You may have heard me talk in the past of the basketball gods. The supernatural beings who rule over out beloved game. Well last night, they were toying with me. After my complaints about all the defensive slugfests we’ve had to sit through in recent weeks, they decided to show me just how tedious an evening of basketball can be – high-scoring or not – when everything’s a blowout. So we had three games, all involved at least a moderate amount of points, and none of them were particularly engaging. Unless you happened to be a fan of one of the winning sides. I give in, oh creatures of unnatural power; give me a 57-56 defensive duel every night if it’s going to come down to the wire. Enough with the games that are over by halftime.
The night got underway in Connecticut, where if you’d had to bet on one team winning in a landslide, it would’ve been the Sun. Their 9-1 home record has been the bedrock of their season, and until recently it was pretty much the only place they could win (Washington doesn’t count). San Antonio came into town having lost four of their last five, including an ass-kicking in Indiana last time out. Without Danielle Adams they’ve struggled to score against good defensive teams, and over the course of the season that group has included the Sun.
But there’s a reason that they play the games. Not everything goes according to expectations. The opening couple of minutes didn’t go well for San Antonio – they trailed 4-0 after misses and turnovers when Becky Hammon was forced into a timeout by a defensive trap and a lack of help from her teammates. But from there, the Silver Stars took off. Becky was pissed heading into that early timeout, and she took it out on the Sun. San Antonio ran off a 25-8 streak over the rest of the quarter, Hammon had 12 of them on a series of layups, threes and the occasional free throw, and Connecticut were in disarray on their own floor.
While knocking down shots always makes things easier, the key element behind San Antonio’s hot streak was defense. Dan Hughes has this team very well drilled, they work hard for each other, and Connecticut couldn’t get anything to work. Tina Charles was having a horrible night in the paint, struggling even to get shots off against the likes of Ruth Riley and Jayne Appel, with lots of help coming from extra defenders when necessary. Charles was also growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of calls, but that was more a symptom of her lack of success than a direct cause. After seven straight double-doubles to tie a WNBA record, it looked like she’d struggle to reach double-figures in points or rebounds early on, never mind both.
Little changed in the second quarter, although at least San Antonio cooled off a touch to offer the Sun some respite. You really get a sense of just how insanely fast Silver Stars rookie Danielle Robinson is when she’s leaving Renee Montgomery in her dust though, and D-Rob was flying to the hoop to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Hammon dropped in yet another three from insanely deep in the dying seconds of the half just to top things off, and San Antonio went in at the break up 40-24. Becky had 15 points, Robinson was 4-4 for 8, and Connecticut were shooting 27% as a team. Charles had started to step out a little, trying to get her game going from mid-range, but nothing dropped from there either, leaving her 2-7 at the half for just 5 points. The Sun were being flat out dominated, at both ends of the floor.
There wasn’t a lot worth talking about in the second half. Sophia Young got involved in the offense for San Antonio to offer some balance to all the perimeter scoring, Connecticut still couldn’t hit anything from anywhere, and the game was over very, very early. The final score of 72-59 flattered Connecticut considerably – that 13-point gap was as close as they’d been since the second quarter.
It was one of those nights where everything clicked for San Antonio. Ignoring those initial minutes before the timeout, they got off to a great start and the confidence built from there. The ball movement was crisp, creating open looks and easy routes to the basket, and they started stepping into every shot expecting them to go down. Belief can mean a lot in this game. The Sun couldn’t really decipher their defense all night, and San Antonio seemed more prepared for their cross-conference competition. The manner of the win was as important as the simple fact that they beat a good team on the road. They showed that they can shut an opponent down, even one with a dominant interior presence, and create more than enough offense to pull out the win. They even won the battle on the glass, an incredibly rare occurrence for the worst rebounding team in the league. A great night for a San Antonio team that could use the pick-me-up after their recent run of results.
Connecticut looked lost for large portions of this game, which doesn’t reflect well on the coach or the players. They allowed some perceived officiating injustices to upset them early on, and combined with a poor shooting night for most of the team it took them out of their game. There was no coming back from there. Charles’s run of double-doubles did indeed come to an end, shooting an ugly 2-13 from the floor for just six points and six rebounds. Asjha Jones had one instead, with 16 points and 10 boards, but needed 16 shots to get there. It wasn’t a good night for anyone in a Sun jersey, but with Washington coming in on Saturday night, they’ll have a good opportunity to reestablish their dominance on their own floor and wipe this one from their memory.
Over in Phoenix, we had another cross-conference matchup, as Atlanta made their yearly visit. A clash of the two fastest-paced teams in the WNBA – by some distance, since Tulsa have dropped off significantly this season – the expectation here was for points, points, and more points. Both of them like to run, and with an opponent who just keeps running back at them they only get faster. After a blowout win over Seattle and a remarkable skin-of-their-teeth comeback victory in Washington, the Dream had finally snuck into a playoff spot in the East and were looking to maintain their push up the standings. After five losses in six, the Mercury came up with a big win over league-leading Minnesota on Tuesday night, so they were in a similar position – looking to keep the momentum rolling.
I don’t have the first clue what Atlanta head coach Marynell Meadors is doing with her lineups at the minute. Both Lindsey Harding (knee) and Armintie Price (ankle) have been fighting with injuries lately, but both were in uniform and available to play in this game. Both came in before six minutes had even elapsed. So why on Earth they were replaced by Coco Miller and Iziane Castro Marques in the starting lineup I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine. Phoenix went with the same lineup they’ve used since dumping Kara Braxton, although the bench was slightly shortened after they waived Olayinka Sanni earlier in the day. Barring catastrophe, that was never going to make much difference – she’d barely been playing anyway.
Phoenix took the early advantage in this game because they were moving the ball better and playing far smoother, flowing basketball. With the likes of Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle, Alison Bales and Courtney Paris, Atlanta have a massive size advantage over Phoenix, but that means the Mercury have a significant speed and stealth advantage. Candice Dupree was cutting between all the trees early on, taking passes on the move and sliding in for easy scores. Atlanta’s posts might be big, but they can’t stop what they can’t catch.
For much of the opening period, it felt like Atlanta had been dragged into Phoenix’s style of basketball and were playing too fast for their own good. The Dream may like to play at a quick pace themselves, but it’s not the helter-skelter charge from one end of the floor to the other type of basketball that Phoenix play. They try to use their defense to ignite quick offense, push the ball when the option is there and take the ball to the hoop. Instead, they were just playing fast and loose with the basketball, and Phoenix will gobble you up all day in that style of game. The Mercury led 30-20 by the end of the first, and were good value for it. Dupree already had 12, largely on layups.
Phoenix were also helped out early on by the fact that every call seemed to be going their way. A lot of that was their aggressive play and constant forays to the basket, but some of it was luck. Sometimes the calls just fall your way – usually it evens out in the end. The Dream came out for the second quarter looking like they’d been given instructions to finally take advantage of their size and strength down low. de Souza had two straight buckets inside to start the period, and the lead was down to six. Then Phoenix took over again. Endless Mercury free throws, another effective and exciting appearance from DeWanna Bonner, and Phoenix were on a roll. Midway through the second quarter, their lead reached 44-26 and the Dream looked in dire trouble. That effort to use their post players hadn’t lasted long.
Then Angel McCoughtry decided it was high time that she took over the Dream offense. The lead briefly reached as high as 21, but with McCoughtry firing away and barreling to the hoop in an effort to even up the free-throw margin, Atlanta started to creep back into the game. Angel scored 15 of her 17 first-half points in the last six minutes before the break, and dragged Atlanta within 59-48 when the buzzer sounded. It was all her at the offensive end, but it’s not like they managed to slow the Mercury down much with their defense.
The Dream tried in the second half, they really did, but nothing worked. They threw some zone at the Mercury to try to shake up their rhythm, but Phoenix are happy to shoot over defenses like that or simply run back down the court so fast that you don’t have time to set up. Atlanta kept hanging around, scoring enough points to cut the lead to eight or nine, and Phoenix would rain down a couple of shots to stretch it back out. It was never really, truly close, and McCoughtry picking up her fourth foul on a silly reach-in with over six minutes left in the third quarter didn’t help.
Atlanta finally, finally forced it down to a two-possession game at 90-84 with 6:46 left in the game on a Sancho Lyttle jumper, and Mercury coach Corey Gaines took a rare timeout. Coming out of the huddle, Penny Taylor drove into the paint, McCoughtry dropped far too deep in an effort to help cover her, and left backup Phoenix point guard Ketia Swanier wide open in the corner. Taylor kicked it to her, Swanier knocked it down, and so the Mercury responded yet again to a slight threat to their lead. It was the start of a 9-2 run that completely ended the game as a contest. Phoenix eventually eased home 109-95.
The Mercury have looked good in their last couple of games. Maybe Braxton really was poisoning the atmosphere around the team, although that seems rather simplistic. DeWanna Bonner has been more aggressive since Braxton left, perhaps feeling that there’s more required of her now and stepping up to the mark. Bonner went 7-13 from the floor and 9-9 at the free throw line for 25 points in this one, and threw in 13 rebounds for good measure, despite having to fight it out with all those big bodies in the paint. With Diana Taurasi dropping in 21, Dupree 22 and Taylor 19, it was a four-headed monster for Phoenix that Atlanta simply couldn’t compete with. They attacked the basket, they shot the lights out, and they simply outscored the other guys. That’s Mercury basketball.
For Atlanta, that wasn’t pretty to watch. I understand that they’re carrying injuries, but I don’t know what they’re doing with the lineups and rotations lately. Harding and Price are both healthy enough to play, but only to come off the bench for 23 and 15 minutes respectively? Sancho Lyttle also only played 15 minutes for whatever reason, either because Meadors felt that Alison Bales was a better option, or due to health limitations again. It’s weird. And the Dream never made anywhere near enough use of their size advantage in the paint, even though de Souza ended the game 9-16 from the floor for 19 points. They need to pound teams down there when that’s their most obvious edge – not just wait around for McCoughtry and her fellow gunners to bail them out. They’re heading to Seattle on Saturday, where again they’ll be significantly bigger than their opponent in the paint. We’ll see whether they actively utilise that, or if McCoughtry just takes 30 shots instead. Assuming Meadors actually has her in the lineup.
For our final contest of the evening, Tulsa went to Seattle. Considering I started this piece talking about all the blowouts last night, I think you probably have a decent idea of where this is heading. You’re not going to be surprised.
For the fourth game in a row, Tulsa sent out the same starting lineup. It wasn’t Teresa Edwards in charge this time, however, as she was away being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Kathy McConnell-Miller had the honour of trying to break what has become a 15-game losing streak instead. Seattle, undoubtedly delighted to be back on their own floor after a couple of road losses, stuck with their now-familiar five.
It all went pretty much to script. Seattle looked like a different team on their own floor, moved the ball well and knocked down shots. Tulsa were slow defensively, and couldn’t create anything much at the offensive end against the Storm’s hassling defense. Seattle led 14-2 after three minutes, and 19-7 after five. I mention that particular point because that was when Tulsa threw 6’8″ rookie center Liz Cambage into the fray. After her impressive performance in LA on Tuesday night, Cambage was the standout performer for the Shock in this one as well. She’s still raw, but she’s learning this league and starting to realise just how powerful she can be with that remarkable body of hers. With Cambage in the paint grabbing rebounds and putting up high percentage shots, Tulsa actually started to make an impact on the game. Seattle are simply too small to handle her near the basket, however good their defense is at bodying up to her and making entry passes difficult. By the end of the first quarter it was down to 26-18 Seattle, and two more Cambage buckets at the start of the second cut it to 26-22.
Then came the turning point, if you can have a turning point in a game that was ultimately so one-sided. Mid-way through the second quarter, Cambage was called for a flagrant foul when she caught Katie Smith full in the face with an elbow. It wasn’t intentional – your elbows kind of end up at head height for normal people when you’re that big – but you could see why it drew the call. McConnell-Miller sat Cambage down to cool off for a couple of minutes, and Seattle were away. They ended the quarter with a 22-6 run, 18-6 from the point of the flagrant foul, and it essentially finished the game. Cambage only sat down for a brief period, but Seattle had plenty of confidence and momentum, and just carried right on scoring even once she was back. Liz was 4-5 for 11 points and six rebounds in the first half, but Seattle shot an insane 67% from the floor as a team. They couldn’t miss. Only 18 of their 50 points were in the paint, but they were moving the ball well, shooting with supreme confidence and everything was going in. Cambage was never going to be enough to counteract that. If the Storm could take this kind of performance on the road, they’d be unstoppable, Lauren Jackson or no Lauren Jackson. Of course, playing Tulsa every night would help too.
The game ended 77-63, but that put a glossy finish on the real gap between the teams. This was an utter blowout that happened to tail off into a 14-point game at the close of play.
That was a nice little confidence booster for Seattle. I’d be tearing what’s left of my hair out if I were Brian Agler, though. How can you be this dominant on your own floor, albeit against a terrible team, and produce such atrocious performances on the road? They gave away 49 turnovers in a two-game road trip last week. That’s insane. Nine turnovers total in this game where, for the record, Camille Little led them with 19 points. Swin Cash finished 3-10 after her extraordinary 1-13 night against New York on Tuesday, not exactly enjoying the defensive attentions of Kayla Pedersen all evening. Still, it hardly mattered. Five of Seattle’s next six are also in the Key as they look to cement their playoff spot, and maybe sneak into second place in the West so that they can play as many playoff games there as possible. With how their season’s gone, they might need it.
Tulsa are still Tulsa. Not like we can expect much else at this point. The shining light recently – and hopefully for their future – is Cambage, who finished 10-15 for 24 points and 10 rebounds. She’s been dropped out of the starting lineup just recently, but judging by the last couple of games is entirely comfortable with that. I don’t care whether she starts, but the kid has to play. A lot. She needs reps, she needs experience against true top-level competition, and if she makes a few mistakes along the way, who the hell cares? Teach her, and let her learn. Then go out and find her a hell of a lot more help. It might take a while, but it’s not exactly complicated.
In other news…
Judging by a few twitter messages, the Mercury will be replacing Olayinka Sanni with Krystal Thomas, a rookie post who spent most of this season with Seattle. Based on what we saw when she was with the Storm, I’m not sure why they bothered to make the change, but I guess at least she’s a couple of inches taller. Maybe she can offer a couple of tips to help Phoenix break their nine-game losing streak against her former employers as well.
The Tulsa Shock’s Teresa Edwards and Stanford University head coach Tara Vanderveer were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this evening, along with luminaries such as Dennis Rodman, Chris Mullin and Arvydas Sabonis. A well-deserved honour for both.
Today’s Games (already completed):
New York @ Washington, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Atlanta @ Seattle, 10pm ET