WNBA Today, 06/28/2012: Day or night, injuries take their toll

Just two games in the WNBA on Wednesday, and unfortunately injuries continue to play a key role in how these contests play out. It’s going to be nice to come back in August and see healthier, more complete rosters take the floor.

The early game was in Chicago, where Indiana arrived for their second Kids’ Day outing in succession. Not the greatest piece of scheduling the world has ever seen. The key injury here was obviously Epiphanny Prince, the Sky guard who looked like she might be making ‘The Leap’ into an elite class in the early weeks of the season. Prince was in attendance, but she was hopping around on crutches, not in uniform. She should be back to start the second half of the season along with the rest of us.

Other team news for Chicago had backup post Le’coe Willingham missing for personal reasons (although she was sat right next to Prince on the bench in street clothes), and Shay Murphy back after missing five games to represent Montenegro in EuroBasket Women qualifiers (they went 4-0, by the way). Sydney Carter had been cut after one game, because for the first time since May 19th, veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro was in uniform and ready to play. Penicheiro’s recovery from her lingering calf injury meant that the hardship exception used to sign Carter immediately expired.

The Sky had lost their previous two games, both played essentially without Prince. But this was their first game back on their own floor without her, and the first one they might’ve felt capable of winning in her absence. The Fever have been inconsistent lately, with both Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas struggling to find their jump shots. The Fever were also fairly comfortably beaten the day before in Atlanta, so were carrying the fatigue from a back-to-back. With Indiana 2-0 up in the season series already, Chicago needed this one to avoid conceding the tiebreaker that could come into play at the end of the year.

Both teams started the expected groups – without Prince, Chicago presumably didn’t feel they had the players to go small again to match up with Indiana’s ‘Catch at the 4′ lineup. The early stages featured a stark contrast in styles, with Chicago working hard to feed Sylvia Fowles in the paint, while Indiana fired in perimeter jump shots. Largely speaking, the success rates were fairly similar and the game stayed close.

While both teams diversified their attacks, neither team managed to take control throughout a tight first half. Indiana’s defensive focus on Fowles meant that other players needed to step up, and some midrange jumpers from Tamera Young and aggression from Swin Cash offered a little support. At the other end, Indiana eventually realised that a pure jump shot attack wasn’t going to cut it, and offered up some better ball movement and a little penetration as well. Catchings in particular, with her perimeter shot missing the mark, started to drive more off the dribble and force her way to the free throw line.

Highlights of the first half were Penicheiro immediately throwing a lovely crosscourt assist to Young within seconds of entering her first game in over a month; Courtney Vandersloot nailing a heave from 50 feet at the first quarter buzzer; and several Sky players throwing awful passes that resulted in turnovers as the half progressed. Okay, that last one wasn’t really a ‘highlight’, but it was an important aspect of the play. The Sky were desperate to find Fowles, but they were having a hard time getting her the ball. Turnovers are the inevitable result when you try to force through impossible passes.

It was 37-33 Indiana at halftime, and the key stretch in the game came in the opening minutes of the third quarter. With Chicago still struggling to feed their big center – and Tammy Sutton-Brown doing a solid job on her defensively (albeit with a lot of help from her teammates) – the Fever made a run. They attacked the rim relentlessly in the opening stages of the second half, creating layups, and that built the rhythm to follow up with jumpers from outside. Shavonte Zellous hit a couple of threes, Briann January, Sutton-Brown and Douglas chipped in, and suddenly that 4-point halftime lead had jumped to 13.

The Sky did their best to fight back for the rest of the afternoon, but were never quite in it. Jeanette Pohlen had an outstanding day from outside with her quick-trigger threes, which helped hold Chicago off, and the Sky desperately miss their bailout option of throwing it to Prince. In early games they could spend 15 seconds (at least) trying to work Fowles open and feed her in the paint, then let Piph create something when they were running out of time. With that alternative removed, their offense on any possession where Fowles doesn’t touch the ball is far less efficient. They’re still fighting, but the personnel is a little lacking. Batman’s missing her Robin.

We didn’t see much of the pin-the-defender, reverse-the-ball, feed-Fowles play in this game either – I only noticed it once – presumably because Indiana were more prepared for it this time. Sutton-Brown played 28 minutes – tied for her highest total of the season – and it’s because of the job she can do on Fowles. She loses out at times, as anyone would, but she makes Fowles work for everything and she’s more mobile than backup Jessica Davenport. Also, inevitably, Fowles is being double and triple-teamed constantly. It was similar to the Seattle-Washington game the night before, where the Storm constantly collapsed on Crystal Langhorne. When the opponent has one primary threat, the defense is going to try to make someone else beat them.

The closest Chicago got after that third-quarter run was within 7 – every time they were remotely threatening, the experience and shooting of the Fever held them at bay. Indiana ran out 81-72 winners in this one, for their third win this year over the Sky. In fact, their record against Chicago is utterly dominant over recent seasons. By my count, that takes them to 14-2 over the Sky in the last four years. Of course, Chicago have made heavy changes to their roster this season, but it’s something that must give the Fever confidence even if the Sky aren’t worrying about it. For two teams that could easily clash in the postseason, holding the Indian sign over a team like that could prove very important.

In this particular game, the Sky just didn’t have the weapons. Fowles finished 7-10 for 19 points and 10 boards, and both Young and Cash offered stronger offensive support than we’ve seen from them in many previous games, but it wasn’t enough. They’ll be hoping to claw to two or three wins before the break to keep their heads above water, then come on strong again in the second half.

It was an improved performance from Indiana after the disappointment in Atlanta 24 hours earlier, although once again they were propped up by perimeter shooting that’s unsustainable. They were 11-19 as a team from beyond the three-point arc, highlighted by Pohlen’s 4-6 from out there (14 points total). Catchings was 3-15 for 17 points, Douglas 2-8 for 6, and while it’s good to see scoring coming from other avenues it still doesn’t feel like everything’s clicking for Indiana. The defense is there, but offensively they’re not as smooth as they were earlier in the year. Catchings and Douglas have been cold in several recent games, and that makes everything difficult unless they get the impressive support they received in this one. Still, there’s plenty of time to work things out and they’re 8-5 even with these issues, so Lin Dunn has time to find some answers.

—–

The late game last night was in Minnesota, where Phoenix were the visitors. The Mercury were still without Taylor, Taurasi, Dupree and Sanford, so were naturally massive underdogs on the champs’ floor (19-point underdogs in fact, according to Vegas). The Lynx have still suffered only one defeat all year, and their only injury is backup post Jessica Adair’s knee. Even without often performing to their optimum level, in some ways they’ve been even more dominant than last season.

The first couple of minutes made it look like this one could become embarrassing quickly. Minnesota were pushing the ball down the floor, attacking Phoenix’s weaknesses in the paint with speed and aggression, and the only way the Mercury were hanging around was with low-percentage shots like Alexis Hornbuckle threes. Those weren’t going to continue dropping for long. But while they held an early 11-3 advantage, the Lynx couldn’t manage to press home their superiority. Phoenix continued to hit some shots from outside, the pace of the game dropped – oh how the game has changed, when that’s something that benefits Phoenix – and the Mercury kept hanging around. The crowd, the players, the viewers at home – everyone seemed a little stunned that the scoreline just kept staying close. The Mercury even held a small lead for a while.

DeWanna Bonner was the leader for Phoenix, as she’s been for much of the season. I don’t see the ‘career year’ or Most Improved Player candidacy that some others have mentioned in regards to her – her percentages aren’t great, and most of her increased numbers come down to greater opportunity thanks to all the injuries – but she’s trying. It’s a difficult situation to be in, being asked to step up from sixth-woman utility player to key starter, but she’s taking on the extra responsibility and trying to produce. In this game, she nailed a couple of her trademark ridiculously deep threes, and threw herself towards the rim on drives whenever she had the chance (often resulting in free throws). She had 18 points by halftime, and played a central role in the Mercury trailing only 51-45 at the break.

Minnesota were doing most of their work where you expect it to be done against Phoenix – in the paint, and with post players that can take advantage of the Mercury’s weak defense. The Lynx had missed far too many layups for comfort, but both Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin were piling up points and rebounds. Even backup post Amber Harris was proving more successful than usual.

The Lynx finally started to take control in the third quarter. Seimone Augustus had been desperately cold to that point, with jump shots from outside and floaters in the paint all bouncing out. When she finally started finding the bottom of the net, Minnesota’s advantage quickly jumped to 15, and the crowd could exhale.

It still wasn’t entirely over – some free throws and another Bonner Bomb pulled the Mercury within 6 late in the third – but the Lynx starting unit returned en masse and settled everyone down. From that point on the result was never in doubt, and only the gamblers were worried. Ultimately, Phoenix covered the spread, with a final scoreline of 96-80.

You have to credit the players still on the floor for the Mercury for continuing to fight and play with heart. Rookie point guard Sammy Prahalis gave Lindsay Whalen all kinds of problems all afternoon with her speed and attacking mentality. Prahalis seems to be settling into the league, learning that she can score in ways besides the three-pointer, and that will benefit the Mercury in future years. They only had 8 assists as a team in this game – which shows how many of their baskets came on individual drives or desperate heaves from deep – but Prahalis (8-17 for 20 points) and Bonner (6-18 for 23) did their best. This squad isn’t going to win many games as it’s currently constituted, but at least they can keep fighting.

It took them a while, but the Lynx eventually came up with what was required to win this game. They dominated inside, winning the rebound battle 45-31, and the points in the paint 42-24, although head coach Cheryl Reeve won’t be pleased with how many easy finishes they failed to convert. Brunson (16 points, 13 boards) and McWilliams-Franklin (13 and 11) both had double-doubles, and Augustus somehow finished 7-15 for 16 points despite not being able to hit a damn thing early on. They’ll be happy to see a useful outing from Harris, even if it was against Phoenix’s porous front line. There’ll be more opportunities for Harris in the next few weeks, thanks to the injury to Adair, so this is her chance to step up and show what she’s worth. As a team, Minnesota are just far too good for what’s left of the Mercury, and ultimately they proved that.

 

Notes

The group stage of the Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament is complete, essentially without a single upset. Friday’s quarter-finals feature Croatia-Canada, Czech Republic-Japan, Turkey-Argentina, and France-Korea. The four European countries are the favourites, although one or two upsets wouldn’t be that shocking. The four winners go to London; the four losers progress to semi-finals and a final to decide the last spot.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Thursday June 28th):

Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 12.30pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Friday June 29th):

Connecticut @ Washington, 7pm ET

Atlanta @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Phoenix @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET

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