WNBA Today, 09/16/2011: And they’re off!

So last night, the real stuff got underway in the WNBA. You play the whole regular season to make the playoffs, and now they’re here. Screw it up now, and you might as well not have bothered. It’s time to put up or shut up, go hard or go home, and any other cliché you can remember that I’m forgetting. This is what it’s all about.

The first game saw Indiana hosting New York in the #1-#4 matchup out East, which you’d think ought to make the Fever strong favourites. But the Eastern Conference has been so tight this year, and the Liberty finished just two games behind their first round opponents – in reality this was arguably the most unpredictable playoff series of the four. For what it’s worth, Indiana lost five of their final seven regular season games, and New York two of their last three, but you can typically throw form out the window going into the playoffs. Everyone starts 0-0, and history doesn’t count for much.

Indiana were back to what’s become their regular starting five, with Tamika Catchings returning after sitting out the final regular season game and point guard Erin Phillips back after recovering from her ankle sprain. The only player out was reserve guard Shavonte Zellous, who sprained her own ankle in the last game against Atlanta. New York had their standard five out to open the game as well, with Cappie Pondexter reportedly still rehabbing her ankle but ready to play regardless. It’s the playoffs – if you can walk, you can play.

The early stages of the game belonged to Indiana. With the home crowd behind them, the Fever came out with more energy, were penetrating into the heart of New York’s defense far too easily, and even dominating on the glass (a very rare occurrence for the poor-rebounding Fever). Tammy Sutton-Brown was racking up an unlikely collection of points on layups and free throws because her teammates kept penetrating, drawing her defender, and then feeding her right under the basket. Meanwhile New York couldn’t get anything going offensively as Cappie Pondexter missed badly on her opening two attempts of the game, and Nicole Powell was showing a willingness to shoot but knocking nothing down. Pondexter hit her first basket on a high-arcing jumper to cut the score to 10-6, before Catchings and Katie Douglas led another early push for Indiana, hitting inside and out to take the Fever out to a 23-9 lead. If the Liberty couldn’t find some extra energy from somewhere this wasn’t going to be nearly as competitive as originally expected.

With Kia Vaughn picking up her second foul seven minutes into the opening quarter, Liberty coach John Whisenant turned to Kara Braxton to replace her. It was an interesting move, seeing as Quanitra Hollingsworth had remained the first post option off the bench even after Braxton had arrived in a midseason trade from Phoenix. As ever with Braxton, it was a wild mixture of positive and negative. Her first act was to turn the ball over on a poor entry pass, before providing some offense in the paint on the following possession. You have to take the bad with the good when it comes to Kara. Indiana led 28-16 to close the opening quarter, and only some late points from Pondexter and Powell had kept them that close.

There was a scary moment early in the second period that had everyone in Conseco Fieldhouse holding their breath. In the fight for a loose ball, Catchings took an inadvertent forearm to the temple from Powell and fell hard to the floor. She stayed down for a while, and when she tried to get up with help from Shannon Bobbitt, almost fell right back down again. She was clearly woozy, and that’s not something you want to see in any game after all the issues that various sports have had with concussions in recent times. However, considering it was Tamika Catchings we should’ve known that a simple smack to the head couldn’t take her out for long, and she was back in the game barely two minutes later. Hopefully there won’t be any lingering effects either.

Worryingly for New York, Indiana didn’t even need Catchings dominating the game to maintain their control. Douglas was running things just fine, and her second triple of the game came after some poor Liberty defense left her wide open. Another Douglas jumper gave Indiana their biggest lead of the night so far at 42-27 with barely three minutes left until halftime.

Finally, in those final few minutes before the break, New York showed some signs of life. A Pondexter drive before that Douglas jumper had shown a little aggressive intent, and an Essence Carson three just afterwards built the momentum. Then they turned a Phillips turnover into a fastbreak layup for Plenette Pierson and we finally had a game. Catchings hadn’t looked quite herself since returning from the hit on the head, and her flat three-point attempt came up very short before Carson knocked down another jumper after shaking Catch at the other end. That cut the score to 42-34, but a Phillips jumper gave the halftime score a more realistic feel by taking the Fever’s lead back to ten. It would’ve been 13, but when Catchings fed Phillips for three at the halftime buzzer, her shot just barely failed to leave her hand before the buzzer sounded. It took a couple of replays for the officials to decide, but it didn’t count, leaving the halftime score at 44-34 Indiana.

The cute stat at halftime was that the two superstars – Pondexter and Catchings – both had identical scoring lines: 4-7 from the floor, including 1-2 from three-point range and 1-1 at the foul line, for 10 points. The most telling stat was that Indiana were 10-11 at the free throw line, whereas Cappie’s solitary attempt was the only visit New York had made to the charity stripe. The was more directness and more penetration from the Fever, while New York remained a touch too passive on too many possessions. That needed to change in the second half.

The Liberty scored a couple of early baskets in the second half, but once again Douglas was there to respond for the Fever. Pondexter was trying to force her to drive right, but in doing so was dropping too far away from her. Not for the first time in the game, Douglas just ignored the decision of whether to drive where Pondexter was shading her or fight back the other way, and simply drilled the three instead. You can’t give her that kind of room when she’s in the mood, and another triple from Douglas and a Tangela Smith layup after a pretty high-low feed from Phillips gave Indiana their 15-point lead back at 52-37. Less than three minutes into the second half and Whiz was forced to take a timeout to wake his team up all over again.

Then came the key stretch that created a far tighter contest than we’d had for the opening 23 minutes of the game. Powell missed a three out of the timeout, but the long rebound was run down by Leilani Mitchell, who nailed a three of her own instead. Then we had our second woozy player of the night, as Sutton-Brown leaned in while setting a screen on Pierson and knocked her to the deck. Pierson needed help to make it back to the bench, but Braxton replaced her and played a central role in building the run. Catchings and Douglas made a rare error on a defensive switch, leaving Powell wide open for a three that this time went in, then Braxton knocked down an open jumper from the top of the key after ball rotation beat the Fever defense. Finally, Braxton found position inside Sutton-Brown for an offensive rebound on a Pondexter miss, tipped the ball in and was fouled for the three-point play. A game where it seemed like the home team was coasting through without much trouble was suddenly down to 52-48 and right back in the balance.

Indiana recovered a semblance of control, partly thanks to the offense of Douglas and Catchings, partly because Bad Braxton reemerged and started throwing passes to players in Fever jerseys again. But Indiana had lost their rhythm and were now blowing too many easy scoring chances at the rim, while New York had taken over on the glass. After only five offensive boards in the first half, the Liberty had six in the third quarter alone, and won the rebounding battle 11-2 overall in the period. The Fever clung on to a 62-58 lead to close the third, but New York were looking poised to take away a game that they were barely involved in for most of the evening.

The fourth was something of a war of attrition. Points were hard to come by in the early going, and after Braxton jacked a three-point attempt that was as good as a turnover – and she already had five of those – Whisenant benched her. Fortunately Pierson had recovered from her earlier fall, so Whiz had other options. There’ve been a couple of games in the last month of the season where New York have emerged from fourth quarter timeouts and suddenly discovered a new burst of energy. Their defense comes alive, Pondexter pushes the pace, and they sprint into the lead with a momentum that the opponent can do nothing about. It briefly looked like they were going to do it again in this game. Still down 66-62 with 6:16 remaining, the Liberty came out of a timeout and smothered an Indiana possession, Pierson blocking a Douglas attempt on the perimeter before Powell blocked her again on a second-chance drive. Pondexter turned it into a gorgeous baseline jumper at the other end, and they looked primed to take control. But Catchings is a little too smart for that. She drove past Powell, forced her to foul her and send her to the line, and killed the pace of the potential New York run before it could get started. A Douglas baseline jumper just as pretty as Cappie’s achieved the same thing when the lead was trimmed to a point again moments later. Indiana weren’t going to give this up easily – New York were going to have to take it.

With Fever coach Lin Dunn audibly bitching about being “sick and damn tired of not having a point guard”, Indiana still couldn’t put the game away. A Fever shot clock violation was followed by a pair of Pondexter free throws, before Sutton-Brown blew another wide open layup attempt. If the Fever had converted all their easy chances at the rim, the game would’ve been long over.

A New York break from a long rebound when Phillips missed a three led to a Carson layup which cut the score to 71-70 with two and a half minutes remaining. Then Phillips threw a terrible pass which almost hit Carson in the face, leading to another fastbreak chance for New York where they could’ve taken their first lead since 4-2. In trying to stop the break, Tangela Smith grabbed Carson, and it was rightly ruled a clear path foul by the officials (which means two foul shots and possession for New York). Amazingly, New York still failed to move in front – or even tie – when Carson bricked both foul shots and a Vaughn jumper went in and out on the following possession. Somehow Indiana were still ahead, despite giving the Liberty every chance to take over.

After a Douglas free throw pushed the Fever lead to two, Pondexter ‘ran’ an awful possession for New York, dribbling the shot clock to death before simply jacking a three-point effort from all of 25 feet. It wasn’t close, and Indiana had the ball back as the game hit a minute remaining. But the Fever returned the favour with a terrible possession of their own, a Sutton-Brown pass smacking an oblivious Smith in the side of the head. Carson attacked after the resulting turnover, but missed her driving layup attempt, only for Vaughn to grab the offensive rebound and draw a foul on the putback attempt. Unlike Carson, she hit both free throws, and the game was finally tied for the first time since early in the opening quarter.

With just 50 seconds remaining, another Fever possession went nowhere, ending in a forced Douglas jumper over Carson that was well short. Pondexter came away with the ball up the sideline, and with the shot clock off would’ve been in position to take the final shot of regulation. But Catchings had other ideas. The player who’s won the Defensive Player of the Year award so many times that we’re starting to lose count tracked Cappie down from behind and poked the ball away, eventually gaining possession when the ball went out of bounds last touched by Pondexter. It was a typical Catchings never-say-die kind of hustle play, and gave the Fever 15 seconds to win the game before we went to overtime.

They left it in the hands of Phillips, everyone else lined up on the baseline to give her room to create against Carson. She spun into the lane just below the free throw line and put up a tough fadeaway jumper that rolled in, sending the crowd wild and giving Indiana a 74-72 lead with 1.5s left on the clock.

New York called timeout and advanced the ball, naturally, but had trouble inbounding the ball and had to call another one. On the second attempt, the ball went in to Pondexter high beyond the three-point arc, in a very similar position to where she jacked her effort from minutes earlier. The result was the same as the ball bounced away, and Indiana had just barely defended their home court, clinging on for the 74-72 victory.

After a great start, the Fever made damn hard work of this game. Douglas had the great performance they needed from her, shooting 9-18 for 25 points and putting in some strong work on Pondexter at the other end. There were some possessions in the fourth quarter where the Liberty didn’t go anywhere because Douglas was making it so hard for them to even get Pondexter the ball, so everything stagnated while the shot clock ran down. Catchings finished 6-12 for 15, scoring only five points after that hit to the head early in the second quarter. She still seemed to be moving okay – as the vital final steal illustrated – but it may have taken a little of the edge off her offensive game. Apart from the two-minute stretch in the third quarter where their lead went from 15 to four, they’ll be happy with the overall performance. They kept Pondexter and the Liberty in check, penetrated well for most of the game, and their key duo carried them over the line. Dunn noticeably limited her rotations, keeping the leash very short on her reserves and running her starters heavy minutes. Tiredness could be a factor if this series goes three games, but Whisenant’s rotation was pretty similar, so the Liberty should be suffering just as much.

New York never really seemed to get going, so in some ways it could be seen as a positive that they came so close to pulling out a win. Pondexter was at the hub of everything as usual, without ever taking the game by the scruff of the neck. She finished 6-15 for 18 points, five rebounds and six assists, but ultimately Douglas came out on top in their matchup. New York are unlikely to make it through this series if Pondexter can’t convincingly turn that situation on its head in the next two games. Inside, both Pierson and Vaughn were quiet, leaving Braxton to make more impact in her limited minutes off the bench. Those two need to be more involved in the offense and use their physical advantage over the Fever posts in the upcoming games. New York asserted themselves on the glass in the second half, but it needs to translate onto the scoreboard as well. The inevitable x-factor, Powell, was willing and available to take shots – which is a good thing; but went 5-14 from the field – which isn’t. The effort and willingness were there, but not the accuracy. Still, as stated before this series began, these teams are very tightly matched. Home court advantage could make all the difference, and if the Liberty can win in Jersey on Saturday afternoon they’ll all be back at Conseco on Monday night for a winner-takes-all decider. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see it happen.

—–

The second game of the ESPN2 double-header took us out to Seattle, where Phoenix were hoping history didn’t count for anything. Ten losses in 11 games against the Storm (I sold Seattle short of a win in my series preview) suggested that the Mercury weren’t likely to fare well in this series, but there was nothing for them to do but show up and try to outscore the Storm like they do with everyone else. Can’t change your style at this point.

Both teams had their Aussies back, with Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson returning to their respective starting lineups after resting injuries. There was still a surprise in the Mercury starting five when center Nakia Sanford remained on the bench, leaving DeWanna Bonner to start in her place. It eventually emerged that Sanford had been a late scratch with a sore right knee, and she didn’t play all night as a result.

The opening quarter could be seen as positive for either side, depending on your perspective. Seattle were in control for most of the period, breaking out to a 13-7 lead with Camille Little particularly effective in the paint against Bonner and Candice Dupree. Phoenix couldn’t get their running game going at all, thanks to the Storm’s transition defense and determination to slow the game down – but the Mercury were staying in it regardless. Despite six first quarter turnovers from Phoenix and Seattle showing a far greater ability to draw whistles and get to the line, some long range bombs from Bonner kept the Mercury in the game and left the score tied at 19-19 to end the first quarter.

While it was already hardly a friendly tea party, the game started getting especially physical in the second quarter. That was always going to favour Seattle, who are happy to fight it out in the paint and go to war, while all the Mercury want to do is get out and run. Consecutive threes from Tanisha Wright and Sue Bird had already ignited the Key Arena crowd before Little got tangled up with Diana Taurasi and drew a strange technical foul call that made little sense to anyone. Taurasi hit the free throw, but the call helped Seattle if anything. Little was already causing them problems in the paint with her fancy footwork and hustle rebounding, and she only gained energy and impetus from the perceived injustice of the call. Her teammates joined in, with Swin Cash crashing the glass and Wright a constant threat with both the drive and her outside shooting. Meanwhile at the other end, Phoenix were getting no change out of the Seattle defense, frustrated as always by the limited opportunities available to them against the Storm. Seattle led 40-31 at the half, and Phoenix seemed lucky to be that close. Bonner and Dupree had both played all 20 minutes in the first half in the absence of Sanford because Mercury head coach Corey Gaines was too scared to go to anyone else and let the game escape entirely. It seemed unlikely that they could survive a similar workload in the second half.

Seattle came charging out of the blocks to start the second half, and any running opportunities that were available were coming their way. A breaking layup by Cash saw Taylor take a hard fall while trying to chase her, raising concerns that she’d re-injured her back, but apparently it was just an ankle tweak that briefly limited her movement. Not wanting to burn a timeout to get her out of the game, Gaines left Taylor in for a couple of possessions despite that ankle issue, and the Storm were smart enough to post Cash up and take advantage of Taylor for more points before she could sit down. Then the crowd got what they’d wanted all night, a technical foul call on Taurasi, although whatever she did or said seemed just as innocuous as Little’s actions in the first half. All the momentum was with the Storm, the crowd was alive and invested in the game, but when reserve post Krystal Thomas entered the game to finally give Dupree a break and immediately hit a left-handed jump hook over Jackson, the score was just 51-40 Seattle. 11 points is nothing to this Mercury team, as the Storm well know, so they needed more evidence on the scoreboard to back up their dominance.

In the rest of the third quarter, that’s exactly what Seattle provided. Little was still working inside, and knocking down her free throws when Phoenix were left with no way to stop her besides fouling. Bird and Wright knocked down threes. Ashley Robinson had a couple of buckets after going past the tired and defenseless Mercury frontcourt. Meanwhile at the other end, Phoenix had completely run out of ideas. Frustration was settling in and they were taking increasingly poor shots as their previous efforts to find good ones hadn’t been producing any results anyway. In the final six minutes of the third quarter after that Thomas hook, the Mercury scored a grand total of two points, on a Penny Taylor jump shot. That was it. Forced into long jumper after long jumper, with no chances to ignite their running game, the Mercury fell further and further behind, eventually ending the third down 69-42. Even for the high-octane Phoenix offense, this game was dead and buried well before the fourth quarter even began.

While it took a while before either coach went to the end of his bench for deep reserves, the Mercury basically quit in the fourth quarter and Seattle happily relaxed and drifted home on the back of their huge lead. Bird and Jackson spent the entire final period on the bench. Even Brian Agler was comfortable enough to send in Allie Quigley, Belinda Snell and Ewelina Kobryn with under four minutes left, and he could’ve done it a hell of a lot earlier. Seattle eventually won 81-60, and if anything the 19-point gap flattered Phoenix.

That was an old-fashioned butt-whooping. No better way to say it. It was a distillation of the reasons behind all those Storm wins over the Mercury in the last couple of years. Their defense was quick, active and physical, and shut down the Phoenix running game from the opening tip. Offensively, the Storm had the sense to look for points in the paint, something they haven’t done nearly enough of this year. Jackson may not be at full strength – she still finished 4-10 for 13 points and six rebounds in under 19 minutes of play – but Camille Little took it to the Mercury all night down low. She was ultimately 5-11 for 17 points and 11 boards, while Wright led the way with 21 points on 7-12 from the floor. As a team, Seattle only shot 39% from the field, but their defense was so effective and they broke off runs at key times that allowed them to completely dominate the game. Also vitally important was the fact that Seattle only had five turnovers in the first three quarters of the game. They finished with 10, but the fourth quarter scarcely counts in a game like that. After a year where turnovers have caused them no end of trouble, taking care of the ball against a team that desperately wants to run off your mistakes was huge. Do that again in either remaining game of this series, and the Storm will be heading to the Western Conference Finals.

Miserable performance from the Mercury, who can take solace only in knowing that they probably can’t play much worse. The problem is that we’ve seen most of this before. They don’t usually shoot as badly as 30% from the field, even against Seattle, but that’s what the Storm defense does to them. The running opportunities aren’t there and they end up forced into a half court game that naturally favours Seattle. Taylor was their leading scorer with 13 on 5-11 from the floor in under 26 minutes of action, while Taurasi was frustrated all night by Wright’s defense and her own inability to hit shots. She finished 3-11 for just 11 points, and with her scoring like that this team has practically no chance. Their main chance in Game 2, to be perfectly honest, is a drop off from the Storm. Seattle haven’t been the same team in a lot of road games this year, and outside Key Arena those turnover issues have really hit them hard, so Taurasi and co. might be able to hit back in US Airways Arena. The problem is, even then, they’d have to win a Game 3 back at the Key. After this decimation, you find it hard to believe that they could pull that off.

 

In other news…

The postseason awards announcements came thick and fast today, as the league desperately tried to get ahead of all the leaks that flow out of their head office like water through a sieve. Maya Moore was named Rookie of the Year (38-2 over Danielle Adams in a vote that should’ve been unanimous), Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve was named Coach of the Year (36 of 40 votes in a slightly surprising landslide), New York’s Kia Vaughn won the Most Improved Player award (over a variety of alternatives, who we’ll discuss when I finally write the Awards article that I should’ve finished by now), and DeWanna Bonner took home the Sixth Woman of the Year award for the third straight year (comfortably ahead of Essence Carson and Kara Lawson). The league also announced the All-Rookie team, with Moore joined by Danielle Robinson, Courtney Vandersloot, Adams and Liz Cambage. None of those were a surprise, especially after the same group of voters – the league’s head coaches – put Vandersloot on the All-Star team. You can certainly argue whether she deserves it over a few other candidates (Kayla Pedersen and Danielle McCray, for example). More on all of these when I finally find the time to write my awards piece.

—–

Another name was added to the list of top-end players re-signing with their current teams before the end of the season today, as Sancho Lyttle signed a multi-year extension with Atlanta. Good news for the Dream, especially considering Lyttle is one of the few players who plays a European season, a WNBA season, and represents a European national team. Taking a WNBA season off to rest her body seemed like it might be in her future, but this shows a commitment and makes it less likely. Spain being knocked out early from EuroBasket Women – eliminating them from Olympic contention – might have made the decision easier as hopefully she’ll get a little rest next summer.

However, while Lyttle and Spain won’t be going to the Olympics, Brazil still have to play their continental championships to try to qualify. And unfortunately for the Dream, they start in about a week. While Iziane Castro Marques has decided to stay in Atlanta, Erika de Souza was named in Brazil’s squad for the tournament, and if the Dream make the Eastern Conference Finals de Souza looks likely to be in Colombia while the series takes place. The FIBA Americas Tournament only lasts around a week, so if they can make the Finals without her she’ll presumably be back, but it’ll be far tougher to advance without their starting center. Sometimes the cluttered global women’s basketball calendar is incredibly annoying.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Atlanta @ Connecticut, Game 1, 7pm ET

San Antonio @ Minnesota, Game 1, 9pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Indiana @ New York, Game 2 (Indiana lead 1-0), 4pm ET

Seattle @ Phoenix, Game 2 (Seattle lead 1-0), 10pm ET

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