Sometimes, basketball games are about more than just winning and losing. Sometimes, even just three weeks into a season, a team has to go out on the floor and prove that they still belong. That they’re still the champs, and that the route to this year’s title still goes through them. That without their star player they can still compete with the best teams in this league. And that however horrific their offense might be, you’re still going to have trouble scoring points against them. Ladies and gentlemen, your Seattle Storm!
For anyone who caught yesterday’s article before the late update (or the few of you with the temerity to not even read it at all), Lauren Jackson has been ruled out for ‘a minimum of three weeks’ with ‘a labral injury in her left hip’. They’re going to let her rest, then try physical therapy, and if she doesn’t respond well enough only then will they resort to surgery. So the Storm went into last night’s game at home to Minnesota not just smarting from the ass-kicking they took from the Lynx two weeks ago, but shorn of last year’s WNBA MVP. However, as we all know, in life and in sports – beware of the wounded animal.
This was not a pretty game. Any WNBA game where you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the night and there’s only a total of 120 points on it is not going to be a tape you save to show the grandchildren. But the Storm got it done, winning 65-55 against a team that had won five in a row and was looking on top of the world before they entered the Key last night. A strong early run, featuring more ball movement and greater emphasis on getting the ball inside than we’d seen in previous Seattle games this season, found the Storm up 16-4 after six minutes. They also forced two quick fouls on Rebekkah Brunson, who’d caused them all kinds of problems in the first matchup between the two teams.
The only players who got anything going at all for the Lynx in the first half were Seimone Augustus and Amber Harris. Tanisha Wright was chasing Augustus all over the floor and at least making her work, but that jumper still goes up very, very quickly whenever Mone wants it to. With Jackson out, players the size of Harris are likely to give the Storm trouble and there’s not a lot they can do about it. Ashley Robinson will provide spot minutes to fill in, but the first choice in the post is going to be Camille Little and Le’coe Willingham, who simply aren’t that tall. They’ll make you work for everything you get, but sometimes people are just going to score over them. Still, the Seattle defense was working. They weren’t giving up anything in transition, which is where Minnesota have created a lot of their offense this year, and where they’ve built the momentum that has carried them through games. That kept Whalen, Moore and Brunson quiet, which’ll give you a strong chance in any game against the Lynx. A small Minnesota run cut into the lead in the second quarter, but the Storm pushed back and held a 35-25 advantage at halftime. That’s arguably the best team in the league through the first three weeks, held to a measly 25 points in 20 minutes of basketball.
Minnesota pushed again out of the break, still led by Augustus, and six minutes into the second half we had a tied game at 41. It would’ve been easy for this Storm team to say ‘oh well, we just lost our best player’ and give it up at that point. They’d made the strong showing to start the game, proved they could still play, why fight so hard when you’ve got a ready-made excuse for losing? But this team is made of sterner stuff than that. They knuckled down, helped Wright out a touch more with Augustus, and made their own little runs to take back the advantage. Only a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, Seattle were back up by nine, led by a seven point burst from Wright herself. The lead never went below five the rest of the way, largely because the Storm defense kept forcing Minnesota into distant jumpshots, and the Lynx couldn’t hit any. They only scored ten total points in the fourth quarter, and that wasn’t close to enough.
No one would ever try to argue that the Storm are better without Lauren Jackson (well no one sane. I’m sure the argument’s been made on a message board somewhere). But if she can come back somewhere near full strength by the end of the season, losing her for a few weeks might not be a bad thing for the Storm. They only scored 65 points last night, which is still pretty horrible, but the spacing and ball movement looked better, and on defense the work rate and attention to detail was consistently there. That’s what this team needs. The defense works when everyone keeps their head in the game and moves, switches and rotates to help like they’re supposed to. The offense was great last season, but everything was built from the ground up via the defensive end – and defense especially is a team effort. Jackson’s an excellent defender, but the team defense can still work without her. With a bit of luck, it might keep them in enough games for the offense to start working again as well.
Minnesota were cold last night, and it was an illustration of what can happen to a team like that when you take away their transition opportunities. They couldn’t run, couldn’t get into a rhythm, and ultimately just couldn’t hit enough shots. Brunson always plays best in games that are messy and have lots of breakdowns, feeding off loose balls, broken plays and offensive rebound opportunities. Seattle took most of that away, hence the quiet night. Maya Moore was anonymous and although she led the Lynx with 17 points, Augustus ended up having to take 18 shots to get there. Seattle will take that every time.
As a group, the Lynx bench continues to struggle despite the firepower at Cheryl Reeve’s disposal. Maybe too many players down there are struggling to get into games when they’re used to playing heavier minutes, or maybe Reeve needs to tweak her rotations to give them longer stints on the floor, but the likes of Wiggins, Wright and Houston can’t find their shots. This should be one of the deepest squads in the league, but there’s a heavy reliance on the starting five at the minute. Bench help would be nice in a game like last night where several starters are off the boil.
Two other games last night, and the first was in Atlanta where the Dream suffered yet another miserable offensive night, even though the Phoenix Mercury were the visitors. This should’ve been the game where Atlanta got their season rolling. They were at home; they pulled out a tight win over the Sky in their last game; the Mercury were missing their starting point guard after Temeka Johnson turned an ankle in their last contest; and the Mercury had the decency to cough up 22 turnovers over the course of the night, which should’ve gotten the Dream’s transition game going. But no. Atlanta basically couldn’t buy a bucket all night, and Phoenix held on comfortably for a 92-83 victory.
We saw a bunch of Dream games like this last year. Their two primary wing players are Angel McCoughtry and Iziane Castro Marques, two quick players who like to get out and run, and two players who can put up a lot of points in a hurry. The problem is, they’re both streaky, and they both like to shoot. And shoot, and shoot. And shoot. Without a great deal of regard for whether the ball’s falling for them on that particular night. At halftime, things were going okay. Phoenix were up 51-43, but Angel was 4-10 from the floor, and Izi was 5-12. That’s an awful lot of attempts from two players in one half, even against the Merc, but 9-22 isn’t too bad.
Cue the second half: So. Many. Jumpshots. Izi and Angel keep their percentages vaguely respectable by getting baskets on fastbreaks and going to the hoop, not by constantly chucking the ball up from long range. That’s when they get in trouble. Too many shots from outside usually means too many misses, and by the end of the game the Dream starting wings were 12-38 as a pair, for 36 points. Izi managed all of one solitary point in the second half.
Atlanta have a nasty habit of standing around watching when Angel and Izi are in that sort of mood, which grinds their inside game to a halt. The only Atlanta post who came away with any credit from yesterday’s game was Courtney Paris, who finished with 13 points and 8 rebounds, 6 of them offensive. Part of the Dream’s futility inside was caused by coach Meadors playing a lot of small lineups with McCoughtry as the power forward. It worked in the playoffs last year, and you can see why it would be viewed as a direct matchup with all the athletic running posts that Phoenix use like Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner, but it removed key parts of the Atlanta offense. You can’t run all that high-low action their offense typically involves if McCoughtry’s the four, because she’ll be standing on the perimeter waiting for you to give her the ball. I’d have preferred to see them try to exploit the mismatches their bigs created, rather than slip into playing Phoenix’s game.
As for the Mercury, it’s their third straight win, pulls them back to .500, and forces me to (grudgingly) give them a little credit. Atlanta like to run as well, so they got drawn into playing Phoenix’s style of basketball game, and the Merc have simply been doing this too well and too long to be beaten at their own game by the Dream. Dupree had another hyper-efficient outing, notching 19 points and six rebounds, and unlike previous opponents the Dream didn’t bother taking advantage of her defensive frailties. Diana Taurasi scored 20 points on 7-10 shooting, although she took her sweet time getting involved in the game, scoring 13 of those in the fourth quarter. It was looking like yet another DT no-show for 2011 until the last ten minutes. Last of the Merc ‘big three’ – but very distinctly not least – Penny Taylor had yet another do-everything, quietly-be-the-best-player-on-the-damn-floor performance. Taylor put up 17 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. TJ and Ketia Swanier may be the nominal point guards on this squad, but Taylor has become the initiator and creator of so much of what they do, while also being one of the best finishers in the game. She’ll lead this team in assists again when all is said and done, and it won’t be close.
Just for the record, and to keep up my streak of saying it, I still don’t really buy this Mercury team. Let’s see you beat a team that can vaguely rebound and moderately shoot. Then I’ll start to believe.
The other game last night was an all Western Conference matchup, between Los Angeles and San Antonio. It was a back-and-forth battle, with an early LA lead countered by the Silver Stars, before the Sparks stretched it out again. A little help from above – and not just the basketball gods this time – enabled a final San Antonio run that helped them pull the win out in overtime, 90-80.
LA came out firing, and everything was going in. Their first seven shots of the game all dropped, and when a Milton-Jones three fell through straight after their sole miss in the opening five minutes, the Sparks were up 20-8. It was like they’d picked up right where they left off in that shootout against New York on Tuesday. The thing about this year’s Silver Stars team, however, is that they actually have a bench. They’re blowing the rest of the league away in bench scoring, and it means that when the starters are getting destroyed like LA was doing to them last night, Dan Hughes has somewhere to turn. The likes of rookies Danielle Adams and Danielle Robinson, and veteran gunner Jia Perkins, are all coming off the pine and primed to give the Silver Stars an offensive injection when they get the chance. Last night, it was all Perkins. She was crazy hot. Jumpers from everywhere, step-backs, occasional drives just to keep the defense honest – the first San Antonio comeback was all her. By halftime the Sparks lead had practically disappeared, Perkins already had 18, and LA were only up 43-42 thanks to a Kristi Toliver runner as time was about to expire.
Perkins’s hot streak had completely taken LA out of their rhythm in the second quarter, but with Sophia Young having a rough night and Becky Hammon going cold, LA snuck back in front in the third. With six minutes left in the game, the Sparks had pushed that lead to 69-59 and looked like they were just about in control again. Then came that help from the sky. First came a rainbow three-pointer from Jia Perkins, then came a wounded bat, falling from the rafters of the AT&T Center and landing on the floor right near midcourt (right near Perkins as she ran back, in fact ). Now I’m not saying that the bat was a cunning plant, orchestrated to fall on the floor just when Dan Hughes needed a turnaround. That would be crazy. But the fact is that San Antonio went on an 11-0 run around the bat’s arrival and removal from the court, taking a brief lead at 70-69 with three minutes to play. LA hit a few shots after that, but Jenna O’Hea lost Hammon on an inbounds play with 33 seconds left and the Silver Stars’ favourite daughter drained a three to tie the ballgame. Tina Thompson missed a driving layup before Hammon got trapped in traffic at the buzzer, leading to the extra period.
San Antonio stuck with their bat-lineup throughout overtime, with Hammon and Perkins in the backcourt, Young, Adams and Ruth Riley in the front. LA had run out of steam. The Silver Stars attacked, the Sparks took too many jumpers and committed too many turnovers, and San Antonio ran out 10-point winners without much nail-biting in OT. A very nice win for them, considering LA’s hot start and Sophia Young’s off-night.
If San Antonio just keep winning games, at some point I’m probably going to have to start giving them some credit. Their rebounding still scares me. LA have been a horrible rebounding team for years as well, which helped last night, but my very first note on this game was ‘Parker should get at least 15 boards tonight’. I was two off. Against teams that actually crash the glass, this is still going to be a problem. Jayne Appel’s back, which at least gives them someone with size to spell Ruth Riley when necessary, but she’s not exactly going to be putting up double-digits boards on a nightly basis. Right now they’re surviving through a friendly schedule and team rebounding, along with that fantastically effective bench. Here, Dan Hughes has to get a lot of credit. The three draft picks of Adams, Robinson and Phillips are all producing, and the new acquisition Perkins essentially won them the game last night. It’s scary for the opposition when they know that five minutes into the game there are new weapons who can cause a whole new set of problems for your defense. Just a shame that none of them are over 6-1.
LA won’t be too disappointed about last night. They just went cold after the first quarter, and couldn’t quite hit enough shots to sneak away with the game in the fourth. I’m always bemused by players entering basketball games for the first time in the fourth quarter – if they’re good enough to play in crunch time, why didn’t they play earlier? – so why Jen Gillom inserted Natasha Lacy into last night’s game to start the fourth I have no idea. She’s too fast and too freewheeling for this squad, and Toliver and Quinn are both clearly better options to back up Penicheiro. Still, Lacy was gone for most of San Antonio’s run, so you can’t blame the whole comeback on her. Parker produced 25 points to go with the 13 rebounds, but simply didn’t get enough help. I feel almost ill saying it but, uh, maybe Kristi Toliver should’ve taken more shots?
In other news…
There’s been no official word, but I do have a new theory to posit on the injury exemption situation in Washington. And Mystics fans aren’t going to like it. Basically, reading the relevant section of the CBA, I think Beard’s out for at least three more weeks, possibly significantly longer. All this stuff is complicated because the CBA was written when teams were still allowed up to 13 players, plus it’s all in legalese. However, as far as I understand, you typically need to be down to 8 (i.e. three injured players) to apply for a hardship exemption, but two long-term injuries can also lead to the exemption. So if Beard’s been categorised as long-term, then they can get the extra spot.
All this for Joy Cheek. Oy.
Connecticut @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Phoenix @ Chicago, 8pm ET