September 26, 2021 

For Seattle, the gameplan against Phoenix is clear

And it’s all thanks to how New York adapted the Storms’ own strategy

For the second time in the past four years, the Seattle Storm are playing an elimination game. And it’s a familiar foe: the Phoenix Mercury.

“We play them so much. We play them in the preseason, before the balanced schedule you would play them three or four times,” said head coach Noelle Quinn. “I always think about 2018 and that series as well and that rivalry that was created. I think about Diana [Taurasi] and Sue’s friendship and that storyline. So that’s probably the rival that kind of sticks out in my mind as of late, just because we’ve been in a lot of tough battles with them.”

The Storm have played five postseason series against the Mercury, with a 2-5 record in overall elimination and a 1-1 record in winner-take-all games. That includes their most recent meeting, Game Five of the 2018 Semifinals; that was the legendary Sue Bird Fourth Quarter, when she scored 14 points in five minutes, personally outscoring Phoenix by eight to seal the series.

The two teams have met three times this season, with the Storm taking the series 2-1, outscoring the Mercury by eight across those games. Just like this coming Sunday, their most recent matchup featured neither Breanna Stewart nor Diana Taurasi; Seattle won that affair by nine. And with an overmatched Liberty squad taking Phoenix to the wire Thursday, there’s a recipe for success to be found.

“I’m a big believer in not changing your preparation. I think all the work and all the things that needed to be done, those were done in the offseason,” said Bird. “All the work, in terms of building your team identity and figuring out who you are, that was done in training camp in the early parts of the year. And then you kind of build on that as you go. So when you get to these moments, it is just about scouting reports, preparing for a team, and going out there and just kind of letting it ride; going out there and playing.”

Though the Seattle Storm don’t have a Betnijah Laney to abuse the Mercury’s wings, they’re much more talented elsewhere. As long as Sophie Cunningham doesn’t shoot 40% above her season-average on threes. And Skylar Diggins-Smith doesn’t more-than-double her assist-to-turnover ratio, Seattle should see a more forgiving Phoenix performance than the Liberty did — even if Brittney Griner takes more than eight shots or Shey Peddy shoots better than 2-14.

So how did New York punch so far above their weight class? And how can the Seattle Storm adapt that to their play?

1. Make BT’s defense irrelevant

Brianna Turner has been one of the better defenders in the W since the day she stepped on the court. (Or at least since she’s played significant minutes.) She was named to first-team All-Defense last year and is already one of the most versatile defensive players in the league and an elite weakside defender in just her third year. And all that despite having more responsibility than almost any other player in the league.

But every player not named Sylvia Fowles or Tamika Catchings has their limitations. Turner, as a non-center who isn’t an elite vertical shot-blocker, cannot defend every action that comes the Mercury’s way.

The Seattle Storm made a particular point of running actions away from Turner in their last game against Phoenix. The Liberty, while not determined to attack her, didn’t quite shy away in the same manner. What they did instead was use her role against her.

See, maybe the most remarkable part of Turner’s defense is the amount of work she’s entrusted to do. She’s at once responsible for defending her own matchup, providing secondary rim protection, covering for the inability of most Mercury guards and wings to prevent dribble penetration and Griner’s struggles at rotating and defending in space.

So what do you do if you’re New York, and Turner’s guarding Laney, your best player? Or if she’s guarding someone you want to open a shot for? You force her to take on another responsibility, that’s what you do.

One of the most surefire ways to do this is to make a primary action her concern — e.g. the initial ball-handler starting a pick-and-roll (PnR) that forces her into nail help, or having her assignment set a veer for the handler — and target whatever she can now no longer cover — e.g. a strongside PnR, or kicking to a shaking shooter, respectively. (Those examples are clips one and five in the above video.)

Seattle, without a Laney or a Stewart for Turner to have to stick with, will have a harder time pulling her out of the play. But they demonstrated some ability to play around her last time. And doing so usually means that Griner is now defending in space, a major weakness of hers.

“When Griner is away from the basket and having to defend players who are threats at the three-point line, it’s advantageous [to us],” said Quinn. “And that’s kind of similar to our philosophy: try to make sure she’s elevated on the backside, make sure we get her in ball screens so that she’s having to defend. What New York does, they play a lot in the middle of the floor… And so there are similarities to how we space that will be beneficial for us.”

2. Double Griner, off of BT

For all her defensive prowess, Turner’s nearly as poor on the offensive end. She brings some value, to be sure, in her screening, off-ball movement, and rebounding. But she’s completely unable to shoot; just 14% of her shots have come at least five feet from the rim this season, converting at just a 25% clip.

That’s always a problem. But when you have to share the court with Griner and a cadre of wings who can’t shoot threes particularly well, it’s actively damaging to Phoenix. New York made a concerted effort to leave Turner to double Griner, a strategy made more effective by the Mercury almost always keeping Turner one pass away from her.

“[New York] took a page out of our book a little bit. Also, a lot of teams have been doing that,” said Quinn. “We found some success in that last game — but I’m telling you, Sandy’s amazing. And they’re going to adjust to that. And so it is a game of chess, adjusting to the adjustment, in that: does this Turner dive more, does she set more back screens, maybe? But they know what we’re doing, so we’ve prepared for that.”

The most prominent example of this in recent years has been how teams have defended — or rather, not defended — Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons in recent postseasons. The Boston Celtics left him alone in 2018 unless he was diving or driving, and the Atlanta Hawks only attempted to intimate they were covering him if he was in the dunker’s spot and doubled off him to the paint action at will. Trying to play four-on-five essentially doomed the Sixers.

Now, to avoid this problem, Phoenix need only make it impossible to double off of Turner from one pass away. In other words, involving her in the primary action or keeping her two passes away alleviates this. But that’s easier said than done; the former means that Griner’s working off-ball, and the latter that Turner is operating as a spacer. Either of which is a poor use of that respective big.

The Liberty were forced to double Griner every second, given they were starting the 6’2 Natasha Howard at center. With Seattle’s starting three, Katie Lou Samuelson, standing 6’3 with a remarkable wingspan, it doesn’t have quite the same concern. That’s a lot more leeway for the Storm in how they want to double Griner. Especially with how centers Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor have been defending alongside each other.

3. Use Phoenix’s scheme against itself

The Mercury are one of the best teams in the league at hedging and switching opposing screens. What happens after those actions is their problem.

Those problems mainly come in two forms:

  1. Phoenix plays a number of poor defenders
  2. Their screen coverage is quite predictable

The combination of these two things means that, for the first half of a game (and parts of the second, after halftime adjustments are deciphered), offenses can almost choose which Mercury they want defending each of them.

The Liberty ran this to perfection, especially to get Laney matched up with Peddy.

Between New York on Thursday and Seattle last week, I’m sure Peddy’s sick and tired of defending by now.

Finally, a player to watch

The Storm’s X-factor is going to be who it’s always been this season: Samuelson. To keep it brief, Samuelson can swing each of the aforementioned three strategies in Seattle’s favor.

She solves the first by being able to be Seattle’s Rebecca Allen, hitting tricky catch-and-shoot threes and providing some tertiary creation. The existence of the latter skill isn’t in question, but its performance has remained inconsistent. If the league’s third-best qualified shooter from 15-19 feet can get there more often, it makes Phoenix’s poor wing defenders pay and adds another thing to occupy Turner’s attention.

“You think about the shots that Lou is able to get — you understand the attention that Stewie gets, the attention that Sue and Jewell get — and so when you’re able to get shots in rhythm, get open shots, that basket is a little bit more open and bigger in my opinion,” said Quinn. “She’s very versatile… She can shoot midrange, she can get to the rim, and she can also score behind the arc. So having that versatility, especially within our offensive schemes and our offensive flow, is very beneficial for a player that has that particular arsenal offensively.”

And as previously mentioned, Samuelson’s length will be key. Kia Nurse and Cunningham, the Mercury’s closest excuses to viable wings, aren’t really going to test her in a meaningful way. But whether she can stunt onto and off of Griner without forcing unplanned rotations behind her is crucial.

Ultimately, it’s clear more than anything that Seattle remains the more talented team on paper. But Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello has earned a reputation as a schematic wiz for good reason. As with the Liberty game from Thursday, if nothing else, Sunday’s matchup should provide an intersection between a fascinating chess match and a battle of stars.

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/her) covers the Seattle Storm and college basketball for The Next, while also writing for The Chronicle, Duke's independent student paper

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