Those of you who hang around certain online portals for WNBA arguing – also known as message boards – may well have read my bitching about this year’s WNBA national TV schedule before the season even began. I had one central complaint. The game of women’s basketball doesn’t have many stars. Not true stars that are known by an average sportsfan, rather than someone who specifically follows the women’s game. Over four years at the University of Connecticut, Maya Moore became one of those rare crossover personalities. Your average American man in the street, who watches the NFL, NBA, some MLB and gets into the NCAA during March Madness actually knew who she was. Even Bill Simmons gave her some credit in his columns and podcasts during the NCAA tournament of her senior year.
So when the Minnesota Lynx won the lottery, and everyone in the World knew they’d be taking Maya, it would’ve made sense to put the Lynx on ABC or ESPN as soon as possible, right? Carry the fans over, pull in people who remember her from UConn and see if you can draw people to the pro game via your shiny new star. Apparently not. The national TV schedule came out, and the Lynx appeared once. And not only was there just a single appearance, we were going to have to wait until August for that game to take place. Sportsfans have short memories – you’re not going to create much carry-over attention when Moore hasn’t been in the public consciousness for over four months. Stupid. Anyway, last night Maya Moore finally made her debut on national television in a Lynx jersey. Surprise, surprise, it seems like she enjoys the spotlight. If only this game had taken place months ago.
Of course the night wasn’t just about Moore. Minnesota have been on a tear, winning six in a row to move clear at the top of the Western Conference standings at 13-4. Heady heights for a team used to languishing in the lottery. Their visitors were Phoenix, who’ve been sputtering ever since losing to the Lynx just before the All-Star break. They snapped a three-game losing streak with a win in New York on Saturday, but if the Mercury had any designs on catching the Lynx at the Western Conference summit, this needed to be the start. Minnesota were starting to pull away.
The Lynx sent out their standard starting five, but there was a change for Phoenix. Kara Braxton was missing for what was described as ‘personal reasons’ throughout the ESPN2 broadcast, but was revealed today to be a one-game suspension for ‘conduct detrimental to the team’. Braxton has been suspended twice in the past for DUI convictions, so she’s hardly exhibited the greatest judgement or sensible behaviour in her WNBA career, which means the announcement was hardly a surprise. However, presumably the infraction was fairly minor if it led to just a one-game ban. Her last DUI cost her six games, so another error of that magnitude might’ve put the rest of her season in jeopardy (at least). Nakia Sanford replaced her in Phoenix’s starting lineup.
The opening exchanges were fairly typical for the Mercury. A quick start, followed by assisting their opponent’s comeback with poor turnovers. Giving the ball away cheaply has been hurting them all year, and especially in their recent run of losses. With Moore and Augustus firing away from outside, Minnesota had a 20-15 advantage by the end of the first quarter. In the second, Moore’s predecessor as a UConn superstar, Diana Taurasi, picked up her third foul with seven minutes still to play in the half. She does this far too often, taking herself out of the game with unnecessary, pointless fouls. Moore continued to rack up the points from outside, while also playing her part in the strong Lynx defensive effort against the remaining Mercury threats. Minnesota were ahead by eight or nine points for most of the quarter, but a late Phoenix run keyed by Temeka Johnson and Penny Taylor gave a much nicer look to the halftime scoreline for the Mercury. They trailed just 41-38, after what had felt like a pretty weak performance.
The third quarter wasn’t exactly what ESPN2 had hoped for when they put these high-octane teams on the schedule. Taurasi was back in the game and going to work, but endless whistles dragged down the pace of the game along with the level of entertainment. Moore added just two free throws to the 19 points she had at halftime, and behind Taurasi’s unique brand of aggressive offense the Mercury even forced their way in front. With barely a minute left in the third the game was tied at 60-60 and looked like it could go either way.
Then came the passage of play that decided the game. Phoenix have struggled recently because they go through periods where they just can’t deal with the other team’s defense. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines keeps throwing out quotes about his team beating themselves and not showing up to play, but this isn’t all about them. Other teams can score too, and they play far better defense. It’s why Phoenix have struggled lately against teams like Seattle, Minnesota and San Antonio – sides that will play tough, physical defense and take the game to them. With Seimone Augustus on a breathtaking offensive roll, and actual help from their bench for once with Jessica Adair, Candice Wiggins and Charde Houston all contributing, the Lynx took over. 60-60 was 67-62 Lynx by the end of the third, and 78-62 less than three minutes into the fourth quarter. Augustus completed the run by shaking Penny Taylor out of her shoes and going to the rim for the final two, visibly firing up both herself and the crowd. Taurasi was pissed, picked up her fifth foul setting an overzealous screen seconds later, and the game was over. Phoenix have made bigger comebacks in shorter periods of time, but it was never going to happen in this game. The Lynx eased home 90-73, and it was never close after that Augustus-led run.
Minnesota are flying right now. They’ve found that perfect balance of enough veteran know-how and leadership to show them the way, but enough youth that they don’t even realise how crazy this run is for this franchise. The Lynx have never been this good. Never, ever. Last night, Rebekkah Brunson, possibly their best player this season (although she’s got some strong competition) played less than 16 minutes. I’m not sure whether she had any kind of injury or illness, or if Cheryl Reeve simply stuck with Adair and Houston when they came in and produced. Monica Wright is still missing due to her family issues. This year’s 4th overall pick Amber Harris can barely get off the bench. The team has enough talent that stars like Brunson can have an off-night and they’ll beat a team like Phoenix by nearly 20 regardless. Moore finished with 22 points on 7-11 shooting, Augustus had 21, and the fact that the Lynx shot a horrible 20-32 from the free throw line made no difference whatsoever. They’re playing quality, pressure defense and took the Mercury to pieces in the fourth quarter. After all these years of futility for this franchise, it’s a hell of a sight to see.
As for Phoenix, once again, a little worrying. They may have had the excuse of lacking their starting center for this game, but they’ve had the same issues in multiple contests of late. Careless turnovers, and a susceptibility to long passages of play where they lose any kind of rhythm or flow to their game. After carrying this squad alongside Taurasi for the first half of the year, Penny Taylor’s had one good game in four since the All-Star break, and Taurasi can’t do it alone. Especially when she picks up dumb fouls, spends most of the game doing as much bitching as shooting, and the team continues to defend like a sieve. They’re still a threat to any team on any given night – they’ve been known to turn it on like the flick of a switch – but the way they’ve been playing lately the threat is diminishing. Gaines talked about facing this Lynx squad down the road in the Western Conference Finals; keep playing like this, Maya Moore will be there, but Taurasi will be at home watching her on TV.
While the Merc and Lynx fought it out on ESPN2, you had to trawl your way through frustrating corners of the internet to see New York facing Atlanta in the other early evening clash. With the Liberty at 10-8, the Dream at 8-10 and the season series between the two deadlocked at 2-2, this had the potential to be a key game in the Eastern Conference playoff race. If Atlanta could take it, they’d move just one game behind New York, and hold the first tie-breaker should the two teams finish level at the end of the season. A New York win would mean a three-game gap plus the tie-break advantage on top, leaving Atlanta likely scrapping for fourth with Chicago. No matchup can be truly crucial with 15 games still remaining before the playoffs, but the numbers made this one more important than most.
For the second game in a row, Dream star Angel McCoughtry started the game on the bench. Exactly why, I’m still not certain. Once again the commentators mentioned disciplinary reasons behind the move (and it was Atlanta’s own broadcasters this time), but there’s still been no confirmation of that from the Dream or coach Marynell Meadors. Plus it’d be weird to bench someone for two games due to showing up late for practice or missing a team meeting. Bench her once for a minor issue, or suspend her for something bigger – double benching is just strange. Meadors said illness was the reason after Sunday’s game in Connecticut, but again it would be odd to bring McCoughtry off the bench twice due to sickness. I don’t get it. But anyway, I’m not in the Dream locker room, so I don’t need to get it. Iziane Castro Marques replaced McCoughtry again, while New York stuck with their standard starting lineup.
The first half was an exercise in contrasts. New York played some nice stuff, Nicole Powell hitting from outside, Plenette Pierson fighting through the trees for multiple layups, and 14 assists on 19 baskets illustrated the impressive ball movement. But when they weren’t scoring, they were handing the ball over. 12 turnovers in the first half is never good, and it’s especially bad against Atlanta because you’ll end up igniting their running game. For the Dream, Lindsey Harding was especially aggressive early in the game, perhaps remembering how she’d waltzed past Leilani Mitchell in games earlier this year and in previous seasons. But New York play good help defense these days, and even if Harding managed to work her way around Mitchell, she found herself surrounded with nowhere to go. Then McCoughtry came in, and inevitably took over the Atlanta offense. Annoying as that can be at times, it was the McCoughtry one-woman show that got the Dream back in the game in the second quarter. A 10-2 Atlanta run – featuring eight points from Angel – brought a nine-point New York advantage down to one. The Liberty managed to sneak their lead back up to six at 46-40 by halftime.
The second half – and the outcome of the game – illustrated one of the starkest differences between these teams. New York can shoot from outside; Atlanta essentially can’t. The Dream continue to be far and away the worst three-point shooting team in the WNBA. It’s one of those rare categories where Tulsa aren’t last, and Atlanta aren’t even close to them. They went 0-6 in this game, because they usually remember how bad they are beyond the arc and avoid taking them. Naturally, that helps opposing defenses, because they can drop off and crowd the paint even more than they would be already. New York are one of the better three-point shooting teams in the league, currently 4th, and they made it tell.
First it was Powell and Pondexter (anyone else’s mind flick to the movie The Red Shoes right there? Just me? Okay then), stretching New York’s lead to 10 midway through the third quarter. After a mini-comeback by the Dream, Leilani Mitchell took over. Mitchell hasn’t had the best of seasons, after her Most Improved Player campaign last year raised expectations. But for one quarter last night, she was Reggie freaking Miller. Two Mitchell treys opened the quarter, stretching the Liberty lead back to eight. When Atlanta cut the lead to 75-72 with just over three minutes to play via sound ball movement and post scoring – see, it doesn’t always have to be Angel – it was Mitchell Time again. A ridiculous heave of a three as the shot clock was about to expire found nothing but net with 2:37 to play, and at that point you felt it wasn’t Atlanta’s night. When Mitchell responded to a McCoughtry layup with yet another three a minute later, you were sure. New York wins, 85-75.
That was a big victory for the Liberty, against a team that had won five in a row before Connecticut turned them over on Sunday. Cappie Pondexter is reportedly carrying an achilles injury that’s preventing her from practicing, which presumably was the reason that she only featured for 26 minutes in this game. Given that, the rest of the team needs to step up if they’re going to keep winning games, and that’s precisely what they did. Pierson and Powell in the first half, Mitchell in the second, and they managed to pull out a win that gives them some breathing room in the standings. They look like they’re becoming more comfortable in John Whisenant’s system, and all they need now is a little more consistency. That’s the seventh straight game where they’ve maintained a ‘win one-lose one’ pattern, which has to be frustrating for a coach. Chicago at home tomorrow afternoon gives them the perfect opportunity to string two wins together for the first time in a while.
It’s difficult to know quite what to make of this Dream squad. We saw in the playoffs last year what they’re capable of, and there’ve been flashes of the same stuff in recent games, but they don’t seem capable of maintaining it. McCoughtry went 8-18 from the field and 8-12 from the line for 24 points in this one, and Harding took 15 shots – her highest total of the season – to reach her 14 points. There’s too much reliance on individual creators, because teams collapse and help so effectively in this league that it’s hard to build your offense entirely around that. They need to feed the post more, but de Souza’s inconsistencies and Lyttle’s injuries have hampered that plan.
Meanwhile on defense, they’re not nearly as effective as they were last year. Mitchell was pretty open for those threes in the fourth quarter, because the switching and help isn’t always sharp on the perimeter. Their pure size and bulk gives teams trouble at times inside; sometimes it just leaves them looking slow while players like Pierson go around them or shoot over them before they can get out to her. I still think this team is better than Chicago, but they need to win enough games to prove it. Otherwise they won’t even have the chance to be a surprise 4th seed for the second season in a row.
The final game of the night took place in Seattle, where the Storm began their friendly August schedule against San Antonio. For a team that’s 23-1 at home over the last season and a half, eight home dates out of their next eleven games must look might enticing for Seattle. Especially after the Lynx blew them apart last Friday. Beating Tulsa the following day barely counts, so this was the first real opportunity to wipe away the memory of Minnesota. After Phoenix’s loss earlier in the evening, a win would also drag the Storm into a tie for third place in the West, just half a game behind the Silver Stars for second. Not bad for a team playing most of the season without last year’s MVP. San Antonio had their own bitter taste left over from a loss to Minnesota, although theirs was a heartbreaking one-point defeat rather than a blowout. The Silver Stars are still adapting to the loss of Danielle Adams from their bench corps, and the resultant reduction in their scoring options. Facing Seattle’s defense in their own house isn’t usually the best way to find your offensive rhythm, but a win would certainly show that they could survive without her.
The first four minutes of this game were insane. No one missed. And I’m not saying that in my typical hyperbolic, damn-they-were-hot kind of way. Literally not one miss. It was 12-12 after four minutes of play between two of the best defensive teams in the league. Bizarre. However, even in the midst of this crazy offensive display, things looked good for Seattle. They were knifing through the San Antonio defense for layups and sealing off defenders for finishes inside. The points were in the paint. The Silver Stars, on the other hand, were hitting threes and jumpers to hang around. Those tend to tail off; post position and layups are typically a sign of good things to come.
And holy cow did that turn out to be true. San Antonio started to miss, because jump shots will do that to you even when you’re a very good offensive team. Seattle’s defense makes it even more likely. But the Storm just carried on scoring. They ultimately hit 14 of their first 15 attempts, an Ashley Robinson jumper the only blemish and two misses on the final possession of the first quarter ruining the 93% shooting they’d produced to that point. It was an offensive exhibition that resulted in a 31-19 Seattle lead to end the first. It felt like more.
San Antonio were a little shellshocked. They’re not used to having their defense repeatedly pierced like that, and their offensive execution and ball movement suffered as a result. Seattle were up 41-23 before the Silver Stars finally woke up. Once San Antonio forced a few turnovers, the ball started to move around more freely on the offensive end, and even though all their attempts were still from outside, they were much better efforts late in the half. The players were in rhythm and in more space, so the effectiveness naturally went up. It still only cut the Seattle lead to 44-33 at halftime.
San Antonio came out for the second half clearly determined to find higher percentage shots. Sophia Young had been 1-7 in the first half for just two points, but they spent the first few possessions of the third quarter force feeding her on the block. Head coach Dan Hughes knows as well as anyone that he needs Young to rediscover her offensive game if his team are going to thrive, and clearly wanted to give her as much opportunity as possible. Meanwhile, at the other end of the floor, San Antonio’s defense and the sloppiness that has plagued Seattle at times this year had slowed the Storm’s offensive production to a crawl. They were turning the ball over far too freely, and late in the third their lead started to dwindle. San Antonio’s bench gave them the boost they hadn’t managed in the first half, with Jayne Appel taking over from Young as the focus down low. Jia Perkins and Danielle Robinson offered some support as well, and Seattle’s formerly dominating lead was down to one at 53-52 with a minute to play in the third. The Key Arena crowd could barely believe it.
They needn’t have worried. It was a long, drawn out run, but Seattle put on an 11-0 push from that point that won them the game all over again. It took nearly five minutes of game time and was built far more on their typical smothering defense than the flowing offense they’d displayed earlier in the game, but it was no less effective. Tanisha Wright slicing into the paint for a layup, Appel missing a pair from the line and Sue Bird nailing a three in transition to end the third quarter also helped. After being held scoreless for the first four minutes of the final period, San Antonio were never back in the game and the Storm held on comfortably for a 78-64 win. After that monstrous first quarter, it would’ve been a travesty if they’d allowed this one to slip away.
Seattle are so much better at home, it’s ridiculous. When they had Lauren Jackson, and built up momentum with win after win last year, they could beat anybody anywhere. This season, without LJ for the most part, that raucous Key Arena crowd seems to give them a huge boost. They relaxed too much in this game, maybe expecting the offense to continue to flow and forgetting what wins them games, but remembered in time to pull the game back out of the fire. Brian Agler returned to his seven-player rotation, but across the seven they had a nice balance, with five players in double-digits and 19 points from their bench. The fact that they shot 54% from the floor and played their usual defense, yet it was still a contest late in the third quarter, shows how much trouble those turnovers can cause. Phoenix may be their opposites in a lot of ways – pace, style, defensive/offensive approach – but they have the same key issue. Stop giving the ball away so easily, and the wins will flow. For this one night, Seattle had 17 turnovers and it made no difference – they were too good everywhere else.
In a lot of ways this wasn’t San Antonio’s fault. When you run into a team playing like Seattle did for much of the first half, you hang on for dear life and hope they’ll come back to you. In this case they did, but the Silver Stars didn’t have enough left to take over the game when the score drew close. They’ve been proving me wrong again and again all season, so I’m wary of suggesting anything negative, but San Antonio’s schedule looks scary over coming weeks. Six of their next nine are on the road, all against strong playoff teams. They’re still a tough matchup for most sides, but without Adams a little bit of the explosion and spark has gone from their offense. She gave them that extra oomph from the bench that even the improved play of Jayne Appel can’t make up for. Tanisha Wright kept Becky Hammon quiet in this one, allowing her just seven shots for 11 points, and once again Sophia Young was largely ineffective. Rumours have circled that Young’s playing through injury, and I’d certainly believe that with how she’s performed lately. With Adams out and Hammon continuing to deal with her shoulder issues, it could be a tough month for San Antonio. Good thing LA and Tulsa both stink.
Talking of LA, I was going to cover their camp day game from this afternoon against Connecticut in today’s column, but I feel like this piece has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say that I still think LA should make several trades before the deadline on the 15th. More details in a proper review of the game tomorrow.
In other news…
Sad news from the Atlanta camp today, as the Dream announced the results of Shalee Lehning’s MRI after she hurt her right knee against Connecticut on Sunday. It was the dreaded torn anterior cruciate ligament – for the millionth time in women’s basketball – which means Lehning’s season is over. The Dream will miss her presence as much as anything, although I expect she’ll still be around the locker room. Lehning is the epitome of the old ‘coach on the floor’ definition of the point guard, and she’s a leader for this squad even if her minutes were down after the arrival of Lindsey Harding. If there’s one tiny silver lining to this, it’s that at least Lehning’s ‘off-season’ earnings won’t be ruined by the injury, as would be the case with most players. Rather than playing overseas, she’s already an assistant coach as Kansas State, where presumably she’ll still be able to perform her duties.
Atlanta could, if they wanted, go out and look for a replacement. They could either buy out Lehning (giving up her rights but creating a roster spot), or waive one of their backup post players (either Sandora Irvin or Courtney Paris). We’ve passed the guarantee stage, so they’d have to pay out the year’s salary to whoever they cut, but they’ve got the cap room to sign someone else on top. They probably won’t bother. Chances are, it’ll be Coco Miller filling in behind Harding, which’ll be a bit of a switch. Lehning is very much pass first, and while Miller’s been playing well lately, it’s been as a scorer not a distributor. She can do a serviceable job, but it cuts into their backup, and the last thing Atlanta needed right now was more injury issues. 12 days left to make a trade, of course, if Meadors fancies that option instead.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Connecticut @ Los Angeles, 3pm ET
Chicago @ New York, 12pm ET
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET