As the WNBA approached the final two weeks of the regular season, the five-game slate on Sunday carried significant importance for a variety of playoff battles. We’ve got teams fighting for position, teams struggling to even reach the postseason, and one or two still showing enough pride to battle it out for victories when their fates have been sealed for weeks. The final positioning was clear as mud before Sunday, and pretty similar by the end, but for individual teams these games are becoming vitally important to the success – or failure – of their 2011 seasons.
The first game to tip off was in San Antonio, where fans, players and coaches alike must have been growing increasingly worried over recent weeks. Having lost five in a row, and nine of their last eleven, a team that led the Western Conference in the opening weeks of the season is now under threat of missing the playoffs. LA’s loss at home to Tulsa on Friday night had helped them out, and maintained the gap at 1.5 games, but the fear remained. Considering Sunday’s visitors were Minnesota, that fear was well-warranted. Winners of their last four, and 22-6 overall, the Lynx were one game away from officially sealing the top seed in the Western Conference. Three games clear of Indiana, home court advantage throughout the playoffs isn’t far away either. They’re not the team you want to see step off the plane when you’re fighting for your playoff lives.
As ever, the Lynx opened with their typical starting five, while Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes kept faith with his recent lineup starting Danielle Robinson at the point. The rookie speedster has started their last couple of games, and the change has failed to snap their losing skid, but Hughes shows no signs of switching back to veteran Tully Bevilaqua. The scoreline stayed reasonably close throughout the first half, but managed to be simultaneously frightening for the Silver Stars. They were staying in the game with three-point shooting, and that was it. In fairness, the ball movement and screen-setting to break their shooters open outside was good, but it’s very, very hard to win games against strong teams like that. Shooters go cold, and with no interior game, there’s no second option.
With Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore cutting and shooting well, the Lynx held a 25-20 lead after the first quarter, when threes from Becky Hammon, Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams had kept San Antonio in touch. Despite Minnesota dominating the glass, Roneeka Hodges coming off the bench to supply four threes in the second-quarter meant the Silver Stars were still very much in contention. In points in the paint, Minnesota led 22-2 at halftime, and they had a 21-11 advantage on the boards; where it matters on the scoreboard, it was only 42-40.
It almost felt like Hughes had decided to cut his losses in this game. His team has struggled to find any interior offense all season, and been terrible on the glass. Apparently in this one they were just going to roll the dice and try to shoot themselves to victory from outside. Maybe getting killed in the rebounding battle wouldn’t matter if they could hit enough threes. Unsurprisingly however, it started to fall apart in the second half. Switching to a 2-3 zone for several possessions to try to slow down Minnesota’s offense, San Antonio’s rebounding got even worse. Meanwhile, despite starting the second half with Hodges and Adams out there for extra firepower, the Silver Stars’ shooting dropped off. Minnesota led 60-50 by the end of the third quarter, and San Antonio shot 1-6 from three-point range in the period after going 8-15 from outside in the first half.
San Antonio had been playing pretty decent defense all night, and they held Minnesota without a single point for the first 4:46 of the fourth quarter. The Lynx seemed to struggle at times with how to attack Hughes’s zone. But the comeback still didn’t happen, because the Silver Stars couldn’t hit anything either. They scored just one point on a Sophia Young free throw in that same stretch to start the fourth, and when Moore drained two threes to finally break the drought, the game was practically over. When Hammon finally penetrated into the lane and drew fouls for free throws, before Bevilaqua sank a three to cut the score to 68-61 with just under two minutes remaining, it looked like San Antonio might threaten an unlikely comeback. But on the very next play, Young and Perkins ran into each other on a rebound, dropping the ball into Rebekkah Brunson’s hands, and she fed Moore for a layup. Game over. The final score eventually closed out at 72-61 Lynx.
San Antonio ultimately finished the game with a grand total of four points in the paint. That’s unreal. Easily the lowest total from any team this season, and indeed the lowest since the WNBA went to four quarters and a 24-second shot clock in 2006. Minnesota’s interior defense is good, but it’s not that good. San Antonio are looking desperate at this stage, rather like the Silver Stars team that many of us predicted in preseason, before they confounded expectations and started winning games left and right. Hammon shot 1-12, after an 0-8 performance in their last game (also against Minnesota), and Sophia Young was 2-7 after an equally invisible 4-6 last time out. Some of that is an illustration of how well the Lynx have been playing defense lately – and how much Seimone Augustus has improved in that area – but a lot of it is simply about the Silver Stars. You can’t win games when your stars don’t show up, and you can’t win when you lose the rebounding battle 50-27. Connecticut, Phoenix and Seattle all visit San Antonio over the next week, and the Silver Stars need to snap out of it and remember how they managed to win games earlier this year. They can’t just rely on LA losses to stumble through the backdoor into the playoffs.
More delight for Minnesota, as they sealed the Western Conference regular season crown. The only target remaining is home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and they’d have a decent shot at that even if they went 0-5 in their remaining games – which seems unlikely. They won this game via their total dominance on the glass, and scoring success from their elite wings. Augustus shot 10-18 for 20 points, and Moore finished 7-16 for 19. As ever, the potential to attack from so many different directions makes them a powerful team and very hard to stop. The offense didn’t work particularly well against a San Antonio team that’s still playing good defense despite their offensive and rebounding struggles, but it was more than enough. This could easily be a first-round playoff matchup, if San Antonio manage to hold on. If that’s the case, Minnesota will head into the series full of confidence that they can make light work of the Silver Stars.
Next up, Phoenix travelled into D.C. to face Washington. And I do mean travelled, after the long train journey up from Connecticut where they played on Friday night. The game was briefly under threat due to Hurricane Irene, which led to an even smaller crowd than usual at the Verizon Center, but tip-off ultimately took place exactly as scheduled. The loss against the Sun on Friday had dropped the Mercury into third in the West, and while no one else is showing any signs of catching them from behind, the threat of losing home court advantage in the first round to Seattle has become very real. Beating Washington is the least you can expect to achieve when you’re fighting for playoff positioning. Losers of their last seven in a row, and 5-22 overall, the Mystics are just about done for the year, and their performances have started to reflect that. Their fans gave up on 2011 a while ago, and the players are on their way to joining them.
The first half wasn’t exactly a basketball exhibition for the ages. It felt like a game where one team knew they were supposed to win coming in and probably wouldn’t need 100% effort to achieve it, while the other team knew they were supposed to lose. With jump shots dropping and their typical running game flowing well enough, Phoenix broke out to an early 17-5 lead. Star post player Crystal Langhorne was once again Washington’s central bright spot, although at least with a little assistance from rookie guard Jasmine Thomas. One basket from each to close the first quarter drew the Mystics within 28-17 heading to the second.
Little changed in the second quarter, except that Phoenix lost some of their offensive rhythm. There’s still enough fight in this Washington team to offer some resistance, and they were avoiding the easy turnovers that have hurt them in many games which would’ve ignited Phoenix’s offense. By halftime, they were still in range at 43-34. With Langhorne perhaps tired from the effort of having to carry the vast majority of the offensive load for Washington, the opposing power forward on the Mercury was having one of her more effective offensive days. Candice Dupree shot 7-10 in the first half, largely on layup finishes at the rim. Her game has changed dramatically since moving to Phoenix from Chicago, now barely putting the ball in the air unless she’s within spitting distance of the basket, but when supplied with the right passes she can be an excellent finisher inside. With Diana Taurasi cold from outside in the first half, Phoenix had needed Dupree in this one.
A Mercury run to open the second half all but killed the game. After Washington threw the ball straight out of bounds to open the half, you got the impression that some of their players would rather not have to be there for the game. When Taurasi drilled a three on Phoenix’s opening possession, you could see that the Mercury still wanted the win. Further misses and turnovers followed for the Mystics, who could barely get the ball to Langhorne any more, and after more buckets for Dupree, point guard Temeka Johnson closed a 13-0 steak with a three. There were still 16 minutes to play, but at 56-34 Mercury, the game looked essentially over.
In fact, the most important moment of the third quarter may have had nothing to do with the scoring. After grabbing a rebound and making a long outlet pass to Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Penny Taylor started clutching her hip and moments later hobbled off the floor. She didn’t return for the rest of the game, or even make it out for the handshake line at the end, and received treatment on the bench. Losing her would be a killer blow for the Mercury, but it didn’t seem too serious at the time so hopefully there won’t be any long-lasting effects. If she needs a game or two to recover, the Mercury will certainly accept the #3 seed if it means having her healthy for the playoffs. They’ve got a far greater chance of winning on the road than they do of winning without Taylor.
Back with the basketball, the game meandered along and seemed to be drifting to its conclusion. The gap was still 18 points with four minutes left when Washington seemed to remember that Phoenix’s interior defense often retains all the integrity of swiss cheese. Five baskets in the space of two minutes, all of them in the paint, cut the scoreline to 83-73, and a Thomas triple with 1:20 remaining narrowed the gap to seven. When Matee Ajavon hit a three of her own with 13.8 seconds left, the score was 84-79 Mercury, and the completely ridiculous comeback seemed almost feasible. Then Washington didn’t foul. With head coach Trudi Lacey standing placidly on the sidelines with her arms across her chest, not shouting or signalling her team in any way, Phoenix dribbled the ball upcourt, ran 10 seconds off the clock before anyone made a move to foul, and the game was dead. How can you make a comeback from 22 points behind, then fail to foul in a two-possession game with 14 seconds left? Unbelievable. Anyway, Taurasi sank the pair at the line after finally being fouled with just 3.9s on the clock, and a missed Ajavon three closed out the action on a game that ended 86-79 Phoenix. Neither team should be happy with the way the game finished.
But the Mercury will certainly be happy with the result. Dupree shot 10-14 for 27 points, Taurasi found her range in the second half and finished 6-14 for 21, and against this opponent that was enough. On another day, against a better team, they’d have been turned over playing like this. The performance didn’t have a great deal of energy for much of the afternoon, and the final stages were pathetic, but they’d built enough of a lead that it didn’t matter. The win pulled Phoenix into a flat tie with Seattle for second place in the West, at least until the Storm played LA later in the evening. The Mercury’s game in Seattle on September 9th is increasingly looking like it may decide who has home court advantage in the playoff series between the two teams.
For Washington, at least the late comeback showed some spirit. However, the lack of a foul in the last 14 seconds showed a dismal lack of awareness from both the players and the coaching staff. Langhorne shot 12-24 for 27 points and is still the only player on this squad emerging from the season with real credit. Ajavon has shown improvement, and even rookie guard Thomas has looked reasonable in the second half of the season, but it’s still all about Lang. She’s just crying out for more help, both on the court and from the sidelines.
You know, it can be strange watching a game via archive. With three games taking place simultaneously on Sunday, there was no way to watch all the games live and pay reasonable attention to all of them. So one got put off until later. On this particular occasion, that game was Connecticut in Tulsa, because come on – Tulsa weren’t going to win two in a row. After breaking their 20-game losing streak in LA on Friday, it hardly seemed likely that the Shock would pull off a second consecutive upset, this time against a team that’s actually been winning. The Sun came into this game having won eight of their last twelve, and just one game behind Indiana for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. New York’s recent form had allowed them to pull a couple of games clear of the Liberty in second place, but the threat of being caught from behind still remained. In other words, this game meant a hell of a lot more to the 18-10 Sun than the 2-25 Shock. It seemed like the most sensible game to leave until later.
Both teams started the game with what have become their standard starting fives – Connecticut over the last 20 games, Tulsa over the last two. The first half made it hard to see how the game was going to arrive at its ultimate result. Tulsa had no real answer for Tina Charles in the first quarter, as she scored on Tiffany Jackson and Jen Lacy with consummate ease in the paint. While threes from Ivory Latta and some offensive backup from Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes kept Tulsa in touch, Connecticut still led 20-16 at the end of the first quarter, and Charles already had 11.
With Charles resting to start the second, the Shock came into the game a little more. When she returned after barely three minutes out, the lead was down to 27-26 Connecticut. For much of the rest of the half, the Sun switched into their 2-3 zone defense, which gave Tulsa problems. They looked unsure of how to attack it, and with Charles back out there Connecticut also had their primary offensive weapon on the floor. The insertion of rookie giant Liz Cambage for the first time in the game with barely three minutes left didn’t help Tulsa, as Charles immediately went past her for a layup. That lack of footspeed and mobility is what’s been cutting into Cambage’s minutes as this season has progressed. Tulsa also fell foul to some of the weak, unforced turnovers that have hurt them this season, Latta throwing away an inbounds pass from under the basket before Cambage made an ill-advised crosscourt pass that was easily picked off. Swoopes calmed her team down with a couple of buckets, but the damage was already done. Connecticut led 43-32 at halftime, and if you were watching the game without knowing the result beforehand, it looked like they had taken control. Charles had 17 points on 7-9 shooting in a ridiculously dominant first half.
Nothing looked much different to start the second half. The lead reached 15 after Renee Montgomery slid to the basket for a three-point play and Kalana Greene fought her way in for a layup. But one thing watching a game while knowing the result can allow you to feel for is a turning point. After that Greene layup, Jen Lacy popped outside and sank a three from the top of the arc. They were her first points of the game, and it sounds ridiculous, but it almost felt like it had to go in for the turnaround I knew was coming to take place. If that shot hadn’t dropped, I think I would’ve checked to make sure that the score I knew was coming had actually happened.
Lacy’s three kicked off a 21-6 Tulsa run that swung the game. They’re playing a lot smarter these days, moving the ball better and taking better shots, and while Connecticut started taking too many perimeter shots rather than looking for Charles inside, the Shock just started to hit. Jackson, Latta, Amber Holt and Swoopes all hit shots from outside, and then appropriately enough Lacy completed the streak by tying the game with her second three (from almost the exact same spot she nailed the first one). Lacy provided the bookends, but the whole team unit had built the run. The game was still tied at 59 at the end of the third, although importantly Jackson drew Charles’s fourth foul on a post move late in the period.
With Charles on the bench to start the fourth, Tulsa took their first lead since 6-4 on a pretty Latta drive. With very little defensive resistance being offered by the Sun’s backup post pairing of Jessica Moore and Kelsey Griffin, that kicked off another Tulsa run to open the period. A Swoopes jumper and three consecutive easy layups inside by Holt, Swoopes and Abi Olajuwon took advantage, before Connecticut coach Mike Thibault called what was already his second timeout of the quarter. He had to stop the game and get his starting posts back in, because at 69-61 the Shock were starting to take it away.
With Olajuwon doing a decent job of forcing Charles to set up slightly further away from the basket than other Tulsa defenders had managed earlier in the game – and Connecticut doing a miserable job of remembering that their best offensive player was their center – the Shock lead didn’t shrink. In fact, it just kept growing. A Swoopes jumper with under three minutes to play took their advantage to 15 at 76-61, and even with the nerves and sloppiness that have hurt them in late-game situations all year, it seemed impossible that they could blow it from there. That proved to be the case, and Tulsa actually had the opportunity to ease home with a victory, 83-72. Charles didn’t take a single shot in the entire fourth quarter.
Well whaddaya know? A Tulsa win streak. It’s patently obvious that this team has benefitted from better coaching on how to play in this league, and from a tighter rotation. While it isn’t necessarily good to lose Betty Lennox due to a concussion, have Kayla Pedersen see very limited action due to either injury or coach’s decision (depending on which report you listen to), and have Cambage heavily restricted by shoulder pain, it’s allowing the players more rhythm and consistency. Edwards has also finally realised that playing Latta for as many minutes as she can survive is a vastly superior option to ever letting Andrea Riley see the floor. They actually look like they know what they’re doing on the floor, know where they’re supposed to be, and are prepared to go out there and execute. They might still be beaten by teams with more talent, but it’s becoming far rarer that they give games away through sloppiness and stupidity.
Swoopes finished 9-17 for 22 points in this game, continuing her renaissance that has also been big part of the recent Shock revival, while Tiffany Jackson was 6-10 for 16 points and 12 rebounds in all 40 minutes. That’s an impressive outing considering she spent much of that time fighting it out with Charles as the Shock’s pseudo-center. Meanwhile, the starting Shock guards shot a combined 13-18 for 29 points, with Latta particularly impressive in shooting 3-5 from long range and adding in six assists. If they can just pull off one more win before the end of the season – which suddenly looks distinctly plausible – the Shock can beat out the 1998 Washington Mystics and avoid the worst record in WNBA history. Finally, there are signs of basketball life in Tulsa.
Oh dear, Connecticut. The Shock might be better, but the Sun certainly helped them out in this one. Tulsa shot 57% from the floor, a freakish percentage considering they only converted 38 of their 83 points in the paint, but you have to do a better job closing out defensively. It all looked so comfortable in the first half, but when they stopped centering everything around Charles offensively in the second, it all came crumbling down. After 17 points in the first half on 7-9 shooting, Charles finished with 21 on 9-13. For those who can’t be bothered to do the maths, that’s 2-4 for four points in the second half. The most damning part of that is the four attempts, not the four points. There was no good reason for her to receive so few opportunities in the second half, and it largely came down to the team failing to look for her, not Charles herself failing to ask for the ball. She was there; the passes never came. While the support from the likes of Renee Montgomery and Asjha Jones wasn’t great, the bench in particular was atrocious. The offense from the reserves was poor, but the defense was terrible. For nearly every important Shock run, several Sun bench players were on the floor allowing it to happen. The likes of Kara Lawson, Tan White and Kelsey Griffin have been pluses for the Sun lately, so maybe this was a one-off. Connecticut better hope so, because they can’t expect the starters to play 40 minutes a game every night in the postseason.
With that surprising loss by Connecticut, New York tipped off in Chicago just 1.5 games behind the Sun for second place in the East. They probably didn’t know that, seeing as their game started only minutes after the Sun-Shock game finished, but they were well-aware that a win could be crucial. Even ignoring the potential to catch Connecticut for second, Atlanta’s form over the last couple of months has made wins necessary simply to hold on to third. Heading into this game, the Dream had pulled just one game behind the Liberty in the standings. For Chicago, the games have become do or die. Two games behind Atlanta, three behind New York, their only chance to make the playoffs was to beat the Liberty in this game and then repeat the feat when they clash again in Jersey on Tuesday. Even then they’d need help, but without a sweep of the double-header, they may as well start planning for the lottery yet again.
New York started the game with their usual five, while Chicago stuck with the new Dominique Canty/Erin Thorn starting backcourt that had led to their win over Washington on Friday. With Kia Vaughn positioning herself away from the basket, drawing out Sylvia Fowles, New York got off to a good start because they had more room to manoeuver. Once Vaughn picked up her second foul barely five minutes in, things changed. Backups Quanitra Hollingsworth and Kara Braxton are both more comfortable down low, and although she wasn’t scoring too much, Fowles began to have a heavy impact on the game. It’s simply very hard to score when she’s patrolling the paint and affecting every shot within 15 feet of the basket. After trailing 17-12, Chicago went on a 14-2 run to close the first quarter when New York’s offense stalled with Hollingsworth and Braxton at the pivot. With Tamera Young and Epiphanny Prince penetrating to help carry the scoring load, Chicago led 26-19 to end the first.
With Fowles resting on the bench, Plenette Pierson attacked inside and provided New York with some offense to start the second quarter. When Fowles returned, the Liberty started firing – and hitting – from outside instead. Still holding a 38-33 lead, Chicago fell into one of their passages of sloppy, over-relaxed play for the final three minutes of the half. They’ve done this all season, playing well for most of a game, but going through stretches where they give the ball away far too easily and don’t execute anything with precision. Repeated Sky turnovers – along with Vaughn being back in the game and competing far better with Fowles – brought New York back into the contest, and took the game in at the break tied at 40-40. With how 80% of the half had gone, there was no way Chicago should’ve allowed their lead to disappear that easily.
One thing Chicago had managed very effectively in the first half was keeping Liberty star guard Cappie Pondexter quiet. She was facilitating and creating for her teammates, but the defense of Canty and Young had held her to just two points on 1-6 shooting. She emerged for the second half looking like she was determined to change that state of affairs. Three Pondexter jumpers rained in inside the opening 90 seconds of the third quarter, the first two contested and over tough defense, the third wide open in transition, and New York swiftly had a 48-42 lead. Sky head coach Pokey Chatman called an immediate timeout to cool her off, and indicate her disgust to her players. They responded. A 13-4 run, featuring several finishes by Fowles at the rim and some nice shooting by Thorn outside, put Chicago back in front. They knew the importance of this game, and they weren’t going to let it slip away without a fight.
However, an unfortunate finish to the third quarter set the Sky back yet again. Nicole Powell took advantage of the fact that Chicago often defend her with much shorter guards, shooting over Prince in the lane to tie the game. Then point guard Courtney Vandersloot threw a poor, loopy pass towards Fowles who never had a chance to prevent the turnover, before tiny Liberty point guard Leilani Mitchell picked Fowles off with a screen on the last play of the period. That left Vaughn wide open to hit a jumper at the buzzer, and New York went into the fourth with a 60-58 lead.
The opening minutes of the fourth quarter belonged to Sky guard Erin Thorn. Nailing mid-range jumpers and threes, even throwing in a breakaway layup for good measure, the former member of the Liberty helped Chicago spring out to a 70-60 lead. Then the Sky did it again. A long passage of sloppy basketball, committing unnecessary turnovers that just hand the ball back to the opposition without them even earning it, helped New York back into the game. Powell, Pondexter and the impressive Plenette Pierson all converted shots while the Sky were floundering, and the lead disappeared. The Sky’s third turnover in the space of a couple of minutes led to a breakaway layup attempt for Essence Carson, stopped by an outstanding block by Fowles from behind, only for Pierson to drop in the putback while being fouled. Two more Sky turnovers followed, the first on a shot clock violation where no one even seemed to notice that the clock was running out, the second on an awful pass by Cathrine Kraayeveld that never had a prayer of success. After the latter, Carson made Prince look silly on a backdoor cut, dropped in a reverse layup, and New York were in front 71-70 with only 1:26 left in the contest. Chicago had only themselves to blame.
After Tamera Young drove, got fouled and hit one-of-two to tie the game, Pondexter stepped behind a Vaughn screen and nailed a jumper to put New York up 73-71 with 50 seconds left. Then it was time for her fellow former-Rutgers guard to step up. Epiphanny Prince hadn’t had much of a game, and she lost her starting spot a few days ago, but when Plenette Pierson switched onto her defensively she had eyes for nothing but the basket. Prince crossed over, threw Pierson off-balance, and pulled up behind the three-point line. Nothing but net, and Chicago took a 74-73 lead.
New York turned down the option of a timeout, with Pondexter simply walking down court and running some time off the clock. She ghosted past Young like she wasn’t there, but hit plenty of help defense when she made it into the paint, forcing her to put up a floater in the lane. It was well off, and Fowles grabbed the rebound. With only 11 seconds left, all Big Syl had to do was hold the ball and wait to be fouled, or call a timeout. Instead, she tried to throw an outlet pass to Prince. Bad idea. It was instantly picked off by Carson, who now had another chance to win it for New York. She drove, but missed a pullup from eight feet. When Pierson then grabbed her sixth offensive rebound of the night, and New York eventually called timeout after she was trapped under the basket, the Liberty somehow still had a chance to snatch this game out of the fire.
4.3 seconds on the clock, New York inbounded to Pondexter, who clearly felt it was her responsibility to step up. Shooting over a triple-team – with Powell open in the corner and Carson open at the top of the arc – Pondexter’s three was long, and time ran out as the rebound was being fought for. Somehow Chicago had held on for a vital 74-73 win.
The Sky really do swing from the sublime to the ridiculous at times. Their defense, with Fowles the obvious driving force, has been strong and reliable all season. But when they’ve got the ball, it’s wildly unpredictable from one minute to the next whether they’ll run an effective offense or hand the ball right back to their opponents. In this game they did just enough of the former, and barely kept the latter under control. Fowles finished the game 8-12 for 17 points and 12 rebounds. Against New York’s defense, which constantly fronts post players, entry passes to her are difficult but once she gets the ball they’ve got next-to-no-chance of stopping her. The main support came from Thorn, who hit 7-11, including 3-5 from outside, for 17 points. Thorn has her drawbacks, but she’s always been able to shoot. Now Chicago need to complete this trick, because the job is only half-done. A win in New York on Tuesday night would leave them only one game behind the Liberty in the standings, and give the Sky a 3-2 edge in the season series (sealing the tiebreaker if they end the season tied). With Atlanta still in the mix as well, the West Coast roadtrip that Chicago close the season out with might actually mean something then. The postseason is still a possibility – if they win on Tuesday.
New York are making awfully hard work out of making the playoffs. A few weeks ago, a postseason berth looked a certainty, with the only question being which spot they would fall in. This is their fifth loss in nine games, which doesn’t sound too terrible until you remember that two of the defeats were to Washington. Pierson was 9-13 for 19 points in this one, with Vaughn and Powell both shooting 6-12 for positive outings as well, but the guards couldn’t get the job done. Pondexter was 6-17 for 14 points, a quiet outing for her, and backup Essence Carson shot 3-12 for only seven. The rematch with Chicago is looking just as important for the Liberty now, with their remaining four games after that against Minnesota (twice), Indiana and Connecticut. If they’re lucky, their opponents may not be playing for anything in a couple of those games, which may make things easier. They can avoid placing so much importance on the outcome of those encounters by beating this inconsistent Chicago team on Tuesday night.
The final game of the evening, live on national TV, featured Los Angeles against old rivals Seattle. These two have battled frequently over the years, and even with Lisa Leslie now in the ownership offices rather than on the court, there’s still an edge to them. Fortunately for ESPN, both Candace Parker and Lauren Jackson are back on the court. LA are 3-3 since Parker’s return, making a move on San Antonio’s playoff spot, but the home loss to Tulsa on Friday night was an obvious setback. Any time you allow a team to break a 20-game losing streak on your own floor, it’s a pretty significant negative – when you’re fighting for your playoff lives at the time, it’s a nightmare. Seattle, on the other hand, are 3-0 since their superstar returned. The offense has still been a little stilted at times, even with LJ back in the fold, but unlike LA their defense remains resolute. And unlike LA, their playoff spot looks secure. Entering this game tied with Phoenix for second in the West, they’re fighting to ensure that as many postseason games take place in Key Arena as possible.
For this game at the Key, Seattle stuck with their usual starting five, but Joe Bryant made a switch for LA. Rebecca Lobo mentioned something in commentary about Bryant liking Kristi Toliver’s defense on Sue Bird, but promoting Toliver ahead of O’Hea for defensive purposes seemed bizarre. Then again, making any change after losing at home to Tulsa was defensible. Maybe he should’ve switched all of them.
The first quarter was ugly, largely because Seattle couldn’t make a shot (which rather became a theme as the night wore on). LA’s defense was mostly sticking with man-to-man, and they’ve improved very, very slightly in knowing how and when to switch, but Seattle were still ending up with wide open shots. Really, truly, wide open. They were just missing. The Storm’s defense was its usual self, but Parker’s offensive talents and a ridiculous off-balance contested three by Toliver kept LA in touch. Seattle led 13-11 at the end of the first.
The second period was actually very similar to the first, except that Seattle discovered a little bit of their shooting touch. Tanisha Wright and Swin Cash both missed easy layup attempts early in the quarter, but with Sue Bird, Camille Little and Wright sinking threes, and Jackson back on the floor hitting shots herself, the Storm built a 30-19 lead with four minutes left in the half. LA turned things around when point guard Ticha Penicheiro reentered the game. Taking advantage of Bird’s typically mediocre defense, and showcasing the scoring prowess that she’s flashed occasionally this season, Penicheiro fed Ebony Hoffman for three, before taking off on a scoring run of her own. A triple, a layup, and a turnaround jumper while drawing a foul kept LA in touch as Seattle continued to go to work at the other end. Thanks to Ticha, LA only trailed 37-30 at halftime.
Part of the problem for Seattle’s offense, both in recent games and in this one, is that Swin Cash has lost her shot. She hasn’t been able to hit anything lately, from anywhere. Layups and putbacks roll off, threes clank away, midrange jumpers land like bricks on the rim – nothing’s been dropping. But like a true pro, Cash has been working her butt off doing everything else on the floor to help her team. Rebounds, hustle plays, defense – it’s all still there. Thanks to that, the Key Arena crowd is still very much on her side, and when she fought for her shot early in the second half, grabbing a rebound after her first effort was blocked by Parker and bullying in the putback, the crowd cheered vociferously for her. When she drilled a three for the final points of the third quarter, they went nuts. It took Seattle’s lead to 51-43, after an uneventful third quarter where LA couldn’t make any serious inroads into Seattle’s lead, but the Storm couldn’t pull away.
That inability to kill the game off started to bite at Seattle in the fourth quarter. With Toliver making some shots, and Parker going to work inside, LA had found some offense. Meanwhile, Seattle were back to taking – and missing – too many jump shots from outside. A layup from Parker while Wright stupidly fouled her from behind cut the score to 56-53 with five minutes left, before a strong post move by Parker on Jackson finished with her left hand cut the gap to one. After Toliver made up for a dumb foul on Bird with a tough jumper, Seattle showed some gorgeous ball movement and unselfishness to find Tanisha Wright open for three. She knocked it down, and Seattle led 62-57 with under three minutes to play.
It was still far from over. Parker grabbed an offensive rebound, and then forced in a tough putback under pressure from Jackson. Seattle missed an array of open jumpers on their next few possessions, while Penicheiro and Parker forced their way to the line. You can’t really blame a team for taking wide open jump shots – coaches tell you all the time, if you’re open and it’s within your range, shoot the damn thing – but with nothing going down, Seattle’s lead was disappearing. Parker’s pair of free throws tied the game at 63 with just over a minute remaining.
Jackson missed a step-in jumper, and after grabbing the offensive board, Swin Cash overshot the putback. Cash’s offensive woes obviously aren’t gone yet. Fortunately for Seattle, DeLisha Milton Jones couldn’t convert from under the hoop due to pressure from Little, and Seattle had the ball back with the score still tied and 23 seconds left. Now for the controversy. After almost screwing up the inbounds pass but getting a second chance when it was tipped straight out of bounds, Seattle found Wright up top. Jackson set a down-screen for Bird – a screen which wasn’t all that legal, but you’re not getting a call for an off-ball hip-check on the final play of a game – and Bird curled around looking for the pass from Wright. The pass never came, because Wright didn’t see an angle past Penicheiro in front of her. Instead, Wright tried to make something happen herself, but after spinning in to the free throw line, her effort was blocked by Parker coming across to help. The ball was tipped out to Bird well beyond the free throw line, and while she was searching for something to do with the ball in the brief time remaining, Toliver came stupidly charging out towards her. Toliver couldn’t stop her momentum, despite twisting herself around in an effort to avoid Bird, and Bird sold it well, falling to the floor and drawing the whistle. It’s the sort of call you don’t always get, especially in a late-game situation, but Toliver definitely made contact with the player with the ball and gave the officials something to call. That’s not smart defense, especially when Bird was 25 feet from the basket with two seconds left in the game. Bird sank both shots, and LA were left with 1.6s to turn it around.
To the surprise of no one who’s ever watched this team play, the play was designed for Tina Thompson. Seattle coach Brian Agler knew it just as well as all the rest of us, so the defense was ready, but Thompson still got a pretty good look at a running effort for three to win the game. It was short, and bounced away as time expired. Seattle win 65-63, and if they just could’ve made some shots earlier on, maybe they wouldn’t have had their hearts in their mouths in the final seconds.
The Storm move to 4-0 since Jackson’s return, but they’re still making desperately hard work of winning these games. They shot 36% from the floor, and the defense I’m seeing from LA is still pretty pitiful. There’s no way anyone should be shooting 36% against this squad. However, with Bird 2-12 from the floor, Cash 4-11 and even Jackson only 5-13, that’s exactly what Seattle managed. They have to attack the paint more. Maybe they haven’t quite adapted to having Jackson back, as they seem to be using her presence more to help create open shots from outside rather than find easier opportunities near the basket. But anyway, the one thing they have rediscovered since her return is their uncanny knack for finding a way to win, however difficult they make the final seconds. Keep that up, and miserable shooting won’t matter so much.
San Antonio keep losing, but LA are going to have to start taking some of these opportunities if they want to take advantage. The inconsistencies, the defense, and the coaching are killing them. Parker was more her old self in this game, shooting 7-13 for 19 points and 14 rebounds, while Penicheiro attacked all night and finished with 15 points on 5-11 shooting and 10 boards of her own. Toliver and Hoffman both contributed offensively as well, but Thompson and Milton-Jones – after being key offensive elements in other recent performances – were MIA. The defense still isn’t good, and a lot of players aren’t sure about when to switch or how to rotate. If one Sparks defender comes to help, invariably the player they leave behind is wide open. They’re probably not going to finally fix that in the last two weeks of the season, but it’d sure be nice if they’d try. I took the Silver Stars to sneak into the playoffs a week or two ago, and I’ve still not seen enough to make me change my mind. And San Antonio have lost six in a row.
In other news…
You want more? Okay, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles were named Players of the Week for their respective conferences today. Purely by the numbers you can see why they favoured Augustus, but after Tulsa won two in a row out of nowhere, both Sheryl Swoopes and Tiffany Jackson had an argument to take the award ahead of her. Also purely on the stats, Fowles is an understandable winner, but I might’ve favoured Atlanta’s Lindsey Harding. The one game Chicago lost this week was the most important – and it was against Harding’s Dream.
Chicago @ New York, 7pm ET
Indiana @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Connecticut @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Phoenix @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Washington @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET