Mondays are usually a nice relaxing day off for the WNBA (which then gives me a nice relaxing Tuesday). Not this week. Instead the games just kept right on coming yesterday, with the Los Angeles Sparks playing for the second night running at the Staples Center, this time against the San Antonio Silver Stars. After a pathetic collapse against Washington on Sunday night turned a 24-point third-quarter lead into an overtime loss, the Sparks had a chance to turn things around quickly against a Western Conference rival. Having broken a three-game losing streak on Thursday against Seattle, the Silver Stars had an opportunity to build some momentum and inflict more pain and suffering on LA. Most teams tend to enjoy doing that regardless of their own situation.
Los Angeles went with the same starting five that Joe Bryant had used in each of his three games since taking over as head coach, including the victory in San Antonio a week earlier. The Silver Stars stuck with Scholanda Robinson ahead of Jia Perkins as their third perimeter starter, after that switch worked against Seattle in their last game. If I’m honest, I can’t reprint here most of the notes I took in the first quarter, because it was largely just expletives about how awful LA were. It looked like they’d gone home after the disaster against Washington, and instead of returning the next day with a renewed spirit they’d decided to continue producing the same level of garbage that they’d offered against the Mystics. They looked slow and lazy, there was absolutely no penetration into the paint or effort to score down low at all, and they just kept clanking endless bad jump shots off the rim. San Antonio weren’t exactly driving the lane or working any post moves either, but their ball movement was crisp and their work rate high enough that they were creating open shots and knocking them down. It was 13-2 Silver Stars when Bryant called his first timeout to try to sort things out less than five minutes into the game.
Bryant pulled Tina Thompson and Noelle Quinn from the game during that stoppage, and as it turned out neither would return for the rest of the night. For a coach who’s only been in the job about ten days, that showed a lot of guts. Although the way Tina’s been playing lately, it’s hard to see how anyone watching the games could make much of an argument against him. It’ll be interesting to see if LA’s starting lineup remains the same when they next take the floor after the All-Star break. LA’s play didn’t get much better for the rest of the opening period, but as Bryant continued to pull more starters off the floor, they did at least start to knock down a couple of shots. Unfortunately for LA, in the first quarter alone Sophia Young had 10 points on a series of mid-range jumpers and easy layups, and Becky Hammon had 12 with her typical array of bombs from outside and spinning layups off the glass. The three she sank with barely a second left in the quarter closed it out at 29-17.
San Antonio only had eight points in the paint in that first period total of 29, which indicated that the Sparks had every chance to get back into the game if they could just wake up and score some points. San Antonio weren’t going to stay that hot from outside all night long, even against LA’s weak perimeter defense. After the first ten minutes, Bryant had had enough of his starters. All five bench players started the second, and Kristi Toliver was the only one who returned before halftime. It worked, at least to some extent. The kids off the bench had more energy, seemed more invested in trying to play a little defense, and at least kept the Sparks involved in the game. They got some help from the refs calling all sorts of junk on San Antonio late in the half, but at least the Sparks were hanging around.
Toliver might’ve been the only starter that Bryant trusted to return to the game, but she wasn’t helping. The San Antonio defense, especially that of renowned pest Tully Bevilaqua, was annoying the hell out of Toliver, and she couldn’t hit anything all night long. She was 0-7 in the first half, and topped off that miserable performance by stupidly fouling Bevilaqua on a three-point attempt that closed the half. Tully isn’t anywhere near good enough from outside to risk closing out on her that aggressively. She hit two of the three shots for a 42-32 Silver Stars lead at the break.
LA shot 28% in that first half to San Antonio’s 56%. It was one of those games where you thank your lucky stars for only being down ten and somehow still having a chance to get back into the contest. Neither Young nor Hammon scored in the second quarter, illustrating the improved level of application and defense that Bryant got from his reserves.
Coming out for the third quarter, Bryant’s mood hadn’t changed. It was the same lineup that played most of the second quarter – Toliver and the four bench kids. Ticha Penicheiro played briefly in the second quarter but lasted about as long as Quinn and Thompson before also being summarily benched. Jellybean clearly felt he was better off with youth for the rest of this game. It was never entirely clear why Toliver was the one who escaped his wrath. While her shooting has been excellent for most of this season and kept LA in several games, she simply couldn’t hit anything. The more she missed, the more she threw up atrocious, contrived shots at the basket in an effort to make something happen. It was ugly. On the other hand, her backcourt partner for most of the game was Natasha Lacy, who played some of the best basketball we’ve seen from her in the WNBA. She was willing to move the ball, didn’t turn it over nearly as often as we’ve seen on many previous occasions, and when she used her skill and athleticism to penetrate she made things happen.
Behind their improved defensive effort and some shooting that actually resembled professional-level basketball, LA got back into the game. It was the likes of Jantel Lavender, Jenna O’Hea and Lacy making the shots, but the Staples Center crowd didn’t care as long as the scoreboard was tightening up. O’Hea’s third make from behind the arc – on Lacy’s sixth assist – cut the lead to just two at 57-55 to end the third. We’d still seen incredibly few points in the paint from either team. They were collapsing on any penetration or entry passes, and daring each other to beat them from outside. Once LA let someone other than Toliver start taking the shots everything had evened out.
Unfortunately for LA, Bryant’s understandable policy of letting the bench play it out backfired a little in the fourth quarter. None of these players are used to playing the kind of minutes he sent them out for last night, and turnovers and late rotations started to hurt them. However, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Bryant only used a couple of his starters to spell the bench players who’d actually been working for him. When DeLisha Milton-Jones and Ebony Hoffman replaced lesser-known players like Lavender and LaToya Pringle, San Antonio started dominating the boards again. And the Silver Stars are a dreadful rebounding team against anyone remotely competent – LA just don’t qualify. With Hoffman and Milton-Jones back on the floor in the middle of the fourth quarter, LA somehow contrived to allow San Antonio seven consecutive rebounds across two possessions. Coaches always say that rebounding is about desire and ‘want-to’ as much as anything, and San Antonio simply seemed to want the game more. That’s criminal considering how LA performed just 24 hours earlier in front of this same home town crowd.
All those rebounds inevitably resulted in two San Antonio layups, the lead was back up to ten and the ballgame was practically over. Once Bryant reinstated the ‘bench + Toliver’ lineup, LA managed to cut the lead to four at 71-67 with around a minute left to play, but that was as close as they could get. The only interesting aspect of the final moments was watching Toliver tie the record for most misses without a single made basket in WNBA history. The box score read 0-12 next to her name, and it had looked even uglier out on the floor.
In a completely bizarre and dysfunctional way, this LA team is fascinating. You never know which players are going to show up on any given night, which makes trying to balance the rotation as a coach a difficult undertaking. It also seems like everyone’s feeling somewhat for Jennifer Gillom now, after witnessing the problems that Bryant is having trying to draw performances out of this group. Maybe she didn’t implement them particularly well, but it looks like she had some of the right ideas about what to do with this group.
Thompson has looked on the brink of retirement in recent weeks, and not in the fun, Danny Glover messing around with Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon kind of way. More in a depressing, really-might-be-time-to-give-it-up-now, Lethal Weapon 4 kind of way. They’ve still got at least six games until Candace Parker’s anticipated return date, and who knows what kind of shape she’ll be in when she comes back. Sometimes teams come together on the road, and the Sparks have four games in a row away from Staples starting next Tuesday against the Lynx. Plus a week of practice beforehand, considering not a single one of them is heading to the All-Star Game. They better hope that they can find some answers on their travels. The last couple of home games have been a shambles.
San Antonio keep rolling, and keep picking up the wins. It’s not all that pretty at times, because the heavy reliance is still on making shots from outside, but when Hammon goes 8-15 for 26 points, Young 9-17 for 18 points, and Jia Perkins chips in 14 points on 7-13 from the floor, there’s every chance that they’ll pull out victories. They didn’t even need much from their vaunted collection of rookies in this one. Head coach Dan Hughes will also be delighted to see his team actually win the rebounding battle for once, 42-36, even if it was against LA. It’s not very often that the Silver Stars get to beat up on someone on the glass.
In other news…
By now you’ve probably seen the All-Star reserves announcement. If you didn’t catch it earlier, I made my selections for the reserves beforehand, and unsurprisingly I prefer my list. Much as I enjoy watching Courtney Vandersloot play basketball, she’s a bizarre reach by the head coaches as an All-Star. She’s been benched repeatedly this season in favour of Erin freaking Thorn for crying out loud. In fact, if I had to pick an All-Rookie team right now, I’m not convinced she’d even make that group, never mind an All-Star team. Anyway, her brand of flashy passing and high-octane basketball should be perfect for the All-Star Game, so in terms of entertainment it’s probably a great choice. Maybe the coaches were trying to enhance our enjoyment of the big event?
The WNBA still has to announce Candace Parker’s replacement on the West squad sometime in the next few days. I went with Candice Dupree in my article, but as mentioned in that piece, I fully expect Sophia Young to be the league’s choice. It’d provide an extra home-town player for the crowd to cheer on, and save the WNBA an air ticket seeing as she’ll be there already. She’s a fairly reasonable choice purely on a performance basis anyway, to be fair.
Don’t forget that the two games tomorrow are both on ridiculously early if you want to catch them live.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Indiana @ Atlanta, 12pm ET
Seattle @ Chicago, 7pm ET
New York @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET
Atlanta @ Washington, 11.30am ET
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET