You know how in every sports movie, there’s a scene where the big, bad reigning champ shows our plucky young hero that he isn’t actually ready yet? He might’ve thought he was, or he might’ve just been wandering along the road minding his own business, but one way or another the old power has to show that they’re still in charge. Still the big man. Still on top. Well last night, a couple of teams that have seen the WNBA Finals in recent years showed a pair of shiny new upstart teams that the balance of power hasn’t quite swung just yet. They might have been there, done that and bought the t-shirt, but they aren’t going to hand anything over without a hell of a fight.
Okay Phoenix, I see you. I get the message. Four wins in a row for our first old dog; finally a win against a team that can vaguely rebound and moderately shoot (as requested here yesterday); and, most importantly of all, some tiny signs of actual defense from a team in Mercury uniforms. Really! I swear! I can’t stop using exclamation marks because it’s so unlikely! Now I’m not going to go so far as my ol’ buddy Ben York, who you’ve probably seen writing for every WNBA media outlet in the known world. He reckons that “Continually stating how poor the Phoenix Mercury is on the defensive end of the floor has kind of become the ‘it’ thing to do.” Except that it’s never been so much the ‘it thing to do’, as the ‘accurate thing to say’. On a points per possession basis, they were the worst team in the WNBA last year. Behind even Tulsa, amazingly enough. It takes real effort (or an extraordinary lack thereof) to finish below that Shock disaster from last year in anything. This year, even after last night’s game, Phoenix are still hideous on a points per possession basis. As high as 9th in the league, because Tulsa, New York and Washington have all been abysmal this year as well, but those four are light years behind the rest of the WNBA. Nonetheless, last night the Mercury did a pretty solid job against a team with Sylvia Fowles at the pivot, and for that we have to give them credit.
The Sky were coming off that double-OT victory over Connecticut that no one saw on Thursday night, but the Mercury were on the second night of a back-to-back after playing in Atlanta. So the Merc could perhaps be forgiven for coming out a little flat. Chicago were up 16-8 after five minutes, but once the Mercury got their running game going the contest was swiftly back in the balance. Tight throughout the second quarter, Chicago only took a 40-37 lead into the locker room because Epiphanny Prince banked in a three from halfcourt at the buzzer. Both teams seemed to be doing their best to keep each other involved. Phoenix had 13 turnovers, remarkably high for them in a half, while Chicago were shooting only 37% from the floor, which had let the Mercury off the hook.
The third quarter was ultimately where the game was won and lost. Phoenix came out of the locker room charging, opening with a Taylor three and following it up with a series of layups, some on the break, some in the halfcourt. Chicago were getting caught in transition, coughing up the ball, and being beaten on the offensive glass, which really shouldn’t happen to them against Phoenix. Beyond that, Braxton, Dupree and Bonner, with help from their teammates, were making Fowles work seriously hard for everything underneath. Without that consistent focus for their offense Chicago’s attack ceased being remotely effective. Eight minutes into the second half the Mercury lead had grown to 60-47, and it never dropped back into single-digits until the last few minutes of the game, when it was already over as a contest. Phoenix held on to close out an 86-78 win and for once didn’t even have any nervous moments at the death.
Chicago’s problem is a lack of penetration. Apart from post moves, dump downs, flashes and cuts by Fowles, practically every possession ends in a jump shot. Epiphanny Prince can break people down off the dribble, but the vast majority of her shots come on long-range jumpers. Courtney Vandersloot was a little more aggressive in looking for her own shot yesterday, but that mostly came via a willingness to take threes. Michelle Snow’s become a 6-5 jumpshooter. And we all know Cathrine Kraayeveld doesn’t do anything offensively except throw entry passes and jack threes. I wouldn’t say they truly miss the injured Dominique Canty, given how poorly she was shooting, but at least she attacks the rim from time to time. Right now for Chicago it’s transition, Fowles, or jump shot. Phoenix didn’t give up too many opportunities to run back at them – a lot of their 22 turnovers were dead ball TOs that stopped the game with whistles, not steals that went back the other way – and they worked their butts off to trouble Big Syl. That leaves the jumpers, and that’s an awfully difficult and dangerous way to try to win a basketball game.
As for Phoenix, seriously, defense! It’s not like we’re going to be mistaking them for grind-it-out squads like Indiana and Seattle any time soon, and Fowles helped them out by missing several bunnies at the rim, but they did a job on her. Fighting for position, challenging shots, and just generally making her work damn hard, Syl had a frustrating night. She ended up with 28 points and 11 rebounds, which doesn’t make it sound like they really limited her, but it was enough to throw her and the Sky off their game. Floating around her, no one else could hit a damn shot for Chicago, which you can attribute to Phoenix’s perimeter defense if you really want to. I tend to feel like the Sky just missed a lot (although I’m sure Mr. York would disagree with me. That’s okay, Benny and I tend to disagree quite a bit).
The Merc offense was pretty smooth and effective when they stopped turning the ball over. Taurasi showed up for an entire game for one of the few times this season, going for 23 points on 8-15 shooting. Alongside her, Penny Taylor had yet another one of those nights, putting up 19 points, 7 assists and 9 rebounds. So that’s 36 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists in a 24 hour period. It’s amazing how quietly she does it, too. Apart from the occasional bullet pass or twisty little drive, you barely even notice her impact coursing through the game unless you pay very close attention. Otherwise you just look up at the boxscore when the game’s over and notice her filling up every column. I’d nickname her ‘the Silent Assassin’ but PFT already seems to have caught on for a large number of fans. I’m sure you can use your imagination to work out what the initials stand for.
So with the Mercury showing Chicago that they might have a ways to go yet to become a true contender, Indiana got the chance to prove something similar to Connecticut. The Sun might’ve been a perennial playoff team a few years back, but they’ve been out of the postseason for a while now and it’s largely a new group trying to take them back there. Indiana have changed some of the smaller cogs but it’s mostly the same old significant pieces that are churning away looking to get results.
One of those important parts was back last night, with Katie Douglas making her return from the bruised back she suffered against Phoenix. Coach Dunn also finally pulled the trigger on the switch at center, inserting Jessica Davenport into the starting lineup ahead of Tammy Sutton-Brown. Connecticut moved Kara Lawson back into their own starting lineup after bringing her off the bench for a couple of games since her return from a minor injury. Just like in the other game, it was the new young contender who got off to the better start, with Connecticut building a 24-15 lead late in the first. Six first quarter turnovers from the Fever plus Renee Montgomery in attack mode was enough to put the Sun in charge. Then the old dog got mad.
It was 30-23 to the Sun with seven minutes left in the first half, but with their new starting five all out there together for the entire run, Indy took off. 16 straight points from Davenport, Catchings, Douglas and January took control of the game, and multiple Mike Thibault timeouts couldn’t stem the tide. By halftime, Indy’s increased defensive intensity had spun the turnover battle back around, causing the Sun to give up the ball seven times in the second quarter alone. The result was breakaways, layups, momentum, and a 39-32 lead (Tina Charles finally hit a layup to end the run just before the interval).
Unlike the Sky-Mercury game, the new kids on the block made this one interesting in the second half. An early Connecticut run wiped out the Fever’s lead, and this time it was Indiana’s bench that went to work building it back up again. Aussie sparkplug guard Erin Phillips was just that last night, entering the game for the first time with three minutes left in the third quarter and the score 48-47 Fever. She instantly drained a three before throwing in a couple of assists and a steal or two, pushing the lead to 60-47. She’d only been on the floor for 95 seconds. Joining Phillips in this surge, among others, was freshly-minted bench player Tammy Sutton-Brown, running the floor hard and finishing several plays on the break simply because she beat the defense to the basket. It turned out to be far and away her most effective outing of the season. Clearly getting benched agrees with her.
The game still wasn’t over. These young upstarts have always got plenty of fight in them, and when Renee Montgomery finally made her first three of the evening – after seven straight misses – the lead was down to six with five minutes to play. Indy went cold, going back to their stilted offense from earlier in the season, which tends to result in missed jumpshots and turnovers. When Montgomery hit her second three, it cut the game to 72-70 with 13.8 seconds left on the clock. Catchings went 1-2 from the line, leaving the Sun down three with 12.9s to get something done. Montgomery inbounded the ball and then ran a long curl around to the far side of the floor. Given that play, you’d kind of expect it to be a flare for three to tie the game, right? Well if that’s what Thibault drew up, it’s not what Renee ran. She was well inside the arc when she received the cross-court pass, so the slow-developing play would’ve only netted two points even if she’d gotten a shot off. As it was, she ran right into Tamika Catchings, who stole the ball out of her hands and swiftly moved it back out to a teammate. A Shyra Ely layup at the buzzer capped off a 75-70 Indiana victory (and covered the spread, by the way. A lot of people won’t have been happy about that ‘meaningless’ layup. A bunch will have been delighted).
So a tight game between two well-matched teams, but the one that has been there and nearly done it all in recent years just about had the composure to hold on. After several games this year when you’ve wondered where their offense was going to come from, ultimately Indiana won this one with their depth. The starters made the run in the first half, the bench rebuilt the lead in the second, and then the starting five was back in to cling on to the victory in the final minutes. If Davenport gives the starters more of a focus for their offense and TSB can flourish like that in more games off the bench, this could be a turning point for their season. There might be new threats on the horizon, but this group aren’t ready to disappear into the distance just yet.
Unlike the Fever, Connecticut struggled for any kind of depth yesterday. Montgomery, Charles and Jones have already shown this season that they’re likely to be the central pieces to any Sun success, but it’ll be easier if they get a little help. Jones had 18 points, Charles 12 and 11 rebounds, but it felt like little Monty was firing away on her own out there on the perimeter for much of the evening. She finished 7-16, with 5 boards, 5 steals, 6 assists and a less pleasing 5 turnovers. She had some pretty feeds along the way on the few occasions that she did manage to penetrate, but a little too much of the game was spent firing away from outside. And as I mentioned earlier with the Sky, that’s a tough way to win a game.
So mark down another one for the old favourites. On the bright side for the Sky and Sun, we know who finishes nearly every sports movie on top. The problem for them is that this could be a pretty long picture.
In other news…
Spain just got dumped out of EuroBasket, after a shocking 75-71 loss to Croatia in their final group game. That means that not only has one of Europe’s top teams failed to make the quarter-finals, but they’re also out of the 2012 Olympics. You need to finish in the top five of this tournament to even make the Additional Qualifying Tournament for London 2012. From a WNBA perspective, it means Sancho Lyttle is probably on her way back to the US tomorrow, and could well return for the Dream against New York on Thursday night. She wasn’t looking too healthy in the last couple of Spanish games, however, so she may well be limited.
San Antonio @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Los Angeles @ New York, 4pm ET
Tulsa @ Washington, 4pm ET
Indiana @ Minnesota, 7pm ET