Two interesting games in the WNBA last night, not that I could blame you for being a little distracted by Mavs-Heat Game 5. Of course, the first major breakdown in the WNBA’s LiveAccess system this season meant that no one outside of Key Arena could watch the first half of the late game, which made the choice to go with the NBA game even easier. But more on that one later. First up was the ESPN2 game in Atlanta, where the shorthanded Mystics came in as heavy underdogs against the home town Dream. This one was ugly early, with sloppy passing and terrible shooting at both ends sending the ball careening back in the opposite direction. The first quarter eventually finished with a reasonable-looking scoreline of 22-19 to Atlanta, but that was more through scores off breakdowns, turnovers and defensive mistakes than anything resembling decent offensive execution by either team.
The game eventually settled down a little, with Atlanta pulling out and maintaining a lead of 5 to 10 points through the second and third quarters. Washington had three scorers, and that was literally it. No one else scored in the first half, and they only got 15 points from outside of their own ‘Big Three’ by the end of the game. Matee Ajavon had one of her good nights, providing much needed drive and aggression from the perimeter in the absence of Alana Beard. She still doesn’t like to pass too much, but sometimes you don’t really want her to. The other players producing for the Mystics were their dangerous post tandem of Anosike and Langhorne. Only two games in, and without anyone much on the perimeter to stretch the floor for them, these two are looking like they’re going to cause some damage this season, whatever you surround them with. Anosike looks released and reinvigorated in Lacey’s less restrictive system, back to the version of her we saw in Minnesota before Cheryl Reeve arrived. She’s still taking too many of those drifting fadeaway jumpers that don’t often go in, but when she squares up to the hoop or – even better – actually goes towards it, she’s producing. Langhorne is still just as good as last year. Beard and Currie injured, Harding and Smith gone, and she’s just as productive anyway. Lang has the more varied offensive arsenal, but both of these two have range out to 15-feet, and both can finish at the rim. That makes them hard to guard, because several teams don’t have the defenders to deal with two players who can keep throwing that at them all night long. Between them, Crystal and Nicky finished last night 19-37 for 59 points and 26 rebounds, including 31 trips to the free-throw line. Ouch.
Still, even with all that production from their bigs, the Mystics turned the ball over 17 times in the first half alone with lazy passes around the perimeter and through not being careful enough when trying to force the ball into the post. That kept Atlanta in their consistent lead, and even comfortably ahead in points in the paint thanks to breakaway layups and de Souza’s size and strength down low. However, in the fourth quarter, just like against New York on Sunday, the Dream got tight and gave up a lead in the waning minutes. In fact, both teams seemed to want to give the game away in the closing minutes of regulation, with only six points scored in total over the last 4:24 due to botched shots and an array of turnovers. An Armintie Price free throw and a trademark running, leaning jumper from Castro Marques put Atlanta up three, before a Kelly Miller three-pointer from deep in the corner on an inbounds play tied it up. The final plays were a mess, with first Ajavon barreling to the hoop for a wild missed layup, then Harding pounding the ball into the ground for too long, only to get her forced running jumper blocked from behind by Kerri Gardin. And oh my, while I’m mentioning it, how about Kerri Gardin? So much for replacement players not being much use. Arriving on the day of the game, without ever having worn a Mystics jersey before or even practiced with the team, Gardin plays 20 minutes, grabs 5 boards and 6 steals, and finishes a +17 for her time on the floor. Hell of a night for her, and she might well be playing her way into another real WNBA contract, rather than just the emergency one she’s currently signed to.
So, overtime. It wasn’t pretty for the Dream. There’s a reason that teams give you the three, ladies. Too many perimeter jumpshots for Atlanta, rather than sticking with the interior game that got them the lead earlier on, led to lots of misses. At the other end, Ajavon capped off her night by hitting a three, Anosike got to the free throw line yet again, and Washington built a six-point lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Maybe the Dream were tired, playing in their second overtime game of the week, but it’s only game two of a long season so they shouldn’t be struggling already. No need to panic quite yet for the Dream, considering they could easily have won both games and Angel McCoughtry only made her return from injury last night (playing just three minutes). But it’s not the way you want to start your season, given the choice. As for the Mystics, they have to be happy with a win on the road in the Eastern Conference champions’ house, especially when their injury woes are even more severe than Atlanta’s. Five of Washington’s next six games are at home, including several that are eminently winnable, so there’s a chance for the unfancied Mystics to get off to a decent start this season.
A few additional housekeeping notes from that game: McCoughtry played her three minutes in the middle of the second quarter, looked reasonably mobile to me, but never came back. Hopefully that was just precautionary, or one of Marynell’s lineup whims, rather than any new or additional pain for Angel keeping her out. The Dream clearly miss her. Sancho Lyttle stopped jacking up threes in this game, her only attempt being an understandable heave in the closing seconds of overtime. Thank God for that.
Meanwhile on the other side, while Gardin was an unexpected bonus, the Mystics have to be worried about some of their other pieces. Gardin wildly outperformed all those vaunted rookies on the bench, none of whom look ready to perform at this level. Marissa Coleman, starting at the 3, continues to verge on being completely useless. Two airballs in the opening minutes set the stage for her disappearance over the rest of the night. She’s not contributing at all on either end, and at this point the only reasons she’s still on the roster are how high she was drafted, her ‘local girl’ status thanks to going to Maryland, and the lack of alternatives. She desperately needs to wake up and take advantage of the opening created by Currie’s injury, but none of her performances this season or last have suggested she’s capable of it. By the way, they can’t just keep Gardin and waive someone else, because Gardin was signed as an Emergency Replacement and as such has to be waived as soon as Beard or Phillips is healthy enough to play. However, they are perfectly within their rights to waive someone else and then sign Gardin to a normal deal immediately after her emergency contract is terminated. Based on last night, it would probably be worth their while to do so.
I’d love to describe to you what happened in the crazy-sounding opening quarter of the Storm-Lynx game in Seattle last night, but unfortunately ‘technical difficulties’ mean the opening stages of the game weren’t available live and still aren’t archived, so no dice. Still, I can tell you that Minnesota scored the opening twenty-two points of the game, with Lauren Jackson finally putting points on the board for Seattle with 2:57 left in the first quarter. By halftime, the Lynx were up 50-24 (and the video stream was finally up and running, for what that was worth). This is a Storm franchise that didn’t lose a single game at home last year, regular season or playoffs, and only lost six games anywhere. It’s also a team whose fans stand up until they score at the start of games (something I’ve always found faintly ridiculous, but whatever floats your boat). That can’t have been much fun through seven minutes of game time and two full timeouts last night. Based on the box score, play-by-play and eyewitness reports from fans, the Lynx simply ran past the Storm, hit everything from everywhere, and the Storm couldn’t buy a bucket.
The parts of the game we did get to see weren’t all that pretty for Seattle either. They came out sloppy in the second half, giving the ball away at will, clearly disappointed at their own performance and lacking concentration. To their credit however, the Storm didn’t quit, and in the fourth quarter they almost managed to make things interesting, pushing it close enough to make the intentional fouls to stop the clock just about reasonable, but never quite close enough to really scare anyone. Minnesota held on for the first win by a road team in the Key since 2009, 81-74.
This could be a landmark win for the upstart Lynx squad. They lost a lot of tight games to Seattle last year, and I even said myself in the column a couple of days ago that we’d see what the Lynx were made of in this game. And just look what they did – they ran over the champs in their own house. Taj seems to keep picking up minor injuries in every game, which is a little worrying, but Rebekkah Brunson is playing out of her skin so you barely even notice. 18 points and 8 rebounds by halftime last night, Bekkah’s fourth double-double in four games was completed early in the third quarter. She’s clearly thriving on this squad where her mobility and hunger for every available rebound fits in very nicely next to the solidity and constancy of Taj and the multiple scorers on the perimeter. She doesn’t need you to run plays for her, just let her loose and watch her go. Injuries have curtailed her athleticism in several previous years but she’s started off with such a spring in her step this year that it’ll be really nice if she stays healthy throughout 2011.
The only negative for Minnesota last night was that Reeve felt the need to play her starters heavy minutes to get the win in a game they once led by 30. Considering they ultimately only won by 7 maybe she was right (the +/- numbers certainly don’t look pretty for the bench players who got in), or maybe they all would’ve performed better with more rest. I still don’t think Reeve is entirely comfortable with how to balance her rotation just yet, but if she can get wins like this while she figures it out, who cares? Charde Houston didn’t play at all last night, and I continue to wonder whether they’ll ship her somewhere. Her style of basketball just doesn’t seem to fit on this roster any more.
As for Seattle, it probably won’t be a fun week of practice for these players after Agler had to sit through that. As commentator Dick Fain pointed out several times last night, there was a similar game last season in Chicago. The Storm ultimately lost by just 9, but in reality they got creamed, only for the bench to make the scoreline respectable in garbage time. Agler was angry, and his team responded by destroying San Antonio by 28 and Atlanta by 18 in their following games, as their charge to a title took off. He’ll be hoping that this game has a similar effect. However, their fortress has taken a hit, with the sense of impenetrability they had built up around Key Arena last season being broken. Plus, the last thing they’ll want to do is give any extra strength or confidence to a Lynx squad that could – if they can hold themselves together – be their biggest threat come September.
In other news…
For anyone who missed the housekeeping post from yesterday, I’ve opened a Twitter account at @RichardCohen1. Feel free to follow me for tweets about updates to this site, and occasional comments about the WNBA (and maybe some other stuff as well).
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Connecticut @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET