July 8, 2021 

Film room: Seattle’s 3-2 zone defense

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The Seattle Storm beat the LA Sparks 84-74 on Sunday night, with the Storm (14-4, 6-1 in the Commissioner’s Cup) overcoming a -11 third quarter with a +12 fourth over the Sparks (6-11, 1-7 Commissioner’s Cup) to remain a game up on the Aces atop the Western Cup standings. Seattle big Breanna Stewart was her usual excellent self, while center Ezi Magbegor had a career-high 20 points on 7-11 shooting and shooting guard Epiphanny Prince, starting for an injured Jewell Loyd, recorded 18 points on 6-12 (2-5 3pt) shooting, her highest scoring total since Sept. of 2017. Los Angeles was led by each of Erica Wheeler and Brittney Sykes’ 19 points, the latter adding ten rebounds for her fourth career double-double.

To no one’s surprise, the Storm jumped out to a nine-point lead by halftime, but the Sparks took the lead in the third quarter thanks in part to Seattle’s limited rotation shrinking the space Los Angeles needed to defend, but also through anticipating the Storm’s defensive rotations to get itself easier looks. So Seattle countered with something it started featuring last week: a 3-2 zone defense.

“That’s something that we’ve kind of worked on and tinkered with in training camp,” said Storm head coach Noelle Quinn. “If you just look at our roster, and the players that we have, we talked about losing two defensive dogs. And now we have some length. Now we have a lot of length, honestly, and so this is something that we’ve been preparing. And I think when we play teams who aren’t as aggressive on the offensive rebounds and don’t present three-point threats as a majority of their offense, then this is something that we can go to using our length, talking, rebounding out of it, and then playing you know, playing into our offense. But we’ve been using it this year — without kind of giving [away] our strategy — here and there, in certain situations.”

Seattle first went to zone at to open the fourth quarter, tied at 58. It used that zone on every single halfcourt possession, making it a +14 through some janky math. Let’s take a play-by-play look at how the Storm executed the scheme:

9:42; SEA 58, LA 58 — Seattle’s debut of the 3-2 works perfectly. Several Sparks expect to be able to turn corners or cut into opening space, only to find a new defender waiting at an unexpected position. Forward Kennedy Burke is a bit out of position on a couple of passes, but Stewart and Prince do quite well making sure they help on or stunt to her assignments.

8:50; SEA 61, LA 58 — Burke is out of place again, but this time Lauren Cox hanging at the mid-post keeps point guard Jordin Canada from helping off the weakside. Now, when Cox lightly flashed from the mid-post to the nail, Canada should’ve shaded to wing Karlie Samuelson, but that would’ve just left Wheeler open on a three.

7:55; SEA 63, LA 60 — Pretty textbook defense from Seattle here, underscored by Canada and wing Stephanie Talbot helping on center Amanda Zahui B. at the nail when the ball is opposite them. It’s that help that gets the ball loose on the post entry.

7:23; SEA 63, LA 60 — Prince tries to hand Zahui B.’s cut off to a backline big — it looks like she’s talking to Stewart, but it should be Magbegor who takes her while Prince rotates onto Sykes in the far corner. Zahui B.’s angle makes this trickier, and while she does get the entry pass, Prince does an excellent job swiping the ball loose.

7:04; SEA 65, LA 60 — The 3-2 neuters the Sparks’ preferred horns set to open the possession, as Magbegor takes the rolling Zahui B. from point guard Sue Bird. The Storm pinch and shade the perimeter defense well to double Zahui B. without giving up a catch-and-shoot, and a long Wheeler pull-up middy is what Seattle will take all day.

6:23; SEA 67, LA 62 — The Storm once again stop LA’s backside roll from horns with a good job handing Cox off to Magbegor. The only thing that stops this play is a foul committed… somewhere.

5:57; SEA 69, LA 64 — The Sparks aren’t going to try another horns play, and this time Cox does a decent job flashing around the high paint to try to pull Storm defenders out of position. Bird tries telling Talbot to stay closer to point guard Te’a Cooper while Bird will 2.9 on a Wheeler drive, but Talbot pinches off Wheeler’s drive without intention to fly to Cooper, leaving her with an open spot-up three. A Cooper 25-footer is probably a shot Seattle’s okay with if they can stop Wheeler getting downhill, but this might be a trickier tradeoff against other teams.

5:40; SEA 71, LA 64 — Cox is once again the sole person either trying or allowed to move and find space within the Storm’s zone. And it’s her screen that creates something in this possession, doing an excellent job getting Talbot off Wheeler. Talbot then commits a cardinal sin in going under, allowing Cox to shield her away from the key while Wheeler drags out Magbegor. Wheeler has every intention of getting to the rim on Magbegor, who does a good job keeping her hips in front of Wheeler. Prince pinching to help here is key, as it forces Wheeler to pick up her dribble and commit to shooting on a bad look.

4:59; SEA 73, LA 64 — Sparks horns set once again, and while the initial action is as lifeless as usual, power forward Nia Coffey seems to have learned the moment at which Seattle is vulnerable. As Prince hands a rolling Cox off to Stewart, Coffey chucks it to an open Samuelson in the corner. Despite being unprepared to fly out to the corner, Prince still contests this shot, and with some anticipation would actually be in a position to block it. Not bad closing speed for a 12-year vet.

4:30; SEA 75, LA 64 — Los Angeles really likes its simple horns play. Same thing as the last play, but 1. Center Bria Holmes isn’t as heady a player or as good a long passer as Coffey, and 2. Sykes isn’t the corner-three threat that Samuelson is. With none of the Sparks yet to figure out how to cut, screen, or flash against a zone, Wheeler is left to take a pull-up three.

3:54; SEA 78, LA 64 — If you thought Los Angeles’ off-ball players were too active on the last possession, boy do I have a gift for you.

3:27; SEA 78, LA 64 — Think of this like the Sparks’ overused horns action from throughout the quarter, only spaced out near the slots instead of the elbows. Magbegor just misses taking Holmes’ cut from Bird.

2:22; SEA 78, LA 68 — Same action as the play above, basically, and Stewart meets Holmes at the cup perfectly to dislodge the ball. Prince and Talbot are both ball-watching instead of rotating behind Stewart a little too much, but it’s not like Holmes was going to outlet to that corner.

1:58; SEA 80, LA 68 — Déjà vu, we’ve now seen the halfcourt action three times in a row. Stewart just makes a bad jump here, and Sykes’ footwork is beautiful on the layup.

The 2018-20 Toronto Raptors were able to nab an MNBA ring and came one game away from another conference finals appearance in large part due to their defensive schematic versatility. Head coach Nick Nurse ran all sorts of “junk defenses” during the regular season so that in the playoffs, he could throw a box-and-one at Steph Curry and a triangle-and-two at Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at a moment’s notice.

“The last time we played zone like this was at Atlanta,” said Stewart. “And it was like the same type of thing, like the entire fourth quarter. And it’s just a change up, it’s something to kind of show the team something different, just because you don’t see it much, especially professionally. And I think that was something that we can always keep in the back of our pocket, really.”

The Storm have the personnel and the coaching to be versatile defensively. Their base SOS scheme is beatable when teams get comfortable playing at a higher tempo and moving the ball around, and a 3-2 zone should be a good adjustment to both of those counters. The way Seattle played their zone against Los Angeles won’t work against everyone — some opponents might actually not try the same thing over and over again and hope the outcome changes — but the successful reps the Storm are getting now could pay dividends when it really matters.

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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