ESPN2 had the WNBA schedule all to themselves last night, with just one game on the slate. Let’s be generous and call it a defensive struggle, shall we? The less complimentary description of Seattle’s trip to San Antonio would involve pointing out that neither side could’ve hit water shooting off the side of a boat for most of the evening. Yesterday’s column centered on the highest-scoring game in WNBA history – this one’s going to be a little different.
San Antonio made a predictable change to their starting lineup for this game. Swin Cash’s versatile offensive game would’ve made her a very difficult matchup for Jia Perkins, recently shifted from San Antonio’s high-scoring bench into the starting lineup as a theoretical ‘small forward’ (despite being a listed 5-8). So Perkins went back to the bench, and Scholanda Robinson resumed her position among the starters. Seattle went with the usual five (or ‘usual’ since Lauren Jackson went down, anyway).
These teams know each other very, very well. While they play each other four or five times a year, and the central players on the rosters have been the same for a few years now, Storm head coach Brian Agler was also an assistant to San Antonio’s Dan Hughes for several years during Hughes’s previous stint in charge of the Silver Stars. Both of them stress defense, and both of them have a pretty good idea of exactly what the other is going to do at any given moment. So defenses dominated. Also, no one could hit a damn shot, especially in green. San Antonio pulled out to a 15-5 lead in the opening quarter, because Seattle’s offense couldn’t get anything going at all. They managed to work the ball inside a few times, but couldn’t convert layups. They found some reasonably open jumpers outside, and couldn’t knock anything down. They even bricked a couple of free throws. It affected the Storm’s ball control as well. Frustrated by their inept offense, Seattle started throwing difficult passes that weren’t really there to make, or getting caught in traffic and coughing the ball up. A team that’s historically pretty good at keeping hold of the ball gave up six turnovers in the first quarter alone and were probably lucky to be as close as 17-10 at the end of the first.
San Antonio were doing a solid job defensively, mixing up their standard trapping man-to-man (which looks a lot like Seattle’s – more Agler/Hughes crossover) with a little zone. They were making it very difficult to pierce the paint, and considering Seattle couldn’t hit much from outside they were running out of ideas. Only the effectiveness of the Storm’s own defense – and the fairly ordinary display from San Antonio’s offense – was keeping the game close. With Perkins back to coming off the bench, Porsha Phillips returning from her brief period out with a left knee strain and Danielle Robinson her usual speedy, pesky presence, San Antonio once again got a little boost from their bench. Outside of Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, they’ve become a team who expects more production from their reserves than their starters. Their biggest bench spark this season, Danielle Adams, didn’t have much impact on the first half, but that would certainly change later.
The Storm at least woke up a little in the second quarter. Tanisha Wright hit a three and then drove for a layup, before Sue Bird followed with her own triple on the next possession for the first concerted passage of offense they’d put together all night. That got them within five, but by the end of the half San Antonio had pushed the lead back out again, going in up 32-23 when Young dropped in a jumper in the lane as the buzzer sounded. Let’s just say that not many people will be saving that half of basketball on their DVRs. Seattle shot 29%, Camille Little was 0-7 from the floor despite several of those attempts being right at the rim, Bird was 2-7, and Swin Cash was an incredibly quiet 2-4 for six points. While Scholanda Robinson might’ve been moved into the starting lineup to combat her, Perkins played plenty of minutes at the 3, and Cash never really seemed to take advantage of it. She’s got at least four or five inches on Perkins and plenty of body weight, but it was hard to remember seeing Cash in the paint. In fairness though, that was a compliment to the San Antonio defense, who were quick to rotate and help when anyone needed assistance all night. No one player was being defended on their own.
The second half was a little better for Seattle, almost solely because they just managed to make a few more shots. With Becky Hammon having another bad shooting night, San Antonio weren’t putting up enough points of their own to take the game away from Seattle, and the Storm started inching their way back into the game. There weren’t exactly any scoring streaks, but even if you’re only scoring about three points every couple of minutes, that’ll eventually get you back in a game if the other guys only manage two. Ashley Robinson came in and made a couple of shots, Tanisha Wright had a couple more of her own, and a Bird three with 7:25 left in the game finally gave Seattle their first lead of the night at 49-48. Yes, 49-48 in the fourth quarter. Like I said, defensive struggle.
For San Antonio, the fourth quarter was once again all about their reserves. More specifically, it was all about Danielle Adams. On a night when the All-Star starters were announced, the burly rookie continued to press her case for being included amongst the West reserves by carrying the Silver Stars’ offense in the final minutes of the game. A Katie Smith three put Seattle up by two, before Adams responded with a three of her own; Le’coe Willingham hit another three to put Seattle in front again, before an Adams offensive board and putback jumper tied it up; then Adams got two more at the free throw line, and responded to yet another Storm three with another of her own from behind the arc. Seattle’s defense wasn’t doing a good job of keeping track of her, dropping too far on drivers to leave her open beyond the three-point line more than once, and getting outmuscled by her on multiple occasions for rebounds, but it was still Adams who was putting on the display.
However, Adams wasn’t getting much help from anyone in grey (I refuse to call those new San Antonio uniforms ‘silver’), and Seattle had practically no offense besides those threes she kept answering. So it all pretty much evened out. With under 30 seconds to play in a tied game, Adams outfought Little for another offensive board, and hit the putback layup while being fouled. After she added the free throw it was 65-62 San Antonio, and out of a timeout Katie Smith went round both rookie Danielles to hit a midrange jumper and cut the lead to a point. Considering how the evening had gone, it was almost a shock when it dropped in. With under 20 seconds left in the game, Seattle were forced to foul, and Danielle Robinson hit a pair of foul shots to push the gap back to three.
The final minute was where ESPN2’s broadcast actually became worthwhile. We’d had to put up with Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck talking absolute nonsense for most of the evening, but when you’ve got two head coaches who actually have a clue what they’re doing, going inside the huddles can be fascinating. Agler drew up his plays, and as we’ve seen in previous games, he’s very good at finding his players opportunities to produce in crunch time. Simultaneously, Hughes was instructing his defense and knew almost exactly what Agler was going to be telling his team at the opposite end. As one knowledgeable fan pointed out on Twitter last night – this was an illustration of why Jen Gillom is no longer in her job. These two know what they’re doing, and they understand exactly what’s going on out on the floor. She could draw up a play, but there was nowhere near the same type of control and understanding. Just two different levels.
Seattle came out of their final timeout with 14.7s on the clock, knowing they needed three to tie. Smith inbounded to Wright, and Bird ran a curl under the basket to take the pass from Wright on the wing. In an ideal Storm world, Bird would’ve been open for three on that catch, but Tully Bevilaqua did an excellent job of chasing her across the floor and round screens to be right in her face when she received the pass. Little came out to set Bird a screen, and although Adams did a good job of hedging to prevent Bird from taking the three straight off that, she found Swin Cash popping out fairly open behind the arc. Now Cash had endured a pretty miserable night, but the one thing she had managed was to go 3-6 from three-point range, so she was a decent option. Unfortunately for Seattle, this attempt was short and left.
Tanisha Wright grabbed the offensive rebound, and on reflex put the ball straight back up and in for two. In hindsight, considering there were only two seconds left on the clock, Seattle were out of timeouts, and Bird was open for the kickout, Wright should’ve passed the ball out for another attempt at the tying three. In the heat of the moment, I can fully understand just taking the two there, in the hope that you’ll have time to foul and try again on another possession.
The Storm grabbed Danielle Robinson again, and she sank the pair from the line, but the lack of timeouts killed Seattle’s chances of getting off any kind of decent attempt to tie in the remaining 1.6 seconds. Bird’s effort from beyond halfcourt wasn’t close, and in fact wouldn’t have counted anyway, as she let it go a little too late. San Antonio hold on for the 69-66 win.
Well at least it was close. Not exactly the kind of game you want on national TV when there isn’t much else on for a sportsfan to be watching on a Thursday night, but the crowd was into it and it came down to the final seconds. So that’s something. San Antonio will be very happy to have broken their three-game losing streak, especially against a Western Conference playoff rival. Their defense will be the main thing that pleased Dan Hughes, as it shut down the Storm for most of the night. Adams put on a show in the fourth, dropping 15 points in the final quarter alone and finishing the game with 21. They’ll have nights where they’re cold from outside and get hurt by it – as we’ve seen lately – and they still can’t rebound, but defense like that can keep them in games. The most concerning issue for Hughes right now is probably Becky Hammon, who’s gone 4-24 from the floor in her last two games. She’s still penetrating and creating, but she’s been wearing a sleeve all season and it seems to be increasingly affecting her shot. If her offense deteriorates or, in a worst case scenario, she needs to start missing games, their offense could struggle. Adams can’t light it up every night, especially without Becky to run the pick-and-rolls.
Ugly game for Seattle, but on the bright side at least they were in it. Bird couldn’t hit anything, they had no interior game at all, Cash was poor and they went a miserable 7-16 from the free throw line – but lost by just three on the road. Apart from the few costly occasions where they lost Adams behind the three-point line, the defense remained effective and gave them a chance to win. However, once again it was a seven-player rotation, this time without even a couple of minutes for Belinda Snell. It’s a dangerous game to be playing with such a short bench, and you have to wonder if fatigue will become a factor, either late in individual games or as the minutes pile up across the season. When the opposition gets 47 points from their bench and plays three reserves for most of the fourth quarter, it highlights how thin the Storm are. Agler’s never played a deep rotation, but this season it’s getting a little ridiculous. They could really use some help from at least one more player.
In other news…
All-Star Starters were announced, and it was the exact ten that I predicted two days ago. Cappie Pondexter, Katie Douglas, Tamika Catchings, Angel McCoughtry and Tina Charles in the East; Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Swin Cash and Candace Parker in the West. Moore and McCoughtry are both a bit of a reach, but nothing too horrible there from the fans. Certainly nothing to compare to what we’ve seen in some previous years (Jayne Appel, Kara Braxton and Anna DeForge spring to mind). Well done, everybody. The reserves will be voted on by the WNBA head coaches, and announced during the ESPN2 broadcast next Tuesday. I’m going to give everyone the rest of the weekend to impress me before making my picks.
Tulsa made another roster move, and at least this time they didn’t waive someone and then wait a week before replacing her. Third-round pick Chastity Reed was released and replaced with Betty Lennox, the well-known veteran gunner. Lennox was on the Tulsa roster in preseason and cut, with rumours about her injuries being too severe for her to continue playing at the pro level. Either those were inaccurate, or she’s decided to give it another go anyway. Lennox is a scorer, a volume shooter who will fire away without conscience, but at least she’s got the resume to back it up. Unlike those who’ve been shooting similarly unscrupulously in Tulsa all season anyway. If she’s healthy, it could be a perfect fit – Tulsa need points, and they get a scorer; Betty needs a basketball and lots of shooting opportunities, and the Shock can offer those. It’s hard to see how it could hurt, anyway.
Connecticut @ New York, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Washington @ Phoenix, 10pm ET