Film Room: Storm win their first four under Coach Klop

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 18: Breanna Stewart
SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 18: Breanna Stewart /

The Seattle Storm are off to a perfect 4-0 start in what interim Head Coach Gary Kloppenburg has called an 8 game season. Coach Klop took over with just 8 games to play for a team that wants to win now. Sue Bird is 36. Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd are producing like legitimate stars and look the part.

Many fans anticipated or hoped for this team to make a leap in 2017. A 4-4 run in July was sandwiched by a June stretch in which the Storm lost 6 of 7 and a four game losing slide in late July. Seattle made the decision to move on from Jenny Boucek following the latter.

The Storm won on the road in Phoenix then pieced together back-to-back one point home victories over Minnesota and San Antonio in three day’s time. The scene was set for a high stakes matchup in Chicago on Sunday between two playoff hopefuls. The Storm blew the doors off the Sky and never looked back.

So, what’s been working under Coach Klop?

Prior to the coaching change, Seattle had been averaging 15.2 turnovers per game. In the four games since? 10, 12, 7, 10. Extra possessions matter!

Seattle is downright mean when all three stars are involved in an action. Here, Bird screens Stewart’s defender to give Stewart a head start to go set a ball screen for Loyd. Loyd gets to the middle and hits Bird, who caught a flare screen from Crystal Langhorne:

X’s and O’s wise, the Storm still run a decent amount of floppy. (Coach Kloppy…his team running floppy…there’s at least a great headline just sitting there on a tee. Hit me with your best ones on Twitter.) Forcing teams to chase Jewell Loyd around screens is always a good idea. And when she hits shots like these, you lose.

Of course, Bird is also tough to guard zipping around a screen. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (whose playing time, to some degree, could have been a point of contention) and Sami Whitcomb are skilled enough to make teams pay out of those sets, too:

Both of those reserve guards have notched 9+ minutes each in the last four games. Alysha Clark is 6-for-12 from deep over this stretch. With all those players hitting open looks, this Storm team is tough to keep up with.

We’re still seeing plenty of horns, 4-out motion and handoff actions, too. Same idea as before with Loyd. A Stewart handoff to Loyd probably can’t be contained by just two defenders when any sort of action precedes it to keep the defense from loading up. Or, Loyd can launch in transition straight from a handoff:

If Loyd’s defender denies the handoff, she can just use Stewart as a screen and catch the ball on her way to the basket:

You’ll find no better example of this action than late in the Minnesota game out of a timeout:

To keep it going for the after timeout (ATO) crowd, here’s what Coach Klop drew up inside 2:00 against San Antonio. A Stewart-Loyd handoff kicks things off, this time as a distraction to what’s coming: Stewart flying around two screens to the right block:

The real elephant in the room is Stewart’s MVP case. Even in the tough stretches, she’s been coming through big while often logging 35+ minutes. Seattle has become the popular “most disappointing” case of 2017, which is probably hurting her candidacy.

What helps that case? Off the bounce threes in crunch time of a one point game:

She has rocketed up to the #2 spot in the race for the scoring title. In their win in Phoenix, she held up one-on-one in select possessions guarding Brittney Griner. Stewart can be an initiator or a finisher for their offense. Whether her defensive assignment forces her out onto the perimeter or not, she’s altering shots at the rim and getting into passing lanes. Oh, and she’s above 37% from three on 4+ attempts per game. (Stewart has attempted 74 more threes than Jonquel Jones this season.)

Sequences like these are commonplace from the second year forward:

Crystal Langhorne, per usual, cannot be lost in the shuffle or relegated to one obligatory cliche line about her high shooting percentage. She played a big part in getting the team off to a great start against Minnesota, shooting 4-for-4 in the opening period.

I had to hit rewind a few times to confirm, but yes, she even ran a pick and roll and kicked it out to Loyd for a three:

I love the inevitability of the Langhorne left hand drive down the left lane line (say that five times fast) that opens up seemingly any time Seattle can run a pick and roll on the right side. Langhorne’s defender is probably going to shade over to help. When the ball finds her, she’s able to attack that crease between her initial defender and the person that helped the helper:

If I had to guess, Langhorne’s size/limitations may have been another point of contention. The Storm gave up a nice haul to bring in Carolyn Swords, who just hasn’t played all that much this season. This is where organizational alignment comes into play. Was the move specifically made with the idea of freeing Stewart from guarding centers full-time? Or was there no clear mandate from the start?

The recent four game stretch shows how matchups can sway things from game to game. Against the Mercury, Langhorne needed the help of a double. Swords played 9 minutes off the bench.

Up against Sylvia Fowles the next game, Swords played 10 minutes. But against San Antonio, who ran with a smaller, athletic front line of Isabelle Harrison and Dearica Hamby for nearly the entire game, Swords played all of 18 seconds.

With lineups and rotations, every decision can’t always be isolated. Each decision also is not a savage indictment of the next player down on the depth chart.

That said, now is a good time to bring up Ramu Tokashiki’s role. Just look at the matchups. Tokashiki’s minutes the last four games: 11, 6, 14, 18. Coach Klop used her with Stewart and Langhorne as their three bigs against Harrison and Hamby while Swords sat.

Alexis Peterson saw some extended run against Minnesota and propped up a bench unit with 6 points in a first half stint. Noelle Quinn started that game in Bird’s place (knee soreness). The duo combined for a solid line of 12 points, 7 assists and two steals.

ROSEMONT, IL – AUGUST 20: Crystal Langhorne
ROSEMONT, IL – AUGUST 20: Crystal Langhorne /

Let’s be sure to point out that there are a few holes to poke in this winning streak. Seattle was without Bird that game; Minnesota was without Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson (partially – she played 10 minutes before suffering that ankle injury). Griner is still working her way back in terms of a minutes workload. The Stars were up by 11 inside the 7:00 mark. As far as Sunday goes, well, Seattle did what they needed to do in what was a must win for Chicago.

Moving to the other side of the ball, where the biggest adjustment to date can be seen under Coach Klop. The Storm are aggressively trapping high pick and rolls in the middle of the floor and on the sides.

The first things that stood out with that: It appears that Loyd is being asked to guard at the point of attack. That makes sense. She’s athletic, quick and long.

Loyd’s effort and athletic ability also enable her to make really special plays like this one:

Not many guards can leap up that high to bother, let alone knock the ball away from, Fowles. The transition three for Stewart is gravy. Put it all together, though, it’s the kind of sequence that could swing a game.

In addition to pick and rolls, Seattle is trapping high post entries after the point guard begins a cut to the weak side:

They even trapped in the backcourt on Sunday:

Cappie Pondexter dribbled right around that, but not all pressure needs to result in steals for easy twos. Extra ball pressure slowed the game down against Minnesota, and gave Lynx perimeter players smaller windows of time to look to lob it in to Sylvia Fowles. The Seattle bench could be seen waving its guards up the court after makes:

Stewart and Langhorne are also mobile enough to make that trapping scheme work, which is key. Loyd defending the point of attack frees up Bird to play free safety some of the time. She really made a difference with her activity defensively at the start of Sunday’s game and late against the Stars from all over:

Alysha Clark often has drawn the toughest perimeter assignment this season for the Storm, but she also has been able to make some plays for their defense behind a trap:

As of Tuesday morning, two is a key number across the WNBA. It’s the margin that separates the Sparks and the Sun for the coveted #2 slot; both New York and Washington sit just two back of Connecticut; Phoenix sits two behind the Mystics and Liberty with a first round bye still within reach.

The gap is even smaller at both the top and the bottom. The Sparks sit one and a half games behind Minnesota. The two teams play Sunday in Los Angeles. Chicago is hanging by a thread after getting crushed by the Storm over the weekend. Dallas and Seattle, with some help, could even leap up to #6 to grab home court in the opening round.

So again, what’s different in Seattle under Coach Klop? The answer we’re really after won’t come until the playoffs begin. To their credit, the team has responded to the shake up to put themselves in position to make sure they get there.