Yes, we’re going with sub-headings now. Figured it might make things a little more interesting.
Now that’s more like it. Our first game of the season with a grandstand finish; the first upset road win that confounds expectations; and the first game of the year where LaChina Robinson makes me talk to a computer monitor – now the WNBA season is really underway!
New York’s game in Atlanta started with a couple of changes from the lineups most expected to see. Angel McCoughtry’s preseason knee sprain kept her on the sidelines, pushing Coco Miller into the Dream’s starting lineup, while Essence Carson started over Leilani Mitchell for New York. Our esteemed TV commentators seemed to think that was down to Mitchell’s sore back, but as she entered the game barely five minutes in it looks like that was simply new head coach John Whisenant’s preferred starting lineup. Carson over Mitchell has some advantages. It puts a longer, more athletic defender on the floor from the start, so that teams can’t take advantage of the diminutive Mitchell/Pondexter backcourt in the early minutes. It automatically puts the ball in Cappie’s hands, which is where you want it anyway. Plus it might even help out their rebounding a little, although you don’t really want to be looking for that from your guards. However, it does put Pondexter in automatic ‘creator’ mode, and they’re going to need her to score. A lot. So we’ll see how that works out as the season progresses.
But before they worry about the rest of the year, Lib fans get to celebrate a hell of a win on the road in their first game of the season, which suggested markedly more promise than many of us were expecting from them this year. You’re going to have to forgive me for going on about this one a bit, but I had more notes on this game than all the others put together this weekend. Before we get to the crazy finish, let’s look at the positives that New York could’ve taken regardless of the result. Kia Vaughn looked at least mildly serviceable as the starting center. Eight boards in the first 11 minutes of the game were followed by absolutely none in the remaining 34, which is a little worrying, but that was a nice opening 11 minutes. She also hit two layups in the final two minutes of regulation, first when Erika forgot about her to help on Cappie, then on a nice little slip-screen cut when she realised Erika had stepped too far out to cover Pondexter coming off the expected pick. Promising signs.
Elsewhere, on the basis of one game, Nicole Powell appears to have awoken from her coma. Maybe it was just one night, maybe she just loves playing for Whiz, but 17 points (at 50% shooting), 6 assists and 6 boards is the Cappie-sidekick she was supposed to be when this team was assembled last season. Pondexter herself had a solid game as a facilitator, finishing with 11 assists. 5-15 from the floor isn’t the shooting Cappie fans know and love but that’ll get better. Finally, leading the way for New York was Plenette Pierson, playing a crazy 42 minutes and going 11-17 from the floor for 25 points and 10 rebounds. Not something you can expect every night, but wow, what a start.
The game was nip and tuck throughout, neither team ever ahead by more than 5 points at any meaningful stage of regulation. de Souza hit some early foul trouble (not for the first time), which made life easier for New York when Alison Bales had to play heavy minutes as her replacement. Bales is big, but she doesn’t carry the threat that Atlanta get from Erika. The last three minutes were where things got exciting. Izi hit a twisting layup to put the Dream up 3. Cappie beat Harding off the dribble, Coco Miller slid over to help and Cappie found Mitchell wide open in the corner for the tying trey. Harding pulls up and hits a 15-foot jumper over Mitchell. Then those two Vaughn layups I mentioned sandwiched a trademark crazy running banker from Izi. Tied ballgame, 1:15 left. Sancho Lyttle ended up bricking a 3 on a pick-and-pop on the next possession (more on that later), getting bailed out first when Vaughn was called for a foul on the rebound, then when Lyttle herself drew a very dubious foul call on Powell on the next play. Sancho hits both free throws, Dream by 2 with 33 seconds left.
New York came down and Lyttle made a heck of a defensive play, stepping in front of Pierson to take away a Pondexter pass, leaving the Liberty with no choice but to intentionally foul Harding to stop the clock. As anyone who’s followed Lindsey’s history will remember, crunch-time free throws aren’t always her forte – first one was long, hit the second. New York ball, 19 seconds to play, down three. And here’s where Nicole Powell really showed she may have found a way to reverse the decomposition process. Unable to get the ball to Pondexter, Pierson dropped it to Powell, who danced around with the ball on the sideline, stepped in, stepped back, and drained the tying three with Lyttle right up in her grill. 8.8 seconds still on the clock, timeout Atlanta. The next play didn’t go too well for New York. Carson was on Harding when she flared out to receive the inbounds pass, before running straight into her teammate Pierson, leaving Carson lying prostrate on the ground (well done refs for not instinctively blowing the whistle, by the way). Pondexter did a decent job seeing the danger and helping across on Harding, but the damage was done and Lindsey hit a little jumper in the lane to put the Dream up 2 with 3.2 seconds on the clock.
Cue yet more drama. New York advance the ball with their last timeout, Powell throws the inbounds pass a little long, and Pierson makes a nice save under the hoop, simultaneously kicking the pass to Sidney Spencer on the baseline. The Sloth didn’t hesitate, tying the game with her only shot of the night. 0.2s left and we were headed to overtime (no one scores on under-0.3s tips in this league). Gotta credit Spencer for hitting the shot after playing all of four minutes all night, and Whiz for having the balls to use her. Shooting the damn ball is supposed to be her central skill, after all.
By comparison, overtime was pretty damn dull. Vaughn made a jumper from the free-throw line before fouling out, and Whiz went to rookie Jessica Breland as the replacement. That turned out to be an inspired decision when Breland went on to hit two key buckets of her own. The six point lead New York had built was cut in half by a Coco Miller triple with 38 seconds left, but Mitchell responded with a three of her own barely ten seconds later and it was over, ultimately finishing 94-88 Libs. Big win for New York to get their season off and running when so many people doubted them going in.
As for Atlanta, it wasn’t a terrible start for them either. Obviously you’d like to come away with the win, but without their star player they were twice inches away from winning the game anyway. Harding fit in smoothly, Izi and Coco were aggressive offensively on the wings in McCoughtry’s absence, and Armintie Price had a nice game off the bench as well. The post rotation looks a little thin to me with Bales and then Sandora Irvin as the backups, but they’re probably good enough to survive on most nights. Sancho Lyttle had a strange game. 18 points, 11 boards, 5 assists and 4 steals is an impressive raw stat line, but she kept shooting from outside, including five three-point attempts. From a player who’d shot once from three-point range in her entire six-year WNBA career prior to yesterday. The only one that connected was a pass that she overthrew which somehow found the hoop, and most of the others weren’t even close. I love Sancho and her game, but she’s not even that good from mid-range (25/81 from 16-20 feet last season) – so stop shooting threes.
The other game last night was a rematch from Friday, this time with LA travelling up to Minnesota to face the Lynx. After the tight contest in LA you might’ve expected another close game, but Minnesota got their revenge with ease, pulling away in the third quarter and coasting to an 86-69 victory. After the slightly worrying performance two days earlier, this was the Lynx team that their fans has been anticipating coming into the season. Augustus played some great stuff, dropping in a floater in the lane barely 30 seconds into the game that augured of things to come. It wasn’t just the jumpers she hit – she’ll probably still be able to drain those when she’s 50 – but the willingness to enter the lane and mix it up with the bigger bodies when necessary. If she gets comfortable with contact again that’s huge for her and the Lynx. Augustus even threw in two nice blocks, one on a Parker breakaway attempt where Candace tried to go straight over her and was denied, the other on a Thompson drive in the final minutes long after the game was decided. Impressive to see from a player not exactly known for her athleticism, or for her defense. Equally positive for Minnesota, Amber Harris was wildly improved from her brief appearance on Friday. 18 minutes (all earned), 11 points, 8 rebounds, and enough defence that Taj and Brunson got some proper rest. Rookies are often more comfortable at home, so it undoubtedly helped to have the crowd behind her, but that was a massive step in the right direction for the Lynx post rotation.
It also seemed like Reeve learned some lessons from Friday night. Hornbuckle barely played, leaving minutes for Wiggins and Wright to have a real impact on the game. There was also less dependence on running endless screens for Maya, probably helped by the early fouls she picked up, forcing the rest of the team to pick up the load. She got her points in the second half anyway, but everyone else seemed more involved in the offense than they were on Friday night. All good things for Minnesota. And tomorrow night they get to beat up on Tulsa, so they must be really happy right now.
Over on the purple and ‘gold’ side, things aren’t quite so rosy. Just like we shouldn’t overreact to the opening game, there shouldn’t be an overreaction to game two either, but this game further exposed some important issues. In case anyone had forgotten, the Sparks were a horrible rebounding team last year, both before and after Parker got hurt. It was 44-28 Lynx on the glass last night, which offered a stark reminder. Thompson and DMJ just don’t play down low any more, and Gillom doesn’t seem to have any faith in Lavender yet (hardly a surprise given her track record with rookies), so Parker’s on an island trying to grab boards. She didn’t see enough of the ball on offense either, but that wasn’t much of a surprise considering the Lacy and Toliver experiment continues at the point guard spot. Penicheiro hurt her ankle in the third quarter which didn’t help matters, but even when they were just the backups it wasn’t helping the LA offense. Neither of them wants to pass, and neither has any point guard instincts to speak of. Search the available free agents or just move Quinn over – hell, start Toliver at the off-guard if you can’t work out how to slide Quinn when necessary, Jen – but do something.
Some nights, even with the revamped bench, this LA team is just going to look old. That’s when the offense needs to be better designed and better run in order to let Parker take over. She needs to demand the ball in stronger positions, but Gillom also needs to find a way to get her to those spots. Teams will inevitably collapse on her but the Sparks have got players who can hit open shots when the ball gets rotated back out. The ball has to get to her in the first place for that to happen.
In other news… Penicheiro’s ankle injury looked bad but twitter messages and eyewitness reports suggest she’s mostly okay. Might be ready Friday.
There will be a column here tomorrow, despite there being no games tonight. I just don’t know what it’s going to be about yet. You guys are interested in where I’m going on vacation, right? (that was a joke – WNBA-based, I promise).
Last two team previews should be up tonight. I know it’s ridiculously late at this point, but might as well finish things off (and they’ve only played one game). Plus it means I get to go off about the Shock.