Three games yesterday in the WNBA, and we’re back to more camp days so they were scattered throughout the afternoon and evening. Doesn’t this league realise that it disrupts my whole pattern when they play games so early? Frankly I think that packing arenas with thousands of screaming kids should come a distant second to pleasing me, but apparently the WNBA disagrees.
Forced to drag themselves out of bed for an early tip yesterday were Atlanta, coming off the back of their fourth win of the season on Saturday against Chicago, and their visitors Indiana. The Fever had lost two in a row after their seven-game win streak came to an end, so whether they were playing at 2 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning, they would’ve been keen to get back to winning ways.
Indiana head coach Lin Dunn made a couple of switches to her starting lineup in the hope of bringing some fresh energy to her group, inserting guard Shavonte Zellous for ‘power’ forward Tangela Smith, which in effect moves Tamika Catchings to the four in place of Smith. She also re-benched center Jessica Davenport for Tammy Sutton-Brown. Both were interesting changes to make against Atlanta especially. The Zellous/Smith switch put Catchings in the paint against Atlanta’s huge front-line of Alison Bales and Erika de Souza. Obviously she was going to have an edge in quickness, but it immediately created a huge size advantage for Atlanta. The switch at center had to be about defense and rebounding, the two areas where Davenport sometimes struggles. Her offense, even on an off-night, remains far superior to Sutton-Brown’s, but Atlanta do like to run the floor. TSB had more chance of being able to keep up going end-to-end than Davenport. Still, these are the Eastern Conference leaders, switching things up for a team that had won four games all season. Shouldn’t you be making them adjust to you?
The early stages were very even. It was bizarre seeing Catchings and Bales defending each other at either end – Bales has a good six inches on Catch – but neither was taking all that much advantage. Bales doesn’t really have a post game (and Catch will defend anyone with gusto regardless of the matchup), and Catchings hasn’t been able to find her shot for most of the year, so it evened out. Indy got in a little trouble late in the first quarter because they were turning the ball over too easily. It’s the one thing you desperately need to avoid against Atlanta, because they’ll turn around and run on you. Once they get their running game going, the Dream are a far more effective team. Still, with Davenport responding well to having to come off the bench by scoring six straight Indiana points after coming in, the 17-9 lead Atlanta developed was already down to 21-18 by the end of the first quarter.
The big scoring run of the half came early in the second quarter, and for once Lin Dunn’s bench failed to perform. Her reserves have been one of the strengths for the Fever this year, but with Briann January out for the season (forcing livewire guard Erin Phillips into the starting lineup) and Zellous starting, the group didn’t have nearly the impact that they managed in earlier games. In fact, with four bench players on the floor for the Fever, Atlanta took advantage. Breaking layups by Angel McCoughtry and de Souza, a mid-range shot by Bales, and Lindsey Harding making Shannon Bobbitt look silly off the dribble broke the Dream lead to 30-20. Despite the likes of Catchings, Phillips and Katie Douglas returning to the game mid-streak, Atlanta’s lead reached 16 before the Fever finally hit a bucket. The Dream are a squad that thrives on momentum, so opponents need to stop them from getting into their offensive flow, or at least break that flow as soon as remotely possible.
Indiana worked their way back into the contest once their key players were back in the game, chipping away at Atlanta’s lead and going in at halftime down only 44-36. Early in the third quarter they even got it as close as three at 50-47, but with Harding in attack mode for once, and the Dream using their defense to ignite their offense, Atlanta stretched it back out again. Backup point guard Shalee Lehning nailed a three with two minutes left in the third quarter that gave Atlanta a 61-50 lead, and the giant grin on her face as she headed back to the bench said it all. This felt like the Dream’s day, and the camp kids were going home happy. Nothing Indiana came up with for the rest of the game could even make the Dream nervous, the closest they got was eight, and the game finished 84-74 Atlanta. It ended up being a surprisingly easy afternoon for the Dream.
A win streak for Atlanta! Okay, it’s only two games, but you’ve got to start somewhere (although – spoiler alert for tomorrow’s column – it doesn’t stop there). Even without Sancho Lyttle returning from her back injury, they’ve found a way to inject some life into this team. Moving Armintie Price into the starting lineup has given them some extra drive from the start of games, and even Lindsey Harding is finally showing signs of life in a Dream jersey, with a team-leading 19 points, five assists and five boards in this one. I hesitate to be too effusive in praise of Harding, because her home/road splits this season are extraordinary. With the home crowd in her favour she’s been great, producing over 14 points and 5 assists per game and shooting very solid percentages. On the road, in admittedly a small sample size of five games, she’s been awful. Four points, two assists and 29% shooting kind of awful. So having the last two games at home has certainly helped her. Now take it with you on your travels, Linds. More on the Dream in tomorrow’s column.
As for Indiana, that’s three losses on the trot and time to start feeling a little concerned. Katie Douglas has disappeared lately. She’s done this before after hot starts, but you also have to wonder if the loss of Briann January and resulting switch to Erin Phillips at the point has hurt her game. Douglas has only scored more than 12 points in one of the six games since January went down, and without her on-ball creation and distribution, Douglas is having to develop her own opportunities more often. Phillips is a significantly better scorer than January, as the 21 points on 7-14 shooting in this game illustrated, but after a couple of games where she seemed to fit in seamlessly, the cracks have begun to show. The ball doesn’t move as quickly or smoothly with Phillips at the helm, and there are fewer catch-and-shoot opportunities for the other players.
As I said when January went down, some of that is simply chemistry. These players all knew January’s game very well, and knew what she was going to do and where she was going. They don’t have that with Phillips yet. Some of it is the basic differences between how the two guards play the game. Phillips has always been more of a scorer. January creates more, but also takes dreadful shots and turns the ball over a lot. This is still one of the best teams in the East, but they need Douglas to adapt and start helping out Catchings with the scoring. The supporting players are still there, but Douglas has to show up and play like the star she was early in the year for them to start winning games again.
Starting at the more normal hour of 7pm ET, we had the week’s ESPN2 game, featuring the Seattle Storm on national TV for the second time in five days. Seattle had lost two in a row, and since Lauren Jackson got hurt they’re 1-4 on the road (3-0 at home, fortunately for their record). So they were heading into Chicago looking for a change in fortunes. Head coach Brian Agler made a change to his starting lineup, and this time it wasn’t caused by one of his players taking time out to be a bridesmaid. Camille Little came back in, Swin Cash moved back to small forward, and Ashley Robinson came in to start at center. Le’coe Willingham dropped to the bench, as did Katie Smith after her one game filling in as a starter. The extra size and length of Robinson was obviously an attempt to counteract the threat of Sylvia Fowles inside, but it was also just an effort by Agler to shake something different out of his team. They’ve been a pretty moribund, ineffective group lately.
The first half was about what you’d expect from these teams. They’ve been throwing up brick after brick from outside all season long, and nothing changed. Robinson was having an impressive game jumping around inside, but Seattle couldn’t hit any shots. Fortunately for them, multiple offensive rebounds were at least keeping their possessions alive. The problem was, if you can’t hit anything, all an o-board means is you get to miss twice instead of once. As ever though, Seattle’s defense kept them in the game, helped along by Chicago’s weak offense. The Storm were smothering Fowles, doubling down on her whenever she touched the ball, forcing someone else to beat them. And that wasn’t happening. Somehow, despite shooting 26% in the first quarter and only raising that to 31% by the end of the half, the Storm went in ahead 33-30 at halftime. Sue Bird was 2-10 from the floor, and that was a step in the right direction – she’d started off 0-8.
Thank the gods, the second half had more to entertain us than watching Ashley Robinson’s remarkable transformation into a serviceable starting WNBA center. The third quarter was like that old ‘Jordan vs. Bird’ video game (yes I’m that old, barely), only it was Prince vs. Bird. And it wasn’t Larry. Epiphanny Prince wasn’t necessarily taking the greatest textbook shots, but for once everything was going in. At the other end, Sue Bird had snapped out of that 0-8 start with a vengeance, and was matching her practically shot for shot. Actual perimeter offense for Seattle and Chicago! I was almost giddy. Bird had 12 in the quarter, and when her final three of the period was followed by a Katie Smith triple Seattle had a 55-52 lead with under 10 seconds to play in the period. Prince had one final trick up her sleeve, banking in a fade away 18-footer over Tanisha Wright to cut it to 55-54. I somehow doubt she called “glass” on that one, but it gave her 13 in the quarter, and we had a ballgame.
The fourth quarter brought everyone back to reality. Chicago remembered that they were supposed to be forcing the ball in to Fowles at every possible opportunity, and Seattle remembered that they can’t shoot. Still, when Bird hit another three to take her personal tally to 26 with just over three minutes to play, it cut Chicago’s lead to 69-68, and the Storm were very much in with a shout. Last season they would’ve won this game. They were in these kinds of situations over and over again last year, and found a way to gut out victories. They lost six games all year, even including the postseason. This season, they’d lost six before this game even tipped off. This season, Ashley Robinson fouling out on an innocuous little bump of Prince on the possession following that Bird three, was a big deal. This isn’t your 2010 Seattle Storm.
With Robinson gone, Tamera Young stretched the Chicago lead to three with a jumper in the lane that might not have been available with A-Rob around. After a Camille Little free throw cut the lead to two with under two minutes left, there was one key sequence remaining. Little stole the ball from Prince, but couldn’t convert the driving layup it created. Seattle still had the ball, but a badly forced inbounds pass by Swin Cash under the basket turned it over. Then Prince created her only field goal of the entire fourth quarter, going past Little and banking the layup in over Le’coe Willingham. Seattle could only follow that with a stilted possession that ended in a Wright drive and turnover when Prince stripped her. Game over. Bird still had time to miss a couple of threes as the Storm tried desperately to recover from those mistakes, but Chicago held on for a 78-69 win.
Besides that unlikely outbreak of scoring in the third quarter, this was more of the same from both teams. The difference was that after the Sky held a narrow 18-12 lead in points in the paint at halftime, by the end of the game it was 42-24. That’s Prince drives and Fowles layups creating the gap, because Seattle aren’t finding ways into the paint and have to rely on shooting from outside. Right now, that means relying on Bird, because they’re not offering her a lot of help. She finished with 26 points, but had to put up 23 shots to get there. Only Ashley Robinson’s first ever double-double, with 14 points and 10 rebounds, was there as support.
I keep saying it, but someone else on this team has to step up. Cash was a quiet 4-9 for 10 points, Wright an invisible 1-6 for just four, and although Agler used all ten players available to him in the first quarter, it was essentially a seven-player rotation again. Throwing the kids out there for three minutes doesn’t really count, Brian. On the bright side, Robinson was a huge success in her first start of the season, and has somehow blossomed into a useful player. Not great, but ‘useful’ is a vast step up from where she’s been in the past. Unfortunately, her new-found ability to make a layup isn’t going to solve their offensive woes.
Chicago will be very happy with that. It may have taken what, on the evidence of most of this season, was a freak shooting night from Prince, but they did what they had to do and closed the game out well in the fourth. After Seattle’s defense kept her quiet early, Fowles finished with 24 points and nine boards once the Sky started keying in on her in the final quarter. Prince had 23 in support, and on the night when she was surprisingly named an All-Star, rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot had 11 points and seven assists. Crucially, she also had only two turnovers, the category which has plagued Chicago – and Sloot especially – all season long. If they can start taking care of the ball on a consistent basis, they’re a threat to beat anyone. Not just short-handed former champions who’ve forgotten how to shoot.
The final game yesterday was a rematch from last week, with Connecticut facing New York again, this time in the Sun’s house. Connecticut beat the Liberty in a bit of a slugfest 68-59 when they last met, so the outside shooting display that they put on in the first half was something of a surprise. As a result, this didn’t turn out to be quite as much of a contest as that previous game. Apparently the Sun felt like making things a little easier on themselves.
It was as expected through most of the first half, a hard-fought game with no quarter asked and none given. Then from 24-24 midway through the second quarter, Connecticut started to light things up. Renee Montgomery hit two straight threes. Danielle McCray drove on Cappie Pondexter, got fouled, and used her strength to make the jumper anyway. Kara Lawson and Kalana Greene drained back-to-back threes, before Montgomery stole a New York inbounds pass – out of a Liberty timeout, which should never happen – and fed Jessica Moore for a layup. In barely five minutes of game time we’d gone from a tie to a 47-35 Sun lead heading into the interval.
With the strength of Tina Charles inside, Renee Montgomery having one of her best pro games as a distributor and the Sun’s recent improvements on defense, they made it very hard for New York to mount a second-half comeback. However, John Whisenant has this Liberty squad playing hard, and he also has Cappie Pondexter on his side. They kept hanging around, and despite a Charles layup pushing the Sun lead back to 13 with 2:30 left in the game, there was still time to make them nervous.
A pair of Kia Vaughn free throws, a ponderous Sun possession that ended in a shot clock violation, and then back-to-back threes from Plenette Pierson and Essence Carson somehow left us with a five-point game with under 30 seconds to play. Sadly, from there New York made a mess of things. They took an age to foul, eventually sending Lawson to the line with 17.6 seconds on the clock. Down six after Lawson went 1-of-2, the Liberty called a timeout, then for some reason inbounded to Pondexter for a mid-range two-point jump shot. It didn’t go in, but so what if it had? Don’t you need threes at that stage? It probably wouldn’t have made much difference, but that seemed a very strange play to draw up. Connecticut win 85-79, and ultimately it was never closer than five after that second-quarter run.
If you’ll pardon the pun, the Sun are looking hot heading into the All-Star ‘break’. Coming home has helped, considering their consistently poor road form, but they’re playing visibly better basketball. Three wins in a row against Eastern Conference playoff teams should build their confidence, and with Indiana’s swoon they’re now technically top of the East. Along with the defense, the difference lately has been the role players stepping up. Charles had 24 points in this game, but Greene had 10, McCray 11 and Lawson 12. Finally the Tina and Renee Show has some supporting acts. Talking of Renee, she had 13 points herself, and managed that on just seven shots from the field. In a game where she also produced 10 assists, that’s a Renee Montgomery that would be incredibly useful to the Sun for the rest of the year. I expect she’ll be back to shooting 5-13 on a regular basis very quickly, but it showed what she can do when she creates for others and only takes good shots. Efficiency is your friend, Renee.
The Liberty don’t seem to like playing Connecticut. They’re on a five-game winning streak and have won seven of their last eight if you ignore the two losses to the Sun. Of course we can’t do that, especially as these two could easily end up facing each other in the playoffs. Still, this was actually a pretty solid performance from the Libs, apart from all those threes they gave up in the first half. The Sun were 7-11 from outside in the opening 20 minutes, and in the end that was the difference. Whisenant will be hoping that with his team still trying to adapt to his defensive schemes, those shots won’t be as easy later in the year. Meanwhile, they’ll settle for playing anyone other than the Sun.
In other news…
In case you skipped yesterday’s second article, the All-Star reserves were announced during the ESPN2 broadcast last night. Then today, the league announced the replacement for the injured Candace Parker, giving the spot to Tulsa’s rookie center Liz Cambage. Maybe it’s because they want a representative of every franchise at the game; maybe it’s because she was next on the list of the coaches’ reserve votes; maybe it’s simply an effort to show Liz some love to try to ensure she comes back to the WNBA after the Olympics next year – I don’t know. I do know that on performance, there were several better choices. Cambage over Candice Dupree, Sophia Young and others doesn’t seem entirely fair, but then, who said life was fair? It does increase the chances of us seeing a dunk at the All-Star Game. Let’s just hope that if it happens it’s part of the game, not one of those embarrassing clear-outs where the defenders stand to one side to offer an open lane to the basket. Just cherry pick instead please Lizzie.
Tulsa have found Teresa Edwards some help. No, not a psychiatrist, an actual assistant. Former University of Tulsa head coach Kathy McConnell-Miller is joining up to at least give Edwards someone to listen to her scream. They had to sign someone, because Edwards is going to miss at least one game when she’s enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in mid-August. Although it’s hard to imagine it would make much difference if the players just subbed in and out on their own.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Atlanta @ Washington, 11.30am ET
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET
San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET