WNBA Today, 06/22/2011: Night of Celebration finds a Hollywood Ending

It was WNBA madness yesterday, with five games spread from lunchtime until midnight on the US East Coast. I spread the load a little with a Pseudo-Live Game Diary of the early game between Atlanta and Chicago, so now we get to focus on the four late games. Here’s the quick tale of the first three: two decent teams beat two crappy teams even though they were without a key player for most or all of the night; and one mediocre team beat another mediocre team who were missing a key player of their own. The end. Okay not the end, and I’ll cover all three games in a little more depth towards the end of this article, but first we’re going to skip to the night’s showpiece event – New York @ Los Angeles, a rematch of the first ever WNBA game, commemorating the WNBA’s 15th season.

Firstly, this was the most entertaining game we’ve had so far this season, so if you didn’t watch it, I’ll wait while you go and check out the archive. Go on, I’ll still be here when you get back. You can even just click here and it’ll start for you. See how good I am to you?

Anyway, on to the analysis. New York stuck with the Mitchell/Pondexter backcourt for the second straight game. Nicole Powell continues to retain her place at small forward, but that must be under threat from Essence Carson at this point. Powell’s offense has disappeared again since her very brief hot start, and without that there’s frankly very little point in having her on the floor. She’s a fairly smart basketball player, but she’s not a great rebounder or creator, and her defense is mediocre at best. She was one of very few players who didn’t get their offense going last night. Everyone else decided to celebrate the WNBA’s 14th Anniversary with a shootout (and yes, I made the ’15th‘ error yesterday myself, but let’s get it right people – 15 seasons, 14th Anniversary. Doesn’t sound as good, but it’s pretty simple math). Tina Thompson had 10 points in the first four minutes of the game, New York kept pace through Pierson and Pondexter early on, and everyone just kept running back and forth dropping the ball through the hoop for practically the rest of the night. Yeah, no one played much defense, but who cares when basketball is this much fun?

We kind of knew this going in, but Kia Vaughn can’t guard Candace Parker, and Noelle Quinn (and the rest of LA’s perimeter players) can’t guard Cappie Pondexter. Vaughn did her best, and Cappie had been doing a pretty good job of missing everything whoever the hell was guarding her in previous games this year, but on this special night the basketball gods decided offense was going to rule. The first quarter ended with LA up 28-25, after a ridiculous last second fall away with a toe on the three-point line by Kristi Toliver was waved off for being too insane to count (or possibly because it was just after the buzzer. One of those). In the second, New York made a nice little early run with a couple of fastbreaks to pull back LA’s mini-lead, and then everyone just kept gunning. Apart from a nasty little DeLisha Milton-Jones elbow to Plenette Pierson’s gut which knocked her briefly out of the game, the whole thing just kept rolling and was a joy to watch. And D-Nasty throwing a ‘bow, especially into one of the other characters who often seems to be around when controversy erupts, seems like a fitting tribute to the history of the WNBA anyway.

Putting the cherry on the half, Cappie hit a three in Toliver’s face when Kristi gave her an insulting amount of room with four seconds to play, only for Parker to hit a running prayer off one leg from 30 feet with 0.1s on the clock. A breathless half finished tied, 53-53. Both teams shot over 50%, Cappie had 15, Pierson 13 with only one miss, while Vaughn had 8 points and 9 boards. For LA, Parker had 10, DMJ 13, Thompson 14 and Toliver 8. There were only 8 turnovers in the entire half, because everyone just kept scoring – who had time to throw the ball away?

Ebony Hoffman started the second half for Noelle Quinn – exactly why, I have no idea, but I thought it was worth pointing out. That meant a huge lineup for LA – and our commentators had fun trying to work out exactly who the shooting guard was when Hoffman, Milton-Jones, Thompson and Parker were all on the floor – but the scoring pace barely slowed. Late in the third, LA finally created a little separation when they strung a couple of stops together and Pondexter had a little rest. Sydney Colson is insanely quick, but may not be ready for this level just yet. Coming into a game like this cold, being asked to play important minutes late in the third, she didn’t fare too well. LA closed the period up five, finishing with one of those painful possessions where they got a second and third opportunity via offensive boards. DMJ eventually hit the layup for a 76-71 lead.

Cue the Essence Carson show. A one-woman offensive run got New York swiftly back in the game, before yet more long-range bombs from LA – this time from Toliver and DMJ – put the Sparks back in control. Yet another New York comeback, this time keyed by rookie wing Alex Montgomery, brought the Libs back yet again. Nicole Powell scored her only points of the night on a three with under two minutes to play, cutting a four-point LA lead to one, only to brick another try on the next possession. 44 seconds left, LA still up only one, Liberty ball. Bring on Cappie Time, right? Well, kinda. Pondexter had the ball out top, defended by Aussie rookie Jenna O’Hea of all people, drove the right side of the lane, rose up… and threw an ugly pass into traffic that never had a chance. Parker broke away and turned it into a layup the other way for a three-point lead. Why Cappie didn’t shoot herself, I’m not sure. Watching it several times, it looks like the shot is there over O’Hea. Not an easy shot, but one you’d expect Pondexter to take, and probably make.

Anyway, now we had 29.9 seconds left, LA by three. Pondexter ball out top again, she gives it up to Powell on the right wing, who tosses up a three that never had a chance. Then a New York offensive board gave us the storybook ending that all the headline writers were hoping for. Sidney Spencer got the pass, set her feet, went to put the tying three – and had it summarily rejected by the only player to feature in every one of the WNBA’s fifteen seasons. Crowd goes wild, Tina Thompson gets ready for her closeup (and gets knocked on her ass by a hilarious O’Hea ‘chest bump’), and the Hollywood home crowd goes home happy. A couple of DMJ free throws closed the game at 96-91.

That was just fun. One of those games that even a dyed-in-the-wool NBA fan would have to admit fully entertained him for a solid two hours. Cappie only finished 8-18 from the floor for her 22 points, but it felt hotter than that. Hopefully this was the night that her offense returned, firstly because New York need her to lead their attack, and secondly because when she’s flowing she’s the most watchable pure scorer in the women’s game. Coach Whisenant once again won’t be happy with the team defense, but sometimes when the other team’s on fire they’re just hot and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Find a way to score like they did last night on a consistent basis and the Libs will win more than they’ll lose the rest of the season. Gonna have to make a move on Powell at some point, though.

The Sparks go to 4-1, and look happy and comfortable in their own skins for the first time in years. Like Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota, Jen Gillom looks like she’s finally learned a few things about being a head coach. She’s using her bench, resting the players who need it, and her squad looks like they know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing – which is a hell of a lot more than they did last year. Of course, a healthy Candace Parker cures an awful lot of ills. Besides that, Thompson and Milton-Jones look fit and rested, O’Hea looks like a great all-purpose pick up who can do a little bit of everything, and through five games they might have the leading candidate for Most Improved Player in Kristi Toliver. I’ve given Kristi plenty of stick over the years – and she’s deserved every last word of it. A shoot first, shoot second, shoot third guard who couldn’t defend an excavated cadaver, the Sky quit on Toliver after only one year, and she spent most of last season in LA making it look like the right choice. This season she’s still a little bit shot-happy, but she’s making far, far, far better decisions with the ball than she used to and working markedly harder defensively. As a point guard she’s still some distance from the finished article, but she could always shoot, and she seems to be working hard on improving the rest. That’s half the battle.

—–

The biggest news from the night’s other games was Lauren Jackson, who subbed out of Seattle’s game in Tulsa midway through the second quarter. It looked fairly innocuous, but she never returned and later reported feeling a pop in her hip. Apparently she’d already had a cortisone injection in the hip recently due to pain in the area, and an MRI was scheduled for today back in Seattle. The pain and the shot at least somewhat explains the shooting woes we’d seen from Jackson so far this year, but it’s a horrible sign for the Storm. LJ injuries have derailed their seasons in the past, and although they’re still a good team without her, they’d be a long shot to repeat their title challenge. Let’s hope she’s okay – the Storm can certainly stay right in the playoff mix even if she needs a month or two off.

As for last night, Seattle had maintained their miserable form even with Jackson in the early going. Tulsa weren’t playing great, but defensive effort and the Storm’s continuing inability to hit a freaking shot propelled the Shock into a 29-14 lead early in the second quarter. And that was with LJ. A modest run cut the lead to 37-31 by the half, and in the third quarter something resembling the real Seattle Storm actually decided to show itself. What Brian Agler appeared to have reminded his roster of in the locker room was that you can run on this team. The Shock may be coached by Nolan Richardson, famed for his ’40 Minutes of Hell’ system, by they don’t actually run it any more, and they’re not quick. At all. Much as I love Kayla Pedersen’s game, she spent a bunch of minutes last night essentially playing off-guard, which shows you the kind of pace you’re looking at in the backcourt. Run back at them, off rebounds or turnovers (or even makes), and easy transition buckets are there for the taking.

Led by Sue Bird, one of the few Seattle players who’s actually been playing fairly well since the season started, the Storm got their transition game going in the second half. That gave them some momentum, which gave them some confidence, which led to them actually making a few shots in halfcourt sets as well. Hallelujah, the Storm are (a little bit) alive. Of course they were playing Tulsa. Seattle took the lead early in the third, pushed the advantage to about eight by the start of the fourth, and basically held it from there. Tulsa made a little push late, and there was a minor controversy when the officials took an eternity examining a shotclock replay, but there was never much doubt about the result in the final period. Storm hold on, 82-77.

Ugly, boring game. You know how I said go watch the NY-LA game earlier? Don’t go watch this one. Maybe even skip the highlight package. Nonetheless, maybe this is what Seattle need to finally wake up. They’ll be worried about Jackson, but a few games without her might force the rest of the team to take some responsibility for their actions, rather than waiting around for their MVP candidate to snap out of it and bail them out. Bird was great last night, producing 21 points and 6 assists, and Swin Cash chipped in with 17 points and 9 rebounds. Even Ashley Robinson didn’t disgrace herself in ten minutes of action.

Just another night for Tulsa. Looking way better than they used to, but still lagging behind in basic talent when their opposition shows up. They really need another guard who can actually play (so not Marion Jones, or Amber Riley).

—–

Over in the D.C., a very similar game took place with the Fever visiting the Mystics. Crappy home team with a solitary win? Check. Decent road team who’re struggling for offense? Check. Key player missing for the road team? Check. Officials calling every tiny little piece of contact, making the game virtually unwatchable? Check. Game that was basically over for most of the fourth quarter and barely worth watching? Check, check and triple-check.

The key piece missing for Indiana was Katie Douglas, still suffering from the ‘lower back contusion’ suffered in a nasty fall against Phoenix. She was reportedly ‘65% ready’ – although who knows how they arrive at that figure – so hopefully won’t be out for too much longer. The Fever started Shannon Bobbitt in her place, shifting Briann January to the 2. That didn’t last long. Washington got off to a strong start, looking like they’d remembered how to feed Crystal Langhorne in the post, something they’d forgotten entirely in their previous few games. Indiana looked like the horrible offensive team they’d been in nearly every game this year, only shorn of their sole all-star shooter. The Mystics led 24-13 at the end of the first as a result.

Then, the turnaround. Lin Dunn randomly discovered her best lineup for the evening, putting Catchings at the four alongside Jessica Davenport, with January back at the point and Shavonte Zellous and Jeanette Pohlen on the wings. Those five essentially tore Washington to shreds for the rest of the night. They made eight straight shots without a miss to start the second quarter, and kept it rolling into a 42-39 lead at the half. Despite the ugly first quarter, the Fever ultimately shot 52% in the first half thanks to the dominant second period.

Dunn started Davenport and Zellous in the second half ahead of regular starters Tammy Sutton-Brown and Tangela Smith, immediately going with four of the five players who’d worked so well in the first half. Two minutes in, Pohlen replaced Bobbitt to reunite all five. The Fever lead grew as high as 14, and although the Mystics dragged themselves back within 3 points at one stage, that lineup Indiana discovered in the first half always had enough firepower to pull away again. Fever win going away, 89-80.

The similarities with the Storm continue for Indiana. If they’re lucky, they can use this game as a springboard to get their offense going, because without Douglas around they had to find it from different sources. Zellous showing her first signs of life this year was a nice bonus, and she can be a very useful piece for them if she stays aggressive and hits the shots she was draining against Washington. Douglas or no Douglas, they have to get points from other places. Davenport continues to wildly and ridiculously outplay Tammy Sutton-Brown at center, but hell, maybe she can make a few extra bucks from the Sixth Woman Award if Dunn keeps bringing her off the bench to play 30 minutes a night. January’s had a couple of decent games lately too, which will help if she can somehow find some consistency as well.

Washington didn’t quit, which was more than could be said of some of their other recent performances. Anosike’s fallen into a black hole lately, at both ends of the floor, which is really hurting them. Still no sign of Alana Beard returning either. Let’s call it a rebuilding year, shall we?

—–

And finally, Phoenix get their second win of the year, scraping past a San Antonio team who were without Sophia Young due to illness. The typical Mercury were out in full force, running and gunning away, then desperately trying to let the opposition back into the game on multiple occasions. Penny Taylor lit San Antonio up for 30, Candice Dupree had her fourth straight double-double with 20 and 13 boards, and Diana Taurasi struggled yet again, going just 2-13 for seven points (and her third technical foul of the young season). The Silver Stars did the best they could behind Becky Hammon’s 28 and Danielle Adams’s 22, but the Merc just about held them off.

You don’t need to have seen this game to know exactly what it was like: end-to-end stuff, lots of scoring, awful defense from Phoenix, the complete lack of size from San Antonio giving up a bazillion points in the paint to the likes of Dupree and Kara Braxton, and the Silver Stars not having quite enough firepower to shoot themselves back into the game. Mercury hold on 105-98. I’m still not convinced that either of these teams is much good, but at least one of them is going to make the playoffs. This could be an important win when we get down to the end of the season – they all count for one in the W column whether you get them in June or September.

 

In other news…

The WNBA released the 30 official nominees for their Top 15 Players of All Time list (their title, not mine, or it’d have ‘WNBA’ in there somewhere. Otherwise why aren’t we voting for Lieberman, Meyers, Miller and the rest?). You can theoretically vote once per day starting tomorrow at the page that’ll go live here. It’s not up yet, so don’t blame me if WNBA.com screw that up and change the address. My own choices for the top 15 will, of course, be written about here. Just as soon as I get around to selecting them.

Don’t forget the games start early tomorrow, with Tulsa’s camp day game against New York at 12.30pm ET. Or 9.30am ET, if you’re like me and intend to watch the Great Britain vs. Lithuania EuroBasket Women game first – but that probably doesn’t apply to many of you.

 

Today’s Games:

None

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4 comments on “WNBA Today, 06/22/2011: Night of Celebration finds a Hollywood Ending

  1. Melissa says:

    It’s early, but Brunson is a top MVP candidate and Powell is having a hard time even getting on the board these days. Yeah, I’m not bitter…

  2. Michelle says:

    It was a great night, just watched the Liberty-Sparks game. Like you said not a lot of defense but a lot of exciting offense 😀 1 thing about your post: Pondexter shot that 3pointer in Ticha’s face not Toliver’s at the end of the 2nd half 🙂

    • Yep, checking out the replay I think you’re right. I wish these players would stop looking so damn similar out on the floor and making my job more difficult ;).

  3. norwester says:

    Hey, the refs made it crappy to watch the Tulsa-Seattle game just as much as the teams…no rhythm. Also, if they show Sue’s off-balance 3 at the buzzer, that’s got to be worth a highlight, but overall it was a pretty ugly game. I hear that Adia and Dick were cracking each other up on the broadcast, though. And also my Xbox streamed the ESPN3 feed very smoothly, unlike my computer. This Storm fan is currently grasping onto these small joys, plus Sue Bird. The season is young, and if anyone can come back from the type of injury LJ has, she can.

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