WNBA Today, 06/27/2011: Deep Thinking

Three WNBA games yester… oh no, wait, four WNBA games yesterday. Almost forgot the gripping Tulsa-Washington matchup. Safe to say that we won’t be spending very long on that one. The most important event in Sunday’s games might well turn out to be the injury suffered by yet another key player, but before we get to the disappointing news let’s worry about the game of the day. Minnesota, coming off that disappointing loss in Seattle where the Storm held them to 55 points, welcomed the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Fever to the Frozen North for their yearly visit. Two teams that had shown some form in the early stages of the season, and the first matchup between Tamika Catchings and Maya Moore – this one had all the signs of being interesting and entertaining, and it didn’t disappoint.

Indiana stuck with their new starting unit featuring Jessica Davenport at center, while the Lynx starting five was the same as it’s been all year. Part of the intrigue with this game was how the rest of the rosters would produce. Minnesota went into the year with everyone talking about how much talent they had, and whether there were enough minutes to go around. As it’s turned out, head coach Cheryl Reeve has ended up relying heavily on her starting five, while her bench players have struggled to produce, especially at the offensive end. Indiana, on the other end, have recently discovered some depth, with Erin Phillips, Jeanette Pohlen, Shavonte Zellous and even the recently demoted Tammy Sutton-Brown all offering important support from the pine.

Moore was hot early, hitting some of those threes that have mostly been bouncing out for her so far this season. Then Lin Dunn went to that bench, and Indy got the boost they were looking for. Early in the second quarter they stretched their lead to 29-18 on a pretty drive and kick from Shannon Bobbitt to Pohlen for her first three of the day. See, when Bobbitt remembers to never, ever shoot, she can actually be moderately effective. There wasn’t a single starter in the game for Indiana at that point. Unfortunately for the Lynx, Minnesota then got their transition game going. Along with shockingly improved defense, this has been the key ingredient in the Lynx’s early form this season – they’re pushing, running, and scoring heavily when they get into a rhythm. It doesn’t just help with the easy buckets they get on the break, but it builds momentum for them in the halfcourt as well (and gets the crowd excited, which can only help). Moore and Augustus came back after a brief rest to reunite the Lynx starting five on the floor, and they were off to the races. Before you knew it that 29-18 Indiana lead was a 35-31 Minnesota advantage and the Lynx were in charge. Indy went small with one of their three-guard sets and Catchings at the four to slow it down, and by halftime everything had almost balanced out, with the Lynx going in up 41-40.

It was a first half that was all about momentum. The Fever took it to start with, breaking out behind their bench play, but then the Lynx took it away and ran back into the game. Moore had 17 at the half, mostly through threes and transition layups, Lindsay Whalen had 10, largely from getting out and running with her. The one worrying thing for the Lynx at the break was the balance of minutes. Indiana had used ten players, and found some balance and production from several of them; every Minnesota starter had played at least 16 of the 20 minutes available, and Rebekkah Brunson was well over 18. It was another case of Reeve feeling she needed to rely heavily on her primary five to keep them in the game.

Indiana went a little different to start the second half, going with Jeanette Pohlen over Tangela Smith to open the period. Smith’s starting to look a little superfluous on this roster at times, with Catchings regularly moving down to play power forward and an extra wing player coming onto the floor. Yesterday was another game where Smith’s minutes ended up severely limited. The Lynx stretched out a little 49-44 lead early in the third, but then Moore picked up her fourth foul and had to sit down, breaking up that regular five.

However, late in the third, Minnesota finally discovered something on their bench. First Candice Wiggins offered a little offensive aggression, pushing the Lynx back into their running game even though she still can’t find her jumpshot. Then Jessica Adair, inserted into the game ahead of more heralded post options like Charde Houston and Amber Harris, burst onto the scene. A Brunson-esque domination of the offensive glass, two layups and a few free throws later, and the Lynx were back up by six early in the fourth. Unfortunately for Lynx fans, leads like that sometimes don’t last very long when Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings are on the other team. A three each, a couple of drives from Catch, a couple more from Katie, and Indy had the lead back despite the fact that they were still getting destroyed on the boards.

The last few seconds were a mess. A quick reach-in from Douglas created a turnover when Minnesota tried to feed the ball into Brunson again, and Douglas made one of two free throws with 18 seconds left to give the Fever a three-point lead. Minnesota ran some sort of aimless disaster of a play that I think involved a high screen by Moore for Whalen and a baseline cross by Augustus in the hope that she’d get open on a low McWilliams-Franklin screen. I’ve watched the replay, and that’s what’s there, but I’m still not remotely convinced that it’s what was supposed to happen. Anyway, it ultimately sort of worked, because Douglas got way too close to Seimone, who jerked up an ugly heave from behind her shoulder and got the foul call and three shots to go with it. Looked like a good call to me – Douglas got too tight.

Augustus missed the first, which led to further misadventures. She made the second, followed by Reeve calling her last timeout to set up what she wanted to happen next. Despite a full eight seconds still being left in a two-point game, Augustus clearly tried to miss the third free throw – an odd choice, but in Reeve’s defense her team had been ridiculously dominant on the offensive boards all night, so you could understand her liking her chances of just one more. Didn’t work, because Mone couldn’t miss – the shot hit the glass and the iron, then rattled in. Pohlen hit two free throws, and then Minnesota had to run because Reeve had used her final timeout to set up that supposed intentional miss. Whalen went the length of the court and got a pretty good look at a running three, only for it to rim out. Fever hold on by the skin of their teeth, 78-75.

That was a fun game. Minnesota finished with a 39-26 advantage on the boards, including 17-4 on the offensive glass, but it wasn’t enough. When they get their running game going and start rolling on you they’re a lot of fun to watch, but sometimes their halfcourt offense gets a little bogged down. Especially when the bench is introduced. The Adair cameo was nice, but players like Wiggins, Wright and Harris should be giving Reeve more options and helping the starters get more rest. Or maybe Reeve should just be giving them more of a chance – it’s a little bit chicken and egg. Moore finished with 21 points and four rebounds, which looks great until you remember she had 17 at the half. Fouls and increased Fever attention left her a lot quieter in the last 20 minutes.

It was hardly a perfect performance from the Fever, but they’ll be delighted to come away with a hard-fought road victory. Davenport wasn’t nearly as effective as she’s been in recent games, largely because Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin were exceptional at keeping the ball from getting to her on offense, and then too quick for her at the other end. Unfortunately for Taj, she got stuck defending Catchings instead in several late-game situations, and that’s a complete mismatch the other way. Lindsay Whalen ended the game 5-15, so Fever point guard Briann January must’ve done something right, but offensively she drives me nuts at times. At least three of the six shots she took yesterday had such a high degree of difficulty that I’d give each of them about a 3% chance of going in. That makes them bad shots, Briann. You’re a point guard – don’t take those shots unless there’s two seconds left on the shot clock.

Last mention has to go to the Fever bench, who’ve appeared from nowhere in recent games to actually affect games. Tammy Sutton-Brown had her second nice performance since moving out of the starting lineup, and Jeanette Pohlen got 25 minutes of action as part of Lin Dunn’s preferred lineup for much of the night. Pohlen sure isn’t afraid to take the big shot, and she’s knocking them down at a crazy rate so far. 65% from the field, 67% from three-point range in her first nine games as a professional, she’s 12-15 in her last four games, including 10-11 from behind the arc. Those are sold-your-soul-to-the-devil numbers. The Fever are a vastly, vastly better team when their offense isn’t just Douglas and Catch over and over again. Right now they’re getting enough from elsewhere to lead the way in the East.

—–

The big news from New Jersey, where LA and New York met in a rematch of their 96-91 shootout from five days earlier, was nothing to do with the basketball. With six minutes left in the third quarter, Candace Parker blocked a Plenette Pierson turnaround hook, grabbed the rebound, and turned to dribble up the floor. She pulled her patented right-hand dribble-behind-the-back move but sadly couldn’t slide her body far enough to the left to avoid big Quanitra Hollingsworth. Parker’s right knee collided with Q, and Candace went down in a lot of pain while basketball fans everywhere collectively held their breath. It’s really a shame that such a gifted basketball player has suffered so many injuries in her young career, and everyone immediately feared that this could be another serious one to add to the list.

Parker was helped off court, never returned to the game, and was later caught on camera using crutches to make it onto the team bus. The Sparks put out a release saying that she was having an MRI back in LA today to examine the knee, but no news has emerged yet on a diagnosis, the severity of the injury, or how long she might be out. It looked to me more like a bang than a twist, which is usually a good thing for these type of injuries. There are so many ACL tears in female athletes that it’s scary, but that’s obviously a less likely outcome of a collision impact rather than a spinning or twisting motion. We can only hope that it’s not too serious – that’s the second preseason MVP candidate that we’ve lost in the last week.

As for the game itself, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you go search this one out in the archives. The Libs took an age to get going, stranded on 7 points in the first quarter for over five and a half minutes of game time. The key passage of the contest was probably the final 60 seconds of the first half. Cappie Pondexter hit a three in Penicheiro’s face when Ticha gave her a little too much room outside; Pierson erased a Milton-Jones layup attempt; Pondexter hit another three, from almost the exact same spot, this time in Jenna O’Hea’s face when the rookie backed off too far; and then Cappie stole a lazy Tina Thompson inbounds pass before hitting a layup at the buzzer. Crowd goes wild, relatively speaking – this was a quiet Sunday afternoon in New Jersey, after all – and a 33-33 game had become 41-33 in a flash.

The rest of the game had two key figures for LA. Firstly Parker, obviously, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds in her 20 minutes of action before getting hurt; and secondly Jen Gillom, the Sparks head coach who made some baffling moves. LA started the second half with their standard five, only for Gillom to make four substitutions after 82 seconds. Now New York had scored five points in that tiny period, but it hardly seemed to warrant quite such a drastic response. She didn’t even go to Kristi Toliver, easily her most effective bench player this season, instead bringing Natasha Lacy in to run the point. To the credit of those LA backups, nothing horrible happened while they were in. It was a 13-point game when they entered, a 12-point game when Parker got hurt barely two minutes later, and still a 12-point game early in the fourth quarter when Gillom pulled a couple of them back off the floor. But still. You have to wonder what she was trying to accomplish by benching most of her starters for that long. New York’s lead remained completely comfortable for the rest of the game, whoever played for LA, and the Libs ran out 77-67 victors, gaining their first win in their newly adopted home.

New York needed that, after four straight losses and a trickier-than-it-should’ve-been win over Tulsa. Besides Parker, LA had no rhythm at all and couldn’t find any offense. I’m largely inclined to put that down to a miserable night for the Sparks, more than improved Liberty defense, but after some appalling defensive numbers so far this year I’m sure than Coach Whisenant will take it. They need to get more comfortable in Whiz’s defensive system if they’re going to start winning games again, and maybe this was the beginning. As for the rotation, Nicole Powell’s still starting, but her minutes came all the way down to 18 in this one, her lowest of the season. She still can’t hit anything, which continues to make her essentially pointless. Essence Carson is having a ball, going 9-14 for 18 points and her sixth straight double-digit scoring night. The bigger fear for Powell might be Alex Montgomery, something of a surprise pick when she went #10 overall in this year’s draft, but someone who already looks a useful contributor as a bits-and-pieces, do-a-bit-of-everything wing. Which is more than we can say for Nicole lately.

One of those games where you shred the tape for LA (if we still watched these things on tape, that is. Delete the file, I guess). Put it down to Parker’s injury or the complete lack of atmosphere at the Liberty’s new home, whatever, but forget about it and move on. And send up some prayers that Candace’s MRI comes back with some good news.

—–

The only other game (that we’re going to spend more than a paragraph on) saw the shock early pacesetters from San Antonio travel to play Atlanta, probably the most shocking early-season cellar-dwellers. It started out ugly, both teams consistently throwing the ball away, and then Dan Hughes went to that bench I was going on about a couple of days ago. No need for any help from winged creatures this time (that’ll sound really weird if you didn’t hear the bat story – just go with it), and Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins picked up right where they left off. Perkins makes Becky Hammon’s life so much easier in the backcourt, giving San Antonio another player who can create her own offense back there, and the Silver Stars built a seven-point lead early in the second quarter. Then Marynell Meadors reached down her own bench, and found a counter.

Courtney Paris continues to press her claims to stay on this roster even once Sancho Lyttle returns, and her effort, energy, soft hands and rebounding instincts helped key an Atlanta run back into the game. Then it was about size. The Dream are simply bigger than San Antonio at practically every spot on the floor – a collective fifteen inches taller in the starting fives alone – and that started creating issues for the Silver Stars. Atlanta had seven blocks by halftime, and all those rejections had engaged the Dream’s running game. 18 fastbreak points, 28 points in the paint – mostly on breaking layups, but also through de Souza simply being too big for San Antonio’s defenders – and the Dream had come back to take a 41-40 lead in at the half. Castro Marques and McCoughtry only had nine shots between them at the interval, because they’d finally started moving the ball and sharing it around, which is when Atlanta are at their best.

Hughes didn’t waste any time in the second half, simply starting with Perkins and Adams instead of Tully Bevilaqua and Scholanda Robinson. Most of the third and fourth quarters were tight, neither team able to press home their advantage, but it was interesting because both coaches kept fiddling with their lineups. When it came to the last couple of minutes, only four starters were on the floor. Hughes was going with Hammon and Young, joined by Perkins, Adams and Danielle Robinson off the bench. A tiny lineup, relatively speaking, but a very quick one. Meadors countered with Paris as her only big, McCoughtry moving to the four to make room for Lindsey Harding, Armintie Price and Coco Miller on the perimeter. Just like the last game, Atlanta altering their lineup to match up with the other team, rather than forcing the other team to deal with them. It didn’t work.

An Adams putback moved San Antonio two in front, Harding bricked two crucial late-game free throws yet again, and with Atlanta down three with 33 seconds to play we saw yet another weird late-game playcall. I find it hard to believe that the call was for the ball to be inbounded to Coco Miller for her to go one-on-one and take a contested fallaway mid-range jumper that would’ve still left them behind by a point, but that’s what we got. Clank. Then it was a foul-a-thon, and San Antonio are damn good from the line. 92-86, another win in the books for the 6-1 Silver Stars, while Atlanta drop to a miserable 2-7.

This was actually a little better from Atlanta. They got out and ran when it was available. They used a deep rotation, just like they did through most of their success last year. And they weren’t even at the whim of Angel and Izi’s dubious shot-selection, an issue that often causes them trouble. The problem was really inside, where they should absolutely destroy this team, not just dominate. Paris was nice in the minutes she got, but de Souza finished a horrible 4-17 from the floor. I’m honestly not sure how. When you force Sophia Young into going 5-20 you should probably win the game, but Erika’s misses balanced her out. With Lyttle on her way back from Poland, the Dream will finally be back in one piece, something they could only say for a couple of games so far this season. As long as Lyttle’s healthy, of course (which looked doubtful in a couple of her games for Spain). They have to hope that having their full squad together can catalyse their season, because 2-7 is starting to look scary. Washington look like doing a decent job of propping the Dream up, but they’ll need to catch someone else as well to make the playoffs.

San Antonio are just flat out ballin’. No, you’re right, I can’t pull that off without sounding like a middle-class white boy, but you know what I mean. Dan Hughes has found himself enough scorers and enough quickness to combat his team’s lack of size and rebounding, and so far it’s proving to be a successful equation. The only game they’ve lost was when Sophia Young was out sick, and they’ve come out on top in the last two despite barely any production from her anyway. Hammon’s ticking along as well as ever, Perkins has been playing out of her mind for the last week, and Adams is a freaking contender for rookie of the year after being drafted at #20. Maybe the answer to that question about whether you can win basketball games without anyone who can rebound is a resounding ‘yes’ after all.

I’m still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, though.

—–

Tulsa played Washington in the day’s fourth game. The Mystics won 83-63, and looked a hell of a lot better than they did in the four straight losses that had preceded it. But it was against Tulsa, so big deal. Langhorne scored 23, Coleman and Anosike both put up double-doubles, and Matee Ajavon had a remarkably efficient 21 points while only taking eight field-goal attempts. Ever think you’d see ‘Ajavon’ and ‘efficient’ in the same sentence without the word ‘not’ appearing anywhere? Me neither. But again, it was against Tulsa.

The Shock are bad, in case you forgot. Cambage was back in the starting lineup, for what that’s worth, but they got killed anyway. Amber Riley played 17 freaking minutes. Go find a guard Nolan, I’m begging you.

 

In other news…

Seattle cut Ify Ibekwe in an attempt to fill her spot with more post depth in the absence of Lauren Jackson. As a virtue of posting this so late, I can tell you that her replacement will be Ewelina Kobryn, a Polish post player who just got finished playing in EuroBasket Women. She was cut by New York in training camp this season and Washington at the same stage in 2010, so obviously has a strong desire to be in the WNBA. She’s decent, without being the kind of player who’ll set anyone’s heart aflutter, but whether Agler will actually play her seems doubtful. At least at 29 years old she isn’t a kid, as he never seems to have much interest in playing true rookies, but we’ll have to see if she picks up the system fast enough to be of any use. They’re also still waiting on a visa, but that should come through fairly quickly. Makes you wonder what the point of Krystal Thomas is on the end of the bench, though.

Players of the Week were announced as Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor, both deserving winners. Jia Perkins can consider herself decidedly unlucky to be in the same conference as Taylor, but after the week Penny had there can’t really be any complaints.

Belarus are out of EuroBasket Women (and London 2012), after yet another shock result in Poland. So Yelena Leuchanka is now available, although when she might actually make it over to Atlanta I have no idea. Meadors said “July” when I asked her in Manchester.

 

Today’s Games:

None

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