Nothing has deflated the Washington Mystics' offense this season quite like facing a zone defense. When playing against a man-to-man defense, the Mystics seem to operate on greased skids -- all transition and attack. And when teams counterpunch with a zone, the Mystics seem to become static and trapped in the corners of the perimeter.
Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said earlier this season the zone was "something we haven't worked a lot against." She tried to educate the team at practice on Monday, dedicating the entire two-hour workout to preparing for a zone. The Charlotte Sting (3-4), whom the Mystics visit tonight, heavily employed a zone defense in defeating the Mystics (1-7) in the season opener.
"We've got to become more comfortable with it, because we're going to see it a lot more," Darsch said. "We've been passive and tentative against it."
The Mystics' offensive adjustments against a zone have been anything but casual, and their last two home losses displayed that. Against Phoenix on June 22, Washington led by 16 points in the second half before the Mercury switched to a zone. The Mystics lost by three. A few nights later, Washington had two-time WNBA champion Houston down by 12 in the second half. The Mystics' two offensive threats, guard Nikki McCray (18.6 points per game, ranked fifth in league) and forward Chamique Holdsclaw (17.5, eighth), had Houston's defense backpedaling. Then the Comets switched to a zone -- partially because its man-to-man defense wasn't slowing down the Mystics and partially because the Comets were tired from playing the night before. The move seemed to stall Washington's offense as well as ignite a 20-2 Comets run that pushed them to a three-point win.
When teams play zone, the Mystics' offense, ranked sixth in the league averaging 70.7 points per game, appears square. Instead of having space to create shots, Holdsclaw and McCray sprint back and forth across the baseline only to catch the ball with nowhere to go. It takes the offense out of sync, and limits the number of good looks at the basket.
"The offense is definitely flexible enough," said Mystics guard Markita Aldridge. "We're not making our cuts fast enough, and it slows us down. When teams play zone against us, it slows the tempo down, and we've been allowing them to do it."
Part of the problem is personnel. Using forwards Shalonda Enis (6 feet 1, 185 pounds) and Murriel Page (6-2, 160) and center Alessandra Santos de Oliveira (6-5, 180), the Mystics haven't been dominating physically in the low post. When faced with zone defenses, the Mystics have been forced to take mostly perimeter shots, and the Mystics are last in the league in three-point percentage (26.3). Further, larger opponents are able to keep the Mystics off the offensive boards, eliminating second-chance shots.
"You want to make the zone work and pass to the paint to challenge it," Darsch said. "We haven't been able to do that. It's something we have to do better."
Although her team shot 9 for 23 in the second half while losing the lead to Phoenix and lost its rhythm against Houston, Darsch said the problem isn't as bad as it appears.
"When the game was over, I thought we really hadn't handled [the zone] well at all," she said. "But after I watched the tape, I didn't think it was so bad. I thought we did all right against it."
"I don't think it's that we haven't played against zone enough," Page said. "We're just not executing the way we have to."
Darsch said the problem can be solved.
"The extra practice will help, but the problem is mental," she said. "To be more comfortable, we have to be prepared."
Data: vs. Charlotte Sting.
Where: Charlotte Coliseum.
When: 8 p.m.
Records: Mystics 1-7, Sting 3-4.
Injuries: Mystics F Heather Owen (shoulder) is on the injured list. Sting F Tracy Reid (right knee) and C Nevriye Yilmas (hamstring, thumb) are on the injured list.