Up 1-0, Sacramento looks to get defensive
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- There was no stopping the Sacramento Monarchs during their record-setting offensive performance in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, but turning one win into three wins and a second consecutive championship may hinge on exactly how well they're able to stop the Shock in the remaining games.
It's possible (at the risk of providing the Monarchs with a perceived slight) that Sacramento won't shoot 53 percent over the course of the series or knock down more than half of its 3-point attempts, as the Monarchs did against the Shock in Game 1. If they do continue shooting like that, the series is over and anything we write is merely passing time until the inevitable occurs.
Logic suggests otherwise, meaning the key for the Monarchs will be how well their defense plays. Not that coach John Whisenant would have it any other way.
"Unlike most teams, we spend at least half of our practice on defense," Whisenant said Thursday. "We'll sacrifice offense execution early. Which is one of the reasons we don't look like a good offensive team at times, because we're not spending 80 percent of our time on offense."
The Monarchs have played nearly flawless basketball in the playoffs, including back-to-back textbook examples of offensive execution against Houston in the first round. But they still entered Wednesday's contest shooting 46 percent in five postseason games (the Monarchs shot 42 percent in the regular season). For their part, the Shock limited opponents to a league-best 38 percent shooting in the regular season and had suffocated playoff opponents into 36 percent shooting entering Game 1.
In other words, basketball actuarial tables wouldn't use 53 percent as the most probable outcome for the remainder of the series.
So can the Shock take solace in the fact that they've taken the best shot the Monarchs have to offer, a shooting performance which the odds suggest won't be repeated?
Actually, the truth might be even worse for the Shock than a 24-point loss suggests. Because when you consider Whisenant's basketball philosophy and how it was executed the last two seasons, it's clear that as impressive as Wednesday night was, it wasn't Sacramento's best shot.
The Monarchs' best shot comes when they make sure you don't get yours.
"[Connecticut coach] Mike Thibault said it best," Whisenant said when asked to explain the basics of his defensive teachings. "He said that playing the Sacramento Monarchs was like going to the dentist, going to get a root canal. And that's exactly what we want, that means we've gotten our point across."
With a 10-player rotation at a time of year when most teams shorten the bench to just one or two key subs, the Monarchs are deep and defensive-minded.
"Sacramento has a very, very strong, very, very aggressive defense," Detroit's Kedra Holland-Corn said Wednesday. "It forces the opponent to execute their offense almost to perfection to beat it. You have to be on your game mentally, as far as executing your plays correctly. They don't allow mistakes. When you make mistakes, they counter those mistakes and capitalize on those mistakes. It just forces people, us, to have to come into the game more mentally prepared and ready to play."
The Monarchs limited their opponents to 41 percent shooting on the way to a championship last season, but that number rose to 43 percent in the regular season this summer. The difference might not seem like much, with the latter a figure many coaches would gladly accept, but for the Monarchs it was another reflection of a regular season spent trying to overcome all sorts of adversity.
"Quite honestly, it's my defense; nobody knows it but me," Whisenant said. "I mean, it's something that nobody can see but me what's wrong.
"You know, my mother dying, I missed eight practices. Not that I make any baskets, but just the disruption of having the head coach out of camp that long, we lost a couple of games in that period."
Dealing with his own personal tragedy, Whisenant did what he does best: break down tape and get down to the business of coaching defense.
"And I watched some tape after, or right at the end of our season, and I realized that I was allowing some slippage in some of our techniques with our defense," Whisenant said. "So we had those three days of practice on defense, between the end of the season and the Houston series, and we were much better because of it."
Like a great chef, Whisenant believes you can do more by stressing simple ingredients of the highest quality than by adding on a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles.
"We have simple rules, rules you learn in elementary school: Stay between your man and the basket, keep them out of the paint, make them shoot jump shots but make the jump shots be contested," Sacramento's Kara Lawson explained. "You know, there are a lot of minute, intricate details, but those are the basics. And that's what we try to do, 65 to 70 possessions a game, so you have to be good at it, you have to do it over and over and over."
The complexity in the defense comes when all five players on the court, and every player on the roster, follow those simple individual rules to the letter.
"We build [the defense] on individual defensive play on the ball, and four teammates off the ball in exact right positions," Whisenant said. "I mean, within 4 or 5 inches, exactly. Even if your man is over there, there is somewhere on the floor that I teach them they belong.
"And it's all built on being in the right position to best help -- if you're guarding me, if I beat you, so that I can't get to the basket. [Your] four teammates are going to protect you, and you know that. And you've got exact things you're trying to do to me: You're trying to make sure I don't go that way, and that I go that way and that the four teammates are all predicated on being in the right position to help. It's really just that simple."
As a result, the Monarchs play together better than perhaps any defensive unit in the league. And it's that cohesion in executing fundamentals, more than individual brilliance or trick schemes, that allow them to make life miserable for opponents in the same way that aided the Shock in committing 24 turnovers in Game 1.
"They deny, they front the post, they try to deny the reversal pass," Detroit's Katie Smith rattled off. "They sit in on help side, they kind of allow the skip pass. They're just aggressive and they take away most of the easy things and take away the post entries. It is what it is. It's a little different, but obviously they're giving up something too. They're active, that's another thing, they're long, so passes, sometimes they get tipped."
All of which leads back to the challenge confronting the Shock as they try to even the series before going to Sacramento for two games. Because despite all those turnovers by Detroit, Sacramento's perfection in Game 1 was limited to one end of the court. The Shock shot a respectable 44 percent from the field, with both Katie Smith and Cheryl Ford topping 20 points.
"We broke down. We had -- we're going to work on them right here," Whisenant said before practice. "We had five or six things that we did poorly. We gave them about eight or 10 points. They got 38 percent offensive rebounding percentage; you can't do that and win normally. We try to keep that in the low 20s. They're going to get 20 percent as hard as you try, just from long ricochet rebounds, but anything over 25 it means that you're careless, you're not keeping them off the boards.
"If we would have had those six or eight plays, they would have been in the low 60s and that would have been a good defensive effort again."
Both the Monarchs, as they proved in Game 1, and the Shock are entirely capable of playing brilliant offense, so it's not entirely accurate to suggest the opener went entirely against the grain of what both teams try to do. But it's also not unfair to suggest that both the Monarchs and Shock are committed to playing defense better than either did on Wednesday night.
"We have to play defense good enough so that when we don't play offensively, we can still win," Lawson said of one of Whisenant's primary tenets. "That's our goal every night, to play defense good enough that if we don't play like we did last night offensively, we can still win against a good team, against a great team like Detroit.
"So did we play good enough defense last night, if we hadn't shot the ball really, really well, to win? It would have been close, you know, I think it would have been close. So we have to do better in that respect."
The Monarchs made a statement in Game 1 by playing the best offense ever seen in the WNBA Finals. Just don't be surprised if they go out and try and finish the job by focusing more on the other end of the court.
Even the Shock know where they must ultimately put the emphasis if they hope to bounce back with a win.
"It's more of a mental focus, also putting in a couple of niches here, niches there, as far as to try and help mentally and physically with their defense," Holland-Corn said. "The great thing about these playoffs is that you have a five-game series. The first game, yeah it's at home and we lost, but at the same time, you get a chance to look at film and try to put some kinks in here and there in order to counterattack their aggressiveness and their defense."Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.