What Would Dean Say? WNBA edition

Phoenix Mercury at San Antonio Silver Stars, June 21st, 2011
My dad’s old coaching bible is Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense by Dean Smith. After watching a WNBA game between the Phoenix and San Antonio last night, I decided to try to channel some of his quotes to my observations of this game.

Some Minimal Background for non-WNBA Fans
The new look Silver Stars (with a potential rookie of the year and some veteran additions) came in 4-0 -- but against opponents with a combined record of 4-18. A balanced team (three players averaging at least 17 PPG and seven players with at least 7 PPG), they lead the league in scoring offense, with an impressive efficiency. Becky Hammon leads the league in assists. They get 27.3 PPG from their three rookies, but again, against weak competition. So are they contenders or pretenders?

The talented Mercury came into the game 1-3, but with the league's frequent leading scorer Diana Taurasi waiting for help to push them back towards the upper half of the league. They've been an enigmatic regular season team over the previous 4 seasons, but always a team that seems to crank it up in the playoffs.

Both teams come out of a stacked Western Conference. You could make a legitimate argument that five of the six teams from the West (Minnesota, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Seattle, and Phoenix) have the talent to compete for a title –and the Western conference started the season 7-2 against the Eastern.
And finally, the game is a rematch of the last two conference semi-finals, both won by the Mercury.

Here's a rundown of some emblematic basketball moments by quarter.

First Quarter: Pace
The fast break is not only exciting to the players and spectators, it is a good way to pick up the high-percentage shot. The fast break often leads to a one- or two-man advantage as the offense approaches the basket. However, even if the fast-breaking team comes down the court three-on-three, the good-percentage shot should be more readily accessible since the defense is not set and waiting. Furthermore, the fewer defensive players in the scoring area, the better the changes for scoring. For example, it is much easier to score in a two-on-two situation than it is in a five-on-five situation. If you have any doubts about this theory, try playing seven-against-seven in practice to see how long it takes for a team to score compared to a normal five-against-five scrimmage.The successful break, especially one resulting from an opponent’s error, can serve to upset an opponent. This may help the fast-breaking team game momentum at times.Although we may lose the ball more often by fast breaking, we feel that the high-percentage shots or fouls drawn through its use more than compensate for lost possessions. For the above reasons, along with the relief from the offensive board, we always have believed in the fast break, even when were not blessed with excellent talent. – Dean Smith
The Mercury scores a quick basket after the opening tip. Then Candice Dupree fills the lane on a fast break and finishes to grab a quick 4-0 lead for the Mercury. After Becky Hammon scores on a reverse lay-up with the Silver Stars shot clock winding down, the Mercury immediately score on a fast break since the Silver Stars guards are so deep (it may remind some NBA fans of how Nash and Barbosa used to take advantage of the fast break after made baskets in that other Robert Sarver owned team in Arizona.)

San Antonio now calls timeout. Suddenly it's a 7-2 game with a timeout burnt thanks to the beauty of the face break. Maybe this shouldn't be a shocker. Corey Gaines was a Paul Westhead protégé here and at Loyola Marymount (Westhead being the only coach with an NBA and WNBA title).

San Antonio then gets back on defense more effectively The pace slows a bit for the rest of the quarter and looks like a lot of recent NBA games: endless on ball screens, trapping on pick and rolls, "hockey assists" out of double teams, and post players who pop out on screens to take long jumpers and 3's. The WNBA has made a push to have almost identical rules to the NBA, so it probably shouldn't be a shocker that the game will visually mirror it.

Second Quarter: Runs and Streaks as Emotional Ups and Downs
The more years I spend in coaching, however, the more I realize that there is far more to the game than the Xs and Os described in this book. Mental attitude is so very important. Regardless of the offense or defense used, the players must have confidence in the system and be self-confident. In my opinion, the ability on the part of a coach to exude confidence to individual players and the team is more important than the particular offense or defense used. – Dean Smith
Now in the second quarter, the Mercury go on a 9-0 run, followed by another San Antonio time out. Stephen Jay Gould might have written about the general mathematical lack of "streaky shooters" but viewing a game we can still see emotional ups and downs and streaks in teams. The proliferation of “+/-” stats has helped define narratives with at least some level of evidence as well.

On a side note, Turasi still hasn't scored until the quarter is almost over (then immediately gets "T'd up" after making the shot for complaining about a lack of a foul call.) The Mercury have to be proud of their squad to take a nine point lead at the half without her scoring: Penny Taylor (who finishes with 30 points) and others more than pick up the slack.

Third Quarter: Great Individual Effort as Routine
We criticize the act rather than the person. Coaches must push players to a point beyond which the players would like to stop. We accept them individually, as they are, regardless of whether or not they respond to the discipline. However, if they are to be on the team, they have a responsibility to work hard for the overall good of the team. – Dean Smith
In the third quarter, one player who does continue the “unremarkable” but incredibly important work of fighting back here is 34 year old, 5’6” Becky Hammon. She calls her own number when others aren't clicking, but continues to be the distributor. I think it's especially impressive to watch one of the smallest players on the floor, formerly undrafted despite her great college career, fight to keep a regular season game close against what seems to be the entire direction of the game. Creativity and effort give hope to some of us in the way a great performance by the top athlete on the floor won't. This is a "blue collar" performance in a league where players make more blue collar (pink collar?) wages than the NBA, and often subsidize their income by playing an additional season in Europe.

Speaking of “routine” effort, Candice Dupree puts together another double-double night as an undersized 5.

Fourth Quarter: A Team Playing for Pride and Each Other Becomes a Team Playing to Win
My close friend, golfing companion, and a most competent psychiatrist, Dr. J. Earl Somers, of Chapel Hill, N.C., gave us this peer pressure idea back in 1966. Earl related it to some interesting case histories he had studied from the World War II era. It seems that during the war many soldiers were greatly tempted to leave their trenches when the firing began. However, most resisted the urge to leave, despite their fear and the great danger involved. It later was determined that their motivation for remaining under fire was their desire not to let their buddies, or even their lieutenant, down. Although most of the men felt they were fighting a just war, it was their loyalty to their peers and leader, not to a set of ideals, which motivated them to fight. – Dean Smith
About half way through the 4th quarter, the Mercury appears to be on their way to easily surpass 100 points (impressive in a 40 minute game.) The Mercury’s non-Turasi starters now all have at least fourteen points each, the sort of balanced scoring that was supposed to make the Silver Stars a dangerous team here.

But suddenly a nineteen point Mercury lead is reduced to only seven (How? See points #2 and #3) with a minute thirty left. Is a miracle possible here? Side note: an impressive thing is how many San Antonio fans remain in their stadium.

Hammon hits back-to-back 3’s to give herself 28 points (plus seven assists, four rebounds, and a steal.) That makes it a five point game with 20 seconds left.

The final score ends up being 105-98 Phoenix. San Antonio may have lost a game because they ran out of time, but their effort toward the end gave them almost as much legitimacy in this loaded Western Conference as a win. Their mistakes on guarding the transition or avoiding the aggressive trap on the pick and roll suddenly seem more correctable with a close lose instead of a 20 point blow out. Though I understand Marv Levy's old point about why as a World War II veteran he didn't believe in comparing sports to war, emotionally, one has to guess they felt like by hanging in there, they didn’t let their “buddies and lieutenant” down.

I consider staying up to watch a middle of the night game to check out the French national team, but decide that I had enough universal basketball lessons for the night. I also learned that though for basketball-aesthetics/run-and-gun reasons, I've been a casual Mercury fan, there is a lot to appreciate about the grit of the Silver Stars.

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