WNBA Today, 07/08/2011: Bringing Liberty to Texas

Ludicrously little has happened in the WNBA this week. Including very little basketball being played. I got tired of coming up with random things to talk about, so decided to simply wait until some actual games had been played before writing today’s update. Hence here we have analysis of the game that finished a couple of hours ago between New York and San Antonio. I’ll get to the No-Defense Bowl between Phoenix and Tulsa in tomorrow’s column.

The Liberty’s last game before heading out to Texas was a win over this same Silver Stars team last Friday. If you remember, I mentioned then that San Antonio were a good matchup for this squad, and that they’d be looking to take advantage of that in their second and final meeting with them this week. San Antonio move the ball well and have good spacing but their lack of size inside means they have trouble offering a threat in the paint, where several teams have gone to town on the Liberty this year. Their best interior scorers are Sophia Young and rookie Danielle Adams, both of whom are barely 6-1 on a good day, and neither of whom exactly posts up much. That makes things easier for the Libs with their fronting, over-playing, desperately-bringing-help-over-once-you-get-beat defense to work. They might’ve had the best record in the WNBA through the first month, but Liberty head coach John Whisenant would probably be happy to play San Antonio every week.

Of course, the Silver Stars are still a very good team, with a lot of talented scorers, so this game was hardly a foregone conclusion. Dan Hughes obviously decided that one of those scorers – Jia Perkins – had been playing so well off the bench that she deserved an upgrade, promoting her into the starting lineup spot that had gone to either Roneeka Hodges or Scholanda Robinson so far this year. He was probably also willing to go with Perkins because of how useless Nicole Powell has been for much of the season in New York. Perkins is undersized to guard her, but it wasn’t likely to matter much if Powell continued to play as she has this year. On the injury front, Porsha Phillips was out for San Antonio with a left knee strain, but more importantly Essence Carson was still out for New York due to her eye injury. Outside of Cappie Pondexter, Carson’s been practically the only perimeter offense the Liberty have had this year, so she’s a big loss for them.

New York came out hot early. Powell hit a jumper with her toe on the three-point line (right over Perkins, by the way), Pondexter had a wide-open three from the corner, Kia Vaughn dropped in an easy layup right in the meat of the San Antonio defense and then Leilani Mitchell hit a wide-open three of her own. Meanwhile, all San Antonio could muster was a Sophia Young layup that showed where holes could be found in this Liberty defense if they went after them, and a bunch of missed jumpers. 10-3 New York to start.

Little changed until, as ever, Hughes went to his bench for extra punch. The rookie Danielles – Adams and Robinson – came in with San Antonio 14-7 down, and within seconds Robinson had a mid-range jumper and a pretty assist to Sophia Young to ignite a Silver Stars run. The game was tied late in the first when Hughes felt the need to reach even further down his bench, because Kia Vaughn already had eight points for New York and was dominating his diminutive front line. Jayne Appel came in to add some beef, and San Antonio held a 19-18 edge at the end of the first.

New York’s bench players had come in late in the first quarter to spell the starters, but regardless of systems and styles, the basic fact is that San Antonio often get better when they go to their reserves – New York really don’t (especially when Carson’s out). San Antonio rode their kids to a 25-20 lead in the second, before New York’s starters got involved again. A three each for Powell and Mitchell, and a Powell steal that turned into a well-converted layup the other way spun the momentum around, kicking off a 12-0 New York run. Hammon and Young re-entered the game in the middle of it, but it took them a while to get involved, and ultimately a Pondexter three to close the half stretched New York’s lead back to six at 37-31.

San Antonio had effective players in the first half, but they weren’t getting enough of the opportunities. Young had eight points on just 3-4 from the floor, Hammon had seven on 3-6 – they needed to be more central to the offense. Perkins and Adams have both been very important to San Antonio’s early-season form, but they both really do love to shoot. Whether they’re hitting anything or not. Sometimes you need to go back to your bread and butter, not rely on the sugary desserts.

New York were ahead on the glass, way ahead on points in the paint, and had balanced scoring from their starters. A big fat round zero from their bench, who were 0-7 combined and lucky to get that, but the starters were getting it done.

Hughes put Danielle Robinson in from the start of the second half to try to add speed and drive to his offense (and someone who might be able to stay in front of Cappie on defense, where Tully Bevilaqua struggled all night). However, it was New York who once again came out hot, stretching their lead to 44-35 before Hughes called timeout to slow things down. Adams entered for Ruth Riley, giving up on size to try to shoot their way back into the game. Consecutive threes from Adams and Perkins suggested it might work, and although Young was still anonymous the scoreboard started getting tighter. They tied the game up at 47 when Hammon finally got a little more aggressive and hit a floater in the lane, and while a small run from New York – including another made three from Powell – gave them a 55-51 lead at the end of the third, this one felt like it was going down to the wire.

Early in the fourth, New York finally got something from their bench. Quanitra Hollingsworth’s layup with 8:47 left in the game was the first score from their reserves all night, and it was swiftly followed by a second, before Sidney Spencer had two buckets of her own. Spencer’s second was on a transition layup where she simply beat the San Antonio defense down the floor, which should be downright embarrassing for the Silver Stars when they check out the tape. That made it 63-55, and you had to wonder if maybe that close finish wasn’t going to come to pass after all. They got it back to a three-point game before New York started playing their well-known “Cappie, go do something” offense. An insanely tough three and a pretty feed to Plenette Pierson later, New York’s lead was right back up to eight with under five minutes to play.

Hughes went small again, with Robinson, Hammon, Perkins, Young and Adams as his five. You can’t really blame him. They’re his five most talented offensive players, and if New York were just going to give Cappie the ball and wait for her to create, the lack of size was only going to hurt them on the boards. The problem was, all those shooters couldn’t hit enough shots. New York went cold, as is often the case when they rely on the “everyone stand around and watch Cappie” offense, but it took a while for San Antonio to score enough points to take advantage, and they were running out of time. Finally, Hammon took it upon herself to drag her team back into contention. She penetrated and fed Adams for a lay-in to get within six. She drove right past Pondexter for a trademark spinning layup and a free throw to come. Then she attacked Mitchell off the dribble, got a superstar call (which fouled Mitchell out), and went 1-of-2 from the line. That cut it to 72-70 with 81 seconds to play.

Plenette Pierson knocked down a mid-range jumper when New York finally decided to move the ball on offense, and then came a crucial play. Hammon brought the ball upcourt and had her pocket picked by Pondexter. The resulting break eventually ended in Pierson being fouled by Appel, before knocking down the free throws for a six-point lead with 47 seconds left. It still wasn’t over. San Antonio ran a double-screen up high after a timeout, with Sophia Young running a curl along the baseline. New York’s defense got lost on the screens – certainly not the first time this season – and Adams was left alone out top to knock down the three. Three-point game.

New York ran their standard 4-down set, Danielle Robinson did a decent job on Cappie with help from Hammon, forcing a dump off pass to Kia Vaughn, who bricked the jumper. San Antonio had one last chance with 12.3s on the clock, down three. After another timeout, they ran what the exact same play that ended in the Adams three a moment earlier, but this time it didn’t work so well. Danielle Robinson couldn’t penetrate as far, so couldn’t find Young in the corner this time, and Adams was covered up top because no one had to switch or help for New York. Robinson was forced to reverse field, dribbled back the other way, got caught in traffic and threw the ball away in her desperate attempt to find someone who could throw up a three. One second left on the clock, which ran out when New York inbounded to Pondexter. Liberty hold on for the 76-73 victory.

Remember how many times I kept saying “I still don’t buy this team” during San Antonio’s hot start? Games like this were the reason. You can’t always shoot your way out of trouble. Sophia Young disappeared tonight, because the gaps in New York’s defense are around the back of it, and it’s difficult for her to get the ball in those positions because they’re all bigger than her. She’s much more effective when the defense is in front of her, and San Antonio essentially don’t have any other players who’ll score in the paint. Even Jayne Appel looked effective briefly tonight, because the Liberty defense is painfully susceptible to size and strength down low, but the Silver Stars didn’t have enough to take advantage of it consistently.

Hammon seemed a little passive tonight, until she realised it was down to her to get her team back in the fight in the fourth quarter. It’s like she’s gotten a bit too used to the extra offense her teammates have provided this year, and backed off a bit too much. She finished with 21 points and four assists, but New York did a good job helping on her, hence the seven turnovers. Danielle Robinson was a dynamic presence off the bench, but Adams and Perkins were both cold most of the night, which left San Antonio a little short of offense. There’ll still be nights when they shoot their opposition off the floor, but New York have shown other teams how to beat them now, twice in a row. That’s going to make it tougher from here on out.

As for the Liberty, they need to carry the momentum from these two wins into games against teams that maybe aren’t quite such a nice matchup for them. They look like they’re getting a little more comfortable with Whisenant’s defense, but I’d like to see them pull it off against a team with a real post scorer. They’re playing Chicago on Sunday, which will obviously be more of a test down low. Offensively they look better, especially with the likes of Mitchell and Powell knocking down their threes. All the starters were in double-figures tonight, Cappie had 20 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals for a very impressive evening, and they got another win on the road. The bench largely stunk, and their late-game offense looks like LeBron in his Cavaliers days, but they held on. That’ll do for now.


In other news…

Phoenix beat Tulsa, in that game I’m going to talk about tomorrow.


Today’s Games (already completed):

New York @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Phoenix @ Tulsa, 8pm ET


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