WNBA Today, 08/14/2011: Sun rise; Fever warm; Storm rained on

Okay, before we look at last night’s games, first the really important news. Tomorrow is the WNBA’s trade deadline. After that there’ll be no longer be the possibility for LA to dump their vets, or Kara Braxton to be traded again, or practically every GM in the league to sit around doing nothing whatsoever. Oh wait, they can carry on doing that last one. Outside of free agent pickups, they’ll be stuck with what they’ve got when the clock runs out tomorrow night. Considering Braxton-for-Spencer alone makes this one of the more eventful periods leading up to a deadline in recent seasons, I’m not expecting a flurry of movement in the next 24 hours. But you never know.

I know I say this a lot, but we really are going to skate through yesterday’s games with more speed than usual. I promise. Plus the analysis is going to become briefer as we work our way through the games, because the games became progressively less competitive. First up, Connecticut hosted Washington, which despite featuring second vs. last in the Eastern Conference, was ultimately the closest game all day. The starting fives were the same as usual, and Danielle McCray even managed to open the game well enough to stay on the floor rather than being benched inside the first two minutes, as has often been the case recently.

The entire first half was nip and tuck. Connecticut were cold from outside early on, which allowed Washington to develop a 17-10 lead, but that quickly disappeared once McCray and Tina Charles hit a couple of shots. From there, no one could break away, and the scoreline was repeatedly tied or separated by only a single point. The Mystics were hot from downtown, with Marissa Coleman and Kelly Miller especially firing away and hitting more than they missed. Even power forward Crystal Langhorne knocked down her first triple of the season. Connecticut couldn’t find any consistent offensive rhythm, but created enough turnovers and scrambled enough points to stay right in the contest. In fact, the Sun led 44-43 at halftime, a surprisingly high-scoring game for these teams.

Connecticut came out for the second half with a clear mandate to pound the ball inside with Charles. She wasn’t scoring much, but she was drawing repeated fouls, including Langhorne’s fourth of the game inside the first minute of the third quarter. Whenever you can force the other team’s best player to the bench, something’s going right. However, even with Langhorne on the sidelines, the Sun still couldn’t shake this pesky Mystics team. Washington are playing better as a unit lately, and they refused to go away, continuing to play scrappy defense and score enough points to hang around. The Sun led 61-59 heading to the fourth quarter

With Langhorne back in the game, the Mystics’ offense moved a little more smoothly early in the fourth, and she scored two consecutive baskets to tie the game at 63 with eight minutes to play. On the next possession, Langhorne picked up her fifth foul on a silly reach in when teammate DeMya Walker had Charles’s post move well under control. That sent Lang back to the bench, and the Sun made a key run. Without Langhorne to feed down low, Kelly Miller missed three straight shots – two jumpers and a layup – while Charles sank three free throws and Renee Montgomery hit a shot from behind the arc. It was only a six-point run, and it was hardly the prettiest you’ll ever see, but in a game this tight a six-point lead was significant. It was also the biggest the Sun had created all day long.

Langhorne came right back in, but the Sun had finally created their edge and they weren’t willing to give it up. Washington repeatedly drew within four or five points in the closing stages, but each and every time the Sun came up with a response. Tan White hit a big three with a couple of minutes to play that stretched the score to 76-69, and when Kara Lawson nailed a trey of her own with 42 seconds left to make it 81-73, the game was over. They’d never been in control or had any kind of sustained dominance throughout the game, but the Sun found a way to win it in the end, closing the game out at 82-75. Considering their last home game on Thursday night saw San Antonio play them off the floor, I’m sure Connecticut coach Mike Thibault was happy to take the win however it was achieved.

This was a solid, professional win for the Sun. You’re supposed to beat poor teams on your own floor, but you still have to take care of business, and that’s what they did. None of their stars had great games offensively – Charles was 6-18 for 16 points, Asjha Jones 4-11 for 8, Montgomery 3-10 for 16 – but they consistently attacked the defense and drew a lot of whistles. 24-29 at the foul line compared to Washington’s 11-13 was the difference in the end. It was one of those days where you may not have your A-game rolling, but you work hard and win it anyway with your B-game and lots of effort. It’s a long season, and you need to hold on to these kind of wins.

You can’t blame Washington too much for this one. Yes, there were too many turnovers, a common problem for them all season. But besides that, they hung around all game long against a good team, shot well from outside, and coped even with Langhorne playing under 25 minutes. If she could’ve stayed out of trouble, they might’ve nicked it. There’s just not quite enough talent on this roster these days to steal games when their best player has to sit, and the other team can turn to backup like Lawson and White when their key weapons aren’t firing. That’s why they’re 5-16.

—–

While Connecticut were getting back to winning ways, the two teams either side of them in the Eastern standings were fighting it out amongst themselves. 1.5 games clear of the Sun at the start of the day, Indiana needed the victory if they wanted to avoid having Connecticut right on their tail by the end of the day. New York needed it in order to stay closer to the Sun for second than Atlanta for fourth. Also, given their two recent losses to lowly Washington, the Liberty could’ve used a morale-boosting victory over anyone – especially a conference rival.

Much as in Connecticut, this one was tight throughout the first half. Indiana had the better ball movement and the more balanced offense, but New York had Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson creating their own shots and knocking down everything. The Liberty weren’t playing particularly smoothly, and as ever games between these two teams tend to be played in a tough, grind-it-out style, but their two scoring guards were keeping them in the game. For Indiana, Tamika Catchings was the star, but the rest of the Fever were misfiring from outside for most of the first 20 minutes. They were 3-15 from three-point range in the first half, and two of the makes were the final buckets of the half. Consecutive triples from Tangela Smith and Catchings took the game from a 32-32 tie to a 38-32 Fever advantage at the interval.

The warning signs were there at halftime for New York. Pondexter was 7-9 from the floor for 14 points, Carson 4-6 for nine. It was unlikely that they were going to stay that hot, or that Indiana were going to remain as cold from outside as they’d been in the first half. The opening minutes of the third quarter swiftly illustrated that. The Fever came out firing, making everything, and the lead ballooned. Counting the six points from the end of the first half, Indiana ran off a 22-2 run that built a 54-34 lead midway through the third quarter. New York were suddenly being run over, and they couldn’t respond. After losing in Washington the night before, the Liberty looked tired and the Fever were taking advantage. Individual displays from Pondexter and Carson might’ve kept them afloat in the first half, but two-against-five is always a difficult proposition.

That huge run to open the third just about killed off the game. The Liberty put up a fight, and they forced Fever coach Lin Dunn to keep her starters involved by dragging the gap down to 11 in the fourth quarter, but they were never actually close. The final scoreline of 82-71 didn’t reflect how easily Indiana held on to their victory.

Tamika Catchings matched Cappie Pondexter in performing like an MVP for her team, but crucially in this contest she received far more support. Catch finished 7-12 from the floor and a ridiculous 17-19 at the free throw line for 32 points. She forced her way to the line over and over again in the second half, killing the pace of the game and any prospect New York had of making a comeback. Smith was the only other Fever player in double-digits with 10, but they found enough scoring from across the roster to support Catchings’s efforts. Meanwhile, their typically annoying defense created the usual array of turnovers and took advantage of the tired-looking Liberty. Indiana aren’t going to give up their spot at the top of the East without a heck of a fight.

Recent performances by New York have been a little worrying, and this was another in the line. Fortunately it was the last back-to-back they have to play this year, but they’ve got a run of three games in five days coming up this week that could be key for the remainder of their season. They face Washington yet again on Tuesday, offering an opportunity for speedy revenge for the losses last week. Losing three times to the Mystics in the space of ten days could be considered something of a disaster, so they’ll need to step up for that one. Two days later they host Connecticut, in a must-win game if the Libs still have designs on hunting down the Sun for second-place and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Then they fly out to Seattle on Thursday, where the Storm are typically very tough (notwithstanding the game we’re about to look at). Pondexter finished this game 12-21 from the field for 30 points, but her eight turnovers showed how much she was having to create and force on her own. The rest of the team will need to be more involved and more effective offensively in the upcoming games, or third place in the East could easily come under threat. Too much of a collapse, and the games at the end of the month against Chicago could have the scary potential to even make fourth an issue. New York need to snap out of this recent slide, and quickly.

—–

The final game of the night was remarkably one-sided, and not in the way we grew used to with the Seattle Storm last season. The Storm have been a hideous road team this year, but they’ve largely held it together on their own floor. Even without Lauren Jackson for most of this season, they’d still only lost once in Key Arena after winning every single game there last year. It’s as close to a fortress as this league has had in recent years. So Atlanta weren’t exactly coming in as favourites, despite their recent run. After starting the season 3-9, the Dream are 7-3 since, including a 70-53 destruction of the Storm last Sunday back in Atlanta. You would’ve expected Seattle to want some payback for that game less than a week earlier, but maybe the Dream were still smarting over last year’s sweep in the WNBA Finals.

Marynell Meadors finally did the blindingly obvious and put her actual top-five lineup on the floor to open the game, regardless of niggling injuries. That meant Lindsey Harding and Armintie Price returning to the starting lineup in place of Coco Miller and Iziane Castro Marques at the two guard spots. I’m still unclear as to why they were on the bench in previous games anyway. Price quickly proved her worth by sinking two perimeter jump shots – from well beyond what used to be her range – and then driving to create Atlanta’s third bucket. Unfortunately she also took herself out of the game by committing two quick fouls.

The first quarter was an end-to-end exhibition of scoring, an unusual sight for the home fans who typically witness Seattle’s defense clamping down on opponents. Everyone in a light blue jersey was knocking down every shot they took, regardless of the Storm defense, and it was all Seattle could do to cling on. Fortunately for them, Katie Smith has rediscovered her jump shot in recent weeks, and her scoring was keeping her team in the game. She scored nine straight Seattle points to end the first, and it kept the Storm within a point at 27-26.

The second quarter was where the wheels began to fall off for Seattle. Atlanta’s offense just kept rolling, and the Storm couldn’t compete. With their typically stingy defense completely ineffective, they started playing like this was a road game. Which this season means one thing in particular – turnovers. Atlanta had suckered the Storm into playing their game, which means a far quicker pace than Seattle are most comfortable playing at, and they began throwing the ball away for no good reason. By halftime, the Storm were still shooting 50% from the field, a figure that would usually have them easily in front at the Key. But with 10 turnovers to Atlanta’s five, and the Dream firing at 54% themselves, Seattle found themselves down 50-42.

The game didn’t last long as a contest in the second half. Five straight buckets – all jump shots – rained in for Atlanta to start the half, while Seattle had a couple of misses and four consecutive turnovers. The Storm fans really must’ve felt like they were sitting at home in front of their computers – they usually only see performances like this from their team on LiveAccess and NBA TV. That run made it 60-42, hardly an insurmountable lead when there are over 17 minutes left in the game, but it didn’t get any better. Missed layups, endless weak turnovers, and a complete inability to stop Atlanta from scoring however and whenever they felt like it turned the game into a massacre. Brian Agler threw in the towel early, Sue Bird sat the entire fourth quarter, and the Dream ran out 92-63 winners. Yes, very-nearly a 30-point defeat for last year’s champs on their supposedly impenetrable home floor. Ouch.

First the bad – Seattle were horrible. It was like one of the atrocious performances they’ve produced on the road this season, but with their own fans watching on in disbelief the misery seemed multiplied. They finished with 20 turnovers, the sort of figure that they’ve been handing over in road games, and their stagnant offense shot 39% from the field. The only bright side is that it’s hard to see how it could get any worse. Lauren Jackson is reportedly starting to practice in earnest and could even be back on the floor by the end of the month, but it’d be nice if her teammates had remembered how to play basketball by then. They go to Phoenix on Tuesday night to face a team that they’ve defeated nine consecutive times. It might be a road game, but they couldn’t ask for a much friendlier opportunity to bounce back from this insipid performance. They’re still three full games clear of LA in the standings, but they need to respond. This game was so poor that it requires some kind of reaction.

Now the good – Atlanta were great. Facing up to one of the best defenses in the game – on most nights, anyway – the Dream shot 59% from the field and during the course of the game it felt even better. Everything seemed to be dropping, wherever they shot it from and whoever was throwing it up. Iziane Castro Marques and Angel McCoughtry led Atlanta with 17 points each, and their top eight players all shot at least 50% from the floor. It was an exhibition of complete domination, and showed what this team can do when they’re hot. They flow from one end of the floor to the other with beautiful fluency, and take teams apart. Of course, most nights they won’t shoot this well, but it can only help their confidence – which is half the battle when it comes to making shots. Defensively, once again Lindsey Harding gave Sue Bird fits, after shutting her down in their previous encounter as well. They used their size and length advantage down low to make everything difficult inside and eventually Seattle just capitulated. It’s a lot of fun when you’re on the positive side of a game like that.

 

In other news…

If I hear about any trades going through tomorrow, I’ll tweet about it, otherwise you can simply wait for tomorrow night’s column. Don’t hold you breath.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Chicago @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Tulsa @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

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