All-Star Game day today, and considering it was on in the middle of the afternoon it seemed sensible to cover it in today’s column rather than wait for tomorrow. Bear in mind, however, that it’s essentially impossible to cover an exhibition game like this as if it’s a real game of basketball. I can’t analyse the defense, because no one played any all afternoon. I can’t break down the offensive sets because much as Brian Agler seemed to be trying to draw up plays in his huddles, the teams basically don’t run anything. Still, as all-star games go, this one was a pretty entertaining affair, so let’s take a look at how the event played out.
It was the first time I can remember ever being honestly entertained by WNBA All-Star Game introductions, so well done to the league and San Antonio’s organisers. The starters, all donning cowboy hats, were introduced one at a time framed in silhouette behind a white screen. Most of them took the opportunity to show off their dance moves, although Diana Taurasi refrained, and declared in a subsequent pre-game interview “I don’t dance for free”. Which does make you wonder what she’d pull out if someone offered to compensate her for her efforts. Sue Bird eschewed the dancing in favour of lassoing a guy in true Texan style. All very amusing.
Once the game tipped off, everything developed just as we’d expected. No defense, lots of threes, and the occasional highlight-reel move. Agler drew up a triple-screen for Taurasi as the West’s opening play, and to be fair to the players, they actually ran it. Kind of half-heartedly, and Taurasi’s defender went straight by all the picks and was still with her when she received the ball, but at least they were listening. Taurasi dropped it down to Brunson, who went baseline before feeding Swin Cash for the layup. We’d be seeing a lot of those as the game wore on (Cash layups, that is, not Brunson assists. Bekkah didn’t suddenly turn into Magic overnight). The opening East possession was a flash of what might’ve been for Liberty fans, with Cappie Pondexter throwing a no-look over-the-shoulder pass to Tina Charles for a layup to get them off the mark.
So we were away and running. And I do mean running. No defense means lots of break outs, lots of layups, and lots of very quick possessions when the player with the ball just decides “might as well shoot this”. The good thing for the quality of the game and the national viewing audience on ABC is that a lot of them went in. Threes rained in from an array of players throughout the first half, including center Tina Charles. Soon Tina’s going to be taking those in legitimate ballgames, and it’s going to scare the hell out of people. Aussie giant Liz Cambage came into the game, and whether you felt she deserved to make the All-Star squad or not, she proved that she could perform in this company. She had eight points by the end of the first quarter, Epiphanny Prince and Becky Hammon exchanged threes inside the last ten seconds, and it was 36-33 West at the end of the period.
The second was more of the same at both ends, with threes from Taurasi, Katie Douglas and Courtney Vandersloot kicking it off. The highlight of the period was when Angel McCoughtry had the ball on the break, and found herself faced with 6-8 Cambage as the only defender. Instead of trying to slide round her or draw a whistle as she might’ve done in a Dream jersey, McCoughtry threw the ball off the glass around Cambage, caught the rebound in mid-air and put the ball back in the hoop, all while Lizzie was still spinning around trying to figure out what was going on. As with most all-star games, there weren’t many whistles being blown, but those that were seemed to be occurring when Cambage herself had the ball. She drained her seventh free throw of the first half to close the scoring at 66-65 West going into the break.
After the long halftime break featuring the ceremony honouring the All-Time Top-15 WNBA players (more on that below), it was all a little bit tighter and more deliberate in the second half. Not to the extent that it would ever be confused with a real regular season contest, but none of these players like to lose. Competitive instincts forced them to take it a little more seriously.
Let’s fast-forward to the final few minutes. Still neither team had managed to force a lead of more than five points all day, and the East were up 105-103 with just over four minutes to play when the most disappointing event of the game occurred. It’s always a shame when someone gets hurt in a game like this that doesn’t even matter, but Tamika Catchings couldn’t stop playing hard if you paid her. She went for a steal that was just out of her reach, and ended up inadvertently hitting Penny Taylor in the face. It was a complete accident, and Catchings was one of the first to reach Taylor to check if she was okay, but you still hate to see that. Taylor’s eye was already closing up and didn’t look too pretty by the end of the game. Let’s hope she’s healthy enough to play when Phoenix’s season re-starts on Tuesday.
The play that ultimately won the game featured the two Eastern Conference starting guards. Taurasi had put the West ahead 113-111 with a driving left-handed layup (against practically no defense even at that late stage). Cappie Pondexter dribbled the ball up the left side of the court, and took her time deciding how to attack Swin Cash. Quick footwork and an up-fake got Cash in the air and sailing past her, but Cappie saw Katie Douglas curling around the top beyond the three-point line. She fed Douglas, and Katie knocked down the three just like she’s been doing for Indiana. East lead 114-113.
After Sue Bird and Pondexter exchanged missed jumpers, and Maya Moore missed another for the West, they were forced to foul with 16 seconds to play. Douglas hit both free throws for a three-point lead, and Agler had a final timeout to draw up a play for three to tie. After the East took their ‘foul to give’, Taurasi ended up with a decent look out top, albeit from miles out. But then we all know she can shoot from there. This one was short, but fell to her teammate for the day, Becky Hammon. Looking for the three she knew her side still needed, Hammon got caught in a double-team by Angel McCoughtry and Tamika Catchings. After the ball came out of her hands, Hammon had to take several steps before catching up to the ball. Well-known killjoy referee Scott Twardoski called a travel on Becky, and the game was done. Maybe it was a foul, maybe the ball flicked off Catchings, but if I’m absolutely honest, it looked like the right call to me. Just not the one that would’ve been most fun. Boo, Scott. Cappie ran in a layup as time was about to expire for the final scoreline of 118-113 East.
For a WNBA All-Star Game, that was a pretty good matchup. Lots of impressive shooting, with the East especially lighting it up from outside, going 16-34 from three-point range. Eight different Eastern Conference players had at least one three, and their scoring was balanced all night, resulting in six players in double-digits. It also meant that they lost out on the MVP award, which went to Swin Cash even though her team lost. Maybe they asked the media to hand in their votes a little early, but Cash’s 21 points and 12 rebounds made her an understandable winner (and only the second player to take home the trophy more than once, after Lisa Leslie). Brunson had 20, but too many misses from Cash’s fellow UConn alumni was probably the West’s downfall. Taurasi was 5-14 for 13 points, and Moore 5-15 from 10. Still, I somehow doubt that they were crying about it in the locker room.
Overall, that was a nice exhibition for the league. Too often, these games are a complete mess, and practically unwatchable. This one was entertaining, and went down to the wire. Can’t ask for much more than that. Also, any casual sportsfan who ran into this game on TV will have seen a lot of extremely talented female basketball players showcasing their skills. Against no defense whatsoever, but for one game a year, who cares?
Announced at halftime, the league revealed their Top-15 WNBA Players of all time, as voted for by fans, media, coaches and players. The guy wrangling the press after WNBA President Laurel Richie’s pre-game press conference gave away arguably the most controversial selection when he told the assembled media that Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley would be available for comments after the announcement. Leslie was obviously a shoo-in, but Staley’s a little bit surprising. She’s the only player on the chosen 15 that wasn’t on my list, replacing Chamique Holdsclaw. Staley was a very influential member of the women’s basketball community, and a heck of a point guard back in the day, but I didn’t feel she made enough impact on this league to warrant inclusion. Still, it’s a pretty solid group regardless.
I’m surprised that Candace Parker didn’t make it, but maybe picking up yet another injury this season was her downfall, reminding the voters of how many games she’s missed since her MVP-winning rookie year. Also, none of the potentially controversial candidates who might not have attended the ceremony made it. Deanna Nolan, Holdsclaw and Nykesha Sales have all skipped out on the WNBA when still physically able to play at different stages of their careers, and the first two at least certainly had an argument to be on the list. Not that I’m suggesting for a moment that the WNBA would’ve fiddled with the selections to end up with 15 players they approved of, of course.
In other news…
Well they’ve dumped all the other events that used to surround the All-Star Game, like the three-point competition and the skills contest, so there isn’t much other news. Oh, I know. The FIBA Under-19 World Championship for Women is going on right now, showcasing some of the best young talents in the women’s game. Also, if you’re not American, you become eligible to be drafted by the WNBA in the year you turn 20, so some of these players might be appearing on your radars in the not-too-distant future. Given that South Americans and Aussies have a far better track record of actually showing up than Europeans, keep an eye out for Damiris Dantas of Brazil (WNBA draft eligible next year) and Gretel Tippett of Australia (who isn’t old enough until 2013). Not everyone has to come out of a US college.
None (games start up again on Tuesday)