August 20, 2022
Film room: How the Storm defense stonewalled the Mystics in Game 1
There truly are no answers for the Storm defense
With 36 seconds left in their first-round playoff opener against the Seattle Storm, the Washington Mystics badly needed a bucket. Seattle led 82-81, even though Washington had gotten nearly everything its game plan could’ve asked for. Instead, it played right into the Storm defense.
No. 4 seed Seattle beat the No. 5 seed Mystics 86-83 at Climate Pledge Arena on Thursday, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series. The Storm received significant offensive contributions from big wing Breanna Stewart (21 points, 12 rebounds and four assists), combo guard Jewell Loyd (12 points in the final five minutes) and wing Gabby Williams (12 points, seven rebounds and six assists), but it was their defense that stifled the Mystics for most of the night.
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Washington’s final shot at winning the game came with those 36 seconds left. It got point guard Natasha Cloud by the top of the key, as off-ball guard Ariel Atkins set a back screen for big wing Elena Delle Donne. Even though Cloud didn’t have an angle to Delle Donne, the result was that Delle Donne was open for Atkins after the ball swung.
“I had a play for Elena,” said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. “And if they doubled her, Ariel would be wide open at the three, which she was. And we just didn’t make the connection.”
Except Atkins being “wide open” wasn’t what happened:
What did happen was that Washington spaced Cloud one pass away, which allowed Williams, the best backcourt help defender in the league, to help off the unremarkable shooter. Thibault must have anticipated Storm point guard Sue Bird stunting to Cloud and recovering back to off-ball guard Alysha Clark, a spot-up shooting threat.
Bird taking Clark would have meant Loyd needed to rotate onto Cloud, leaving Atkins open. Instead, Bird took Cloud, Williams X’ed-out to Clark, and the Mystics had absolutely nothing.
What Thibault was anticipating could have been Seattle’s plan against a team that aligned differently than the Mystics. But the Storm were prepared.
“We just played the Mystics recently, and we adjusted the way in which we go trap Delle Donne, knowing that their alignment is more overloaded on the weak side,” said Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn. “And so knowing where our X-outs need to be … we have to get to Atkins, and we have to just close out short on the other players who aren’t snipers from three.”
It’s not just preparation and ability that makes the Storm defense so formidable, but also its ability to adapt on the fly. Seattle played that Delle Donne post-up perfectly and caused a turnover. But that was only because it had learned from the prior possession that it had to stick tighter to the Mystics’ shooters.
Washington started off by running Delle Donne off a zipper screen from Clark, with Clark cutting to the opposite corner by a would-be1 screen-the-screener from center Shakira Austin. Clark’s screen stopped Stewart from fronting Delle Donne, and Cloud faking a pass to the right pulled Williams away from the passing lane. Together, those two things allowed Delle Donne to get the ball at the left slot in a triple-threat stance. She saw the Seattle backside defenders all shading middle to take away her right-handed drive, plus Bird even farther off of Clark, so she attacked the nail with one dribble and set the Storm defense in motion: Williams provided the nail help; Bird rotated onto Williams’ assignment, since Charles could take Clark but Williams could not recover to Cloud; and Loyd sank to Austin.
The play worked almost perfectly for Washington — but only almost. First, Clark, who has shot 44.5% from the corner over her past six seasons per PBP Stats, hesitated out of an open look after having struggled all night, allowing Charles to run her off the line. She got a clean pass to Cloud, but the Storm’s defensive length and instincts meant that Cloud couldn’t be any closer to the top of the arc or the Mystics would risk Williams picking off the pass. With Stewart hanging around at the nail, Atkins couldn’t lift higher than the free-throw line extended. Atkins’ and Cloud’s positions gave Loyd enough time to sprint out to Atkins and provide some contest on the shot.
Atkins may still have seemed to have an open shot, but consider the following:
It was by no means a particularly strong contest from Loyd, but it was enough that Atkins couldn’t get much lower-body momentum behind the shot. For a play that almost looked like a coverage bust, holding Washington to just one expected point2 was a resounding success.
The Mystics have other options they like to run in late-game “need a bucket” situations; this season, they’ve run plenty of thumbs up and down, PnRs tagged with flares and second-side ball screens. But after Williams had spent 32 minutes hounding Cloud despite playing an incredibly difficult defensive role, Washington was not going to try challenging Williams and Stewart with the game on the line.
As in every playoff series, both sides will make adjustments between games. The strategies we saw Thursday may not work on Sunday. The Mystics may try running some crunch-time actions with Clark posting up Bird instead of spacing to the corner, forcing Quinn and her staff to substitute for Bird.
“[Bird’s] matchup was off the ball, and a lot of times when Sue’s off the ball, she’s quarterbacking. And so the rotations and the talking in those possessions really helped,” Quinn said as to why Bird stayed on the court defensively for the final minutes. “Now, if Sue’s assignment was on-ball, maybe you sub [Briann January] in there for the physicality. But I think it was necessary to have Sue on the floor verbalizing and communicating and leading.”
The adjustment for Seattle, if Thibault tries to target Bird, is to sub her out for a reigning First-Team All-Defense player. There truly are no answers against the Storm defense.
- “Would-be” because Bird didn’t run out to the corner, so there was no way or need for Austin to set the screen
- Three points if Atkins makes it, multiplied by her shooting about 33% both above the break and on contested catch-and-shoot jumpers, gives you one point.