WNBA Today, 07/18/2011: It ain’t over till it’s over

In theory, there were three WNBA games played yesterday. In practice, there were maybe 75 minutes or so of basketball actually worth talking about. One barely watchable blowout that will only be remembered for the halftime ceremony and for clashing with the women’s World Cup soccer final; one painfully dull blowout that somehow became a game; and one game that was actually a competitive contest from start to finish. So let’s start with the game where both teams actually showed up for all 40 minutes.

After having their seven-game winning streak broken by Minnesota on Friday night, Indiana travelled to Connecticut looking to start up a new winning run. The Sun were undoubtedly happy to be back on their own floor, considering Friday’s win in New York was just their second road victory of the season. In contrast, they’ve won every home game they’ve played so far this year. Tangela Smith retained her starting spot at power forward for Indiana despite missing the entire second half of their last game, while Danielle McCray started ahead of Kara Lawson for the second straight game for Connecticut.

It’s early days for the McCray/Kalana Greene starting partnership on the wing for the Sun (and head coach Mike Thibault does like to mess around with his starters from game to game), but for the first couple of games it’s added some pep to their lineup. Lawson is usually out there just trying to keep everything under control in the early stages of a game, putting up the occasional three if she’s left wide open. McCray is a more athletic, speedier player who’s less concerned with control, and more interested in attacking. Two McCray three-pointers were the only points Connecticut managed to find against Indiana’s defense in the first five minutes of this game. Fortunately for the Sun, they’d managed to carry over their own strong defensive performance from the game against New York, so Indiana were having their own struggles putting the ball in the basket. It was 19-18 Fever at the end of the first.

Connecticut broke out to a lead in the second quarter, using their defense to key their offense. A Jeanette Pohlen three tied the game at 22-22 with 8:34 left in the half, but thanks to the strong interior effort of the Sun and some less than inspired Indiana shooting, the Fever found themselves stuck on 22 for over four minutes of game time. Connecticut’s confidence visibly grew from all the stops they were getting, and they scored enough points on jumpers and breaks to build a lead. By halftime they’d stretched the gap to 42-32.

Indiana came out firing for the second half, attacking the rim with renewed energy and willing to take the three-point shot if it was open. As at the start of the first half, the only offense Connecticut could find was McCray threes, and that wasn’t enough to keep up. In under five minutes of action, Indiana had erased the Sun’s lead and tied the game up at 48. From there it was punch and counter-punch for the rest of the afternoon as the two teams fought it out to the finish. Jessica Davenport is huge and Tammy Sutton-Brown a smart and experienced defender, but Tina Charles did a good job throughout of establishing strong position down low to provide a target to receive the ball. On the perimeter, McCray stayed hot practically all day long. For Indiana it was Tamika Catchings who was fighting tooth and nail to keep her team in the game, with only intermittent help from her teammates.

A run in the middle of the fourth gave the Sun a modicum of control over the contest. Connecticut got it started while Lin Dunn was trying to find Catchings a brief rest to start the quarter, and when she and Davenport came back into the game the Sun had enough momentum to build an eight-point lead at 65-57. The Fever threw everything they had at the Sun to get back into it, with Catchings finally getting a little help from Katie Douglas on the scoring front. However it wasn’t until an athletic steal and save by Catchings created a layup for Douglas with 34 seconds left that Indiana managed to make it a one-possession game at 72-69. Then they screwed up. Steals in those situations are so unlikely and unusual that Douglas was still in the mind-set that she had to foul to stop the clock and extend the game. Of course, if she’d had the opportunity to stop and think about it – or had been within earshot of her shouting head coach – she’d have realised that down three with 34 seconds left, the standard decision is to simply play defense and try for the stop. Instead she quickly pushed Renee Montgomery to draw the whistle.

It still wasn’t over. Montgomery missed one-of-two, Catchings followed a timeout by going straight to the rim for a layup, and we had a two-point game with 28 seconds left. With no timeouts remaining, Indiana pretty much had to foul in that situation, and although it took them a while to realise, they eventually hacked Kalana Greene. When she repeated Montgomery’s one-of-two effort, Indiana had the ball and a chance to tie with a three-pointer. Unfortunately for them, they never even got the shot off that might’ve led to overtime. Catchings penetrated, stopped, tried to kick the ball out to Douglas, and a tipped ball ran off her fingertips and out of bounds. Lawson knocked down two final free throws for Connecticut to seal a 76-71 win.

That was a hard-fought, hard-nosed victory for the Sun. They went through a patch on the road where their defense was simply giving up too many wide open shots on the perimeter, and while that’s better than wide open layups, a lot of teams in this league will punish you if you constantly leave them open for three. Mike Thibault seems to have tweaked his defense enough that those shots aren’t as easily available any more, and it’s made them very hard to score against. The Sun offense wasn’t great in this game – Tina Charles went 8-14 for 18 points and 14 rebounds, but her only help was McCray, who was 6-8 from three-point range and rained in 22 points as a result. Most nights, Charles will need more help from the likes of Renee Montgomery and Asjha Jones, both of whom have been kept very quiet by a variety of teams in recent weeks. But if they keep their defense up to these levels, it’ll give them a chance to stay in a lot of games even when Charles is practically alone out there at the offensive end.

A two-game losing streak for Indiana, largely because Catchings didn’t get enough help from the rest of the squad. She finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds and three steals, but Davenport with 12 and Douglas with 10 were the only others in double-figures (and they both achieved those totals very quietly). Dunn seemed to forget that Shavonte Zellous was on her bench for most of the game, introducing her for the first time with three minutes left in the third quarter and then playing her for essentially the remainder of the game. That was odd, and didn’t help the offense, where Zellous can sometimes provide a spark. It’s only a couple of losses, so there’s certainly no need for Fever fans to panic, but Davenport and Douglas have both gone a little quiet lately. Catchings needs their help to keep the scoreboard ticking over and not leave Indiana relying entirely on their defense for wins.

—–

The other afternoon game yesterday was Tulsa‘s visit to New York, which clashed annoyingly with the women’s World Cup soccer final. If you waited to tune in until Japan-USA was over, you may as well not have bothered. Plenette Pierson was back from her patella strain for New York, adding much needed strength and smarts to their front line. Tulsa swapped things around in their starting lineup yet again, Liz Cambage returning to the bench as Jen Lacy replaced her to start the game.

New York looked utterly comfortable from the opening tip. Not in the overly-confident, wildly over-relaxed way Los Angeles had a couple of days earlier, but in the right way. From the start they had an air of “we know we’re a hell of a lot better than you” about them, and they were ready to show it. Despite that confidence-building near-victory over LA on Friday, Tulsa still looked a mess. A lot of the time they just don’t seem to know where they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to be doing on the court. Players drift around too much in Tulsa jerseys, both on offense and defense.

New York scored with ease in the first half, whether inside, outside or anywhere else they felt like shooting from. Tulsa were staying remotely in touch mostly through former Lib Tiffany Jackson, who couldn’t miss for much of the first half despite throwing up the same type of shots that had produced her 44% shooting average on the season. By halftime the Liberty were up 48-33, and it didn’t even feel that close. Jackson was 6-8 from the floor for 15 points – the rest of the Shock starters were 0-8 combined, and had a grand total of zero points between them.

Nothing changed in the second half, everyone had better things to do than watch it even though the soccer was over, and the game petered out into an 88-57 New York win. Back to the blowout losses for Tulsa.

I’d say more about this one if it felt like there was anything to say. The Liberty won with such ease that it really felt like a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. The good news is that Essence Carson got the chance to re-find her stroke, going 8-11 from the field for 17 points, which hopefully she can carry into future games against more competitive opposition. Also Pierson looked healthy in the 16 minutes that they used her for, so the knee injury does indeed appear to have been minor. Outside of that, there wasn’t much worth paying attention to besides Teresa Weatherspoon’s induction into the Liberty ‘Ring of Honor’ at halftime. Oh, backup big Felicia Chester only played four minutes, even in a thirty-point blowout. Still don’t understand why the Liberty replaced Jessica Breland with her.

Tulsa were as sloppy and disorganised as ever, and got completely destroyed on the glass, 39-22. Besides Jackson’s 11 boards, no one else on the team had more than two, including Cambage, who you’d think would end up with more than that by accident in 24 minutes of action. They couldn’t get anything going all afternoon at either end of the floor, and seemed as bored as the viewers for much of the game. While it was unsurprising considering their season, it was sad that we were back to this after the fight they put up against the Sparks. They simply couldn’t compete.

—–

The one late game yesterday was even duller than the New York-Tulsa matchup for the first 25 minutes or so. Washington were in LA for the fifth and final game of a two-week road trip, and seemed like they were already anticipating the flight home. Without doing anything particularly special, LA were up 47-25 at halftime and cruising. The Sparks were shooting 59% from the floor to Washington’s 39%, spreading the ball around to whoever was open, and Washington were providing their customary lack of resistance. Even Crystal Langhorne only had five points. For a game on the West Coast, this one had actually started pretty early at 8.30pm ET, but it looked like any Mystics fans could safely get themselves an early night. The chances of a comeback appeared absolutely miniscule.

How little we knew. Five minutes into the third quarter, the gap was still 22 when an Ebony Hoffman bucket made the score 56-34. Langhorne started going to work on the offensive end, but it still felt like an effort to keep the scoreline from becoming embarrassing, not a realistic comeback. Lang had eight points in the remainder of the period, but it was still 59-45 going into the fourth. Not exactly a nailbiter.

Then LA fell to bits. In fairness, as I’ve been saying all season, the one compliment you can consistently pay this Mystics team is that they don’t quit. However bad they may have played in many games, they keep fighting it out until the end. LA aren’t quite that sort of team. They’re prone to periods of relaxation and disorganisation, as we saw only two days earlier when they were 18 points down to Tulsa before finally deciding to show up. Still, even with under four minutes to play in this one, the Sparks were up ten at 70-60.

Suddenly, Washington were grabbing every rebound, and even with all their veterans LA were turning the ball over on possession after possession. A missed Jasmine Thomas three became a missed Marissa Coleman putback, which in turn became a Langhorne and-one after another offensive board. Then Jenna O’Hea turned the ball over and Thomas hit a free throw, missing the second only to grab the rebound off her own miss. That was followed by Washington heading into the paint for yet another layup. The Mystics weren’t doing anything unusual, just attacking the rim and working hard. Every Washington score seemed to be followed by LA giving them the ball back without even getting a shot off. The Sparks were dropping the ball, slipping over, missing each other with straightforward passes – it was kind of embarrassing for a team that had been overwhelmingly dominant in this exact same game less than an hour earlier.

With 1:40 left in regulation, Marissa Coleman drained a step-back three for the Mystics that gave them their first lead since 4-2 in the opening minute. Then Kristi Toliver decided to lower the chance of yet another Sparks turnover by simply keeping the ball. She drove and got fouled, hitting both free throws. After Langhorne sank a jumper to push the lead back to three, Toliver sank a big-time triple from the corner to tie the game up. A Coleman turnover, and a pair of free throws each by Ticha Penicheiro and Matee Ajavon were all the scoring that remained in regulation, leaving us tied and heading for overtime. Tina Thompson’s driving effort in the final seconds of the fourth wasn’t even close, and the officials weren’t in the mood to bail her out.

The game never should’ve ended up in overtime, and LA’s play in the extra period was just as pathetic as the latter stages of the fourth quarter. Forced shots, turnovers, a miserable lack of rebounding – they were done. An Ajavon driving layup and a Marissa Coleman three opened OT, and the Mystics lead never dropped bellow three from there on in. The final score of 89-85 didn’t reflect how easily Washington held on for the victory in the final moments.

In the grand scheme of things, this game probably won’t mean much for Washington’s season. They’re still the second-worst team in the league, they still won’t make the playoffs, but what a heartwarming game for their long-suffering fans. Langhorne went 9-14 for 24 points and 14 rebounds, scoring 11 of those points in the fourth quarter alone. Ajavon had 29 points on 10-18 from the floor to help her out. Off that incredibly young and short bench that has provided so little all year, rookie guard Jasmine Thomas played 26 minutes, was preferred over Kelly Miller in crunch time, and totalled eight points, three boards and two assists. Not overwhelming numbers, but the mere fact that she was out there for the exciting comeback is a positive sign. They still need plenty of help but this is a nice little break amongst all the pain of a rebuilding process.

As for LA, what a pathetic, dispiriting loss. This honestly seemed like it might be the dullest game of the season at halftime, because it was so comprehensively one-sided and uncompetitive. They got away with only playing half the game against Tulsa, but weren’t so lucky this time. LA got killed on the glass yet again as their rebounding woes continue, and outside of Toliver no one seemed capable of making a shot in the second half and OT. Juggling ten players who’ve all shown flashes of talent and provided positive contributions at times this year isn’t easy, but it was strange to see O’Hea sat on the bench for key late minutes while the lead was collapsing in the fourth quarter. She was a central part of the comeback against Tulsa, so you would’ve thought that Jellybean Bryant might’ve stuck with her. Once he started looking for answers off his bench it was too late. This result has made tonight’s game against San Antonio into an important contest. Even if they don’t win, LA need to show up for the whole 40 minutes, just to prove to themselves and their fans that they can. Otherwise it could be a long few weeks until Candace Parker finally puts her sneakers back on.

 

In other news…

In a week where the awards could’ve gone a variety of different directions, Players of the Week were named as Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles today. Considering Brunson has been back to her double-double averaging best lately and Fowles remains a beast in the paint, both were solid choices. I wouldn’t have wanted to have to pick.

This Friday is an important date in the WNBA calendar, because it marks the mid-point of the season. At that stage, non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed for the remainder of the season. You can still waive a player and replace her with someone else after that date, but you have to pay out the balance of the released player’s contract to do so. While very few teams have any cap space issues this year (Seattle and Phoenix are really the only ones anywhere near the threshold), no one likes to pay out more cash than they have to. So don’t be surprised if there are a few end-of-the-bench players being cut towards the end of this week if teams think there might be better options available in the free agent market.

Check back at WNBAlien earlier than usual tomorrow, for an extra bonus article featuring my picks for the All-Star reserves. Got to get them up before the league announces the official choices on the ESPN2 broadcast tomorrow night.

 

Today’s Games:

San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 07/18/2011: It ain’t over till it’s over

  1. […] WNBAlien par trīs svētdienas spēlēm, kurās skatāms basketbols bija vērojams labi ja 75 minūtes. [wnbalien] […]

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