Video: Analyzing Why Sue Bird is So Good
Footage from the 2010 WNBA Playoffs.
Over two years ago in April of 2009, I wrote this post for SLAMonline evaluating and grading the clutch plays of the 2009 NBA Playoffs. While writing a short preview of the Seattle Storm for the 2011 WNBA season, I became inspired to do something similar for the WNBA. The Storm had one of the best seasons in WNBA history in 2010, so I figured going back and viewing highlights of their playoff games was a good place to start.
And then Sue Bird happened.
I was looking for clutch plays and last-second shots, mind you, not “simple” pick-and-rolls in the middle of a first half. But Sue Bird created so many amazing plays that she became the sole focus of my research.
We could talk about her offensive efficiency, usage percentage, and a thousand other soporific stats until we’re blue in the face. But a statistic fails to describe the infallible beauty and simplicity of Bird’s game.
It’s really the little things Bird does that make her so fun to watch. Like Steve Nash, Bird won’t make a behind-the-back pass if it isn’t truly needed. They utilize angles and have an uncanny sense of where the defense is going to be in order to continually break them down.
In the 2010 WNBA Playoffs, Bird demonstrated over and over again why she is so integral to the Storm’s success.
Game 1 | Western Conference Semi-Finals | Storm up 10 points | 1:43 left in the first (cue at 15 seconds)
The Play: Bird pokes the ball away from Kristi Tolliver. As the rest of her teammates release, Bird is calling for the ball at center court. Once she gets it, she drives hard down the center of the floor until the defender begins the motion to stop her. As soon as that happens, Bird passes to Swin Cash on her left and the defense was too late at making a play.
Why This is Significant: It’s all about vision and timing. The best part about this entire play is how actively Bird calls for the ball once the Storm gained possession. She clearly puts herself in the best possible position to continue their transition offense and wanted to hurry in order to catch the Sparks off-guard. Once Bird gets the ball, she immediately turns and surveys the court. At this point, it’s just her and Cash against one Sparks defender. Once she sees Cash pass that defender, Bird gives her the ball and the defense is in terrible position. Again, having this vision in a split second is remarkable.
Game 1 | Western Conference Semi-Finals | Storm up 12 points | 1:01 left in the first (cue at 24 seconds)
The Play: Bird again pokes the ball away from the Sparks but this time, the Storm doesn’t have as many players running the break. However, Bird sees that Swin Cash is already up the floor and her defender isn’t looking for the ball. Bird lobs a perfect pass towards the outside shoulder of Cash where only she can get it. Cash makes a great move in the paint to score the bucket.
Why This is Significant: If Bird puts the ball on Cash’s inside shoulder, there is no way Cash has an easy play on the basket. Bird catches Cash’s defender not paying attention to where the ball is in relation to her man and places the pass to Cash right on the money. Bird could’ve easily just taken a chance and carelessly lobbed the ball up anywhere near Cash, hoping she would come down with it. Instead, Bird makes an incredibly smart basketball play that many will overlook. It’s plays like this that separate Bird from everyone else.
Game 1 | Western Conference Semi-Finals | Storm up 6 points | 3:40 left in the second (cue at 52 seconds)
The Play: This is another play that is solely created by Bird’s unparalleled vision. Bird begins to take the ball to the basket so that the defense is forced to collapse on her. When they do, Bird knows that someone will be open either in the paint or along the perimeter. This time, it’s Jana Vesela. Bird takes the ball into the paint just far enough so the rotations back to Vesela aren’t as fast. Bird jab-steps to create a bit more space (it also forces the defense to hesitate) and dishes to Vesela for the three.
Why This is Significant: Bird has made this play a countless number of times to her teammates, especially Lauren Jackson. The entire purpose of her penetrating isn’t to go to the basket (unless the defense lets her), it’s to create shot opportunities. Dribble penetration is a huge part of why Bird is so dangerous and lethal. In this case, the defense has to collapse on Bird which frees up a wide-open shot from downtown. Not surprisingly, Bird had 12 assists on the night.
Game 1 | Western Conference Semi-Finals | Storm up 9 points | 6:12 left in the third (cue at 1:09 seconds)
The Play: This is just a textbook finish to a fastbreak with numbers. Bird pushes the ball up the center of the court. The Sparks have two defenders in the paint. When the Sparks defense doesn’t commit to Bird (or anyone for that matter) Bird has a couple of options. She can either keep penetrating and force the defense to collapse or dish to one of her teammates on either side. Bird makes a pinpoint pass to Jackson as her defender fails to close-out quick enough. Jackson gets the bucket and the foul.
Why This is Significant: Making the right decision in a situation like this can be tricky. Bird could’ve easily tried to continue to the basket and draw a foul but she realized the greater chance of scoring was by passing to either teammate on the left or right. The passing lane to Cash was somewhat clogged but the one to Jackson was open. Ultimately, in every offensive possession she is in control of, Bird wants to create a shot that has the best chance of going in. That’s exactly what she did here.
Game 2 | Western Conference Finals | Storm down 2 points | 37.4 seconds left in the fourth (cue at 46 seconds)
The Play: Bird kicks it into Lauren Jackson who passes back out to Bird along the perimeter. Sensing the defense is off-balance, Bird cuts to the basket around Jackson’s right shoulder utilizing a pseudo-screen from Jackson. Penny Taylor stops Bird from penetrating along the baseline but Swin Cash has perfect position in the paint. Bird catches a glimpse of Cash and the only play she could make is around Taylor to the baseline side with a bounce pass. Cash catches it on her way up to the basket and the Storm ties the game.
Why This is Significant: Making this type of pass around a defender to the baseline is rarely done accurately. In this case, Bird placed it in Cash’s hands so she could go right up for the shot without hesitation. The more challenging aspect of this pass is even seeing her teammate open in the first place; or, more specifically, looking for a teammate at that spot. Bird saw a small gap in the Mercury’s defense and this kept her attention focused on the open lane.
Game 2 | Western Conference Finals | Tied | 6.2 seconds left in the fourth (cue at 57 seconds)
The Play: Knowing how clutch Sue Bird has been, Brian Agler gives Tanisha Wright the ball to bring up court and put Bird in the 2-position. Bird starts in the far corner and sells DeWanna Bonner on a modified v-cut around a Lauren Jackson screen. Bird catches the ball at the free-throw line extended and hits a three over the much-taller DeWanna Bonner.
Why This is Significant: Take a look at the play; if Bird stops a couple feet short of where she caught the ball, Bonner can easily defend her with her length. If she goes too far towards Wright, it allows Candice Dupree to step up and challenge her shot. The only place Bird could go, literally, was exactly where she caught the ball. This shot is incredibly difficult especially considering she shot it over a player who is six inches taller.
Game 1 | WNBA Finals | Storm up 4 points | 3:26 left in the fourth (cue at 1:55)
The Play: Bird has a choice of going to her left or right on this pick-and-roll. She chooses to go to her right with Lauren Jackson setting the pick. The play is defended pretty well by the Dream and there aren’t a lot of options inside or along the perimeter. With just five seconds left on the shot-clock, Bird continues to drive the lane. Bird pulls up for a jumper at the elbow and puts the Storm up by 6 with just over three minutes left in the game.
Why This is Significant: This may seem like a typical runner for Bird but let’s take a closer look. Bird doesn’t have many options on this play. Rather than force a pass to Jackson or opt for a lower-percentage shot along the perimeter, she chooses to drive the lane. Now, if she takes one more dribble towards the hoop, Jackson’s defender has more time to close-out on Bird. Instead, Bird catches her off-balance and sinks an important jumper that is much more difficult than it looks.
Game 2 | WNBA Finals | Pre-Game (cue at beginning)
The Play: Bird hits a backwards shot from half-court.
Why This is Significant: You try it and let me know how that goes.
Game 3 | WNBA Finals | Storm up 7 points | 6:16 left in the first (cue at 15 seconds)
The Play: Bird gets the rebound off a tip. Seeing an opportunity for an easy bucket in transition, she pushes the ball up the court. Typically, you want your point guard to take the center of the court but that was already being filled by Tanisha Wright. As any consummate point guard will do, Bird continues to drive to the basket until the defense commits. When they do, Bird dishes the ball to Lauren Jackson who dumps it into Wright for the finish.
Why This is Significant: There is simply no panic in Bird. Rather than having her mind already made up, Bird takes what the defense gives her. In this case, the Dream was too late in stopping the ball which gave Bird multiple options for a perfectly executed three-on-one break. Her pass to Jackson was quick enough that the defender had no chance to make a play on the ball. Again, plays like these may seem elementary but I can assure you, at this level, they are not.
Game 3 | WNBA Finals | Tied | 1:43 left in the third (cue at 1:29 seconds)
The Play: Off an inbounds play, Bird takes Kelly Miller on a v-cut beginning from the top off the key, to the paint, and off a screen. Bird fades back to a spot behind the three-point line where no Dream defender can close-out on her. If you look at the play, it was the only spot on the court that allowed a Storm player to shoot without a defender in their face. A wide-open Bird sinks the bucket and puts the Storm up three with 1:40 left in the third.
Why This is Significant: Bird has to sell this play, and it’s much easier said than done. For this play to work, Bird makes Kelly Miller think she is going to set a screen away from the ball. Instead, she cuts back to the ball and utilizes the screen set for her on the block to create a shot. Bird understands where she is on the floor and what angle to come off the screen in order to shoot the highest-percentage shot possible.
Game 3 | WNBA Finals | Storm up 10 points | 3:22 left in the fourth (cue at 1:45 seconds)
The Play: Bird demonstrates why she is the best point guard at using screens in the WNBA today (and possibly the history of the league). Bird sees Jackson approaching on her right to set a screen. Knowing this, Bird takes Kelly Miller lower first to create more room to work. At the perfect moment, Bird then takes the dribble from her left hand to her right and goes around Jackson’s left shoulder from the screen. Kelly Miller goes over the screen (like she is supposed to) but is slow to get back to Bird. Erika de Souza, Jackson’s defender, picks up Bird and stops her from penetrating. The problem? Jackson is left wide-open cutting to the basket. Bird, who knew this would happen once she created space from Miller, places the ball into the cutting Jackson, spot-on, who lays it up for two.
Why This is Significant: If you’re looking for a perfectly executed pick-and-roll, this is it. Bird sells the defender by making Miller continue to play defense while the screen is coming. This is absolutely essential for a pick-and-roll to work. Furthermore, Bird goes right off Jackson’s shoulder (textbook pick-and-roll offense) and makes Jackson’s defender have to step up and guard her. This leaves Jackson wide-open and Bird bounces the pass to Jackson, where no defender has a chance at making a play.