Takeaways from the Storm's win over the Sparks

The title contenders edged the Sparks in a game that revealed how the Storm can get even better.

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UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT/USA - July 20, 2018: Seattle Storm guard Jordin Canada (21) about to shoot during a Seattle Storm vs Connecticut Sun WNBA basketball game at Mohegan Sun Arena. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

It seemed the Seattle Storm found all the shots they missed against Washington on Thursday when they faced the Los Angeles Sparks on Saturday.

Just one game after missing 20 three-pointers and shooting 39 percent from the field, the Storm made 50 percent of their shots while holding the Sparks to 38.7 percent. Seattle edged Los Angeles 81-75 in a game that didn’t feel like it would be close after the first quarter.

Doing so without Sue Bird made the win all the more impressive.

Jewell Loyd gave her team a boost from the jump. Loyd had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including 3-of-5 on 3-pointers, in the first quarter alone. After one quarter, the Storm had a 27-16 edge on the Sparks.

The Sparks could not get in-sync in the second quarter, either. Breanna Stewart and Ezi Magbegor combined to score as many points in the second quarter (13) as the entire Sparks roster. Considering the Storm led by as much as 17 in the first half, it seemed like they would cruise to victory.

As talented as the Storm were, the worst thing they could do is lose focus or take their foot off the gas. Thanks to five turnovers, 11 points from Riquna Williams, and nine from Candace Parker, the Sparks cut their deficit to 10 points. Suddenly, Seattle’s opponent had the momentum heading down the stretch.

Aside from not getting stops and turnover problems, the Storm had an okay quarter. However, if they hadn’t scored an efficient 20 points of their own they could have been in real trouble. This is especially true since the Storm weren’t out of the woods yet.

Los Angeles had an 8-0 run from the 9:17 to 4:50 mark of the fourth quarter that cut the Seattle lead to one. Fortunately, a Stewart defensive rebound led to a Jordin Canada layup that reversed momentum and allowed the Storm to eventually close out their opponent.

“We were struggling down there. I think it just looked like we had some fatigue as Jordin [Canada] was playing high minutes and they kept a quick guard on her. We had a few turnovers that hurt us down the stretch,” Kloppenburg said after the game. “But yeah, I thought we had some really good spots going down crunch time in the last three or four minutes. I think we turned them over a couple times, we collapsed, we took some things away. That type of game when you're struggling on offense, you got to dig in and get some stops and I thought we did that.”

While this game was entertaining down the stretch, it probably shouldn’t have been. The Storm showed us they still have a few kinks to work out.

How will the Storm divide Bird’s minutes?

It’s no surprise Bird will have regular rest nights. The future hall of famer has earned it, especially with playing three games in five nights. Bird still plays at a high level and makes sense to preserve her for a potentially deep playoff run.

No Bird means figuring out what to do with her minutes. Saturday night was the first rest night for Bird and the team is still clearly figuring out how to best divvy those minutes up. Of course, Canada takes the starter minutes but what happens when she comes out of the game?

When Gary Kloppenburg took both Canada and Loyd out in the first half, the offense struggled. Sami Whitcomb and Epiphanny Prince are both great players to have in the rotation, but Prince looked far more comfortable spotting up as the off-guard than running the offense.

Prince hasn’t been in a primary ball handler role since she was with New York in 2015 when she posted an assist percentage of 24.5. Since then, she hasn’t accounted 1-in-5 of her team’s assists while she’s on the floor. This is fine since her game has grown in other ways and has overcome injuries since them.

Whitcomb seemed more comfortable with throwing entry passes to the post and working the ball in and out of the perimeter. Her and Prince worked well together in these sets as Whitcomb was able to find Prince in spaces that allowed her to work.

There are other options that involve neither Prince nor Whitcomb bringing the ball up the court. It’s possible Kloppenburg could stagger his starters more so Loyd and Canada’s rests rarely, if ever, overlap. Kloppenburg did this a bit in the second half after subbing both Whitcomb and Prince in together in the final two minutes of the first quarter and keeping them in until the six-minute mark of the second quarter.

The Storm have a number of options for ballhandlers and don’t necessarily need a traditional bench ball handler. However, if Kloppenburg does stick with Whitcomb or Prince, it’s probably best to do so in staggered minutes with the starters to avoid too much drop-off.

Ezi Magbegor plays key role in holding off Sparks

Saturday night was a bit of a marathon for the Storm starters in the second half. Off until Tuesday, they will have time for the rest they’ve earned. In the second half, Storm reserves not named “Magbegor” played about seven minutes total. Here’s the list:

  • Mercedes Russell: 2:54

  • Epiphanny Prince: 1:28

  • Sami Whitcomb: 2:54

  • Morgan Tuck: 1:18

Magbegor was the only Storm reserve to see regular action in the second half. She gave Natasha Howard key rest as she was responsible for defending the likes of Nneka Ogwumike and Parker. Keeping her fresh down the stretch of a close game was going to be important in this game and Magbegor’s solid play allowed the Storm to do this.

Aside from Magbegor, no other Storm reserve entered the game. Magbegor and Howard split the fourth quarter minutes 50-50.

Of course, a close game and a team down one of their best players are other factors in the disproportionate second-half playing time. The Sparks are a big team and Magbegor’s 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting, including the game-clincher, and five rebounds off the bench were pivotal.

When a team is missing someone like Sue Bird, someone else has to step up and Ezi Magbegor did just that.

Missed free throws almost come back to haunt

Maybe it was a bad night or regression to the mean, but the Storm made just 11 of their 19 free throw attempts (57.1 percent). This was a Storm team that had missed just five free throws so far this season entering Saturday night’s contest. For those scoring at home, that’s an incredible 90.1 percent.

Seventeen of those attempts came in the second half while the Storm were trying to hold off the Sparks’ run. Jordin Canada, in particular, went to the line three times and went just 2-for-6. Yet, when she needed to make them most, she sank both of them. For a career 74.5 percent free throw shooter to miss those is unusual. Had the Storm lost a close game, they likely would have been looking at the eight free throws they missed as a team as reasons why.

“We didn't shoot free throws very well, we wanted to get to the line and we did that, we just didn't really convert at a high rate,” said Kloppenburg. “It's just one of those kind of games that wasn't a smooth flowing game, but we dug in and got a couple of stops when we had to get them and we went down and got a couple buckets mixed in there. We were able to kind of scratch this one out.”

Clearly, Canada wasn’t the only one missing free throws. Alysha Clark, Howard, and Stewart all missed free throws in the second half. Whether it was regression or a bad night, missing free throws nearly cost the Storm a game they once had firm control of.

No one was expecting Seattle to shoot 90 percent from the line for the entire season, but to see a strength become a sudden weakness on Saturday was shocking.