Everything below was written before Jennifer Gillom was replced by Joe Bryant as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks late this evening. More on that tomorrow.
Some nights, it annoys me that I’m not a more adventurous gambler. You see, I don’t like losing money, so I tend to bet small, even when I’m convinced the odds are in my favour. I also don’t have an account anywhere that offers in-play betting, which was the second factor that stopped me making a bundle last night. But let’s just say that if a) I had more guts, and b) somewhere easily accessible actually took the bets, I could’ve made some nice coin out of yesterday’s WNBA schedule.
Some games start off going one way on the scoreboard, but if you’re watching closely enough and know a little about the squads, it’s pretty easy to gauge whether the pattern’s going to last. When one team gets all the breaks, shots are going in that they rarely manage to make, and the other team are contriving to miss countless point-blank layups, chances are things are going to swing round before the night is out. It happened a lot last night. Oh and by the way, gambling is legal where I live. If it happens not to be where you reside, please don’t take this as a suggestion that you break the law. That would be wrong.
The first game last night featured Washington in Indiana, and the first instance of me scouting around for a website that would let me open an account in seconds and bet on a complete collapse by the team in front. Washington were still without their three best players – Langhorne, Beard and Currie – but got off to a crazy-hot start, and were up 24-14 by the end of the first quarter. Shots were bouncing in after rolling three times around the rim, passes that would usually be turnovers hit two different people before dropping to a Mystic for an uncontested layup, and Indiana were blowing more layups than you could count. It was hard to believe it would last, but they managed to keep most of the lead until halftime, going in up 33-25.
To be fair to Washington, it wasn’t all down to luck. They seemed to be pushing the pace a little more, which kept them out of the stilted offensive sets that have largely gone nowhere and ended in forced jumpers all season long. They’d also managed to avoid turning the ball over, despite playing a team that loves to ballhawk, which stopped the Fever from getting out in transition for easy scores. Also, if you hold a team to 25 points in a half, you’re probably doing something right defensively, even if Indiana were helping them out by missing far too many easy opportunities.
Fever head coach Lin Dunn made a switch to start the second half. Rookie Jeanette Pohlen had started the game in place of Tangela Smith, who was out with a quad contusion (leg bruise, I think that means in English). Instead of Pohlen, Shyra Ely started the second half and it made a difference, even if Ely wasn’t making much impact on the scoreboard. Indiana started to reestablish the true levels of these teams – which is what I would’ve been counting on if I’d been able to place that bet – almost as soon as the second half started. Katie Douglas was finally imposing herself on the game after an invisible first half, Jess Davenport was finally taking advantage of her size inside, and the Fever had the game level at 45-45 late in the third. The last play of the quarter was a breakaway layup by Tammy Sutton-Brown that just beat the buzzer, when Washington rookie point guard Jasmine Thomas turned the ball over on what should’ve been the final possession. It animated the crowd, and gave Indiana all the momentum heading into the final period.
The Fever forced a Mystics shotclock violation on the opening play of the fourth quarter, and the Shavonte Zellous layup that followed gave them their first lead of the night. To Washington’s credit, they didn’t lay down and die. A Nicky Anosike layup cut Indiana’s lead to 59-57 with under five minutes to play and we still had a contest, but then the Fever finally took control. As is often their style, it was their defense that had the most impact, and once again it was a ‘small’ lineup with Tamika Catchings at the power forward spot that did the damage. Catch had five steals in the last six minutes of the ballgame (plus a block), and the Mystics couldn’t put any points on the board because they couldn’t even get any shots in the air. Meanwhile, the Fever were turning all those steals into layups back the other way. That Anosike score turned out to be Washington’s final points of the game, and Indiana ran out 68-57 winners.
The Mystics’ lead never felt ‘real’, and the 16 second-half turnovers and shambolic fourth quarter illustrated why. Without Langhorne the talent gap is just too big against anyone besides Tulsa, and they’re going to struggle. Victoria Dunlap is showing some promise as Lang’s fill-in replacement, but not enough to keep up with teams like the Fever. Unfortunately, Washington traded their 2012 first-round draft pick to Minnesota for Anosike, so there isn’t even any advantage in being increasingly terrible. The good news is, they got Seattle’s pick in the Katie Smith deal and Atlanta’s in the Lindsey Harding trade, both of which look like they might be higher selections than initially anticipated. This team doesn’t particularly need more kids on the roster, but more talent is always useful. They certainly need help from somewhere.
Ugly, ugly first half from Indiana, but at least they pulled it out, and eventually won their sixth game in a row. Erin Phillips had a little more trouble in her second game replacing Briann January as the starting point guard, and she needs to cut down on the over-dribbling that occasionally stops her team’s offense in its tracks. However, she was a part of the fourth quarter run that won the game, and 14 points on 5-9 shooting, three assists and three rebounds is a pretty decent line. Just got to work on those four turnovers. Dunn played Phillips for nearly 37 minutes and Shannon Bobbitt for just the remaining three, so it would appear that January’s replacement has been chosen, anyway.
Tamika Catchings’s jumpshot is still missing without a trace, hence her ugly 4-13 shooting from the floor. Her rebounding and activity in every other part of the game means she’s still hugely effective – seven boards (six offensive), six steals, four assists and three blocks last night – but it’d help a hell of a lot if she could find some touch. Shavonte Zellous had one of her hot nights last night off the bench, which gave Indiana the extra offensive punch they needed. If Catch could’ve bought a shot all night, maybe they wouldn’t have been so desperate for Zellous’s help.
Up next, Connecticut made the trip out to Minnesota to face the young Lynx squad that was looking for their first win over a team not-named-Tulsa since June 19th. In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have made much money on this one. The first half was about as even as you can get. Neither team led by more than four at any point, and a very entertaining back-and-forth affair was 44-43 Minnesota at halftime. Maya Moore had a heck of a first-half in her first game against the team from the state she had so much success in as a student, raining in four three-pointers in six attempts as part of her 14 points. Rebekkah Brunson was also back to her high-flying best after a few quiet games lately, with 12 points and eight rebounds at the half. Those numbers included a memorable little sequence late in the half where she had a mid-range jumper, a tough driving layup and an alley-oop finish from a Taj McWilliams-Franklin pass on three consecutive possessions. Brunson’s so much fun to watch when she’s bouncing around like that.
In retrospect, maybe I should’ve seen the signs and tried to gamble on this one as well. Tina Charles couldn’t get anything going at all in the first half, with Taj doing a phenomenal job down low simply preventing her from receiving the ball. She can’t score if she can’t touch it, and McWilliams-Franklin was putting that maxim into practice. Asjha Jones had nine points at the half, but they were mostly on broken plays and putbacks. Even Renee Montgomery’s 10 points had taken her 10 shots to achieve.
The third quarter was where the game was won and lost. The Lynx came out extremely aggressive offensively, pushing the ball whenever they could and looking for quick offense. Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus were the main contributors to a 9-0 run that opened the half, pushing their lead to 10. Defensively, they were paying a little more attention to Montgomery to slow the Sun’s one attacking perimeter option, and Connecticut were constantly reduced to contested jumpers from outside. They weren’t going in. Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin were continuing to shut down Charles and Jones, and the whole team was working hard to shut off the paint whenever anyone in a road jersey tried to penetrate. The Sun just couldn’t get anything easy.
Scoring slowed down at both ends as the pace of the game slowed dramatically, before the Lynx stepped on the gas again late in the third. Augustus hit her first three of the night when Candice Wiggins made the extra pass to her in the corner, and then we were back to the Maya Moore show. A three of her own with two defenders right up on her was followed by a pull-up jumper in the lane, before a long rebound broke to Lindsay Whalen, who fed Moore on the break for a runaway layup. A gorgeous running left-handed hook by fellow rookie Amber Harris – right over the top of Tina Charles – finished off the quarter, and Minnesota had an 18-point lead at 67-49.
There were never any signs of a Sun comeback in the fourth, and Charles spent the entire period on the bench. The Lynx cruised to a 90-67 victory, which for those who don’t want to bother doing the math on their own means they won the second-half 46-24. Another statement game from the upstart Lynx.
I think everyone’s starting to believe in this Minnesota team, at least a little. Out on the break, Whalen, Augustus and Moore already have great chemistry, and it could be any of the three feeding one of the others for the score. Inside, everyone was talking about Brunson through the first month of the season – and rightly so – but McWilliams-Franklin has made an extraordinary difference to this squad. Tina Charles went 3-13 last night for six points and eight boards. The only bucket she had in the entire second half was on an offensive rebound, where Jessica Adair was on her instead of Taj anyway. Nicky Anosike always had a strong defensive reputation, built more on her quick hands and steal numbers than her interior presence, but the switch from her to Taj this year has made a massive difference. It’s become very hard to score in the paint against this team.
As for last night, Augustus came alive in the second half and that was enough to build on the offensive production from Moore and Brunson in the first half. It also looks like Candice Wiggins may be settling into her role off the bench. She’s hitting some shots, making the right pass when necessary, and finding a little consistency that was missing earlier in the year. Monica Wright, on the other hand, disappeared out of head coach Cheryl Reeve’s rotation last night. Reeve’s choices off the bench seem to vary from game to game – and I’m yet to work out how she makes the decisions, which seem rather random – but if they keep playing like they did in the second-half yesterday no one will care. This is a truly impressive squad when they get rolling.
Connecticut’s miserable road form continues. They’re 1-4 on their travels this year, after going 5-12 away from Uncasville last season. Fortunately for Sun fans, they’re good enough back home that their overall record remains pretty solid, but it certainly makes things more difficult when you can’t buy a road win. Charles couldn’t get anything going last night and the Lynx focussed on Montgomery in the second half, so I kept waiting for Asjha Jones to step up. It didn’t really happen, and maybe it won’t all that much from now on. She’s still talented, but increasingly Jones is looking like the distinct third option among Connecticut’s ‘big three’ of UConn products. She’ll score when the opportunities are there for her, but she doesn’t seem able to take over games any more. Which means if you stop Tina and Renee like Minnesota managed in the second half, the Sun are kind of screwed.
Over in Chicago, we have the one game from yesterday where I almost certainly would’ve lost money if I could’ve found somewhere to open that account. Atlanta were the visitors, and the first half felt like a beatdown, with the Dream throwing the punches. Both teams were turning the ball over constantly, making it a painful game to watch, but Atlanta’s 18-4 lead in fastbreak points at the break shows who was taking advantages of all the giveaways. The ridiculous thing was, Atlanta were only up eight at halftime, 39-31. It felt far worse than that for Chicago, considering they’d coughed the ball up 14 times in 20 minutes, and were behind in every other meaningful statistical category as well. If they carried on playing like that, there was no way the Dream lead was going to stay in single-digits for long.
But then Chicago woke up. Undoubtedly given a rocket by coach Pokey Chatman during the interval, the Sky came out positive and everything was tied up at 41-41 before they’d even played three minutes. The most noticeable difference in the second half was rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot. She’s had a problem with turnovers in several games this year, and Chatman has frequently pulled her off the floor as a result. Inevitably with a young floor general, that tends to hurt a player’s confidence and all you end up with is more turnovers (or such passive play that they may as well not be out there at all). Whether she was listening to what Chatman had told her to do, or was simply out there sticking it to the coach that kept benching her, Sloot’s second half was outstanding. She attacked the basket for layups, spread the ball around to her teammates, and generally ran the team just like we saw when she was at Gonzaga. That’s the Sloot we all want to see in this league, especially if you happen to be a Sky fan.
Still, Atlanta are desperate for wins as well, and they weren’t going to make things easy. Both teams were still constantly turning the ball over (35 combined TOs through three quarters), which meant neither could get a solid grip on the game. Erika de Souza was throwing in a few of her trademark line-drive shots that seem to defy physics, and six straight points from Angel McCoughtry midway through the fourth quarter gave Atlanta a 63-62 lead. The problem with Angel is that she can shoot you out of a game just as fast as she can shoot you into one. The final five minutes of the game was McCoughtry miss, after McCoughtry turnover, after McCoughtry brick. For one brief moment with two minutes to play, when Vandersloot gave up her seventh turnover of the game and instantly committed a silly clear path foul on McCoughtry, it looked like Atlanta might pull it out of the fire. The free throws cut Chicago’s lead to four, and Atlanta had the ball back. McCoughtry drove yet again – at least she wasn’t just jacking up long-distance jumpshots – and took a bad, off-balance prayer over Michelle Snow. It wasn’t close, and that was about it. A procession of mind-numbing Sky free throws in the closing seconds gave the final score a glossier look than it deserved for Chicago, closing out at 81-69.
This could be a big win for the Sky. Not just because they really needed it after an awful lot of losses lately (and the preceding win over shorthanded Washington barely counts these days), but because Atlanta are the team they may well need to hold off for a playoff spot. They’d already lost to the Dream once, so it was important to take this one both for the basic records of the franchises, and the potential tie-breaker at the end of the year. They’re still turning the ball over too much, still not finding Sylvia Fowles for enough shots, and still don’t drive enough, but it’s a work in progress. Epiphanny Prince had 24 points (padded a little with all those late free throws) and Sloot had 16 and nine assists, and they came away with the win, so that’s a successful night. Although if they turn the ball over 21 times and only get Big Syl eight attempts on too many more nights, that record will start sliding backwards again.
Oh Atlanta, what are we going to do with you? Sancho Lyttle was still missing with her bad back, but they can’t keep waiting for her to arrive on the floor like a knight in shining armour to save them. McCoughtry finished with 17 points, but on a horrific 6-23 from the floor. Erika had 14, but on a nearly-as-horrible 7-19. So between them, those two were 13-42 (31%), while the entire rest of their roster went 15-31 (48%). Might’ve been an idea to let someone else have a go in the fourth.
Some of the decisions made by the coaching staff were hard to understand in the second half. Lindsey Harding wasn’t doing much, and yet Shalee Lehning never got a chance to come in and improve matters (and maybe pass to someone other than Angel). McCoughtry never got pulled even once she entered “Me! Me! Me!” mode, despite regular backup Armintie Price having a strong first half. It just seemed like they could’ve tried something else when everything was falling apart in the fourth quarter, and the Dream coaches are usually good about going with what’s working in crunch time, not just their big names. Last night, McCoughtry shot them right out of the ballgame. At 3-8, they can’t allow too many more to slip away like that.
The final game of the night was another one where I reckon there was cash to be made. If you’re really devoted and want to check, you can even trawl through my tweets to find what I said late in the first quarter of LA’s contest in Seattle. “Not expecting this lead to last, personally” was how I put it.
We’d already had plenty of fun and games by that point. Los Angeles head coach Jennifer Gillom is becoming something of a controversial figure. Her bizarre lineup choices and combinations during games have been mentioned regularly on this site, and she went for it from the start last night, benching veterans Tina Thompson and Ticha Penicheiro. That made it only the second time in 409 career regular season games that Thompson had come off the bench. The replacements were Kristi Toliver, who’s been their primary scoring spark off the bench all season, and rookie center Jantel Lavender, who’s barely played all year. It felt like a desperate move from a coach who was running out of ideas, after her team had lost its last four in a row and been blown out in the fourth quarter against Phoenix on Tuesday night. Of course, that blowout was precipitated by a Toliver elbow and meltdown, so promoting her to the starting lineup seemed like an odd move. Then again, Gillom put Toliver back in that game against the Mercury when steam was coming out of her ears and the other team were hunting her down, despite a 19-point gap on the scoreboard, so nothing seems all that strange any more. Gillom’s a law unto herself.
Nonetheless, LA got off to a strong start. Lavender was providing some bulk inside and grabbing some rebounds, two things that have been lacking from LA since Candace Parker went down. Seattle’s offense looked dubious as it has on several occasions this season, and LA’s newly formed starting lineup managed to build a 17-11 lead with a couple of minutes left in the first. That was around when I made that tweet I already mentioned (you can follow me here, if you feel like it). You see, LA’s perimeter defense is awful. It has been for years. Their transition defense it also terrible. And with Parker gone, their interior defense leaves a fair bit to be desired too. You can see where I’m going here. Seattle have missed an awful lot of jumpshots this year, but I had serious doubts that LA were going to keep them out for the rest of the night. Once in a while, I turn out to actually be right.
Seattle practically evened things out in the second quarter, with back-to-back three-pointers from Tanisha Wright a hint of what was available against LA’s defense, and what was to come in the second half. In the third quarter, Seattle got into their stride, pushed the ball in transition, and started racking up easy points. They’re consistently there to be taken against LA, whatever lineup Gillom throws out. A Sue Bird three on the final play of the quarter gave the Storm a 70-60 lead and all the momentum heading into the final period.
When Katie Smith hit a three of her own early in the fourth, the roof practically came off Key Arena and the Storm were away. Smith’s shooting has been horribly cold all year, she knows it and so did every fan in that place, so there was immense pleasure and relief when that shot dropped. By the time she hit another from outside only a couple of minutes later, Seattle were up 82-66 and the game was done and dusted. Another second-half-collapse from Gillom’s squad, an ultimately dominant win from Seattle in front of their noisy home crowd, and more questions about where the Sparks go from here. The only disappointment for the Key Arena audience was that the Storm fell just short of the century mark, running out 99-80 winners.
In a funny sort of way, a Gillom defender could probably argue that her changes worked. First-round pick Lavender has been anonymous all season, but starting kicked some life into her and she produced 21 points and nine rebounds. Toliver had 17 on 6-12 shooting. However, both Penicheiro and Thompson were practically useless in their limited time off the bench, and the team’s disintegration in the second half shows that it didn’t work out so well overall. Thompson especially looked completely out of sorts when she came into the game, missing badly on her three attempts and turning the ball over three times as well. It’s the second game in a row that the Sparks’ opponents have been celebrating well before the final buzzer when the game was tight deep into the third quarter.
After looking like a united team with a common purpose only a few weeks ago, the wheels have fallen off this bus with remarkable speed. It’s easy to put it all down to Parker’s injury, but it feels like more than that. No one seems to know quite what’s going on, least of all Gillom. Even with the excuse of Parker’s absence, you can understand why some fans would like to see a coaching change, and like to see it soon. Even when they were winning, you felt like it was just a matter of time until the axe would fall. You might even have put money on it.
Maybe this can be Seattle’s big turnaround game. Lauren Jackson was back in the building – albeit on crutches – and her teammates responded by shooting 55% from the floor, including 9-17 from three-point range. Those are the kind of numbers we saw from last season’s dominant team, not this year’s inconsistent outfit. Cash had 26, Wright 21, Bird 17 and Smith 13 off the bench, hopefully breaking out of her slump for good. Yes, it was against LA’s awful defense, but maybe they can roll this momentum into games against better teams. Their next contest is Tuesday lunchtime against Washington anyway, so they don’t have to worry about better teams for a while.
In other news…
Today was the final day for All-Star voting. Results, I would guess, will be announced on an upcoming ESPN2 broadcast, probably Seattle’s visit to San Antonio on Thursday. That’s how they usually do it. Then we get a few days to argue over the reserves, before they announce them the following week.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Chicago @ New York, 4pm ET
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 6pm ET