WNBA Today, 09/03/2012: Atlanta’s conquering heroine returns, while Sparks are exposed again

Maybe the USA should have more public holidays. Two WNBA games yesterday, and anyone who took the time to catch them during Labor Day weekend saw some decidedly entertaining basketball. Or for those of us in different countries, it was just a nice Sunday.

The games began with what hopefully was also a conclusion. Atlanta were hosting Connecticut, and Angel McCoughtry was in uniform and ready to play. She’d missed two games prior to Marynell Meadors’s departure as Dream head coach and general manager, then missed two more while ‘indefinitely suspended’ by Meadors’s replacement, Fred Williams. On Wednesday, he’d reportedly presented her with a written list of requirements that she needed to sign and comply with before being reinstated to the team. Presumably, she’d agreed to his terms, because Angel was back.

Not back in the starting lineup just yet, however. Rookie guard Tiffany Hayes continued to start, and the only change for Atlanta was Cathrine Kraayeveld beginning the game ahead of Armintie Price (possibly because Price missed a practice to attend a funeral, rather than a strange coach’s decision). Connecticut once again had Kelsey Griffin starting at power forward, with Asjha Jones and Mistie Mims still out due to injury. The Sun post corps is scraping by with about two-and-a-half options at the moment.

Besides the inevitable McCoughtry drama, the post is where much of the interest lies in this matchup. Connecticut were a better team than Atlanta for much of last season, and finished ahead of them in the standings, earning home-court advantage for their first-round playoff series. But largely because of the job that Erika de Souza did on Sun star center Tina Charles, Atlanta swept Connecticut out of the postseason. With Erika having skipped the first half of the 2012 WNBA season to prepare for the Olympics with Brazil, this was their first encounter since that playoff series (meaningless USA-Brazil international friendlies don’t count).

The big centers started going at each other from the opening possessions. Charles wasn’t backing down, but as always the physicality of de Souza was making things difficult for her. Erika forces Charles to work hard for everything she gets, including the initial post position she can set up in. While many of the efforts were moves and shots that she typically takes against everyone, it was noticeable that every attempt Charles took in the early stages – and for most of the rest of the game – was either a face-up jump shot, or a post move that took her away from the basket. Practically nothing was with Charles moving towards the rim.

Neither team managed to build a big advantage in the first half. Atlanta were the quicker, more active team, especially once Price entered the game for Kraayeveld, but Connecticut were shooting significantly better from outside to keep pace.

 

McCoughtry made her first appearance with 1:30 left in the opening quarter, replacing Hayes, to cheers from the crowd. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first Dream possession after she entered the game involved Angel dribbling the length of the court without passing to anyone, and trying to score on her own. She ran into Charles, so it didn’t work out too well for McCoughtry.

Angel’s length and activity defensively had more effect for the Dream than her offense in the first half, playing the passing lanes and making ball movement more difficult for the Sun. Atlanta also had Kraayeveld and Sancho Lyttle making some shots from outside, which helped their offense. Lyttle was once again taking too many shots from the perimeter rather than utilising her size advantage over Griffin in the paint, but when the shots are going in you can’t really complain. The Dream relaxed a little too early at the end of the half, allowing Connecticut to close out with a 6-0 run that tied the game at 39 heading into the interval.

The third quarter was largely more of the same in this tight contest, although the narrow leads were now being held by Connecticut rather than Atlanta. Kara Lawson was looking for her own shot a little more, which with the way she’s been scoring this year is generally a good thing for the Sun. Between her and the other Connecticut guards, the Sun took the initiative in the third quarter, speeding up the game and making things happen, while Atlanta seemed to have gotten a little bogged down. But the Dream managed to hang around, and a very late pair of McCoughtry free throws tied the game again at the end of the third.

Now for the real excitement – this game exploded in the fourth quarter. Both coaches went for broke to some extent. McCoughtry played the entire period for Williams and Atlanta, the rust of a few missed games and the controversy that had swirled around her pushed to the background. For Connecticut, head coach Mike Thibault went small, with essentially a four-guard lineup for the entire final 10 minutes. Danielle McCray, a player who’s been in Thibault’s doghouse for much of the year, was the closest thing he had to a power forward on the floor.

Both these teams like to play at a high pace when they can, but don’t always manage to find the necessary rhythm. In the fourth quarter of this game, they just started flying at each other, feeding off the energy at either end of the floor. Both started to shoot the lights out as well, which helped.

Initially, it was de Souza and Charles reprising their war in the paint, each scoring on the other on multiple possessions. Then, for Atlanta, Little Miss Superstar herself started taking over. McCoughtry’s rainbow three gave the Dream a five point lead with five minutes left in the game that had Thibault screaming for a timeout to rein in the momentum.

It was going to take more than that to stop McCoughtry by this point. She was driving to the rim repeatedly for layups, with Allison Hightower – Connecticut’s designated stopper on the perimeter – powerless to do anything about it. The absence of a second post for the Sun was widening the lane and the driving opportunities for McCoughtry, but McCray was making up for it at the other end. She had a trio of three-pointers in the period, and nailed another jumper to pull the Sun within 78-75 with barely two-minutes remaining. Then McCoughtry hit a trail three of her own. Seconds later Renee Montgomery drilled an immediate answer from beyond the arc for Connecticut. McCoughtry drove for another layup. Montgomery answered again with another jumper. It was constant punch and counter-punch. An official timeout after a Lyttle travelling violation gave everyone time to breathe with one minute remaining, and Atlanta ahead 83-80.

Out of the timeout, Connecticut went to Montgomery again, hoping her hot streak could continue. She fired a little too hastily, and came up short. At the other end, McCoughtry went by Hightower yet again, but finally the help-defense from Charles was quick enough to come across and cut off the lane to the hoop. No problem for McCoughtry, who simply pulled up in front of Charles instead, and calmly sank a 7-foot jumper over the top of her. That just about iced it, especially once Charles missed a jumper at the other end. A pair of Lindsey Harding free throws and de Souza blocking a Lawson shot on the perimeter capped the 87-80 Atlanta win.

If you didn’t catch the game, do yourself a favour and check out the fourth quarter via the LiveAccess archive. It was a heck of an exhibition of basketball, especially considering the central figure was the player who’s been surrounded by controversy in recent weeks. McCoughtry was 7-8 in the fourth quarter alone, for 18 points (8-14 for 24 in the game as a whole). This is what she can add to the Dream, who’ve admittedly played some decent stuff at times even without her. She gives them a go-to finisher in tight games, and an option to throw the ball to when nothing else is working. At times, she’ll go too far, fire up bad shots and ignore teammates when she ought to find alternatives to constantly calling her own number. But she’s their star, and if this team’s going to win anything this year, it’s going to be with her on the floor.

On the perimeter, while this was McCoughtry’s night in the closing stages, Connecticut more than held their own over the course of the game. Along with McCray’s late outburst (5-6 for 15 points), Lawson (6-11 for 16), Hightower (4-11 for 9) and Montgomery (4-9 for 13) all contributed significantly. But without Asjha Jones, the pairing of Lyttle and de Souza came out on top against Charles in the paint. The Sun star had a fairly quiet 5-12 night for 11 points and 11 rebounds, while both the Dream posts had double-doubles of their own. Erika makes Charles work so hard without needing a huge amount of help from her teammates, so Connecticut need that extra option. Without it, McCoughtry was left with the chance to pull out the win in the clutch.

—–

The late game was in Chicago, where the Sky were hosting Los Angeles. Chicago desperately needed a strong performance, having won only one game since the Olympic break, and after a meek loss in Indiana the night before. The positive news before tip-off was that Sylvia Fowles was healthy to start, despite limping out of the game against the Fever with a right-foot problem. The bad news was that point guard Ticha Penicheiro was in street clothes, after picking up a hamstring injury in that same contest. Courtney Vandersloot, who’d been playing well off the bench lately since Penicheiro had taken over her starting spot, came back into the opening lineup.

LA, inevitably, used the same starting five we’ve seen virtually all season.

The first half left quite a bit to be desired from both teams. Chicago left Candace Parker alone for both a layup and a wide open three in the opening minutes to help her ease into the game. Parker’s been terrible since the Olympics, so the last thing you want to do is help her get comfortable and escape from that slump. Vandersloot picked up two quick fouls, sending her to the bench, and forcing Epiphanny Prince to run the offense with Penicheiro unavailable. Vandersloot returned late in the first quarter, and lasted a grand total of six seconds before picking up her third foul for using her hands too much trying to defend Alana Beard. It was a slightly harsh call, but a dumb piece of play from Vandersloot.

Fowles looked healthy, and was moving well, but Chicago were trying to keep her minutes in check and sent Carolyn Swords in for her after barely three minutes of action. Swords has done a solid job in recent games against players like Tina Charles and Jessica Davenport, but it was swiftly apparent that she couldn’t remotely handle an aggressive Parker. With some extra confidence from those early baskets, Parker went right at – and right past – Swords for easy points. Fowles quickly returned.

Chicago were using their designated perimeter stopper Tamera Young to defend Kristi Toliver, who’s been on fire since the midseason break (and pretty damn warm all season long). That left Prince, Vandersloot and Shay Murphy sliding over to try to defend Beard and DeLisha Milton-Jones. It was disappointing how little LA looked to that pair to exploit what were essentially mismatches. Neither is a primary offensive weapon for LA, but both can score if put in the right situation. The Sparks largely seemed to ignore the option.

It had been a tight first half until the final 4 minutes, when the Sparks finally started to make a push. Milton-Jones and Toliver hit back-to-back threes to kick things off, and while Chicago made a couple of plays to counter, Toliver kept firing and hitting. Beard chipped in a triple as well, and LA had stretched out a 43-33 advantage by halftime.

Chicago’s offense hadn’t looked too bad in the first half, even without either of their usual point guards. Fowles, for once, was more a part of the offense rather than the sole focus of it. But yet again, turnovers had hurt them, with 11 given up in the opening 20 minutes (leading to 10 Sparks points).

However, with Vandersloot back on the floor to start the second half, and her confidence high after recent improved performances, the Sky found their flow in the third quarter. LA had collapsed in the third period of their previous game in Tulsa, and this quickly started to look like a repeat occurrence. Rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike converted a couple of early opportunities around the rim, but that was LA’s only decent offense for most of the period. At the other end, Chicago were moving the ball far better, finding each other in position to score, and had completely taken over the game by the end of the third.

The Sky had trailed 52-41 early in the period, before Vandersloot drove for a layup, hit a three and a mid-range jumper, and fed both Murphy and Swin Cash for layups. Chicago were back in it in a hurry. The Sparks lost their composure, started turning the ball over cheaply, and firing too many shots from outside. Beard had a couple of nice finishes to briefly stem the tide, but yet another Cash layup created by good passing – and lackadaisical LA defensive rotation – was followed by inside-out ball movement for a Prince three to close the third quarter. Chicago were only up 60-56, but they had all the momentum.

LA’s defense improved to start the fourth, allowing them to at least keep the game within reach for a while – and it was no coincidence that Parker was on the bench. As you can imagine, the DVR-style controls on LiveAccess are utilised heavily when you’re taking notes on games to be able to write pieces like this. It’s amazing the number of times you review baskets against the Sparks and Parker is right in the middle of the breakdowns that allow other teams to score. She’s leading the league in blocks by a mile this season, which leads to the horrifying possibility that she might make another All-Defense team this year. Hopefully, the WNBA head coaches – who vote for those squads – will have the sense not to put her there. Expect an aggravated WNBAlien article if and when her name appears on either team.

Parker and Milton-Jones returned to the game with 6 minutes left, and LA trailing 66-62. Unsurprisingly enough, Chicago’s offense immediately started working more smoothly again. Parker threw in another bricked three-pointer and a three-second violation, along with the typically terrible pick-and-roll defense that allowed another Vandersloot layup. Chicago were still full of confidence from their third-quarter run, and playing with more teamwork and unity than we’ve seen from them for most of the year. The game was already practically over at 74-66 when Parker failed to box out Cash on a missed Tamera Young free throw, leading to another Prince three when the ball was rotated back out. Then it really was over. Chicago eased home to a much-needed 85-74 win.

That second half is what this Sky team can be at its best. It’s how they play when Pokey Chatman goes to sleep and dreams it, rather than how they’ve actually performed on the floor for most of the year. It’s not like they just randomly got hot from outside – although they were 5-9 from beyond the arc in the second half. It was teamwork and ball movement, creating the right shot. Fowles was once again part of the offense, taking and hitting only 3 shots in the second half, but still playing her central role. Vandersloot was 4-5 for 15 points, 5 assists, and zero turnovers in the second half, playing with real confidence, while Prince was 3-7 for 9 points and 4 assists alongside her. The question now is whether this was a flash in the pan, or if they can pull out this kind of performance with any kind of consistency. And whether they can do it against teams that won’t fall apart defensively and allow it to happen. The couple of games without Fowles may have done this team a favour, forcing them to play a more team-oriented style. Their next game is a hugely important matchup with New York on Friday night, which could be central to deciding which of the two teams sneaks into the playoffs. The Sky have got a chance if they can reproduce this.

As for the Sparks, a second consecutive third-quarter capitulation isn’t a promising sign. Neither is what they’re getting from their supposed star Candace Parker, who closed the game 5-14 for 15 points and 9 rebounds, but was less impressive than even those numbers suggest. Her movement up and down the floor looks pretty normal to me, but her production since the Olympics has been poor, and while both Milton-Jones and Ogwumike are useful, Parker is the centerpiece of this frontcourt. They need more from her, at both ends of the floor. Kristi Toliver was again remarkably accurate from the floor, shooting 9-11 for 19 points, but faded out of the game in crucial stretches of the second half. LA head coach Carol Ross still has no faith whatsoever in her bench, so the Toliver/Beard backcourt has to play a lot of minutes and has to produce for this team. They’ve carried the Sparks through several games since the break, but couldn’t do enough in this one. Maybe a visit to Minnesota on Tuesday night will inspire Parker to step up her game, and the Sparks as a whole to play a full 40 minutes of basketball.

 

Notes

Australian wing Jenna O’Hea made her season debut for LA in the game detailed above, without making much impact. Charde Houston was in uniform rather than street clothes for the Phoenix Mercury’s last game, and could be close to a return. Candice Dupree is also reportedly on her way back, although not as far advanced in her rehab as Houston.

 

Upcoming Games

Monday September 3rd (today):

None

—–

Tuesday September 4th (tomorrow):

Connecticut @ Washington, 7pm ET

Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 09/03/2012: Atlanta’s conquering heroine returns, while Sparks are exposed again

  1. […] From Richard: Atlanta’s conquering heroine returns, while Sparks are exposed again […]

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