Regular WNBAlien readers may have noticed that unless there’s a compelling reason not to, I typically look at the games in chronological order. Well, when the opening contest is Tulsa being stuffed for the 527th time this season, it gets relegated to footnote status. There was one game last night worth talking about, and it was Connecticut’s trip up to the Pacific Northwest to face Seattle. So we’re going to start there.
Both teams went with the starting fives that have served them well lately, producing four wins in the last five for Seattle, and seven out of eight for Connecticut. The Sun have even rectified their appalling road form of late, winning their last three outside the Mohegan Sun after starting the year 1-5 away from home. This was an intriguing encounter even for those who aren’t fans of the University of Connecticut, who seem to provide most of the players on display.
The first 15 minutes of the game were all Seattle. Much like Connecticut, the Storm love playing in front of their own fans. Which they’ve been performing better on the road recently, Seattle look vastly smoother and more comfortable when their raucous fans are cheering them on. They move the ball more crisply, take better shots, and simply play with greater confidence. In the game last night, they were charging in seconds. Sue Bird had eight points inside the first three minutes, including a pair of threes that she knocked down with ease. Connecticut head coach Mike Thibault called his first timeout down 10-2 after only 3:19 had come off the clock.
With a strong, balanced team attack, Seattle kept scoring and frustrated the Sun at the other end. Connecticut were trying to run their offense through Tina Charles on the block, but Ashley Robinson (and a lot of help from her friends) was making that a very difficult proposition. Le’coe Willingham was hitting shots, Tanisha Wright was having one of her most aggressive and effective games of the season, and back-to-back threes from Bird and Katie Smith gave the Storm a 43-25 lead with 4:20 left in the half when Thibault burned another timeout. The only negative for Seattle was the foul trouble Robinson found herself in, picking up her third foul and leaving the game several minutes earlier.
As has so often been the case this year, the main negative hurting the Storm was turnovers. They were shooting the lights out, but too many possessions never even resulted in shots because the ball was being given away. That came back to bite them late in the first half, when an offensive foul on backup center Ewelina Kobryn was followed by two consecutive Swin Cash travelling violations and a misplaced Bird pass. Meanwhile Connecticut were finally hitting some shots, given a shot in the arm by Kelsey Griffin off the bench and point guard Renee Montgomery deciding it was time to take over. Montgomery drained a couple of threes and got to the rim for a layup, Griffin showed her range and played her typical charge-taking defense, and Connecticut swiftly made the game interesting again. After dominating most of the first half, shooting 67% from the field including 8-12 from three-point range, Seattle led just 47-40 at halftime. This one wasn’t over.
However, the second half started just as badly for Connecticut as the first. This time led by the confidence and swagger of Tanisha Wright, Seattle scored six points inside the opening 90 seconds to stretch their lead back out to 13, and once again Thibault was forced to call a very early timeout. Then, finally, his team seemed to wake up, and Seattle resurrected an unfortunate habit that they even suffered from last year when they lost six games all season – letting opponents back in.
Charles stretched the Seattle defense out by hitting a couple of shots from mid-range, before Robinson picked up another cheap foul to force herself back to the bench yet again. Kara Lawson and Montgomery followed with threes and then an Asjha Jones jumper from 15 feet gave Connecticut their first lead of the game at 56-55. After that first 15 minute spell where it seemed like they’d be partying all night, the Key Arena crowd was stunned. The Storm offense had slowed down once their defense became less effective, settling for long jumpers too early in the shot clock rather than the carefully orchestrated possessions they typically run. Fortunately for Seattle, sometimes pure talent wins out. Swin Cash stepped up late in the third quarter, drained consecutive threes to re-ignite the crowd and the Storm led 63-57 heading to the fourth. The only drawback was that Robinson yet again picked up a stupid foul in the closing seconds of the third, flying out to challenge a Lawson shot and practically landing on her. That was Robinson’s fifth, and the Storm’s defense had looked far better all night whenever she could stay on the floor. Now she was going to miss the bulk of the final period.
With Cash continuing her hot streak, Seattle carried their run into the fourth, pushing out to a 73-59 advantage. They looked like the dominant force with under seven minutes left in the game, but after the disappearance of even bigger leads earlier in the contest, nothing was secure. Seattle’s turnover-itis returned in the face of increased defensive pressure from a Connecticut team that simply refused to quit. Lawson, Griffin, Jones and Tan White all made shots from outside to drag the Sun back into contention, and when Montgomery made one of her trademark high banking runners over Cash and Robinson, it was down to a three-point game at 78-75 with a minute remaining.
Seattle turned the ball over yet again, this time on a shot clock violation after Charles closed down the paint. Out of a timeout, Montgomery drove again, hit a gorgeous floater from the right side over Cash, and it was a one-point game with 34 seconds to play. On the ensuing possession, Bird ran off a couple of screens but missed badly on a pullup jumper, and the ball belonged to Connecticut with 15 seconds left and the chance to take the lead. Seattle coach Brian Agler is excellent at defending these sorts of possessions, but Thibault is similarly skilled at drawing up the offense. Tan White inbounded the ball, curled round the top of the key to take it back on a hand-off, drew the defense and found Asjha Jones open under the hoop. Fortunately for Seattle, Ashley Robinson had tracked White all the way around, and was in position to block Jones’s point-blank effort from behind.
But Connecticut still had the ball, with nearly 10 seconds left on the clock. Jones posted up on Little, was short on a turnaround, but Katie Smith and Robinson had switched assignments defensively during the screens that set up the possession for Jones. That left Smith on Tina Charles under the hoop, which only had one winner. Charles grabbed the offensive rebound – Connecticut’s 12th of the night – and dropped in the putback for a one-point Sun lead with just 3.1 seconds to play. If Connecticut held on, they’d have pulled out the win while leading for a grand total of 1:21 in the entire game.
Cue the heroics. Sue Bird doesn’t have a reputation for ripping out the hearts of opponents in late-game situations for nothing. Bird popped out from the mass of bodies fighting for position, took the inbounds from Smith, curled quickly around to the top of the arc and calmly drained the dagger three to win the ballgame. Crowd goes insane, and fortunately for the Seattle players who forgot the game wasn’t over, Connecticut couldn’t do anything in the remaining 0.4 seconds. Birdy comes up big in the crunch for something like the zillionth time.
That was a heck of a game. By the way, LiveAccess has cut off the final moments in the full archived copy, so you can watch them here and here. It’s worth checking out if you didn’t catch it live. Hell, it’s worth checking out again even if you did. Seattle probably shouldn’t have had to draw from the deep well of Sue Bird killer-shots yet again to win this one, but it sure was a fun way to get it done for us neutrals. The Storm are playing extremely solid basketball lately in almost every area, they’re knocking down shots that weren’t even close earlier in the season, but the turnovers are keeping their opponents in games. Cash had seven, Bird four, and the team finished with 21 last night once you factor in team turnovers like shot clock violations. That’s ridiculous, especially for a side that relies on its precision and that plays at such a slow pace, lowering the number of possessions in each game. Besides that and Robinson’s silly fouls, it’s hard to pick holes in last night’s performance. Bird finished with 20 points, Wright had 18, Cash 14 and Camille Little 13. The previously miserable bench is once again back to practically two players, but Smith and Willingham combined to go 6-7 from the floor for 16 points. Agler will take that every night. I’m sure his heart would prefer a nice comfortable blowout rather than a last-second winner, though.
The Sun can take a lot of credit from this performance. Yes, they started slowly and had several other lulls when Seattle’s defense dominated, but they repeatedly clawed their way back into the game. Kelsey Griffin had probably her best performance of the season with 11 points off the bench, and Montgomery’s 19 points on 7-13 from the floor was her best shooting performance in a while. Charles finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, despite being constantly jostled and harassed by multiple Storm defenders. The Sun took Seattle’s hardest hits and just kept on coming, and only the Bird knockout punch finally ended it. There’s no shame in that. They’re certainly not the first to fall to a Sue Bird hammer blow, and I doubt they’ll be the last
To round off yesterday’s action, I suppose we have to at least glance at Indiana’s trip to Tulsa. Just for fun, Teresa Edwards changed the Tulsa starting lineup for the umpteenth straight time, inserting Sheryl Swoopes for Liz Cambage. It’s not like it was going to make much difference. From the opening tip, there was a glaring difference in both talent and confidence, hardly a surprise considering the Fever were 14-6 coming in against the Shock’s 1-17. Indiana rained in threes early on, created turnovers with their defensive pressure and trapping off screens, and led 13-4 afer six minutes of play. They never looked back.
The most notable aspect of the first half was that 19 different players all scored at least one basket. I don’t know if that’s a WNBA record, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s at least close. Indiana led 42-29 at the break and looked so relaxed that they might as well have been wearing smoking jackets and slippers. An 11-5 run to open the second half completely killed the game off, and 17 minutes of abject garbage time followed. The final score was 85-65, but even that didn’t truly reflect the chasm between the teams.
Tulsa aren’t good, we know this, and if you were expecting much more from this game then you were deluding yourself. I’m not sure why Cambage played so little (under nine minutes), considering that Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport would be a useful pair to learn from, but I’m sure Edwards has her reasons. Her players are giving her everything they’ve got on most nights, but there’s a talent gap there, especially against veteran teams that know how to win like Indiana. Tulsa just don’t have even a speck of that, and it leaves them frequently overmatched in games like this. That 3-27 record from the 1998 Mystics is looming.
Another relaxing canter home for the Fever, who beat LA by 35 in their previous game. You can’t take anything from this except another helping of confidence and the easy W. On to greater challenges (although they’re playing Chicago next, so maybe not all that much greater).
In other news…
In injury news, Lauren Jackson is reportedly taking part in some non-contact drills in Seattle and on the road to recovery, while the six-week recuperation period for Candace Parker in LA would have her returning on Tuesday against Tulsa. No real news yet about Parker being close to a return, so it may be a little longer than originally hoped.
Today’s Games (already completed):
New York @ Washington, 7pm ET
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Seattle @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Connecticut @ Phoenix, 6pm ET
Indiana @ Chicago, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET