WNBA Today, 07/13/2012: The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

Finally it’s upon us – the end of the first-half of the WNBA’s 2012 season. Heading into yesterday, every team in the league had one game left before the month-long break that splits this year’s schedule. Apart from the 13 players heading for London, everyone finally has time to kick back and rest their weary limbs, before spending some time in the gym to work on whatever’s been going wrong in the first half. For the vast majority of teams and individuals, this is a welcome respite in a season that’s suffered from a host of injuries to important players.

The first teams to close out their pre-Olympic schedules were Tulsa and Minnesota, sneaking the Lynx’s Camp Day in just before the break. At 3-14, the Shock have once again done a whole lot of losing this season, but with a few renewed signs of promise. Minnesota have dropped so many games recently – a three-game losing streak broken only by a win over Tulsa on Tuesday – that they’d fallen into a tie with Connecticut for the best record in the WNBA at 14-4. Still, after setting a new WNBA record by shooting virtually 70% from the field against the Shock in their last game, the Lynx were looking to complete back-to-back wins and head into the break on a small upswing.

The starting lineups were the same as two days earlier, with Maya Moore at power forward in the absence of Rebekkah Brunson, Jessica Adair and Devereaux Peters. Minnesota started out pushing the ball up the floor quickly, looking for early offense. Besides their halfcourt ball movement, this is how the Lynx pile up easy points when they’re in rhythm – speed and an attack mentality, finding their way to the basket before the defense is even set up. It’s part of what they’d been missing during the losing streak, and they re-discovered it during the two games against Tulsa. We’ll have to wait until after the Olympics to see if they’ve improved their own play, or if it was largely caused by the step down in opponent.

Tulsa managed to hang around through the first quarter, primarily because they started trapping and playing high-pressure defense, which knocked the Lynx briefly out of their stride. Alongside that, Riquna Williams came into the game off the bench and started firing away – as always – and produced some scoring that hadn’t been on offer from the starting unit. Her offense pulled the Shock within 22-21 at the end of the first.

There was a brief little scuffle early in the second quarter between Candice Wiggins and Temeka Johnson. Wiggins has a tendency to get under the skin of opponents with her pesky defense and endless jawing, while Johnson seemed to be in a bad mood all afternoon, but there was nothing much in it. The officials handed out technicals to the pair of them. There was no real reason why that moment should’ve been a turning point – the Lynx are experienced enough not to need a brouhaha to energise them – but the game was tied at 31 when it occurred. Barely five minutes of game time later, Minnesota were ahead 52-33 and the contest was virtually over.

Moore was the key participant in Minnesota’s streak. At power forward, she may leave the Lynx undersized defensively against many teams, but she gives them even more offensive firepower. She showed off her versatility as well, scoring in transition by running the floor and taking feeds from Lindsay Whalen for layups; sliding to the rim in a halfcourt set when the defense lost track of her; spinning behind Glory Johnson from the high post and taking an over-the-top feed; cutting backdoor along the baseline; and even drilling a three over Johnson when Tulsa failed to re-set their defense after the much smaller defender was left with Moore on a break. Maya was putting on a show for all the kids in attendance, and the Shock had absolutely no answer for her. Minnesota led 55-38 at halftime.

While Ivory Latta had been the star for Tulsa in the previous game, she’d been kept very quiet by the Lynx defense in this encounter. They didn’t seem to be paying much more attention to her than they had on Tuesday, but for whatever reason she never got going. The Shock were never back in the game in the second half, but they did once again have a standout performer. Rookie post Glory Johnson was a dynamo for them, using all her athleticism and boundless energy to attack the paint, grab rebounds, and repeatedly head to the free throw line (where she converted 14 of 15 attempts). Johnson’s had an impressive start to her pro career, especially considering the lack of help she has in the paint on this team. Kayla Pedersen’s starting alongside her, with Chante Black and Courtney Paris the only help coming off the bench (and I use the term ‘help’ loosely). It leaves Johnson defending the most athletic post on every opposing team, while being defended herself by the biggest and most physical opponent. So, for example, against Minnesota she was typically trying to handle Moore, while having to fight it out against Taj McWilliams-Franklin for her own points. Life will become easier for Glory when Liz Cambage joins the Shock after the Olympics, simply because she’ll take on some of the load. It could get even better if the Shock have a little luck in the 2013 lottery.

There wasn’t much excitement in the second half, partly because the Lynx had already turned it into a blowout, and partly because endless whistles killed the pace of the game. Johnson got involved in more drama, swiping away Seimone Augustus’s arm when the two became briefly entangled. Johnson then stepped up to her former college teammate, which looked rather comical considering Augustus is about a foot taller than her. The officials handed Johnson another tech, which meant she was ejected (the first player ejection of the 2012 season, surprisingly enough). She later apologised in a statement on her website, which at least was a nice touch.

Minnesota eased home with an 89-74 win that was even more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. It’s hard to know what to make of these wins over Tulsa. Emotionally, I’m sure it’s nice for the Lynx to get back to winning ways before the break, especially with three players heading for London and three more still recovering from injury. But it’s difficult to tell whether any of the issues shown up in their three losses to San Antonio, LA and Connecticut have been fixed, or if they just got to beat up on a team with far less talent.

There’s also the fact that they beat the Shock with a lineup that Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve probably never would’ve used if it hadn’t been forced upon her. Without any need to dominate in the second half, Moore finished this game 8-12 from the floor for 28 points and 11 boards. But the ‘Moore at the 4′ lineup is an option that Reeve has almost steadfastly ignored since Maya arrived as a rookie last year. Moore still looks unsure at that spot defensively, and with some teams her height would be an issue, but the explosion against the Shock showed what it can produce offensively. It’s going to be fascinating to see how much Reeve utilises it when Brunson, Peters and Adair are all back after the Olympics and it becomes a choice, rather than a necessity.

Tulsa still lack for legitimate WNBA talent. And while their energy and activity in press situations and when chasing the ball can be annoying and effective, their halfcourt defense still breaks down too easily. Of course, when Gary Kloppenburg adds some size – Cambage and Tiffany Jones (née Jackson) are missing, Griner or Delle Donne could be on the way – halfcourt defense becomes a whole different ballgame. The offense should become more varied as well. For now, Shock fans have to make do with a team that still plays its heart out, but often can’t overcome their limitations. Hopefully, their patience will hold out.

—–

The late game last night on ESPN2 featured a cross-conference clash between two teams who’ve had rollercoaster first-halves this year. Los Angeles started out strong, fell to bits for a while, and have pulled themselves back together again in July. Indiana haven’t been anywhere near as simple to explain, picking up regular wins while losses and blown leads have been scattered throughout their schedule. Both sides came into this game with only 6 losses, although LA already had 14 wins to Indiana’s 10. The Fever are going to be much busier post-Olympics than the Sparks.

The well-established starting lineups took the floor for both teams, and it was nice to have a nationally televised game where all the stars were on the floor. Indiana even had Erin Phillips back in uniform on the bench, after recovering from her concussion. The opening minutes were messy, with both teams playing too quickly for their own good. Speed is a positive, but not if it means you’re firing up bad shots with no rebounders, or giving up unnecessary turnovers.

The matchups between these teams are interesting. Indiana’s standard lineup this year leaves them undersized against LA, who have bigger players at almost every spot on the floor. That causes them problems on the glass, and ought to lead to issues protecting the rim if LA would go inside more. At the defensive end, LA switch a lot in their man-to-man, and you could see Indiana actively trying to take advantage of that. They were setting screens at the top of the arc on Kristi Toliver, and when she couldn’t fight over the top of them the switch would create mismatches. It didn’t work too often, but you could see that it was part of the gameplan.

Most of Indiana’s effective offense had little to do with planning or systems – instead it was simply Tamika Catchings putting on a show. Drives for layups and free throws, jumpers from outside, her scoring carried the Indiana offense while their team defense kept Candace Parker and Toliver largely in check.

With five minutes left in the first half and the Fever up 26-24, Indiana coach Lin Dunn happened upon an option that seemed to work. Backup power forward Erlana Larkins was already in the game to give Catchings a break, and Dunn brought Catchings back in alongside her. The Fever were back to their old lineup with Katie Douglas at shooting guard and Catchings at small forward, while Larkins and Jessica Davenport were inside. It gave Indiana more fight on the boards and a little extra size, and let them work their way into a 39-30 halftime lead. They also threw out a little zone defense, daring LA to show the smarts and passing to break it, and the Sparks couldn’t come up with anything.

Dunn tried to ride that second quarter stretch into the second half. The front line of Catchings, Larkins and Davenport opened the third quarter together, in the continuing effort to keep up with LA on the glass. It stopped working. The main reason for that was rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike, who attacked the offensive boards with fervour. It seemed like every LA miss was being hoovered up and dropped back in, for an endless stream of back-breaking second-chance points. Indiana were grabbing offensive rebounds themselves at the other end, but without converting them into anywhere near the same volume of points. It was Ogwumike who was announcing herself on national TV, and Indiana’s lead was only a point at 57-56 heading to the fourth.

In the early stages of the final period, the big difference besides the continuing parade of offensive rebounds was LA’s three-point shooting. It’s been a strength for Indiana this year, while LA have been in the middle of the pack, but Toliver and DeLisha Milton-Jones hit big threes early in the fourth quarter that pushed LA in front. Meanwhile Briann January kept coming up short from long range, with attempts that would’ve been huge for momentum and the emotion of the crowd if she could’ve knocked them down.

Despite a vast LA advantage on the glass – Indiana had a grand total of two rebounds in the entire fourth quarter – the Fever kept clinging on as the final period progressed. Their defense was forcing an awful lot of misses from LA, even if they were having to survive for 40 or 50 seconds on every LA possession.

January finally made a three – her first in four fourth-quarter tries – which cut the Fever deficit to a point with 2 minutes remaining. Then LA’s switching defense bit them in the backside, when Parker and Toliver were forced into swapping assignments, and January led Larkins in for a layup to take the lead. A tough call against Catchings sent Parker to the line, and her foul shots gave LA a 75-74 advantage. Then an Indiana set that took far too long to develop led to a shot clock violation, before LA themselves ran most of their time off and a tip forced them to inbound the ball with only three seconds left on the shot clock. 38 seconds remained in the game.

Toliver got a shot up from deep, but it bounced off the rim, and Indiana finally won a battle under the hoop. Ogwumike was called for pulling down Larkins in the fight for the rebound, sending Larkins the length of the court for free throws that could’ve given Indiana the lead. Only she missed both. That’s part of the problem with only having two natural rebounders on your squad and being forced into playing both of them – your little-used backup, a career 61% free-throw shooter, is out there in crunch time. Ogwumike picked up her 20th rebound of the night on the second missed free throw.

LA ran the clock down, and again Toliver put up a three, and again she missed. But appropriately enough, LA won the fight for the rebound yet again, with a Milton-Jones tip poking the ball back out to Toliver. She was fouled and made both, taking LA three points in front with 6 seconds to play.

Indiana’s final play worked out fairly well, considering some of the shambolic end-of-game possessions we’ve seen this season. Catchings inbounded to January, who penetrated, reversed her path, and kicked it back to Catch. Toliver jumped out to contest, but Catchings had a pretty good look, only to come up short with the three that would’ve led to overtime. LA win, 77-74.

So the Sparks head into the break on a five game winning streak. The impressive aspect of this one was that they won despite Toliver shooting 6-17 for 19 points, and Parker being held to 7-18 for 19. That’s a lot of misses from the two players that LA have relied on to carry them offensively through a lot of games. Ogwumike was ridiculous, especially in the second half, finishing the game 8-17 for 22 points and 20 boards – including a WNBA record-tying 12 on the offensive glass. She’s a pure athlete, and she plays the game with so much energy and effort that it’s a lot of fun to watch. She’s had a couple of quiet games recently, but this was a nice way to close out the first half of the year.

For Indiana, this was pretty typical of their season so far. Just when you thought they might’ve figured out something that worked, the worm turned and the game went against them. Catchings was the star, inevitably, with 27 points on 8-16 from the floor. No one else in a Fever jersey had more than 11. They’re still 10-7 in the standings, and they’ll go into the break in second place in the East, but they don’t look comfortable. They started the season better than they’ve closed out the opening half, and with Chicago and Atlanta both expected to improve after the break it could be a challenge to hold on to that second spot. While Catchings is in London trying to win another gold medal, Lin Dunn and the rest of her squad have some work to do.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Friday July 13th):

Washington @ New York, 11am ET

Atlanta @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Connecticut @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET

Seattle @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

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