WNBA Today, 07/14/2012: Have a Nice Summer!

So after four teams completed their schedules for the opening half of the season on Thursday, the remaining eight finished it all off yesterday. At this point, everyone needs a rest, including the bedraggled writers. So one last time until we pick it up again in a month, let’s head to the Bullet Point Breakdown and take a look at the games that closed out the WNBA until August 16th.

 

Washington Mystics 70 @ New York Liberty 53

  • Thanks to the collapse in Chicago (and the inconsistencies in Atlanta), New York somehow started yesterday only 2.5 games outside the playoffs. This despite some deplorable performances in the first half of the season, and a 6-11 record. On the bright side, they had DeMya Walker fit enough to start again at power forward, and Kia Vaughn ready to play off the bench after recovering from her concussion.
  • The less said about Washington’s play in the opening months of the season the better. They once again went with Jasmine Thomas over Shannon Bobbitt as their starting point guard.
  • Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson came out firing in the early passages for New York. The Liberty might have had most of their posts back, but all the shots were still coming from the guards.
  • Washington had Monique Currie playing aggressively on offense – again, Mystics coach Trudi Lacey has jerked her minutes around so much lately, Currie may have felt the need to shoot while she could – with Crystal Langhorne the inevitable main alternative. They balanced out New York’s guard scoring in an even first quarter.
  • The rest of the game, with all due respect to Washington’s efforts, largely came down to a dismal performance from the New York Liberty. Yes, we can give some credit to the defense the Mystics produced, but that’s the WNBA’s 10th-rated defense we’re talking about. They’ve barely been able to stop anyone all year. New York were bringing most of this on themselves.
  • There was so little energy and application from New York. It was like they expected the return of Walker and Vaughn to provide the necessary production, so the effort level they’d produced when they were down to practically one post player disappeared. Without the extraordinary offensive display Pondexter came up with in their previous game against Indiana, it left the Liberty falling behind. Even to a team as bad as Washington.
  • So the Mystics led 36-27 at halftime, partly because they’d managed to shoot 43%, but mostly because the Liberty were a dreadful 27% from the field.
  • The second half didn’t get any better for New York. It looked like the Liberty players would rather have been on vacation already, and some of them had checked out a little early. Pondexter did her best, but there was no team execution offensively, and the defense repeatedly broke down and allowed easy layups at the rim. New York play a defense that relies on help and energy, and there was none of either on offer. Nearly every time someone was beaten off the dribble and looked over her shoulder expecting weak side help to arrive, the ball was heading into the basket before anyone got close.
  • In fact, the only Liberty defender who seemed to be playing with the requisite amount of effort and spirit was Walker, who’s 34 years old, has barely any knees, and is probably going to have surgery over the break. That’s embarrassing for the rest of the Liberty players.
  • Pondexter was great whenever she got to the rim, but couldn’t hit a damn thing from outside. Unfortunately, even a team like the Mystics will notice that discrepancy after a while, and collapse everything into the paint while they watch her fire away.
  • Just for one brief moment in the fourth quarter, when Leilani Mitchell hit New York’s first three-pointer of the day with under four minutes left in the game – cutting the deficit to 8 points – it looked like a comeback was vaguely plausible. Seconds later, Langhorne was given the freedom of New Jersey to knock down a wide open 18-footer from the top of the arc, and it was all over again. The Liberty only had themselves to blame.
  • This game was a stark reminder of just how bad New York have been for most of the 2012 season so far. All the recent post injuries, and the longer-term absence of Plenette Pierson, has offered something else to talk about. But it’s somewhat covered up the fact that this team was dreadful to open the season, and bar a couple of upsets haven’t been much better since. They’ll appreciate the break to get healthy, and no one’s leaving for London, so there’s time to work on improving. But if it wasn’t for the other coach involved in this game, there’d be even more talk about New York’s John Whisenant being shown the door.
  • Thank whatever deity you believe in (if any) for Crystal Langhorne. Yet again, she was the saving grace for the Mystics, finishing 10-15 for 24 points and 6 boards. Without her, even with the Liberty playing this poorly, Washington might’ve struggled to take this one. And even in this game, some of Trudi Lacey’s decisions were baffling. She took multiple timeouts late in the first half when her team were dominant and just needed to keep rolling. Currie was 5-8 for 16 points and yet saw only 18 minutes of floor time. It’s just hard to understand what she’s thinking a lot of the time. One win doesn’t cover up months of ineptitude.

 

Atlanta Dream 70 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 91

  • Talking of coaching ineptitude, one particular sequence of this game drove me nuts, but we’ll get to that later.
  • Angel McCoughtry was once again missing for the Dream, replaced by rookie Tiffany Hayes in the Atlanta lineup. San Antonio came in on a long-running high, after winning 8 in a row. While they’ve got a couple of people who could probably use the rest, the Silver Stars are the prime example of a team who’d love to keep right on playing.
  • The opening quarter of this game was one of the more enjoyable, free-flowing periods of basketball we’ve had all season. Atlanta always want to play at a high pace, and with Hayes running one wing while Armintie Price ran the other, Lindsey Harding pushing the action in the middle, they were in full flow to start this game. San Antonio’s confidence level is obviously sky-high right now, and they weren’t much different, moving the ball freely and scoring with ease.
  • We also had the fun of a super-athletic matchup at power forward, between Sophia Young and Sancho Lyttle. Neither could stop the other early in this game, so even in halfcourt sets the offenses were on top. Atlanta led 26-22 after 10 minutes.
  • The second quarter was distinctly different, as both teams went to their benches and lost much of their rhythm.
  • The most ridiculous idea was Atlanta putting Cathrine Kraayeveld on the floor at the 3, where she couldn’t hope to guard anyone San Antonio use at that spot. It was Shenise Johnson initially, who went around or over Kraayeveld at will for scores.
  • With the smoothness and speed of Atlanta’s offense disappearing in the second quarter, far more of their shots started to come from outside rather than at the rim. Which merely highlighted the fact that San Antonio have significantly more players on their roster who can shoot. The Silver Stars had spun the game around by halftime, and led 42-37.
  • With their starters back out as a group to open the second half, Atlanta recaptured some of their mojo and were quickly back in the game.
  • Then came the disastrous coaching moves, this time from Atlanta’s Marynell Meadors. Obviously, you can’t expect all your starters to play 40 minutes. However, especially if your bench is weak or matches up badly with the opponent, you can stagger the substitutions to make sure enough starters are out there to carry a couple of backups. Instead, with 4 minutes left in the half (and Atlanta trailing just 52-48), Kraayeveld replaced Hayes. Two minutes later, three-point specialist and defensive joke Laurie Koehn replaced Price, before Jessica Moore and Ketia Swanier came in for Lyttle and Harding. It happened progressively over a few minutes, but eventually Meadors ended up with Swanier, Koehn, Kraayeveld, Moore and Aneika Henry as her lineup to close the third quarter. That’s a WNBA D-League lineup, if the WNBA had a D-League.
  • Inevitably, San Antonio blew the game open in those closing third quarter minutes, with a 13-4 run from the moment Kraayeveld came in. It was topped off when Atlanta had what should’ve been the last possession of the period, only for Swanier to travel with 1.7 seconds left under defensive pressure. An inbounds pass from Jia Perkins went over half the length of the court to a wide open Young, who banked in an easy runner from 6 feet as time expired. That’s the kind of basket you give up when your entire lineup is a bunch of backups.
  • After that mess to end the third, Atlanta were never in the game in the fourth quarter. The Dream bench isn’t strong, but Meadors has to look at herself before blaming her players for letting this one slip away.
  • It’s so much fun watching the joy San Antonio are playing with at the moment. It’s easy to enjoy winning, but the smiles all over everyone’s face every time they pull off a big play are wonderful to see. And it’s never just the player who scored – it’s the whole team, taking great pleasure in the success of their teammates. The game finished with 5 Silver Stars in double-digits, Jia Perkins leading them this time with 21 points on 7-10 shooting (including 6-7 from three-point range). But it’s everybody. The team ethic and the depth of this squad that can hurt you in so many ways has carried them to this incredibly impressive win streak. There’s a long way to go when we come back after the Olympics, but this team has become a threat to anyone.
  • After such a promising start, eventually the Dream just couldn’t keep pace with San Antonio. Four of their starters played at least 32 minutes, and Hayes would’ve been up that high as well if not for foul trouble. They didn’t have the depth – or the substitution patterns – to hold on. Sancho Lyttle eventually took almost half their shots, finishing 10-25 for 21 points. Without McCoughtry, they need Lyttle’s offense (especially when they can’t find ways to get out and run), but she’s still putting up too many efforts from long range. The fact that she’s worked on her shot and extended her range is impressive – it makes her much tougher to guard. But she’s most scary when she goes after rebounds, or uses those long legs to bound to the rim instead of settling for jumpers. Hopefully we’ll see a greater percentage of her efforts coming from around the rim in the second half.
  • Of course, Atlanta become a different proposition with McCoughtry and Erika de Souza are back in the fold, and both should return once they’re finished in London.

 

Connecticut Sun 80 @ Chicago Sky 78

  • For the first time all season – 24 hours before they’d become teammates in Team USA practice uniforms – we finally got to see the two best female centers on the planet go head to head.
  • Unfortunately, Tina Charles was without her usual running mate, with Asjha Jones taking the game off to rest multiple nagging injuries ahead of the Olympics. So reliable backup Mistie Mims had to become a starter for the evening (and Kelsey Griffin had to actually play off the bench).
  • To save repeating it over and over again, I’ll mention this at the start – there was more zone defense played in this game than I can remember in any WNBA game for years. Both teams used heavy doses of their 2-3 zones, almost like a college game.
  • The first half was ugly offensively for Connecticut. It was an example of what we’ve wondered about for much of the year – if Kara Lawson went cold, could anyone else in a Sun jersey step up and hit shots to compensate? With the absence of Jones highlighting it even further, the answer on this particular night was no. Connecticut players not named Tina Charles were 5-26 from the field in the first half.
  • Chicago’s offense wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire either, but they were witnessing Courtney Vandersloot’s best offensive game of the season by far. She was more aggressive about taking her shots and sliding to the rim than we’ve seen all year, and when it worked out well for her a couple of times she kept it rolling. You could practically see the confidence building in her that’s been so lacking in most of her games as a pro.
  • The battle between Charles and Sylvia Fowles didn’t quite get off the ground in the first half. They were fighting each other for position constantly in the early minutes, without either managing to gain the upper hand for any consistent period. Both, inevitably, had it much easier when they were up against the other’s backup.
  • In the second quarter, with Fowles on only two fouls, she spent a long period of time on the bench. Chicago had gone to their zone to contain Charles and it was working, with Connecticut largely resorting to shots over the top or poor passes that ended as turnovers. So Pokey Chatman let Fowles rest, and her team still held a 35-26 advantage at the break.
  • The second half was where the zones really came into heavy use. Chicago were mixing it up, typically dropping into their zone after makes but not trusting themselves to set it up in time off their misses. Connecticut were in a 2-3 from the opening possession of the second half and used it repeatedly for the rest of the game.
  • While they made a brief early run in the third quarter, Connecticut fell back again as Fowles, Vandersloot and Tamera Young had some joy both shooting over and knifing through the Sun’s zone.
  • Offensively, Connecticut have had some trouble against zones all season, and it’s something of a surprise that teams haven’t gone to it more against them. The absence of Jones, who sometimes makes use of the free-throw line gap in a 2-3 zone, made it even more difficult for the Sun.
  • Charles was still scoring, but most of her points seemed to come when Chicago slipped back into their man-to-man. Finding her within an attack on the zone was proving difficult.
  • But this never felt totally comfortable. Chicago have shown a remarkable ability to blow leads in the past, and when Mike Thibault finally happened upon a lineup that worked with 6 minutes left in regulation, the Sky were in trouble. Danielle McCray has practically fallen off the end of Thibault’s bench lately, and Renee Montgomery’s been awful for over a month, but they were both out there with Lawson, Mims and Charles when the Sun finally caught fire.
  • Down by 12 with those 6 minutes remaining, Montgomery drained a three, McCray sank one as well, then Montgomery banked in another. Chicago were still scoring occasional points, but Connecticut had finally discovered a couple of people capable of hitting shots over the top of the Chicago zone. And the other problem with a zone is that it’s harder to rebound out of, so Charles had her chances on the offensive glass, even when her teammates missed from outside.
  • Fowles also missed an easy layup with 2 minutes remaining that felt like a punch to the gut for the home fans hoping their team could cling on.
  • With the Sky up by two, and after Fowles was stripped in the low post, Chicago played solid defense for about 23 seconds, only for Vandersloot to slip as she chased Lawson into the lane. There wasn’t much contact – if any – but Lawson got the call, and calmly sank both free throws to tie the game. 24 seconds remained on the game clock, and it was the first time Connecticut had been level since 0-0.
  • Not for the first time this season, Chicago’s end-of-game possession was a mess. They ran a handoff from Fowles to Vandersloot at the top of the arc, and Sloot tried to curl around the defense on the left side but ran right into a trap. Her pass back to the top under pressure went high, and Allison Hightower pounced on it with seconds still on the clock. She had a good look at a runner to win the game for Connecticut as time expired – they would’ve literally won the game without leading for a single second of playing time – but it bounced off the iron. Overtime.
  • There was some poor passing from Chicago to open the extra period, but their shooting made up for it. Vandersloot and Shay Murphy made threes, which countered the points they were giving up to Charles at the other end.
  • In the final 90 seconds of overtime, Tamera Young made two nice attacking plays on offense. First she knifed in for a layup off the dribble, then she penetrated and drew the defense before feeding Fowles for a layup. Unfortunately for Chicago, in between those two baskets, Lawson curled along the baseline behind the zone and drilled a three from the corner. It was only the second shot she’d made all night in 10 tries, but it was a hell of a time to sink one.
  • A strong defensive possession from Chicago forced a shot clock violation, which gave the Sky the ball back with 29 seconds remaining, trailing by a point. They managed to find Fowles in the high-post, who attacked Charles off the dribble and drew a foul (although there was a lot of ball and not much arm involved in the contact, from what I could see). Fowles sank both foul shots for a one-point Chicago lead.
  • It didn’t last long. After using a timeout to advance the ball, Connecticut inbounded to Hightower, who went straight at Young and finished the lefty layup right over the top of her. The development in Hightower’s offensive game and confidence level this season remains incredibly impressive.
  • So Chicago were back behind by a point, this time with 9 seconds left. The inbounds went to Sonja Petrovic, who looked like she wanted to hand the ball off to Vandersloot. Everything was awkward from the start, and when Petrovic’s movements came to a grinding halt with the ball still in her hands, she was called for a travel. Under the letter of the law, I don’t think it actually was a travelling violation, but the play didn’t look destined for success anyway.
  • After Lawson hit 1-of-2 at the line, Chicago had a final chance with 3 seconds left. The ball went to Murphy in the corner, who airballed a three. Petrovic couldn’t corral the rebound, and that was it. Chicago had blown another one, and Connecticut had won a game they led for a grand total of less than two minutes (all in overtime).
  • Chicago will be sick about giving this one away. Fowles didn’t have the best game of her life, faced with both Charles and the Sun’s zone, although 9-12 for 20 points and 10 boards was hardly terrible. But Vandersloot was 10-18 for 22 points and 8 assists, Young 7-10 for 14, and Murphy 5-12 for 13. They can’t ask for much more from those support players. Amazingly, after starting the season 7-1, the Sky are heading into the break below .500. They’ll be hoping that the return of Epiphanny Prince after the break will be a cure-all, and it’s games like this that she helped the Sky pull out in the opening weeks. They desperately need her to be the same electrifying scorer she was pre-injury from the moment that games start up again. As this game illustrated, they especially need her in the clutch.
  • They’ll also be hoping that the Olympic experience reenergises Swin Cash, who played under 25 minutes in this game and went 0-5 for 0 points. She’s been a desperate disappointment in a Sky uniform this season, and there’s only so much you can bring via your ‘veteran experience’. At some point, you have to contribute on the floor.
  • Connecticut flat-out stole this one, and Thibault won’t be keeping the tape for his highlight reel. Charles finished 11-22 for 25 points and 13 boards, highlighting the main elements she has over Fowles – she can play further away from the rim, making it easier to get her the ball, and her team are simply better at feeding her. She was ably supported by Mims, who played nearly 35 minutes for her 19 points and 10 boards. They won’t want to play without Jones – and they missed her ability to stretch the defense and link up with Charles – but Mims proved once again that she can fill in.
  • However, the Sun will still be spending plenty of time working on how to score against a zone over the course of the Olympic break.

 

Seattle Storm 83 @ Phoenix Mercury 64

  • And finally, a repeat of the matchup from last Sunday, when Seattle destroyed the Mercury thanks to an offensive explosion from Sue Bird. This one was pretty similar, only with the Storm spreading the scoring around a little more.
  • Just to complete their first half of the season, Phoenix had yet another player missing due to injury (or ‘injury’, depending on your level of cynicism). Charde Houston was out thanks to the left knee problem she picked up in the last game against LA. Rookie post Avery Warley came into the starting lineup to replace her.
  • Seattle were still without Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters, but it’s not like that had caused them many problems in the previous game against Phoenix.
  • Instead of Bird, Katie Smith was the star scorer for Seattle early on. The Mercury defense was as lax as ever, and Smith revelled in the space, firing away like days of old. Phoenix didn’t pick her up in transition, or extend their zone out quickly enough to contest in the halfcourt, and she had 14 points in the first quarter.
  • It was interesting to see Storm coach Brian Agler go super-small this time around without being remotely forced into it by foul trouble. Camille Little and Ewelina Kobryn were both replaced midway through the first quarter, leaving Seattle once again with Shekinna Stricklen, Alysha Clark and Smith as their frontcourt. Stricklen’s probably the tallest, but none of them are true posts at WNBA level. It showed what Seattle thought of Phoenix’s interior game, or the Mercury’s ability to consciously force the ball down low and attack the Storm in the paint. Agler didn’t feel the need to run Little and Kobryn into the ground, because the Mercury weren’t going to take advantage. He was absolutely right.
  • It did lead to Seattle giving up a couple of offensive rebounds, purely because they were so much shorter than Phoenix, but that was about it.
  • With the Storm looking completely comfortable at 37-24 midway through the second quarter, Phoenix suddenly started to hit shots from outside. It was really the same stuff they’d been forcing up all night, but Alexis Hornbuckle and Samantha Prahalis both hit from the perimeter, before DeWanna Bonner knocked down a pair of Bonner Bombs from outside to pile on (the first one was almost from the halfcourt logo). That string of unlikely points had Phoenix within 41-37 at halftime.
  • There was a scary moment for the Mercury within that scoring run, when Prahalis went to the floor in pain after twisting her ankle when she landed on a jump shot. She needed help to get back to the locker room, but to sighs of relief from Mercury fans she re-emerged to start the second half.
  • It didn’t take Seattle long to first re-establish their lead, and then turn the game into a blowout in the third quarter. Phoenix’s only remotely effective method of scoring had become Bonner drives, and even those typically only led to points if she could draw a foul. Meanwhile, Seattle were still getting wide open shots without much difficulty.
  • The especially disappointing aspect from the Mercury in the third quarter wasn’t the poor halfcourt defense – we’ve come to expect that – but the number of times they were simply outrun or outworked. It’s supposed to be Phoenix that beat teams down the floor for easy baskets, but Seattle were the team proving far more effective in transition and piling up quick, easy points. The Storm were nearly as shorthanded as the Mercury, so Phoenix couldn’t really blame tiredness for these breakdowns. It was a lack of effort at times, and frequently a lack of concentration. Seattle won the third quarter 26-6, and the game was over.
  • As with the previous Storm-Mercury game, both teams would’ve happily called it a night before the fourth quarter even began. Especially as neither side has enough players available to take out all their starters right now.
  • The Mercury – this Mercury – are just bad. They don’t have many effective offensive options, and their defense is at typical Phoenix levels. Seeing Taurasi in interviews saying she’ll be absolutely fine to play for Team USA, and already in uniform at the USA practices, puts even greater credence behind the idea that the franchise haven’t been too upset at all the losses this season. The players they have left have played hard in the vast majority of their games – they just haven’t been able to compete without their key players.
  • It’s been a struggle, but the Storm have reached the break at right around .500 (this win took them to 9-10). The return of Lauren Jackson, plus hopefully the return to health of Thompson and Wauters, won’t necessarily fix everything. But their schedule gets much easier in the second half – they’re a far better team at home, and 10 of their remaining 15 games are in Seattle – so they’ve got every chance to work things out and build momentum with Jackson in the fold. And her simple presence will make life easier for everyone else with the attention she draws from defenses. Beating up on the Mercury doesn’t mean a great deal at this point, but it’s a nice way to head into the break. Seattle will be hoping that they can improve enough post-Olympics to beat up on much better teams as well.

 

Notes

Don’t go away thinking WNBAlien will be on hiatus for the next month. There will be updates over the break (maybe even a series of Half-Term Grades for every team if I can work up the energy to write them), plus there might even be some bonus Olympic coverage. I haven’t decided whether to experience the Games purely as a fan or write about it as well at this point. The volume of writing may well be in direct correlation to the amount of winning we see from Great Britain. Normal WNBA coverage will, of course, resume when the WNBA returns in August.

 

Upcoming Games

None, until August 16th.

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2 comments on “WNBA Today, 07/14/2012: Have a Nice Summer!

  1. Michelle says:

    Thank you Richard for all the writing you have done in the first half of the season. It was really fun to read them all. Looking forward to the 2nd half!

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