Firstly, apologies for the late hour of posting. Once in a blue moon I actually have other things to do besides watching and writing about the WNBA. Another quadruple-game day yesterday, and three of them ended up in blowouts of one description or another, so let’s start with the only one that didn’t. Indiana visited Phoenix, the last team left in the league without a win (and it’s kind of embarrassing to lag behind Tulsa, even if the Merc had played three games fewer than the Shock due to the quirky WNBA schedule). The Mercury were desperate for a win to get their season started, and after being held to a miserable 54 points on 29% shooting by the Storm in their previous game, the Fever will have been salivating at the prospect of facing some nice friendly Phoenix ‘defense’.
The Mercury got off to their now-customary early lead, pushing out to an eight-point edge behind some transition scores and Kara Braxton actually managing to make a few layups. That made a nice change, after the number of point-blank efforts she’d missed in the opening three games. Late in the first, Katie Douglas landed hard on the ground after throwing a jump-pass and getting caught between Penny Taylor and Ketia Swanier in midair. Douglas had no way to cushion her fall and ended up being carried from the floor with what was later diagnosed as a ‘lower-back contusion’. X-rays were ultimately negative, but she never returned to the game. However, despite losing their only starter who’s been remotely hot offensively this year, Indy made mincemeat of the Mercury defense in the second quarter. A 26-22 deficit when Douglas left the game became a 50-41 Fever lead at halftime, and Phoenix were probably lucky to be that close. Shannon Bobbitt came into the game and knifed through the Mercury at will – still can’t shoot, but the penetration caused problems anyway and got her to the free throw line – and rookie Jeanette Pohlen went 5-5 from three-point range to build the advantage. This was the Mercury defense that we’ve all come to expect, helping other teams shoot the lights out just like always.
It wasn’t until late in the third quarter and on through the fourth that Phoenix finally started making serious inroads into the Fever lead. Indiana’s bench hadn’t been able to have quite the same impact in the second half so their lead had meandered along around 10, before some energetic and aggressive defense from DeWanna Bonner and a bunch of scoring and rebounding from Candice Dupree made things interesting again. Late in the game it was all about the mismatches. Going small (or at least thin) with Bonner and Dupree in the post, Phoenix couldn’t remotely deal with Jessica Davenport down low, so Indiana just kept going to the big girl. Phoenix were keeping pace mostly through the shooting of Diana Taurasi, who finally looked like she’d decided to join the rest of us in the 2011 WNBA regular season. Game tied with 20 seconds to play, Indy went with the pick-and-roll, trying to find Davenport underneath yet again. Point guard Briann January threw her a bounce pass, which was picked off by tiny opposing point Temeka Johnson, who was then fouled by Davenport. Not exactly how the Fever drew it up. Coach Lin Dunn chewed out her young guard for throwing the ball low to a 6-6 center when there was a marauding midget just waiting for the steal, and once TJ sank her free throws, Indy ran something very similar again. This time, January listened and threw the ball up high, Davenport made the catch and laid it in, and we were heading for overtime.
Davenport fouled out within 13 seconds of the start of the extra period, robbing the Fever of their primary offensive weapon. Less than a minute later, Penny Taylor fouled out and the Mercury lost probably their best passer. The final plays of the game, sadly, came down to the officiating. Tied with 22 seconds left, Taurasi went up for a fading jumper and got the touch-foul call on Tamika Catchings. It was hard to tell from any television angle we saw whether there was contact, although Catch was incredulous (not that that necessarily means much). After Taurasi sank the pair, Catchings drove at the other end and clearly drew at least a little contact, but didn’t get the call. Mercury grab the board, Marie Ferdinand-Harris makes a couple of free throws and the ballgame was over, 93-89.
Delight for the Mercury, who’ll see this as the real start of their season. Taurasi looked far more engaged and came away with 32 points – it took her 23 shots to get there, but an offensively aggressive Diana is precisely what the Mercury need to win games. Dupree cleaned up the glass all night, finishing with 21 points and 18 rebounds. She struggles to defend bigs like Davenport (and pretty much anyone else with a modicum of talent, to be honest), but she was big for them last night. Even Ferdinand-Harris gave Phoenix a second bench player of some value for once, producing some key scores (although she’s still phenomenally greedy whenever she touches the ball).
Now the bad news. Point guard duo Temeka Johnson and Ketia Swanier were both pretty much horrible all night, which isn’t much different from the last three games. Alexis Gray-Lawson was an improvement when she came in solely because she was keeping the other two off the floor. Beyond that, for what it’s worth, I’m simply still not buying this team. Sorry, Merc fans. Yes they made a comeback, showed a little heart and even a tiny bit of defense, but it’s not enough. As a rule, the defense is still atrocious, whatever changes Coach Gaines claims to have made, and they got away with it in this game because Indy’s offense is consistently terrible regardless of the opposition they’re facing (plus their best scorer got injured after nine minutes). I don’t think Phoenix are going to be able to consistently outscore teams as the season progresses, and if they’re forced to go to the Bonner/Dupree pairing down low they’re going to have trouble guarding anyone with size or strength in the paint. Still, at least they got rid of the 0-fer.
Indiana must be a little worried, and not just because Douglas’s return is currently up in the air. Besides Davenport and Douglas, they’re struggling to find consistent offense from anywhere. Catch is rebounding like a demon but her shooting touch hasn’t arrived yet. Pohlen looks like she could be useful, but the point guard spot is still something of a mystery with January, Phillips and now even Bobbitt making a case on any given night – before proving why they don’t have the job secured on the next one. Better hope KD makes it back fast, or this could be the last game they break 80 in for a while.
Blowout number one was in Connecticut, where the Sun got revenge for their loss to Chicago nine days earlier. This one wasn’t particularly complicated – Tina Charles got the better of Sylvia Fowles in the matchup of Team USA centers and got a little more help from her teammates, and that was about it.
Fowles’s size and length sometimes gives Charles problems – it certainly did in the first Sky-Sun matchup this season, for example, when Fowles had 23pts/13rbs to Charles’s 8 and 4. However, yesterday Charles seemed to start everything further from the hoop, where she could use her slightly greater range and quickness to attack Fowles where she held the advantage. After gaining confidence from those moves, Tina started moving down low and scoring on Big Syl however she felt like it. Assisted by some nice early scoring from Kara Lawson, returning from her ankle sprain off the bench and firing up shots like she’d never been away, Charles had 16 at halftime, Lawson had 13, and Connecticut had a 48-33 lead.
Chicago never really got back in it in the second half. The lead came down to eight several times, but they couldn’t hit the one or two big shots that might’ve got the Sun nerves jangling. Fowles was noticeably more aggressive in the second half, presumably after a talking to at the break from Pokey Chatman, going at Charles rather than trying to go around or over her. But no one else in a sky blue jersey was hitting anything, and Syl couldn’t do it all on her own, so the Sun eased to a comfortable 83-68 victory.
So Connecticut take sole possession of the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 4-1. After a slow start, Charles has exploded for a combined 57pts/22rbs in her last two games, reaching a career high of 31 points in yesterday’s game against Chicago. She and Asjha Jones have helpfully had strong games whenever the other has had an off-night, leading to the excellent record. Mike Thibault will probably be most happy about his team’s defense, which kept the Sky in check throughout. Fowles is always likely to get her points whatever you do, but Epiphanny Prince was kept quiet and had to take 17 shots for her 18 points. Cathrine Kraayeveld was throwing a brick party from the three-point line as well. The Sun didn’t use quite as much zone as they had in their previous game against Washington, which indicates that they have the versatility to adapt to their opponents’ strength, which they’ll need as the season continues. These teams play yet again on Thursday, and it’ll be interesting to see what Chatman and Thibault come up with for their third meeting of the young season. No need to panic for Chicago after this loss, although they will be looking for rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot to be more aggressive offensively. She’s playing a little too passively, and they need her to be a leader – and scorer – out there.
Blowout number two, and you might as well just refer back to the report of Thursday’s game. Minnesota faced Atlanta again, this time in the Dream’s own arena, but the venue made little difference as the Lynx ran away with it for a second time. The rematch was a lower-scoring affair, finishing 77-64 after the 96-85 Minnesota win days earlier, but nothing much changed in the balance of the contest. The Lynx look like a comfortable, confident team already, whereas the Dream are still trying to put the pieces together.
The Lynx were quicker to the ball, helping on defense, creating turnovers and pushing the ball whenever the opportunity was there to take advantage. They were up 26-7 as a result towards the end of the first quarter, and the gap was never in single digits for the rest of the night. The Dream simply couldn’t hit any shots. Angel McCoughtry was 2-13 on the night, Iziane Castro Marques 1-6 before leaving the game for good in the second quarter due to illness, and Lindsey Harding finished 3-14. Ugly. Cheryl Reeve has got her squad playing nice team defense and the length and strength of that starting unit especially makes getting the ball inside difficult. That led to a host of outside jumpers for Atlanta, and they couldn’t knock any of them down – an issue which caused problems for them at times last year as well. When Angel and Izi don’t have it going, they struggle for perimeter offense – 30% from the floor as a team, including 2-18 from three-point range, was nowhere near good enough yesterday.
The Lynx are flying. This team just looks so happy to be out there and playing as a unit, winning games and believing in themselves. The confidence is palpable. They ultimately only shot 39% themselves yesterday, but that number came down in the fourth quarter when the contest was essentially over. Seimone Augustus looked good yet again, going 7-13 for 19 points, and the rest of the scoring load was balanced across the squad. She only just managed it with a rebound in the final seconds of the game, but Rebekkah Brunson kept up her double-double streak as well, putting up the bare minimum of 10pts/10rbs. Six straight ties the WNBA record to start a season, and they didn’t need any more from her this time.
Atlanta were a streaky team all of last year as well, but when does a bad streak just become all-around bad? Of course they miss Sancho Lyttle, but it’s doubtful that she would’ve made much difference in a game where no one in a home uniform could buy a bucket. New addition Courtney Paris didn’t make an appearance until late in the third when her team were over 20 behind, but she may get more of a chance in coming games with Sandora Irvin and Alison Bales ineffective. It’s a good thing that teams like Washington and New York look like they’re going to make it reasonably easy to make the playoffs in the East – if Atlanta can sort themselves out by September, maybe they can discover another hot streak and these miserable games will be just a distant memory.
Third and final blowout, and the ultimate scoreline in this one was the worst of the lot, with LA destroying Seattle 74-50. Just like Atlanta, the Storm couldn’t hit a damn thing all night long, shooting the exact same pathetic 30% from the floor that the Dream put up. LA had a great time as a result, throwing in a few touches of Hollywood showtime basketball and clearing the bench early, giving all those aging starters some rest that will be much appreciated.
The Storm were 3-16 in the first quarter for a horrid 19% but only down 14-8, as their defense limited the Sparks as well. However, Seattle’s continuing inability to score seemed to feed LA’s confidence and they built some momentum that Seattle simply couldn’t halt. The lead went to 13 on a Penicheiro under-arm lookaway feed to Parker for a layup that sent the home crowd wild, and a ridiculous Kristi Toliver midair catch-and-finish with her back to the basket topped things off. The Sparks led 39-25 at the break and it felt like more.
The main thing worth mentioning about the second half was a gorgeous one-handed alley-oop finish on a backdoor spin move by Candace Parker. The lead was never any smaller than nine and by the close LA had blown it out to 24 and Toliver was throwing a no-look bounce pass to Natasha Lacy on the break. The loss ten days ago at home to Minnesota was meant to be Seattle’s wake-up call, but apparently they needed another. They came back to make the scoreline respectable against the Lynx – this one just got more and more embarrassing until the buzzer finally sounded.
The thing is, Seattle don’t seem to be taking bad shots. Yeah, they could do with working to find more opportunities in the paint rather than outside, but the jumpers they’re taking are shots you’d expect them to make a decent percentage of the time. They’re just not. Lauren Jackson was 3-14 in last night’s game, taking the perennial MVP candidate to a horrifying 13-46 through four games. Maybe the offseason injury/surgery is lingering, but she looks pretty healthy. The shots are just off, sometimes by quite a distance. Seattle can probably win enough games with their defense and team play to make the playoffs but they won’t win anything with LJ playing like this, and it’s getting frustrating waiting for her to snap out of it. Several of her teammates are just as bad. Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright, Le’coe Willingham and new addition Katie Smith are all shooting horribly, and that’s just too much for the offense to take. It’s a near team-wide shooting slump. Hope Brian Agler can wake his team up sometime soon, because this is painful to watch from a team that was so smooth and efficient throughout last season.
As for the Sparks, that’s precisely what Jen Gillom will have wanted to see. They got balanced offense from across their starters, solid support from the bench (which is deeper than previous years and which she finally seems willing to utilise), and they didn’t even get completely killed on the boards. Any game where she gets to rest the starters is a good thing for Gillom, considering she’s always had a tendency to run them into the ground, whatever their age and whoever she had on the bench. Kristi Toliver’s giving them a nice offensive boost off the pine, even visibly improving her defense from the trainwreck of previous years. I’d still worry about their rebounding, their perimeter defense and the coaching in a game where the opposition actually shows up, but a 3-1 start and growing confidence is a very positive way to kick off to the season.
In other news…
Kerri Gardin was officially waived by Washington, but if you read these columns you already knew that had to happen after Ta’Shia Phillips played in the game on Saturday. No immediate waiving of anyone else and re-signing of Gardin, so presumably the Mystics are sticking with their rookies for now.
Players of the week were named, with Tina Charles the blindingly obvious winner in the East, and Candice Dupree a slightly surprising pick for the West. She put up nice numbers but also gave a lot of it back to Sophia Young and Jessica Davenport at the other end in the Mercury’s two games, so I probably would’ve gone with someone from the Lynx (Seimone Augustus and Lindsey Whalen were both strong candidates). Maybe they couldn’t decide which Lynx to go with, so looked somewhere else.
Great Britain ladies stuffed Israel in EuroBasket Women, so you lot have to put up with me mentioning if for the rest of the week, because that means my girls are into the next stage (for the first time ever). Spain are through as well, among others, so no early return to Atlanta for Sancho Lyttle.
As ever, there may be no games tonight but there will be a WNBAlien column tomorrow. You’ll just have to show up and read it to find out what it’s actually about.