Nothing happened in the WNBA yesterday, but seeing as the only game all weekend was early this afternoon, I figured why wait until tomorrow to cover it. The Seattle Storm went to Washington D.C. this weekend knowing that with Lauren Jackson out for most of the season, these are the sort of games where they need to be picking up wins. With LJ missing, the margin of error is significantly smaller and they need to make the most of opportunities against the weaker teams in the league. Washington’s last game was a morale-boosting 20-point win – even if it was over Tulsa – so they were simply hoping to keep that positive energy flowing. There hasn’t been much of it for the Mystics so far this year.
Already without Monique Currie and Alana Beard, Washington suffered yet more bad news on the injury front before today’s game when star post Crystal Langhorne was ruled out with back pain. Obviously the exertion of trying to carry this franchise on her back all season had finally proven too much. Rookie Victoria Dunlap moved into the starting lineup to replace her, weakening the already desperately thin Washington bench. The game was slow and sloppy to start, a Kelly Miller turnover on the opening play indicative of what was to follow. Seattle actually hit a couple of threes in the first quarter – something they’ve been struggling with mightily all season – one from Sue Bird and one from Belinda Snell, appearing in just her fourth game this season. The typical Storm defense was forcing awkward shots by the Mystics but Washington were grabbing all the rebounds, so neither team could pull away. 18-17 Storm at the end of the first.
If Washington found scoring difficult in the first, their offense got positively anaemic in the second. Too many jump shots, and an inability to finish at the rim on the rare occasions they did get the ball inside, led to a 1-15 shooting display in the quarter. However they were still killing Seattle on the boards, which at least kept the game from getting out of hand. The Storm’s offense looked a little better than it has of late. Bird was clearly looking for her own shot more than is typical for her, well aware of what the team needs from her now Jackson’s out of the lineup. Tanisha Wright also appeared to have realised that if she’s going to resurrect her offensive game, she needs to start going to the hoop. Her drives didn’t always result in points, but that aggression is a positive sign for the Storm. She’s not going to help their offense out nearly as much if she just stands around outside and fires away.
All those Mystics offensive boards meant Seattle were only up two with a couple of minutes left in the first half, before a Swin Cash three, Camille Little jumper and then a breakout Cash layup on a Bird touchdown pass broke open a lead. 35-26 Storm at the break. It was the 12 offensive rebounds that had kept Washington involved, considering they were shooting 26% from the floor. With the Mystics’ star power forward missing, replaced by a rookie who may not even be a power forward for much of her career, Brian Agler can’t have been happy with his team rebounding. Scoring okay, defense sound, but they really needed to box out better and get after the ball on the glass. Washington just needed to hit some shots. Center Nicky Anosike was a hideous 1-10 from the floor in the first half, but then she came into the game shooting 31% for the season, so it was hardly a surprise. Nicky’s been struggling on offense for quite some time now.
Early in the second half, Washington put a little run together when Anosike shocked everyone by actually making a layup, followed by Matee Ajavon’s first bucket of the day. Marissa Coleman connected on a three moments later and suddenly we had a ballgame, with Washington only trailing 43-40, midway through the third. Brian Agler called a timeout, and something he said obviously worked. The Storm run that followed ultimately proved the key sequence of the game. Bird hit a three scant seconds after the timeout ended. Cash blocked a Dunlap layup attempt, grabbed the rebound, pushed to the other end and fed Wright for a transition layup. A solid defensive possession for Seattle ended with a Bird steal of another errant Miller pass, she threw it up to Wright, who returned the favour and fed Cash for a fastbreak layup. In seconds, the lead that had dwindled to three was back up at ten, and the Storm had reestablished their control.
This is part of why I still think the Storm are, at worst, a solid playoff team – even without Lauren Jackson. They might have their periods where they can’t score, or games where their offense looks out of sync, but they know how to respond. They can rise to the occasion when necessary and get things done. It happened again and again last year, and it wasn’t always Jackson that pulled it off. The likes of Bird, Cash, Wright and Little can all step up – at both ends of the floor – and make plays when it counts. That’s not going away. Of course, neither is their team defense, which is the main other reason that I don’t think this team is just going to fade into the background.
The Storm probably aren’t going to blow many teams out for the rest of 2011 though, and the Mystics hung around in this one. A comfortable-looking 57-44 lead at the end of the third was reduced to 61-56 with 3:20 to play on a pair of Ajavon free throws. Then a play that probably says more about Washington than Seattle got the Storm going again. Camille Little was looking to inbound the ball from under her own basket as normal after an opposition score, and Swin Cash simply broke towards the other end. Little lobbed the ball 70-feet and Cash laid the ball in. Not what you want to see when you’ve just made the game vaguely competitive again. That was pretty much all she wrote, with a host of free throws and meaningless layups leaving us with a final score of 73-63 Seattle.
The bright spot for Washington was Dunlap, the rookie forward who showed some promise filling in for Langhorne. She’s got quick hands, she’s athletic, and she plays hard, which is more than you can say about a lot of players. There’s talent there. However, you can see why some labelled her a classic tweener coming out of college. She looks small inside, even against the Storm’s relatively diminutive front line, and she doesn’t appear to have the range yet to be a true small forward. Still, she finished today’s game with 19 points on 7-14 shooting, plus eight rebounds and three steals. That’s a hell of a performance for a rookie making her first start who had a career high of five points before today.
Otherwise, the issues for the Mystics were all the same well-trodden storylines. Too many jumpers because they can’t find a way to get the ball inside; too many mental breakdowns causing turnovers and defensive errors; and absolutely no depth whatsoever. With their three best players in street clothes, the bench is awful and provided all of one point today. When you manage to have even fewer decent options on the bench than the Storm, you know you’re not getting much out of your reserves.
Seattle got the win they needed, and there were a few promising signs along the way. It remains to be seen whether they can do it against better teams with healthy rosters, but you have to start somewhere. The defense was solid, as usual, holding Washington to 32% shooting, and the rebounding was far better in the second half, allowing just four more offensive boards. Cash led the way with 19 points, while Bird and Wright had 17 each, all three of them shooting 50% or better from the floor. Wright and Cash both attacked the basket a little more, and Bird is increasingly showing a willingness to take shots throughout the game, not just in the fourth quarter when she tended to step up last year. They need her offense for all 40 minutes now. As ever, the worry is their depth. Belinda Snell at least got some time today, playing nine minutes and hitting her sole shot. Ashley Robinson was largely redundant against the small and misfiring Washington front line, all of whom were better defended by the likes of Little and Le’coe Willingham. If anyone else in Agler top-six gets hurt, it’s hard to even conceive of what he’d do. Surviving with a six-player rotation and a couple of minor bit-part players is going to be hard enough.
In other news…
Atlanta made the move most of us had been expecting, waiving the completely pointless Kelly Mazzante in order to re-activate Sancho Lyttle. Hopefully that means Sancho is healthy enough to make her return on Saturday in Chicago. It also means that recent pickup Courtney Paris has earned the right to stick around on Atlanta’s roster. Belorussian center Yelena Leuchanka may show up for the Dream at some point this season, but even then the more likely cut is Sandora Irvin, not Paris.
EuroBasket Women was won by Russia, who beat Turkey 59-42 in the final today, led by center Maria Stepanova and guard Elena Danilochkina. So to summarise, three teams have now booked their places in the 2012 Olympics: World Champions the USA, hosts Great Britain, and European Champions Russia. The four other continental championships (Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania) will all be contested later this year, and all the winners qualify directly into the Games. The next two nations from Africa, three from the Americas, two from Asia and one from Oceania will join the four from Europe (Turkey, France, the Czech Republic and Croatia) in the additional Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year, which decides the final five spots at London 2012. Hope that’s all clear. FIBA typically enjoy making things as complicated as humanly possible.
Seattle @ Washington, 4pm ET (already examined above, duh).