziane Castro Marques was Seattle’s second most efficient shooter on the year.

As great as Leslie, Holdsclaw, Bird and Jackson are, I can’t help but think that this series is going to turn on the play of one of the other players on the floor. And when I look at the rest of the rosters, even though Lennox has the best individual chance to have a breakout series, I see more possibilities on the Sparks’ side.

Verdict: Los Angeles wins the series two games to one.


"I have to go with my gut, and looking down at my gut, I see the salmon colored tie that Staley bought me for my birthday at the mall in Houston several years ago."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
Sacramento (21-13) vs. Houston (18-16) While the LA Seattle series should be closer than the team’s records would indicate, the Sacramento Houston series should in theory be no contest. The Pythagorean Formula has Sacramento pegged as a 24-win team this season, and Houston as a 19-win team.

Of course, the Houston team that compiled those numbers did so with one of the more injury riddled line-ups in league history: Tina Thompson missed 13 games; Swoopes missed three, Dominique Canty missed 19, etc., etc., etc. yet somehow Van Chancellor Scotch-taped together another playoff appearance for the Comets.

Some of those pieces are back in the Houston line-up for the postseason, including Thompson, but how effective they will be is another story. Oh, and did I mention that the Comets still had one of the better defenses in the league? Less than 93 points per 100 possessions – well below league average, but Sacramento’s was slightly better at just over 92 points per 100 possessions. Essentially the two defenses were indistinguishable on the year.

Offensively, Sacramento had a decided edge this year with a slightly above average offense to Houston’s sub-par offering. Staley, Thompson and Canty were all excellent, but Swoopes struggled with her shot for much of the year. Michelle Snow had an okay year offensively, but the bench was pretty bad. Tamecka Dixon, Anastasia Kostaki and Tari Phillips were all well below league average, but if the starters are healthy, any offense the Comets get from their reserves is icing.

For Sacramento, Yolanda Griffith may not dominate the way she used to but she is still an excellent player on both ends of the floor. Kara Lawson continues to knock down shots in her role as a reserve, and Nicole Powell continues to make the Charlotte Sting look silly for getting rid of her two years ago. Ticha Penicheiro has lost a lot of her effectiveness on offense over the past year or two. She was never going to win the league’s All-Star three-point contest, but she did enough other things well, especially with her ball-handling ability to be one of the best point guards in the world. However, this season, Penicheiro averaged just 3.4 assists on the year.

The breakout player for Sacramento this season was Erin Buescher. Nothing in her history would have suggested that she was capable of generating the kind of offensive numbers she put up this season. She was always a hustle kind of player, grabbing rebounds, playing defense, and scoring on stick-backs, but this year she is my odds-on favorite to win the league’s Most Improved Player award.

All of that has me leaning towards picking Sacramento, but then I noticed a few things about the head-to-head results between the clubs this year. Houston won the season series from the Monarchs 3-1, holding Sacramento to a paltry 35.2 percent from the field in those four games. Key Monarchs posted individual shooting percentages of - hide the children - .324 (Powell), .286 ( Rebekkah Brunson), .269 (Scholanda Dorrell), .231 (Lawson), and .182 (Penicheiro).

Guh.

On the flipside, Sacramento players posted some unworldly shooting percentages in the series – .703 (Snow), .556 (Thompson), .480 (Swoopes).

So there’s my conundrum. Which is more important, the season numbers or the series’ numbers. As I finalize this entry of Orange & Oatmeal sitting courtside waiting for the Shock Fever series to being, I have to go with my gut, and looking down at my gut, I see the salmon colored tie that Staley bought me for my birthday at the mall in Houston several years ago.

Verdict: Houston in three.