September 14, 2021 

Film room: Los Angeles 81, Seattle 53

Breaking down how Breanna Stewart is missed defensively

For the first time since last September, the Storm had to play without an injured Breanna Stewart.

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It did not go well.

The Los Angeles Sparks beat the Seattle Storm 81-53 at the Staples Center on Sunday night, handing the Stewart-less Storm their 13th-worst loss in franchise history, according to Across the Timeline. Big Nneka Ogwumike, wing Brittney Sykes, and guards Te’a Cooper and Erica Wheeler combined for all but 13 of Los Angeles’ points on 53.1% shooting, to go along with 21 rebounds and just five turnovers. Shooting guard Epiphanny Prince was the only Storm to score double-digits or shoot better than 50% from the field, while Jewell Loyd was the lone Seattle player with more assists than turnovers.

With the Sparks breaking the longest streak of sub-50%-rebounding games in league history last night, per Across the Timeline, suffice it to say that the Storm had a rough night.

Seattle clearly had an offensive struggle without Stewart, posting their fewest points in any game since she was drafted and seventh-fewest since 2005. But that came against the third-best luck-adjusted defense in the league, according to Positive Residual. It was the Storm defense allowing 81 points to the worst offense in the league that was even more surprising. 

Stewart, like most two-way stars, has historically gotten more praise for her offense than her defense. I’ve previously written on how that’s a shame, and Sunday night was an example of missing her defensive presence.

Let’s take a look at how Seattle suffered without Stewart, through possessions in which her play would’ve altered the outcome. A few primers beforehand:

  • Were Stewart playing, she most likely would’ve taken Katie Lou Samuelson’s position in the starting lineup, with Samuelson bumping down to take Talbot’s.
  • Kennedy Burke and Cierra Burdick’s minutes would likely have been divided between Stewart and Samuelson. (But mostly Stewart.)
  • In twin towers lineups, Stewart would be taking Ezi Magbegor’s minutes. (Except for maybe a few minutes the Storm might’ve actually tried that lineup for.)
  • Term of the day: nail help (also known as “helping from the nail,” “nail defender,” or sometimes simply “nail”). Nail help — so named because of the physical existence of a nail in the court at the area in question — is a type of help defense, in which a defender one pass away from the ball-handler positions themself at the center of the free-throw line, deterring driving, snaking, and any secondary actions that may result from a handler working around an ICE defense. Nail help is a quintessential piece of successful ICE coverage, and is useful against low post-ups and non-PnR side actions that flow towards the middle as well.

Where applicable, clips of Stewart defending better in a similar scenario are added.

1Q, 5:23; SEA 7, LA 9 — The Storm hedge the Sykes-Ogwumike pick-and-roll (PnR), which pulls Seattle wing Katie Lou Samuelson’s attention to Ogwumike. Samuelson should be helping from the nail instead, but she’s both less experienced and simply less adept at that role than Stewart. This allows the skip to Wheeler, and puts Talbot in a two-on-one on the weakside, where Samuelson would’ve had more length to defend with.

1Q, 2:35; SEA 9, LA 16 — Neither either Stewart nor Samuelson are likely to be outdone by Sparks wing Arella Guirantes for a rebound. Next, Burke doesn’t scram Prince off of Ogwumike, so when big Lauren Cox comes rumbling down the lane, a guard is left to try to defend a Cox-Ogwumike meeting.

1Q, 1:45; SEA 9, LA 20 — Burke gives a weak hedge on the Cooper-Cox PnR, leaving Sue Bird out to dry when she returns to Cox.

1Q, 0:29; SEA 10, LA 22 — Burke gives little effort to reach in to disrupt Cooper’s drive, actually moving away from her initially.

2Q, 8:58; SEA 13, LA 24 — The rules of initial transition defense are usually the same: first one down takes the closest opponent to the rim; next one takes the ball-handler; others fan out to cover the closest player. If steps one and two are redundant, then skip to step three. Here, Stephanie Talbot has those first two covered, so Burke need simply stick with Wheeler. She doesn’t.

2Q, 6:24; SEA 17, LA 30 — Crafty job by forward Nia Coffey to sneak in far enough that Loyd doesn’t know where she is and can’t disrupt the pass. From there, Samuelson isn’t going to threaten a block like Stewart would.

2Q, 4:17; SEA 21, LA 36 — Were Stewart in for Samuelson and Samuelson replacing Prince, Loyd would not have felt the need to stunt towards center Amanda Zahui B., leaving herself out of position to close out on Sykes.

2Q, 0:54; SEA 25, LA 40 — Stewart is probably a better defender in every way than Samuelson, other than pure foot speed. Safe to say Stewart would’ve defended this better.

2Q, 0:18; SEA 25; LA 43 — See above.

3Q, 7:27; SEA 29, LA 47 — Stewart isn’t getting beaten off the dribble or crossed-up like this. Simple as that.

3Q, 5:17; SEA 35, LA 54 — Stewart isn’t going to mindlessly stick an arm into Zahui B.’s face, either.

3Q, 4:28; SEA 35, LA 56 — I think it’s safe to say Stewart would’ve seen Bird on Ogwumike and tried to box her out. Certainly she would have at least contested the put-back better.

3Q, 1:21; SEA 40, LA 60 — Burdick makes three mistakes here:

  1. She tries to help baseline on the Wheeler-Ogwumike PnR, wholly gratuitous with Bird and Magbegor icing.
  2. She makes no attempt to get to the nail on the ICE, as she should’ve.
  3. She gets pulled from the cup by over-boxing-out Zahui B., allowing an uncontested put-back for Sykes.

We’ve now reached the end of the third quarter, and the Sparks’ lead is more than 20. Having Stewart for all the above plays wouldn’t have turned them from 27 Los Angeles points into 0. But it would’ve had an outsized impact on them, certainly enough to swing the game to something Seattle could’ve won.

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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