Another quad-game day in the WNBA yesterday, and as they all had their own interesting elements for once, we’re simply going to take them in chronological order. Keeping it a little shorter today as well, which might well be considered a good thing for those who were struggling through my 5,000-word dissertations.
New York hosted Connecticut having won four in a row and six of their last seven. The Sun, in contrast, had lost their last two and were 1-5 on the road coming in. However, the Liberty were without starting power forward Plenette Pierson after her left patella strain against Atlanta on Wednesday, which left their post rotation looking distinctly shaky. Quanitra Hollingsworth was the choice to replace her. Connecticut made a switch in their starting lineup as well, bringing in Danielle McCray for Kara Lawson, probably to give them a more natural defender for Cappie Pondexter from the tip.
It was a very even game early on, with the most noteworthy element being that Nicole Powell seemed to have maintained her shooting touch from New York’s previous game. Losing Pierson significantly cuts into New York’s grit, toughness and offensive versatility, but that starting front line of Hollingsworth and Kia Vaughn is huge. Tina Charles was getting most of her points by running the floor on breaks – getting anything inside against that length was tough in halfcourt sets.
After a first quarter that ended 20-19 Connecticut, the defenses took over in the second. Both teams were rotating well, neither could penetrate the paint for easy buckets, and the shooting from outside was hit-or-miss. 34-33 at halftime was about right for a game that no one could take a grip on. Cappie had been quiet for just six points, but Powell’s ten made up for that; Charles was 5-7 from the floor for 11 points, and barely anyone else was doing anything offensively for the Sun. It was very tight.
Defenses continued to dominate in the third, and airballs were almost as common a sight as baskets. 52-50 New York at the end of the period and we were still waiting for either side to truly impose themselves. It never really happened. Pondexter responded to an Asjha Jones jumper with a three that put New York up by a point midway through the fourth, before Jones hit another right over Vaughn. A miss in the lane by Vaughn was followed by Charles outhustling the Liberty posts down the floor for a layup, and a three-point lead for Connecticut that would prove to be enough.
The defining play of the final moments came with Connecticut up 64-59 and under two minutes to play. Renee Montgomery made an ill-advised pass across the court which was easily picked off by Powell, who broke towards the other end. Nicole Powell, however, is not famed for her breakaway speed. Nonetheless, she pulled off a pretty behind-the-back dribble that comprehensively beat Tan White and left Powell with an easy finish – which she blew. After she missed the straightforward layup attempt, the rebound fell kindly for Powell and she backed up behind the three-point line, clearly keen to make up for her error. Unfortunately, a badly missed three that barely skimmed the rim didn’t help. That was about it, and Connecticut held on for a much-needed road win, 68-59. That Cappie three with over five minutes left turned out to be New York’s final points of the evening.
The Sun needed that. They reestablished that they can play good defense and win games from that basis, without needing to shoot teams out of games. Charles finished with 15 and Jones had 14 on just eight shots from the floor to help her. Montgomery was kept quiet by New York’s defense, finishing with 12 points but on 5-15 from the floor. It was the effectiveness of the Sun’s halfcourt defense that won the game (with a little help from New York’s simple ineptitude on offense). Just winning on the road against an Eastern Conference rival has to be good for their confidence, and now they’ve got four out of their next five back in the friendly confines of the Mohegan Sun Arena. Could be time for a little winning run.
Not the best of days for New York, and in crunch time they really missed someone with the versatility and guts of Pierson. She’s not always the one who hits the vital late basket, but she’s always an option. You don’t really feel that with Hollingsworth, and Felicia Chester as the first post off the bench is not a pleasant scenario. Powell went cold again in the second half, Essence Carson has struggled in the last couple of games (possibly due to the protective eyewear she’s still wearing after her injury), which left Pondexter bereft of options in the fourth quarter. When Cappie goes 5-14 from the field and gets very little help, New York won’t win many games. There’s still no official news on the severity of Pierson’s injury, but it wasn’t meant to be too serious according to reports on the night it happened. They could really use her coming back very, very quickly.
After that crazy shootout against Phoenix on Wednesday, travelling to Indiana to face the Fever was probably something of a culture shock for Minnesota. Even though they’re a little quicker than they used to be , and nowhere near as excruciating to watch as they were a few years ago, Indiana like to play at a significantly slower pace than the Mercury. This was always likely to be a different kind of game (and contain at least fifty fewer points).
Although it was a slightly more open game and players were making more shots, the first half of this one was just as tight as the first half in the Liberty-Sun game. Either Maya Moore read my column from a couple of days ago (probably unlikely) or Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was telling her very similar things (distinctly possible), because the rookie was taking shots from mid-range and getting to the rim in the first half – instead of just putting up endless threes. Indiana were having trouble getting inside against the solid defense that Minnesota have developed this year, led by the length and strength of Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin down low. Fortunately for the Fever, Tamika Catchings’s jump shot had decided to come out of hiding for once, and she was knocking down enough shots to keep them in the game. A positive cameo from center Jessica Adair off the Lynx bench helped them to a brief lead, but a 6-0 Indiana run to close the half tied everything up at 41-41 at the break.
Unlike in New Jersey where defense had ruled, both these teams shot over 50% from the field in the first half, despite solid defensive performances at either end. Sometimes players just make shots. Minnesota had a 17-11 advantage on the boards at the break, and that would only get worse as the game wore on. Indiana started the second half small, with guard Shavonte Zellous replacing forward Tangela Smith, who’s been fighting through injuries lately and didn’t appear at all in the second half. While lineups with Tamika Catchings at the power forward spot have been very effective at times for the Fever this year, against Minnesota it makes them look awfully small. Catch can guard anyone you ask her to, but you don’t really want her on Rebekkah Brunson.
The effort she was having to expend on the defensive end may have taken a toll on Catchings, because her shot wasn’t nearly as smooth in the second half. Also, the inability to get any joy in the paint was finally leading to a drop-off in the Fever’s shooting percentage, and the Lynx eventually started to pull away. It took them until the fourth quarter, because the likes of Katie Douglas, Jeanette Pohlen and even Shannon Bobbitt knocked down threes that kept Indiana in touch. The lead was never more than six until Lindsay Whalen sank a three of her own as the shot clock was running down and Fever point guard Erin Phillips was right up in her face. There were still nearly five minutes left in the game, but it gave Minnesota a 66-57 lead and felt like the killer blow. An interminable final few minutes featuring endless fouls and free throws ultimately left us with a result of 80-70 Minnesota.
So the Fever’s seven-game winning streak is finally broken, but it’s nothing to be too concerned about. Can’t win ’em all, as they say. Katie Douglas has had a few quiet games lately, which hopefully doesn’t signal the second-half swoon that we’ve seen from her in some previous seasons. They probably have more offensive weapons than prior incarnations of this Fever squad, but they need Douglas at her dynamic scoring best to consistently threaten good teams. Especially if Catchings’s shot goes back into hiding, which seems reasonably likely.
Another strong, confidence-building win for the Lynx, this time on the road against the team that’s probably been playing the best basketball in the WNBA of late. Moore was 8-15 for 18 points, and just 1-3 from three-point range. That’s the kind of stat-line I’d like to see from her on a consistent basis, not the ones with seven or eight attempts from long-range. Brunson had another of her dominant nights, going 10-15 for 20 points, and teaming with McWilliams-Franklin to close down the paint. Brunson only had eight rebounds personally, but as a team the Lynx won the battle on the boards 38-26, and had 15 offensive rebounds. That led to 15 second-chance points for Minnesota, and their defense allowed just 10 points in the paint for Indiana in the second half. That’s where they won this game, and it’s where most of their victories this season have started from. You wonder if any of the reserves have been integrated into this team well enough to compensate if there was an injury to the starting five, but as long as their key players stay healthy, the Lynx are looking a real threat to anyone in this league.
The most surprising game of the night was in Tulsa, where Joe Bryant was probably expecting a nice easy ride in his second game since regaining the head coaching spot with the Los Angeles Sparks. The 1-12 Shock were yet to look any different since their own head coaching switch, Teresa Edwards still didn’t have any coaching help beside her on the bench, and the recent addition of Betty Lennox seemed unlikely to make much immediate impact. LA probably felt like they barely needed to wake up in time for the tip.
What a rude awakening they received. Besides Kristi Toliver, LA’s starters couldn’t hit anything in the first half, and for once a road team was turning the ball over in Tulsa’s arena even more than the Shock. The defense didn’t look a great deal more organised than in previous games, but 11 first half turnovers from the Sparks (seven from power forward Ebony Hoffman alone) helped Tulsa build a lead. For once, they weren’t behind double-digits in the first quarter and fighting a losing battle from the early minutes of the game, which must’ve made a very welcome change for the fans who’ve suffered through so many losses.
At the other end of the floor, it seemed like Edwards may finally have gotten through to Andrea Riley. Anyone who reads these columns regularly knows what I think of Riley’s game, and those 25-foot (and longer) three-pointers she jacks up on a regular basis drive me nuts. In the first half of this one, she was actually going to the rim. She was actually taking shots from mid-range. She was actually managing to avoid endless awful turnovers (partly because she just kept shooting, but still). Riley went in at halftime with 14 points on 6-8 shooting, and the only misses were when she had jacked up a couple of horrible threes. Tiffany Jackson chipped in with 10 points and seven boards, and Tulsa were in front 45-36. Amazingly, it felt like LA were lucky to be as close as nine. They’d really been that bad.
Even the interval didn’t jerk LA out of their stupor. The Shock opened the second half with a 7-0 run that built their lead to 16, and a few minutes later it even reached as high as 18 at 55-37. This was insane. Every dog has its day, and LA have had some awful performances this season, but Tulsa being up by nearly 20 points seemed like some kind of pipe dream until it actually happened. At this rate, LA weren’t just going to have to take the loss in a game that’s supposed to be there to pad the win column, they were going to leave completely embarrassed. This couldn’t last, right?
Sadly for Shock fans, no, it couldn’t. Finally, LA started to work their way back into the game, and initially at least, they did it by firing away from outside. Noelle Quinn and Toliver hit consecutive threes in the middle of the third quarter, Tina Thompson followed with a triple of her own, and when DeLisha Milton-Jones dropped in a rainbow jumper for two on the final basket of the third quarter, Tulsa’s lead was down to 61-54. The Sparks appeared to have finally realised that they had to snap out of it and work hard if they wanted to win this game.
Bryant didn’t make a single substitution in the fourth quarter. He had his three veterans who’ve been there, done that, and seen it all before in Ticha Penicheiro, Thompson and Milton-Jones. He had Kristi Toliver out there to fire away and hopefully shoot his team back into the game. And he had Jenna O’Hea, the Aussie rookie who plays with the composure and confidence of most veterans, and can hit from long-range herself. While Tulsa’s rookies, Liz Cambage and Kayla Pedersen, made a couple of shots apiece at the start of the fourth to hold the lead around nine, the Shock went desperately cold after Pedersen’s three gave them a 71-62 lead with just over seven minutes to play. You could feel the nerves in the arena from both the fans and the players, very aware of how rare their chances to win games have been this season. They were taking a lot of bad three-pointers (including from Riley, who’d reverted to type under pressure) and whenever anyone did try to penetrate into the paint, they were smothered by Sparks defenders.
LA weren’t exactly shooting the lights out, but they were hitting enough to ease their way back in considering Tulsa were completely stuck in the mud. The game was tied at 71, tied again at 73, and after yet more three-point misses from Tulsa those three LA veterans – combined age 108 – ran a pretty little triangle play in the corner. It resulted in a Tina Thompson layup for LA’s first lead since the opening quarter, and there was less than a minute to play. Riley had the sense to penetrate, and drew a (very dubious) foul call against Thompson. However, she only made 1-of-2, and then it was time for the heartbreaker. This time down it was the kid’s turn, as Penicheiro handed off to Toliver, who curled around a Milton-Jones screen and hit a dagger three from near the top of the circle. That gave the Sparks a four-point lead with under 20 seconds to play, and the air had gone out of the balloon. The less said about the play Tulsa ran out of their following timeout the better, but it ended in an O’Hea steal that sealed the result. A Penicheiro free throw closed out the scoring, and the Sparks had somehow managed to sneak out a 79-74 victory.
So very, very close for Tulsa, but for once there were real positives to take from the game. They really, honestly, truthfully should have won this game. Not could’ve been in it, not needed a few more breaks to make it competitive, but flat out should’ve won. Their inexperience showed in the fourth, as did the lack of a real go-to player. Maybe Cambage can be that in later years, but they don’t really have one right now, and it led to the barrage of prayers from outside that they sent up in the last ten minutes of the game. At least Edwards now has a tape of 20 minutes of basketball she can repeatedly show Andrea Riley while saying “see how you can play!” over and over again. She also has a game that showed her players they can really threaten a talented Western Conference rival. Tiny, teeny-weeny baby steps, but at least they’re going in the right direction.
Desperately narrow escape for LA, who were horrible for most of this game. Only Toliver and Milton-Jones finding enough touch and the endless late misses from Tulsa gave them a chance to get back into the game, and they were lucky it was available. On the positive side, they had the guts and determination to fight their way back into it, after being 18 points down to easily the worst professional basketball team in the USA. Would that have happened two weeks ago under Jen Gillom? His team was incredibly lucky to get away with it, but Bryant moves to 2-0 in his second chance as head coach of the Sparks. That’s all it’ll say in the record books, not ‘almost lost’. They’ll have to be happy with that, and try to make sure they don’t play like this again any time soon. Any other team in the league would’ve absolutely murdered them.
The final game of the night featured the league’s second-worst team, and while they tried, they couldn’t manage to make their game anywhere near as interesting as the Shock had achieved. The three earlier games had all been won by the road team, but Washington always looked a long-shot to complete the set with a victory in Phoenix.
The most amusing moment of the game, assuming we’re not counting Cheryl Miller’s very open mid-game interview, was on the opening tip. Candice Dupree forgot which way the teams were going, and instantly committed a backcourt violation by passing in the wrong direction. Good luck getting your teammates to let that one go, Candice. The rest of the first half was an exercise in complete and utter tedium. Washington are bad, and Phoenix looked almost bored with having to bother to be there. The Mercury were up 36-27 at the half, having scored just four fastbreak points, a criminally low number for them. Crystal Langhorne, as per usual, was the only viable offensive threat for Washington, going 6-9 from the floor for 13 points, while the rest of her team were 4-21. Dupree had made up for that initial mistake with 12 points, but Diana Taurasi was cold, Penny Taylor colder, so the Merc had let the Mystics hang around.
In fairness, Washington do at least work hard, and putting in the effort to get back in transition to cut down on the Mercury’s running game is a central part of the battle with this team. When Matee Ajavon drained a three and Jasmine Thomas went straight by Taurasi’s wafting matador defense for a layup, they even cut the lead to 46-43 midway through the third quarter. At which point Phoenix finally seemed to realise it was time to stop screwing around. By the end of the third it was 64-51, and all the Mercury fans were relaxing back in their seats without a care in the world – or already heading for the car park. It was never a contest in the fourth, and eventually finished 78-64 Phoenix. Startlingly low-scoring for a Mercury game, but a comfortable win just the same.
Almost reaching a par with most Tulsa games these days, it’s hard to take too much from victories over the Mystics. With Alana Beard still out they’re painfully undermanned, and simply not much of a threat with just Langhorne, role players and kids. Lang finished with 17 but the Mercury did a better job of focussing on her in the second half and making someone else beat them, and no one could. Thomas had a reasonably nice game off the bench though with 11 points on 5-6 shooting, so at least that’s a positive sign. On the other hand, it’s disappointing how Victoria Dunlap has gone back into her shell since Langhorne returned from injury. Until Dunlap develops more range to allow her to be the 3 to Langhorne’s 4, there may not be enough room for both of them to be effective in the same game. Which is a shame for a team without many weapons to start with.
The Mercury made very hard work of it, but they ultimately came away with their sixth straight win, and 10th in 11 games. Taurasi only scored 13 and Taylor eight (although Penny threw in eight boards, seven assists and five steals on top) and they won comfortably anyway, which must be nice for Coach Gaines. Although she continues to play limited minutes because she can’t survive for any longer at the Merc’s pace, Kara Braxton has looked strong for Phoenix lately. She had 17 points in this one, trailing only Dupree’s 20, and she’s starting to look like a decent fit for this team. It’d be nice if she could run up and down the floor with her teammates for more than five minutes at a time, but then you can’t have everything.
I’m probably supposed to give the Mercury credit for their defense as well, when they win a game 78-64, but I find it difficult to do when they were playing Washington. The Mystics could probably make a mediocre high school team look good defensively. Especially Nicky Anosike, who’d still be bricking fadeaway jumpers over their 5-9 center. Get back to me when the Mercury are shutting down teams who can actually score.
In other news…
This is too much fun not to share:
Today’s Games (already completed):
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Tulsa @ New York, 4pm ET
Indiana @ Connecticut, 5pm ET
Washington @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET