WNBA Today, 08/30/2011: East clearing up as the Sky fall

Everyone played tonight in the WNBA, with six games taking place across the country. Including five games tipping off within an hour of each other. The WNBA does not like to make my life easy, and with all kinds of LiveAccess issues, it only got more difficult. For quick coverage tonight, we’re going to tackle the most meaningful game of the evening, which also happened to be the first game to tip off. The murky playoff picture is starting to clear up just a little.

The opening game was clearly the most critical for the teams involved. Chicago beat New York on Sunday night, but still sat 1.5 games behind Atlanta and 2 behind the Liberty in the chase for the playoffs. A win on New York’s home floor tonight would’ve brought them within a game of the Libs, and depending on what happened elsewhere, potentially half a game away from Atlanta. A Sky win would also seal the tie-breaker over New York, which would mean they’d only have to draw level with them in the standings to sneak into the postseason. A loss, and the Sky’s season was essentially over. New York had allowed their playoff future to become far too perilous. A win in this game would effectively dispose of the Sky, leaving them to worry about fighting for positioning with Connecticut and Atlanta over the last ten days of the season. A loss, and the nerves would really start to jangle.

The starting fives were as expected, Chicago sticking with the Erin Thorn/Dominique Canty backcourt that has brought them two wins since Sky coach Pokey Chatman promoted them. These teams know each other so well by now, that there were no surprises in the opening quarter. Kia Vaughn once again flashed her skills, after proving to be easily the most effective Liberty post player against Sylvia Fowles on Sunday night. She already had six points by the time the Liberty took a 10-5 lead, and was working hard against Fowles defensively. But as the quarter wore on, and Liberty coach John Whisenant left Vaughn out there (presumably because he remembered how much of a downgrade her backups had been on Sunday), Chicago came into the game. With Fowles starting to find some room in the paint, and Epiphanny Prince and Cathrine Kraayeveld coming off the bench to make a couple of shots, Chicago spun the game around and led 18-11 at the end of the first. Vaughn finally got a rest with just a minute left in the period.

However, the second quarter reminded us exactly why the Sky were 14-15 coming into this game. Continue reading


WNBA Today, 08/29/2011: Playoff race intensifies with quintuple feature

As the WNBA approached the final two weeks of the regular season, the five-game slate on Sunday carried significant importance for a variety of playoff battles. We’ve got teams fighting for position, teams struggling to even reach the postseason, and one or two still showing enough pride to battle it out for victories when their fates have been sealed for weeks. The final positioning was clear as mud before Sunday, and pretty similar by the end, but for individual teams these games are becoming vitally important to the success – or failure – of their 2011 seasons.

The first game to tip off was in San Antonio, where fans, players and coaches alike must have been growing increasingly worried over recent weeks. Having lost five in a row, and nine of their last eleven, a team that led the Western Conference in the opening weeks of the season is now under threat of missing the playoffs. LA’s loss at home to Tulsa on Friday night had helped them out, and maintained the gap at 1.5 games, but the fear remained. Considering Sunday’s visitors were Minnesota, that fear was well-warranted. Winners of their last four, and 22-6 overall, the Lynx were one game away from officially sealing the top seed in the Western Conference. Three games clear of Indiana, home court advantage throughout the playoffs isn’t far away either. They’re not the team you want to see step off the plane when you’re fighting for your playoff lives.

As ever, the Lynx opened with their typical starting five, while Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes kept faith with his recent lineup starting Danielle Robinson at the point. The rookie speedster has started their last couple of games, and the change has failed to snap their losing skid, but Hughes shows no signs of switching back to veteran Tully Bevilaqua. The scoreline stayed reasonably close throughout the first half, but managed to be simultaneously frightening for the Silver Stars. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/28/2011: McCoughtry gets by with a little help from her friends

Just the one game on Saturday night in the WNBA this week, so you get just one game of coverage from me in this column as well. Which means tomorrow’s piece, featuring all five games from Sunday night, will probably be an epic about as long as War & Peace. We can only hope that I reveal a heretofore undiscovered talent for brevity. But somehow I doubt it.

So only a single matchup, but it carried plenty of intrigue all on its own. With seven games left on their schedule, Indiana held a 1.5 game lead over Connecticut at the top of the East. Minnesota are already worrying about home court throughout the playoffs over in the West, but the Fever have more immediate concerns before that’s even a consideration. You have to win your own conference before you worry about the teams on the opposite side. Visitors Atlanta have even more important issues to take care of. Their win in Chicago on Tuesday night went a long way towards sealing their playoff spot, but a late swoon could still put their postseason place in jeopardy. They’ve also crept right up on the tail of New York, giving themselves a chance to move higher than the #4 spot they currently hold.

Perhaps more interesting than any of those potential moves, if these teams stay exactly where they are until the end of the season, they’ll be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs. This was the first of three remaining meetings between the teams before the end of the regular season, and it was a potential opportunity to  grab a mental edge before they clash in the postseason. If nothing else, it was a chance to see Tamika Catchings and Angel McCoughtry go directly at each other, which is always entertaining. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/27/2011: Playoff chase still has some Shocking twists

Okay let’s face it, the big WNBA event of Saturday night came late in the evening, when many saner people than I had already gone to bed. But we’re going to build up to it, Shock fans (oops, spoiler alert). Every game yesterday had at least some level of playoff implications, so it’s not like we can just ignore all the basketball that went before in favour of those few final seconds. However much we might want to.

Having already covered the Phoenix-Connecticut matchup in yesterday’s column, next up was San Antonio’s trip to face Minnesota. While the Lynx are still playing to mathematically win the West and seal home court advantage throughout the playoffs, their regular season is already winding down. Everyone knows they’ve won the conference, and they’ve got a couple of games on Indiana for home court. Their last few matchups are more about preparing for the playoffs than anything else. The situation in San Antonio is a little different. Having lost eight of their last ten, the Silver Stars were only 1.5 games ahead of LA for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West heading into this one, and the gap seems to have been decreasing by the day. A road game against the Lynx obviously wouldn’t be your first choice to turn a spiralling record around – in fact it might be just about last on this list this year – but it’s dire straights for San Antonio at this point. They need to scrap for any possible win they can find, and if they can snatch a couple in unlikely places it’ll be an added bonus.

Helping the Silver Stars out for this game, Danielle Adams was finally back in uniform after missing 11 games due to her mid-foot sprain. Bear in mind that Seattle went 10-10 without Lauren Jackson, while LA went 5-10 without Candace Parker – San Antonio were even worse, at 3-8 without Adams. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/26/2011: Sun a little too hot for the Mercury

Some more split coverage for you with tonight’s action. Four-game fun for Friday in the WNBA, and due to time constraints you’re only receiving a taster tonight. You get the opening game of the evening in this piece, and the anticipation can build until tomorrow for the WNBAlien coverage of the other three. Good things come to those who wait.

The night began in Connecticut, where Phoenix were making their yearly visit. After arresting a brief slide (two consecutive overtime losses barely counts) with a strong win over Atlanta, the Sun are still only two games behind Indiana and retain hopes of catching the Fever to win the East. Their 12-2 record at the Mohegan Sun Arena illustrates just how important home court advantage could be for Connecticut in as many postseason games as possible. The Mercury started this game in the same position as the Sun in the standings – second in their conference – but with different problems. Minnesota are all but confirmed as the #1 seeds in the West, and Seattle have pulled into a virtual tie with Phoenix for second place. It’s looking more and more likely that Storm-Mercury is going to be the 2-3 first-round matchup, but home court advantage is up in the air. An extra game in Seattle’s Key Arena or the US Airways Center in Phoenix could make a huge difference in who progresses.

Significantly improving the Mercury’s chances in this game, Diana Taurasi returned to their starting lineup after missing two games due to back spasms. She also survived a potential suspension for her 7th technical foul, due to one being rescinded earlier in the season. Connecticut remained faithful to their established starting five. The opening quarter was a pure shootout. Phoenix were playing their standard game, charging from one end of the floor to the other and keeping the tempo high, but Connecticut were scoring right along with them. While Taurasi and Penny Taylor rained in shots for the Mercury, no one in a Phoenix vest could guard Tina Charles. When Charles wasn’t scoring herself down low or stepping outside for her reliable mid-range jumper, the amount of attention she drew was breaking everyone else open. Even Kalana Greene knocked down a pair of threes to contribute to the scoring. However, in the end, Connecticut couldn’t quite stay with a smoking hot Mercury team. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/25/2011: In Shock to nobody, Storm win

Well you can’t blame me for posting this one a little late. No games on Wednesday in the WNBA, and just the one late, late game on Thursday. And what a glamour matchup it was. Oh no, wait, it was Tulsa on the road. A masterful piece of scheduling by the WNBA once again. At least their hosts, Seattle, have Lauren Jackson back to add a little interest and excitement to the contest. A win in this game would pull Seattle into a virtual tie with Phoenix for second place in the Western Conference. A win for Tulsa would break a 19-game losing streak and send everyone watching into shock.

Both teams kept faith with the same starting lineups that they’d used in the last couple of games. For the third game in a row since her return, Lauren Jackson scored the opening points, this time on a little catch-and-shoot jumper in the lane (while being fouled). She’s like a nice little security blanket for Sue Bird – the first option and the final option on a possession if there’s nothing else available. As a whole, the first quarter resembled the early stages of Tulsa’s game against Minnesota on Tuesday – Seattle looked comfortably the better team, but not all that interested or invested and without a great deal of energy to start the contest. As a result, a Tulsa team that was knocking down a few shots from outside and has generally been playing with a little more composure lately hung around, and Seattle only led 18-17 at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was ugly. Ug-ly. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/24/2011: Cappie explodes; San Antonio sink; Tulsa toil.

For anyone who missed it, I covered two of Tuesday’s games in yesterday’s column. Now it’s time for the remaining three. Chronologically, Minnesota’s trip to Tulsa came first, but let’s face it, top vs. bottom doesn’t mean a great deal at this point in the season. So we’ll get to that game at the end. First, the two contests that involved teams still fighting it out for playoff positions, and even to make sure they reach the postseason to begin with.

Live on ESPN2 in the US, Cappie Pondexter returned to Phoenix with her New York Liberty squad for the second time since forcing a trade prior to the 2010 season. When she went back last season the teams ended up in a scuffle that led to Pondexter being ejected from the game, so it was an interesting choice for national TV. If you’d had to assign probabilities of a brawl for every game all season, this one might’ve had the highest value on the schedule. Maybe they were working on the age-old maxim of “any publicity is good publicity”, and hoping there might be some extra-curricular activity. The chances of any kind of scuffle decreased a little when news filtered out that Diana Taurasi would miss her second straight game due to back spasms. Apparently she wanted to play, but the Mercury medical staff decided against it. Probably a good idea considering how chippy the game was always likely to become.

After winning four of their last five games, Phoenix had moved 1.5 games clear in second place in the West. However, with a four game road trip coming up, this would’ve been a nice game to win to send them out on their travels on a positive note. For New York, the win Atlanta completed over Chicago just before this game tipped off gave them a little breathing room to make the playoffs, but made their grasp on 3rd place even more tenuous. It’s still a combination of trying to hold Atlanta off while trying to chase down Connecticut for them, just as it’s been for several weeks now. They were helped out a little for this game by the return of backup center Quanitra Hollingsworth, deepening their post rotation and reducing their reliance on recent acquisition Kara Braxton. It was Braxton’s first appearance back in Phoenix since being dumped for pennies on the dollar by the Mercury earlier in the season, due to her attitude and a physical altercation with Olayinka Sanni. Judging from the boos that greeted her when she entered the game, the Mercury fans didn’t exactly welcome her back with open arms. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/23/2011: A Spark of hope, but the Sky are falling

Yes, I know, this is being posted very, very late. I offer up the same apologies that always accompany a post that’s only ‘daily’ for those in Seattle, LA and all points even further west. What you get in this piece is detailed accounts of two of tonight’s early games – the ones that didn’t involve Tulsa. Check back tomorrow – or probably ‘today’, technically, by the time you’re reading this – for coverage of Tuesday’s other three games. The WNBA continues to make my life difficult by playing too many games on the same nights.

First up, a game between two truly awful teams. Sorry, not in the mood to sugarcoat it. By now, everyone knows how bad Washington are. When you’re 5-20 in the standings, it’s kind of hard to keep quiet. It’s really only the presence of the Shock that has kept people off their backs for how close they’re running some of the historically terrible teams in this league. Their opponents tonight, Los Angeles, have had a ready-made excuse nearly all season. Lose an MVP candidate to injury, of course you’re going to be bad. The same thing happened when they got a pass from a lot of people last season. The problem is, Candace is back, and they’re still dreadful. The Sparks have produced some of the most pitiful defense you’re ever likely to see on a WNBA level in their last few games, and it took some effort to stand out from the dismal defensive effort they’ve been producing all season. Thanks to a schedule that helpfully got easier just after Parker returned, and the continuing poor form of the San Antonio Silver Stars, LA are somehow creeping back into playoff contention. But that’s more a sad commentary on their competition and how easy it is to make the playoffs in this league, than a positive reflection on how they’ve been playing.

Sparks coach Joe Bryant sent out the same starting five he’d been using lately for this game. It was immediately apparent that he’d dumped the atrocious switch-on-everything defense that they’d thrown out on the floor against Indiana and Minnesota last week (no idea whether they used it in Tulsa, as that game still isn’t available online and probably never will be). In this game, they started with a terrible man-to-man that looked exactly like it does when you first learn it as a five year-old at school – that’s your guy, go follow him around the best you can. Occasionally, they switched to a terrible 2-3 zone instead (which might well be the second defense you learned at school). You know how some teams and coaches in this league have a defensive system, or at least a defensive ethos that they drill into their players? Yeah, not in LA. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/22/2011: Sun, Fever, Sparks win; entire league receives a Boost

A triple-game Sunday for the WNBA yesterday, but due to technical issues only two that anyone could watch unless you happened to be in Tulsa. So you’ll have to make do with two typically detailed reviews, and one summary compiled entirely on the basis of play-by-play details and boxscore numbers. I’ll throw in some bitching about LA’s defense and some criticism of how terrible Tulsa are just to make it feel like I watched it.

The first game up yesterday was a rematch of Friday night’s overtime thriller between Atlanta and Connecticut, with the venue switching to the Mohegan Sun. The Dream pulled off a remarkable victory in the previous game, shutting down Tina Charles for the final 25 minutes and forcing the extra period with an unlikely three-pointer from Sancho Lyttle. They received an assist from the Sun themselves when coach Mike Thibault benched starting point guard Renee Montgomery at the end of the third quarter for what he later described as an ‘internal matter’. Which probably means she said something naughty, and he showed her who’s boss. She was back in the lineup for this game, so presumably they’ve put it behind them. That loss was Connecticut’s second in a row, the first time they’ve lost consecutive games since early July, so they were looking to stop the rot before it could gain any more traction. Losing both halves of a back-to-back in overtime can be waved off as bad luck – drop the next one as well and it starts to look like a losing streak.

For Atlanta, that win over the Sun was their 10th in 13 games, a run of results that has completely turned their season around. With everyone bar backup point guard Shalee Lehning finally healthy, they’re looking up and entertaining the possibility of climbing the standings beyond their current fourth. A win here would’ve brought them within 2.5 games of Connecticut and given the Dream a 2-1 advantage in the season series between the two teams. While they still have to hold off Chicago to ensure their playoff spot, second in the East might’ve started to look somewhat plausible. It’s a far cry from the 3-9 record they opened the season with.

The standard starting fives began the game for both teams once again. Immediately, Tina Charles and Erika de Souza picked up their battle under the basket right where they left off on Friday. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/21/2011: Wild West heating up

Saturday was a big night for the WNBA’s Western Conference, as all five teams still in with a shot of the playoffs featured. With one superstar having already returned, another making her first appearance in months, and a third taking the night off due to pain, it’s all gotten a little extra-interesting as we head into the final weeks of the regular season. The one East-only matchup had an exciting finish as well, but we’ll get to that at the end. First, the West.

Opening up our Western slate, the Los Angeles Sparks travelled out to face the league-leading Minnesota Lynx. With Candace Parker back in the fold, LA – somehow – managed to beat East-leading Indiana on Thursday night. To my eyes, as regular readers will remember, it was far more down to an inept performance from the Fever than a particularly impressive one from LA. Still, it had to give them extra confidence heading into the game with the Lynx. Compared to San Antonio, LA’s schedule is very straightforward for the rest of the season, meaning their playoff hopes are still alive despite being three games back prior to Saturday night. A win in Minnesota would get that playoff push off to a heck of a start. It hardly mattered, but the Lynx went into this game knowing that a win would officially, 100% statistically confirm that they’d made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. It’s been a foregone conclusion for weeks, but when you’ve been on the outside looking in for so long, it’s always nice to make these things official. There’s also still the small matter of home court advantage throughout the playoffs to fight for.

Minnesota’s starting five has barely changed all season, and nothing was any different for this one. LA stuck with the five that ‘worked’ against Indiana. The Sparks’ defense immediately presented itself as the exact same style and concept that they offered against the Fever. They were switching on everything, not bothering to fight over or around any screens regardless of the players involved. Lindsay Whalen’s not dumb. She brought Taj McWilliams-Franklin out to set screens on three Lynx possessions within the first three minutes of the game. Each time, LA switched and Taj was left being defended by Ticha Penicheiro. Yeah, that’s not going to work. Three easy buckets resulted, two for Taj on layups and one for a wide open Rebekkah Brunson when the ball was kicked to her. I hate this LA defense with a passion. It’s dismal.

The scary thing was that Minnesota started messing it up. Continue reading