Did Marine Johannès just throw the Greatest Pass In Basketball History? | 2022 WNBA Playoffs
"The Pass" fueled the New York Liberty's Game 1 upset of the Chicago Sky, but that's not all that made it special.
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Basketball is a game of runs. The old saying gets thrown around so much because it’s true. Game 1 of the 2-7 matchup between Chicago and New York was decided by a 13-0 Liberty run in the last 3 minutes of the game. Chicago had multiple 7+ point runs of its own to take leads.
But it’s also a game of big plays. Big shots, fancy passes, and defensive stops can swing a team into a run. This game felt like a Big 12 college football game in that way – the teams throwing deep touchdown passes and scoring off turnovers without much pause in the action. These big plays fueled both offenses and allowed both teams to outscore their offensive averages.1 The biggest play in this game was a breathtaking assist by Marine Johannès with 3:21 left that kicked off that run for New York.
THIS IS AN ALL-TIME GREAT ASSIST IN BASKETBALL WRIT LARGE HISTORY. Let’s dissect it by first looking at the source of the pass. Marine has already established herself as one of the league’s best passers during her short time in New York. She recently earned an endorsement from Ticha Penichero, the queen of fancy passing. Johannès has been an elite passer for a long time, though. She’s been a mainstay on the French National Team since 2015 and a top talent in the French League with Bourges and Lyon. She won the Most Entertaining Player award for the 2018-19 Euroleague season, an award that the WNBA should copy and immediately give to Johannès. The rub is that the pass came from one of the best and flashiest passers in basketball.
More importantly, Johannès’ play invigorated the Liberty all season. The Liberty are 9.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Johannès on the floor, according to PBP Stats. They also turn the ball over far less and play faster while not bleeding on the defensive end. In a very small sample of 12 minutes, New York’s starters (Ionescu, Laney, Howard, and Dolson) plus Johannès posted an outstanding 33.5 net rating as opposed to a -3.8 net rating in 22 minutes with starter Crystal Dangerfield at point.2 Her inventive style provides a nice balance for Sabrina’s tactical ways where she always looks to make the right play. Sabrina seems to wonder if she should do something, while Marine only wonders if she could.3 The variety of styles among players at essentially the same position is one of my favorite things in basketball. These two put on display wonderfully.
Johannès was also huge for New York in this game. She led the team with seven assists, several of the stunning variety. Her passing punished Chicago’s hedges on ball screens and created open looks at the rim. Marine also had a huge four-point play at the end of the first half that kept New York in control. In the first quarter, she actually found Natasha Howard on a very similar play to The Pass (TM).4
Johannès and Howard run a slot pick-and-roll on the empty side.5 The Liberty stick Sabrina Ionescu in the corner and move Stef Dolson to the top of the key to keep Candace Parker away from the rim. Azurá Stevens hedges and pressures Johannès on the perimeter. So she snaps a pass around Stevens like a Jai Alai player and Parker is stuck between the two bigs. After more or less slipping the screen, Howard corals the pass and finishes under the basket. Note how hard that finish was for Howard with Parker recovering because it’ll come up later.
The stakes of this pass also add to its legacy. It came with 3:25 left in the game and the Liberty trailing by 6 points. The Sky went on a 6-0 run earlier in the 4th quarter, which was aided by a flagrant foul on Sabrina Ionescu for stepping under Allie Quigley. Johannès actually broke the run with a backdoor cut and reverse layup. Still, Chicago had established a sizeable lead and New York could have easily let go of the rope after a Laney turnover led to a Vandersloot layup.
The Liberty desperately needed a momentum shifting play, the type of play they have not gotten often this season. New York had the league’s worst net rating (-16.3) over 83 clutch minutes in the regular season, according to WNBA Stats. Chicago was the only team to play more clutch minutes than New York (104). But the Sky crushed teams in the clutch with a 28 net rating. Realistic Liberty fans (or temporary supporters) probably thought this game was heading in the opposite direction.
Then, there is the pass itself. We’ve seen over-the-head assists before. Ticha Penichero and Sue Bird (that one is to Natasha Howard!) have done it before. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a pass quite like this. The degree of difficulty of tossing a pass over your head with pinpoint accuracy from the top of the key to the right block would make this jaw-dropping regardless of the rest. Here’s the entire possession (sorry for the quality).
But Johannès went a step further by setting up the pass. The Liberty run the same empty corner pick-and-roll, but the play starts with an Iverson cut for Johannès. The cut puts Allie Quigley behind the play before the screen and puts even more pressure on Candace Parker in help. After she beats Azurá Stevens’ hedge, she looks into the lane and see both Natasha Howard diving to the rim as well as Parker waiting in the lane.
Johannès had at least two good conventional options: drive at DPOY-candidate Parker and dish to Howard when Parker commits or pass to an open Stef Dolson at the three-point line. But, Parker’s recovery skills make option 1 less attractive. Howard already had to contort herself around Parker once and it’s too big of play to risk a block. Marine likely brought defenders too close to Dolson for a three at that point. With Vandersloot also playing the gap and Parker sinking further into the lane, the wraparound pass she threw earlier likely wasn’t available.
So, she made magic happen. Johannès took another step towards Dolson (Parker’s assignment) and stared at her to draw Parker back toward the perimeter. Parker then stopped her recovery to Howard. That’s when Marine’s pass zoomed past her head, through Stevens’s hands, and right to Natasha Howard for the score. World-class, beautiful, magnificent, Marine.
It’s impossible for an outsider to figure out what is going through player’s minds, but the play undoubtedly changed *something* for New York. Perhaps it gave the confidence to finish the game or put Chicago’s defense on its heels and New York took advantage. It was the first thing that the team was talking about after pulling off the upset. There were many other reasons why this game went the way it did, namely the play of Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, and Natasha Howard. However, some people believe that singular plays can’t change games or that momentum doesn’t exist. To them, I submit this pass by Marine Johannés.
Chicago scored 5.2 points per 100 possessions (111 ORtg) better in this game than the team did in the regular season (105.8). New York went crazy by scoring 22 points per 100 (121 ORtg) better than its 99 offensive rating in the regular season.
Lineup and on/off data can be noisy and misleading and it’s a bit difficult to find 5-player lineups with substantial time together due to New York’s injuries. But Marine is included in each of New York’s four best lineups by net rating with at least 10 minutes played since she joined the team. Johannès is also included in 3 of New York’s 5 worst lineups by net rating with the same limitations.
This isn’t a diss to either of these players. They come from very different basketball backgrounds and play very different styles because of it. I also think they’ve rubbed off on each other this season, which should benefit the Liberty greatly.
Shouts to Calvin Wetzel for this term.
Aka they ran a pick-and-roll where the three point line starts to curve on side where there was a not a shooter in the corner.