One event sparked most of the discussion in regards to last night’s three WNBA games, but you know what? It was essentially a minor incident and had very little to do with actual basketball, plus it happened in the middle of a pretty terrible game. So on principle, I’ll cover that game second. It would’ve gone last except that even I can’t come up with a good reason to move Chicago-Washington up the playlist.
So first up, the second and final regular season meeting between the two teams I predicted to reach the WNBA Finals this year, Indiana and Seattle. The Storm won their first matchup fairly comfortably a couple of weeks ago, but that was before Lauren Jackson went down with an injury that could cost her the season. The Fever, of course, are also dealing with injury issues of their own, after starting point guard Briann January tore her ACL in their last game and was ruled out for the rest of 2011. This was the first test of how they were going to cope.
Indiana head coach Lin Dunn went with Erin Phillips to replace January in the starting lineup, a sensible move despite her apparent preference for Shannon Bobbitt as January’s backup in recent games. Bobbitt has her detractors – and I’ve been among them over the years – but if she’s going to be of use she’s at her best as an energy injection off the bench. You don’t really want her starting if there are feasible alternative options. The early stages of this contest didn’t look like a game between the two slowest-paced franchises in the WNBA (which is precisely what they are). The ball was flying back and forth as both teams looked for quick offense, and no one could miss anything. It was 12-9 Fever before either side missed a shot, and then Indiana’s defense (and Seattle’s offensive issues) started to play a key role. There still weren’t many shots being missed, but as the Storm kept turning the ball over the score was beginning to look a little lopsided anyway. Five out of six Seattle possessions ended in turnovers, three credited as Tamika Catchings steals, two down to Phillips, who was showing that switching from January to her might be a pretty smooth transition. Indiana scored seven points off those turnovers and broke open a nine-point gap.
Much of Seattle’s early gameplan seemed to revolve around Fever center Jessica Davenport. Clearly aware of how strong Davenport has been offensively this season – and how much bigger she is than most of their own post players – the Storm were double-teaming her hard whenever she caught the ball. At the other end of the floor, they were consistently attacking her to try to take advantage of their own edge in quickness. Even Ashley Robinson beat her on two consecutive plays, first with a spin move in the post (A-Rob has a spin move? Who knew?) then by simply beating her down the floor for a layup. There was a clear effort being made to make Davenport work. The problem was all those turnovers, which meant Indiana could get out in transition and any weakness in Davenport’s defense became largely irrelevant.
Seattle cut the Indiana’s lead to 23-21 early in the second quarter after they got a little transition offense going themselves and Sue Bird hit a couple of threes, but the Fever responded and their lead expanded again. Davenport was making solid passes back out to her perimeter players whenever Seattle collapsed on her, the Fever were moving the ball well and hitting their outside shots, and Seattle’s halfcourt offense still looked stunted. Bobbitt had come in for the second quarter and Indy hadn’t missed a beat, plus the tiny little bricklayer was even hitting her shots, knocking down two from behind the arc and a mid-range jumper for eight points in the second quarter. Seattle’s offense looked a little smoother at times than it has in several games this season, but the turnovers were killing them. Pushing your shooting percentage up to a reasonable number doesn’t mean much if you’re not actually taking that many shots. The scoreline was 42-27 Fever at halftime, and they deserved every point of that 15-point gap. 11-4 Seattle in the turnover column was the key stat.
Not a great deal changed in the third, except that out of nowhere Seattle started hitting some threes. They haven’t found any touch from outside all year but the Fever had been daring them to beat them from outside since the opening tip, and the Storm finally started to take advantage. Bird was aggressively looking for her own shot on a night when her team clearly needed her to take on the scoring load, and between her and Swin Cash they at least managed to keep it a contest. The lead was 11 at the end of the third, and yet another Bird three – her fifth of the night on six tries – and a Tanisha Wright jumper after a wild Bobbitt missed layup cut the gap to six early in the final period. After Indy had looked so comfortable most of the night we suddenly had a game at 58-52. Dunn called timeout, pulled Bobbitt for the more-reliable Phillips, and minutes later the game was gone again.
As with several Fever games this season, it was a Catchings-at-the-4 lineup which helped secure the game, this time with Phillips, Zellous and Jeanette Pohlen on the perimeter while Catch and Davenport worked down low. They tightened the defense another notch, attacked on offense, and when the scoreline stretched to 67-54 it was all over bar the shouting. Seattle’s only consistent offensive option on the night, Bird never even got another shot off after that three to open the quarter. The final scoreline of 78-61 might’ve flattered Indiana a touch, but not by much.
The game changed in the second half, even though the ultimate result was the same. Seattle stopped doubling Davenport, and she proceeded to show why they’d been focussing on her in the first place. She finished with 15 points on 7-11 shooting (11 of those points in the second half), and threw in seven rebounds and four blocks for good measure. As Seattle illustrated early in the game, you can sometimes still take advantage of her lack of footspeed, but Davenport’s developed her game to the extent that she’ll probably hurt you more in return. The rest of the Fever scoring was balanced across their roster, with only Catchings and Tangela Smith joining Davenport in double-digits. Katie Douglas only took seven shots, only scored nine points, and they won in a blowout anyway – a very nice sign for Indiana. Game one of the post-January situation was a success, with Erin Phillips looking entirely at ease as she put up seven points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals. Perhaps most importantly, she only turned the ball over twice, which is precisely the kind of care they need her to take with the ball. Through the first forty minutes without her, January hasn’t been missed at all.
Not a pretty night for the Storm, although a visit to Conseco is one of the tougher games they’ll face all year. The offense struggled and except for the few occasions where they managed to get out in transition and push the ball, they had difficulty finding any rhythm to their offense. Bird was the only double-figure scorer with 21, and the fact that the entire team only shot four free throws all night tells its own story. They couldn’t get inside and pick any holes in the Indiana defense, so they couldn’t get to the line for any easy points. Considering how they’ve been shooting jumpers this season, it’s a tribute to Bird that this was still a contest into the fourth quarter. They also let Indiana shoot 54% from the floor, which would be an alarming number if I thought it was going to continue. I put that largely down to facing a confident Indiana team that had a very good night, and the number of turnovers Seattle coughed up to help the Fever offense start flowing. However, if Seattle’s defense starts giving up numbers like that on a more regular basis, they’re completely screwed. The non-LJ offense won’t be able to cope.
On to the brouhaha in the desert, with Los Angeles visiting Phoenix for last night’s ESPN2 game. I spent the first quarter bitching at Carolyn Peck for going on about how much losing Candace Parker had hurt LA’s transition game – for the record, the Sparks were awful in transition even before Parker got hurt, so big freaking deal. Then spent the rest of the half wondering if anyone would ever fancy playing any defense. I like flowing offensive basketball as much as the next person, but both these teams play next to no defense whatsoever. Phoenix been awful at that end for years on end and little has changed. LA’s perimeter defense has been miserable for several years, and without the athleticism and size of Parker, they’re not much better in the paint. Points weren’t hard to come by in this one.
Temeka Johnson was back for Phoenix, for what that was worth, and slid straight back into her starting point guard spot. The first quarter stayed close, with LA hitting everything they took but seven turnovers helping the Mercury stay right with them. LA pulled ahead in the second largely because Ebony Hoffman started going to work down low, and Phoenix had seven turnovers of their own. Only Diana Taurasi’s trademark brand of creative offense was keeping the Mercury in touch. 50-42 Sparks at the half.
Phoenix swiftly removed LA’s lead early in the second half, because frankly if you’re going to defend them like LA were they’ll eventually hit plenty of shots. They’ll often do it regardless of the defense. In fact, the Mercury had just taken their first lead in ages when the moment that turned the game and started everyone talking occurred with 2:55 left in the third quarter. Kristi Toliver was being defended out by the free throw line by Ketia Swanier, made a spin move into Swanier, and swung her left arm behind her. Toliver’s elbow caught Swanier hard in the face, right by her eye, and she went down in a lot of pain. The offensive foul was called, and then everything went nuts.
Mercury head coach Corey Gaines went back to huddle up with his players and audibly said “She did that shit on purpose!” to his team before ESPN managed to kill his mic. Way to calm everyone down in a difficult situation, Corey. The officials then changed the offensive foul call that they originally made to a Flagrant 1, which sent the Sparks coaches crazy. Quite rightly, as far as I could see, because it’s either a flagrant foul when you first see it, or it isn’t. Don’t wait two minutes, see how hurt the injured player turns out to be, then decide what you think the call probably should’ve been in the first place. Sparks assistant coach Joe Bryant picked up a technical foul during that argument, while Swanier was helped from the court. The Phoenix crowd, of course, was vociferously demonstrating their anger and support at this stage.
Because Swanier could no longer take part, by rule LA got to choose any player from the Mercury bench to take her free throws. That player also then has to stay in the game until at least the next dead ball. Whether Sparks head coach Jen Gillom or one of her assistants made the final choice, it was a dumb move selecting Kara Braxton to go to the line. Not only did she follow Taurasi’s conversion of the technical free throw by swishing both of her own, now she was back in the game to attack the Sparks defense. Why they didn’t go with stone-cold Nakia Sanford or Olayinka Sanni, both of whom are awful free throw shooters as well and would’ve offered little to the Mercury once the ball was back in open play, I have no idea. Teams seem to consistently screw up the choice when they get to pick which of their opponents should shoot free throws.
Anyway, Phoenix were up five after all the foul shots, and Braxton inevitably hit a layup right off the inbounds to make it seven. Then Toliver, still in the game because Gillom didn’t have the tiny amount of common sense necessary to call a timeout and sit her down, threw up an airball, went crazy about not getting a foul call, and picked up a technical of her own. Penny Taylor knocked down the free point, and then Toliver, still in the game, started jawing with Temeka Johnson. Gillom finally pulled Kristi out after that, but the momentum of the game was decided. LA didn’t score again until the final second of the third period, which only cut the deficit to 14 at 79-65.
The insanity wasn’t over. Gaines isn’t the kind of coach who’ll calm his team down in a situation like this, as that little snatch of his team talk after the elbow illustrated. Whether he sent out the 11th player on his roster – Olayinka Sanni – with specific instructions to hit someone hard in retaliation, we’ll probably never know. It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t be too surprised, but in fairness to Gaines she didn’t come in until the scoreline was 91-72 and there was only 4:30 on the clock, so it was time to clear the bench. Anyway, I blame Gillom far more for what happened in the final few minutes. For some unfathomable reason, she put Toliver back into the game at that same stage. With under five minutes left in a nineteen-point ballgame, she put the night’s volatile instigator back onto the floor. Absolutely bafflingly stupid. First, Toliver got caught in a double-team trap in the corner and bundled to the floor. Less than a minute later, Sanni set a ‘screen’ on Toliver, which had a whole lot of hip and shoulder involved, and maybe a little bit of elbow too. It drew an offensive foul call on Sanni, and could easily have been a flagrant of its own. Then just to top everything off, Toliver took a wild swipe as Alexis Gray-Lawson attempted a layup, making very little contact but maybe just catching the top of Gray-Lawson’s head as she went past. Kristi did some more shouting and screaming after that one as well. She was still on the floor when the clock ran out on a 101-82 Mercury victory, not that anyone had been paying much attention to the scoreboard for quite some time.
I don’t think the elbow looked like an intentional attempt to injure, personally. She swung her arm hard and dangerously, but you see lots of players do that when they make spin moves, even when they’re about to spin back the other way, as Toliver was. It was just unfortunate that Swanier’s head was right at the level of Toliver’s arm, hence the damage, and Ketia’s been ruled out for at least the next two games due to the eye injury she suffered. Everything after that was ridiculous, and neither the coaches nor Toliver herself dealt well with anything that followed. At least we got away without another brawl.
As for the game, it kind of became an afterthought. The teams looked pretty well-matched for most of the night until everything surrounding the elbow gave Phoenix the momentum, and it turned into a blowout very quickly. Dupree and Taurasi finished with 20 each for Phoenix, Braxton’s 14 were important, and the fact that they only had two turnovers in the entire second half was key (and one of those was by Sanni in garbage time). If they don’t turn the ball over, Phoenix can beat anyone on any given night, even without playing any defense. LA are still trying to find a way to cope without Parker, and got decent production from both Hoffman and LaToya Pringle in trying to fill her minutes. With how crazy the game got, they’ll just try to forget this one and move on.
The other game last night didn’t look very appetising, with the 2-6 Washington Mystics travelling to play the Chicago Sky, who’d won one game in their last six. What they produced was about what we’d expected.
Crystal Langhorne was still out with her back injury (along with Alana Beard and Monique Currie, but you knew that), so rookie Victoria Dunlap continued to start in her place. I’d go through how the game developed and everything else as normal, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of point. Washington are bad, Chicago aren’t much better just yet, but Sylvia Fowles is a freaking beast. And I mean that in an entirely complimentary way. It was simply Fowles’s night, finishing the game with 34 points on 10-16 from the floor and 14-17 from the foul line (I’m hugely impressed by how Fowles has worked on her free throws, by the way. Take note, big NBA centers who suck at the line every damn year). 16 rebounds, seven of them offensive, were an added bonus from Big Syl. Epiphanny Prince was the only other Sky player in double-figures, but that was all they required to hold on for a much-needed 78-65 win, and keep themselves right in the playoff mix.
It’s hard to criticise Mystics GM/head coach Trudi Lacey for Washington’s performances this season. Without two of her best players for the entire year, and now robbed of her All-WNBA post player for the last two games, who wouldn’t be struggling for wins? There were at least a few positives for her to take from last night’s game. Dunlap struggled against the much taller Chicago front line after her impressive start against Seattle on Sunday. Those quick hands of hers resulted in five steals though, giving her eight in total in her two appearances as a starter, which is nice to see. Marissa Coleman hit a few shots, which would be very useful if she could do it more consistently. Also, the Mystics finally got a little production from the kids on the bench, with point guard Jasmine Thomas managing 11 points and four assists, while center Ta’Shia Phillips vaguely resembled a WNBA player for the first time, with seven points and six rebounds. Baby steps.
Chicago were all about Big Syl, obviously. She’s their rock, they revolve around her at both ends of the floor, and if they can win enough games she’s right in the middle of the MVP discussion. You still wonder if they’ve got enough around her to pull off those wins. Rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot got benched yet again last night after giving up five turnovers, despite the fact that her regular backup Dominique Canty is still out injured. The minutes are going to Erin Thorn instead, someone who isn’t really a point guard but who head coach Pokey Chatman appears to trust more right now. Sloot’s leash has gotten so tight, and the hook so fast, that it can’t be helping her confidence. I understand that Chatman is desperately trying to win as many games as she can right now, and that she needs them to finally drag this team into the postseason, but they’re going nowhere unless Sloot develops. She needs the reps as a pro, needs to be in the game in crucial situations, and needs to be allowed to play through her mistakes. I’d love to see her be given the chance to stay out there a little more.
In other news…
Tina Charles and Rebekkah Brunson were named Players of the Month for June in their respective conferences today. The right choices in my opinion, although Douglas and Fowles were right there in the East, and Brunson’s start to the month was stronger than her finish. The two winners could’ve been paired as New York’s starting frontcourt, of course, given different trade and expansion draft choices in previous years. Sorry, Lib fans.
Danielle Adams won Rookie of the Month for June, quite rightly after her explosion onto the WNBA scene in San Antonio. Having been selected 20th overall by the Silver Stars, if Adams keeps this up she’d break the record for the lowest pick to win Rookie of the Year by a ridiculous margin. The lowest ever was Tracy Reid in 1998, drafted 7th. It’s been six years since anyone even won it from outside the top three. So much for Maya being a shoo-in.
Candace Parker was shilling for people to vote for her for the All-Star Game via Twitter, and I was all set to rip her for it. It’s not particularly attractive to ask for votes in the first place, but she’s hurt, she’s very unlikely to be fit enough to play in the game anyway, and she sure as hell doesn’t need the $2,500 bonus for getting in. Then she went and apologised, blaming it on reps that have access to her account for marketing reasons. I can buy that, just about, so I’ll let her off. People, if you’re going to vote for All-Stars, at least vote for people who are playing. Please.