While many of you were at home witnessing the dethroning of King James' band of misfits, I was watching a live basketball game in Phoenix and a rather enjoyable one at that. While sloppy and not well contested by the starters, it was close and came down to the final few possessions to determine the outcome in an exhibition game where the outcome doesn't count.
Players, coaches and crowds don't really care about "meaningless" though when it's time to win or lose a game and the energy and excitement was ratcheted up there at the end.
Despite the thrilling finish and a solid defensive effort in the 4th quarter to hold the Storm to 6 points, overall the basketball played by the Mercury tonight was not particularly inspiring. I was glad to hear Coach Gaines acknowledge this in his post-game presser and not let the victory override the areas that need attention.
"We didn't get up-tempo shots. We turned the ball over. And we didn't get easy shots. We got none of them." Gaines was not satisfied and particularly with the lack of energy that lead to getting out rebounded by 15. "Our energy level wasn't like what we had in Vegas. I don't know if they're tired or if the two-a-days are taking effect but a win's a win."
Offensively, the Mercury were saved by solid outside shooting (41% from three) lead by Tameka Johnson's 3/3 from downtown. A career 20% three point shooter, Meek kept the Mercury in the game early while she and others were missing easy looks at the rim.
The Mercury were outscored 30 to 10 in the paint and were minus 12 in second chance points. In a 40 minute game with a high of 61 points scored, that's a huge margin. Coach Gaines while pleased that his second (really third) unit was able to get the win late, he understands that tonight was not a winning formula for the season.
A New Defensive System
On the other end, we got a good look at the Mercury's new defensive system. In the past, Phoenix was heavily reliant on a "rover" 3/2 zone which Coach Gaines said would be used more selectively this season.
Gaines explained, "We used a zone in the past, the rover, mainly because we were undersized. We were getting killed on the inside so we were trying to get people to shoot on the outside so they weren't gutting us up shooting lay up after lay up. So now we can use it as a weapon to be aggressive rather then try and maintain and hold our ground."
Early in the game with Tangela and Le'Coe starti
ng, there did seem to be a lot of dribble penetration mostly by Tanisha Wright who had 12 first half points.
Going along with the 1 v 1 defense, the Mercury's new philosophy is to trap the ball hard off screens out on the perimeter. While a good overall defensive strategy, it is reliant on longer, athletic players that can use their size to disrupt the ball handlers passing lanes and requires bigs that can both recover quickly and deal with smaller players on switches.
Tangela Smith, DeWanna Bonner and Brooke Smith were all fairly effective in that role while Le'Coe Willingham and Allison Bales seemed to struggle more out away from
Le'Coe several times got blown by a smaller player out on the wing and Bales (wisely) wasn't as aggressive trapping the ball but lacks the mobility to recover quickly when the ball was moved well.
How Gaines uses these defensive schemes and adjusts based on the players he's got on the floor will bare watching over the course of the season and of course he's yet to see how Nicole Ohlde will handle this type of system.
The flip side is that Willingham and Bales are team's best interior defenders with the size and strength to hold their position in the paint and battle for rebounds. On many occasions tonight these two would win a battle off the glass and tip the ball towards their teammates only to see the more aggressive and energetic Storm player get there first. That can be fixed.
15 players. 11 spots
The real story line in this game is 6 players battling for limited roster spots. Coach Gaines confirmed that he is looking at two open slots and will wait until close to the June 5th deadline to decide.
Let's look at how those six players performed tonight:
Allie Quigley - 3pts in 8:43 minutes
Q had a great game in Sacramento but didn't follow it up with much of an outing here. She was one of those players that looked a step slow and didn't do much at all to impact the game. She didn't leave much of an impression on me.
Sha Brooks - 6points, 3 assists and 2 turnovers in 10:51
Sha played the entire 4th quarter and most of it as the point guard. She is athletic and quick and can get in the lane but her passing and ball handling seemed a bit reckless. She's a young player that has work to do and hopefully can find somewhere to play and improve her game. I don't see how she makes this team.
It was interesting however, to see how she handled the late game situation. With the Storm up 57-56 with 1:16 to play, Brooks hit a three to take the lead for good. It was a clutch shot for sure. Then after getting a stop and rebound with 26 seconds and a one point lead, Brooke Smith came out and set a screen too soon and Sha gets open as her defender went under the screen and she fired away at an open three but with 13 seconds left on the clock. It was a rookie decision for sure as she missed the shot and the Storm got the ball back with plenty of time to score. Fortunately, they didn't and Brooks was fouled on the rebound and hit two free throws to seal the game.
Yoka Oga - 4 points, 2 turn overs, 0 assists in 11:01
I feel bad for the Japanese film crew that are going to be in Phoenix until the middle of June. They are doing a 45 minute documentary on Shin and the Mercury but I am not sure how that's going to turn out if Oga gets cut by the 5th.
She's a quick player with decent enough handle and she can shoot fairly well but I don't see a lot of court vision or floor leadership there. Ideally, you would like to have true back up point guard but Cappie can play point and Diana can certainly handle the ball too.
If the coaching staff goes by position, Shin will stay. If they go by the "best player available" approach she may be left out.
Alison Bales - 2 pts, 2 reb, 1 turnover in 15:23
Alison's impact on this game can't be measured by the box score. When she came in she was able to control the paint and prevent easy looks and while she only had two rebounds she also prevented several offensive boards going to the Storm in the paint. Unfortunately, many of the balls she tipped out were scooped up by the Seattle wing players.
Alison is clearly not very fast but she did manage to run down a Katie Geralds on a break away and she knows how to play her position. Hanging back in the lane she did a good job not over helping and leaving her man open but still was a big enough presence to change shots.
She tried to trap the ball on the perimeter and did her best to recover quickly but clearly this isn't a strength for her.
Bales has solid shooting mechanics and decent range. If Nicole Ohlde wasn't waiting in the wings to play center for this team, I would think Alison would have a better chance. Unfortunately, I don't think she's the best fit for this team right now.
I asked Alison if she was anxious for the coming week. She replied, "A little bit. Not knowing for sure I get a little bit of nerves but I'm just doing my best and playing hard and that's all you can do."
Laurie Koehn - 6pts, 1 reb in 15:39
Laurie is known as a sharp shooter and it certainly felt like she had more then the 2 for 5 her line shows. She hit a big shot from well behind the line to close the 3rd quarter to cut the lead from 12 to 9.
She handled and passed the ball well and like most of the girls in this league played pressure defense.
She and Allie are very similar players with the edge in shooting going to Laurie and more all around game going to Q.
I've yet to talk to either of these two who are clearly fighting for the same job but will try and do so this week.
I focused more of my attention on the play of the bigs Smith and Bales so I can't say I have a good feel right now for either Quigley or Koehn.
Brooke Smith - 2 points, 3 turnovers and 6 rebounds in 16:19
Of all six bubble players, Brooke seems to me to have the most developed game. She's very active and mobile defensively and has solid post moves.
I was surprised actually to see that she only had two points. The ball was in her hands a lot. After she demonstrated substantial skill in beating her defender in the post with a series of pivots and counter moves, she was double and even triple teamed any time she touched the ball in the post. This seemed to throw her off as she had several turnovers when she brought the ball down instead of keeping it high.
Passing out of these situations is something that Brooke will need to improve but as a bench role player her versatility and tenacity seems like a nice asset to have.
Before the game, Coach Gaines said that he intended to limit his starters minutes but would play the reserves based on how they looked. Therefor it is probably telling that Smith had the most minutes of all six "bubble" players.
Update on Nicole Ohlde
Nicole was in street clothes at this game and I caught up to her in the locker room to get an update on her progress.
"It's feeling really good, like I've been pretty pain free for a while now and I actually just got out of the boot tonight so doing good."
Nicole hasn't been cleared to run yet and doesn't know exactly when that will happen. She thinks she isn't far from returning but that will depend on how it feels after she resumes activity.
I talked to the team doctor about Nicole's status and he said that she's progressing well and would miss one game for sure but it certainly didn't sound like he expects it to be much more than that.
She's been riding the stationary bike but will need at least a week to get back in game shape once she's cleared for full contact play.
The Rest of the Crew
Cappie and Diana combined for 6 points but I don't think anyone is concerned about them.
Rookie DeWanna Bonner showed her all around game being aggressive with her shot and using her size to get steals and blocks on the defensive end. Her minutes were somewhat limited due to a sore sternum she suffered taking a charge during the scrimmage in Vegas. Mostly DeWanna played the power forward where she did have some trouble holding her ground in the lane and at least once had the ball ripped out of her hands. I wonder if we will end up seeing her more on the perimeter where she can take advantage of size mismatches and limit the amount of banging she's asked to do in the paint.
It was only a preseason win that won't count in the standings but still it was a nice come back in which the Mercury showed their depth by playing 13 players to only 8 for the Storm.
The defensive effort in the 4th quarter by Bales, Smith, Brooks and Koehn was the difference and lead to a 2 points for each team in the paint and only a 1 - 0 advantage on 2nd chance points for the Storm after getting killed in these categories in the first three periods. This is where the combination of Bales size and Smith's mobility and activity really paid off.
Recap from the Seattle Storm perspective
[Note by Phoenix Stan, 05/31/09 6:06 PM MST ]
Murriel Page who came to the Mercury as part of the trade that brought Tameka Johnson was waived today. She ruptured her Achilles tendon on the first day of practice after signing a contract for the season.
Not being a lawyer and/or wanting to examine the 282 pages of the CBA, I am not clear how this impacts Page's contract or the team's salary cap situation. At first glance it appears the team doesn't have to pay Murriel but that she will count against the cap.
The main impact appears to be that instead of only being able to keep two of the six "bubble" players listed above the Mercury will be able to keep three of them. I had been counting Page as one of the eleven total even though her injury will keep her out all season.
We wish Murriel the best in her recovery. It is an unfortunate and very difficult injury for the 11 year vet.