Just two games this Saturday in the WNBA, but both with potential playoff implications down the line. Both could even be early previews of matchups we might see in the 2012 postseason.
The first game to tip off was Chicago’s trip to Indiana. The Sky held the prettier record heading into the game, but Indiana are the team with the history of making and advancing in the playoffs. All this winning is new to Chicago and they’re going to have to keep proving themselves as the season goes along. The Fever had lost three in a row, including a disappointing performance in Washington the night before. They needed a bounce-back performance to stop this losing streak from lingering and causing serious consternation.
Chicago made a switch to their starting five, noticeably trying to match up with this year’s smaller Fever starting lineup, featuring Tamika Catchings at power forward. The Sky slid Swin Cash to the 4 to guard Catchings, bringing Tamera Young in as an extra perimeter player and moving Ruth Riley to the bench. With Riley out there, Sylvia Fowles had been forced to guard Catchings in their previous game against the Fever, which puts added pressure on Big Syl. The change allowed Fowles to take Tammy Sutton-Brown as her initial assignment, and offer her standard help defense wherever else it proved necessary.
Unfortunately for the Sky, the lineup change ultimately proved something of a waste of time. Twice inside the opening three minutes of the game, Shavonte Zellous drove around Courtney Vandersloot, who bumped her as Zellous tried to shoot. Both occasions drew fouls on the Sky point guard, Sloot went to the bench, and Riley was back in anyway. So much for the new lineup.
Despite having their pre-game plans disrupted, Chicago were flowing nicely in the opening quarter. Indiana couldn’t deal with Fowles in the paint, and she scored on a series of layups. Everyone else was knocking down jumpers when the Fever tried to help down to stop her, and the Sky made their first 11 shots of the game. If it hadn’t been for some sloppy passes and the resultant turnovers, they’d have been running away.
Despite stars Catchings and Katie Douglas carrying over their horrid shooting from the previous night, Indiana managed to make enough shots to at least cling on while the Sky were sinking everything, and trailed only 28-20 after a quarter. Big center Jessica Davenport came into the game and made a quick impact, with her scoring ability a significant upgrade on Sutton-Brown.
The most important action of the first quarter ultimately had nothing to do with the scoring. While trying to cut off a Briann January drive into the paint, Epiphanny Prince crumpled to the ground under her own basket. She got up, and limped her way through another possession, but then left the game and never returned. It was some kind of right foot injury. Hopefully, it was just a mild ankle sprain, and the Sky were rightfully being very careful with a player who’s looked like a superstar in the first month of this season. Chicago could be in trouble if she’s out for any length of time.
In this game, it left the Sky desperately short in the backcourt. Veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro has been injured since the opening game of the season, and backup wing Shay Murphy is in Europe playing for Montenegro right now. That basically left them with Vandersloot at the point, and Young, Cash or Sonja Petrovic doing the best they could alongside her.
It took the Fever until late into the second quarter to really get anything going offensively. Davenport had helped, and she makes them a far better team when she shows up with an offensive mentality. It was when Katie Douglas finally discovered her shooting touch, draining a trio of three-pointers in the last three minutes of the half, that the Fever finally made a push. They led 42-38 at the break as a result.
Maybe it was only thanks to how Indiana were trying to defend her – or maybe the loss of Prince was leaving them with few other options – but Chicago were doing a better job of feeding Fowles in the paint during much of this game. Indiana would cut off the passing lane to her on one side of the floor, Fowles would use her back and her strength to pin the defender while her teammates reversed the ball to the opposite side, and then the lane was there to feed her for a layup. It worked several times, regardless of the defenders involved. Any improvement in the Sky’s ability to capitalise on Fowles’s size and power in the paint could be huge for this team.
Thanks to Fowles and some timely shooting from Vandersloot, the Sky stayed in the game throughout the third quarter. Even without Prince, and down to one-and-a-half guards, the Sky are a very solid defensive team these days, and that was enough to keep them in it.
But eventually, Indiana made their greater options and depth tell. Davenport was still scoring, despite the presence of Fowles, stepping up to the challenge of facing the best in the business. Too many turnovers hurt the Sky – as is often the case – but when you’ve been relying on two players for the bulk of your scoring all year, and you lose one of them, it’s hard to keep up. The Fever only led by 5 at the end of the third, but they gradually extended their lead and eased home 84-70.
Given the loss of Prince, Chicago actually played reasonably well. Fowles finished 11-15 for 26 points and 6 rebounds, while Cash and Vandersloot both had better shooting nights than they’ve had in virtually every other game this year. They’re just short on bodies, and short on reliable scoring options without Prince. They’ll be desperately hoping to get her back as soon as possible.
Indiana eventually did what you’re supposed to do when your competition is shorthanded and you’re on your home floor – they took care of business. It took them a while, though. Once again, Douglas and Catchings struggled to make shots, shooting a combined 8-27. The positive angle is that this time they got some backup. Davenport finished a perfect 9-9 for 19 points with a series of midrange shots and nice finishes inside. There was even a righty-hook thrown in there, which might be a new weapon in the left-hander’s arsenal. Briann January and Jeanette Pohlen hit some important shots as well. These are the complementary pieces that the Fever need to help out their stars, so it was a step back in the right direction for them. Douglas and Catchings should be able to snap out of their funks – it’s the others that they’ve been starting to worry about.
Before we get to the other game, first a potted summary of the early state of the Western Conference. Minnesota look likely to run away at the top. Tulsa look likely to ‘run away’ at the bottom. Phoenix and Seattle have been consistently dreadful (and their 4 combined wins were all over the Shock). That means that, less than a month into the season, LA and San Antonio already look like they could well be facing each other in the first-round of the playoffs. Again, it’s early, but that’s how it appears right now.
So last night’s first regular season encounter between the Sparks and Silver Stars was important both to set a tone for future matchups, and for positioning in the standings. The regular season games between these teams might ultimately decide home-court advantage in the first round. On top of that, these teams play each other three times in the next two weeks, so this is almost a mini-series in and of itself.
Already shorthanded due to injuries to Nicky Anosike and Ebony Hoffman, the Sparks were further weakened for this game thanks to Nneka Ogwumike going back to Stanford for her graduation ceremony. Personally, I find that a little ridiculous – and all the graduation ceremonies I’ve sat through were a mind-numbingly tedious waste of time – but everyone has their own priorities. Guard Coco Miller came into the starting lineup, sliding everyone else over a position. San Antonio opened the game with the same five they’ve used recently, and their only missing player was Tangela Smith, still recovering from the surgery on her left knee.
There was a high pace to the game in the first half, with both teams trying to get out and find quick offense. LA were trying to feed Candace Parker so she could attack Jayne Appel, but the Silver Stars are a more organised team at this stage. They execute their system better, and they’ve got more players who can knock down shots from outside to capitalise on opportunities. Shameka Christon, Becky Hammon, Danielle Adams and several others made shots in the first half that gave San Antonio a 44-35 lead at the break.
For LA, despite their impressive early-season record, the level of frustration with some of their play continued. Kristi Toliver makes some lovely passes at times, but she’s a ‘point guard’ whose first thought is always to fire up a shot. And that’s regardless of how badly she might be shooting on any given night. Miller hasn’t offered much at all since she arrived, bar another warm body to take up minutes on the floor. DeLisha Milton-Jones seems to be making more dumb mistakes than ever right now, including one horrific ‘pass’ in this game where she was under pressure on the sideline and just hurled the ball between her legs to no one in particular. San Antonio were sending all kinds of help at Parker whenever she touched the ball, because they knew she was the primary threat. Only Alana Beard was making them pay by hitting her shots (and it was one of the few times this year that Beard’s outside jumper has been in working order).
Still, LA wouldn’t go away in the second half, and in case you’ve forgotten – Candace Parker is really good. She hit some shots, Beard was still hot, and the Sparks crept back into the game. Parker’s eyes lit up when she was being primarily defended by Adams, and she started firing away right over the top of the smaller defender. Parker wasn’t necessarily any more open than when she’d been defended by others, there was just an extra level of confidence in the way she tried to score.
Meanwhile, for San Antonio, the guards had cooled off but Sophia Young had started to take over. She showcased some gorgeous scoring moves, including a show-the-ball, spin-around fadeaway that made Parker look silly.
Already working with limited manpower – three injuries, plus Marissa Coleman and April Sykes barely being used by coach Carol Ross – LA had foul trouble issues as well. Toliver was the primary culprit, picking up her fifth foul early in the fourth quarter when she cut in front of Young. San Antonio didn’t bother to attack her like they probably should have, but with seven minutes left in regulation she drove into the paint, Adams slid across in front of her, and the charge call ended Toliver’s night. It was a tight decision, but not a smart play from a point guard when her team’s running low on players.
The highlight of the remaining minutes was when the heavily built Adams poked the ball away from Beard for a steal and thundered all the way down the floor to complete a layup while being fouled. Do they have earthquake warnings in Texas?
Trailing 81-73 with under three minutes to play, LA made a final push. San Antonio’s common issue of settling for perimeter jumpers was haunting them again, while Beard was making shots and others were getting to the free throw line for LA. A Beard triple got the Sparks within a point, and a rare second-half miss by Young gave LA the ball back with 29 seconds to play. Parker drove into the paint after Young narrowly failed to nip in for the steal, but Adams was there waiting for her as Parker tried to feed Jantel Lavender under the hoop. Once again, it was a generous decision for the defender, but the officials called it a charge. Adams built a well-earned reputation for flopping last year, and referees were buying it less and less as the year wore on. But on this particular night she got the benefit of the doubt at crucial times.
It still wasn’t over. There were 11 seconds left, and Adams missed a pair at the line before Lavender grabbed the loose rebound in the middle of a scrum. This time it was LA who got a useful call, with Young being whistled for contact on Lavender, sending the Sparks post to the other end for free throws. She went 1-of-2 to tie the game with 6 seconds left, and all San Antonio could muster was a deep three from Hammon that was never close. Overtime.
And so followed one of the least competitive overtime periods you’re ever likely to see. Jia Perkins and Hammon hit jumpers for the Silver Stars early on, while LA were making poor passes for cheap turnovers and barely even getting shots in the air. Their far thinner roster – it was basically a six-player rotation compared to San Antonio’s eight – was finally coming back to haunt them, especially with Toliver already fouled out. San Antonio scored the first 13 points of OT, and only a meaningless Parker bucket in the final minute kept LA from being whitewashed in the extra period. The Silver Stars ran out 98-85 winners.
It’s not like I didn’t warn you. LA may have started the season 7-1, but there were conspicuous flaws in this team even while they were winning, and the chickens have started to come home to roost in the last couple of games. The loss of Ogwumike was obviously huge, but the Sparks struggled in plenty of areas that had nothing to do with her. Toliver’s mood swings and form fluctuations continue to have a big impact on the success of this team, and when she flips to the bad end of the scale they don’t have many alternatives to turn to. The defense is still flawed, and for all her athleticism, Parker’s rotations and attentiveness are still often out of whack. It’d also be nice to see Parker get the ball in strong position more often, rather than constantly drifting around on the perimeter. Sometimes it works anyway, because she’s just that talented, but it’s a waste. Still, losing a game like this when they’re missing a key piece, and only in overtime, is hardly a disaster. And if Alana Beard rediscovering her jump shot is something that’s going to last, they’d happily trade a loss for that.
The Silver Stars have a really impressive balance to their team. On this night it was Young (11-17 for 24 points), Hammon (7-17 for 24) and Adams (4-12 for 18) doing most of the scoring, but they got help from multiple other sources. They may not be able to outgun you with their best one or two players, but chances are that their 7th or 8th player is significantly better than yours. They also finished on top 38-18 in points in the paint in this game, a remarkable stat considering their lack of interior scorers. It shows what they can do with penetration and ball movement, as opposed to LA’s lack of rotation and frequent one-on-one play. Many of San Antonio’s flaws remain, but when they’re flowing they’re a lot of fun to watch.
Today (Sunday June 17th):
Connecticut @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Phoenix @ Tulsa, 4pm ET
Minnesota @ Seattle, 9pm ET
Tomorrow (Monday June 18th):
Washington @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET