WNBA Today, 08/11/2011: Everybody’s Still Playing!

On to the second-half of Tuesday night’s WNBA sextuple-header. Apologies to the fans that had to wait until I got to their team – there are only so many hours in the day, even for me. Plus, y’know, abject laziness tends to play a part too.

Atlanta and Washington went into their game on Tuesday night as technically the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference, although the Dream only sat behind Chicago on percentage points. The comments to the press from Mystics brass about still making a playoff push were pure PR spin, but if they had even a miniscule belief that it was possible this game was a must win. Chasing down Chicago and Atlanta was only ever going to be possible if they won all their remaining games against the those teams. After blowing out New York on Saturday, the Mystics also should’ve been heading into this game with renewed confidence that they were capable of winning games. Coming off their own overwhelming win over Seattle on Sunday, the Dream were hardly lacking in belief either.

After spraining her ankle in the game against Seattle, Armintie Price was replaced by Coco Miller in Atlanta’s starting lineup. Price was in uniform, but stayed on the bench – for the time being. Washington had their standard nine players available, and started their usual five. I’d tell you about the first half, but LiveAccess was acting up again so it wasn’t possible to watch much more than five minutes of it. The most remarkable aspect of the opening 20 minutes was the lack of attempts from Angel McCoughtry. She didn’t take a shot in the entire first quarter, after firing away with wild abandon in the majority of recent games. The period finished tied at 22 regardless, as Atlanta rediscovered the fact that their post players can score too.

When McCoughtry came back into the game in the second quarter, she was back to the typical Angel. Her floor attempts were still limited because the Mystics were paying so much attention to her, but McCoughtry simply put her head down and went to the hoop, drawing fouls and ending up at the free throw line. She was 6-6 at the line in the final minutes of the half, but behind Matee Ajavon and Crystal Langhorne Washington kept pace at the other end. 39-38 Atlanta at the break.

Atlanta point guard Lindsey Harding looked fine in the closing minutes of the first half, but when the second half started she was replaced by Coco Miller at the point guard spot. Harding never returned to the game, due to what was reported as some kind of knee injury, but she really did look perfectly okay. I’d be surprised if she missed any future games.

Scoring dried up in the third quarter. Without Harding (or Shalee Lehning) to run the point, and with McCoughtry back in gunning-mode but coming up short on nearly everything, the Dream offense was nowhere near as efficient or effective as it had been in the first half. At the other end, Washington were even worse. 12 straight misses from the field, including several blown layups, and a couple of poor turnovers from Kelly Miller and Jasmine Thomas meant that the Mystics fell behind despite their solid defense. Even a tiny amount of offense will eventually produce a lead over a team that has none whatsoever. Atlanta led 51-48 at the end of a third quarter that saw a total of 22 points scored.

Fortunately for everybody – especially the viewing public – the game improved in the fourth. Atlanta pushed their lead as high as seven points early in the period when Washington’s scoring drought leaked over from the third, but then the Matee Ajavon show began. Langhorne had been the Mystics’ key performer to that point, sealing her defender and finding lanes inside between the giants in Atlanta’s post rotation. In the fourth, Ajavon’s firing took over. A three and a pair of free throws from Matee dragged the lead back down, and once the game was tied at 61, it was two consecutive triples from Ajavon that created a six-point lead for Washington. At the other end, McCoughtry was firing blanks and Atlanta were coughing up cheap turnovers. Rookie guard Jasmine Thomas isn’t the safest pair of hands at this point offensively, but she was giving Coco Miller all kinds of trouble on the defensive end. Nicky Anosike’s quick hands were causing problems as well. It looked like Washington might just hold on to this one and produce their first winning ‘streak’ of the season.

But, well, they’re still the Mystics. After Kelly Miller went 1-of-2 at the line to push their lead back to six with under a minute to play, Iziane Castro Marques realised that the one way to prevent another brick from McCoughtry was to never let her touch the ball. Not that Izi’s ever exactly been fond of passing herself. Castro Marques ran straight to the other end, stopped at the three-point line and fired a ball that banked off the glass, spun around the rim, and somehow dropped in. Three-point game.

Ajavon was fouled intentionally, sank both free throws, but out of a timeout McCoughtry stepped behind the three-point line and drained a shot with Marissa Coleman right in her grill to cut the lead to two. This is the kind of season Washington have had – when they’re not screwing up themselves, the worst three-point shooting team in the league is sinking multiple treys in the last minute to make a comeback against them. 34 seconds left, Washington timeout leading 70-68.

The Mystics, understandably, gave the ball to Ajavon and let her try to do something with it. Unfortunately for Washington, McCoughtry reached in, stripped the ball as Ajavon was raising to shoot, and Armintie Price was off to the races for a layup at the other end. Oh yes, Price. For some reason, Price’s ankle was strong enough for her to enter the game for the first time with less than five minutes remaining. Presumably Atlanta were hoping she wouldn’t have to play, except in an emergency, but with Harding out and the game in the balance decided it was worth the risk. Armintie looked pretty sprightly tying the game at 70 with under 15 seconds to play.

The Ajavon turnover wasn’t really her fault, more an excellent play by McCoughtry, but on the following possession we saw the other side of why Washington keep losing close games. The ball was inbounded to DeMya Walker at the top of the key, who turned and tried to barrel her way to the hoop. I can’t believe that was what Trudi Lacey drew up in the huddle, considering Langhorne and Ajavon were alternatives, but that’s what they ended up with. Walker lost her balance in the face of Erika de Souza, double-dribbled the ball, and left Atlanta with 5.6 seconds to pull out an improbable victory. After a timeout of their own, Price inbounded the ball to de Souza, took the return pass and penetrated straight to the hoop. Langhorne dropped down to cover the potential Price layup at the rim, leaving Sancho Lyttle wide open from mid-range for Price’s kick-out. Lyttle knocked down the jumper, 0.5 seconds left, game over. Heartbreak for the Mystics yet again. A quick heave from halfcourt was no good, and Atlanta could celebrate a 72-70 win that looked incredibly unlikely when they were down by six in the last minute.

Oh Washington, Washington, Washington. What are we going to do with you? For the umpteenth time this season, they found a way to lose in the closing minutes. It must be excruciating following this team this year. Against New York on Saturday they managed to build such a huge lead that it was impossible to screw up, but in this one they were back to their old tricks. Ajavon finished with 28 points on 10-17 from the floor, while Langhorne had 23 on 8-20. They got practically no help offensively, but defensively the Mystics looked good, forcing turnovers and creating stops. Of course, when the other team has two point guards hurt you damn well ought to cause their remaining ballhandlers some trouble. They kept McCoughtry in check most of the day, with solid work from Coleman and Kerri Gardin (along with a lot of help defense), but it wasn’t quite enough. Should’ve been though, if only the Mystics could finish games.

A pure skin-of-the-teeth job by Atlanta. They only took five three-pointers all day, and only hit two – the bombs in the last minute that pulled them back into the game. Without Lehning, Price and Harding for large parts of the game, and with McCoughtry cold, fastbreak points and post offense kept them in it. de Souza was 9-15 for 18 points, Lyttle 4-10 for 8 (including that key bucket at the death) and this could be good for Atlanta. It reminded them that they can score in other ways rather than expecting McCoughtry to do everything, and that they can simply gut out wins when they absolutely need to have them. It was also a road win to kick off a sequence where they’re playing seven out of eight away from Philips Arena. Unless they want their record to take another nosedive, they’re going to have to pick up some wins on their travels over the next couple of weeks. This was a good place to start, even if they barely managed it.

—–

So with Atlanta winning, Chicago dropped to fifth in the East and out of the playoff spots. The previous time that happened, the Sky were playing later in the day, and likely had time to hear about the Dream’s result before responding with a win over Indiana. This time, they tipped off against Connecticut only 30 minutes later than Atlanta’s game, so they didn’t have that extra little push to kick them into gear. Considering Chicago were taking their 2-8 road record into Connecticut, where the Sun were 8-1 so far this season, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference.

It was the standard starting fives for both teams, Danielle McCray keeping her place on the wing for Connecticut despite being benched very quickly by coach Mike Thibault in a couple of recent outings. Guess what happened in this one? Yep, one poor pass by McCray, creating a turnover and breakaway layup for Tamera Young to open the scoring for Chicago, and McCray found her backside stuck to the bench again. That’s what you call a quick hook.

Whenever these two teams face each other, the marquee matchup takes place in the paint between Team USA centers Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles. In the first quarter, Fowles was winning, hence so were the Sky. A couple of nice entry passes helped Syl to some early points, Charles was trying to stretch the floor with her mid-range game but her shot wasn’t falling, so Chicago developed a narrow lead. 21-17 Sky at the end of the first.

The second quarter showed why the Sun came into this game at 13-7, and the Sky were 10-12 despite both having MVP-calibre centers – Charles has more help. No one in a sky blue vest besides Fowles could discover any offense at all, and while Chicago’s defense is good, it’s not good enough to hold on when they have no offensive production whatsoever. Renee Montgomery was driving to the hoop for layups and free throws, Charles started making a couple of shots and getting fouled herself, and Asjha Jones found some space as well. Connecticut’s defense was having an effect on the Sky, but mostly it was the same as their performance against Indiana only without anyone knocking down shots. In that game, Shay Murphy and Cathrine Kraayeveld got hot, and everything flowed from there. In this one, the perimeter players were throwing up bricks, and everything collapsed. Connecticut won the second quarter 22-7, and led at halftime 39-28.

The second half was, well, ‘not pretty’ is probably generous. In the words of Thibault after the game, “Can we call it a defensive clinic, not an offensive meltdown?” With the way Connecticut collapse into the paint, and with Fowles and Michelle Snow defending the rim at the other end, points anywhere near the basket were at a premium. That makes every shot lower-percentage than teams would like, and nothing much was dropping in this game. Chicago briefly looked like they were getting back in the game late in the third quarter when they cut the lead to 46-40, but two consecutive turnovers by Erin Thorn led to breakaway scores for Connecticut to stretch the lead back out. Despite Thorn’s relative success as the backup point this season, that’s one of the reasons she’s never been put in that role before. Those steals kicked off a 9-1 run for the Sun that closed the quarter, taking them to the fourth up 55-41.

The final period meandered along without ever looking like much of a contest, until Connecticut apparently decided they wanted to make it interesting towards the end. Repeated turnovers and lazy fouls allowed the Sky to claw back into the game, and a transition three from Courtney Vandersloot appeared to cut the gap to five points with 40 seconds to play. However, Thibault started ranting and raving on the sidelines – not unusual for Mike – and convinced the referees to check the replay. Turned out he was right for once, Sloot’s toe was on the line, meaning she’d only cut it to six. That seemed to kill any momentum Chicago had managed to build, and Connecticut held on from there, finishing the game off 69-58.

It’s disappointing for Chicago to lose their grip on that playoff spot they’ve held for so long this season, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. With the considerable assistance of the best defensive center in the game (bar maybe Lauren Jackson, if you count her), Pokey Chatman has made the Sky into a strong defensive team this season. What she hasn’t managed to do, is create much of an offense. Fowles finished 6-15 from the floor and 7-12 from the line for 19 points and 11 rebounds, but there just wasn’t much help on offer. Murphy needed 14 shots for her 18 points and Tamera Young was the only other player in double-figures. There’s simply too much placed on Big Syl’s shoulders when her teammates can’t knock down shots. Epiphanny Prince seems to have disappeared into her shell recently, perhaps in response to the addition of Murphy and her aggressive offensive game. You’d hope that Prince would react to having a realistic competitor behind her by upping her game, but it hasn’t happened – she’s just disappeared. Both Chatman and her team may need another year. On the other hand, Atlanta have that horrible road-heavy schedule coming up, while Chicago play four of their next six at home. This is their chance. They have to make a push from here if they want to reach the postseason for the first time in their history, rather than wait yet another year.

Ugly, ugly win for the Sun, but they all count. That makes eight wins in their last ten, and keeps them right on the heels of Indiana for the lead in the East. As Thibault suggested, let’s be generous and credit the defense rather than denigrating the offense. They held the Sky to 28% from the field, which is ridiculously low whether your opponent can typically shoot from outside or not. Charles finished 6-20 for 16 points and 11 rebounds, her seventh straight double-double to tie Lauren Jackson’s record. That leaves her and Fowles in a virtual tie personally across the five meetings between these teams this year, but the Sun won the series 3-2 which I’m sure matters far more to Charles. Asjha Jones’s jumper wasn’t falling quite as smoothly in this game as it has been lately, going 4-14 for 12 points, but with 29 points from their bench Connecticut managed to hold the Sky at bay. When your two post scorers shoot 10-34, Renee Montgomery has a quiet evening and you win by 11 anyway, you know something must’ve gone right somewhere.

—–

And finally, to wrap up Mega Tuesday, the game that was live on ESPN2 between Seattle and New York. As mentioned in my preview a couple of days ago, Seattle had to produce a performance in this contest, for their own peace of mind if nothing else. They were flat out embarrassed in Atlanta at the weekend, giving away 29 turnovers (including 10 in the first quarter alone). It’s amazing how different the Storm have been on the road this season compared to how they perform back at Key Arena. The court’s the same length, the rims are the same height and the balls are the same size, but they can’t seem to hold it together without that raucous Seattle crowd behind them. The 4-8 road record they took into this game flattered them, considering two of the four wins were in Tulsa, one in Washington. It was time for them to prove that at least they could stand up and be counted on someone else’s floor.

For the Liberty, it’s still about finding some consistency. After stringing a couple of wins together, they lost in Washington pretty comfortably on Saturday. They also want to maintain that gap between themselves and the Atlanta/Chicago struggle for fourth in the East, and hopefully catch up to Connecticut (or Indiana) for second. It’s getting late enough in the season that you can start worrying about playoff positioning, and home games against terrible road teams are where you’re supposed to pick up wins.

Just to maintain a theme, Seattle had four turnovers in the first 136 seconds. A little bit of maths tells us that at that pace, they were on schedule to commit 71 in the game, which would’ve been high even for the Storm. All those turnovers and some miserable shooting from everyone in green besides Sue Bird allowed New York to pull away to a 20-12 advantage at the end of the first quarter. New York weren’t having much joy against the Storm’s trademark tough defense, but it was slightly more than the Storm could piece together at the other end.

Towards the end of that first period, Kara Braxton made her debut in a Liberty jersey and within minutes showed the fans exactly what they’re going to get. She’s a big body – not just long and reasonably tall like Kia Vaughn and Quanitra Hollingsworth, but wide and space-consuming as well. She immediately used her bulk to grab a rebound, then set up on the block and sank a nice little jump hook over Ashley Robinson. That’s what she can add to the Liberty that they didn’t particularly possess amongst the post players already on the roster. At the same time, New York fans quickly got a taste of the bad of Braxton, when she threw a pass that very nearly sailed over Leilani Mitchell’s head. She followed that up by drawing a double-team in the post to start the second quarter, and immediately turning the ball over. Even before you consider the character issues, that’s the good and the bad of Kara summed up in her first two minutes with New York. You’ll get used to it, Liberty fans.

The offense didn’t improve much in the second quarter. Tanisha Wright made a couple of layups, while Cappie Pondexter attacked Wright at the other end and sank a few fadeaway jumpers from mid-range. Largely speaking, defense dominated. Ten of the last eleven shots of the half were missed, including a Seattle possession that involved so many misses right at the rim that it was growing increasingly ridiculous. The Liberty had to be credited for standing strong under the hoop and keeping Seattle out, but mostly it was an inability to lift the ball over the iron. That’s not supposed to be that hard. The one shot made in that closing sequence was yet another Sue Bird three, her fourth of the half, which cut the New York lead to 32-29 going into the locker room. Bird’s 4-5 shooting from beyond the arc was the Storm’s primary source of offense in the first half and once again, 11 turnovers hadn’t helped their efforts.

The, uh, ‘defensive masterclass’ continued in the second half. The turnovers were under control, but still no one could develop any rhythm to their offense. There were no transition opportunities available because both teams work hard to get back and in position as quickly as possible on defense, which meant nothing was coming remotely easily. Katie Smith eventually tied the game at 38 with a three pointer with under four minutes to play in the third quarter. Yeah, 38-38 late in the third. I think I played in games with more points when I was six and we could barely get the ball up to the rim.

Swin Cash, in particular, was having a horrible night. She would’ve missed the ground shooting off the roof of a barn. She finally sank her first basket of the night with four minutes left in the game after shooting 0-10 to that point, cutting the New York lead to 54-51. Trust me, you’re better off not hearing too much about the basketball that preceded it. That basket by Cash was part of an 8-1 run by Seattle that finished with a pretty pick-and-roll between Bird and Ashley Robinson that led to a Robinson layup for the lead. Seattle had barely hit a shot all night, and somehow they were in front 56-55 with 1:36 to play.

After Pondexter and Powell both missed shots for New York, Seattle went back to the play I’ve complained about before – putting Wright at the point and sending Bird off around the court trying to get open. It worked time and again last year, but that was when Lauren Jackson was out there drawing all kinds of attention. This year, I don’t like it because everything stops while Wright pounds the ball and everyone waits for something to happen. Once again, it ended with the shot clock running down, and Wright forcing up a miss. Pondexter took the outlet pass, charged down to the other end of the court, and hit a tough layup over Smith to give New York the lead. Then all the excitement really began.

Sue Bird has built a reputation for making late-game shots in big situations when her team needs her to. Even with the WNBA MVP on the floor last season, more often than not it was Bird they turned to in crunch time. She’s hit so many that the Storm put together a top ten shots list as part of the celebrations of her ten years in Seattle this week, and there were several impressive and important shots left out. So it was hardly a surprise when the ball ended up in her hands to try to win the game for the Storm. After inbounding with 26.6 seconds left, Wright found Bird on a baseline curl that broke her open for a three – the surprise was that she drew nothing but air. After a huge mess as the officials worked out whose ball it was after Bird’s miss, eventually Seattle had another chance. It went to Bird again, this time for a pretty good look on an up and under move past Nicole Powell. It rimmed out again, but once again the team rebound went to the Storm.

Now with only 8.4 seconds left, Bird played decoy. She inbounded to Cash just above the elbow, cut in front of her as if to receive the ball back on a handoff, and drew both Liberty defenders. Cash simply kept the ball, and turned to head for the hoop. Pondexter was running across from the weak side, but Cash was essentially wide open. She completed her miserable evening by blowing the layup. Pondexter forced her to double-pump, but it was still a terrible miss. Amazingly that wasn’t the end. Plenette Pierson was fouled on the rebound, sank 1-of-2 at the line, and Seattle were down by two with three seconds left and yet another chance. After a timeout to advance the ball, Bird curled around a staggered screen, took the inbounds pass and appeared to be open for a leaner from the elbow. No dice. Essence Carson, after chasing her around all those screens, came from behind to block the shot, the clock finally ran out and New York had won 58-56. It might’ve been a foul. Up top it looked clean, but it was one of those blocks where sometimes you get the call for the limited contact on the body down low. It certainly looked like referee Felicia Grinter raised her arm intending to call it, then decided not to and signalled game over.

In a lot of ways, especially looking at the box score, that was no better by Seattle than in the previous road debacles. They still had 20 turnovers (which is better than 29, but still awful). They shot 31% from the floor. They needed New York to shoot 6-13 from the free throw line to help them stay in it. But generally speaking it felt a little better. It might’ve been their defense that did the vast majority of the work, but they were in the game, they had multiple chances to win it, and you’ll live with that on the road against a good team. Also, Swin Cash isn’t going to shoot 1-13 most nights, whatever building she’s in. Nevertheless, Seattle will be thanking their lucky stars that six of their next seven games are back in the friendly confines of Key Arena, including two games against Tulsa. That should make things easier.

Just like Connecticut’s win over Chicago, this one was ugly but New York’ll take it. With the way Seattle were shooting all night, and the typical turnovers being handed to them, the Liberty probably should’ve won it more comfortably. But Seattle’s defense has made a lot of teams struggle to score, so they’re hardly alone. Pondexter finished 8-19 for 19 points, Pierson’s 10 was the only other Lib in double-digits, but it was enough. Just. With Indiana, Connecticut and Atlanta all winning on Tuesday night as well, and five of their next seven on the road, this was an important victory for New York. Good thing Bird couldn’t add another line to her litany of late-game heroics.

 

In other news…

The Phoenix Mercury waived little-used backup center Olayinka Sanni, something which was made possible by the Braxton-Spencer trade last week (they wouldn’t have had the cap room before, although they could’ve waived Sanni a few weeks ago before deals became guaranteed). With Braxton and Sanni gone, you’d expect the replacement to be some kind of post player, but given that it’s the Mercury anything is possible. Yet another gunning perimeter player – Kelly Mazzante’s available, after all – wouldn’t completely surprise me. It would leave them with about three posts on the entire roster though.

 

Today’s Games:

San Antonio @ Connecticut, 7.30pm

Atlanta @ Phoenix, 10pm

Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm

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