July 19, 2021
Here’s why the Storm struggle in the fourth quarter
Have you ever made chili?
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Have you ever made chili?
If you have made chili — and I mean from scratch — you don’t need me to tell you what a wonderful endeavor it is. It’s time-consuming, for sure — there’s no way to blister the peppers any faster, and there’s no way to slow-cook the broth with the meat any more efficiently. But it’s a stress-free process that has stood the test of time, as my brother and his love of my green chili can attest.
A couple of months ago, I needed to make a meal for about 17 of my closest friends. Naturally, chili’s low active-time-to-yield ratio and easy scalability drew me in. But I knew something was missing the moment I tasted it out of the oven. My friends all loved it, but I could taste that I’d failed to give them the full culinary experience I was capable of. Because I’d forgotten to add the chicken broth.
The Seattle Storm made arguably the best-tasting chili in league history last year. They’re using the same recipe this year, and they’ve remembered the most important ingredients. Except they’ve forgotten the chicken broth.
The Storm have a fourth-quarter problem.
-5.6 against Washington in the fourth quarter. -41.2 against Las Vegas (on June 27). -25.0 against Atlanta. -19.0 against Phoenix (on July 9). Despite running an average net rating of 1.3 through the first three quarters against those teams, the Storm were -22.3 in the fourth quarter.
The recipe for a championship includes getting better in the clutch, not worse. So how does a team atop the WNBA standings at 16-5, owner of a second-in-the-league 8.2 net rating, and comprised of a league-leading six Olympians get worse with the game on the line?
To take an excerpt from Mike Prada’s early-season breakdown of the Dallas Mavericks’ anemic fourth-quarter offense:
You’ve watched basketball. You’ve played basketball. You know points late in games are more valuable even though they’re technically worth the same as they were in the first quarter. You’ve seen generations of players and teams at all levels rapidly change their style of play to end games. You’ve consumed storytellers, myth-makers, and arbiters of truth who focus on the game’s final 10 percent and barely mention the first 90 percent.
Yet you’re also an enlightened person with (at least) a basic understanding of statistics. You know that clutch samples are small and thus prone to unexplainable swings. You know that the best way to win close games is to avoid them entirely…
It’s tough enough to reconcile these contradictory messages in the abstract. What do you do when you root, analyze, or work for a team that scores at will in first [sic] 90 percent of the game and suddenly can’t if the game is still close in the final 10 percent? How much weight do you put on that 10 percent? Do you try to fix it even if it messes up the larger sample? How do you even know your failure in the final 10 percent has anything to do with your success in the first 90 percent? How do you know it has anything to do with anything but uncontrollable fate?
It’s an immutable principle of the very sport of basketball that play slows down in the fourth quarter, especially in clutch situations. League-wide pace this year is 96.5 in the first three quarters and 93.7 across the fourth and overtime, per Positive Residual. As the play goes on in a game, players get tired, and the plays they run become more familiar to defenses who can recognize them quickly and stop them sooner, and with points at a premium, offenses are less likely to run an action that creates an open three for a role player and thus more prone to look to their star creators to generate looks.
“The way our system is built and the way our team is built, we are successful when we’re moving the ball, zipping in the ball,” said Storm head coach Noelle Quinn before their July 11 game against Phoenix. “[Then] everybody’s feeling good, everybody’s knocking down shots. And then, of course, we’re shifting the defense… The ball has to zip because that’s who we are. And when we get away from that identity, I think we struggle a little bit. I’m not saying that we can’t execute in the halfcourt, but I think when we are at our best is when that ball isn’t sticking.”
Many teams have tried to break this pattern before. The dynasty Lynx couldn’t beat it. The 73-win 2015-16 Golden State Warriors found their split cuts and relocation threes less effective in the fourth quarter against in the NBA Finals. Even the “beautiful game” San Antonio Spurs couldn’t keep their pace in crunch time.
Those teams all found something in common to win, though: good ol’ two-player game and iso ball. The Lynx had four all-time scorers in wing Seimone Augustus, center Sylvia Fowles, and point guards Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore. The Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a consensus top-five scorer in MNBA history. The Spurs two-man-gamed opponents to death with the Tony Parker–Tim Duncan pick-and-roll (PnR).
The 2019 Mystics came perhaps the closest to breaking the Fourth Quarter Downs, but even the greatest ball-movement team in league history got a bit bogged down in late-game playoff situations. Their solution was discovering eventual-Finals MVP forward Emma Meesseman could play the 3, her off-ball acumen forcing extra defensive rotations. And even that wouldn’t have worked as well as it did without Elena Delle Donne.
The base of the recipe for a championship-winning chili is clear: versatile shot-making and consistent ball movement early in games. Much like a versatile array of peppers with a smooth and consistent purée is key to a green chili.
(Please leave your name and email address if you would like a copy of my famous green chili recipe.)
And the Storm have that part down; across the first three quarters, seven players are averaging at least 12.4 points per 36 minutes (a roughly above-league-average mark, per Basketball-Reference), six are running a usage rate between 14.5% and 23% (middle three league-wide quintiles, per Basketball-Reference), and Seattle shoots better on overall threes, above-the-break threes, and midrange shots than any other team while shooting fourth-best at the rim, according to Positive Residual. (We’re using per-36 numbers here instead of per-100 possessions because we want pace to influence these numbers.)
With the real meat of a clutch offense being its elite shot-makers and creators, Seattle’s spiced and seared the chicken and pork as well as anyone. Even if not the MVP this season, big Breanna Stewart retains her title as the greatest basketball player on the planet, capable of creating offense as a driver, an on-ball shooter, or a screener as well as anyone.
Shooting guard Jewell Loyd has developed into one of the league’s best on-ball creators while retaining her elite off-ball play. Point guard Sue Bird remains one of the best passers and facilitators in the league, even as she can only directly attack defenses in spots. Center Ezi Magbegor shows more flashes of shot-creation every year.
But while the Storm have blistered and peeled the peppers before processing (pro tip: run the peppers under cold water first), they’ve been throwing that blend in the oven without adding the broth. That is, the Bird-Stewart PnRs and Stewart-Loyd-Bird, Chicagos are as effective as any crunch-time actions in the league, what’s surrounding them simply isn’t enriching in late-game situations.
While the aforementioned Lynx, Warriors, Spurs, and Mystics all derived late-game offense from iso or two-player games, the players around them prevented defenses from overcommitting to those actions and punished them when they did. Helping on Fowles’ post-ups or Augustus’ drives would result in Whalen or Moore punishing a defense in rotation, and vice versa.
Sending two at Durant or Steph Curry would leave the other plus an all-time shooter in Klay Thompson, arguably the second-best passing center of all time in Draymond Green, and another good shooter in a four-v.-three advantage on the weakside. The Spurs surrounded the Parker-Duncan game with punishing shooters in Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, George Hill, Danny Green, and Matt Bonner and inside presences like DeJuan Blair and Kawhi Leonard. The Mystics gave up good shots to get great shots like no one else, and six of the top nine players in their rotation shot better than 35% on at least two attempts per game.
Seattle’s starting lineup currently consists of The Big Three, center Mercedes Russell, and wing Katie Lou Samuelson. Russell is one of the league’s better rim-runners and shut down centers Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson a couple of weeks ago. But rim-runners are difficult to rely on in the clutch since they’ve limited range and can’t consistently create their shot.
Samuelson came into the league as the No. 4-overall pick on the back of being one the best shooters in collegiate history (one of three players to record multiple seasons of 40% 3P% on at least 6 3PA/G in the Her Hoops Stats era), and, despite struggling to a 30% mark from three her first two years in the league, has hovered around a solid 34% throughout this season. But while she’s flashed some on-ball creation this season, it’s not yet a skill that’s quite within her wheelhouse.
In late-game situations, the Storm’s next-most-used player is Jordin Canada, a one-way contributor who plays elite individual defense and has contributed little as both a shooter and facilitator in her four years in Seattle. The team has used shooting guard Epiphanny Prince down the stretch more often in recent games, and while she can create off the bounce, her finishing and spot-up gravity leave a bit to be desired.
So with the Storm’s late-game lineup mirroring their starting unit, the team is left with two players who can generate offense for themselves and three who can create for others. Even if those players are among the best in the league at generating offense, there’s not a lot of WNBA teams with as few passable creators as Seattle. Looking down the league standings, Las Vegas has four self-creators, Connecticut might have three, and a healthy Minnesota has at least four. Washington is the only other team currently in the playoff seeding with only two, but that could increase, if Delle Donne returns for the second half and they add Meesseman.
Compare the Storm’s clutch contributions to the aforementioned first-three-quarter ones: three players averaging at least 12.4 points per 36, five running a usage rate between 14.5% and 23%, and Seattle shooting third-worst in the fourth quarter and overtime on midrange shots, per Positive Residual, the shot most commonly self-created.
Having Stewart and Loyd as your sole self-creators might not seem like a huge problem when they are, after all, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. Except that’s how you end up with these kinds of possessions:
Pair this with Chelsea Gray going 4-for-5 in the fourth for ten points, Courtney Williams going 5-for-6 in the last five minutes, and Skylar Diggins-Smith going 4-for-5 in the fourth for 12, and you’re compounding a disadvantage with poor luck, a recipe for struggles in the clutch.
“Our team is predicated on space; not only pace, but space,” said Quinn. “So if we are in those instances and understanding we have mismatches, it becomes drive-kick-pass, drive again-kick-pass — and that’s another form of zipping the ball over, continuing to attack gaps, attack close-outs. But I think sometimes it just comes down to finishing around the rim and finishing those bunnies.“
If Seattle is going to win a title with even a tenth of the confidence it did last year, it’s going to need more individual creation. Play slows down in the playoffs in general, and even more so in playoff crunch time. When the Aces roll out Wilson and Gray and Cambage and Kelsey Plum and can flip it to the weakside and still generate offense, the Storm need to respond in kind. When the Sun force help on a DeWanna Bonner–Jonquel Jones two-player game and swing it to a Brionna Jones with an exploitable matchup, the Storm need to create their mismatches to keep pace. When a Crystal Dangerfield–Napheesa Collier PnR forces a rotation and goes weakside to Aerial Powers attacking downhill or dumping to Fowles, the Storm need to make the Lynx pay as well.
One answer to this problem might be on the roster. As we already discussed, Magbegor continues to show increased capability as an individual scorer, and Russell has never flashed the dribble-drives or back-to-the-basket scoring Magbegor has already been converting this season. Russell is certainly a more polished and consistent player at this point, but the need for creation might make that negligible.
Another would be the same development flashed by Magbegor coming from a wing on the roster. Samuelson is in her first season with a consistent role and Stephanie Talbot, despite generally receiving the veteran treatment, is in just her fourth WNBA season and will set a career-high in minutes a week or two after the Olympic break. Either developing stronger off-ball-movement acumen or finding a dribble jumper wouldn’t be the most surprising development in the world, especially after Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb’s improvements in Seattle.
“Stewie, Jewell, and Sue are going to take up a lot of attention a lot of times,” said Samuelson after Seattle’s July 9 loss in Phoenix. “So making sure that I’m able to read off of them and get into spots where, when they do take three people at them, that I’m in a position to help them out and be open [allows me to attack defenses better].”
The most obvious answer is a trade. We’ll look at the Storm’s trade targets closer to the deadline, but acquiring a creator at the three should be the team’s first and arguably last priority in trades.
No matter what happens, that flavor has to be added to the Seattle stew. Fans will appreciate watching Stewart and Loyd, and selectively, Bird be the ones to take the shots with the game on the line, and there’ll be plenty of teams to fall to just them. But a championship is a tough bet until that zest, the final chicken broth, is added.