I barely know where to start with this one. One WNBA game last night, with Tulsa travelling up to take on the Lynx in Minnesota, and if you stuck around to watch the second half when Mavs-Heat Game 4 was on offer instead, you’re an extraordinarily dedicated WNBA fan. Or you need your head examined. It’s really hard to watch or write about this Shock team, because they turn every game they’re a part of into disorganised chaos. By the end of the season they’ll probably be lucky to win 6 games, but they’ll likely have a 34-0 record in making games a complete mess.
Last night started out as everyone expected, with Minnesota aggressive and scoring at will, while Tulsa could barely string two passes together and certainly couldn’t make a shot. Seven minutes in and it was 17-3, and it seemed like the only question remaining was how embarrassing it could get. However, Minnesota relaxed, and somehow the Shock hung around and were only down 39-28 at the half. The Lynx woke up from their catnap for the second-half, blew the game open for a 20-point lead by the end of the third, then dozed off again and let Tulsa wander their way back towards striking distance in the 4th. It never got closer than 8 though, and Minnesota closed out the win 75-65. Only a decidedly optimistic Shock fan or a desperately nervous Lynx counterpart would’ve felt much excitement, even though the numbers make it look like it was almost a contest.
This Shock team’s a disaster. Before we even worry about the roster, there doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a coherent system. The ’40 Minutes of Hell’ that was supposed to be Nolan Richardson’s trademark appears to have disappeared. The high-pressure full-court defense was practically invisible last night, only employed in the final few possessions when it looked like there was a tiny chance they might make a late charge. However, without that system and the turnovers and transition scoring opportunities it’s supposed to create, there doesn’t seem to be a Plan B. Occasionally they’ll trap in the halfcourt, but mostly it’s a choice between a disorganised man-to-man or a shambolic 2-3 zone. We saw the same things last year when the press broke down and it was just as much of a nightmare then. It didn’t really feel like they earned their way back into the game last night – it felt like the Lynx were so open for a host of jumpshots that they took them, and simply missed a bunch of shots they should’ve made. For future contests against Tulsa, Reeve needs to get her team to go to the rim – it’s too easy to find layups against this team to settle for jumpers.
The Tulsa offense comfortably rivals their defense in its ineptitude. When they run anything at all the sets often look bizarre and disorganised, and a lot of the time they just don’t bother. There was a possession in the first half where they seemed to combine a series of high screens – really high, like out beyond the three-point line – with some kind of weave from the guards. It looked like something out of ‘Hoosiers’, which is an entertaining enough movie, but shouldn’t be a blueprint for 21st Century professional basketball. It’s dispiriting to watch when there are only twelve teams in this entire league – none of them should have to be this painful to witness.
In fairness to Nolan Richardson the coach, Nolan Richardson the GM hasn’t put together much of a roster. They’ve got Cambage as the centerpiece, but she’s raw and still acclimatising to the physicality of the WNBA, and she’s not helped by the lack of structure around her. Star guards can take the ball out on the perimeter and go to work for themselves; star posts need someone to get them the damn ball. They did run a few plays, and on occasion Liz did a nice job finding deep position underneath, but when the likes of Andrea Riley and Amber Holt are among your primary ballhandlers, the post players are likely to starve. Cambage has also just missed too many shots, going a combined 8-24 so far in her first two games, but with 22 trips to the free-throw line she’s drawing enough fouls to make up for it. One move stood out last night, when early in the fourth quarter she received the ball deep in the right corner. It seemed like Amber Harris had done her job by forcing Cambage to catch the ball well off the block, but a nice ball-fake drew Harris’s attention, leaving Liz to put the ball on the floor and go straight past her, before finishing with a nifty reverse layup. 6-8 19-year olds aren’t supposed to be able to do that.
The rest of the roster, well, blech. Part of the reason Cambage’s rebounding numbers have been so good through two games is because Tiffany Jackson and the rest aren’t up to much. The boards are all there for Liz if she can fight off the opposition. Latta didn’t have much of a game last night, and in her season debut Andrea Riley showcased her ridiculous can’t-play-point-guard, can-jack-shots-all-night-long-from-absolutely-freaking-anywhere game. Sheryl Swoopes didn’t play, despite being in uniform. Whether she’s hurt or Richardson just made the choice, I have no idea. I wouldn’t be at all certain that Nolan knows why, either.
As for Minnesota, it wasn’t a wonderful night, but the scorebook says they got the W, so they’ll live with it. They probably should’ve won by at least 30, but when the game starts off with everything coming so easy you can understand how teams relax and things start to get sloppy. Rebekkah Brunson had another nice game, as she tends to in messy games with lots of breakdowns, loose balls and offensive rebound opportunities. Her third double-double in three games is a very strong start to the year. The Lynx may need her to maintain at least that level of performance, as Taj was clearly suffering from the back injury she picked up in the last LA game, and didn’t play much in the second half. McWilliams-Franklin will likely play through anything that isn’t life-threatening, but if the injuries are going to restrict her they’ll need Brunson to shine and Amber Harris to grow up awful quick.
People who’ve read my writing in the past may recall that I am not what you’d call a Charde Houston fan, and based on early signs I think she may have gotten worse. Calling her defense abominable in the season preview was probably generous. She gets lost out there, following her nose and the ball rather than whoever she’s supposed to be defending. Then at the other end, with her minutes limited thanks to the competition she now faces on this roster, she’s become even more of a ballstopper than she was in the past. A restricted free agent at the end of the season, I certainly wouldn’t want be the one paying her next year when her rookie deal ends (but I wouldn’t mind in the slightest trading her now to get some value).
Anyway, you can’t learn too many lessons about the Lynx from this game, when Tulsa have that annoying knack of dragging teams down to their level. Tomorrow night against Seattle we’ll get a chance to really see what this young upstart Lynx squad is made of. Meanwhile in Tulsa, we can only hope that things get better, preferably sometime soon. Because things can only get better, right?
In other news… Nothing much, really. It’s been quiet. ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines’ did a piece on Diana Taurasi and the offseason drug test saga which you can watch a 7-minute segment from here . No real new information if you followed the story, but some interesting interview segments with Diana herself.
Apologies for how late in the day both today’s and yesterday’s columns were posted. Will be trying to get them up earlier in future, although I make no promises. Rest of the award predictions will be posted tomorrow, along with regular season and playoff guesses.