Double the fun in today’s column, as we tackle WNBA games from both yesterday and today. Camp day games on both coasts provided afternoon action over the last couple of days, and this piece will cover both of them. This evening’s battle between the top two in the West, San Antonio and Minnesota, is being saved for tomorrow’s piece.
Today also finally brought us a trade, with Phoenix’s Kara Braxton and New York’s Sidney Spencer swapping teams. Check back in a couple of hours for a WNBAlien Grading the Trade special on that transaction.
Yesterday lunchtime in Los Angeles, thousands of screaming kids descended on Staples Center to see the Sparks face the Connecticut Sun. Having lost five of their last six games, the sole victory being over an equally dreadful Chicago club, LA must’ve been hoping to draw some inspiration from their young, enthusiastic fans. The only other source of hope was Connecticut’s frequently poor form on the road, but recent wins in New York and Chicago have suggested they might be improving in that area. Overall, the Sun had won five of their last six games coming in and will have fancied their chances against a Sparks side that have looked shambolic in recent weeks.
Despite the run of terrible performances and constant need to find help off his bench, LA coach Joe Bryant stuck with the same starting five that have opened every game since he took over. Loyalty is a nice thing to see in a coach, but sometimes it can go too far. Mike Thibault also went with the same group that he’s used in recent contests, but considering they’ve been winning consistently, that makes a lot more sense.
It was an odd first half. LA led for almost the entire 20 minutes, but I wasn’t buying it at any point. Clearly it was happening in front of our eyes, but the advantage didn’t feel earned and it certainly didn’t seem like it was going to last. Connecticut missed so many layups in the first half, it was ridiculous. They missed wide open shots from the perimeter. Their defensive rotations looked half a step slow on several possessions at the other end. It seemed like Thibault and his assistants might’ve made the mistake of letting their players watch tape of this LA squad before the game, and their team had relaxed when they saw how atrocious the Sparks have been. The Sun just weren’t quite at the races.
So LA pushed into the lead. There were still some of their typical unforced turnovers mixed in, but there was some reasonable ball movement as well and they knocked down some shots. Even Noelle Quinn – who’s had about as anonymous a season as it’s possible to have when you start every game and play 23 minutes a night – was looking reasonably aggressive and taking a few shots. So LA were up 18-14 to end the first quarter, and led 25-16 mid-way through the second after a Jenna O’Hea three-point play. Then, briefly, Connecticut seemed to snap out of their stupor. Largely by hitting a few threes, the Sun wandered back into the game. Tan White hit one, and Renee Montgomery sank three in the second quarter alone to fire Connecticut back into it. Only a couple of late baskets from Quinn and Kristi Toliver reestablished an LA lead at 40-35 going into the break.
After such a sleepy first-half, Thibault probably expressed himself rather loudly at halftime. His team came out with more life for the second-half, and went directly to the rim. Against a team that has no one who can guard her, Tina Charles finally began imposing herself in the paint and forcing LA to worry about her. The 2-3 zone that the Sparks have employed a hell of a lot since Bryant took over finally started to look as ponderous as several other teams have made it seem this season.
LA clung on in the third quarter, with enough points on desperate threes and Ebony Hoffman post moves to hang around, leaving the score tied at 56-56 at the end of the third. Then the Sun killed it. They scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter, while LA did nothing except force up bad shots and repeatedly turn the ball over. Oh, and occasionally knock rebounds out of each other’s hands. The Sun weren’t doing anything particularly special, but trying to guard Charles with LaToya Pringle never seemed destined for a great deal of success. That was a strange substitution by Bryant for the fourth. At 68-56, with nearly six minutes left in the game, it felt over. The Sparks don’t have the organisation, togetherness or heart to fight back into a game like this right now. In fairness, they did force the lead down to six at one stage, but that was as close as they got the rest of the way. The Sun won 79-70, their third straight road win and just another disappointing performance from the Sparks.
I don’t really know what to say about LA any more. I feel like a broken record. They’ve got talent, but they’re a mess. Just the 16 turnovers in this one, which is low for them compared to several recent games, but they barely feel like a team. Most of them look miserable, like they’re annoyed that they had to get out of bed and come to the arena for yet another freaking basketball game. It’s sad. For the umpteenth time, I’d implore Sparks GM Penny Toler to make some kind of trade. The most obvious move would be to cash in some of the vets – Thompson, Ticha Penicheiro, even DeLisha Milton-Jones – and hand the team over to the kids. Why not? This team’s going nowhere this year, and any kind of move has the potential to wake them the hell up. It surely couldn’t hurt.
Connecticut made harder work of this than they should’ve done. Maybe they weren’t quite ready for the game due to the early tipoff, and that led to all those easy attempts that rolled out early on. Eventually, Charles totalled 20 points after scoring just seven in the first half, Montgomery finished with 16, and they got enough help from everyone else to fall over the line. Not pretty, but considering they used to have trouble beating anyone on the road, I’m sure they’ll take it. The West Coast roadtrip becomes a lot more difficult when they head into Seattle and Phoenix over the weekend, so it was nice to seal a win away from the Mohegan before stepping into more difficult venues. Wins over LA are starting to count about as much as beating Tulsa.
Less than 24 hours later, WNBA attention switched coasts to New York (/Jersey) for their camp day game against Chicago. After seven games alternating wins and losses, this was a clear chance for the Liberty to finally string two victories together after they fought off Atlanta on Tuesday night. The Sky have been poor lately, and only have two road wins for the season (and those were in Tulsa and Washington). New York did Chicago a favour with that win over the Dream, keeping the Sky just barely in the fourth and final playoff spot in the East. At some point, Chicago are going to have to win some games themselves to cling on to that position.
This. Was. Ugly. Not even going to try to gloss this one up. If you want to be decidedly generous, you could give credit to the defenses. Both teams play good defense in general, but both teams were helping each other out with some pedestrian offense this afternoon. Chicago were mixing up zone and man to man, and New York couldn’t score against either. The shot clock buzzers were getting a heavy work at either end, as both teams struggled to find any rhythm, and the clock was constantly approaching zero before they forced anything up. Chicago managed to at least hit a couple of shots, which gave them an 18-10 lead at the end of the first quarter. The second was just as bad, but with Plenette Pierson imposing herself on the game – she tends to relish low-scoring, physical battles – New York slid back into it. Chicago led 26-23 at halftime of a brutal game.
The third quarter showed a little improvement. Both teams were moving the ball better, and that led to a few made shots. Not too many, but a few. New York kept falling behind and then working their way back into it, without ever quite making it over the edge into a lead. Recent Sky addition Shay Murphy, who at least threatens to go to the hoop on occasion, scored six points to close the third quarter and created a 48-43 Chicago lead. It still wasn’t going to make any end-of-season highlight reels, but with how they’ve played lately the Sky would take any win however they could get it.
Unfortunately for Chicago, they set a WNBA record in the fourth quarter. And not one of the good ones. While a modicum of credit goes to New York’s defense for upping its game, Chicago’s offense basically disappeared in the fourth. Too many jump shots, too many turnovers, and Sylvia Fowles all but invisible. The Sky players draw a lot of criticism at times for not finding Syl enough shots, but it isn’t just them. When Fowles isn’t part of the action for long stretches early in games, she stops posting up hard and fighting for position. Big girls lose interest in the fight down low if you forget about them, and then things just get worse. Also, Pokey Chatman’s system doesn’t seem to offer many particularly innovative ways to find her on the block. It often appears to involve telling her to post up, and then hoping a guard can throw it in to her. That’s it. Teams have seen that quite a few times before. More ball rotation, or more off-ball screens and player movement – anything a bit different – would be nice. Too often everything seems incredibly straightforward which makes it easy to defend, even against someone as good as Big Syl.
So New York had the game tied at 48 a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, then the scoreboard took another extended rest, before Nicole Powell finally hit her first three of the afternoon to give the Liberty their very first lead. Chicago inbounded, and immediately Leilani Mitchell stole the ball from Courtney Vandersloot. Mitchell fed Cappie Pondexter who bricked a three, but Powell was there for an uncontested putback. A five-point run in the space of mere seconds felt huge in a game like this, and the crowd was back in the game as well. While turnovers have hurt Vandersloot’s game all year, her coach has to take some of the blame. Sloot was paying too much attention to what Chatman was trying to tell her from the sidelines, resulting in that Mitchell steal. All year, Sloot has been pulled from games when she commits turnovers, and micromanaged by the coaches. I know they want to teach and help her develop, but sometimes you wish they’d just let her play.
That was it. Chicago couldn’t get the ball inside, continued to turn the ball over and clank jumpers off the rim, so New York ran out easy winners 59-49. Yes, Chicago scored a grand total of one point in the entire fourth quarter (an Epiphanny Prince free throw, for anyone who cares). That comfortably breaks the existing regular season record low of four, held by a variety of teams (the lowest in a playoff quarter is two). Just embarrassing.
Lets hope all those kids don’t go home thinking this is what WNBA games are always like. It was just a horrible offensive game by both teams, and then Chicago topped it off with the worst offensive quarter in WNBA history. The Sky aren’t good. I’ve been saying this for a while. They’re a decent defensive team, but they struggle to create – or hit – good shots on offense. Fowles can take over the occasional game, but with teams focussing their defenses around her it’s very difficult. Chicago have to find more creative ways to get her the ball, but most of all they have to hit some shots to create room. The passes down to Fowles would be easier if there weren’t three players surrounding her, daring someone else to shoot in the first place. The only reason this team is still in the playoff chase is because Washington are terrible and Atlanta have struggled all season. As an individual team, they’re nearly as bad as last year.
There aren’t many nice things to say about New York after that performance either. Pondexter finished 6-16 for 15 points, Powell 5-16 for 13 and that was enough to scrape over the line. On the bright side, they won two in a row for the first time in weeks, and they’re turning the top of the East into a clear top-three. That’s where they want to be. Make the final month of the season about playoff position with Indiana and Connecticut; not whether you can even make the postseason ahead of Chicago and Atlanta.
In other news…
The rest of the day’s WNBA discussion was dominated by the aforementioned Braxton-Spencer trade, which I’ll be tackling in the forthcoming piece. Let’s hope the league’s GMs stay active over the next ten days and keep us all talking.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Chicago @ New York, 12pm ET
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Indiana @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Connecticut @ Seattle, 10pm ET