Who knew that the basketball gods were WNBAlien readers? The day after I give in, admit defeat and ask for close games over any kind of tedious blowout, they deliver with three nailbiters. They even spaced the schedule out nicely so that the games didn’t clash. Do you think they only deal with basketball, or would the same powerful beings respond if I asked for Megan Fox?
While I wait for Megan to arrive, let’s take a look at last night’s games. Forgive me if I gloss over the first 35 minutes of most of them – we’ve got a lot of crunch time to deal with today. The opening game of the evening was in Washington, where the Mystics had returned to their familiar style of finding a way to lose against Atlanta on Tuesday night. Yesterday the visitors were New York, who were looking for revenge after losing in the same arena less than a week earlier. When you’re fighting for playoff position, you’re not really supposed to lose to the worst team in the East once, never mind twice.
There was nothing much in it for most of the first quarter as the teams felt each other out, but late in the first and running into the second, the Liberty made a push. It was mostly on threes that they built their advantage, with rookie Alex Montgomery knocking down a couple, Leilani Mitchell adding one and then Nicole Powell joining in. In the face of the barrage, Washington lost their rhythm and started turning the ball over, which only made it more difficult to halt the tide. New York led 34-21 by the middle of the second period.
Matee Ajavon, the primary perimeter weapon for Washington most of this season, had been kept quiet to that point. Directly up against former college teammates Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson, you never know quite how a player is going to respond to facing people who know her game inside and out. In the previous contests against New York this year, Ajavon had been very quiet in one and exploded offensively in the other, so there were no clues there. Her team down 13, Ajavon finally made an impact on this game and led a Mystics run before halftime. She went past Pondexter twice in a row, forcing fouls that put her at the free throw line. She knocked down a tough three right over Cappie’s head. Then her teammates joined in, and Ajavon fed Jasmine Thomas for a three to cut further into the lead. By halftime, Washington were right back in it, only down 39-36.
We’ll skip over an ugly third quarter, where everyone went cold and the teams scored only ten points each. The only notable sequence was when new Liberty center Kara Braxton jacked a three-pointer that would’ve been a bad shot even if she were still in Phoenix, before airballing a jumper in the post under pressure from Nicky Anosike. Instead of working back on defense after the second miss, she stood with her hands on her hips, staring down the official who dared not to call a foul. Unsurprisingly, Liberty head coach John Whisenant pulled her out of the game less than a minute later, and she didn’t play again for the rest of the night. There was a reason she was available for a bucket of air, John.
Early in the fourth quarter, it looked like New York might be pulling away. Behind the usual displays of offensive skill from Cappie Pondexter, some good ball movement from New York and some stagnant offense from Washington, the Libs built a 59-50 lead with six minutes to play. Then it was time for Washington’s other reliable option to come to the fore. Crystal Langhorne was sealing off her defender impressively down low, creating lanes for entry passes, and racking up points in a hurry. She also seems to have quickly developed good on-floor chemistry with DeMya Walker, who’s been stealing minutes away from Anosike as Washington’s crunch time center lately. They’re both smart, and they know how to help each other. Meanwhile New York had started to look either tired or lazy, depending on your perspective. Whisenant’s white-line defense certainly requires a lot of energy, but they hadn’t played since Tuesday and it’s not like D.C. is a long roadtrip. Whatever the reason, they weren’t matching Washington’s level of hustle and energy in the final minutes, and it allowed the Mystics back into the game.
A Langhorne layup gave Washington a 62-60 lead with two minutes to play, before one of the isolation plays for Pondexter that New York run constantly late in games finally worked to perfection. She drove the lane, the defense collapsed on her, and she kicked to Mitchell for a wide open three. New York by a point. Inevitably, it was whose Rutgers grad could outplay the other in the final minutes. Ajavon gave up a poor turnover at one end, before Pondexter ran down the shot clock and forced a jumper that missed at the other. Finally, Ajavon managed to find some points by driving the lane, and nicely selling a foul by Powell to get to the line. Her two free throws put Washington back up by a point with a minute to play.
After Pondexter was stripped on a drive by Ajavon – but New York kept the ball when it went out of bounds – Cappie was wide open for a jumper off the inbounds, but missed again. Marissa Coleman grabbed the rebound, Washington called timeout, and found themselves with possession, a one-point lead, and just 36.9 seconds to play. But these are the 2011 Washington Mystics. It still felt like they would find a way to blow this game somehow. They’d managed it so many times this year, what was one more?
But you know what? Eventually the breaks come back around. Ajavon ran the clock down, tried to penetrate but lost control of the ball. Instead of dropping into a Lib’s hands, the ball fell for Coleman, who tossed it up at the hoop as the shot clock was about to expire. It caught iron, and Crystal Langhorne pounced for the offensive rebound. New York were forced to foul, although Washington did a good job of moving the ball around and making it difficult. After 18 seconds were on the clock when Lang caught that board, the clock was down to 4.4 by the time New York committed the two fouls necessary to send Kelly Miller to the line. Washington still seemed like they were searching for a route to give the game away – Miller bricked both at the line, leaving her distraught and New York with 3.9 seconds left to win the game.
After a timeout, the Liberty found Plenette Pierson in solid position on the low block, she spun around Langhorne towards the baseline and put a layup attempt up at the rim. It rolled out. Mid-game, she might’ve drawn a foul call on Langhorne for the minimal contact made on the move, but you can’t expect that in the final seconds. Kerri Gardin grabbed the board, and the Mystics and their fans went understandably nuts. At least they did eventually. For a couple of seconds, everyone seemed stunned that they’d finally won a close game. It was kind of cute. Like “Wait, they didn’t score? The hell?” Yes, Washington had held on for a close win, 64-63.
So for the second time in seven days, the Mystics turn over their rivals from the Big Apple. Finally getting over the hump and winning a tight finish could be important for them, even if they made the usual late errors to give New York every chance. Ajavon only hit three shots from the floor all day, but she made some important plays when they needed to be made. Langhorne finished 8-9 from the field for 18 points, in a typically efficient performance. It’s good for the team’s morale, and for the spirit of their fans, that they’re finally winning a couple of games. Even if the playoffs are still a very distant and merely theoretical possibility. The only issue is that this team isn’t nearly as young and inexperienced as head coach/GM Trudi Lacey keeps making out. She cut a couple of rookies, barely plays Victoria Dunlap, and the only kid that receives minutes is Jasmine Thomas. They’re relying heavily on players like Kelly Miller and DeMya Walker, who are well into the downslopes of their careers. And they’re 5-15. Good for them for continuing to fight and eking out this win, but it’s hard to see the plan here.
New York’s schedule doesn’t get any easier from here on out, and it’s worrying when you drop two games to a team that’s been losing consistently all year long. It’s hard to see the teams behind them winning enough games to knock the Liberty out of the playoffs, but performances like this will let Indiana and Connecticut break away from them at the top of the East. Pondexter couldn’t perform her late-game heroics in this one, and the defense clearly takes a lot out of New York. Leilani Mitchell had 18 points in this game, but that’s not something you can rely on every night. Kia Vaughn scored in double-digits in every single game in July – but she’s had five straight single-digit performances since we hit August. Similarly, Essence Carson has had several quiet performances of late. You wonder if they’re wearing down, rather than coming into their own as they did in the second half of last season. Last year, they added Plenette Pierson in a midseason trade and took off from there – this year, the addition of Braxton might not be enough to produce a similar effect.
Next up, we turn our attention to Chicago, where Minnesota were the visitors. The Lynx had their nine-game winning streak broken on Tuesday night in Phoenix, but were still hardly in danger of being caught any time soon at the Western summit. A game like this meant far more to the Sky, who only have four games left at home after this contest. Considering they’re 2-9 on the road, and in a desperate fight with Atlanta to make the playoffs, Chicago need to make the most of their home games. Even when they’re against the best team in the WNBA.
In the early minutes, it felt like that extra desperation for the victory was being played out on the floor. Chicago were attacking the hoop with unusual aggression, Minnesota were struggling to deal with the strength and power of Sylvia Fowles in the paint, and the Sky took a 17-7 lead. Then, amazingly enough, Minnesota’s bench decided to show up. A near-constant source of disappointment this season, the Lynx reserves have oodles of raw talent but have rarely managed to show it. On this occasion, Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright were making jumpers, Jessica Adair was fighting it out down low, and rookie Amber Harris was right there with her after a couple of recent DNP-CDs. Minnesota were up 22-19 by the end of the first quarter, and when the starters came back in during the second quarter, the Lynx had found some momentum. Finally, that talented bench was proving effective.
By halftime, Minnesota had a 47-39 advantage, and it was only that close thanks to a tough three-pointer that Epiphanny Prince managed to nail as time expired. The Sky had done a good job of looking for their points inside rather than settling for perimeter jumpshots, they’d minimised the cheap turnovers that have hurt them in several games this year, but once Minnesota start making shots they’re very difficult to deal with. Lindsay Whalen driving the baseline and finding shooters outside for open shots hurt the Sky, as did repeated Lynx offensive rebounds that gave them second-chances to score. But Chicago were still in the game.
Thanks to a hot streak from Tamera Young and a continuing dose of Big Syl, Chicago quickly dealt with the halftime Lynx lead and closed the gap. Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve, encouraged by her reserves’ performances in the first half, went back to that well early and often. Once again, the likes of Adair and Harris were key to the Lynx revival offensively, and Harris even seemed to be having more joy in stopping Fowles than the likes of Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Although stopping Fowles in this game seemed to be a matter of preventing her from ever receiving the ball – once she had it, she wasn’t in the mood to take any prisoners. Minnesota led 61-54 at the end of the third.
The fourth quarter was an interesting exhibition of the games that head coaches play with their lineups, before the players even get the chance to play anything out on the floor. Chicago’s Pokey Chatman brought Cathrine Kraayeveld into the game, and she played the entire fourth quarter at the power forward spot. After spending much of the year at small forward (or lately simply sat on the bench doing nothing), Kraay spreads the floor with her three-point shooting but does practically nothing else at the offensive end. She’s a distinct change-up from the likes of Michelle Snow and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton at the four. Her three-pointer to start the final period kicked off yet another Sky comeback, and her solid defense on Harris inside led to a breakaway Shay Murphy layup that cut the score to 64-63 with seven minutes to play.
It took Reeve a few minutes, but she eventually responded to Kraayeveld’s presence at power forward with a lineup we’ve seen very little of this season, where Whalen, Wiggins, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore are all out on the floor together. It became perfectly practical against the Sky because Kraay has no low-post game whatsoever, so you’re hardly giving anything up in the paint. Wiggins drained two threes to put Minnesota back on top 72-64 – she might not even have been on the floor without the chance to play that smaller, quicker lineup.
After another bright period from Tamera Young, Chicago were within four until Whalen used a Moore screen to create a switch and draw Kraayeveld as her defender, then went past her for a layup. Rebekkah Brunson followed with a mid-range jumper as the shot clock expired on the next Lynx possession, creating a eight-point lead for Minnesota with only 1:25 to play. It looked over. However, two foul shots from the still-dominant Fowles, an unnecessary three-point miss from Moore when she should’ve used her quickness to attack Kraayeveld off the dribble, and a Courtney Vandersloot feed to Fowles for an impressive bank-shot clipped the lead to four. Then Moore threw a poor inbounds pass that was tipped by Kraayeveld, and became a Murphy layup after a beautiful bounce-pass into her path from Sloot. Suddenly, there were 39 seconds left and Chicago were only down two.
Minnesota managed to inbound the ball successfully this time, ran their usual array of screens and low cross-court cuts to break their shooters open, and ended up with an Augustus jumper. When it came up short, the Sky had their chance. Chatman turned down the option of calling timeout, so the Sky pushed. Showing no fear, Vandersloot threw a pass from just behind halfcourt to Fowles underneath the basket, looking for a bucket to tie the score. It was right on the money, but it ran just off Fowles’s fingertips and dropped out of bounds. After such a spirited comeback it was hard to take, and you could feel the air being sucked out of the building.
It still wasn’t over. Chicago committed the intentional foul, and despite her experience in crunch time situations, McWilliams-Franklin missed both free throws. After advancing the ball with a timeout, the Sky inbounded to Murphy, who attacked Augustus off the dribble and got to the rim. Like Pierson in the earlier game, her contested layup barely rolled off, and the rebound fell to the opponent. McWilliams-Franklin was fouled again and only made one-of-two for a 79-76 Lynx lead, but with 0.9 seconds left and no timeouts, the Sky didn’t have much chance from there. A baseball pass found Young and she forced a shot up from around halfcourt, but it was never close. Minnesota hang on, but they were made to work damn hard for it.
Even though they lost, this game made me feel better about Chicago than a lot of their performances this season. They finished with 50 points in the paint, actively attacking the rim whenever possible and force-feeding Fowles down low repeatedly. She finished 11-13 from the floor for 28 points and 13 rebounds. The support from the likes of Murphy and Young was solid, even though the starting backcourt of Vandersloot and Prince shot a combined 8-25 from the field. They looked a decent unit against one of the best defenses in the game. Eventually, the 12 offensive rebounds they gave up to Minnesota and that little bit of missing luck down the stretch killed them off. I still think they’re a player or two short of being true contenders, but more performances like this will give them a chance of fighting for fourth in the East this season and achieving that much-coveted playoff spot. A lottery pick in next year’s draft might be more useful, however.
From a Lynx perspective, the positives in that game were all about the bench. Augustus didn’t hit much, Moore didn’t take anywhere near enough advantage of her matchup with Kraayeveld in the fourth quarter, and their starting posts were 2-12 for six points combined. But the bench was 12-25 as a group for 30 points. Wiggins was 4-6 from long range for 12 points, and Harris earned her 17 minutes, the most she’s played in any game since early June. Even Monica Wright had a nice little cameo in only her second appearance since returning to the team after spending time with her father following his heart attack. Wiggins has had her moments this season, but if the Lynx can find legitimate, consistent production from multiple reserves. they become significantly more dangerous come playoff time. And they were already plenty scary.
Closing out the slate, Phoenix were in Los Angeles looking to extend the two-game winning streak they’d built at home. Having dumped Kara Braxton, the Mercury have looked smoother in the last couple of performances, but both were in the friendly confines of US Airways Center back in Arizona. Now they had to take that momentum on the road. LA seemed like a good place to start, considering how the Sparks have been playing. A win over Tulsa on Tuesday night hardly seemed to suggest that LA were turning things around after losing seven out of eight, especially considering they only beat the Shock by five.
Candace Parker still wasn’t ready to return, and Kristi Toliver was still missing due to what’s now been reported as a death in the family, so LA were down to nine. Phoenix were at ten, with Olayinka Sanni still not officially replaced on the roster (regardless of tweets suggesting that Krystal Thomas will eventually arrive).
The early stages were dismal for the Sparks, and it seemed like they were back in their standard rhythm of turning the ball over repeatedly. It’s not like Phoenix play hard-nosed, harassing defense. LA just seem to enjoy throwing the ball away. Meanwhile, they couldn’t do a thing to stop the Mercury when Phoenix had the ball. Layup after layup went in as they beat LA’s terrible transition defense down the floor, then three after three rained down once the Sparks stumped up enough effort to work back and force the Mercury into something else. After seven minutes, LA had already committed eight turnovers (on pace for 46 in the game, maths fans), and Phoenix led 23-7. It looked like the massacre had just begun.
But don’t forget; this was nailbiter night. Once LA coach Joe Bryant went to his bench – and not a moment too soon considering how slow and disinterested his aging starters looked – LA began slowly working their way back into the game. And ‘slow’ was the operative word. With much of their damage being done by rookie center Jantel Lavender in the low-post, LA succeeded in killing the pace of the game in the second quarter. They were probably helped by the fact that Phoenix were playing the second-half of a back-to-back, after beating Atlanta the night before. However well-conditioned you are, it can’t be easy playing Mercury-style basketball for two straight nights.
When the LA vets came back in, they seemed much more up for the fight, and with the speed of the game considerably lower, Phoenix couldn’t sweep past them as easily. By halftime, Lavender had produced 12 points off the bench, Natasha Lacy had offered a spark as well (no pun intended) and Noelle Quinn was showing signs of life for one of the few times this season. A game that looked like it might run away from them early was back to just 44-41 Mercury by the break.
Bryant didn’t mess around in the second half, putting Lavender and Lacy in the game for Tina Thompson and Ebony Hoffman from the very start. Practically the entire half felt somewhat aimless. Everyone playing, coaching and watching knew that Phoenix were the better team, and have shown that over the course of the season, but they couldn’t hit enough shots to put the game away. There was still no pace to the contest, and LA just kept hanging around and hanging around. That’s always dangerous, especially when they’ve got a player like Lavender, who Phoenix couldn’t remotely guard all night long.
LA would force their way within two or three points, and then Diana Taurasi or Penny Taylor would hit a shot to hold them just barely at bay. Lavender layups tied the game twice early in the fourth quarter at 62 and 64, but the Merc ran off a run that included two quick-trigger threes by Taurasi for a 74-65 lead with five minutes left. Lavender continued to dominate in the paint, and Phoenix head coach Corey Gaines was trying to defend her with Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner. It wasn’t working in the slightest. After yet another Lavender layup cut the Sparks’ deficit to 76-72 with just over two minutes remaining, Nakia Sanford finally returned to offer her size and bulk as at least a minor obstacle to the rookie. LA took their attack outside. Scoring more than 11 points in a game for the first time all season, Noelle Quinn knocked home a three-pointer to cut the gap to a point, then followed two Taylor free throws with another triple from the corner. Tied ballgame, 50 seconds left in regulation.
Phoenix responded in true Mercury style, dredging up some energy from somewhere. They charged hell for leather to the other end of the floor, Taurasi drove from the left side and converted a left-handed layup as she was creamed by two Sparks defenders. She missed the free throw, but that left LA down two with 45 seconds left. Yet another attempted three from Quinn rimmed out, but with every Mercury rebounder worried about Lavender, Tina Thompson snaffled the rebound and tied the game with the putback. She hadn’t had much of a game, and in fact hasn’t had much of a season, but the 15-year vet stepped up big on that play.
With 25 seconds left on the inbounds, Phoenix ran the clock as far as they could, before Taurasi forced up a tough fallaway jumper. It fell short, and LA had 1.3 seconds to come up with something. They almost managed it, finding Thompson for one of her trademark rainbow threes, but the ball bounced off. We were headed for overtime, and while you’d typically favour the energetic Mercury over the vet-laden Sparks, that didn’t seem the case here. It was LA who’d looked stronger down the stretch, forced the game to be played at their speed, and had the most effective player on the night in Lavender. Someone was going to have to find a hot streak to shoot Phoenix to the win.
Penny Taylor tried her best. Thompson seemed to have rediscovered her appetite for the contest, and Lavender continued to school every defender the Mercury threw at her, but two Taylor threes kept them in the hunt in the extra period. Her second triple cut the LA lead to 89-88 with a minute left in OT, but then an unnecessarily heavy shoulder barge from Taurasi on DeLisha Milton-Jones as she tried to cut across the lane sent DMJ to the line. After she sank both foul shots, it was Taylor again with a beautiful spin move to the basket for a layup, leaving LA up one with the ball, and 33.6 seconds on the clock. Not for the first time in the game, they took themselves out of rhythm by trying to run too much time off the board. There’s running the clock down, and there’s waiting around doing nothing for 24 seconds. They’re not the same, and the Sparks leaned a little too far towards the latter at times. The possession ended when Thompson dropped the ball off her own foot out of bounds with 10.4 seconds to play.
LA used their foul to give, which left Phoenix inbounding again with 4.8 on the clock. Taylor made practically her only mistake of the overtime when the ball bounced off her and out of bounds, forcing Phoenix to foul when LA inbounded. Milton-Jones sank another pair at the line, leaving Phoenix 2.5 seconds to make up a three-point deficit. Gaines used Taurasi to inbound the ball, which seemed an odd choice, but maybe the return pass to her was an option if the Sparks left her to double-team elsewhere. Why Sanford was put in the game for Bonner you’d have to ask Corey, considering Sanford is hardly a three-point threat and rebounding isn’t really an issue with 2.5s to play. Regardless, the pass went to Taylor near the sideline, she put up a very difficult turnaround three that came up short, and the game was finally over. 93-90 LA was the surprising final score, even more unlikely given how the game had started.
When you’re fighting for playoff position – and theoretically still holding off LA to make sure you even reach the postseason – you don’t want to drop games to a team that’s been playing as badly as LA have lately. But Phoenix will live with this one. Barring something bizarre happening with scheduling and arena availability, you don’t have to play back-to-backs in the playoffs, so the Mercury won’t be too worried about tired performances like this occurring when it really matters. The disturbing aspect of the game was in the paint, where LA scored 46 points, and destroyed Phoenix on the boards. That’s the worry now that they’re down to Sanford, Bonner, Dupree and possibly Krystal Thomas as their post rotation. If someone shows up with a legitimate low-post threat, willing to turn the game into a paint battle, can they deal with the danger? Lavender eviscerated them in this game, and the starting post pairing of Dupree and Sanford only had six rebounds between them all night. The hope for Phoenix will be that it was another symptom of the back-to-back. On the bright side, Penny Taylor may have broken out of her quiet spell, with 9-16 shooting for 29 points, six rebounds and four assists. If Taylor’s really back, there’s always the chance that they’ll just outscore a lot of opponents, rebounding or no rebounding.
Hard to know if it’ll last – we’ve seen flash-in-the-pan performances like this from LA before – but at least the Sparks showed some signs of life in this one. Lavender played nearly 39 minutes, shot 11-20 for 25 points and 10 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. It was the kind of performance that makes you wonder why LA haven’t used her more this season, considering their pathetic weakness in the paint since Candace Parker went down. Plenty of post players over the years have had career days against the Mercury, but for a rookie to tear up the floor like that against anyone was very impressive. Noelle Quinn finished 7-12 from the floor, including 5-7 from three-point range, for 19 points. She hasn’t had a game anything like that all year. Maybe Kristi Toliver being out of the game, putting Quinn on the floor with Ticha Penicheiro and taking her off the ball, has opened up Quinn’s mentality. It would sure help the Sparks if it has. Unfortunately, given how long she’s been so mediocre this season, it was probably a one-off explosion. We’ll see in coming games.
With Candace Parker reportedly close to a return, and LA just 3.5 games behind Seattle and Phoenix with 12 left on their schedule, a playoff push isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Three games left against Tulsa should help, too. Given how they’ve played prior to this game, and with Bryant apparently coaching more by guesswork and prayer than anything else, I wouldn’t want to bet on them making the postseason. But I wouldn’t exactly risk my house on them not making it, either.
In other news…
In honour of the celebrations of Sue Bird’s ten years in the WNBA, courtesy of a very dedicated fan, nine of Birdy’s top-ten career shots:
Today’s Games (already completed):
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Atlanta @ Seattle, 10pm ET
Chicago @ San Antonio, 3pm ET
Tulsa @ Minnesota, 7pm ET