WNBA Today, 07/29/2011: Ever decreasing circles, WNBA-style

Five games yesterday in the WNBA, and there were fewer points scored in each contest as we went along. It’s a good thing there weren’t any more games or we might’ve ended up with a soccer score. With so many games I’ll be keeping it reasonably brief today – or at least brief by my standards – so let’s get underway. (Editor’s note (yes that’s me as well, humour me): I intended to keep it brief. Level of success is questionable.)

Camp day for San Antonio meant Phoenix were tipping off at 9.30am as far as their fans back home were concerned. Players don’t tend to enjoy these extremely early starts either. The Mercury at least had the benefit of facing the Silver Stars without Danielle Adams, who was in a walking boot and using a crutch after her right toe injury suffered in the Tuesday’s game. Considering she put up 16 and 22 points in the two previous games between these sides this season, that should’ve been a significant bonus for Phoenix.

The Mercury played the first quarter like they still wanted to be in bed. Too many sloppy turnovers and defense that was leaving perimeter scorers like Becky Hammon far too open. San Antonio happily took advantage, Hammon had 13 by the end of the first and Diana Taurasi capped off a grumpy opening period with her fifth technical foul of the season (remember, numbers seven, nine, eleven etc. carry one-game suspensions). Officially the Silver Stars led 28-19 to close the first, although the tech made it a ten-point gap before the ball was inbounded to start the second.

Phoenix were struggling to ignite their typical offensive flow against San Antonio’s defense, perhaps not surprising considering the similarities between how San Antonio and Seattle defend. The Mercury had the same kind of problems on Tuesday night against the Storm. They were also playing dumb. The referees established early that they were calling ticky-tack fouls and being very picky on moving screens, but Phoenix kept pulling the same moves and being called for the same offenses. You have to adapt at least a little to how the game is being called.

Phoenix put a little run together late in the half when San Antonio turned the ball over themselves on several possessions, creating some momentum for the Mercury. That left the gap at just six at halftime, Silver Stars ahead 48-42. Phoenix’s 12 turnovers had made the difference, yet again hurting themselves by trying to make passes that aren’t there to make, and simply not taking care of the ball.

The officiating ground the game to a miserable, tedious halt in the third quarter. Foul after foul was being called, most of the scoring was being done at the free throw line, and Taurasi was benched yet again by Mercury coach Corey Gaines to keep her from picking up a second tech and being thrown out. Diana was back in late in the period, and hit a jumper that cut the game to 71-70, before a Silver Stars run energised the crowd heading into the final intermission. A Ruth Riley jumper in the lane was followed by a poor pass from Kara Braxton that resulted in another Mercury turnover. Then the Silver Stars ended up inbounding the ball from under the basket with just one second on the shot clock, and miserable Mercury defense allowed a Sophia Young layup. Yet another Mercury turnover, this time on a blind pass from Taurasi, resulted in a three for Hammon in transition. Phoenix even had time to turn the ball over again in the remaining 2.7 seconds, but Jia Perkins pondered too long and San Antonio couldn’t capitalise. 71-70 had become 78-70 in moments and the big crowd was awake and screaming.

Oddly enough for Phoenix, they were never really in it in the fourth quarter. Usually they’ll make a run against anybody and at least threaten, but it didn’t happen. At 87-79 with six minutes to play it looked like a contest might develop, but Hammon fought Taurasi off in the lane, popped out behind the three-point line and drained yet another shot from deep before Diana could recover. On the very next San Antonio possession, Hammon set up behind a screen and poured in another three. Ballgame. The final score was 102-91, but the closing minutes were merely a formality.

That’s a three-game losing streak for the Mercury, all against Western Conference playoff rivals. Uh oh. While Penny Taylor has been quiet in the two games since the break, which obviously hurts since she and Taurasi have led the way for Phoenix all season, it’s the turnovers that are killing them. Some of the giveaways come with the territory. When you’re trying to make home-run passes to create break-out scores, you accept that a few of those passes are going to go awry. But a lot of them are just cheap. Their offense is still very effective, their defense has even shown the occasional sign of being serviceable (although it’s mostly still pretty bad) – they’ve just got to stop giving the damn ball away. The Merc shot 49% in this game, killed San Antonio on the glass, and went 35-38 at the free throw line – they lost because the Silver Stars took 23 more shots from the floor. That’s insane.

A nice afternoon’s work for the Silver Stars. Without Adams, they still found easily enough offense to pull out the victory. It was Hammon doing most of the work, going 10-15 from the floor, including 7-10 from three-point range, for 33 points. Sophia Young had another quiet game, with just nine points against a team she typically rips apart. The likes of Jia Perkins, Danielle Robinson and even Scholanda Robinson filled in, but they need Young to get going. This ‘one night on, two nights off’ act isn’t going to cut it for the whole season from Hammon’s long-standing partner-in-crime, and especially not into the playoffs. Still, this win moves them 1.5 games ahead of the Mercury and solidly into second place in the West behind Minnesota, who they play four times in the next month. The first one’s on Sunday afternoon, and I’m already looking forward to it.

—–

Game two of the day (and yes it did tip off seconds before the Washington-New York matchup, so my decreasing scores thing does work), saw Los Angeles travel to Atlanta. The Dream had won four in a row across the break, finally building some winning momentum after such a miserable start to the 2011 season. Considering the state LA have been in lately, Atlanta will have headed into this one confident of extending the streak. The Sparks had lost eight of their last ten, and recent games had been a complete shambles, including the 17-turnover first-half against Minnesota two nights earlier. Going on the road to a hot Eastern Conference team didn’t seem likely to help them break out of their slump.

Surprisingly enough, LA head coach Joe Bryant still stuck with his standard starting five, despite the awful openings his team have struggled through in so many recent games. It also meant that the front-line of Thompson, Milton-Jones and Hoffman would be fighting it out with Atlanta’s giant post players for rebounds – which was never likely to turn out well. Sancho Lyttle was finally back in uniform for the Dream but came off the bench to begin with, leaving Alison Bales to retain her place in the starting five.

LA were a little better than previous games early on, although they continued to throw in the occasional trademark hideous turnover. They were helped out by Angel McCoughtry, who couldn’t hit anything. As we saw when she went cold late in Tuesday’s game against Tulsa, Angel can be a menace to her own team when she’s firing up brick after brick from outside. Kristi Toliver was hot for LA, so the Sparks led 19-16 at the end of the first.

The second quarter, on the other hand, brought back some memories of last season for the Dream. Iziane Castro Marques came in and had her first strong game in over a month, firing in her crazy-looking jumpers from all kinds of angles. Shalee Lehning was running the point rather than Lindsey Harding and moving the ball around well. Lyttle came in for her first action since mid-June. Even Angel got in on the act by driving more and creating some turnovers with her defense. By halftime, Izi had 13 points and Atlanta had a 45-41 lead. They were barely utilising their huge size advantage down low, but it was helping them on the boards, leading to 10 offensive rebounds in the half. Help from Ticha Penicheiro and Jenna O’Hea off the bench had kept LA in the game, but in the paint it was painfully one-sided.

Nothing much changed in the second half. LA still looked disorganised and messy, but better when Bryant let Ticha stay on the floor; Atlanta continued to ignore their bigs offensively, but all the rebounds and putbacks were creating points anyway. It was one of those games where Atlanta were constantly ahead and looking the slightly stronger team, but LA just kept hanging around within range, mostly via the occasional three-pointer (where they continue to be the best-shooting team in the league by a mile).

An O’Hea fadeaway to start the fourth brought the Sparks within a point at 59-58, and it looked like LA might actually have a chance to nick this game away from Atlanta. With just under six minutes to play, Marynell Meadors made a bold coaching move which you have to give her credit for (especially considering how much criticism I throw her way for things that don’t work out). She came out of a timeout with a fresh five players, bringing Harding, Armintie Price, McCoughtry, Lyttle and Erika de Souza all back into the game simultaneously. McCoughtry seemed to have discovered her jumper somewhere while she rested on the bench, because her shot was falling, and Price’s penetration and willingness to pass was producing for Atlanta as well. Meanwhile, the Dream continued to grab every rebound in sight down low. It was 67-64 when Meadors made her line-change, and 75-68 when Bryant called a timeout to stop the momentum three minutes later. That was about it. This LA team doesn’t have the heart to make that kind of comeback right now, and Atlanta are too desperate to maintain their run. The Dream held on for an 89-80 win. They wanted it that little bit more, and had greater belief in themselves to pull it out. Both teams started the game in fifth place in their conferences, but you could easily see who honestly expects to fight their way into a playoff spot before the season is over.

In all fairness, this was a touch better from the Sparks. They seemed slightly more invested, took better care of the ball, and didn’t give up when they could’ve easily folded. Penicheiro had 10 points and 11 assists, making you wonder why she continues to come off the bench. The same could be said of Jenna O’Hea, who’s been consistently outperformed the players she ‘backs up’ for quite some time now. I still feel like several players on this roster should be traded by the deadline, assuming there’s any interest. Tina Thompson could easily be dumped, and so could DeLisha Milton-Jones despite showing far more life than Thompson this season. Unless Penicheiro is going to consistently receive as many minutes as she did in this game, they may as well move her too. It’s time to shake this team up properly. Trade ’em away, or at least break up the moribund starting lineup. This isn’t working.

It was something of a struggle for Atlanta against an utterly beatable LA team, but they pulled it out in the end. McCoughtry finished with 22 points on 9-20 shooting, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, proving that she does know how to pass when she feels like it. 14 minutes from Lyttle was a nice start, especially considering she was in for the closing stages when Atlanta pulled the game out. I still can’t believe how little use they made of their post advantage, barely finding the likes of de Souza or Lyttle any looks inside, but in the end it didn’t matter. 19 offensive rebounds and a 46-29 overall advantage on the glass killed LA and brought Atlanta their fifth straight win. They’re right on Chicago’s tail for that playoff spot.

—–

Next up on our ever-decreasing spiral of scoring, we wander over to Jersey where Washington were in town to face New York. If you believe what you read in the press, apparently the Mystics brass thinks they’re still in with a shout of the playoffs. At 3-12, anyone sane feels differently, but at least this team continues to fight. I’d rather watch them than LA. New York came in knowing full well that these are the games you have to win to cement your playoff spot and try to hunt down teams in the standings. You’re not supposed to lose to Washington at home. Even if ‘home’ is currently in a different state.

It wasn’t pretty for New York through much of this game. Their defense was allowing too many easy opportunities for the Mystics, and for once Washington were knocking them down. Kelly Miller in particular was smoking hot in the first half and didn’t miss a thing. Offensively, only Kia Vaughn inside and a cameo from little-used rookie point guard Sydney Colson were creating anything much for the Libs. Washington therefore built an eight-point lead early in the second quarter, and it took a Cappie Pondexter one-woman show to pull New York back into the game before halftime. She scored 12 straight Liberty points at one stage – none of them assisted – but Washington still held a 36-32 advantage at the break. The final two minutes, featuring zero points and seven straight misses from both teams combined summed up the half.

With Crystal Langhorne becoming more involved in the offense, Washington started to take greater advantage of New York’s ugly night in the third quarter. The Mystics’ lead was as high as eight at several stages, and the Liberty were down 56-49 late in the period when the comeback finally began. Plenette Pierson had suffered through a tough night, struggling offensively and having to deal with Langhorne at the offensive end. However, it was her aggression and willingness to take the game to the Mystics that sparked the turnaround. A Quanitra Hollingsworth putback of Pierson’s miss and then two free throws from Plenette herself got New York within three to end the quarter, and the momentum rolled into the fourth. Essence Carson picked up where Pierson left off, imposing herself on the game at both ends of the floor. Mystics rookie guard Jasmine Thomas couldn’t deal with her. Carson ghosted in for a layup, then picked Thomas’s pocket and fed Pondexter for the break away score. Less than 70 seconds of game time since being seven behind, New York were in front by a point.

However, the Liberty couldn’t pull away. Remember, Washington may have lost a hell of a lot of games this year, but they often tend to be close contests. This team will battle it out every step of the way. Carson got absolutely creamed by a blind DeMya Walker screen with seven minutes to play – not the first time a player had been left scraping herself off the floor in this game – which raised the ire of the Liberty crowd and gave the game a little extra spice. Hollingsworth’s size was causing problems for Washington on the glass, and Vaughn was still scoring with confidence, but the Mystics made enough shots to keep hanging around. Even though they seemed to be constantly running the shot clock down to near-extinction.

Pondexter went to the rim for a layup with 1:40 left that put New York up 70-69. Thomas responded by circling the Liberty defense for a layup of her own. Pondexter penetrated again and fed Vaughn for a score, putting New York back up a point with under a minute to play. Then came the pivotal moment, and sadly it involved an official. Washington found Kerri Gardin in the corner, she went straight by Nicole Powell and headed for the basket. As Gardin put up a floater that dropped in, Plenette Pierson slid in front of her and took the contact. It was a bang-bang play but the ref called it a charge, waved off the basket and New York had the ball back. After viewing multiple replays, it was probably a blocking foul, but that’s how Washington’s season has gone.

From that point on Washington created their own problems without any help from the officials. Pondexter ran down the shot clock and forced up a jumper, but Powell was easily first to the rebound. Once the Mystics managed to foul and Pondexter went 1-of-2 at the line, Washington had the ball back, down two with nine seconds to play. What followed was a mess. For some reason Jasmine Thomas was on the floor instead of Kelly Miller, and she dribbled to the right side but couldn’t work her way around Essence Carson. Forced to stop and give up the ball, Thomas made a rookie mistake and turned the ball over by passing to nobody. Pierson made a pair of free throws to seal the win, 75-71.

Yet another close loss for the Mystics, and a hard one to take after they were in front for so much of the night. They need to make up their minds. The roster moves over last weekend, where they dumped two rookies in favour of aging veterans like DeMya Walker, suggest they’re trying to win now. It was a statement that whatever the rest of us think, they still believed that the playoffs were within reach. If that’s the case, why the hell wasn’t Miller in the game for the closing minutes, and especially for those final nine seconds? Yes, Jasmine Thomas is supposed to be their future and needs to learn how to survive in these situations, but Miller had an excellent shooting night and she’s been through all this before. You’ve signalled that you desperately want to win these games, more than you want to develop the kids. It makes no sense. Pick a path and take it; stop trying to drive down the middle.

New York made hard work of it, and got the benefit of that key late call, but they pulled the game out. Pondexter was 8-18 for 19 points, Vaughn 7-10 for 14 and Pierson battled her way to 13 points despite her difficult night. They’ve got the veteran composure and smarts to close these games out that Washington haven’t been able to find this season. Leilani Mitchell had yet another disappointing outing as the starting point guard, and I’m beginning to wonder if head coach and GM John Whisenant might consider trading her before the deadline in a couple of weeks. Pondexter/Carson is the backcourt of choice in every important moment, Colson is starting to look like she might be worth a few extra minutes and Mitchell doesn’t seem to fit on this team quite as well any more. We’ll see if there’s any movement before August 15th when the deadline hits.

—–

It was hardly a surprise that the scoring continued to decline with our next contest, featuring the Indiana Fever in Connecticut. The top two teams in the East both focus hard on their defense and build from there, so a low-scoring, tight contest was to be expected. Maybe not quite as tight and low-scoring as it turned out, though.

Katie Douglas was out for Indiana due to illness, pushing rookie Jeanette Pohlen into the starting lineup for their first game since the All-Star break. Connecticut stuck with the same starting five that had built the four-game winning streak they rode into the game. The start was ugly. I know defenses were supposed to dominate this game, but this was ridiculous. No one could hit anything. Indiana eventually found a little offense when Jessica Davenport, Shyra Ely and Shannon Bobbitt came into the game off the bench. The Sun stayed deathly cold, so Indy led 14-9 at the end of the first.

The Fever carried their small bench boost into the second quarter, eventually producing an 18-2 run straddling the quarters that gave them a 24-9 lead. Their defense looked very similar to the structure that frustrated Sylvia Fowles and Chicago a week earlier – double-team hard on post players, trap high off screens, and cause as much havoc as possible. When you combine that with Connecticut’s complete inability to hit any outside shots whatsoever, the Fever were on top. It was compounded when Connecticut started becoming frustrated with their own ineptitude, and began taking the first shot that presented itself rather than working for the best opportunity available. Quick offense just meant quick misses and more momentum for Indiana.

Sun head coach Mike Thibault tried anything he could think of to snap his team out of their funk. He charged out on court practically begging for a technical foul (which he was indeed rewarded with). He threw out any lineup he could think of. Late in the first half, he even gave some minutes to Allison Hightower, who’s been accumulating a steady series of DNP-CDs this season. I wouldn’t put it all down to Hightower, but it kind of worked. An unusual lineup with Jessica Moore and Kelsey Griffin in the post produced a couple of stops and some extra energy, and an 8-0 Connecticut run to end the half was the result. The Sun were still shooting 27% from the field, and 0-9 from three-point range, but it was something at least. Indiana led 34-25 at the break.

The Sun carried the energy into the second half. They were playing quicker but it wasn’t the hurried jump shots of the first half. Now they were moving the ball faster, preventing the Fever from causing so much damage with their defense because they couldn’t rotate to the ball before it was already gone. They forced Indiana’s lead down to three midway through the third quarter before Pohlen, Davenport and Tamika Catchings started scoring at the other end to take it away again. In fact, that was the story of the entire second half. Both teams were still playing their typical stifling defense, Connecticut were a little more alive than they had been in the first 20 minutes, but they couldn’t break through. The Sun would get within three or four, inspire some hope in the home crowd, and then the Fever would find a way to score themselves. They just always had the edge, whether it was a Catchings jumper, a Bobbitt three, or a Davenport layup over Tina Charles. Indiana held on for a 69-58 win over their closest Eastern rivals.

Just a hideously ugly shooting display from the Sun. Obviously, some of it was down to Indiana’s defense. They’re a very good defensive team. But some nights you wouldn’t have been able to hit anything in an empty gym. Tina Charles was 5-16, Renee Montgomery 4-13, and after her 22-point performance against Chicago two nights earlier, Asjha Jones was 1-8 for only two points. As a team they were 1-16 from three-point range, 22-72 from the field. Burn the tape and move on.

Offensively it wasn’t exactly pretty from Indiana either, but they found enough for the win. Tamika Catchings looked to have found her stroke a little from outside, going 3-3 from behind the arc, but even she finished 4-11 overall. 13 points, five steals, five assists and four rebounds from Shannon Bobbitt was a nice bonus, earning herself more minutes at the point than starter Erin Phillips in this particular game. Without Douglas, on the road against a tough conference foe, that was a nice win for the Fever. Even if they did shoot 33% from the floor.

—–

To close things out for the night, Chicago took a trip to Oklahoma to face the Tulsa Shock. Considering I’ve been pushing this decreasing-scores theme, I’m sure you can take a stab at just how wonderful this game was to watch. Yeah, not one for fans of offense. Or scoring in general. Or basketball, if I’m honest.

Teresa Edwards played around with her starting lineup yet again, moving Tiffany Jackson to the bench in favour of Jen Lacy. As mentioned in the last column, I’ve given up trying to work out why. I wonder if she’ll leave it the same when and if they break this monumental losing streak? Chicago stuck with Tamera Young at small forward – Cathrine Kraayeveld appears to have dropped into Pokey Chatman’s doghouse.

Let’s gloss over the first half. It was tight most of the way, with the Sky putting on a little spurt towards the end that gave them a 39-32 lead at the half. Sylvia Fowles was just 1-4 from the field, illustrating how ineffective Chicago had been at feeding their most dangerous weapon. Ivory Latta had 10 points as the only Shock player with more than six.

Tulsa made a push in the third quarter. Or at least, Chicago kept throwing up brick after brick and turning the ball over, allowing the Shock to slide into the lead almost by default. Latta hit consecutive threes to turn a 44-38 Sky lead into a tied ballgame, and then the teams spent the rest of the third exchanging clank after clank before heading to the fourth at 48-46 Tulsa. Obviously the crowd were excited to be ahead for once, but you had to pity them for this being virtually the most enjoyment they’d had all season. It was ugly.

Unfortunately for those excited fans, Chatman finally screamed loudly enough to wake her slumbering team up. Phoenix might’ve played like they were still in bed to start the day’s games – Chicago spent most of this one like they were already in their pyjamas. But they kicked off the fourth with a 13-2 run that essentially won the game. It still wasn’t pretty – that ‘run’ took seven full minutes of game time – but it was effective enough. Tulsa ultimately only scored seven points in the entire fourth quarter, and Chicago achieved their second road win of the year, 64-55.

Poor Tulsa. It really felt like they were in this one, and Chicago have played badly enough lately that they always had a shot, but it wasn’t to be. Latta was 8-12 from the floor for 20 points but was the only Shock player in double figures. Tiffany Jackson had 15 rebounds to continue her strong recent form on the glass. But no dice. Maybe next time.

Chicago aren’t very good. Sorry, Sky fans. Struggling to a win over this awful Shock team only further illustrates what I’ve been saying after their recent defeats. Still, it counts in the win column, and keeps them percentage points ahead of Atlanta in the standings, so at least that’s a positive. Other elements to list under ‘pros’ from this game: Dominique Canty made her return from injury, albeit to play under two minutes of action – more depth can only help. And Courtney Vandersloot played a full game without a turnover. That’s it. I’m out. Score 64 points in 40 minutes against Tulsa and I’m not going to spend much time looking for things to praise.

 

In other news…

Yelena Leuchanka was reportedly in the crowd at Atlanta’s game last night. However, rumours suggest that she’s talking about next season, and not intending to play this year in the WNBA. So Sandora Irvin’s roster spot may be safe after all.

The FIBA Under-19 World Championship for Women reached the quarter-final stage today, with Canada following their upset win over the USA in the group stages by being summarily dumped out of the competition by Spain. The Spaniards go on to face Australia in the semis after the Aussies disposed of Japan 92-83, led by 41 points and 17 rebounds from Tayla Roberts. The USA snuck past France in their quarter-final 70-64, moving on to face Brazil in tomorrow’s other semi. The Brazilians ran things even closer today, beating Russia 73-71. You can watch the semi-finals tomorrow on FibaTV, although you will have to pay for the privilege (I think). The final and 3rd place playoff are both available on the same website on Sunday.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Indiana @ Washington, 7pm ET

Seattle @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

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