WNBA Today, 06/18/2012: Backwards Day in the WNBA

Some days, the world just goes a little bit topsy-turvy. Cats make friends with dogs, a politician tells the truth, bookies lose money – you get the idea. Yesterday was one such day in the WNBA. We at WNBAlien bring you all the details below, via the Bullet Point Breakdown.

 

Connecticut Sun 75 @ Atlanta Dream 73

  • The big pregame news was the Atlanta’s star Angel McCoughtry would miss the game with a sprained left MCL. Given that she was benched for the previous game for a ‘team rule violation’, then protested that she hadn’t violated any rules afterwards, I remain a little dubious. Angel may well be hurting, but it might also have been an unofficial ‘suspension’ by head coach Marynell Meadors to show McCoughtry she means business. Either way, Atlanta had to make do without their leader for this contest, and McCoughtry remains day-to-day for future games (which means nothing). Tiffany Hayes again replaced her in the starting lineup.
  • Connecticut kept the same starters as in their previous game, with Allison Hightower and Kalana Greene on the wing ahead of Danielle McCray.
  • The vast majority of the first half was dominated by Atlanta. Defensive pressure from the likes of Hayes and Armintie Price was creating steals and breakouts for the Dream, and causing the game to be played at their pace. Too many lazy passes from Connecticut, and too many unnecessarily quick perimeter jump shots, were allowing Atlanta to dominate.
  • But Atlanta didn’t kill the game off. Their lead was as high as 16 at 27-11 early in the second quarter, only for Connecticut to hit a couple of shots from outside and slide quickly back into the game.
  • Tina Charles had been settling for too many midrange jumpers early in the game, something she did far too much against Atlanta in the playoffs last year. But that was largely due to the defensive presence of Erika de Souza. Someone must’ve reminded Charles that Erika’s currently on a different continent, because she went to work in the final five minutes of the first half. Layups, putbacks, turnarounds in the post, free throws when Atlanta had no option but to foul – this was more like it. Also, once those got her in rhythm, the midrange jump shots started falling much more consistently.
  • By halftime, despite the impression that Atlanta had controlled most of the game, they only led 39-36.
  • The second half wasn’t a great deal different. After 14 first half turnovers, the Sun continued to cough the ball up far too cheaply, but without McCoughtry the Dream struggled offensively whenever they had a possession that wasn’t ignited by a steal.
  • Tina Charles was also utterly dominant on the glass, so virtually every Atlanta possession was one-and-done.
  • The Sun just couldn’t get over the hump. They were repeatedly pulling within a couple of points, and even tied the game on a couple of occasions, but then yet another turnover or a big shot from someone on the Dream would push Atlanta back in front.
  • Having done very little all afternoon, Asjha Jones tied the game up yet again with just over a minute remaining, following up a quick cut for a layup with a short hook in the post.
  • Lindsey Harding missed a pullup jumper for Atlanta with 13 seconds left, and Charles grabbed her 21st rebound when it bounced off the rim. Renee Montgomery had been strong in the second half going to the rim, but she forced up an ugly jumper at the other end that came up a mile short – only for Charles to pluck it out of the air. Charles was fouled as she tried to go up with it for the win, and went to the free throw line with 3 seconds to play (it was tight as to whether Charles was actually shooting when she was fouled, but it was probably the right call). She sank both freebies, giving Connecticut their first lead of the entire afternoon.
  • Atlanta advanced the ball with a timeout, and found Sancho Lyttle with a little room to work. She drove the baseline and put up a shot from close in that airballed right over the rim. Game over, Connecticut win. There was contact on Lyttle’s effort, but Charles was pretty much stationary. It’s not a call you can expect to get on the final play of a game.
  • It was a tough loss for the Dream. Any loss is tough when you only trailed for a grand total of 3.1 seconds. But considering McCoughtry was missing, they can’t be too distraught about it. Price had one of her best games of the year, finishing 6-8 for 20 points, 5 boards, 6 assists and 4 steals, and continues to be a scary defender and open court athlete. Tiffany Hayes showed that she can be a contributor to this team, even as a rookie, although she does have an unfortunate habit of picking up cheap fouls. Even Lindsey Harding hit a couple of shots from outside, which isn’t exactly common for her. The problems came in the paint, where Lyttle, Aneika Henry and the still-virtually-useless Yelena Leuchanka simply couldn’t handle Charles once she got going.
  • Charles finished the game 9-17 for 23 points and 22 rebounds, marking the third 20/20 game of her WNBA career – the first player ever to achieve three of them. She also had 8 turnovers, because the Dream kept sending extra defenders to dig down on the ball whenever she received it, but it’s fair to say that she made up for her mistakes. Montgomery was the primary sidekick with 19 points, and the Sun will be glad to have escaped with this win. They scarcely deserved it, but you have to credit them for fighting hard to stick around in a game that wasn’t going their way for long stretches.
  • Asjha Jones’s performances may be starting to worry Sun head coach Mike Thibault. She’s meant to be the other half to their strong frontcourt, but lately it’s been Charles carrying the load and Jones fading weakly into the background. She’ll burst out for the occasional string of points every now and then, but lately it’s been rare to see her consistently produce throughout a game. Still, the Sun are continuing to win, so they’ve got time to work it out.

 

Phoenix Mercury 75 @ Tulsa Shock 87

  • These may well be the worst two teams in the WNBA, as currently constructed. I’m not even sure anyone else is close, despite some pretty miserable teams taking part in this league in 2012. I applaud your dedication as a Shock fan if you paid to watch this thing.
  • It’s rare that a game as close as this one was for most of its duration is quite this unwatchable.
  • The starting fives were as expected, with Phoenix still trying to survive without Penny Taylor or Diana Taurasi.
  • Things got worse for the Mercury late in the first quarter, when Candice Dupree was trying to post up on Kayla Pedersen. Scholanda Dorrell came across to double-team and clattered into Dupree, sending her to the ground. It didn’t look too bad, but Dupree headed back to the bench gingerly, maybe favouring her left knee. That was the last we saw of her on the floor all night (until the post-game handshakes), but that may well say more about how careful the Mercury are being – or even how little interest the franchise has in winning games right now – than how much pain Dupree was in.
  • The game itself was just what we expected. It was bad. Both teams fire up too many jump shots because their offense doesn’t execute well enough to create anything else most of the time (and because they’re lacking in premium talent). At the same time, both teams have deficiencies defensively – Tulsa because they have very few serviceable interior players, Phoenix because their defense has sucked since Lincoln was president. It was largely a matter of which element outsucked the other.
  • Phoenix broke out their zone defense again, and even Tulsa picked it apart pretty easily. I can still scarcely believe just how long the Mercury have been terrible defensively.
  • The Mercury also gave up a ridiculous number of turnovers, largely because they’ve got approximately one healthy guard on their roster who should even be in this league. And she’s a rookie.
  • Still, while Tulsa took a decent lead in the opening quarter by attacking off the dribble, crashing the offensive boards and making a few shots from outside, they went cold in the second. Phoenix led 38-35 at halftime.
  • One fun part of the game was seeing Temeka Johnson take the opportunity to say to the Mercury “Seriously? You gave me away for that?” Having been traded by the Mercury in the offseason for Andrea Riley – who didn’t even make the team initially in Phoenix, but is now back due to all their injuries – Johnson is enjoying the extra responsibility in Tulsa. She’s probably not enjoying all the losing, but it’s not like her old team has been winning much either.
  • Johnson and rookie guard Riquna Williams went to work in the fourth quarter, combining for 28 of Tulsa’s 31 points in the period. None of the Mercury guards could stay in front of them, and none of the help defense could get there in time to be effective. When they weren’t getting to the rim, they were racking up points at the free throw line. That’s what happens when you can’t defend – you end up reaching and grabbing instead, and give up lots of fouls. Those quick, aggressive little guards are a bitch when your team defense is horrible.
  • We kept waiting for the Shock collapse in the fourth quarter, because finding a way to lose is what Tulsa have specialised in this year. But the Mercury just didn’t have the guns. The Shock lead was down to five in the final minutes thanks to Sammy Prahalis hitting a couple of shots, but when she missed a forced three with a minute left, the Mercury started fouling to extend the game – and Tulsa actually made their free throws. It was still all Johnson and Williams, and Tulsa weren’t giving this one away.
  • For the record, Alexis Hornbuckle and Nakia Sanford both suffered injuries in the late stages (Hornbuckle got hit in the face, Sanford’s looked like a knee), although neither looked particularly serious. Losing either wouldn’t make much difference at this point, anyway.
  • Congratulations to Tulsa, their loyal fans, and head coach Gary Kloppenburg on finally winning their first game of the season. It’s undoubtedly nice to get rid of that ugly zero in the standings. There’s still a long way to go – and they don’t want to start winning too many games and lowering their lottery percentages – but it’s nice to get off the schneid. Johnson (6-12 for 22) and Williams (5-11 for 19) led the way.
  • The Mercury, without Taylor or Taurasi, and in this case without Dupree for most of the night, are horrible. At both ends of the floor. They don’t have enough players who can handle or pass the ball, which leads to a vastly increased chance of turnovers. They don’t have enough players who can shoot, which makes their offense far less effective than it used to be. And their defense is typically miserable. Charde Houston had one of her effective scoring nights, finishing 9-14 for 22 points, and DeWanna Bonner was 9-19 for 24, but most of their scoring was on solo forays to the basket or prayers from deep. I hate all the early talk of ‘tanking’, because the teams that are losing are largely just bad. But if any team in this league is already contemplating how nice it might be to take part in the Griner/Delle Donne/Diggins lottery, it’s probably the Mercury. The Shock knew from the start that they were virtually certain participants.

 

Minnesota Lynx 62 @ Seattle Storm 65

  • Another meeting of our last two WNBA champions, but they came into the game in very different situations. At 10-0, the Lynx had just set a new record for the longest undefeated start to a WNBA season. At 2-7, with their only wins coming over Tulsa, Seattle were still looking to get their season going. After finally making some shots in the win over the Shock two nights earlier, they were hoping to carry that effectiveness over. But facing the Lynx is a little different.
  • The starting fives were as expected (although Camille Little lasted less than two minutes before Tina Thompson replaced her, with Brian Agler not happy about an overthrown entry pass from Little).
  • The first half of this game was, by some distance, the best version of the Seattle Storm we’ve seen in 2012. The defense that they’ve always relied on was rotating and helping like it’s supposed to, stifling the Lynx and restricting them to perimeter jump shots. The offense was attacking far more than they had in previous games, finding a few points in transition, driving into the paint when they could, and knocking down outside shots once they’d established their rhythm with ball movement and penetration. They were also making every little hustle play on the floor, tracking down loose balls and 50/50 rebounds, and working back quickly on defense to prevent an easy scoring chances. This was how the Storm had been supposed to be working since the start of the season.
  • At the same time, Minnesota weren’t making things particularly difficult for them. It seemed like complacency may have finally hurt the Lynx, and they’d shown up expecting to win rather than with the intention of earning it. They also had the problem of simply being cold from outside. Settling for jump shots often isn’t that bad an idea when you’re the Lynx – because with shooters like Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, they frequently go in. But they weren’t dropping, and the typical ball movement and player activity wasn’t there to create much else.
  • A brief cameo from Monica Wright, trying to instill some energy into the Lynx, was their only real highlight of the first half. Unless you include head coach Cheryl Reeve going nuts at referee Cameron Inouye for calling a little push-off by Rebekkah Brunson, picking up a technical foul as a result (although for the record, one of the other refs called it. Cameron just let her rant away).
  • Seattle led 43-29 at the half, had shot 57% from the field, and held Minnesota’s starters to a combined 8-25. Key Arena was going wild.
  • Still, everyone knew Minnesota had the potential to flip the switch and play to their true capacity, and that Seattle were fully capable of collapsing and giving the game away. While they were obviously excited, there was a palpable nervousness about the crowd for much of the second half.
  • Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen was noticeably more aggressive after the break, trying to will her team to wake up and start fighting for this game. Moore actually hit a couple of shots as well.
  • But this was a newly energised Seattle team. When the lead dropped to 8 in the middle of the third quarter, center Ann Wauters ran the floor hard for a layup where she simply beat the Minnesota defense down the floor. Then on the very next Seattle possession she made a nice kick out to Sue Bird, who drilled the open three. Meanwhile, Augustus and Moore were back to firing blanks.
  • When the gap hit 8 again late in the third, it was Bird again who stepped up with a nice little pullup jumper off a screen, then a three when the Minnesota defense unaccountably left her alone with the ball. This was the Bird we all remember, taking control of the game at the right times, knowing when to push the pace and when to hold back, knocking down key shots when they were required. It’s the Bird we’ve seen very little of so far this season.
  • The Storm went into the fourth quarter with a 57-44 lead, thanks to that Bird run. And it’s a good thing they did. The Lynx finally seemed to realise that their perfect record was under threat, and started attacking the game. Candice Wiggins gave them a spark; Brunson started grabbing a host of offensive rebounds; and Augustus started making a couple of shots. The Storm were suddenly looking a little tired, and just a little scared that this was going to slip through their fingers.
  • The old stagers were huge for Seattle in the final minutes. While Bird committed a couple of horrendous turnovers, and Tanisha Wright – who, like Bird, had a great game for most of the evening – was wildly missing shots, the real veterans stepped up. Thompson actually drove to the hoop rather than settling for one of her typical rainbow threes, and got herself to the line. Katie Smith hit a huge three from the corner – the only shot she made all night – when the Lynx had cut the gap to a point with under four minutes to play. The old girls were stepping up.
  • A pair of Moore free throws got the gap back to a single point at 63-62 with a minute left. The tired old Seattle end-game play where Wright runs the point and Bird tries desperately to get open didn’t work, leading to a Smith miss from the corner, only for Seattle to get a break when the ball went out of bounds off a Lynx fingertip. Again, Wright ran the point, Bird ran around off screens, and the offense went nowhere. Eventually Wright had to drive and force up an effort in the lane which bounced off, and this time the ball fell in Minnesota’s favour. Lynx ball, down one, 16 seconds to play.
  • There was still plenty of drama to come. Reeve drew up a nice play in the timeout, with a double baseline curl by Moore and Augustus breaking Augustus wide open for a 15-foot jumper that would’ve given the Lynx the lead. But just like most of Seimone’s shots on the night, it didn’t fall. The mad scramble for the rebound was eventually won by Thompson, who called timeout before she fell out of bounds.
  • With four seconds left, Seattle inbounded to Bird, a career 87% free throw shooter. Who promptly missed them both. Pressure and fatigue gets to the best of us. Amazingly for Seattle, who’d been killed on the glass in the fourth quarter, the ball came hard off the iron and Thompson won the battle again, corralling the ball and being fouled with a second left on the clock. Unlike Bird, she calmly sank both her free throws.
  • Advancing the ball with a timeout, the Lynx had one last chance to tie. The play was drawn up for Moore, but she received the ball out top way beyond the three-point line and her heave came up well short. Seattle had clung on by the skin of their teeth, and the Lynx win-streak was over.
  • For Seattle, forget the collapse in the fourth quarter – which can happen to anyone when you’ve been struggling all year and you’re facing a team as talented as the Lynx – and focus on the performance for 30 minutes. This was the real Storm. On offense – taking what the defense gives them, attacking when it’s available, knocking down open shots. On defense – knowing where they’re supposed to be, arriving on time, and fighting tooth and nail for every loose ball or half-chance at a stop. The scoring leaders were Bird (8-15 for 21 points and 4 assists) and Wright (5-11 for 12 points and 8 assists), but this was a team effort. They were horrible a lot of the time on the road last year, but this was at least the kind of performance that we usually saw in front of their Key Arena faithful. This might just be the start of their season, only a month late.
  • From a Minnesota perspective, well, everyone has their off-nights. Moore and Augustus were a combined 10-30 from the floor, which is ugly for those two. Augustus has been missing shots in both of her games since returning from injury, but hopefully it’s just a matter of shaking off the rust rather than the pain lingering. The most disappointing element from Minnesota was that the ball movement and off-ball player action that often creates easy shots for the Lynx disappeared. Instead, their primary reaction to missing a lot of jump shots seemed to be firing yet more jump shots. Seattle’s improved defense obviously had something to do with it, but at their best the Lynx will pick anybody apart.
  • It also might’ve been nice to see Reeve trust her reserves a little more. She’s got one of the most talented benches in the league, but she still has a tendency to go back to the starters regardless of performance on any given night. She has more trust in that first five, and that often comes to the forefront of her mind regardless of the game in progress. Not that you can really blame her for thinking “Maya or Seimone might make a shot for me here.”

 

Notes

Chicago’s Epiphanny Prince has been ruled out for 6-to-8 weeks with a fractured foot after she went down in Saturday’s game against Indiana. It’s a disappointing injury for a player who’d started the year so impressively, and was leading the league in scoring. The fortunate aspect is that the Olympic break is on its way, and even an 8-week layoff would have her back just in time for the Sky’s first game after the intermission. Assuming she’s back by then, she’ll miss only 8 games, and 6 of them are at home. Most of them are against tough opposition, but at least the Sky are largely in front of their own crowd. Assuming Ticha Penicheiro isn’t recovering any time soon, Chicago are eligible for the hardship exception to sign another player – even once Shay Murphy returns in a few days. Considering Courtney Vandersloot is now the only healthy player on the roster who can run the point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go get somebody. Maybe Dominique Canty’s WNBA career isn’t quite as finished as it seemed.

Tulsa made some changes after that first win of the season, cutting Jene Morris and Lynetta Kizer, replacing them with Amber Holt and Courtney Paris. Morris and Kizer had both barely played this year so it’s not a surprise to see them go. Holt, a thoroughly mediocre wing player who’s never done much in four WNBA seasons, was released by the Shock in preseason, so you have to wonder why she’s now seen as a better option than Morris. Paris is getting yet another WNBA chance, this time back in the state where she excelled in college. The Shock can certainly use the help in the paint, so she should get chances to impress. If she can’t make it back home in Oklahoma, it might be time for her to give up on the idea of the WNBA (or get herself a personal trainer to make it a more realistic possibility).

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Monday June 18th):

Washington @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

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2 comments on “WNBA Today, 06/18/2012: Backwards Day in the WNBA

  1. Patrick says:

    You know, I am not sure it was the entry pass…Little looked a bit off to start the game…like she had no energy or effort…that really didn’t change as things went on, but I got the sense she didn’t feel well or was just not mentally in the game at the start.

  2. Patrick says:

    I have to say, I totally agree with you on the month late start to the season…I give Wauters and Kobryn crap on their defense, but for about 70% of the time on Sunday, they were in the right place. The lobs to Wauters in the post from Game 1 showed where they can work in the long run for the Storm in that heave to a running Wauters late in the game. I will admit to being a little scared that I was about 80% accurate at calling the Lynx’s shot taker on plays last night. I shouldn’t spot those so early in the plays, of course, there are enough brilliant players on the Lynx to make obvious plays not make a difference in the outcome. It was just a little twilight zone to call the shooter two passes before they got the ball just by watching the off the ball movement patterns, several times. I also noticed that I am starting to know when the Storm are blowing an offensive play early which is not a good sign for Agler. They are becoming predictable, which shouldn’t happen in his modular offense. That makes me think the guards are taking the wrong options after the first or second option flops.

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