A quad-game Sunday in the WNBA this week, and we’re going to start at the very beginning – because apparently it’s a very good place to start. Seattle went into Philips Arena in Atlanta on a three-game win streak, but also with a 4-7 road record for the season that’s a little misleading. Two of the wins were in Tulsa, one in Washington, and only the victory in Phoenix just after the All-Star break really meant anything. This is a team that’s still struggling to perform without the support of the Key Arena crowd. That simultaneously makes winning a few of these games even more vital, because they’re in a three-way battle with San Antonio and Phoenix for second-place in the Western Conference. Which would result in home-court advantage for at least one round of the playoffs. Hopefully Lauren Jackson will be back by then, and perhaps lower the Storm’s reliance on their own floor, but that #2 spot could mean more to them than any of their rivals.
Atlanta are in the midst of their own playoff battle, but in their case it’s a matter of overtaking Chicago to even make the postseason. Losses to New York and Connecticut in their last couple of games haven’t helped, so they needed to get back to winning ways. Head coach Marynell Meadors shook up her starting lineup in the hope that it would reenergise her team, reinserting Angel McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle as the starting forwards. It’s still unclear exactly why McCoughtry was ever removed, but it makes sense to open the game with your leader and star on the floor. With Lyttle, it was just a matter of waiting until she seemed healthy enough to take her place – she’s clearly the best option at power forward for this team, as long as she’s in one piece.
The opening stages were, unfortunately for the Storm, a microcosm of the entire 40 minutes. Turnovers have hurt Seattle all season, but Sunday afternoon took it to a new extreme. They had 10 turnovers in the opening quarter, a pretty horrendous sum for an entire half. So many of them were simple, misplaced passes that flew over a teammate’s head out of bounds or were too close to defenders and easily picked off. When they weren’t doing that it was an unnecessary travelling violation or a poorly executed screen that ended up as an offensive foul. The length, speed and ballhawking of Atlanta’s perimeter players, and the basic size of their posts, were playing their part in the craziness, but a lot of it felt like Seattle’s own fault. They were a mess.
For a while at least, the Storm’s defense kept the game within reach. Atlanta weren’t managing to turn too many of the giveaways into points because so many of them were dead ball turnovers, so at least the Dream’s running game was still in check. Atlanta led only 19-10 after the first quarter. In the middle of the second, Storm coach Brian Agler was trying everything. Not known for utilising his bench, everyone got to play in this game to see if anything would work. Even Allie Quigley, on the roster under a seven-day contract, received some minutes when the score reached 28-14. It didn’t help. Katie Smith at least hit a three that pushed them into the 20s just before the break, creating the halftime score of 34-22. Seattle had 16 turnovers in the first half.
There’s not a great deal of point analysing the second half in depth. It was simply more of the same. Endless Seattle turnovers, Atlanta playing the passing lanes and happy to take advantage, and a miserable afternoon for Storm fans everywhere. Atlanta ran out 70-53 winners, and that scoreline markedly flattered Seattle.
The Storm finished the game with 29 turnovers, 23 committed by their starting lineup (and they only averaged about 25 minutes each due to the amount of garbage time). Sue Bird had one of the worst games of her professional career, with six of those giveaways, and two points on 1-3 shooting. Only Swin Cash and Katie Smith produced anything much offensively, because Seattle couldn’t create any rhythm all day. It was embarrassing for last year’s WNBA champs. They’ve got a game on national TV tomorrow night in New York, and let’s hope that Agler’s managed to scream some sense into them by then. We don’t need any more people seeing performances like that than is absolutely necessary.
From an Atlanta perspective, that was close to a perfect game. You reinstate your top players into the starting lineup, take the game over with your defense and your rebounding, and exact a little revenge over the team that swept you in the Finals last season – that’s a great afternoon. The only negative was Armintie Price limping out of the game late in the first half, and spending the second raising and icing her left foot. Apparently it’s just a sprain, but it didn’t look good when she hobbled off, so she might still miss a game or two. Beyond all the turnovers they forced, the Dream held Seattle to just two offensive rebounds all day, and finished ahead 32-26 overall on the boards. While the Storm were demoralised by their terrible offense and hardly in the mood to chase after rebounds, it showed what Atlanta can do inside when they’re in one piece. Lyttle and de Souza are big and long in the paint and hard to deal with, as we saw last year, and they’ll have more games like this. They just need them to happen consistently, not once a month.
It looks like Lindsey Harding is going to be playing a whole heap of minutes now that Shalee Lehning is out for the season with her ACL tear. Last year in Washington showed that Harding’s perfectly capable of that, and maybe even more comfortable than when she’s getting regular rest during games. Coco Miller might’ve backed her up more if it wasn’t for Price’s injury, but they need Coco to stay aggressive, and not worry too much about passing the ball. That job is going to fall to Harding even more than it already has. On a completely non-basketball related note, Lehning looked thoroughly cute on the sidelines. Much as I hate seeing players get injured, street clothes are a good look on her.
The game of the day was up next, as Connecticut closed out their three-game Western swing in Phoenix. After a win in LA and a narrow loss in Seattle, the Sun had the chance to go home with a 2-1 record from the roadtrip – a very positive outcome for a team that could barely beat anyone on the road until recently. Phoenix had lost four of their last five, and this was their first game since trading away starting center Kara Braxton for three-point specialist Sidney Spencer. After Minnesota took them apart on Tuesday night when Braxton was suspended, this was the first chance for the Mercury to show how dumping her for very little was going to work out. Nakia Sanford started in Braxton’s place, just as she did on Tuesday.
The Mercury had to like the opening possession of the game – Diana Taurasi ran a pick-and-roll with Sanford, who went straight to the hoop for an easy layup. Who needs Braxton? Also, Connecticut wing Danielle McCray picked up two fouls in the opening 45 seconds. The Sun are 6-2 since Mike Thibault reinstated McCray in his starting lineup, but clearly he wasn’t happy with how she began the game. Those 45 seconds turned out to be her only floor time of the entire afternoon.
The Mercury were on top for most of the first half, but could never manage to pull away. It felt like a Mercury game, end-to-end basketball without much pausing for breath, but Connecticut were sticking with them. Phoenix had a lead as big as eight in the first quarter, but in the second Asjha Jones and Tina Charles started to impose themselves. Unusually for a Mercury opponent, they weren’t abusing Phoenix in the post, but both were using their accuracy from mid-range to knock down a series of jumpers. Renee Montgomery couldn’t find her range from outside, but she was forcing her way to the free throw line to provide some support. Phoenix went in at halftime up 46-41, but it felt like they ought to have created a bigger gap after making it their kind of contest.
The second half was largely fairly similar. The highlight of the third quarter was a sequence from Mercury sixth woman DeWanna Bonner, who battled Tina Charles in the paint to prevent Charles from converting a layup, grabbed the board, threw the outlet pass and bounded down the floor to convert a Taurasi pass for the alley-oop. Bonner followed that up with consecutive three-pointers on the next two Mercury possessions to send the crowd into rapture. However, it says it all about the Mercury that Connecticut scored two straightforward layups between Bonner’s baskets – it was an exciting offensive streak, but the gloss is taken off an eight-point barrage when you give up four points right in the middle of it. Jones was enjoying the hell out of the Mercury defense, and Montgomery had just kept right on shooting to discover her touch, so Phoenix still couldn’t pull away.
When Phoenix’s offense finally went cold late in the third, Connecticut made a charge. More from Jones and Charles, and Kara Lawson finally providing some offense after a terrible first half took them into the lead, and Taurasi topped it off with her sixth technical foul of the season (number seven is a one-game suspension, as I’ve mentioned before). She may have had a point about the apparent double-dribble committed by Lawson, but the refs didn’t appreciate the rather exuberant manner in which Taurasi expressed her disgust. Connecticut led 69-64 to end the third.
Phoenix quickly dispensed with the Sun lead in the fourth quarter, and then it was just a shooting gallery. Taurasi hit back-to-back threes to put Phoenix up by two. Then a Charles finish inside was followed by threes from Lawson, Bonner and Montgomery in quick succession, which left Connecticut up by three with three minutes to play. The game was sloppy for the next couple of minutes, so we’ll fast-forward to the closing seconds of regulation. Connecticut were ahead 84-82 and had the ball out of a timeout, but Asjha Jones failed to corral an entry pass and turned the ball over. As is typically his wont, coach Corey Gaines declined to call a timeout so Phoenix went straight to the other end. Bonner attempted a three from deep that bounced out, but Candice Dupree tracked down the offensive rebound. She fed Temeka Johnson who missed from mid-range, but Penny Taylor grabbed it again for the Mercury. Then Dupree missed a jumper, before yet again collecting the rebound. On her way up to try one more time, Dupree lost hold of the ball, and it went out of bounds to the Sun. Replays showed that Charles reached in and caught a little bit of Dupree’s arm, leading to that loss of possession, but there was no call on the floor. Sun ball, still up two, timeout with 3.9 seconds left.
Amazingly, the game still wasn’t over. Tan White was inserted into the game by Thibault specifically to make the inbounds pass, but she made the mistake of throwing it back towards her own hoop, and the ball was tipped by Taurasi. Bonner responded quickest with her long limbs, snatched up the ball and coasted in for an uncontested layup to tie with just 0.9 seconds left on the clock. Incredible. There was still time for the Sun to make a mess of the next inbounds pass, the officials to make a mess of not running any time off the clock, and Taurasi to juggle a pass before missing a three-point heave at the buzzer, but we were headed to overtime.
The game’s stars stepped up for the extra period. Taylor and Taurasi shot Phoenix into a lead, before Jones and Montgomery took it back for Connecticut. Taylor and Bonner continued the assault for the Mercury, but Montgomery had found her stroke from outside and Phoenix still couldn’t stop Jones’s mid-range game. Yet another jumper from Jones cut the Mercury lead to 95-94, before Bonner missed another three from a mile out. She does like to jack them from seriously deep, but a lot of them went in during this game. On Connecticut’s final possession, Montgomery got to the hoop, but it was at the left side where she is far less comfortable (her left hand is really just there to help with catching the ball – she doesn’t use it for much else). The ball bounced out and was juggled by several players before Charles held on to it at the free throw line. She kicked it to Lawson, who rotated it to Kalana Greene, who found Charles again still waiting at the line. An up-fake sold Dupree, who’d been getting murdered all day by Jones so it was only fitting to see her defense exposed yet again on the final play. Charles stepped to her right, and calmly hit a 10-footer for the lead with five seconds left. Clutch basketball, and you had to love the ball movement and unselfishness that created the opportunity as well.
Charles had put her team ahead with only seconds remaining against Seattle days earlier, only for Sue Bird to steal the game back. This time the basketball gods were on her side. Taurasi drove the right side and put up a heavily contested jumper that bounced off, and Dupree grabbed yet another offensive board for a second-chance, but her attempt at the buzzer just barely rimmed out. The Sun therefore held on for a thrilling 96-95 win, and inflicted the Mercury’s fifth loss in six games.
That was a thoroughly enjoyable game that Phoenix easily could have taken, so they can’t be too despondent. With Braxton gone, the onus is going to be on Bonner to step up and produce even more from her sixth-woman role. The lineup that played most of the game and all of crunch time for Phoenix had her playing alongside Dupree in the post, and the Mercury may have to ride that group as far as they can take them. The lack of bulk and strength is obviously an issue, but if Bonner can shoot like she did in this game they’ll outscore a lot of teams anyway. The problem against Connecticut, oddly enough, ended up being the offense. Taurasi needed 23 shots for her 29 points, and although Bonner emerged from the game with a lot of credit, she was 8-20 from the floor for her 24. They need more consistent help from other sources. Penny Taylor had a few key buckets, but finished with only 13 points. Dupree had 12 rebounds, including seven offensive, but was destroyed all day by Jones defensively and shot only 5-9 for 10 points. That’s not enough. They were good on the glass, forced the game into their tempo, and avoided most of those sloppy turnovers that have hurt them this year – they just needed to make more shots.
It must’ve been a nice feeling for Connecticut to sneak out with the win after the painful loss to Seattle and the awful way they let the Mercury tie this game up at the end of regulation. You can forget the mistakes a hell of a lot more easily when you ultimately win the game. The Sun essentially had three weapons all day. Charles finished with 23 points and 17 rebounds, Montgomery shot 8-19, including 5-12 from three-point range, for her 28, and Jones was 13-18 for a very efficient 27. Jones has looked a little more up for the fight lately, which could give the Sun that consistent third wheel that they need. Montgomery turned into a pure gunner for most of this game, but that was what the Sun needed in the second half. Charles just carries on racking up points and rebounds every night. Thibault might not be happy that his team were so easily sucked in to playing a Mercury-style ballgame, but he’ll be delighted that his team showed they can win playing at that pace anyway. Holding the Merc to 38% shooting isn’t something that happens every night.
After Atlanta’s win earlier in the day, Chicago had officially dropped out of the playoff positions in the East for the first time in ages. They’d been clinging on to that spot more through Dream losses than their own performances in recent weeks, with only two wins over Tulsa and an upset against Seattle peppered amongst six losses. It was time to put up or shut up if they honestly expected to fight their way into the postseason for the first time in the franchise’s history. They were at home, which was a good thing considering they’re 2-8 on the road, but the visitors were Eastern Conference leaders Indiana. The Fever were riding a four-game winning streak and won their last two games by a combined 55 points. Over LA and Tulsa, but still – 55 is a lot. It seemed like the Fever’s main threat was overconfidence.
The early minutes looked a lot like the previous meeting between these clubs, where Indiana dominated throughout with their pressure defense and determination that someone would have to beat them besides Sylvia Fowles. The Fever were up 12-4 inside five minutes of play. Then the worm turned. Indiana were far less effective once they went to their bench, and Chicago found some production from their reserves for once. Shay Murphy attacked the hoop for a layup, then drained a three. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton threw a heck of a pass to Fowles underneath before adding a layup of her own. Chicago led 18-15 at the end of the first quarter, and the run seemed to inject life into both the team and the crowd. It was like they’d finally managed to convince themselves that they were actually capable of competing with this level of opponent.
The Sky still haven’t completely removed the poor turnovers from their game that hurt them so many times earlier in the season, but they were better in this game, even against the pressure trapping of Indiana’s defense. By halftime it was Chicago with a narrow 35-34 lead, and they were there because they’d forced their way to 13 foul shots. They don’t drive enough so they don’t get to the line a lot (besides Fowles) but they were creating points in the paint in this game. The Fever weren’t anywhere near as effective as they had been in previous meetings with the Sky.
I’m not sure what Indiana head coach Lin Dunn was doing in the third quarter, but whatever it was didn’t work. The game was tied at 43 when she started subbing out her starters one by one. Tammy Sutton-Brown went first, but Jessica Davenport is often more effective than her anyway so that wasn’t a big deal. Then Katie Douglas went to the bench, followed by Tangela Smith, Erin Phillips and Tamika Catchings within the next two minutes of play. I understand that starters need to rest, and that Indiana’s bench has been very effective this year, but they’d been poor in the first half of this game and nothing changed in the second. The Fever bench players were completely shut down by Chicago’s defense, Cathrine Kraayeveld emerged from Pokey Chatman’s doghouse to start raining threes, and the Sky broke open a huge lead. A 17-2 run while all those bench players were on the floor for Indiana turned the 43-43 game into a 60-45 Chicago lead. Those Fever starters were left with a hell of a lot work to do when they came back in the fourth.
It was too much. The likes of Catchings, Douglas and Phillips tried their best, but Chicago had all the momentum and bags of confidence by that stage. Murphy resumed her offensive assault, Kraayeveld kept shooting, and Indy never caught up. The Sky completed one of their best performances of the season for easily their most impressive win, 88-69 over the Eastern leaders.
That’s more like it from Chicago. Indiana may have helped them out with some odd substitution choices and a disappointing performance, but nothing should be taken away from the Sky. They were clearly more prepared for the Fever than they had been in either previous meeting this season, and it showed. Their defense got key stops when they needed them, and although Fowles only took nine shots, she finally got some help. Big Syl had 21 points and 12 rebounds, but she was joined on 21 by Murphy, who’s been impressive since re-joining the Sky on a seven-day contract. Murphy’s hustle and aggression has given them an injection of energy from the bench, even in their recent losses, that they didn’t have before. Expect her to stick around for the rest of the season.
Kraayeveld may also have fought her way back into Chatman’s rotation after shooting 4-6 – all from three-point range – for 12 points. It’ll make Fowles’s life vastly easier if those support players can step up and hit some shots. Maybe the most important thing about this game was what it proved. They can win games when Fowles takes only nine shots and Epiphanny Prince takes only eight. They can beat good teams. They can go to the damn basket when necessary. And they can respond when faced with Atlanta taking fourth place away earlier in the day. There’s no way that the Sky teams of previous years would’ve won this game.
Indiana were poor, and maybe overconfidence really did come into play. They never seemed completely alive or awake and once Chicago started hitting shots in the third quarter they were toast. We can expect better performances from them on most other nights, but rebounding is really becoming an issue for this team. They’re awful on the glass. Consistently awful, and it hurts. You can play all the great defense you like, but if you give up heaps of offensive boards, it’s demoralising to see the other team score anyway. It’s not like they’re small in there, and Catchings is one of the best rebounding small forwards the game has ever seen, but the posts don’t attack the glass. It’s unlikely to get much better this season barring some kind of crazy trade before next week’s deadline, and they’ve been winning anyway, but it seemed worth mentioning. They might’ve at least been in this game a little longer if they weren’t beaten 39-26 on the glass.
The final game of the night looked like the biggest mismatch. The best team in the WNBA so far this season, the Minnesota Lynx, travelled to Los Angeles to face the dismal Sparks, who’d lost six of their last seven. After eight wins in a row, including two in the previous week on last-second shots, Minnesota were riding a wave of confidence and belief. LA, on the other hand, have looked miserable for a while now. My pleas for them to make a trade continue to go unanswered, and once again Joe Bryant stuck with his same starting five. I’m beginning to think that someone will have to die for him to change that group. Although the return to health of Candace Parker might do it as well.
To the surprise of practically no one, LA got off to yet another dreadful start. Seriously Joe, you think this five is still a good idea? Layups and wide open jumpers created a 9-2 Lynx lead before Bryant called his first timeout to wake his team up barely two and a half minutes into the game. The lead stretched to 13-2 before Kristi Toliver appeared to strain her neck or shoulder. She was benched for Ticha Penicheiro as a result, but after three pathetic turnovers in less than four minutes of play, Toliver might well have been about to sit down anyway.
It’s hard to think it was a coincidence that LA snapped out of their slumber when Penicheiro entered the game. They finally had someone on the floor who seemed like she wanted the ball in her hands and wanted to be out there, and it seeped into her teammates. A 10-0 run got LA right back in the contest, and it was 20-19 at the end of the first quarter. It looked like it might not be a complete blowout after all.
Minnesota’s simple surplus of talent created a little separation in the second quarter, but LA at least managed to hang around. When the Lynx could push the ball and run, the Sparks wanted no part of it – their transition defense is still awful, even when the youngsters come in off the bench – but LA were largely avoiding cheap turnovers which limited the Lynx opportunities. By halftime Minnesota were ahead 45-37, but LA had managed to hang on to their coattails. Penicheiro’s offensive play was keeping her team playing as a unit but opposing point guard Lindsay Whalen was having just as much fun at the other end with 16 points and five assists. Ticha isn’t quite the defensive player that she once was.
Penicheiro was out there to start the second half, but even she couldn’t prevent some of the lazy, lax turnovers that have been scattered throughout recent Sparks performances from creeping back into their game. DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson were both guilty, and Minnesota’s lead stretched to 56-41 early in the third quarter. This was what most of us had anticipated before the game.
To LA’s credit – and they sure as hell haven’t deserved much credit for anything lately – they didn’t capitulate. They didn’t quit, which frankly was about what I expected from this bunch after recent performances. Thompson, Milton-Jones and Penicheiro showed that there may be a little life left in the old dogs yet, hit a few shots, and the lead was down to seven by the end of the third. Toliver came back in to start the fourth quarter, and nothing good came of it. Her turnover count was up to five, and the seven point lead back up to 13 by the time she was pulled back out four minutes later.
Astonishingly, the game wasn’t quite over. Minnesota brought back memories of some of their horrendous fourth quarters earlier in the season by somehow allowing their lead to dwindle to four points with a minute left when Penicheiro knocked down an unlikely three. The Lynx went to their old warrior Taj McWilliams-Franklin in the post, who ended the LA run by scoring over rookie Jantel Lavender (who’s literally young enough to be Taj’s daughter). After a pair of Thompson free throws, Maya Moore threw a bad inbounds pass and LA had the ball with around 24 seconds left in a four-point game. It could’ve become really interesting, but a Penicheiro pass through a gap that wasn’t there was tipped by Seimone Augustus and the Lynx had the ball back. That was the game. Minnesota eventually ran out 84-78 winners, in a game that never should’ve been that close.
It’s interesting that LA ended up finally showing some life in a game where Bryant eventually played a more standard rotation of players. It was essentially a seven or eight-player rotation, with LaToya Pringle and Natasha Lacy barely playing and starting guards Toliver and Noelle Quinn relegated to bit-part performances. Maybe it was by accident – Penicheiro’s 36 minutes certainly seemed a product of her play and a lack of alternatives, rather than preconceived choice – but it gave them some rhythm. Maybe the old guard are still willing and capable of performing to a decent level if you let them stay out there, instead of constantly trying to find minutes for ten players. That would be an alternative to trading several of them away. Surely, surely, Penicheiro has to start now after 6-9 shooting for 16 points and seven assists in this game. Toliver’s gone off the boil horribly in recent games, and Quinn has been invisible for most of the season. LA’s bad starts to games are occurring repeatedly, but Bryant keeps sending out the same group. Even if it’s not Ticha, make some other switch just to change things up. Isn’t doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results the definition of insanity?
Nine in a row for Minnesota, but not the most convincing of performances. Whalen finished 9-15 for 24 points and 8 assists, Augustus 8-14 for 19, and Rebekkah Brunson 6-9 for 18. But they relaxed far, far too much and allowed a game that was dead in the water halfway through the fourth quarter to make them nervous. The bench was back to being completely useless after Candice Wiggins had given them a boost in recent games, leaving the starters to do nearly all the work. Still, they won the game, and it shows how far they’ve come that we’re picking holes in a Lynx road victory over the Sparks. They’re 16-4 overall, 7-2 on the road, and heading back to Phoenix tomorrow night looking to stretch a win streak into double-digits. It’s the season that dreams were made of for Lynx fans so far.
In other news…
Tina Charles and Seimone Augustus were named Players of the Week in their respective conferences today. Charles was certainly no surprise after the numbers she put up, while it was a difficult choice in the West. Augustus’s closest competition was likely teammates Lindsay Whalen and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Whalen’s 39% shooting and McWilliams-Franklin’s scoring average being 5 points below Augustus’s probably tipped the scales in her favour. As always with these things, ties go to whoever scores the most points.
We have our very first sextuple-game night of the 2011 WNBA season tomorrow, so I might put together a little preview piece for tomorrow’s column. Check back before the games tomorrow night for that, rather than after as usual. It’ll be a bit redundant after the fact.
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET
San Antonio @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Chicago @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET
Seattle @ New York, 8pm ET
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET