WNBA Today, 08/09/2011: Sextuple Tuesday

Yes, six games tonight in the WNBA, as every team in the league takes to the floor. In honour of that (and the fact that there were no games yesterday), WNBAlien brings you some game notes and things to watch out for in all six contests.

Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET (ESPN3 in the US, LiveAccess in most other places)

This one could actually be pretty interesting. The Mystics have played some decent stuff lately, finally grabbing their fourth win of the year against New York on Saturday. They also keep claiming that they’re still chasing a playoff spot, and if they honestly believe that then this is one of the games that they have to win – Chicago and Atlanta are the obvious suspects to track down if they were to somehow pull it off.

Crystal Langhorne and Matee Ajavon have been carrying Washington of late, Ajavon especially exploding against New York, but they may struggle against Atlanta’s weapons. The Dream can match up with the Mystics’ speed, although after Armintie Price hurt her ankle in the last game they might be without the most natural option to guard Ajavon. An increasingly healthy Sancho Lyttle could make things difficult for Langhorne inside, but when she’s in the mood Lang can score against anybody. On the opposite side of the ball, Marissa Coleman’s defense may be improved from what it once was, but it’s still hard to see how she’ll keep up with Angel McCoughtry. The Mystics defense will have to be alive and offer Coleman a lot of help to keep McCoughtry quiet.

After two disappointing losses, Atlanta creamed Seattle on Sunday afternoon, and will be looking to carry that momentum on into this game. It’ll be more difficult if Price is out, because then they’ll need either Coco Miller or Iziane Castro Marques to have one of their productive days, which aren’t exactly reliable. But with Lyttle back in the starting lineup, and Angel more aggressive lately, the Dream are starting to resemble last year’s playoff team. Now they just need to show it every night, instead of whenever they happen to feel like it.

San Antonio @ Indiana, 7pm ET (ESPN3 in the US, LiveAccess in most other places)

A matchup that will likely draw more interest among the WNBA-viewing public than the other 7pm tip-off. Despite their positions in comfortable playoff spots, both these teams should be fighting hard for the win tonight. San Antonio had lost three in a row before making very hard work out of beating Tulsa on Saturday, and could use a win against a real team. They’re averaging barely 66 points a game over their last four (admittedly partly due to their schedule), and they need to prove that the offense can still produce in Danielle Adams’s absence. Sophia Young has played a little better lately, and unless Indiana drop Tamika Catchings down to the power forward spot she’ll be matched up against far less talented players at the 4. They need Young to produce.

Indiana were on a roll, winners of five in a row, but the loss in Chicago on Sunday night was a lifeless, limp performance. They didn’t look like they wanted to be there, the bench was terrible, and they lost to a team that’s nowhere near as good as them. This is the chance to respond.

Don’t expect too many points in this one. San Antonio have been playing at a noticeably slower pace since losing Adams, concentrating even more on their defense than they had in the early stages of the season. Indiana are always slow. The rebounding ‘battle’ could be interesting as well, because both these teams are atrocious on the glass. 10th (Indiana) and 12th (San Antonio) in the league, separated by only LA, this is one of the rare chances for either of these teams to come out on top on the glass. But if ever there was a game to bet on a third-party somehow grabbing the most rebounds, this game might be it.

Chicago @ Connecticut, 7.30pm (ESPN3 in the US, LiveAccess in most other places)

For the fifth and final time this season, these two run into each other. The series is currently tied 2-2, including a double-overtime battle-royale that took both teams into the 100s. As ever, the focus will be on Team USA centers Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles. Their raw numbers across the four direct matchups this season are startlingly similar – Charles averaging 20.5 points and 11.3 rebounds, Fowles at 21 points and 11.8 rebounds. With both considered MVP candidates, whoever wins this game might play into the thinking of the voters come the end of the season.

Chicago should be buoyed by their win over Indiana by nearly 20 points on Sunday, their first victory over a good Eastern Conference team in weeks. For once it wasn’t about Fowles dominating or Epiphanny Prince having a breakout night, but players like Shay Murphy and Cathrine Kraayeveld knocking down open shots from outside. They’ll need to hit them again if the Sky are going to beat another strong defensive club in Connecticut.

The Sun will have their tails up after sneaking past Phoenix in Arizona on Sunday night. Their road woes finally appear to be behind them, and now they can go home and play on their own floor, where they’ve lost just once all season. The Sun would fancy their chances against Chicago in any venue after winning seven of their last nine, but the Sky have been a poor road team all year. At the Mohegan Sun Arena, you have to rank Charles and her cohorts as the strong favourites.

While Charles and Fowles fight it out in the paint, and Asjha Jones tries to keep up her recent hot streak against the length of Michelle Snow, one of the most interesting matchups to watch out for is amongst the guards. Courtney Vandersloot may be the shiny new thing for point guard fans to fawn over, but Renee Montgomery has been in this league a few years now and knows all the tricks. Also, she’s far too quick for Sloot to deal with. They’ll try to slide Sloot over to hide her on Danielle McCray or Kalana Greene, leaving Epiphanny Prince to deal with Montgomery, but it won’t always be possible. Expect Renee to come out firing and attacking the hoop from the opening tip. If Chicago can keep her quiet, that might be their best chance to pull off the upset.

Seattle @ New York, 8pm (Live on ESPN2, LiveAccess in most other places)

The Storm need to show up. They don’t necessarily need to win, but after the debacle in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon and the capitulation in Minnesota a week earlier, they have to produce a performance on the road. It’s been pathetic. I find it hard to believe that a team with as much pride as Seattle can come out sloppy and shambolic yet again, especially in front of a national TV audience, but their road performances don’t inspire confidence. They lost to Atlanta by 17, but that didn’t tell the whole story. 29 turnovers came closer. Constantly throwing the ball away has become a repeated issue whenever the Storm take the floor outside of Key Arena, and they need to sort it out. This team is too smart and too experienced to be making such elementary errors and providing so many free opportunities for their opponents.

It’s not going to get much easier in New York. The Liberty have had some struggles this season adapting to new coach John Whisenant’s defensive schemes, but they’ve gotten better as the year’s gone on. The size of Kia Vaughn, Quanitra Hollingsworth and now Kara Braxton (who just had her first practice with the team, so may play limited minutes if at all) will make things difficult in the paint for Seattle. But the Storm know how to beat these defensive styles. Move the ball crisply, move yourselves through space, and the opportunities will be there. They just need to make sure that the passes are going to teammates.

The Liberty could use the win themselves. After breaking a seven-game win-lose-win-lose pattern with a deathly dull victory over Chicago last week, New York were outplayed and outhustled by cellar-dwellars Washington on Saturday. They’ve dropped 1.5 games behind Connecticut for second place in the East, and if Chicago or Atlanta ever manage to sort themselves out, they might start hearing hooves from behind as well. It’s been an inconsistent season for the Liberty, but games like this at home to a team that struggles on the road are the perfect opportunity to start building a real home court advantage out in Jersey. It’s going to be their home for three years, so they better start making the most of it. Plus, if Cappie Pondexter really wants to turn herself into some kind of icon, ESPN games are the place to show up. Maybe that’ll inspire one of her better performances, even faced with Tanisha Wright’s pestering defense.

There’s always an extra element to the game when Sue Bird returns to the New York area after she grew up and starred there in high school. She’s Seattle’s favourite daughter now, but she was New York’s first. She’ll have friends and family in the crowd, and hopefully they’ll witness a better performance from her than we saw in Atlanta. Going from Lindsey Harding’s defense to Leilani Mitchell’s ought to help her out in that regard.

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET (LiveAccess)

Yet again, the two best offenses in the WNBA collide. It’s the fourth time in the last month that these two have clashed, with Minnesota currently holding a 2-1 advantage. After 421 combined points in the first two games, last time out was a comparatively quiet 90-73 victory for the Lynx, but the smart bets are still on offense dominating this contest.

Talking of bets, the lines opened with Minnesota the strong favourites for this game, despite being on the road, but some heavy betting on Phoenix has seen a swing the other way. At time of writing, the Mercury are favoured by a point in most venues. The gamblers obviously don’t think a good thing can last forever, because the Lynx are riding a nine-game win streak and looking to stretch it into double-digits. They’ve won shootouts with the Mercury, low-scoring fights with the Storm, last-second heartbreakers with the Silver Stars and any other kind of game you can think of during this sequence. They showed a little vulnerability late in their game in LA on Sunday, allowing the Sparks back into a contest that never should’ve been close, but they still had the talent and guts to pull it out. They’ll be ready – it’s a matter of what Phoenix can come up with to throw at them.

The Mercury have been floundering a little since the All-Star game. They’re 1-5 over their last six games, and in the five since the break key player Penny Taylor has only had one standout performance. Those were commonplace in the first half of the year, and had people mentioning her as an MVP candidate ahead of superstar and teammate Diana Taurasi. With Kara Braxton gone, lessening the Mercury’s offensive weapons even further, they need Taylor to snap back to her previous form. Her improvements were the main difference between this year’s team and the squad that finished 15-19 last year – if she drops from superb back to merely good, the team becomes barely mediocre again.

The other question opened up by the Braxton trade is how DeWanna Bonner is going to step up. She produced an offensive assault against Connecticut on Sunday, but she’s done that before. It’s a matter of whether she can be effective and productive game in and game out, rather than just offer an occasional outburst. The additional question marks about the Mercury, as ever, are on defense. Without Braxton, either the Bonner/Candice Dupree pairing has to step up in the paint, or the likes of Nakia Sanford and Olayinka Sanni are going to see more time inside. Defense has never been this team’s fortĂ©, but they need to play enough of it to at least make the other team work. Trading away their 6-6 starting center for a glorified cheerleader isn’t going to make that any easier.

Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET (LiveAccess)

And to top the night off, a matchup between the dregs of the WNBA. Well, that might be a little harsh, but it’s certainly not far off. The Sparks showed some fight in working their way back into the game against Minnesota on Sunday, but by and large they’ve been appalling in recent weeks. That made seven losses in their last eight games, and several of them haven’t even been close. Too many ridiculously sloppy turnovers from a team that’s looked like it barely gives a toss have cost them against multiple teams, and it’s left them four games outside the playoffs in the West. They shouldn’t be this bad, even without Candace Parker.

As for Parker, this is the day that we hit the six-week recuperation mark that was stated after she tore the lateral meniscus in her right knee. She looked pretty healthy on the bench on Sunday, so with a bit of luck we should see her out on the floor sometime soon, but there’s been no indication that she’ll be in uniform tonight. The Sparks really ought to be able to take care of Tulsa without her. Given that they’re facing easily the worst team in the WNBA, this would seem like the perfect opportunity for Joe Bryant to finally shake up his moribund starting lineup, which has repeatedly dropped LA into early holes in recent games. Ticha Penicheiro’s the only true point guard on the roster and the team looks better with her out there, so she seems like a natural option, but I’d settle for anything. They just need a change (and there’s no sign of any of those trades I keep suggesting).

As for Tulsa, what is there left to say? Teresa Edwards has brought a modicum of structure to the team, but they’re still lacking in talent, and she hasn’t exactly inspired calls for her to be handed the reins for the Shock’s future. The dedication to Andrea Riley is baffling, as is the lack of minutes for Liz Cambage in certain recent games. I understand that winning a game or two to inspire confidence – and maybe keep her job – is important to Edwards, but developing the likes of Cambage and Kayla Pedersen is the key element to the Shock’s future. 1-33 or 4-30 isn’t going to make much difference in the long run.

This could be one of Tulsa’s best opportunities to grab another win before the end of the season, and it’s one of the few games where Cambage, Tiffany Jackson and their fellow Shock players should dominate the glass. With extra size and nothing to lose, who knows what they might pull off. It would be a new level of embarrassment for the Sparks if they fall to Tulsa at home, but at this stage it wouldn’t be all that surprising. They frequently haven’t looked like they care enough to worry about embarrassment in the last few weeks.

In other news…

Monica Wright is back with the Minnesota Lynx after her father’s health improved following his heart attack. She should be available for the Lynx for tonight’s game (although whether Coach Reeve will use her much is another question entirely).


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