Okay, I’ll get to last night’s games in a minute, but first the really important news – all the freaking injuries. This is just depressing. As reported yesterday, Candace Parker was already gone for six weeks with her knee injury. Then last night Indiana starting point guard Briann January crashed into Penny Taylor, twisting her own right knee before collapsing to the ground in agony. An MRI today confirmed everyone’s worst fears, and January’s done for the 2011 WNBA season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Meanwhile, the Seattle Storm were at the White House, visiting the President as part of their reward for winning last year’s championship. During the visit, head coach Brian Agler dropped the bombshell that Lauren Jackson will be having surgery on her hip tomorrow, not waiting three weeks and hoping that rest would be enough as originally planned. The surgery has an estimated recovery time of 8-12 weeks, which is going to leave the tantalising possibility of an LJ return hanging over Seattle’s season. Eight weeks would give her six regular season games to play, 10 weeks only two, and 12 weeks would bring her back right around the Conference Finals. Regardless of how that plays out, the Storm are going to spend the vast majority of the season without their best player.
I’m so tired of losing so many important players every single year. The women’s game doesn’t have the depth of talent to cope, and because most of these ladies play practically 12 months a year the injuries become all the more inevitable. It’s hard to blame the players that decide to skip the WNBA when you see what can happen to those who never take a break. Until we reach some distant mystical wonderland where the women’s game is popular enough for players to make the bulk of their earnings in the WNBA, I don’t know that there is any solution to the global women’s basketball calendar. But it’s just so sad that so much talent ends up on treatment tables instead of the hardwood every damn season.
Anyway, back to the games. We were all having a pretty good time watching Indiana-Phoenix before January went down. The Mercury were without their own starting point guard for the third straight game, Ketia Swanier replacing Temeka Johnson due to her sprained ankle (no news on a return on that one either – at a guess she’s ‘day-to-day’). Indiana took a little while to find their range, but once Katie Douglas started raining in the jumpshots and they remembered that Phoenix couldn’t remotely guard Jess Davenport, the Fever were away. Even Shannon Bobbitt came in and hit a three and a ridiculous spinning-flippy layup-esque thing to help take the Fever to a 24-18 lead at the end of the first.
Everything went a bit quiet for Indy early in the second when they had mostly bench players on the floor, despite all the praise I’ve been heaping on their reserves lately. Their offense ground to a halt and Phoenix got back in the game, not really through their trademark run-and-gun offense but because the Fever couldn’t score. Then the Indiana starters came back and Phoenix were screwed again. The final four minutes of the half featured a 17-8 Fever run, built mostly behind January and Davenport, who Phoenix still had no answer for. It was 45-39 Indiana at the break, and the Merc were lucky to be that close.
Part of Phoenix’s problem in that first half has been one of their issues throughout their opening eight games of the season – turnovers. For a team that plays so fast, they’ve always been shockingly good at keeping hold of the ball. The joke was always that they put shots up so fast that there was no time to turn the ball over – which holds an element of truth – but they also made good passes and took care of the ball. There’ve been too many loose possessions this year, or attempts at the home-run pass that haven’t come off, which have resulted in all the giveaways. Having Kara Braxton from the start of the season, one of the perennial leaders in turnovers-per-minute-played, hasn’t helped either. They already had 10 at the half in this one, including five by Diana Taurasi, and that combined with the 59% shooting they were giving up to produce Indy’s lead.
Another run by Indiana to start the third pushed their lead higher, keyed by the still-ridiculously-hot Katie Douglas. The Mercury’s defense isn’t great inside or out on most nights, but Katie’s been smoking in practically every game this year, so it’s hard to blame them too much for her production. Still, late in the third the Fever lead had reached 18 and it was starting to look like it might be time to switch our attention to a different game. Then a bizarre thing happened – Phoenix’s bench showed up. We’re used to DeWanna Bonner being effective, but the likes of Nakia Sanford and Alexis Gray-Lawson were also key parts of the Mercury comeback last night. By the time Sanford sat down midway through the fourth it was 80-77 Indiana and the Mercury were right back in it.
Cue the Indiana three-woman show. I say three, because for once the usual duo of Catchings and Douglas were offered some help – by the still-unstoppable Davenport. Aided and abetted by some miserable late defense from the Mercury – and some odd choices by head coach Corey Gaines – the Fever pulled away in the final minutes for a 91-86 victory. It probably shouldn’t have been that close.
Obviously in response to me giving them some credit for their defense after their last game, Phoenix reverted to type in this one and played practically none. They were late on rotations, slow in transition, and after causing Sylvia Fowles trouble against Chicago, for some reason they couldn’t do anything about Jessica Davenport. Shooting 55% from the floor and getting 38 points from their bench was wasted because they just couldn’t stop anyone. At the same time, Coach Gaines didn’t seem to help them late. Penny Taylor was taken out of the game with 3:38 left and never returned, and in a game that seemed close enough to warrant intentional fouls in the final seconds the Merc seemed happy to quit. Maybe after four straight wins they’d forgotten how to handle themselves playing from behind.
The Fever had great fun playing against the Mercury ‘defense’. Davenport only ruined a perfect shooting night with a layup that rolled off in the final minute, finishing 10-11 from the floor for 25 points. She has a nice mid-range touch for such a big girl, and combined with her ability to finish inside she just kept scoring. Only one rebound, which is a little pathetic against the Merc front-line, but you’ll live with that when she scores 25. Douglas was 9-15 from the field, including 6-9 from three-point range, for 26 points. Katie also finished the game as the de facto point guard, with Zellous and Pohlen on the wings, Catchings and Davenport down low. It’ll be interesting to see how the Fever cope with the loss of January. Erin Phillips had fallen behind Shannon Bobbitt as January’s backup in the last four games but will likely get another chance to play now. Bobbitt’s actually done a nice job as the backup lately, but she’s very much an energy-boost bench guard. I’m not convinced they’ll want to turn their offense over to her.
Meanwhile over on ESPN2, we had an attempt to set a new record for the number of times a broadcast team could mention a player who wasn’t actually in uniform. Not that you could blame them. The Sparks are on the ESPN2 schedule so many times this year largely because of Candace Parker, so when she gets hurt two days before an appearance you know where the focus is going to be. Gave them something to talk about besides the drab game, anyway.
It was one of those contests that was always close enough that it should’ve been exciting, but was messy enough that it was largely tedious anyway. LA went with Ebony Hoffman to replace Parker in the starting lineup, which left me wondering where LA expected to get any rebounds from. Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones don’t particularly like playing down low these days, which means most of the rebounding burden falls on Parker. And just like last year, LA have been a terrible rebounding team this season even with Candace in the lineup. The game started out just as expected, with Connecticut gaining 11 of the first 12 available rebounds. The score was 21-9 before you knew it, Tina Charles already had 8 points and 6 boards by the end of the first, and it looked like being a long night for LA.
Somehow, the Sparks got back in the game. They even got on the glass, and with unexpected help from Natasha Lacy and LaToya Pringle off the bench it was 42-41 LA at halftime. 11 offensive rebounds in a half, from a team without their one decent rebounder, was a remarkable effort from LA, and also illustrated just how much Charles and company relaxed in the second quarter.
The second half meandered along without either team managing to pull away. Most of the entertainment came from wondering which random collection of players Jen Gillom would send out next, watching Tina Charles grab every rebound in sight, and listening to Rebecca Lobo make fun of Kara Lawson on the ESPN broadcast. Out on the floor, Lawson was hitting big shots for the Sun, and Charles completed the 10th 20 point/20 rebound game in WNBA history with over three minutes to spare. Her 21st board and 21st and 22nd points came on a weak-side putback of a Montgomery miss to put Connecticut ahead 75-73 with under two minutes to play.
Then things got even messier, and that’s probably a generous description. Two more Charles rebounds were followed by two completely unnecessary Charles turnovers, as the Sun seemed desperate to hand over the game. Lacy went 1-of-2 from the line, Montgomery made Toliver look like last year’s model of Kristi Toliver when she blew by her for a layup, and then Lacy got a mean screen from Pringle on Montgomery to blow to the hoop for a two of her own. One-point Sun lead, 25.9 seconds to play as Connecticut inbound. You foul, right? Easy decision. Apparently not for LA. Assistant coach Sandy Brondello went charging up the sideline to remind Gillom that they needed to foul, she eventually communicated that to her team, and with 13.6s left they finally grabbed someone. Yeesh.
Two Montgomery foul shots put Connecticut up three, and then a final timeout illustrated yet again that an ESPN lapel mic may not be Jen Gillom’s best friend. As a head coach, you never really want to be heard asking your players “who else is in?” during a late timeout. Nonetheless, the play Gillom drew up actually worked out pretty well. Toliver curled high but was covered and kept curling, just like Gillom told her to in the huddle, leaving Thompson behind her wide open to receive the inbounds and take the three (also just like Gillom drew up). The attempt rimmed out but straight to Toliver, who airballed an off-balance attempt from the corner. It still wasn’t over. Another offensive board ended up in Thompson’s hands, and she was open for yet another try for three, which again rimmed out. A third offensive board ended up with Toliver, and she put up yet another try that might’ve been just after the buzzer, but as it didn’t go in no one cared about the replay. Connecticut cling on 79-76, but they made insanely hard work of it.
Considering it was their first game without Candace, LA probably don’t feel too bad about how this one went. A couple of bench players stepped up and produced; they only lost the overall rebounding battle by 4, and somehow grabbed 19 offensive boards; and they only turned the ball over seven times all night. Still, after everything looked rosy in La-La Land barely a week ago, a lot of the players in Sparks jerseys suddenly look grumpy and miserable. Gillom’s rotations, such that they are, often seem to defy logic, and while you’d back Thompson to make one of those late threes, having her ass stuck to the bench for half an hour beforehand probably didn’t help her chances. Out of nowhere, this looks a lot like the Sparks team we saw for much of last season, lacking direction and seemingly wondering what’s going on at any given moment. Maybe the loss of Parker just disconcerted everyone and disrupted things and they’ll settle back down. They better hope so, because without their star, the rest of the franchise needs to come together and produce as a unit if they’re going to win any games while she’s gone.
I’m not sure how Connecticut didn’t win this game with ease. 22 points and 23 rebounds from Charles is ridiculous, and Lawson, Montgomery and Asjha Jones all produced offensively as well. No one else did, at all, but that should’ve been enough. Anyway, breathe a sigh of relief, take the W, and walk away happy. Finish with more points than the other guys and they all count for one in the win column, however you get there.
Our final game of the night featured the league-leading San Antonio Silver Stars (that still sounds weird) in the middle game of their Eastern Conference road swing, facing the Chicago Sky. This was an empty game of basketball in the first half, so we’re going to practically ignore it. Missed jumpers, turnovers, more missed jumpers and that was about it. Sophia Young broke out of her brief slump by going 6-8 for 15 points in the half – Michelle Snow couldn’t guard her and neither could anyone else Chicago tried – but the rest of the Silver Stars went a horrible 6-26 as a group. Meanwhile, Chicago seemed to forget that Sylvia Fowles was on their team for most of the half, hence all those jumpers. They hit enough of them to lead 37-34 at the break. The only real entertainment came via watching Becky Hammon and Cathrine Kraayeveld consistently guard each other at either end. Kraay rarely leaves the three-point line, hence San Antonio’s willingness to guard her with someone about a foot shorter. Kraayeveld’s length and lots of help defense kept Becky pretty quiet too.
Danielle Robinson started the second half ahead of Tully Bevilaqua at the point, presumably in the hope that it would give the Silver Stars a little more energy from the off. By the way, I do realise that I seem to criticise Jen Gillom for the same kind of lineup moves that I praise Dan Hughes for, but you really have to watch the games to feel the difference. Hughes’s moves always seem to make sense and have a clear reasoning behind them; Gillom seems to be making it up as she goes along. Anyway, the third quarter was largely more of the same, but late in the period the pace of the game sped up. Initially it helped Chicago, spurring them to a seven-point lead at 53-46, but even as it was happening it felt like a change that would ultimately help San Antonio. They’ve got lots of quick little players, while Chicago has the size advantage – the Sky might like to run, but the Silver Stars are always likely to run faster.
San Antonio quickly cancelled out the lead, and the key sequence occurred with under four minutes left. With the game tied, Ruth Riley stepped out and hit a three from the corner. Then, after exchanging a couple of turnovers, Fowles had a wide open layup in transition but unfortunately fumbled the ball out of bounds instead. Hammon immediately drained a three at the other end and San Antonio had a six-point lead out of nowhere. It wasn’t over, but it felt pretty close.
The final seconds were yet another tale of “what the hell was the coach thinking there?” San Antonio were only up five, and yet Pokey Chatman chose to start fouling with 1:05 still on the clock. It’s not like the Silver Stars are a bad free-throw shooting team, so I have no idea what the thought process was. After Danielle Robinson hit the first pair they intentionally forced her to take, Erin Thorn hit a three to cut the gap to four points with 58 seconds to play. And Chicago fouled again. I don’t get it. Play some freaking defense. Get a stop there and you’re down four with the ball and at least 35 seconds on the clock. That’s a game. Instead, more foul shots, Robinson drains another pair, the Sky start missing and then there’s nowhere to go. The game eventually finished 84-74, after the Silver Stars hit a load more free throws before the buzzer finally sounded.
Not pretty for Chicago. Fowles eventually finished with 16 points and 12 boards, but only took eight shots all night, which is nowhere near enough. Especially against one of the smallest teams in the league. They held an offensive, shooting team to under 40% from the field and lost by ten points anyway – that shouldn’t happen. Vandersloot played under 12 minutes, getting pulled on multiple occasions by Chatman after careless turnovers. Erin Thorn did a serviceable job as the replacement, and at this point in their careers Thorn is far more willing to take the outside shot, but surely you have to let your young point guard play through some of these errors. I’ve said it already in several previous columns, but the Sky have to get more going to the basket. Unless they can get into transition or dump the ball down to Fowles, everything is just a jacked up jumpshot. That’s why they sometimes get a boost from their bench posts, Caroline Swords and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton – they actually want to play in the paint. Snow and Kraayeveld aren’t interested inside 15 feet, and the guards don’t drive much either. Angie Bjorklund’s roster spot might be under threat if they can find anyone on the street who’s actually willing to penetrate.
Not the prettiest game San Antonio have played this year, but it’s yet another win to put in the books. Young was quieter in the second half, but 19 points and 9 rebounds is a nice way to come back after a couple of down-games. Danielle Adams, yet again, offered a scoring punch off the bench with 16 points on 6-11 from the floor. They may not have much height, but nearly all of San Antonio’s post players have range, and that drew the Chicago posts out of position last night. When you have to worry about defending all the way out beyond the arc, it’s tough to stay in rebounding position or in range to help defensively. That helps make up for the Silver Stars’ deficiencies in other areas. I’m actually starting to sound like I believe this team can keep this going, aren’t I? Wow. Dan Hughes is leading the early race for Coach of the Year by a country mile right now.
In other news…
Russia beat Latvia. The non-suspended Ilona Korstin played 23 minutes. Say it with me people: Boooooooooo (apologies to any Russian readers, and I know there are a couple. You guys saw that elbow though, right?). The Czech Republic beat Croatia in the other quarter-final played today, which means that Russia and the Czechs are both at least into the additional Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year. The winners of EuroBasket Women go straight into the Olympics; the teams finishing 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th all go into that final qualifier to compete for the last six spots.
Answers to the Haiku Challenge from yesterday were helpfully provided in the comments underneath the column by reader Linzin, who was the first to work out that they were in reverse alphabetical order of city. Feel free to go back and check what I think of your team when I’m forced to be mildly artistic in 17 syllables.