No games on Monday in the WNBA, but Seattle had their camp day game today, so we’re going to go with early coverage of the Storm’s matchup with the Washington Mystics instead of waiting until tomorrow. Details of the late game between LA and San Antonio will be in tomorrow’s piece. We’re deep enough into the season now that I think we all had a pretty decent idea of what to expect going into this one. Seattle are working hard to find some rhythm after a slow start and the loss of MVP Lauren Jackson; Washington are fighting through multiple injuries, massive turnover from last season, and excessive youth on their roster. Seattle went in as heavy favourites, especially with over 10,000 screaming kids cheering them on, but this is basketball: anything can happen.
After losing seven of their last eight games (and the win was over Tulsa), at least there was one piece of good news for Washington before this one got underway. Star power forward Crystal Langhorne, who’d missed their last three games with back pain, returned to the starting lineup. Rookie Victoria Dunlap has done a pretty nice job in her absence, but Lang is their best player and the only consistent interior threat on this roster (considering Nicky Anosike doesn’t seem capable of shooting straight from two feet any more). Having her back could only improve their chances. Hopefully Dunlap’s development while Langhorne was gone could give them more punch off the bench, now that the kid was back amongst the reserves. Still no Alana Beard or Monique Currie, of course. Seattle’s list remains the same – LJ out, and at least half the bench won’t play unless someone’s up by 20 with three minutes left.
Seattle got out to a fast start, which was hardly surprising after the beating they put on LA in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s game. Confidence was high, in stark contrast to a Mystics club that already feels like it’s planning for next year (at the earliest). Nicky Anosike picked up two fouls within two minutes and sat down, bringing in Dunlap alongside Langhorne. Both are talented, but that might make the Mystics’ frontcourt even smaller than Seattle’s. The Storm were running the floor hard, taking shots in rhythm, and scoring mostly on layups or transition jump shots when no one was within yards of them. It was 17-7 midway through the first, and only a couple of late Dunlap jumpers had Washington within seven at the end of the quarter. Seattle had 16 points in the paint in the first ten minutes of play, which was a scary number for Washington going forward.
The Mystics’ defense is actually pretty similar in structure and intent to Seattle’s, they’re just nowhere near as good at it. Too many changes to the Washington roster, too many kids who are new to the pro ranks, and a new head coach with her own ideas means they’re half a step slow on too many occasions. If a player hedges out on a pick and roll, the teammate that should be rotating over to help often only gets there in time to swipe at the opponent as she finishes a layup. Too many players don’t look quite sure whether they’re supposed to help or stay where they are. Gaps that would be closed up by Seattle defenders are still in the process of being closed when someone from the other team knifes through them against Washington. The good thing is that it still feels like they’re all trying. There are teams in this league that play lazy defense, or show some effort for a couple of plays and then quit on the third. The Mystics and their young roster are trying – they’re just not there yet.
The second quarter was better for Washington. They got back quicker, Seattle turned the ball over a few times to help them out, and as a result the Mystics hung around. It was only 43-37 to the Storm at halftime, despite the game feeling like Seattle had been in complete control from the opening tip. They were ahead on the glass, shooting 54% from the field thanks to all the layups, and Sue Bird already had 15 points thanks to that offensive aggression that we’ve been seeing more of lately. On one possession Bird even took a three-pointer in transition when she had no rebounders anywhere close to being in position under the hoop. A very un-Birdy thing to do, but it went in, so no one was going to complain. It’s kind of cool witnessing this gunning version of Bird that slips out sometimes when Jackson is hurt. She was a top-three MVP candidate when LJ missed a load of games a couple of years ago; keep playing like this and she might be in the hunt again in 2011.
Still, when you’re only up six at halftime, the game’s far from over. Storm head coach Brian Agler appeared to have emphasised that to his team in the locker room, because they came out with an instant 6-0 run to stretch their lead back to 12. Two Mystics turnovers were sandwiched between the three Seattle buckets (I guess that would make it a club sandwich?) and one of them was yet another of the dumb turnovers that have been plaguing Washington lately. When a player is trying to post up, and the defender on her is ‘overplaying’, i.e. slightly more round the front of her than behind, you can’t just try to bounce the ball in anyway. Multiple times today, Mystics players attempted to enter the ball into the post like that, and the Storm defender just stole the ball. You have to be smarter than that. Go over the top, or swing the ball to the top of the key to change the route of entry, or just bring the post-up player out to set a pick – do something. It’s really not rocket science.
Seattle still couldn’t kill this game off. Langhorne was completely invisible after the first quarter, presumably still suffering with her back and ineffective as a result. Therefore Washington had no interior offense whatsoever, but they were hitting just about enough shots from outside to stick around. Marissa Coleman was having one of her occasional solid outings, and when a jumper from her was followed by threes from Karima Christmas and Kelly Miller late in the third quarter, it cut Seattle’s lead back down to six. Belinda Snell, in one of the few minutes that Agler granted her, shot too quickly on what should’ve been the final possession of the quarter, and then compounded the mistake by fouling Matee Ajavon on the resulting Mystics break. Ajavon knocked down the free throws, and somehow we had a four-point game at 61-57 to end the third.
In the fourth, Washington actually had a couple of attempts to tie or take the lead, but could never quite get over the hump. The most notable occasion featured an Anosike airballed layup (which just about sums up her season), followed by an offensive rebound and a missed Coleman three that would’ve put them in front. Then Seattle finally decided to stop screwing around. Tanisha Wright drove and found a cutting Swin Cash for the layup and the foul. Camille Little imposed herself on the glass. Bird knocked down another jumper. And Seattle quickly renewed their lead.
If Washington could’ve made key shots in the last few minutes – they were only down five when Ajavon missed a three and Anosike bricked a mid-range jump shot – it might’ve gotten interesting again, but it always felt like the Storm would hold on. They made hard work of it (and failed to cover the spread), but Seattle held on for a 79-71 victory.
You have to feel for this Mystics squad, at least a little. Not much for the franchise, because the shambles with Julie Plank and Angela Taylor in the offseason was all of their own making, but this group of players, the coaching staff and the remaining fans don’t really deserve this season. They’re just not very good. Anosike’s struggling painfully at center, and rookie Ta’Shia Phillips who was supposed to be her backup didn’t even play today. Langhorne probably came back too early, judging by her complete lack of impact on today’s game in 33 minutes of action. Coleman at least has had a few decent outings lately, and had 16 points and nine rebounds today, but has lacked consistency. Matee Ajavon is doing her best, but you don’t really want her as your primary perimeter option. Not unless you’re playing in the Swedish League. They were nearly in today’s game, and they fought to the end, but it never truly felt like a contest. It was like a cat batting at some small creature that it had pounced on in the garden. You just felt sorry for the poor little thing.
As the cat in my strained simile, Seattle really should’ve done a better job of putting their prey out of its misery. They let Washington hang around too long, and it could’ve come back to bite them late in the game if one or two of those Mystics’ prayers had been answered. The Storm look at their best when they push the ball up the floor, and create some quick, easy scores. They’re not used to doing it, because Agler’s offense has always been pedestrian and precise, but without Jackson they need all the easy points they can get their hands on. It’s far more difficult to score in the halfcourt without the big Aussie, so speeding things up really helps. Still, they shot 50% from the floor, dominated the glass, Bird had 22 and Cash had 20, so it certainly wasn’t all bad. Still essentially a seven-player rotation (the 4:48 Agler found for Snell isn’t fooling anyone), but that’s hardly a surprise at this point. Ashley Robinson proving somewhat serviceable as one of the seven does count as something of a shock, although they’ve got to stop her from putting the ball on the floor. Please don’t dribble, Ashley. Ever. It’s an even more guaranteed turnover than asking Kara Braxton to pass out of a double-team.
In other news…
Tulsa assistant coach Wayne Stehlik has apparently been released by the Shock. That’s not a surprise, considering that Stehlik has always been part of the Nolan Richardson package, so he was likely to go once Richardson was removed. Still, it leaves Teresa Edwards on her own on the Shock bench for the time being, which is a difficult situation to be in. Maybe the owners feel like the team is going to suck whether she’s the only coach or they bring in five extra assistants, so why bother paying anyone else. That would be a fair assessment, but hopefully they at least let her bring in one or two people to bounce her ideas off. Reportedly she was interested in Jennifer Gillom, but her bosses very distinctly weren’t. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next in the Shock soap opera.
Don’t forget that all four games tomorrow are camp day games, meaning they all tip-off around lunchtime in the US (or mid-morning if you’re on the West coast). The bizarre WNBA scheduling continues.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Washington @ Seattle, 3pm ET (discussed above)
Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 8pm ET (discussed tomorrow)
Atlanta @ New York, 12pm ET
Tulsa @ Chicago, 12.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 1pm ET
Connecticut @ Indiana, 1pm ET