Four games yesterday as the season got going in earnest and we got our first look at how most of the WNBA teams are shaping up in 2011. Phoenix were in Seattle as the Storm collected their championship rings and then picked up right where they left off last year. Seven straight times they beat the Mercury last season, and it always felt like they were in control of this one, despite reigning MVP Lauren Jackson only taking one shot in the entire first half. The Merc could never get their running game going which left the whole contest being played at Seattle’s pace, and in the face of that the Mercury are never going to have much chance. Seattle are more precise in their execution, far smoother defensively, and when it comes to Phoenix they’re actually deeper than their opponents as well. The Storm blew the game out to a 19-point lead with under 5 minutes left before a late charge led by 11 Taurasi points in the space of 90 seconds reduced the scoreline to a respectable 78-71. Phoenix made a mess of trying to foul to stop the clock in the final seconds, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.
The Storm looked strong. Jackson was quiet for her but with frontcourt partner Camille Little chipping in 18p/9r LJ could afford a night off. Katie Smith was her typical self on her Storm debut, playing physically on both ends, hitting a few shots from range and generally offering exactly what we expected from her. There was an injury scare near the end when Ashley Robinson fell on Camille Little’s leg, leaving Little in a crumpled heap holding her leg. However, she didn’t look in too much trouble sitting on the bench for the final few minutes and the ‘right-knee sprain’ diagnosis looked realistic – rather than the euphemism for “we haven’t diagnosed the ACL tear yet” that it sometimes is.
Few surprises from the Mercury as well, with Taurasi the only one who really showed up offensively (31 points, although a lot of them in that late charge after the contest was all but decided). Penny Taylor started nicely but disappeared in the second half, Dupree never got going, and Kara Braxton missed so many layups that I lost count. The bench was hideous. Bonner didn’t do much, Sanford and Sanni barely played (still don’t understand why either is on a Gaines-coached roster), Swanier shot twice without troubling the rim either time and Marie Ferdinand-Harris was the worst of the lot. As with last season, this looks like a 6-woman team (and that number might be high).
The highlight of the three night games was a ridiculous Becky Hammon baseline fadeaway jumpshot from behind the backboard with 0.2 seconds left in the first half (which they unbelievably left out of the highlight package, or I’d link you to the clip). The little Jordan-esque shrug she offered afterwards, as if to say “hey, I don’t know how I hit these shots either”, was cute too. But more on that game in a minute. First up was Washington in Connecticut, and it went about as expected once news filtered through that Alana Beard was out, finishing in a comfortable 89-73 Sun win. Supposedly Beard has a foot injury unrelated to the ankle surgery she’s coming back from, but it’s hardly a good sign on opening night to have your one decent perimeter player in street clothes. The Mystics did a fair job trying to stick with the Sun, but K.Miller, Ajavon, Coleman, J.Thomas and Christmas/Dunlap is just a flat out ugly perimeter rotation. Langhorne/Anosike looked like a very strong pairing inside though (Anosike only played 26 minutes due to foul trouble; why Lang only played 28 I have no idea) – if anything good happens for the Mystics this season it’s going to be founded on those two.
Nice start for Connecticut, taking care of business in their home opener and shooting an outstanding 57% from the floor, even if the opposition wasn’t the most taxing they’ll face this year. Charles looked strong, Jones looked healthy, and neither had to play too many minutes thanks to solid backup from Walker and Griffin and the comfortable 10+ point lead they had throughout the second half. The real highlight for Sun fans was the debut of Danielle McCray, who came off the bench and couldn’t miss, going 5-5 from the floor (including 4-4 from three-point range) for 14 points. If McCray turns out to be ready for real action this season the Sun’s perimeter rotation becomes markedly stronger.
Meanwhile over in Indiana, a far uglier game was playing out between the Fever and Sky. Chicago looked a mess most of the night, leaving Indiana to shoot a deplorable 30% from the floor yet ease to a 65-57 win regardless. Chatman went with Canty as the starting point guard for no discernible reason, leaving Courtney Vandersloot to come off the bench and play nearly 30 minutes anyway when she was vastly more effective. Sloot looked a little nervous and was beaten comprehensively on a few occasions at the defensive end, but she’s obviously the way of the future for the Sky. Might as well bite the bullet and start the girl, Pokey. The main problem for Chicago was how completely uninvolved Sylvia Fowles was in the offense. Indiana are always one of the best defensive teams in the league, and Tammy Sutton-Brown was working her butt off down there fighting it out with Big Syl, but Fowles simply has to get more than 5 shots. Partly Fowles’s fault for not fighting her way open in good position often enough, partly the fault of the Canty/Sloot tandem at the point, but Chatman also has to design her system and instruct her team to use their center more. 5 shots from your one true star is ridiculous.
Lin Dunn and the Fever will be delighted to have gotten out of there with a win last night, because that wasn’t pretty. They’ve started each of the last two years by trying to make Briann January their starting point guard, both years benching her within a matter of weeks. She got the opening night start again yesterday, only to go 0-11 from the field in an apparent effort to get benched again. Problem is, Shannon Bobbitt came off the bench as her backup and was worse. Don’t expect Bobbitt to last long as the first choice reserve, and at this rate Erin Phillips may go past January as well into the starting lineup. Catchings had a quiet offensive night but fortunately for Indiana Katie Douglas hit some shots and Tangela Smith was hot from outside on her Fever debut, and that was enough. Indiana have always had a knack for winning games even when they’re not playing that well, but they’ll need to do better than this as the season progresses.
So back to that San Antonio game. Suffice it to say, the Silver Stars beat Tulsa by 20, and it was nowhere near that close. Miserable, pathetic, hideous start for the Shock, who took a 10-7 lead in the first quarter and actually looked reasonable through the first five minutes of the game. Then things fell apart. Endless turnovers, countless miscommunications, lazy and disorganised defense and pretty similar at the other end. They’re a mess, their coach/GM doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, and as we already knew, half the roster probably shouldn’t even be employed in this league. Hope things get at least a little better, because this is embarrassing for the WNBA, not just the individual franchise. On the positive side (if we look hard), rookie Australian Liz Cambage had a pretty decent debut, considering the circumstances. 18 points and 10 boards is solid foundation, even if there were too many turnovers and she went 3-10 from the field. Less said about the rest the better.
Nice for San Antonio to get such a comfortable win on opening night, but it’s hard to draw much from a win over a rec-league team. Hammon was nice, Young was smooth, Riley didn’t miss all evening and even avoided fouling out despite battling Cambage for 24 minutes. The newcomers were good too, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Danielle Adams can compete against real teams. She’s a big girl, and I don’t mean her height. They got murdered on the boards, as expected, which is going to be far more of an issue when the other team doesn’t have 28 turnovers.
In other news… Scholanda Robinson didn’t play for San Antonio (I think I saw her in street clothes on the sideline, but I’m terrible at identifying players out of uniform so don’t quote me on that). Exactly what her issue is I haven’t found reported anywhere yet, so will update as information becomes available. Not like the Silver Stars needed her last night.
New York @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 3.30pm ET