WNBA Today, 06/17/2011: Out of the Zone

“Too. Much. Charles. And a complete Mystical inability to penetrate a 2-3 zone. There’s your game.” As a late-adopter, I’m still getting into this whole twitter thing, but when there’s one game all evening, and you really can sum it up in 140 characters, I just felt like I might as well say it. That really was about it for Connecticut’s win in Washington last night, except that it somewhat short-changes Renee Montgomery, who had another nice offensive game. But if you’re reading this, you probably want to hear at least a little more.

While Washington were still missing Alana Beard and Ta’Shia Phillips, the early news wasn’t good for Connecticut either. Starting off-guard (and ‘backup’ point guard) Kara Lawson was a late scratch due to a sprained ankle suffered the previous day in practice, leaving Allison Hightower – who didn’t even play in two of the Sun’s previous three games – to start in her place. You might’ve expected the absence of Lawson’s steadying hand to negatively affect Connecticut’s offense, but through the first 15 minutes of the game the Sun’s offense was almost irrelevant. Sure, they were scoring points, at a fairly average, typical rate. But at the other end, Washington were completely stymied. The Sun came out playing a 2-3 zone defense whenever they scored a basket, and a man-to-man whenever they missed. They were scoring often enough that the Mystics saw a lot of the zone, and they appeared to have absolutely no clue how to score against it. Crystal Langhorne would cut high to receive the ball, then be utterly flummoxed by the double-team that came from the two nearest zone defenders. Anosike was worse, and essentially invisible on offense. The Sun have quick, athletic defenders for the most part, but this wasn’t exactly an unusual, freaky, hard-to-decipher zone defense. It was a straight up 2-3, with lots of help coming from the nearest defender whenever the ball made it to one of the post players. You probably played the same D when you were 9.

So Washington couldn’t score. That tends to limit your chances in the game of basketball, and with Montgomery driving at will and repeatedly getting to the free throw line, while Charles scored on jumpers and breaking layups (she took Anosike to school all night long), Connecticut built a heavy lead. Halfway through the second quarter, the Sun were up 35-19 and Charles already had 17. Then Washington remembered the simplest and most blindingly obvious way to beat a zone: shoot over it. There are lots of ways to beat zone defenses, but all the others are more complicated and require some semblance of organisation and movement. Washington didn’t have any of that last night, so they just shot their way back into the game. Matee Ajavon and Kelly Miller hit a couple of threes apiece, the Mystics defense improved because they could actually get set up after hitting a basket or two, and suddenly we had a ballgame. An Ajavon and-1 – driving lanes open up when you actually hit a shot or two from outside – cut the lead to three in the final seconds, only for a Montgomery prayer at the buzzer to be answered, banking in off the glass from 30 feet. 43-37 Connecticut at the break.

The second half wasn’t all that different, to be brutally honest. Washington still didn’t have the first clue how to penetrate Connecticut’s zone and get points inside, so most of their scoring came from outside shots or offensive rebounds after they missed. Actually realising that was their best option from the start of the half, rather than taking 15 minutes of game time to pick up on that fact, kept the game closer. The problem is, when you’re relying on Miller, Ajavon, the continually ineffective Marissa Coleman and a bunch of rookies to provide that outside attack, your chances probably aren’t good. At one point they were 8-16 from three-point range, a scoring rate that might well have won them the game, but unfortunately for the Mystics the law of averages caught up to them. 1-9 from outside in the fourth quarter didn’t cut it, and although Washington’s improved defensive effort allowed them to take a brief 1-point lead midway through the fourth, a Charles putback, Kalana Greene fastbreak layup and Montgomery drive swiftly had Connecticut back in control. From that point on, none of Washington’s bombs would drop, and the Sun lead never fell below five again.

So a positive night for Connecticut, although coach Mike Thibault won’t be too happy about his team letting the Mystics back into a game that looked almost dead in the second quarter. Charles had her first huge game of the season, and she really did beat Anosike up all game long. Whether it was step-back jumpers, offensive rebounds for putbacks, or just running floor and beating the defense downcourt for a layup, Tina had her way. Good thing too, because Asjha Jones got in early foul trouble and was never a factor at any point. Montgomery’s had a blinding start to the season, showing the kind of offensive ability that we’ve seen in previous years – but actually doing it for four games in a row. She’s still just a little greedy and ball-hoggy at times, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be. And when the shots are going in, people don’t mind the ball-hogging so much anyway.

The question for the Sun is whether that zone is going to be effective throughout the season, and against better teams. They looked a lot weaker last night when they switched back to man-to-man, and many opponents will be far better prepared to pick holes in the zone. Trudi Lacey and the Mystics didn’t look like they knew what the hell to do, but the top teams will find the seams (especially once they’ve had time to watch tape). Even with their UConn unit of Montgomery, Jones and Charles (they’ve got other Huskies too, but those are the ones that matter), do the Sun have enough offense to cope when their defense can’t grind other teams to a halt?

As for Washington, that wasn’t pretty. Kelly Miller’s a bonus, because the way she’s played in Minnesota and Atlanta the last couple of years they couldn’t have expected this much from her, but Langhorne and Anosike are their best players. And Connecticut just showed everyone how straightforward it can be to stop both of them. Lang won’t be that bad most nights, however many defenders you send at her, and Anosike won’t typically get killed on defense either, but it’s scary to see those two taken out of the game so comprehensively. Mystics wins, when they come, are going to be based on their post production, not the hopeful prayer that they can drain enough threes to keep them hanging around. On the bright side, Victoria Dunlap and Karima Christmas both had their first games of any real value as pros last night. When your roster’s this young, seeing the kids grow up has to be a priority whether you’re winning or not.

Tonight’s Games:

With just one game to talk about from yesterday, I thought I’d throw in a little preview of tonight. Atlanta are in Minnesota, trying to build on their first win of the season on Tuesday night in New York. Unfortunately for the Dream, Sancho Lyttle’s in Poland, readying herself for Spain’s opening EuroBasket game on Saturday. Expect to see Rebekkah Brunson’s fifth straight double-double, and it might be a big one. First edition of Moore vs. McCoughtry at the small forward spot too, which should be fun (although the Dream may go small with Angel at the 4, which would cut that short).

The other early(ish) game sees New York in Chicago, where the Liberty will try to break out of the little funk they seem to have slipped into. The White-Line defense struggled with Erika de Souza’s size against Atlanta, so God only knows how they’re going to deal with Sylvia Fowles. However, at the other end, much as I love watching Courtney Vandersloot, easily the weakest part of her pro game is her defense. And she’s going to be on either Cappie Pondexter or Essence Carson, who’s recently rediscovered her offensive game. Might be just the opportunity Cappie needs to get her offense going this season.

The first of the late games is San Antonio in Phoenix, which could be something of an early statement game for both teams. The Silver Stars are 3-0, but two of those wins were over Tulsa, and in the third they got massacred on the boards by over 20. So a perfect record, but maybe not a particularly meaningful one. Of course, the Mercury is the perfect team to go up against if you can’t rebound, considering that’s never exactly been their forté either. Phoenix have looked miserable so far, but they’ve only played two games, both on the road against likely Western Conference playoff teams. Now they’re back in their own house, in front of what should be a large and raucous crowd for the home opener. If Taurasi’s head is in the game – it sure didn’t look like it was in LA last week – the Mercury will fancy their chances. Vegas certainly does; the Merc were 8-point favourites, last time I checked.

Finally, the first matchup of the teams I predicted to make the Finals (not that that ever means much), with Indiana travelling all the way west to face Seattle. Last time out, the Storm lost their home winning streak and a fair bit of pride, getting spanked in their own building by Minnesota. They’ve had eight days to stew about it, and probably eight days to hear about it repeatedly from Brian Agler. Expect them to come out ready. Not coming out ready is a problem Indiana have had lately, twice being forced to make double-digit comebacks against New York, then playing lazy and sloppy against Tulsa on Tuesday night. They better be prepared to start on time this evening, or all the hot Katie Douglas shooting in the world won’t keep them in touch with an angry Storm.

In other news…

EuroBasket Women starts tomorrow afternoon (or morning, if you’re in the US). You can watch the whole thing via FIBATV, but be warned that there are restrictions on the streaming for some countries. Unlike with the WNBA, I’m completely biased when it comes to this tournament, and if you happen to follow me on twitter, be prepared for a slew of comments about Team GB. There might even be a report or two posted here, if I can drag myself out of the slough of despond once the games are over. You’re welcome to skip those.

Tonight’s Games:

Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

New York @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET

San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Indiana @ Seattle, 10pm ET


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