WNBA Today, 07/31/2011: Are they still zebras if they don’t wear stripes?

Don’t you hate when it’s impossible to discuss a basketball game without talking about the officials? I try to leave them alone whenever possible, because I fully accept that it’s a damn hard job, and that even when you do it well no one gives you any credit. Refereeing any basketball game is difficult; officiating at the professional level is exponentially harder because of the increase in speed and physicality. But I’m sorry, you just can’t fully discuss Saturday’s games without mentioning the zebras (I know they don’t wear stripes in this league. Tough. I like the nickname). Well you can’t fully discuss two of the games, anyway. As ever, Tulsa contests could be refereed by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Little Mermaid without much difference to the outcome.

The first game of the night was in New York, where Phoenix were the visitors. We probably could’ve guessed that this would be a tough game to marshal. After forcing a trade to New York prior to the 2010 season, Cappie Pondexter’s matchups with her former team have been a little spicy to say the least. She was thrown out of the first encounter last season for her part in a fracas, and then channelled her energy more positively to shoot the Merc off the floor in the second meeting. Beyond the history with Pondexter, Mercury games frequently end up chippy. Diana Taurasi and head coach Corey Gaines both bitch about every call, and Taurasi constantly creates contact at both ends of the floor. It can’t be fun for the refs.

The first quarter was tight, but largely played at New York’s pace. Phoenix couldn’t find their rhythm and ignite their running game, partly because the Liberty were dominating on the boards. The Mercury can run off made baskets, but it’s a hell of a lot more difficult. Even at this stage, a significant proportion of the Mercury’s points were being scored at the free throw line, and both teams were turning the ball over far too cheaply. The game was painfully stop-start.

New York forced their way to a 33-27 lead behind the interior play of Kia Vaughn and Quanitra Hollingsworth with under four minutes left in the first half, before Phoenix woke up. More free throws, a couple of run-outs off further Liberty turnovers and the Mercury had their first sustained run of the game. It was 42-36 Mercury when New York were rescued by the halftime buzzer.

The Liberty quickly turned things around in the second half, and then the game started getting really niggly. There were so many reaches and hacks going on that the referees didn’t know what to call or where to call it. It’s hard to blame the officials in those situations, but both teams inevitably end up annoyed by what they miss. Pondexter and Taurasi were both cold, hitting practically nothing all day, which only led to even greater frustration. Cappie picked up a technical foul for bitching a little too close to one of the refs in the third quarter. A Penny Taylor three for the final points of the period gave Phoenix a one-point lead, but the score was only 66-65, decidedly low for a Mercury game. All those fouls had prevented either team building any rhythm or speed to their play.

Phoenix managed a run to open the final period, although again much of the scoring was done at the line. It was capped off by a horrible call on Pondexter, made by a referee who clearly couldn’t see what contact was made when she reached in to disrupt a Taurasi three-point effort. I hate when referees guess. By all means make mistakes, but don’t just make calls up. Pondexter got all ball, but Taurasi went to the line for three shots, and sank all three for a 75-67 Mercury lead.

It wasn’t until the final minutes that New York stopped whining about the calls and made a comeback. Diana Taurasi committed yet another turnover on a poor pass across the floor, which Nicole Powell grabbed and turned into a layup the other way to cut the lead to five. Taylor and Powell exchanged jumpers, before Pondexter finally made a shot from outside – her first make in eight tries from beyond the arc. That narrowed the score to 84-82 with 90 seconds to play. After another Phoenix turnover, New York had the chance to tie or take the lead, and unfortunately another whistle came into play. Essence Carson drove the lane, ran into Penny Taylor, and was called for the charge. At least that one looked like the right call to me.

Then it was Taurasi’s turn to step up. She made the exact same play that we saw Kerri Gardin make in the waning seconds of New York’s game against Washington two days earlier, but with a significant little twist. Driving past her defender from the left side, she put up a floater just as Plenette Pierson slid across to try to take the charge – exactly as she did against Gardin. But Taurasi used her left hand, and contorted her body to slide to the side of Pierson, hence avoiding most of the contact. On Thursday night Gardin was called for the charge; last night, Taurasi’s shot dropped safely in and for once there was no whistle.

Now down four, Pondexter charged to the other end, threw up a runner that never had a chance and quite rightly didn’t get the call. With barely 30 seconds left and a four-point lead, most teams would run down the clock. Not Phoenix. Ketia Swanier ran swiftly to the other end, and fed a loitering Taurasi who’d never made it past halfcourt since her previous score. Diana drained a three without hesitation and the game was over. An exchange of meaningless points left the final score at 91-84 Mercury.

It would be unfair to put the result of this game entirely down to the referees. It’s become part of Phoenix’s skillset to force their way to the line on a regular basis, and it’s part of the reason that they’re the most efficient offense in the league. It’s not all about running and gunning. But sometimes the refs just slide into a mindset that there’s going to be a call on practically every possession and set themselves to call it, whatever’s actually happening on the floor. So many whistles, so little time. It makes the games far less enjoyable as well.

The leading light for the Mercury was Penny Taylor, returning to her form from earlier in the season after two quiet games this week. She was 8-13 from the floor and 11-11 from the free throw line for 29 points, compensating for Taurasi’s off-night. As a team, the Mercury were 26-28 from the line, illustrating the other reason that they capitalise so much on calls – they don’t miss many free throws. It wasn’t your typical Mercury win, with so little flow and reasonably few fast breaks, but after a three-game losing streak I’m sure they’ll be happy with any win. It sets them up nicely for Tuesday night’s national TV outing against the West-leading Minnesota Lynx. After 421 points in their two meetings so far, that one should be fun.

With Cappie going 4-19 and Carson 4-15, it’s something of a surprise that New York were even in this game at the end. They got taken out of their rhythm and upset by the calls, and they let it disrupt their game. They also wasted one of Nicole Powell’s best performances of the year, shooting 7-10 from the field for 16 points and producing six steals. Still, some nights it feels like you’re playing against eight people out there, not five, and that can make it hard to keep battling. They’ll have better days.

—–

The other game where the officials had a role to play was in Chicago, where Los Angeles came in looking for their first win in five games. Both these teams have been dreadful lately, so each of them probably saw this as an opportunity to turn things around. Us neutrals were just wondering which of them would manage to out-suck the other.

In the first half, it was Chicago by a mile. Both of these sides have struggled with awful, momentum-killing turnovers this season and they spent the first quarter sharing them out equally, but when they could hold on to the ball LA were simply making more shots. Coach Joe Bryant was keeping everything very, very simple for his squad. He made very few substitutions, so no one had to worry about when they were coming out of the game. He played a basic 2-3 zone-defense for essentially the entire game, so no one had to think too much about what they were doing defensively. He pretty much just let the players get on with it, which was the secret of his success in his first stint with the Sparks, and it worked. Meanwhile, Chicago struggled horribly against that zone. They seemed befuddled by it, and failed to penetrate through it or pass around it for easy opportunities. They combined that with one of those halves where they seemed to forget that Sylvia Fowles was on their team. By halftime LA were shooting 58% from the field, DeLisha Milton-Jones had played the entire 20 minutes and scored 17 points, and the Sparks were up 51-35. It looked like even LA should be able to hold on to this one.

Los Angeles pushed the gap to 20 early in the second half, but they’re still the Sparks – it wasn’t over. Chicago finally started attacking the zone instead of just drifting around it, created wide open shots from three-point range and started knocking them down. Epiphanny Prince, Erin Thorn and Shay Murphy all had multiple efforts drop from outside, Fowles was working hard to provide some balance to the offense inside, and the comeback was on. LA were helping, of course. The turnovers returned with a vengeance, the game suddenly got complicated, and Bryant started searching for a lineup that would work. When Milton-Jones committed her sixth turnover of the day he decided that her scoring was no longer worth the drawbacks, and benched her for practically the entire fourth quarter. It just barely worked out.

Another Erin Thorn three cut the scoreline to 84-82 LA with 20 seconds left in the game when the refs came into play once again. Chicago realised fairly quickly that they needed to foul and ran up to do so. In these situations you want the officials to know that one team is trying to foul, because otherwise you’ll end up with players committing common assault to stop the clock. The refs hadn’t seemed to notice. Several swipes and hacks were ignored before Chicago finally managed to draw a whistle with 11 seconds left on the clock. And guess who finally went to the line? Yes, Milton-Jones, re-inserted into the game with those 11 seconds left, calmly stepped up and made both shots, her first points of the second half after sitting on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.

That just about sealed it, with Fowles hitting the side of the backboard off the Sky inbounds play that followed DMJ’s foul shots. Final score, 88-84 LA.

I refuse to give the Sparks much credit for this one. It’s a win, and a win on the road no less, but they scraped past a barely mediocre team in the closing seconds after being ahead by 20 in the second half. That’s nothing to be particularly proud of. I do think that Bryant has the right idea by simplifying his defense and rotation, giving his players fewer things to think about on the floor, but they’re not going to shoot 56% most nights however simple he makes it. On a more positive note, rookie center Jantel Lavender was 6-7 from the floor for 13 points and six rebounds, a very impressive night when you’re fighting with Sylvia Fowles at both ends. The kid looks like she might be a player in this league for many years to come, and hopefully on better Sparks teams than this.

Blech. Chicago aren’t very good. Pokey Chatman’s been given a lot of credit this year for turning this team around, and they are at least better than last year, but they’re still pretty poor. How many times have these players faced a 2-3 zone since they started playing basketball? It shouldn’t have been as difficult as they made it to score in this game, and only some hot shooting from outside dragged them back into it. When the Sparks are moving the ball better than you, you’ve got some problems.

—–

Talking of teams with problems, we head to Tulsa for our final game of the night, where Seattle arrived looking to wipe away the memory of their horrible defeat at the hands of Minnesota the previous evening. The Shock have the memory of defeat after defeat after defeat plaguing them, of course, and are simply searching for any kind of victory they can possibly find. The worst record in WNBA history is 3-27, by the way, ‘achieved’ by the 1998 Washington Mystics. I have a feeling we’ll be bringing that up fairly regularly as the season draws to a close.

I think Teresa Edwards is changing her starting lineups every night for comedy’s sake now. She’s heard that people like me have completely given up working out why she constantly fiddles with her starting five, so she’s just doing it to mess with us. Tiffany Jackson and Kayla Pedersen returned for this one, while Jen Lacy and Sheryl Swoopes went back to the bench. Same as recent games for Seattle.

Judging by the first half of this game, this is Sue Bird’s World and the rest of us are just living in it. After a horrible game against Minnesota the night before, where the Lynx completely shut her down, Bird seemed elated to be facing what Tulsa pass off as defense. She was raining threes, knocking down pull-ups, getting to the line and just generally taking over. Tulsa were doing their usual job of making the game messy and trying to find some offense from somewhere. They do look a little better lately, with Edwards apparently installing a little more structure, but mostly it’s same old, same old.

By halftime, Bird had 20 points, four rebounds and three assists, and had carried Seattle to a 48-35 lead. It wasn’t over, given how Seattle have found a way to dissolve their own offense against anyone this year, but it didn’t feel much like a contest. Then in the third, somehow, Tulsa started to make a game of it. Seattle’s offense dried up once Bird cooled off, so even with their own intermittent scoring the Shock started to crawl back into it. They were as close as 60-55 just before the end of the third quarter.

Then Seattle showed exactly who the reigning WNBA champs are, and who’s won only a single game all season. Seattle know how to step up their game when necessary, while Tulsa are very much still in the learning stages. Hence the 13-2 Storm run to start the fourth quarter that completely killed the game. After the previous night’s humiliation, Seattle had no interest in hanging around and fighting this one out. They increased the defensive pressure, attacked the rim, and pushed in transition off turnovers and Tulsa misses. From there they were coasting, and ultimately closed out an 89-72 win.

Not much to learn from this one, as ever. The Storm finished off a game that they had to win for the sake of their record and morale, and ended up going 2-1 on their mini roadtrip. I’m sure they’d have taken that going in, but they won’t have been happy with the demolition that they suffered to the Lynx. Now they head into August and a sequence of eight home games and just three on the road over the next four weeks. Considering how much stronger Seattle have looked back at Key Arena lately, this is the time for them to string some wins together and cement that playoff spot. Plus if they’re really lucky, Lauren Jackson might be ready to play by the time they hit September. Then who knows what might happen.

Tulsa got 16 points from Jackson, 13 from Ivory Latta, and some mild entertainment out of keeping the game close until the end of the third quarter. I just feel sorry for them at this point.


In other news…

The Under-19 Women’s World Championships came to a conclusion today, and the USA were comfortable winners over Spain 69-46 in the final. Brazil beat Australia 70-67 in the 3rd-place playoff, led by 26 points and 13 rebounds from Damiris Dantas, who finished the tournament as its leading scorer. A 6-4 post player who won’t turn 20 until after the 2012 WNBA season is completed, it’s become a question of how high she’ll go in the 2012 draft, not just whether anyone will take her. Bear in mind that the leading scorer in this same tournament two years ago was a center as well. She ended up going 2nd overall to Tulsa…


Today’s Games (already completed):

Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

Los Angeles @ Indiana, 6pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 07/31/2011: Are they still zebras if they don’t wear stripes?

  1. Rob says:

    Obviously a Taurasi hater here. She was not “loitering” She was to past half court before that final 3. It took her longer to get there because she was on the floor on the previous play. But she was definitely past the half court line and there was a defender out there she was covering.

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