Okay, hands up anyone who thought Tulsa in Indiana was going to be the competitive WNBA game last night. Yeah, that’s what I thought. The Shock showed up to play the Fever with their prized rookie center Liz Cambage in street clothes, shielding her eyes from the bright arena lights. Guess that concussion she received at the hand of teammate Tiffany Jackson on Sunday was a little more serious that it may have initially appeared. Yet despite Cambage’s restriction to cheerleading duties, this one was tight all night long and actually provided some decent entertainment for the watching public on ESPN2. As for the people who searched out the Atlanta-New York game online and the dozen or so that appeared to be in the Prudential Center in New Jersey, well, they probably wished they’d watched the other game.
Cambage’s injury meant Tulsa’s fourth different starting lineup in their first five games, with Jackson, Jen Lacy and Kayla Pedersen making up the frontcourt. Your guess as to who the small forward, power forward and center were in that lineup is as good as mine – whether you saw the game or not. With Amber Holt also still out with her broken thumb, Miranda Ayim apparently resident in Nolan Richardson’s doghouse and Marion Jones making only her customary cameo appearance, the Shock were once again down to essentially a seven-player rotation. And once again all the better for it. I said it after Sunday’s game against Connecticut, this Shock team finally looks vaguely organised, they’re helping each other out more on the floor, and they’re stepping into shots with some confidence – which leads to actually knocking a few down.
Of course, the other thing that’s helping the Shock out is that opponents are showing up expecting to waltz off with the victory without even working up a sweat. Indiana looked lazy at times last night. In fact, on the raw feed that international viewers get to watch online, Lin Dunn used some very naughty words to describe their defensive effort in an early timeout, which I can’t repeat here if I want parents to let their kids read this website. Briann January picked up two fouls inside the first two minutes, which is never going to endear you to your coach. Tamika Catchings couldn’t hit anything in the first half, and nearly everyone in a home jersey was missing layups and open jumpshots. Fortunately for the Fever, Katie Douglas came out firing and was just as hot as she’s been in their three previous games this season. She had 14 points at the break, and Indiana are lucky that she did.
The lack of effectiveness from the Fever didn’t mean Tulsa were running away with the game. Nothing quite that crazy. The Shock were still throwing in plenty of busted plays and wild turnovers – plus they were the ones giving up those layups and open jumpers that Indy were missing – but they were also taking advantage of Indiana’s lackadaisical play, grabbing offensive boards and hitting some shots. Pedersen and Lacy drained a couple, Ivory Latta had 13 at the half on her usual array of bombs and speedy drives, and Sheryl Swoopes turned back the clock to chip in some offense as well.
Even Andrea Riley found the basket a couple of times – you’ve heard the saying about a blind squirrel finding the occasional nut, right? – but drove me completely insane at the end of the first quarter. The shot clock was off, Tulsa ball in Riley’s hands, and what does she do? Why she jacks up a three from 25 feet of course. With nine seconds still on the game clock. Catchings ended up missing a free-throw line jumper at the buzzer at the other end. You’re supposed to be a point guard, Riley – learn a tiny little bit of basketball sense, I’m begging you. Anyway, the end of the second quarter went far better for Tulsa, with Latta getting some help from the basketball gods to bank in a three for a 43-42 halftime Shock lead. Safe to say that whatever Dunn came out with in the locker room at the break probably wasn’t fit for broadcast.
The second-half wasn’t actually that much better for Indiana. They were still sloppy in the third quarter, still playing too loose, and Jess Davenport in particular missed a couple of point-blank attempts where it seemed easier to score. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Fever’s greater experience, depth, and basic talent level started to tell. The Indiana offense still wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, but the Shock offense ground to a halt, and possession after possession seemed to end with a forced Tulsa shot just as the shot clock was running out. Making up for those earlier missed bunnies, Davenport exploded in the fourth, scoring ten points in the final quarter alone, and throwing in two consecutive momentum-changing blocks at the other end. Playing like that, Davenport really is going to start eating further and further into Tammy Sutton-Brown’s minutes at the 5 in Indiana.
So everyone could go home relatively happy. The Fever got to add one in the win column, even if it was ugly, and Tulsa proved to a national television audience that they actually do possess a professional women’s basketball team. Playing like that, their first win of the season probably isn’t too far away – especially once their giant Aussie’s head is cleared for action.
Over in New Jersey, the Liberty were looking for their first win in their newly adopted home, while the Dream were simply looking for their first win. It emerged after the game that two Liberty players and a couple of their assistant coaches were involved in two separate minor car accidents on the way to the arena, which perhaps explained the team’s lethargic performance on the night. The first quarter was fairly tight, with Kia Vaughn and Essence Carson providing some useful offense for the Liberty. That would be a sign of things to come for New York, but unfortunately at the offensive end, that was pretty much all that was to come.
Nicole Powell’s had a nice start to the season, looking refreshed under her old coach from Sacramento, but she got pulled quickly last night because Whisenant clearly didn’t think she could guard Angel McCoughtry (or anyone else on Atlanta’s perimeter). Cappie Pondexter may have had fewer issues defensively, but offensively she couldn’t get started at all, going only 3-12 for seven points. When your one true star plays like that it’s going to be hard to win, and with Powell useless and Plenette Pierson practically invisible, it ended up a long night for the Liberty.
Carson and Vaughn kept New York vaguely in touch, but by half-time the Dream were up 44-32, led by Angel McCoughtry with 16. The telling stat was in the assist column, where Atlanta had 12 and New York only 2 at the break (it would be 22-8 by the end of the game). The Dream were moving the ball and finding players on cuts and over the top feeds, while the only way New York could find any offense seemed to be via one-on-one moves.
To cut a long story short, New York never got the lead back down to single-digits at any point in the second half, and Atlanta ran out comfortable 79-58 winners. Maybe you put this one down to the car crashes – Pierson said after the game that she hadn’t been able to shake off the memory all night – but this was the first of their four games this year where you could see the Libs struggling with Whisenant’s newly-installed system. His ‘White Line’ defense calls for post players to be aggressive in stopping the entry pass, often even fronting the offensive player to cut off the route. That then requires lots of help from the back-side, because if the pass is made over the top or the ball is reversed and then entered into the post, the fronting defender is completely out of position. It’s hard, because if you come across to help too early, you leave your own man alone on the weak side and there’s the potential for a wide open jumpshot. If you come too late, it’s an easy layup. Last night, Vaughn especially got caught fronting the likes of de Souza, who’s so big and strong that she simply held Vaughn off, waved her arm in the air, and waited for the pass over the top. Too many easy layups resulted, and when they weren’t scoring inside, McCoughtry was knocking down jumpers from the perimeter.
It was a nice night for Atlanta. They finally removed the 0-fer, McCoughtry got her offense going but only had to play 19 minutes for her 18 points, and the offense looked a lot smoother than it has in earlier contests. The only negative is that new starting point guard Lindsey Harding is having a little trouble clicking with this team. The offense seems to run smoother when Shalee Lehning, who Harding was meant to be an upgrade from, comes into the game. Harding has a tendency to dribble, and dribble, and dribble, which obviously can grind the offense to a halt. She’s willing to pass, but sometimes seems more comfortable keeping the ball and waiting for the next option that might come along. Lehning doesn’t have Harding’s ability to penetrate and break down a defense on her own, but she’ll usually get the ball moving and push the team into their offense significantly quicker than Harding manages. Still, it’s only been four games; Harding’s decisions should improve as she gets more comfortable with this team.
The only other problem for Marynell Meadors and Atlanta is that EuroBasket Women starts on Saturday, and that means this was Sancho Lyttle’s last game in a Dream jersey for over three weeks. Sandora Irvin had a decent statistical game last night, but she and Alison Bales are no Sancho Lyttle, and they’re what the Dream will be working with for the next six games. The first two are against Minnesota, followed by a visit from Chicago – which means Rebekkah Brunson (twice), and then the Fowles/Snow frontcourt facing that weakened Dream post corps. Might be a good thing they got their first win last night.
As for New York, they’ll probably try to forget the whole evening and move on. The Pondexter-at-the-point experiment seems to have helped Essence Carson’s game, but Cappie has struggled to produce her usual brand of offensive flair in three out of the four Liberty games so far. I don’t expect to see a starting-lineup change just yet, but if this carries on much longer it might not be too far away. Carson improving is great, but this team is going nowhere without Cappie leading the way.
In other news…
Late news as this piece was about to be posted, the Shock waived Miranda Ayim. Hardly a surprise, considering Nolan had stopped playing her. The replacement could be anything – they don’t have a real backup for Cambage at center, but they also have no guards – so I won’t even guess. News as and when it becomes available.