A lot of Mercury fans will focus on a couple of bad calls that ended up getting Coach Gaines being ejected with 14 seconds to go in the game. There were some bad calls for sure. There always are. But the Mercury dropped their first home game of the year for two reasons: slow start and poor defense on Sue Bird in the early fourth quarter. Getting killed in the paint on both ends is just part of what this team is about right now and that certainly played a factor as well.
Through seven games this season the Mercury have been outscored by a total 31 points in the first quarter while they are plus 17 in the fourth. It is great to close strong but at some point you have to start with more intensity as well.
The difference is evident on both ends of the floor with Phoenix is averaging 20 points in the 1st quarter and 22 in the 4th and giving up 24 in the 1st quarters of their games compared to 20 in the 4th. Put that another way, the team is -2 on offense and -4 on defense comparing the opening period to the close.
Cappie had this to say about starting slow, "We haven't had a good start, a good first quarter where we say we're going to put this team out and hopefully we can take that personally and learn from it. It's weird. As I was coming down the tunnel I said 'when our back is against the wall we come out fighting, why can't we come out fighting from the beginning'. We have a talented team. I'm not understanding that right now. I don't want to say it's a fatigue factor. I don't want to use that excuse. I think we just got to step up to the plate."
I asked Cappie if it was up to her to talk to the team about the lack of intensity early in games and she said it wasn't and that each player is a professional and knows what they need to do.
Diana also understands the need to get out of the blocks quicker, "Whenever you come out with less energy then you want to and they get out to a big lead (Storm lead by 14 in the 1st) it's hard to get back into the game and when you finally do it takes a lot of energy out of you. We've got to do a better job of coming out from the 1st quarter and kind of setting the pace early. We just didn't do that today."
Don't let anyone tell you that basketball games aren't won or lost in the first quarter. This Mercury team has proven it can close strong but against the best teams that's not always going to be enough.
You can point to the stretch at the end of the game where the Mecury had cut the lead to 3 with 1:53 to go and Diana didn't get a call while driving to the rim which could have cut the lead to one. Jackson and Bird each hit a three pointer after that and the game was over. An important stretch for sure but for me the more crucial Storm run was at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Mercury were down 65-68 when Sue Bird hit three shots in a row to stretch the lead to 10. All three of the shots were completely uncontested jumpers from between 12 and 24 feet. Sue Bird is not someone you can afford to sag off but that's exactly what the Mercury defense did. To be fair, when the Storm run that pick and roll with Bird and Jackson on the wing you are left with few good options.
Coach Gaines explains his defensive scheme at that point, "We had it set. The whole game we had done the same thing and she had not been taking the shots and she started taken the shots." Corey meant that his defense was going under the Jackson screen, "Lauren is definitely a big threat and Sue hit her shots. We took the poison. She got us."
Your options defending in that situation are limited. You can't switch the screen and end up with your guard covering Lauren and if you go over the screen (which the Mercury were doing early) then Bird gets into the lane and creates havoc there. As Suns fans who have watched the pick and roll combo of Nash and Stoudemire for years know, the only real way to stop it is to trap the ball and bring a third defender to help on the screener, in this case Jackson.
Gaines called a timeout after Bird hit those three shots and from there the Mercury defense picked up and went on a stretch where they only allowed 10 points in the next 7 minutes. Out of a 10 minute quarter that is pretty solid D but the Storm are a defensive oriented team and 10 points is a lot to make up in a quarter against them and they hit big shots to win the game. That's what great teams and great players do and sometimes you just have to tip your hat to them.
Still though, the Mercury perimeter defense will need to play with more intensity and mix up their coverages if they want to see the defensive improvement they are looking for.
[Note by Phoenix Stan, 06/21/09 11:49 PM MST ]
I went home and watched the fourth quarter. While Corey said that they were going under those Jackson screens what happened on those three early Bird shots was this: Tameka ran into the screen and stopped. She didn't try and dive under. She didn't fight over. She hit Lauren and stopped. That was the first two and it left Bird wide open. One the third make (a three) Sue just jab stepped TJ outside the arc and put up the three. That one wasn't bad defense but the first two open looks set it up. Normally Tameka is a tenacious defensive player but that was not one of her better moments and when she see's the film she will be disappointed.
Following those buckets by Sue, Lauren hit two tough turn around jumpers in the paint (that's what she does) and then Bird found a cutting Tisha Wright for an easy lay up. It wasn't until about the four minute mark that the Mercury got disparate and started playing harder. Overall, this was just about effort or lack thereof.
It will be interesting to see how the Mercury react to their faults. Unlike some past Suns teams that tended to gloss over deficiencies, this is a group that knows where it's weakest. The players and coach all talk about needing to improve defensively and at least stay close to even on the glass. So, far the Mercury are once again the last in the league in points allowed and have only out-rebounded one opponent.
Maybe when Nicole Ohlde returns to full strength her size will help in the paint. She's not know as a great rebounder or defensive player but she can't help but clog up the middle more then the current group. Tangela and Bonner are long but don't have the bulk and Le'Coe is strong in the block but too short to play big minutes at the five or even four.
Despite all that, the Mercury have shown they can win games when they get beat in the paint but they need to have a stronger perimeter defensive impact and bring the intensity for 40 minutes. Tonight that didn't happen and was the reason for the loss.
Misc. and other
Gaines will be lucky if he doesn't get a suspension out of this game. He was right in front of me when this went down and he clearly knew what he was doing. To a point. He was arguing the call and had been arguing the call for a while and it seemed as if he decided he has going to take a technical at that point but then he kind of lost it for a second and went hard at the referee prompting Cappie to come body check him out of danger. She said after the game she was just trying to protect him and at that moment he certainly looked like he needed it.
He had calmed down quickly after the game and his first words were, "I guess we saw things differently, and I guess she made the correct call and I was wrong. That was it." WNBA coaches don't make the same kind of money as Phil Jackson and I can only image that Corey wasn't looking to pay a fine.
Here's the thing though this didn't happen isolation. All game he was arguing with the ref's about calls most of which seemed to be to be correct. If you as a coach are going to argue everything then at some point it might come back and bit your team. Corey can watch the film of this game and decide how his sideline antics impacted the result. Perhaps he's just trying to stick up for his star player? Diane Taurasi is hilarious off the court but has as quick a temper as anyone you've seen on the court. Perhaps that comes from her Argentinian soccer playing father. If Corey isn't yelling at the refs all game it is likely that Dee would be. He's a smart guy, I am sure Gaines understands the need to protect his star player even if that means taking one on the chin now and again.
This game marked the return, or I should say debut, of center Nicole Ohlde. Nicole only played 8 minutes but when her number was called she showed her offensive skills in the post scoring on both attempts. The team doctor has Nicole on limited playing time which she said is keeping her from playing more then 2 or 3 minutes at a stretch. That should increase over time as she proves she can play without pain.
Nicole said her foot feels good but that she's rusty after not having played for so long. She is not in game shape yet but thinks that it will come. She said this about her role and potential impact, "I think Tan brings some height and DB brings some height and Le'Coe bring some quickness and ability to body people up. I think we all bring a little bit different and hopefully when I'm out there I can contribute to that." Nicole's positive personality is a good fit on this team which has enough hot heads already.
This was not the game I was hoping for tonight. Not just the loss but overall it wasn't a particularly great game. Some of that has to with where the Mercury are in the their schedule, having played three games in five nights but with another 3 coming on the road the team can't use that as an excuse.
The Mercury are now tied with the Storm for the top spot in the West and with only four teams making the playoffs and only 27 games left there is no time for a slump in this season.
Next up is the San Antonio Silver Stars who are 1 and 4 and will be desparate for a win at home. That game is Tuesay the 23rd and will be on ESPN.