You know we’ve hit the meat of the WNBA season when a day with only two games feels like a nice, relaxing, easy evening for me. I’m also reliably informed that while last weekend may have been the official mid-point of the season in terms of date, last night’s games took us to exactly halfway through the schedule. 102 games down, 102 to go. Then the playoffs, of course. And WNBAlien just keeps on ticking.
The basketball gods even made it ridiculously easy to choose which game to focus on last night, offering up one tight contest and one overwhelming, comprehensive blowout. Considering the first game was top vs. bottom in the East, while the second featured last season’s champs against the current Western leaders, you might’ve thought the latter would’ve been the close one. You’d have been about as accurate as a Nicky Anosike fadeaway.
Aw, that’s a little unfair. Anosike actually got off to a decent start in last night’s opening contest, where her Washington team hosted Indiana. One of those turnaround fadeaways even dropped in for once. She also played her part in the one category where the Mystics had a huge advantage all night long – offensive rebounding. For whatever reason – instincts, effort, luck – Washington have been consistently the best offensive rebounding team in the league this year. Indiana are just barely ahead of Tulsa and LA for 9th in defensive rebounding – partly because they double-team and rotate so much defensively that it takes them out of rebounding position, partly because they’ve got a bunch of crappy rebounders playing center and power forward. So it was hardly a surprise that the Mystics would have strong night on the offensive glass. But this was ridiculous.
Indiana had Katie Douglas back after she missed the previous day’s game due to illness. She went straight back into the starting lineup to add to Indiana’s firepower, and was part of their hot early scoring. The Fever’s defense and shooting allowed them to create a seven-point lead on several occasions in the first quarter, but they couldn’t pull any further away because of all those second-chance opportunities Washington were creating. Mystics possessions wouldn’t die. That kept the Fever lead down to 24-20 at the end of the first.
The problem for Washington was that however many offensive rebounds they might grab, they still had the same issues as ever. Not enough talent scoring the ball, and a lack of communication at both ends of the floor. They were keeping the turnovers down for once, which was impressive against Indy’s pressure defense considering how the Mystics have struggled to hold onto the ball this season, but when you can’t make shots it’s tough to stay in basketball games. By halftime the Mystics had 11 offensive boards, but part of the reason for that was the huge number of misses that kept creating the opportunities. Indiana led 37-31 thanks to significantly better ball movement and shooting, even if they were getting killed on the glass and turning the ball over unusually frequently.
The second-half was the Ajavon and Langhorne show for Washington. In fact, two Kelly Miller free throws were the grand total of second-half scoring for the Mystics by anyone besides those two. That was enough to keep Washington hanging around in the game all night long. This was a familiar story for the Mystics. Many, many games times season, they’ve been right with their opponents up until the final moments, only to blow it at the death. They just haven’t been able to close anything out. Still, with a strong defensive effort, continuing dominance on the glass and Ajavon and Langhorne firing away, they were giving the Eastern Conference leaders some problems.
After an early third-quarter run removed most of Indiana’s lead, the Mystics kept tying the game up, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. You could feel the small but passionate Washington crowd were desperate for their team to find a lead, but for a while it felt like it was never going to come. It was tied at 44, 46 and 48. Then a 7-0 Indiana run behind big Jessica Davenport – who Washington simply don’t have the size to guard when she imposes herself down low – and Tamika Catchings looked like it might finally take the game away from the Mystics. Could offensive rebounding and two scorers really be enough to stay with this team? As it turned out, yes. An 8-0 Mystics run in response, capped off by an Ajavon layup right over Fever reserve Shyra Ely, finally gave Washington a lead at 56-55 with 6:30 to play. The crowd finally got to release that cheer they’d been saving up all night, and we were in for an exciting finish.
The final minutes weren’t exactly glorious basketball. If you looked at the play-by-play, the words ‘turnover’ and ‘missed’ are going to be the repetitive terms. On the bright side, Mystics head coach Trudi Lacey appeared to have listened to everyone who wondered why rookie guard Jasmine Thomas was in during crunch time in their previous game, because Kelly Miller was running the point throughout the final five minutes. The ball was in Ajavon’s hands most of the time anyway. Matee’s become a better player this year. She’s more willing to break down a defense and then make a decision, rather than constantly looking for her own shot as the first, second, and third options. But late in this one, it was all on her. The Mystics couldn’t create any decent efforts via ball movement or passing so it was largely down to Matee to make something happen. An Ajavon pullup jumper and a free throw on the next possession gave Washington a two-point lead at 59-57 with under four minutes to play.
At the other end, Indiana were having struggles of their own. Several late possessions ended in forced shots or turnovers as the shot clock was dwindling, but they finally tied the game when Catchings penetrated the defense and found Davenport at the free throw line for a shot that dropped. Even that one only fell in as the shot clock expired.
Defense continued to rule. Ajavon tried to attack the rim again, but Catchings blocked her attempt and tipped the rebound to a teammate. Indiana almost ran the shot clock out yet again, before a forced Erin Phillips three fell into DeMya Walker’s hands. Washington struggled again at the other end, with Lacey eventually screaming for a timeout to bail them out. Off the inbounds, Ajavon tried again but came up short, and the rebound resulted in a tie-up between Douglas and Miller. The Mystics already had 18 offensive boards, and came so close to a 19th that would’ve at least gotten them to overtime. As it was, Douglas won the tip, Ely grabbed the ball, and Indiana called timeout with 13 seconds left in a tied game.
Indiana head coach Lin Dunn made a ballsy move coming out of that timeout. She put Shannon Bobbitt in the game at the point, a player who’d been on the floor for barely ten minutes all night and hadn’t taken a shot. Then they ran the same damn play that the Fever always run in end-of-period last-shot situations – a high pick-and-roll with whichever point guard is out there. So Bobbitt dribbled, and dribbled some more, came off a Tamika Catchings screen, saw that the Mystics had switched leaving Crystal Langhorne guarding her, and attacked. There are lots of flaws in Bobbitt’s game, but quickness, dribbling and confidence aren’t any of them. She crossed Lang over, went straight past her into the paint, froze DeMya Walker with a ball fake and banked in a runner off the glass. Buzzer sounds, ballgame over, Mystics stunned.
This game was even harder to take for Washington than most of the other close losses they’ve suffered this year. They hung with the best team in the East all night, dominated the glass, forced their way in front a couple of times – and still lost at the death. On the positive front, this wasn’t a collapse. Some of those tight defeats have been miserable finishes, with turnovers and poor errors costing them the game. They may not have run the smoothest offense late in this one, but that was true throughout, and the final play wasn’t really their fault. Bobbitt just made a heck of a play. Again, the Mystics aren’t making the playoffs. That’s nonsense. But they’re still fighting, and I love that. Wouldn’t you come out with at least a little less intensity if you were 3-13 and the rest of your season barely mattered? I think I probably would, even if it was completely unconscious and unintentional. This team’s still working, and still improving. They just can’t win any games.
Not a great night for Indy, because they were shooting well but still found a way to make things difficult for themselves. Catchings is one of the best rebounders in the game from the small forward spot, but her teammates are generally poor on the glass and were dreadful last night. Giving up 18 offensive rebounds just can’t happen when you have designs on winning a championship. Fortunately for the Fever, 48% shooting as a team, featuring 16 points from Catchings and double-digit help from Davenport, Douglas and Tammy Sutton-Brown was just enough. Thanks to the midget’s magic layup.
For last night’s other game, reigning champs Seattle took their two-game winning streak north to Minnesota, hoping to beat their third Western Conference playoff team in a row. The Storm have looked more like themselves in the last couple of games, finally rediscovering some of their 2010 form. However, the Lynx were more than ready for them, after winning four in a row themselves around the All-Star break. This is a confident Minnesota squad now, with two wins in three games against Seattle already this season. Last night was the final time these teams will face each other this season, barring a playoff series.
Both team started the same fives that have opened recent games, although Minnesota’s bench was without Monica Wright due to an excused absence for a family emergency. The opening minutes were even, with a brief 7-0 lead for the Lynx quickly wiped out by some Swin Cash-led Storm offense. In fact the most notable event of the opening exchanges was when Camille Little was substituted less than four minutes into the game. Typically that would be a little early, but the significant aspect was that she never returned. She seemed to be moving freely during those first few minutes, with no obvious injury, so why she barely played I couldn’t tell you. There was no apparent cause, and no one mentioned it after the game.
Seattle were doing okay without her in the first quarter anyway. Going to his bench uncharacteristically quickly worked for Brian Agler, and the Storm took a 14-11 lead on a nice little turnaround in the lane by reserve post Ewelina Kobryn. As it turned out, that was probably the high point of the night for Seattle. A 19-2 Lynx run followed, bridging the gap between first and second quarters, and Minnesota took complete control of the contest. Seattle kept turning the ball over, started taking quick shots instead of running their offense, and when Minnesota had the ball they were just having fun. You can see in their approach that this is a Lynx team brimming with confidence these days. They step on to the floor expecting to win games, instead of fearing the worst. It’s reflected in their play.
So Minnesota were knocking down everything. The likes of Jessica Adair and Candice Wiggins gave them extra firepower off the bench so that everything kept rolling even when the starters needed a rest, and they were making Seattle look like that disorganised bunch from a few weeks ago. The Storm were at least trying to get the ball inside, rather than constantly jacking up jumpshots as they were in some of those poor earlier performances, but the passing lanes weren’t there. Minnesota were closing them down, creating turnovers whenever the Storm tried to force the ball in. Seattle ran out of ideas. By the end of the first half, Agler had Tanisha Wright, Katie Smith, Belinda Snell, Le’coe Willingham and Kobryn on the floor together, a lineup you’re unlikely to see for the Storm in any remotely competitive game. It was 49-30 at the break, and practically over.
Early this season in a previous meeting, the Lynx built a massive lead over Seattle. They were ahead 50-24 at halftime, and led by as much as 30 at one stage. You still felt like they might blow it, because they were the Lynx, and that’s the kind of thing they did. There’s no such feeling any more. Seattle followed up their 11 first-half turnovers by committing a shot clock violation to start the second-half, and that said it all. It was done. The lead was never below 20 for the rest of the night, and the entire fourth quarter was garbage time. Even for these two coaches, neither of whom like to utilise their benches much, it was all reserves, all the time to close the game. Even Krystal Thomas got to play, and convert her first basket as a professional, but won’t have enjoyed losing 92-67 to the Lynx.
From a Storm perspective, they have to hope that this was a one-game aberration. They were playing what has become a very good team, and got blown off the court. With a couple of players in foul trouble, Jackson injured and Little on the bench, they were short on bodies inside, but that would be an empty excuse. The Lynx pummelled them. Sue Bird was completely anonymous all night long, and Seattle simply never got going. The immediate chance to wipe this game from their memories by beating up on Tulsa tonight can only be a good thing. Time to move on and forget, and return to playing like they did in the previous two games. This was the 2010 version of themselves that they were supposed to have left behind.
How ’bout those Lynx, huh? This was just a pounding. Their defense closed off all the potential avenues of attack for Seattle, left the Storm a frustrated shadow of themselves and the offense just rolled from there. They shot 56% on the night – against probably the best defensive team in the WNBA, remember – including 7-13 from three-point range. Most of those were from Wiggins, who was a personal 5-8 from outside for 16 points, matching Seimone Augustus for the game-high. They didn’t even score many points on the break. They didn’t need to. Everything was dropping in the halfcourt anyway, so the points piled up regardless. A great night to be a Lynx, or a Lynx fan.
In other news…
San Antonio announced today that rookie starlet Danielle Adams will miss four-to-six weeks with what they’re now calling a mid-foot sprain of her right foot. That’ll hurt the Silver Stars’ scoring options – and Adams’s chances of winning Rookie of the Year – but even the six-week timeframe would get her back just in time for the playoffs. On the bright side, it also creates more minutes for Jayne Appel, who’s been performing better of late and should benefit from the extra floor time. If they can end up with both Appel and Adams ready and able to perform for the postseason, it’ll be the best of both worlds for San Antonio.
Spain held off Australia 55-49, and the USA are in the process of comfortably beating Brazil in the semi-finals of the Women’s Under-19 World Championships. The US were led by 20 points from UConn’s Bria Hartley. The Spain-USA final takes place tomorrow.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Phoenix @ New York, 7pm ET
Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Los Angeles @ Chicago, 8pm ET