Four games yesterday, and it’s not too hard to work out which game to concentrate on. Let’s see, we had a) a blowout, b) a blowout, c) a near-blowout that only got close because Tulsa are so bad that teams are starting to relax too much against them, and d) the highest-scoring regulation game in WNBA history. Hope no one objects, but we’ll be going with d. Of course, seeing as it’s me, the other three games will get their due coverage later in this piece, but we’ll start with the one that was actually entertaining.
Phoenix arrived in Minnesota off the back of eight wins in their last nine games, a streak that’s making you start to wonder if they might just be for real this year. They still essentially ignore the defensive end of the floor, but there are hints here of the Mercury teams from past years that simply outscored everyone anyway. Still, circumstances do seem to have fallen their way in several games this year, so a first meeting with the new-breed in Minnesota seemed like a true test of the Mercury’s mettle. It also meant a contest with the team that is actually outscoring them in fastbreak points so far this season, a category you don’t often see anyone leading Phoenix in. So we knew going in that this one was likely to be fast, exciting, and distinctly high-scoring.
While Maya Moore is the only rookie in the Lynx starting lineup, Minnesota started the game like a team that had never faced Phoenix before or even seen them on tape. Moore jacked a three on the opening possession – a sign of things to come – and then Phoenix were off to the races. The Mercury were draining threes, hitting a series of breakout layups, and the Lynx looked stunned. Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve went to her bench very early, bringing in Candice Wiggins, Monica Wright and Amber Harris for Moore, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson to try to stem the tide. 10-2 after barely 90 seconds, 19-6 after less than five minutes, this was bringing back some memories of the Mercury’s 39-6 explosion against Tulsa in the first quarter on Sunday.
Of course, as just about anyone who’s watched this Mercury team knows by now, wait a while and they’ll usually let you right back into games that they started off shooting you out of. The Lynx finally got a grip, and with Lindsay Whalen really the only starter to offer anything in the opening quarter the Minnesota bench helped them ease their way back in. Wiggins, Wright and a nice little cameo from Charde Houston (born to play in Mercury games) all helped, and after a first quarter that it felt like Phoenix dominated, the gap was only six at 27-21.
Having had some time to take stock and realise how this game was going to be played, the Minnesota starters came back into the game and continued the Lynx push. They may like to run themselves this year, but when the pace slowed dramatically in the second quarter it was certainly to their advantage. While Phoenix can still fire away in the halfcourt, they’re never as comfortable if you take them out of their running game. Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor grabbing a few minutes’ rest helped the Lynx out as well – they’re really the keys that make this current Mercury team tick. It took a Marie Ferdinand-Harris driving layup and a tough Taurasi three from deep in the corner in the final seconds of the period to pull Phoenix back within a point at the half, 49-48.
The Mercury shot 54% from the field in the first half, and 6-13 from three-point range. They were gunning away, hitting most of their shots from anywhere, and the Lynx were up regardless. Ultimately it had been a balanced attack for Minnesota that got the job done, along with keeping the turnovers down and hitting the glass. Moore had stayed pretty quiet in her first game against this Mercury unit, but her teammates were doing enough. The teams were tied at 20-20 in points in the paint at the break, which I only mention because of how it changed in the second half.
Once the refs stopped calling pointless touch-fouls, the game sped up again in the third, although neither team could hold an advantage. It was an ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ kind of game. One team would get a run out, another would drain a three straight back; one team makes a nice cut for an easy layup, the other drives and gets the call for an and-one. This game was a lot of fun. Early in the fourth quarter, it looked like Minnesota might finally be managing to create some room between themselves and the Mercury. A 9-3 run to start the period that included an Augustus jumper, a strong offensive board and putback by Moore, and an ugly three from Whalen that somehow banked in, pushed the Lynx lead to 85-76. A couple of minutes later Moore went hard to the hoop again, drew the foul on Taylor and hit both free throws for a 91-80 advantage with 6:31 left in the game. It looked like the Lynx were taking control.
Now I’m loathe to blame Reeve for what followed, because Phoenix have done this to countless teams over the years, but the Mercury comeback started when she made the move to go to her bench. It’s admittedly somewhat hypocritical of me, because I’ve blamed her for not trusting her reserves enough this season, but I would’ve been tempted to let the starters play this one out. Problem is, Phoenix force you to play at such a pace that she may have felt her key starters needed the rest to survive. Anyway, Whalen and Moore both sat down with six minutes left in the game, and Brunson was already resting and yet to appear in the fourth quarter (partly because Jessica Adair was out there and doing some good work for Minnesota down low). Phoenix rattled off four thee-pointers in 89 seconds of game time, two from Taylor and one each from Taurasi and Temeka Johnson. Adair had all the Lynx attempts during that streak, bricking a couple of free throws, hitting one jumper and badly missing a second. Suddenly, an 11-point Minnesota lead was down to one with under five minutes to play.
The Lynx starters all came back at that point, reassembling the five that have been hugely effective for them all season. They stabilised the game, but after a strong post move by Brunson gave them a 99-96 advantage with 2:33 to play, yet another Penny Taylor three tied the game. After Moore clanked another three-point attempt of her own off the rim, DeWanna Bonner beat Taj McWilliams-Franklin off the dribble, and made a tough layup while Brunson fouled her. That gave the Mercury their first lead since early in the third quarter.
A pair of Brunson free throws and a breakout Whalen layup actually gave Minnesota another lead at 103-102, but then came the key play of the closing minutes. Taylor actually missed a three-point attempt for once, and after grabbing the board herself, Whalen brought the ball upcourt with under a minute to play. She tried to hand the ball off to Augustus, but Taylor snaked a hand in to disrupt the transfer, and the ball broke loose. Taylor grabbed it, and was looking to break towards the other end of the court when she was bumped by Augustus. It took a replay review to check, but the officials eventually deemed it a clear path foul, which means Phoenix got two shots and possession of the ball. Having watched the replay several times, I actually think the officials probably got it right. The only question is whether they could’ve called a reach-in foul on Taylor for the initial steal. Once they hadn’t called that, they had to blow for the bump on Taylor, and after checking the official rule book definition of a ‘clear path foul’ I think they got that right too. It was close, but correct. Close enough that if I was a Lynx fan I’d probably talk myself into thinking it was a complete screw-job though.
So from a one-point Lynx lead and Minnesota ball with 45 seconds to play, Taylor hit both foul shots to take the advantage for Phoenix, who also got the ball back. The next play ended just as badly for Minnesota. Taurasi came around a Bonner screen guarded by Moore at the top of the circle, for what would’ve been a very tough off-balance three-point attempt. Moore showed her inexperience by reaching in, and Taurasi sold it and got the call. Maya had her hands on her head after the play, but I think it was probably more for her own dumb mistake than in disgust at the call. Taurasi sank all three shots for a four-point Mercury lead, and they were in charge.
The Lynx did have one final chance, when Penny Taylor uncharacteristically missed a clutch free throw with 13 seconds left. Minnesota would’ve had possession down three, but Rebekkah Brunson – the best rebounder in the WNBA this season – could only watch in horror as the ball flicked off her fingers and went straight out of bounds. No one else was anywhere near her. That just about summed up the final few minutes for the Lynx, and Phoenix closed out a 112-105 win.
While all the high-pitched screaming kids at the Minnesota camp day will have gone home unhappy at the loss, the rest of us certainly enjoyed ourselves. The 217 total points only ties for sixth-highest in WNBA history (you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Phoenix were involved in every one of the top-five), but it’s the highest number ever scored without the help of overtime. One record the new owner won’t be happy about acquiring is the highest number of three-point attempts in a game without making a single one, newly achieved by Maya Moore after she went 0-9 from long range in this game. I’m told that Geno Auriemma used to bitch about this when she was at UConn as well, but Moore has to stop jacking up so many threes. She’s a good shooter on a lot of nights, but she’s so athletic, so strong and so talented in other areas that she’s much more effective when she does other things. Look through this piece and you see several occasions where Moore was part of a Lynx run – always doing something other than throwing the ball up from long range. Still, it was her first chance to face this Mercury system, and it can be something of a culture shock. She’ll get four more tries in the regular season alone this year – and a playoff series is certainly a possibility as well – and I’d expect her to improve markedly.
In general, this game is nothing to worry about for the Lynx. When the Mercury get ridiculously hot, there’s often not much you can do about it defensively, however good you are at that end and however hard you try. That ‘points in the paint’ score that was tied at 20-20 after the first half? Finished 54-36 Minnesota. That shows just how many of Phoenix’s shots came from outside, compared to what the Lynx were creating in the second half. Even with this Mercury squad, they can’t always be that accurate from outside. The breaks didn’t go for them in the final minutes, but if this was game one of a playoff series, the Lynx would still feel pretty confident about games two and three.
The Mercury are scary when they get like this. As a team they were 53% from the floor, including 14-27 (52%) from three-point range. That’s nuts. Taurasi had 27, Bonner 24 off the bench, Candice Dupree 19 – and then we come to Penny Taylor. Penny’s playing some flat out glorious basketball. She does everything for this team, putting up 19 points, eight boards and eight assists against the Lynx. Her passing on the break and into the post in their occasional halfcourt sets have become central to the Mercury’s production. I used to love watching her contort her body to finish at the rim; now I love watching her pass. Taurasi’s profile probably won’t let her truly contend, but right now Taylor’s the closest thing this franchise has to an MVP candidate.
Of course, they still don’t play any defense. But after a game that set scoring records and entertained thousands of kids, let’s leave that for another day.
After that opus, you’ll forgive me if I keep it a little shorter than usual on the other games. New York welcomed Atlanta into town, looking to prove that their run of five wins in six games wasn’t any kind of fluke and that real progress has been made by John Whisenant’s squad in recent weeks. Atlanta had three wins all season coming in, but two of them had been over New York. So not only should this have been a good opportunity to pick up another win over a team that they knew they could beat, but Atlanta could also seal the tie-break if these teams happen to be fighting for playoff position at the end of the year. Of course, with how badly the Dream have been playing of late, nothing was going to be easy.
Those two wins Atlanta already had in the bank over the Liberty were part of why I couldn’t remotely understand the switch that Dream head coach Marynell Meadors made to her starting lineup. She benched Iziane Castro Marques – which was reasonable considering how Izi has played recently – but also moved Angel McCoughtry to the power forward spot, bringing in Coco Miller and Armintie Price on the wings. I fully understand wanting to shake things up on this team, considering how the Dream have been playing this year, but it made no sense to make the move against New York. Atlanta had dominated inside in their last two games against the Liberty, and won both. Why remove your central advantage over this team from the opening tip?
Plenette Pierson picked up two fouls inside the first three minutes and had to sit down, but because of the Dream’s small lineup Whisenant could bring in Essence Carson to replace her. That’s the other reason that the Angel-at-the-4 plan makes no sense against New York – it allows them to keep their best players on the floor, and keep those inexperienced backup bigs on the bench. You want Carson to stay sat down as long as possible, and Quanitra Hollingsworth or Felicia Chester piling up minutes if you’re trying to beat this team. Bizarre. Anyway, helping to prove me right (for once), New York went on a tear in the first quarter once Carson was in. 5-4 Atlanta became 18-7 New York, and they’d stretched it to 25-13 by the end of the period. The Liberty were already up by double-digits before Meadors admitted defeat and put a second true big on the floor, forcing Whisenant to respond with Hollingsworth. By that stage, New York were already up and running and into a rhythm.
The Dream made a bit of a comeback in the second, because with two posts on the floor they could actually grab some rebounds, outlet the ball and start pushing the pace. Plus McCoughtry was released to be one of the runners, not one of the people worrying about the boards. But the damage had been done. New York looked smooth and confident, they were knocking down their shots from outside, and the rotations defensively were just about working. Even Nicole Powell had her stroke going, hitting 4-4 from behind the arc in the first half. Her final trey stretched the lead to 54-37 going in at halftime.
Alison Bales started over Miller for Atlanta in the second half, admitting the mistake that the small lineup had been in the first. It made very little difference. The Liberty lead blew up as high as 25 in the third quarter, and only a final quarter run when New York relaxed made the score faintly respectable. The closest Atlanta got was twelve, and the Libs stretched it out again to win 91-69. The only moment of importance in the second half was midway through the third, when Alison Bales slipped to the ground and accidentally rolled right into the back of Plenette Pierson’s legs. Pierson bent awkwardly and it looked horrible as she went down, like one of those NFL plays where a guy falls back into someone who doesn’t even see him, usually resulting in a blown out knee. The good news is that reports from the locker room suggest it’s ‘just’ a left patella sprain, which she was icing and leaves her uncertain for Friday’s game against Connecticut. Considering what it could’ve been, that’s a wonderful break for Pierson and the Liberty. Without her, their post rotation would’ve been in dire trouble.
The game itself was a nice day out for the Libs and their camp day fans. Powell put up 20 along with seven rebounds and couldn’t miss from outside, Cappie Pondexter only had 10 on 5-13 shooting and Carson was pretty cold too, but it made no difference whatsoever. They tied the season series with Atlanta (one game remains in early August), put yet more space between themselves and a team that was meant to finish well above them in the East this year, and did it while barely breaking a sweat. Whisenant’s defense is still a work in progress with this squad, but they look noticeably better than a few weeks ago, which is always a good sign. If Powell can find any remote hint of consistency, the offense becomes markedly more potent as well.
Atlanta’s struggles continue. McCoughtry scored 17 points, but needed 16 shots to get there and had six turnovers along the way. Castro Marques struggled just as much off the bench as she has as a starter, going 2-12 for five points. They can’t hit any shots; they’re barely running that high-low play with their bigs that was so effective time and time again last season; and Sancho Lyttle is still out with her back injury. Throw in the occasionally mystifying coaching decisions and this team is desperately searching for answers. Sometimes you wonder if they even know what the questions are. It wasn’t simply the starting lineup change in this game, but why did Courtney Paris barely play in the second half after putting nine points and six rebounds on the board in the first? Why are McCoughtry and Castro Marques being allowed to shoot them out of so many games, over and over again? I understand that Lyttle’s a huge loss, and that letting Angel and Izi fire away won a bunch of games last year, but they need other options. They shouldn’t be this bad. Outside the playoff spots and three games behind anyone else in the standings, they need to hurry up and sort this out. Or last year’s Eastern Conference champs won’t even make the postseason in 2011.
Blowout number two was in Indiana, where the Connecticut Sun got run off the court in the first half by the Fever. The Sun’s defense, whether they went man-to-man or threw out that 2-3 zone that caused some teams so much trouble earlier in the year, didn’t remotely work. Center Jessica Davenport picked up two early fouls, which should’ve made things easier for the Sun considering they had far less to worry about in the post, but the Fever were still getting multiple wide open opportunities behind the three-point arc, and knocking them down. Connecticut were just getting killed. It wasn’t off turnovers and breaks, offense being created by defense, as you usually see when Indiana start piling up points. In fact the Fever only had five fastbreak points in the first half and the Sun only had seven turnovers. Still, Indy shot 53% in the first half, including 5-8 from outside, and went in up 53-30. The game was all but over.
Connecticut’s two main offensive weapons this season, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery, were 0-9 in the first half. Indiana’s long-respected defense obviously had something to do with it, but you also have to wonder what the hell is up with the Sun on the road. The difference between how this team produces on their own floor back in Uncasville and in any other arena is startling, and it’s not just this season. Head coach Mike Thibault has to find a way to get his team to wake up in other cities, or it might end up being them who’s most worried if Atlanta ever sort themselves out and start piling up some wins. Even if they make the postseason, it’s hard to advance if you can’t win on the road.
In fairness to the Sun, they almost managed to make it interesting in the second half. The Fever relaxed far too much, let them back in the game, and head coach Lin Dunn felt like she needed all her starters out there for the final minutes of the game to close it out. The gap was never in single-digits in the second half, but Connecticut did get it down to a ten-point margin once or twice. A bad Charles turnover and a Montgomery three-point airball in the final minutes summed up their night, and the Fever ran out 90-78 winners.
It’s becoming pretty clear that if you can lock down on Charles inside and Montgomery out, Connecticut are unlikely to find the weapons to challenge you. That’s scary for the Sun, because talented as that pair is, two-woman teams aren’t usually all that hard to stop. The Sun’s defense wasn’t good in the first half of this one either, with lots of open perimeter shots for the Fever without even having to work too hard to find them. That’s something that Thibault can probably sort out, but finding additional offensive weapons isn’t as easy to fix. The likes of Asjha Jones, Kara Lawson and the Sun’s bench mob are going to have to step up and punish teams for concentrating their efforts on Charles and Montgomery. Otherwise their horrid road form is going to continue all year, and it might start translating into their home games as well.
The final game yesterday technically ended up with a bigger gap on the scoreboard than the Fever-Sun matchup, but as it seemed like a contest deeper into the game, it didn’t feel like quite as much of a blowout. Tulsa went to Chicago with no assistant coaches, still no starting point guard, and practically no hope. This time Teresa Edwards started both the recent offerings as Ivory Latta’s replacement at the point, with Andrea Riley and Doneeka Lewis in the backcourt and Sheryl Swoopes demoted to the bench. Liz Cambage also moved back into the starting lineup ahead of Jen Lacy. It’s not like the musical chairs routine makes a great deal of difference.
Andrea Riley produced her usual horror show of turnovers and thirty-foot bricks; Tiff Jackson couldn’t find the basket however many times she tried; Liz Cambage picked up her third and fourth fouls within seconds of each other halfway through the first quarter; and everything was just as much of a shambles as we’ve come to expect from this Tulsa team. Chicago were up 21-9 by the end of the first period, and the entertainment had come from the noisy kids in the crowd and the Chicago announcers, one of whom literally laughed and said “Holy smokes, this Tulsa team is a train wreck” going into commercial at the end of the first.
The scary thing for Chicago is that they couldn’t kill this team off. Tulsa had reduced a lead that was as high as 19 to 43-31 at halftime, and although the Shock had 11 turnovers in their customary display of carelessness, Chicago had nine of their own. It didn’t seem like Tulsa had started to play much better, but the Sky weren’t doing anything particularly well either and the lead hit single digits in the third. Late in the quarter it even got as low as five. At that point, the Sky seemed to finally realise how ridiculous this was, and put on a spurt. 47-42 became 55-44 by the end of the third and it was never really a contest again, closing out at 72-54 Chicago when the buzzer sounded. Head coach Pokey Chatman feeling the need to play Sylvia Fowles for 35 minutes in this game is thoroughly ridiculous though. The Sky should’ve been dominating by more than enough to get Big Syl some rest in this one.
The only bits of the fourth worth watching (and just to prove that I actually sat through the whole thing) were Erin Thorn going all Globetrotter on us. No, seriously. Thorn threw a no-look pass to Fowles for a streaking layup on the break, then on the very next play went behind her back to a trailing Syl for another layup finish. For those of us who watched Thorn spend many years in this league doing nothing except shoot threes and play atrocious defense, that was a lot of fun. In Dominique Canty’s absence, Thorn’s actually done a reasonable job as the alternative point guard to rookie Courtney Vandersloot.
As always, it’s hard to take too much from these Shock games. Tulsa are a mess, they often make games sloppy however hard their opponents try to run some kind of system, and as long as you’re not one of the few teams they’ll sneak wins against this year you’ll take your win and go home happy. Chicago aren’t the most cohesive or organised team just yet, so they’ll take the win however hard they made it look.
There’s very little point trying to sum up the Shock. It’s all the same. Teresa looked awfully lonely over there on the sidelines though – at least get her an assistant to share the pain.
In other news…
Today’s the final day to vote for the WNBA’s All-Time Top 15 list. I already made my picks, but you better hurry if you want to make your choices before they shut it down and start tallying the votes. The results will be announced at the All-Star Game in a couple of weeks.
As mentioned yesterday, the All-Star Game starters will be announced during tonight’s ESPN2 broadcast.
Seattle @ San Antonio, 9pm ET, live on ESPN2