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

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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