So, six games yesterday in the WNBA, because apparently the league wants to punish me for something I did in a previous life. However, they made the mistake of leaving today free, which means I can spread things out. In this column you get the top teams from either conference, because if you’re in first you earn the right to be discussed first. Plus I threw in the LA-Tulsa game because I figure barely anyone watched it so a recap might be useful. The other three games will be covered tomorrow. The WNBA’s plan to exhaust me by overloading their schedule on certain days is foiled again.
So we start out with Indiana, looking to rebound from their disappointing loss in Chicago on Sunday with a home game against San Antonio. The Fever haven’t had to face a great deal of adversity this season, besides working out what to do when Briann January went down (which was a pretty straightforward decision). Losing one game to the Sky was hardly a disaster, but the manner of the 19-point loss to a team that they’ve dominated in the past necessitated a response. You don’t want games like that to linger. San Antonio have been patchy themselves lately, losing three straight before beating Tulsa by just eight points on Saturday. The recent record would look a lot prettier if they’d had just a little more luck in either of two last-second losses to Minnesota, but their offense has struggled at times since Danielle Adams suffered her foot injury. They’re still battling for wins, but everything becomes more difficult when you lose a key weapon.
The first quarter was dominated by defense. There were several turnovers on either side, but this was less the sloppy giveaways that we’ve seen from teams like Tulsa, LA, Phoenix and Seattle this season, more two hard-nosed defenses fighting each other tooth and nail. These were forced turnovers, not aimless passes sailing over teammates’ heads for no good reason.
Sophia Young came out clearly well aware that her team needed her to show up for this game, setting up on the block and demanding the ball. That’s what the Silver Stars need her to do, even if it doesn’t always work. There has to be a presence, and Young has to impose herself on games. At the other end, Tamika Catchings was winning the matchup of All-Star calibre forwards. Catch has shot the ball better from outside lately, and this game was no exception. Three perimeter jumpers fell for her, including two three-pointers, and the Fever took an 18-13 lead. Only once Indiana went to their bench did San Antonio gain more of a foothold, and cut the gap to a point by the end of the first quarter.
After my complaints about putting the entire bench corps on the floor for Indiana in their last game, coach Lin Dunn went right ahead and did the same thing in this one. Clearly she’s not a WNBAlien reader. Fortunately for the Fever, it worked out okay this time. The likes of Shannon Bobbitt and Shavonte Zellous kept up the defensive intensity, and by the time the Indiana starters began returning to the floor their team was up by four.
San Antonio were completely shut down by the Fever defense in the second quarter. Indiana’s constant trapping off screens was making both ball movement and perimeter shooting difficult, and then the Silver Stars seemed to completely run out of ideas. Sometimes Becky Hammon and Jia Perkins can shoot them out of holes like that, but nothing was working in this one and nothing would drop. Indiana were throwing some unusual lineups at them, including several minutes where Shyra Ely and Catchings were the post tandem, despite neither being much above six-feet tall. That just shows how little regard they have for the post offense of players like Ruth Riley, or for the team rebounding of San Antonio (which is consistently dreadful). The Fever could go with their small, quick lineup because they knew the Silver Stars couldn’t punish them for it, and it moved better, faster defenders to the 4 to match up with Young. Meanwhile, at the other end, Catchings was still scoring, Erin Phillips was knocking down shots from outside, and the lead was steadily growing. Indiana led 39-23 at halftime – holding San Antonio to just five points in the entire second quarter.
The Silver Stars tried everything in their box of tricks to make a comeback in the second half, but it never really worked. Danielle Robinson used her speed and ability to get to the rim as a spark at the start of the second half, but Phillips matched her bucket for bucket at the other end and Katie Douglas’s offense finally decided to join the party. San Antonio just didn’t have any answers, and the lead was up to 19 by the end of the third quarter. Indiana relaxed too early in the fourth, San Antonio refused to quit and Hammon started hitting from long range, but it was too little too late. Nine points was as close as they got, and Indiana always had a response, running out 81-68 winners.
That’s the Indiana Fever we expect to see every night. Well-drilled, passionate defense, and enough offense to win the game. With Catchings leading from the front, this was the response that their fans will have wanted to see after the game in Chicago. Catch had 21 points on 7-13 shooting, and when her jump shot is falling the Fever are a significantly better team. Phillips continues to show that while she might not possess quite the creative abilities of January, her offense is a significant step up, shooting 6-7 from the floor for 18 points. Douglas still doesn’t look quite as good as she did early in the season, but the mentality of needing to be a key scorer for her team appears to be returning. She’s looking to score more. Indiana’s 21 turnovers won’t make Dunn happy, but part of that was San Antonio’s own brand of pressure defense. It’s less of an issue when you’re forcing just as many yourselves, hitting shots from outside, and actually outrebounding an opponent for once.
Credit to San Antonio for not giving up, but they were never really in this game from the middle of the second quarter. Down to three consistent offensive threats, it’s hard to win games when any of them doesn’t produce, and they were too quiet in this game. Sophia Young dropped off after her strong start (and went 3-10 at the foul line – yikes), Jia Perkins never got going at all, and it was only the fourth quarter run that pushed Becky Hammon up to a respectable 19 points. The Robinsons, Scholanda and Danielle, both chipped in to help out, but it never looked like being enough. Once again they lost the rebounding battle, this time to a team that is consistently poor on the glass themselves. It’s an issue that becomes increasingly glaring when your offense grinds to a halt and every possession is one-and-done. They’re still hanging around in second place in the West, but it’s largely been thanks to Phoenix and Seattle losses in the last couple of weeks. At least the Silver Stars get to head home for a couple of games after this brief East Coast swing ends in Connecticut on Thursday.
Minnesota took their nine game win streak into Phoenix last night, hoping to create even more space between themselves and the chasing pack. Already holding a 2-1 lead in the season series against the Mercury, a win would also have sealed the tie-breaker over Phoenix, should they drop enough games over the rest of the year for that to be an issue. As for the Mercury, they were desperate for a win. Firstly, they’d lost five of their last six, including a heartbreaking one-point overtime defeat on their own floor to Connecticut on Sunday. Secondly, after this game there’s only one matchup left against the Lynx this season, and that’s on the last day of the regular season. One or both teams may well be resting players by then because it could be meaningless for the playoffs. So it seemed like they needed to pierce this feeling of impregnability and confidence that the Lynx have developed over recent weeks, before they become even harder to stop. This might’ve been their last real chance, until a potential playoff series in September.
The starting fives were the same for both teams as in recent games, although Monica Wright returned to the Lynx bench after missing several games to be with her father after his heart attack. Nakia Sanford continues to start at center for Phoenix after the departure of Kara Braxton, and Sidney Spencer – acquired in the Braxton trade – was in uniform on the bench.
The first quarter was exactly what we expect to see when these teams face each other – running, gunning, and lots of scoring. The Mercury like to run – even more now that Braxton is gone – and while the Lynx like to play defense, they’re more than happy to charge from one end to the other when the option is available. When Lindsay Whalen drained consecutive threes midway through the first quarter – with no one anywhere near her on either of them – the Lynx led 17-15 and we’d played less than five minutes. That’s a complete first quarter score for most teams in this league (and practically a first half in some recent games).
Remember how everyone thought Minnesota were so deep that it was almost unfair before the season started? And how people still want to trade for half their bench? Considering that, it’s amazing how ineffective their reserves are on a regular basis. It’s ended up as a chicken and egg situation for coach Cheryl Reeve – her bench players frequently don’t perform, so she quickly sits them back down and sends the starters in again. But if the bench players received more minutes, maybe they’d be able to find some form and produce better when they do make it onto the floor. Either way, the one thing Reeve’s failed at this year is creating any consistent backup production from her reserves. Once she started to rest her starters in this game, the Lynx offense died. Maya Moore was replaced by Candice Wiggins without any noticeable drop-off, but once Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus went out for Charde Houston and Monica Wright, and then a minute later Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Whalen sat for Jessica Adair and Alexis Hornbuckle, Phoenix started to take over. Corey Gaines was subbing freely for the Mercury as well, but players were bouncing in and out at such a rate for Phoenix that there was no sustained period where the lineup looked particularly weak.
Augustus started the second quarter but by the time she was joined by her fellow starters, Phoenix had a six-point lead and a little momentum. It took a ridiculous offensive display from Augustus to gun them back into the game as she just started knocking down every shot in sight. Taurasi was responding at the other end, but there was only so much she could do. The half ended on a gorgeous play by Maya Moore, which can’t be passed over without mention. Whalen took a mid-range turnaround that Candice Dupree may have got a piece of, which left it coming up short. Moore read it as an airball, went under the hoop from the opposite side, leapt to catch the ball in midair, and threw an instant touch-pass to Brunson under the basket for an open layup. With 0.2 seconds left on the clock. That was a beautiful end to a quality half of offensive basketball, tying the game up at 48. After all the shooting, all the runs and all the efforts to play a little defense, the boxscore was about as even as you could get at halftime in nearly every category.
The second half was a little different. They were still going head-to-head, firing away at each other, but whaddaya know? The Mercury decided to play a little defense. Shows you just how desperate they were for a win – they were willing to break the habit of a lifetime. Of course, they didn’t go overboard. After threes from Penny Taylor and Marie Ferdinand-Harris put the Mercury in front by four late in the third quarter, they were still happy to leave Moore wandering around outside the three-point line without anyone paying much attention to her. She sank two triples in the closing minutes, took her personal tally to 20 for the day, and took the Lynx into the fourth quarter up 64-62.
It all got a bit physical and a bit chippy in the fourth (although it had been pretty damn physical all night long). As with most good defensive teams, the Lynx are aggressive and make a lot of body contact on the defensive end. The Mercury, on the other hand, often try to body teams up and do a lot of reaching and hacking. They were so intent on winning this game that they certainly weren’t going to back down from a physical struggle, even if Minnesota have the size and bulk advantage at most spots. A lot of free throws, a lot of whistles, and a lot of complaining about the officiating got us to 75-72 Phoenix, after Dupree was called for a technical foul and Taylor sank a pair at the line. For what felt like the thousandth time, Augustus hit a jumper before Taurasi responded at the other end with one of her own: 77-74, two minutes to play. Augustus then came up short on yet another jumper, but an offensive board gave the Lynx a second chance. Whalen fed Moore in the corner, but she fumbled the pass out of bounds. It felt crushingly cheap, but Taurasi threw an ill-advised jump pass across the front of the defense on the following possession, and Moore happily gobbled it up. She was fouled, sank both shots, and we were back to a one-point game.
Taurasi missed a step-back jumper, and then DeWanna Bonner committed a terrible foul by reaching in on Moore when the Lynx were running out of time on the shot clock. Not smart, but she partially got away with it when Moore went 1-of-2 at the line. Tied game, 48 seconds to play.
Now Gaines always says that part of the point of the Mercury system, his frequent substitutions and his limited use of timeouts is to tire out opponents. The idea is that the other team won’t have the energy to close the game out. This could be considered an exhibit in his favour. Dupree missed an effort at the hoop, but it was Bonner who was quickest to multiple offensive boards and eventually drew a whistle. After she hit 1-of-2, Augustus was short again on a jumper, and when Brunson took an inbounds pass she tried to throw multiple pump fakes to draw her defenders off their feet. Taurasi showed quick hands to strip the ball away before Brunson could ever get an attempt off. The Lynx quickly fouled Taurasi to stop the clock with 19 seconds left, but after she sank both foul shots things went wrong for Minnesota again. Whalen took the inbounds pass, but picked up her dribble in the face of Ferdinand-Harris’s defense. Whalen then threw a tired-looking pass that was picked off by Bonner, forcing the Lynx to foul again. That was just about it. When Bonner hit the first, missed the second and Taylor grabbed the offensive board, it was definitely over. More free throws sealed an 85-80 Mercury win.
A hell of a lot of that result was about desire. After nine wins in a row, the Lynx wanted to win, but they knew full well that a loss would hardly be the end of the World. The Mercury needed a win. They wanted it more in those final moments. Given how many jumpers Augustus missed late in the game after being insanely hot earlier on, the fumble by Moore and the turnover by Whalen, you also have to wonder if tiredness had a part to play. Whalen is relied upon to run this team, and Augustus and Moore spend possession after possession crossing the floor, charging around screens looking to break open for jump shots. That’s hard work. Moore finished with 28 points on 8-12 from the floor, including 6-6 from three-point range (tying a WNBA record for most threes without a miss), Augustus was 11-18 for 26, and Whalen was 6-13 for 15 points and six assists. Those are great games, but they just couldn’t quite finish it off. If the Lynx could find a little bit more from their supposedly super-talented bench, maybe those key starters could get a little more rest and have something left for the end of games like this. As it is, this is just one loss after a hell of a streak. I’m sure it won’t be long until they start up another one.
For the Mercury, you could see that they really wanted that one, and they did a heck of a job gutting it out. They only shot 41% from the floor, Taylor was once again quiet with 13 points on only seven shots, but they pulled it out. Player for player, their bench is probably less talented than Minnesota’s. It’s probably not even close. But they got far more out of their reserves in this game, even though they shot 5-20 as a group. Bonner was her typical disruptive self, Ferdinand-Harris came in and shot everything she touched as usual but played hard and spelled the starters adequately, and Ketia Swanier once again looked like she might be a safer pair of hands than Temeka Johnson at the point. In general, this team will only go as far as its starters can carry it, but the rest of the squad can definitely help. Taurasi shot 8-14 for 26 points to lead the Mercury as usual, but she had more backup than the Lynx on this particular evening. There might only be one regular season meeting left between these teams, and it might be meaningless – but don’t be surprised if they run into each other in the postseason as well.
Tuesday night was rounded off by Tulsa‘s visit to Los Angeles, a meeting of the two most disappointing, dispiriting teams in the WNBA. Tulsa, at least, were always meant to be bad. Maybe not quite 1-19 bad, but not an awful lot better. The Sparks have won one of their last eight, and while they’re not technically the second-worst team in the WNBA – thanks to Washington – their lack of fight and endeavour over recent weeks drops them well below the Mystics in terms of producing what they’re worth. It’s been a mess.
Amazingly enough, Joe Bryant actually made a change to his starting lineup for this game, the first switch since he took over from Jen Gillom as head coach. It became less interesting when we heard that Kristi Toliver was absent dealing with a family emergency, so Ticha Penicheiro’s promotion wasn’t through choice. No news yet about what Toliver was dealing with – or even if it was just a cover, as when Kara Braxton was suspended and then traded – but as ever you’ll read it here when details emerge. Almost as remarkable as LA changing their starting five, Teresa Edwards actually stuck with the same lineup for the third game in a row for Tulsa. Maybe she’s finally found one she likes.
I’ll gloss over the exciting-as-mud first half. LA took a 16-5 lead, which either means that the Penicheiro lineup starts games better than the Toliver version has been for the last month, or Tulsa are just that bad. The Shock worked their way back into it behind Liz Cambage – who LA simply don’t have the size to deal with – and an unsurprising Sparks cold streak. By halftime it was 31-27 LA, and the most remarkable statistic was that only 12 turnovers had been committed in the game. Only four by LA in an entire half is extraordinary considering how cheaply they’ve been giving away the ball lately. Maybe having an actual point guard on the floor somehow helped prevent some of the turnovers, eh Joe?
Cambage started the second half, and Tulsa actually made a move. The problem was that while the Shock had discovered a little offense, they fell apart at the other end. Led by Penicheiro, who was having one of her rare offensive explosion nights, the Sparks were scoring at will in the third. They were helped by Cambage picking up her fourth foul with four minutes left in the quarter, sending her to the bench. That left Tulsa jacking up a lot of threes, and the lane open for repeated Ticha penetration. LA were up 61-51 by the end of the quarter – yes, the Sparks scored 30 points in a single period.
Cambage started the fourth, but quickly drew her fifth foul and sat right back down. LA decided they wanted to make it interesting anyway. Natasha Lacy was the only one providing any offense for the Sparks by this point, and that wasn’t enough. Tiffany Jackson was going at whichever of the veteran LA forwards happened to pick her up on any given possession, Sheryl Swoopes was turning back the years to knock down a few shots, and Tulsa ended up back in the game. With four minutes to play, a Swoopes jumper got the Shock within 66-62, but from there on in they struggled to sink that one killer shot to make it a one possession game. Tina Thompson stepped up and hit a couple of shots from mid-range to cling on to the lead, and Edwards waited an awfully long time to reinsert Cambage into the action. She came back in with two minutes to play after Andrea Riley jacked yet another three-point effort from 30 feet out that made me scream at my computer screen.
A pair of Cambage free throws got the Shock within four again, and then a terrible turnover by Thompson on the inbounds pass gave Tulsa the ball right back. It really seemed like LA were desperate to throw this game away, against possibly the worst team the WNBA has ever seen. A technical foul on Thompson’s former Houston Comets teammate Sheryl Swoopes allowed LA to stretch their lead to five, but Cambage posted up Thompson for a layup – and the foul – to cut the gap to three with a minute left. Even worse, Cambage missed the free throw and Tulsa ended up with the rebound. Swoopes forced a jumper when they really should’ve found a way to go back to Cambage yet again, missed, and it was LA ball with 35 seconds left.
Now I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t foul in that situation. You’re down three, and you’re going to have at least ten seconds to set up an offense if you can force a stop. And remember, the game was 69-66 at this point – there was a pretty decent chance that LA wouldn’t score. They only had eight points in the entire quarter. Anyway, Riley grabbed Penicheiro to stop the clock, either because Teresa Edwards disagrees with me or because Riley’s dumb. It was hard to tell on the video because Edwards was offscreen. Penicheiro sank both foul shots, Tulsa ran an appallingly bad ‘offense’ at the other end that drained most of the time away and resulted in yet another Riley brick from distance, and the game was over. Tulsa could’ve won that, but their execution in the final seconds was atrocious. LA’s own miserable final quarter almost gave it away.
So what have we learned from that shambles? LA are still bad; Tulsa are slightly worse. Well hold the front page. Penicheiro responded to her reinstatement as a starter with 7-10 shooting for 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. And one turnover. That’s a point guard, ladies and gentlemen. Her backup wasn’t great, Thompson needing 12 shots for her 12 points, and Lacy the only other Spark in double-figures, but they crawled over the line. With two players missing (Candace Parker and Toliver), Bryant actually played something resembling a normal rotation. LaToya Pringle didn’t play, leaving a standard eight-player rotation rather than the find-minutes-for-everyone approach he’s been taking lately. Scraping past Tulsa is hardly a ringing endorsement, but the vets do seem more comfortable when they just keep playing, rather than bouncing in and out based on whim or nightly performance. Assuming there aren’t any trades made in the next week, maybe Bryant simply needs to pick seven or eight players and roll with them – not struggle to work out who’s got it going in any given game.
That was disappointing for Tulsa, because they so easily could’ve stolen the win. They play LA three more times this season, but Parker will probably be back for all of them, making this the best opportunity to pinch their second win of the season. It was also the first time in a while that we’ve seen real flashes of what Cambage can do at this level. She was simply overpowering against LA. The Sparks are a crappy defensive team, and unless Jantel Lavender’s in or Parker’s healthy they’ve got no size to match up with Liz, but 6-8 for 16 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes illustrates how effective she can be. Her presence also limits the number of times Andrea Riley will just chuck a three up if she’s got a behemoth to pass the ball to instead. Foul trouble was an issue for Cambage at the World Championships and it was again in this game, so she needs to avoid picking up cheap ones, but the girl simply has to play as much as possible. Turn her loose, Teresa.
In other news…
The Washington Mystics finally admitted today that Alana Beard is done for the season. Apparently she tried to come back and practice with the team last week and ended up reaggravating her foot injury yet again. The question now is where do the Mystics go from here? Both Beard and Monique Currie are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. The Mystics could ‘core’ one or the other, which stops the player from negotiating with any other team but guarantees her at least a one-year deal at the WNBA maximum salary (although you’re allowed to negotiate something longer or of a different value). Is Beard worth that after two years on the sideline taking money from the organisation but producing nothing? Is Currie worth more at this point? Is there any need to core either or is there enough good will built up on both sides that neither wants to play anywhere else? Should they cut ties with Beard at this point anyway and just move on? It’s all a mess, but the questions aren’t going anywhere. I’ll take a closer look – and maybe try to answer some of those questions – in later columns.
In far more positive injury news, according to the LA broadcasters last night, Candace Parker is expected back on the court this week. That means either Friday’s game against Phoenix, or Tuesday’s against Atlanta. Not a moment too soon for the Sparks, who can use all the help they can get.
San Antonio @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET
Atlanta @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET