WNBA Today, 07/17/2011: Last year was a long time ago

Two games in the WNBA yesterday, both featuring franchises who reached the WNBA Finals last year. Each of them were facing conference rivals who have outperformed them so far this season, so there was a feeling of 2010 powers trying to cling on to the coattails of improved 2011 squads. Things can change pretty fast in this league.

The Eastern matchup featured 3-9 Atlanta hosting Chicago, who were sat at 7-7 and are potentially the most catchable team for the Dream to pass for a playoff spot. Already 1-1 against the Sky this season (in what will ultimately be a four-game season series), this wasn’t just a chance to pull a full game back on Chicago, but also to go ahead in the possible tiebreaker. After such a disappointing season for Atlanta so far, this looked like a big game going in. A loss would’ve left them four games outside the playoff positions, and while it’s still early, that’s a significant gap even before the All-Star break.

Both teams made alterations to their starting lineups. Chicago brought in Tamera Young for Cathrine Kraayeveld at the small forward spot, likely based on the idea that she’d be able to guard Angel McCoughtry far better than Kraay. McCoughtry was 12-40 from the field in her previous two games against Chicago, so they’d been doing something right in the prior matchups. For Atlanta, Coco Miller turned an ankle in practice and was ruled out of the game, so her place in the starting lineup had to be filled. After a one-game experiment with McCoughtry as the starter at power forward against New York (which worked last year in the playoffs, but failed miserably last Wednesday), Dream head coach Marynell Meadors replaced Miller with behemoth Alison Bales. So McCoughtry was back to small forward, Armintie Price to shooting guard, and the Dream were back to playing two true bigs. I still don’t understand why they made that switch against the Liberty in the first place.

Chicago were awful to start the game. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/16/2011: So close, but yet so far

Another quad-game day in the WNBA yesterday, and as they all had their own interesting elements for once, we’re simply going to take them in chronological order. Keeping it a little shorter today as well, which might well be considered a good thing for those who were struggling through my 5,000-word dissertations.

New York hosted Connecticut having won four in a row and six of their last seven. The Sun, in contrast, had lost their last two and were 1-5 on the road coming in. However, the Liberty were without starting power forward Plenette Pierson after her left patella strain against Atlanta on Wednesday, which left their post rotation looking distinctly shaky. Quanitra Hollingsworth was the choice to replace her. Connecticut made a switch in their starting lineup as well, bringing in Danielle McCray for Kara Lawson, probably to give them a more natural defender for Cappie Pondexter from the tip.

It was a very even game early on, with the most noteworthy element being that Nicole Powell seemed to have maintained her shooting touch from New York’s previous game. Losing Pierson significantly cuts into New York’s grit, toughness and offensive versatility, but that starting front line of Hollingsworth and Kia Vaughn is huge. Tina Charles was getting most of her points by running the floor on breaks – getting anything inside against that length was tough in halfcourt sets. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/15/2011: Sometimes, defenses win

ESPN2 had the WNBA schedule all to themselves last night, with just one game on the slate. Let’s be generous and call it a defensive struggle, shall we? The less complimentary description of Seattle’s trip to San Antonio would involve pointing out that neither side could’ve hit water shooting off the side of a boat for most of the evening. Yesterday’s column centered on the highest-scoring game in WNBA history – this one’s going to be a little different.

San Antonio made a predictable change to their starting lineup for this game. Swin Cash’s versatile offensive game would’ve made her a very difficult matchup for Jia Perkins, recently shifted from San Antonio’s high-scoring bench into the starting lineup as a theoretical ‘small forward’ (despite being a listed 5-8). So Perkins went back to the bench, and Scholanda Robinson resumed her position among the starters. Seattle went with the usual five (or ‘usual’ since Lauren Jackson went down, anyway).

These teams know each other very, very well. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/14/2011: Run and Gun Fun

Four games yesterday, and it’s not too hard to work out which game to concentrate on. Let’s see, we had a) a blowout, b) a blowout, c) a near-blowout that only got close because Tulsa are so bad that teams are starting to relax too much against them, and d) the highest-scoring regulation game in WNBA history. Hope no one objects, but we’ll be going with d. Of course, seeing as it’s me, the other three games will get their due coverage later in this piece, but we’ll start with the one that was actually entertaining.

Phoenix arrived in Minnesota off the back of eight wins in their last nine games, a streak that’s making you start to wonder if they might just be for real this year. They still essentially ignore the defensive end of the floor, but there are hints here of the Mercury teams from past years that simply outscored everyone anyway. Still, circumstances do seem to have fallen their way in several games this year, so a first meeting with the new-breed in Minnesota seemed like a true test of the Mercury’s mettle. It also meant a contest with the team that is actually outscoring them in fastbreak points so far this season, a category you don’t often see anyone leading Phoenix in. So we knew going in that this one was likely to be fast, exciting, and distinctly high-scoring.

While Maya Moore is the only rookie in the Lynx starting lineup, Minnesota started the game like a team that had never faced Phoenix before or even seen them on tape. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/13/2011: Sparking a Turnaround?

So I honestly had every intention of making this completely confusing. I was going to cover yesterday’s LA-San Antonio game, and two of today’s four camp day games in this column, while saving the other two games from today for tomorrow. Then I decided to simplify matters (or I remembered that I’m one of the World’s greatest procrastinators. Maybe a little of both). So all you get today is the late game from last night, Jellybean Bryant’s first game since replacing Jennifer Gillom as LA’s head coach. All four of today’s ridiculously early contests will be discussed in tomorrow’s piece, which I promise to try to post earlier than I usually manage. Let’s say you should be able to read them over dinner on the US East Coast, instead of having to wait until bedtime.

On to that game in San Antonio. LA had lost five in a row coming in – hence Gillom’s removal – but a team with a new person in charge is always dangerous. Everyone’s trying to make a good impression on the new boss, and if nothing else, the mood’s been lightened by getting rid of the person who led them to all those losses. The Silver Stars weren’t exactly on a high themselves, having lost twice to New York since their last victory two weeks ago.

My prediction in yesterday’s column about the LA lineup was half-right: Tina Thompson was back as a starter, but Ticha Penicheiro’s demotion from Gillom’s last game remained in place, sticking with the Noelle Quinn/Kristi Toliver backcourt. San Antonio continued with Jia Perkins as their third perimeter starter, alongside Becky Hammon and Tully Bevilaqua, which immediately creates all kind of mismatches between these two teams. In theory, at least. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/12/2011: Storm make heavy weather of Mystics

No games on Monday in the WNBA, but Seattle had their camp day game today, so we’re going to go with early coverage of the Storm’s matchup with the Washington Mystics instead of waiting until tomorrow. Details of the late game between LA and San Antonio will be in tomorrow’s piece. We’re deep enough into the season now that I think we all had a pretty decent idea of what to expect going into this one. Seattle are working hard to find some rhythm after a slow start and the loss of MVP Lauren Jackson; Washington are fighting through multiple injuries, massive turnover from last season, and excessive youth on their roster. Seattle went in as heavy favourites, especially with over 10,000 screaming kids cheering them on, but this is basketball: anything can happen.

After losing seven of their last eight games (and the win was over Tulsa), at least there was one piece of good news for Washington before this one got underway. Star power forward Crystal Langhorne, who’d missed their last three games with back pain, returned to the starting lineup. Rookie Victoria Dunlap has done a pretty nice job in her absence, but Lang is their best player and the only consistent interior threat on this roster (considering Nicky Anosike doesn’t seem capable of shooting straight from two feet any more). Having her back could only improve their chances. Hopefully Dunlap’s development while Langhorne was gone could give them more punch off the bench, now that the kid was back amongst the reserves. Still no Alana Beard or Monique Currie, of course. Seattle’s list remains the same – LJ out, and at least half the bench won’t play unless someone’s up by 20 with three minutes left.

Seattle got out to a fast start, which was hardly surprising after the beating they put on LA in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s game. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/11/2011: When the Spark is Gone

Two games in the WNBA yesterday afternoon, but we’ll get to those later. The big news late last night was the second head coaching casualty in the last few days, with the Los Angeles Sparks deciding that Jennifer Gillom’s time was up, replacing her with assistant Joe “Jellybean” Bryant (or “Kobe’s dad”, as ESPN insists on calling him). Gillom’s foibles and failings have been well-chronicled in this space, so any regular readers will know how I felt about a lot of her moves. Nonetheless, it’s still something of a surprise that LA would make this move quite so quickly.

The Sparks started the season so well. Not only were they 4-1 out of the gate, but the players looked like they were having fun on the court, appeared united, and seemed like a cohesive unit. Gillom herself even looked like she’d grown as a coach, finding her veterans more rest, and actually utilising the deeper bench that had been provided for her this year. There was a heavy reliance on Candace Parker, but when you’ve got one of the best players in the world on your squad, that’s what you’d expect. Who wouldn’t place most of their faith in Parker on that squad?

It would be easy to put the Sparks’ negative turn (and Gillom’s demise) down to Parker’s injury. LA were 4-2 when she hurt her knee, and was ruled out for six weeks. But to simply throw that out as an excuse would be missing the point. Continue reading