WNBA Today, 08/16/2011: Liberty stop the rot; Fever keep rolling

Nothing happened in the WNBA on Monday, but there were five games Tuesday night so I figured I’d offer a little quick-fire coverage for once. We’re going to look at the games featuring Washington in New York and Indiana in San Antonio in this piece, with tonight’s other three games coming in tomorrow’s article. Apologies for the fact that this piece will only truly be released on August 16th for those on the US West Coast. Or maybe Alaska. It’ll be a nice little taster for you over breakfast if you only found it the following morning.

So first up, the latest round between the Washington Mystics and the New York Liberty. All four meetings between these two teams have occurred within the last three weeks, and tonight’s game was the third in the space of eleven days. They were probably sick of the sight of each other. After losing their last two encounters with the Mystics, both at home, New York desperately needed to win this one. They were starting to fall away from Connecticut for second-place in the Eastern standings, and dropping perilously close to the likes of Atlanta and even Chicago behind them. More simply, you’re just not supposed to lose to the freaking Mystics three times in a row. Once is pretty bad, twice is a nightmare. Three times would’ve been verging on the ridiculous. Washington are essentially playing for pride at this point, but they’ve been showing a fair amount of it lately, with some decent performances. Playing spoiler with the pressure off can be fun.

The starting fives were the usual groups for these teams, but New York’s bench was a little shorthanded. Quanitra Hollingsworth, who’s been doing a solid job as Kia Vaughn’s backup at center (and lately stealing some of her crunch time minutes as well), was out with an ankle sprain. She’s listed as day-to-day. That put extra pressure on the remaining post players – starters Vaughn and Plenette Pierson, recent addition Kara Braxton and emergency option Ta’Shia Phillips – to produce.

The early stages made it look like New York were determined to avoid that third straight defeat to the worst team in the East. Vaughn and Pierson were attacking and scoring heavily in the opening quarter, especially Pierson, who seemed like she wanted to end this one early. When she wasn’t in the paint dropping in layups, she was just knocking down jumpers from mid-range instead. Washington’s offense looked, well, like Washington’s offense has looked for much of the season – too many turnovers, and too few players capable of scoring. They were creating a reasonable amount of breakaway opportunities, but no one participating in the breaks could actually finish at the rim, so they weren’t worth much. New York led 24-11 by the end of the first quarter.

With Cappie Pondexter’s jumper looking smooth, New York’s lead grew in the second, reaching as high as 16 midway through the period. Then it all started to fall apart. New York started handing over cheap turnovers – Kara Braxton’s miserable attitude and dismal passing certainly didn’t help – and behind star forward Crystal Langhorne the Mystics made a little run. The score was down to 36-27 by halftime, despite the 31% shooting that Washington had put up in the first half.

The Mystics carried their run into the second half, and it was all Langhorne, all the time. Apparently head coach Trudi Lacey had reminded her team exactly where their bread is buttered during the halftime interval. Surrounded by an array of bricks and turnovers at both ends – this was not a pretty period of basketball – Langhorne’s ability to finish at the rim and create angles for herself drew Washington within 37-33. Washington’s defense had New York playing like a mess after their efficient start to the game, with travelling calls and loose passes scattered throughout the third quarter. Fortunately for the Liberty, they were still playing Washington, and besides Langhorne the Mystics had no offense. Matee Ajavon opened the game 0-7 from the floor, finally sinking her first bucket late in the third. A Jasmine Thomas three just before the buzzer brought Washington back within seven at 49-42 to end the period.

New York just refused to make this easy. If they’d maintained their tempo and level of performance from the first quarter, we would’ve been deeply ensconced in garbage time by this stage, but instead the Mystics made it a contest in the fourth quarter. Practically every important Liberty post player was in foul trouble, which didn’t help. Vaughn picked up her fourth, fifth and sixth fouls in quick succession to start the fourth quarter, fouling out with nearly eight minutes to play. In the midst of that, Braxton added her fourth foul with a stunningly dumb open court shove when her own team had the ball. That’s not how you set a screen, Kara. Pierson had already sat out a lot of time due to picking up her fourth early in the third quarter. Who knew the Liberty would ever be seriously missing Quanitra freaking Hollingsworth?

With Langhorne proven to be the primary threat, and their posts struggling, New York were collapsing on anything down low and started getting beat from outside. Ajavon, Thomas and Marissa Coleman all sank threes that cut the score to 58-55. Pondexter responded, and with New York inbounding with one second left on the shot clock, she turned and fired a triple that caught nothing but net as the buzzer sounded. That extended New York’s advantage to 61-56 with barely three minutes to play.

The Mystics clearly wanted to run everything through Langhorne – quite rightly considering she’s their best player and was fighting with players in a heap of foul trouble – but New York were also well aware of that. It meant Washington were trying manfully to find her, but the Liberty were collapsing down even before the pass was made and making it very difficult. With two minutes to play, Langhorne stepped outside instead and nailed a mid-range jumper, then following a Pondexter miss at the other end Lang ran the floor quickly, took a pass in transition and made the layup before the defense could react. That cut New York’s lead to just 61-60 with 90 seconds left.

After Pierson sank yet another jumper out of a New York timeout, Langhorne’s partner in the post DeMya Walker made Braxton look silly and hit a layup while getting hacked on Braxton’s reach. Walker sank the free throw, and the game was tied for the first time since the opening minute of the game. There were 38 minutes of game time between 2-2 and 63-63, but after all that we were level again.

Pondexter drove, got herself fouled and sank both shots for a two-point lead; Washington stood around doing practically nothing for most of their own 24 seconds, before Ajavon rose up and drained a three-pointer right over Pondexter for the lead – Washington’s first lead all night. After all the games they’ve blown in the closing stages this season, were the Mystics finally going to pull off a remarkable comeback and steal a game that they never should’ve been allowed back into? Well, no. Pondexter drove past Ajavon, continuing their personal duel from last week, and sank a running floater in the lane for a one-point Liberty lead. With 13.5 seconds to play, Washington ran something horrible out of their timeout, which ended with Ajavon caught in a double-team by the sideline. She launched a shot that never had a prayer, came up well short and fell into Nicole Powell’s hands. After Powell was fouled and sank one-of-two, Washington had one final chance, down 68-66 with seven seconds to play.

This time at least the play worked better. Direct from the inbounds pass, Washington found Langhorne on the low block, defended by Pierson. Lang backed her down, but Pierson pulled the chair when she tried to make her move. Braxton came across to help, and got her hand to what might’ve been a pass from Langhorne (but was officially credited as a shot attempt). The ball ended up in Pierson’s hands, and the game was over. Washington managed to foul her with 0.7 seconds left, and she only hit one-of-two, but there was no time for the Mystics to even try to tie it. New York win, 69-66.

That wasn’t pretty, but good luck finding a Liberty fan, coach or player who gives a damn. They just needed a win, any way, any how. It should’ve been much more comfortable, but foul trouble, turnovers and the complete unreliability of Kara Braxton caused them problems. Pierson finished 7-10 from the floor for 16 points in under 20 minutes of action, in a game where she would’ve played at least 30 if it wasn’t for the fouls. Pondexter carried the offense, shooting 9-18 for 26 points and coming up with the big play in the dying seconds. She may not have been quite as effective this season in crucial moments as she was last year, but on Tuesday night she came up trumps in a game her team desperately needed. That’s a true star for you.

You’ve got to love the fight in this Mystics team, considering their playoff chances have been dead and gone for weeks for all but the most wildly optimistic. Langhorne was huge, with 25 points on 10-13 from the floor, along with being the central reason for all the Liberty’s foul problems. It’s unfortunate that it had to be her who lost the ball on their final chance to tie the game. It’s yet another loss in a close game for this team, but all these tight losses show how close they are to at least being decent. They’re a 5-17 ball club that could probably be .500 if they could just close games out. There’s a long way to go, but at least they’re still playing hard.

—–

Sweeping across to Texas, Indiana were in town to face San Antonio. Winners of seven of their last eight games, the Fever are on another streak that has them atop the East and simultaneously battling with Minnesota for the best record in the WNBA. Besides one nightmare in Chicago, they’ve continued to look strong in recent weeks. San Antonio had lost five of their last seven, and were staying right in the mix for second place in the West more by virtue of other teams losing than their own results. After a loss to Chicago on their own floor on Sunday night where Sylvia Fowles took them apart, they were probably hoping to offer their fans something rather more appealing to witness this time around.

It didn’t start out too well for those Silver Stars fans. With Tamika Catchings’s jumper working nicely of late, and Indiana’s length causing issues for diminutive San Antonio, the Fever took an early advantage. Fortunately for the Silver Stars, Indiana’s ballhawking defense was helping off Ruth Riley and their ball movement was good enough to take advantage of that. Riley sank a series of shots from midrange to keep her team in the game early on, and the Fever only led 21-16 by the end of the first quarter.

In the second, Jia Perkins and Danielle Robinson gave San Antonio more directness and aggression from the bench, which improved their offense. There’s more life and energy about them when those two are on the floor. Going deep down his bench to find help, Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes also put gunner Roneeka Hodges into the game. It worked out well when Tamika Catchings started playing free safety-style defense, helping heavily away from Hodges, who spotted up from outside the three-point line and made Catchings pay. Hodges hit two straight from out there, and San Antonio finally had a little offensive momentum.

It didn’t last long. The Fever defense was still making everything difficult for the Silver Stars, who also started turning their frustrations on the officials. Late in the half, Hughes went apoplectic after one particular call (which was at least 60 feet away from him and impossible for him to see, but we all know that rarely stops coaches from objecting). Assistant Steve Shuman practically had to tackle his boss to prevent him from going after the ref and getting himself tossed. Indiana finished the half ahead 43-33, and in fairness a central part of their advantage was being 12-12 at the free throw line to San Antonio’s 4-6. But more often than not you earn your way to the stripe with an attacking mentality and consistently going to the basket. It’s not a surprise that Indiana were drawing more calls.

It took San Antonio barely four minutes of the second half to wipe out Indiana’s halftime lead. They came out aggressive, moving the ball well and heading to the hoop for layups, fouls or both. Meanwhile the extra intensity translated to the other end as well, and Indiana’s offense stopped working in the face of increased passion and movement from the Silver Stars. Either seeing their coach go nuts on their behalf had translated to the players, or something he said during the interval had worked out nicely. They had the lead down to a point at 45-44 before the Fever could blink, and the Silver Stars were ahead 54-50 by the end of the third quarter. The crowd was energised by the team’s play and it was bouncing right back to the players, while Indiana were reacting with confusion and mistakes. They had seven turnovers in the third quarter alone. Hughes continued to rant and rave on the sideline, but it was working a treat as his team went to the line 10 times in the period. Not that I would ever accuse an officiating team of reacting with make-up calls, of course.

The fourth quarter was interesting for how Fever coach Lin Dunn decided to play it. Disappointed with the performance of starters like Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips and Tangela Smith, her lineups were heavy with bench players throughout the period. Dunn essentially placed her faith in Tamika Catchings and the reserves to go out and drag the game back from the Silver Stars. Which is precisely what they did. Led by Catchings, a group including Shavonte Zellous, Shannon Bobbitt and Jeanette Pohlen increased the defensive intensity a notch and fought back in front. Catchings was doing most of the offensive work, and matched up with Sophia Young defensively, but it was a team effort to shut the Silver Stars offense and their enthusiastic crowd down.

With four minutes to play and the game tied at 58, Catchings went past Young to the rim for an attempted layup. It rolled out, but she got the call from the ref, which admittedly looked like a very soft whistle both initially and on the replay. Unsurprisingly, Hughes went mental on the bench, eventually drawing his second technical foul and being tossed out of the game. It had been coming all night, and he was probably lucky to survive that long. It was just a little unfair that he had a fair point about the call that eventually led to his ejection. Catchings hit all three foul shots for a 61-58 Indiana lead.

San Antonio might’ve pulled it out in the closing minutes, if only their favourite daughter had been able to hit a damn thing. With one bucket all night, Becky Hammon had been next-to-invisible, but she tried to shoot her team to the victory as she has so many times before. She put up four three-point attempts in the final four minutes, none of which dropped, and most of them weren’t even close. Tough night for Becky. It took some impressive plays from the Fever to pull it out anyway. A Pohlen airball as the shot clock ran down was smartly grabbed by Bobbitt, easily the smallest player on the floor, who banked in the putback as the clock expired for a five-point lead. After a couple of Becky’s misses and a baseline jumper from Danielle Robinson, Catchings just barely managed to grab hold of a pass, turned and fired from 15 feet as the shot clock ran down again. The buzzer and the swish were practically simultaneous, and the lead was back to five again, with under a minute to play.

After yet another of Becky’s misses, an offensive board for San Antonio found Jia Perkins behind the arc instead, and she found the net. Indiana called timeout with 35 seconds left and a two-point lead. Here I have to wonder what Dunn was thinking. The choice to hand the ball to Catchings and let her create something from the top of the arc made sense, but why she reinserted Katie Douglas into the game for Jeanette Pohlen after benching Douglas for the entire fourth quarter I have no idea. Pohlen’s been one of the best three-point shooters in the league this year, and all Douglas did was spot up in the corner. Anyway, the ball went to Bobbitt on the opposite side – all she did was spot up as well, so Pohlen could’ve stayed in ahead of her – and the shot bounced off. Young grabbed the board, and San Antonio had 17 seconds to tie the game or win with a three.

The play that Hughes’s replacement drew up worked nicely. A solid screen created a switch which left Hammon with the ball out top and center Tammy Sutton-Brown defending her. Hammon went straight past TSB to the rim, and Shavonte Zellous rotated across to help cut off the lane. Hammon probably could’ve gone up to score over or around Zellous, but she made the solid point guard-style choice and fed the ball to the player Zellous had left wide open, Danielle Robinson. D-Rob’s midrange jumper clanked off the back of the rim, and the rebound ended in a jump ball between Hammon and the Fever’s Shyra Ely with 2.1 seconds left. Ely made the smart play on the jump, batting the ball towards the far end of the court, and the game was over. A valiant effort from the Silver Stars, but Indiana win, 65-63.

That’s the sixth loss in eight for San Antonio, and if it wasn’t for their rivals in the West losing so many games themselves, they’d be in some serious trouble. They’re struggling to find any consistent offense because of their lack of an interior offensive game, and good ball movement can only do so much against strong defensive teams. You just end up with slightly less difficult jump shots than you’d find otherwise, which are still fairly low-percentage attempts. Young finished this game 2-10 for only seven points, Hammon 1-8 for six, and Perkins 3-12 for 10. It’s just hard to survive playing like this, even though they managed to match Indiana on the glass in this game. There’s been no news about Danielle Adams’s return just yet, but the four-to-six week timeframe offered when she got hurt puts her return at least ten days away, and probably longer. They could use her, because the three game roadtrip they’re about to embark on – visiting Phoenix, Seattle and Minnesota – doesn’t look likely to help their record much. You can’t blame it all on the officials.

Indiana made hard work of it, but eventually they clawed their way to yet another win. Catchings has been outstanding in recent games, dragging this team by the scruff of its neck to wins they would’ve had no chance at otherwise. She’s everywhere defensively – which does sometimes lead to open shots when the team can’t quite rotate to help, but that’s rare – and her offensive game has improved dramatically as the season’s worn on. She had 26 points on 9-15 shooting in this game, along with five boards, three steals and three blocks. It was all on her. Katie Douglas disappeared to an even greater extent than she has in other games over the second half of the year, failing to put a single shot in the air in 25 minutes of action. We’ve seen second-half swoons from her in previous seasons, and this is looking distinctly like another collapse in progress. The Fever have discovered a little more depth than in other years, which is covering for her, but without Douglas’s offensive game their options drop precipitously. They end up relying heavily on Catch and hoping they’ll get enough from everyone else to bridge the gap. That might not be enough once we hit the playoffs, so they better hope that Katie’s just saving herself for the games that really matter.

 

In other news…

Don’t forget, all the other games from Tuesday night will be covered in Wednesday’s column, including the return of Candace Parker, the league-leading Lynx in a tough one on the road, and the Mercury trying to break their nine-game losing streak against Seattle.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Washington @ New York, 7pm ET

Minnesota @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET

Indiana @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Seattle @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Atlanta @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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3 comments on “WNBA Today, 08/16/2011: Liberty stop the rot; Fever keep rolling

  1. […] WNBAlien Women's Pro Basketball coverage that's out of this world HomeAbout ← WNBA Today, 08/16/2011: Liberty stop the rot; Fever keep rolling […]

  2. […] Last night in the WNBA was packed full of nailbiting finishes. We already looked at two of them in yesterday’s column, but there’s plenty more to come. Seems like those basketball gods are still looking favourably […]

  3. […] article rather than the WNBAlien home page, you can find coverage of Tuesday night’s other here and here. It’s not usually quite so spread out. Share this:EmailTwitterFacebookPrintLike […]

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