You know, I had a report just about finished on the New York-Indiana game at Conseco on Friday night, then they went and played again last night and produced a carbon copy, only with the result reversed. So let’s tackle both games together. Pierson and Vaughn both picked up two early fouls in Friday’s game, which considering people like me keep going on about New York’s post situation looked worrying for the Libs. Not the case. Breland and Hollingsworth both came in and provided perfectly reasonable backup, the starters avoided drawing too many more whistles when they came back, and New York rolled. In both games the Libs opened up a lead in the second quarter, winning the period 30-18 on Friday and 22-16 last night to lead 52-42 and 49-45 respectively. So that’s the much vaunted Indiana Fever defense giving up 101 points in first halves alone on two consecutive nights – not what you’d expect from a team that has always built from a defensive base above anything else.
Apparently, Whiz can teach offense now as well. The Libs are pushing when the opportunity is there, they’re finding good shots in halfcourt sets for pretty much whomever they choose, and largely speaking they’re knocking them down. After her sluggish shooting night in the opening game against Atlanta, the real Cappie Pondexter was back on Friday, knocking down shots from any angle and all sorts of ranges. The pestering of January and all the help Indiana sent had more effect last night, but I doubt that we’re ultimately going to have to worry about Cappie’s offense, whichever guard spot Whisenant asks her to play. As a team, the Libs shot over 50% in the first half of both games this weekend, only to drop off a little to 49% on Friday and 43% on Saturday. Maybe they tired a little or maybe Indiana just stepped things up, but the offensive efficiency we’re seeing from New York is pretty remarkable. With McWilliams-Franklin and McCarville gone, a bench full of kids and a new coach with a new system, the Libs were supposed to struggle this year, especially early. Instead they’re putting in strong performances against top-end teams, and are sitting at 2-1 to start the year. Pencil Whiz in as a very, very early contender for Coach of the Year. He’s even getting offensive production out of the much-maligned Sidney Spencer, for crying out loud.
Friday night, things were looking perilous for Indiana midway through the third quarter. However, despite falling behind by 18 at one point, the Fever weren’t ready to quit. They ramped up the defense, Katie Douglas started throwing in threes like they were rocks in the ocean, and the comeback was on. 65-47 with five minutes left in the third became 70-67 with seven minutes left in the fourth, the crowd was back in the game and we were set for another grandstand finish. After both teams suddenly started to struggle to find decent shots – ‘highlighted’ by consecutive shotclock violations at either end inside the last two minutes – Catch drove from the right side, turned down the tough little runner to find January in the far corner right in front on the Liberty bench, and Briann knocked down the clutch three. That turned a two-point deficit into a one-point Indiana lead with 23 seconds left in the game, their first lead of the second half. That’s the weakness in all these defenses – like Whisenant’s ‘White Line’ – that bring heavy weak-side help to stop penetrating players. If you can make the risky pass over to the weak side, someone’s probably wide open because their man is usually cheating over to help on the ball. Anyway, we knew what was likely to come next, whoever the coach was – Cappie Time. Pondexter took the hand-off out top, drove the right side, threw a neat little spin move on January and knocked the turnaround home off the glass. Albeit with a little too much rim involved for the hearts of Liberty fans.
Indy had 8 seconds to turn things around and inbounded without taking their final timeout. Pondexter fouled January hard down the sideline, which initially looked like an astoundingly dumb move, until you remembered that New York had a foul to give. The Fever took their last timeout, and ended up running a play for Catchings on a curl, which turned into a 19-foot step back jumpshot with Pierson right up on her. It was close, but it didn’t drop. A little surprising that they didn’t run the play for Douglas, considering how hot she’d been most of the night.
The following evening, this time falling behind by as many as 14 midway through the third, Indiana started their comeback again. There’s a noticeable line of ‘Sutton-Brown Substitution replaced by Davenport’ in the play-by-play, right where the comeback gets going in both games, but we’ll return to that later. Catchings made a few shots, January’s offense showed up out of nowhere, the Fever finally forced some consecutive misses and the game was tied with just under seven minutes left. From there it was nip-and-tuck but Indiana’s defense intensified in the closing moments (or New York just went cold – a little from column A, a little from column B), and they held on for the 86-80 win. The big deciding shot was a three from rookie Jeanette Pohlen, stepping up to the plate in her first real minutes as a pro.
So a split decision then, but New York probably walked away the happier team considering the number of changes they’re having to deal with from last season’s group. Kia Vaughn is showing she might just survive as a starting center in this league, Plenette Pierson and Essence Carson are flourishing as starters, and John Whisenant is making you wonder why it took 18 months for anyone to hire him. Heck of a start to the Whiz reign in the Big Apple, even with that loss in the home opener last night.
As for Indiana, the comebacks will have been heartening, but they’re still struggling to get going. New York found good shots far more easily than you’d expect against supposedly one of the best defensive teams in the league, and they’ve got question marks at key spots in their lineup. Can January be relied upon to run the offense, not turn the ball over too much, and at least hit the occasional shot to keep the defense honest? Would anyone else on the roster (Phillips, Pohlen, or if you’re in a comical mood, Bobbitt) fare any better? At center, Tammy Sutton-Brown’s ‘offense’ seems even more inept than in previous years, and outside of that first game against Fowles and Chicago, her defense hasn’t been good enough to make up for it. Jess Davenport isn’t as mobile, but her greater offensive arsenal may well see her taking more and more minutes away from TSB – and possibly even her starting spot. On the bright side, Katie Douglas has opened the season on fire, Pohlen looked like she might be a WNBA player last night, and the Bobbitt experiment as the primary backup point appears to have been junked after one game. Good move, Lin.
Now let’s talk about the other Eastern Conference teams making waves the last couple of days – the one and only Chicago Sky. After a hard-fought 78-75 win over Connecticut at home on Friday night, Pokey Chatman took her team to DC yesterday, where they just about clung on to an 84-77 victory to complete the back-to-back. First off, you have to applaud Chatman’s decisiveness in seeing a problem and moving to fix it as quickly as possible. After the ugly loss to Indiana last week, Dominique Canty and Tamera Young were both gone from the starting lineup on Friday, replaced by Courtney Vandersloot and Cathrine Kraayeveld. We all knew the Sloot move was coming at the point sooner or later, and Kraay for Young is a pick-your-poison kind of decision, but there are plenty of coaches who would’ve let these issues persist. After talking in the press all week about how Sylvia Fowles needed to get more shots and the offense needed to run through her, the Sky came out on Friday and delivered. She flat-out dominated Team USA teammate Tina Charles, going 11-19 from the floor for 23 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. In her first start as a pro Sloot was hot, draining a three on the opening play of the game and going on to finish 7-10 from the floor (including 4-4 from deep) for 18 points. The showtime highlight was a backdoor bounce pass from beyond the arc that led Canty in for a layup. Sky fans are going to have so much fun watching this kid.
However, despite those successes, the Sky never could quite shake the Sun off their tail. A double-digit lead in the second and third quarters wasn’t enough, and almost exclusively due to Asjha Jones and Renee Montgomery, the Sun kept hanging around. A Jones 18-footer tied the game at 75 with 44 seconds left in the game, before a big-time turnaround jumper from Big Syl on a high-low feed from Michelle Snow put Chicago back in front. A miss on a forced jump shot by Montgomery, Fowles going 1-of-2 from the line, and a Lawson halfcourt heave at the buzzer that rimmed out concluded proceedings. That was more like it for Chicago, and their season had finally started in earnest. (By the way, Sun fans, more on your girls tomorrow after they beat up on Tulsa this afternoon).
Last night against Washington, the Sky just kept right on rolling along, opening up a 12-point lead after the first quarter and a 51-33 advantage by halftime. Fowles was again right at the middle of the offense, with Epiphanny Prince reminding everyone that Sloot might be the shiny new thing, but she’s not the only young guard on this roster worth getting excited about. Kraayeveld also had one of her ridiculous nights from outside, going 6-7 from long distance for 19 points. She might not have the mobility of Young, but that showed what she can bring to the starting lineup when she’s feeling it. The second half wasn’t nearly as pretty for Chicago, perhaps feeling the effect of an early-morning flight and the back-to-back games. Washington came charging back into the contest, led by a Matee Ajavon who’s having the time of her life as the primary perimeter option on a squad that wants her to shoot (and she’s making lots of ’em too, which is a hell of a bonus). It got as close as three points on a couple of occasions, but the Sky showed some poise that we often didn’t see in previous years under the likes of Steven Key, and held on for the win.
It’s early days, but Sky fans have to have loved what they saw this weekend. The Vandersloot/Prince backcourt is starting to look like a nascent version of the Bird/Wright duo in Seattle to me, which is high-praise indeed. Obviously they don’t have the experience or the guile just yet, but Sloot has the smarts and skills to run the offense, and Prince has the more aggressive offensive game to complement her. They also both have the ballhandling and shooting abilities to allow them to switch point-guard and off-guard duties at times, just like Bird and Wright with the Storm. Watching that pair grow together in Chicago is going to be one of the primary joys of being a Sky fan in the coming years. Down low, the Fowles/Snow twin towers plan looks to be kicking off pretty nicely, with their length creating problems for opponents just as Chatman planned. Snow’s offense is inconsistent, but we knew that going in. If having a true big alongside her keeps Snow relaxed and invested, Big Syl could have a partner in the paint that makes everything just that little bit easier. With Christon gone there’s still a worry about that small forward spot, because Kraay isn’t going to hit 6 of 7 threes every night, but she can be a serviceable fill in for a lot games. They’re still so, so young, but if Chatman can really hold this team together they could be something special in the not too distant future.
Considering this is all turning into a bit of an opus, I think we’ll break it there and come back with a Part 2 on the rest of the weekend’s games. It’ll be up soon, I promise.