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 upon me (although for those waiting on an update, Megan Fox is still yet to arrive).
We’ll start with the game in Phoenix, where Seattle arrived looking for a turnaround. The Storm were demolished on their own floor by Atlanta on Saturday night, and their only win in their last four games was over pitiful Tulsa. They’ve also been dismal away from Key Arena this season, so combining their recent form with a flight out to an opposition venue didn’t bode well. On the positive side, they were playing Phoenix. Over the last two seasons, Seattle had won the last nine in a row over the Mercury, including their one decent road win this year (two in Tulsa and one in Washington barely count). If there was a single place where the Storm might be able to create a change in their own fortunes, it was Phoenix. For the Mercury, this was the perfect opportunity to finally break their dismal run against the Storm. They’d suffered a poor loss of their own in LA on Friday night, but in general had improved since the trade that dispensed with Kara Braxton. Plus without Lauren Jackson, Seattle don’t have a low post presence who can punish them like Jantel Lavender did on Friday.
Sad news for the Storm further increased Phoenix’s chances of victory. Tanisha Wright’s mother died on Friday, so she was understandably absent dealing with family matters. That pushed Katie Smith into the starting lineup for Seattle, shortening the bench of a team that already receives precious little from their reserves. The positive news was that Lauren Jackson warmed up with her teammates and reportedly looked strong, but that wasn’t going to help them in this game. LJ still isn’t quite ready to return to game action.
Regardless of their missing players and poor recent performances, Seattle came out firing and relishing the opportunity to face Phoenix’s ‘defense’ just as much as usual. It seemed like being able to play Phoenix was overriding any lack of form or limitations to their roster. Having Sue Bird in rare form didn’t hurt either. Bird hit the first seven points of the game on a pullup, a pair of free throws and an open three to stake her team to an early lead. She wasn’t done. While Phoenix struggled with turnovers and couldn’t find their range from outside, Bird and her cohorts just kept knocking down shots. It was 21-7 with a minute left in the third quarter, and Bird already had 13.
Turnovers have been a central issue for both these teams this season. They’ve plagued Seattle on the road especially, and they dragged the problem home with them in the debacle against Atlanta at the weekend. Phoenix have typically been good about keeping hold of the ball in previous years – especially considering the frantic pace that they play at – but it’s been a problem this season. After improving lately, the issue was back with a vengeance for the Mercury early in this game. Lazy passes across the front of the defense were being picked off, and even on a breakaway with Taurasi loitering under the basket and wide open for a pass, Penny Taylor over threw her and careened the ball off the backboard. It was that kind of first quarter for Phoenix.
It didn’t get much better for the Merc in the second. Fortunately for them, Seattle’s turnover disease had far from disappeared, but they were still making shots whenever they held on to the ball long enough to put them in the air. Phoenix, on the other hand, were still tossing up bricks in the face of Seattle’s defense. The Mercury have never liked dealing with the Storm’s defense, which is a primary reason behind that nine-game winning streak. While Katie Smith started helping Bird out with the perimeter scoring for Seattle, and Camille Little was physically dominating Candice Dupree in the paint, nothing would drop for Phoenix and the frustration levels were rising. With Seattle’s lead already as high as 15 points late in the half, Diana Taurasi was actually called for one of the many push-offs with her off arm that occur in every game she plays. In fairness, you can understand her amazement at the whistle – when you do it practically every time you shoot and the call is never made, it’s a bit of a shock when the ref actually blows for the foul. That was Taurasi’s third of the game, but with Mercury coach Corey Gaines and Taurasi herself using the entire time following it to bitch about the call, she was left on the floor. Seconds later, trying to go straight through a screen rather than around it, Taurasi drew her fourth foul with 25 seconds still remaining in the first half. Seattle eventually went to the locker room with a commanding 43-28 lead and the Mercury’s star player in serious foul trouble.
The problem was, Seattle had created that lead with 59% shooting from the floor versus the Mercury’s 34%. Neither of those numbers were likely to last through the game, regardless of the defensive levels of the two teams. Phoenix came out – with Taurasi in the lineup, despite her fouls – and immediately started attacking the basket. We’ve seen in many, many previous games that no lead is safe against the Mercury, who can shoot themselves back into practically any game. With Bird struggling to maintain her hot offensive play from earlier in the game, and turnovers once again returning to haunt the Storm, the Mercury started to work their way back into the game. Still, dominance on the boards and some positive contributions from Le’coe Willingham were holding Phoenix at bay, matching the boost that the Mercury were receiving from role players like Nakia Sanford and Marie Ferdinand-Harris. It was a more competitive game, but Seattle still led 59-50 at the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth, either Seattle tired after playing such a limited rotation in a game where they had to chase after the Mercury all night, or Phoenix simply found their range. It was probably a little of both. Taurasi’s shooting got them close, but it was interior finishing from Candice Dupree and offensive rebounding from Sanford that kept the run going. They tied the game for the first time since 0-0 when Dupree sealed Little off for a layup, then Little committed yet another weak Storm turnover that led to another Dupree finish at the rim. Those turnovers were still killing Seattle, and if she hadn’t played practically every minute of the game Little might not have made those mistakes.
The Storm – primarily Bird and Smith – were still making shots, but now it was a matter of keeping up with Phoenix rather than holding them off. A pair of Taurasi free throws gave the Mercury their first lead with 3:28 to play, but Smith drew a foul herself and quickly tied the game. Seattle were actively attacking Mercury point guard Temeka Johnson, clearly forcing the ball to whoever she was guarding and producing offense from there. On that play it was Smith, hence the free throws. Little showed she still had some energy left, bullying past Dupree for a layup and the foul, but the game was swiftly tied back up when Penny Taylor drained a three at the other end.
Little continued to be a focal point, having her inbounds pass intercepted by Johnson (TJ blew the wide open layup that followed), before completing yet another layup at the other end. Seattle were up by two with barely a minute to play. After Taurasi missed a long jumper, the Storm ran their offense nicely and ended up with Swin Cash at the rim on a drive – but she blew the layup as well. Phoenix responded, with Taylor penetrating, drawing an unnecessary double-team and finding DeWanna Bonner alone under the basket. Bonner showed the others how to complete a layup, and tied the game with 30 seconds to play.
After a second-half that saw the collapse of their 15-point lead, the final 30 seconds saw everything really go wrong for Seattle. Bird ran the clock down, dribbled over towards Smith, and bounced the ball up, clearly expecting Smith to collect it as a pass. Smith, on the other hand, apparently expected Bird to keep the ball. It ended up with neither of them, as Taurasi happily gobbled up the loose ball and headed for the other end. She went straight for the hoop and hit a runner over Smith off the glass for the lead. Yet another turnover for Seattle, their 17th of the evening (which is actually a little low by their recent standards), had handed the Mercury a two-point lead with only six seconds left. Taurasi and Gaines, by the way, even found time to bitch about the lack of a call on that drive.
The play Seattle ran in those final six seconds was very familiar. Perhaps a little too familiar. It worked perfectly against New York a week earlier, when Bird inbounded to Cash at the elbow, who faked the handoff while Bird drew defenders, leaving Cash with a wide open layup. The only thing that went wrong was that Cash blew the layup at the rim. They ran exactly the same thing, but crucially DeWanna Bonner didn’t bite on the fake handoff. Against New York, two defenders went with Bird, leaving none on Cash; against Phoenix, the defense switched smoothly, leaving Taurasi on Bird but Bonner still blocking Cash’s path to the basket. Without an open lane and faced with Bonner’s length, Cash ended up with a forced fallaway jumper that never looked likely to drop. It was well short, and the ball was batted out of bounds with 0.1 seconds on the clock. Game over.
There was still some controversy to come, as the officials took an age to decide who had possession, and eventually gave it to Seattle. I thought they also should’ve added a little more time on the clock – and there’s actually a lot more you can do in basketball with, say, 0.5 seconds instead of 0.1 – but they left that the same. 0.1 is essentially nothing in the women’s game, where you don’t even have the option of an instantaneous tip-dunk. You basically need someone to be stupid enough to commit a foul before the ball is inbounded. Phoenix didn’t, Taurasi tipped Bird’s pass, and the game ended 81-79 Mercury. Phoenix had finally managed to eke out a win over the Storm.
It’s difficult to know how to judge this game for Seattle. It was better than most of their road performances this season, and markedly better than the joke display they threw out against Atlanta. It was accomplished without Jackson or Wright, last year’s MVP and a key starter. But they blew a lead that was as high as 18 at one stage, and they continued to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. That’s not supposed to happen, especially against a team whose number they’ve had for the last two years. On the bright side, they’re heading home for four straight at the Key, and this game should’ve cleansed the memory of the game against the Dream, even if it ultimately ended in a loss. They shot well from the floor, finishing at 53%, with Bird, Smith, Little and Willingham all scoring 15 or more. It was a solid performance overall that happened to end in serious disappointment because they blew a lead and blew the game. It was still at least a minor step in the right direction.
Phoenix will be deliriously happy to finally beat this Storm team that has caused them so many problems. Taurasi didn’t shoot remotely well in the face of Seattle’s defense (primarily a whole lot of Katie Smith), finishing 7-21 for 24 points, but she made the big play down the stretch to pull out the win. And she never did add to those four fouls. After five turnovers in the first quarter, the Mercury only committed four more in the remainder of the game, which proved a key ingredient in the win. Seattle kept giving up the ball, while Phoenix managed to hold on to it and put shots in the air – it’s pretty obvious how that will help you win games, even if you’re not shooting that well. With this win, the Mercury moved 1.5 games clear of Seattle and 1 ahead of San Antonio for second-place in the West, but what might be more important is finally breaking that streak against the Storm. This is still a potential playoff matchup, and you wouldn’t want to head into a postseason series having lost a ludicrous number of consecutive games to your opponent. Now they finally have a win over Seattle to hang their hats on.
Next up, the game Los Angeles Sparks fans had been anxiously awaiting for eight long weeks – the return of Candace Parker. Their favourite daughter returned to a team that, amazingly enough, had won two in a row. The first was a narrow win over Tulsa, the second an overtime victory over a tired Phoenix team completing a back-to-back, but they still count. When you’d gone 3-10 beforehand since your star player hurt her knee, you’ll take any wins you can lay your hands on. She didn’t have the easiest of introductions, as Atlanta were the visitors. Finally discovering a little rhythm, the Dream had won eight of their last 11, including embarrassing the Storm in Seattle on Saturday night. Atlanta have already accomplished what LA are hoping to pull off in the closing weeks of the season – recovering from a dismal start to drag themselves into a playoff spot. Now it’s about holding on to their position, and maybe even working their way up the standings before we hit the postseason.
LA stuck with their starting lineup from the last couple of games, despite both Parker’s recovery and the return of Kristi Toliver to the squad after missing a couple of games due to a death in the family. After finally winning a game or two, Joe Bryant wasn’t going to disrupt the new starting group. Atlanta also kept faith with the starters that took Seattle apart.
It was a strange opening quarter. Atlanta were trying to utilise their huge size advantage down low, repeatedly feeding Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza to try to capitalise on the small front line that LA continue to open games with. It was precisely the right strategy. But Atlanta couldn’t convert. Nearly every time one of their bigs caught the ball in the paint and turned to shoot or attempt a post move, the ball was stripped out of their hands. It happened again, and again, and again. LA ended up with a lead because so many Dream possessions were finishing in turnovers in the paint on those strips. The refs were letting a lot of contact go, but most of the plays looked pretty clean – Atlanta just couldn’t finish. They had a ridiculous 10 turnovers in the first 7:15 of the game.
The positive aspect for Atlanta was that LA’s offense was hardly firing on all cylinders either, so the score remained close. It was only 16-14 Sparks when Parker made her entrance to a rousing ovation with a couple of minutes left in the first quarter, and only 19-16 at the end of the period. The signs actually looked good for Atlanta, considering they were so close despite so many plays that went against them down low.
But now they had to deal with Candace. Parker’s arrival energised the crowd and her teammates like an adrenaline injection, shooting pace and passion into everybody. She looked good, running the floor smoothly, rising to grab rebounds, and dribbling the ball out of traffic like she’d never left. On one sequence she drained a three from beyond the arc, rose above everybody else to pick off the defensive rebound, then led the break before finding DeLisha Milton-Jones with a no-look pass for the layup. This was what everyone had come to see. Unfortunately Toliver’s return wasn’t quite so glorious, and once she entered the game in the second quarter LA started building on their turnover total. Atlanta capitalised through Armintie Price and some more efficient post finishing than they’d managed early in the game, and cut the score to 39-37 at halftime.
The third quarter was an exhibition of what Atlanta had been trying to do in the first. LA came out with their same starting five to start the second half, which meant the Dream still had that significant size advantage. They went back to feeding the post, primarily de Souza, and this time they kept the ball high and finished repeatedly at the rim. de Souza had six points at halftime, but 16 by the end of the third, and never took a shot from more than five feet away from the rim. Why Bryant was so reluctant to use rookie center Jantel Lavender, who’d had a dominant game in the post against Phoenix last time out, you’d have to ask him. The likes of Tina Thompson, Ebony Hoffman and Milton-Jones were getting killed down low.
Lavender was eventually utilised, and Parker re-entered as well, offering LA a little more size and presence down low, which kept the Sparks in touch. Atlanta only led 60-56 at the end of the third. With Lavender and Parker in the game for most of the fourth quarter, Atlanta were dissuaded from their consistently effective post game, and started jacking up too many jump shots. Meanwhile Natasha Lacy had joined Parker in providing energy from the bench for LA, along with an extra scoring punch.
Rather than using her size and length inside, Sancho Lyttle bricked a series of jumpers in the closing stages, allowing the Sparks to take the lead on a Lavender layup with three minutes to play. As is typically the case, the Dream turned to Angel McCoughtry on the final possessions. She darted out of traffic to pick off a Ticha Penicheiro pass with 1:15 left, turning it into an easy layup the other way for a 79-76 Atlanta lead. After Lacy stepped behind a screen and nailed a three to tie the game, it was McCoughtry again, driving into the lane and hitting a tough floater to put the Dream back in front with 47 seconds left.
Penicheiro drove for LA, who apparently hadn’t yet remembered their “throw it to Candace and let her work something out” crunch time offense. It’s been a while. Ticha flattened Lyttle on the drive, they both ended up in a heap on the floor, but the officials called nothing. de Souza grabbed the rebound, and just to nicely bookend the game, Tina Thompson swiped down and stripped the ball out of her hands. It bounced off de Souza’s leg and out of bounds, LA ball with 28 seconds left, down two.
Then came a crazy final possession. Lacy drove, Lyttle reached in and got her hand on the ball, which went flying out as Lacy fell to the floor. Two officials blew their whistles, and eventually came up with a jump ball as the final decision. Considering Lacy never landed with the ball – and hence it was never held or shared possession – it was a comical, nonsensical call, but that’s what we got. They made it even worse when referee Lamont Simpson made one of the worst jump ball tosses you’re ever likely to see. He might as well have just handed the ball to LA. Once they corralled it, Parker drove the baseline, fed Lacy in the corner for a three that bounced off. Parker caught the rebound, passed out of a triple-team, and then Milton-Jones tried. Off again. Lacy grabbed the board, and airballed another effort. A Parker tip wouldn’t go, and finally the ball was batted away from the hoop by the Dream. Armintie Price broke away with the ball, sank a layup at the other end and the game was over.
After that crazy finish, the drama still wasn’t complete. Parker was decidedly unhappy, and when the princess is unhappy, she shows it. Well aware that the game was done and dusted at 83-79 with 0.3 seconds on the clock, Parker bawled out multiple refs, picked up a tech, kept ranting, and received the second technical seconds later. It’s not exactly how you want to teach your kids to act on a basketball floor, but for a team that has been depressed and depressing to watch over the last couple of months, it was nice to see such passion. She stormed back to the locker room, ripping her jersey off on the way just like a disgruntled NBA star. The game officially finished 84-79 after McCoughtry sank one of the two technical free throws.
For Atlanta, this was a pretty impressive win. They struggled through that opening quarter when nothing would go right despite the fact that they were doing the right things, feeding the post and taking advantage of their size. But they stuck with the gameplan, only turned the ball over five more times after the 10 in the opening eight minutes, and clung on for the win. It would’ve been easy to be caught up in all the hype and excitement around Parker’s return and play the valiant losers to LA’s emotional victors, but they weren’t willing to settle for that. The win puts them at .500 for the first time all season (not counting 0-0, obviously), and their 9-3 record over the last month is as good as anybody in the East. There was more balance about them in this game than in some performances, with McCoughtry finishing 8-15 from the floor for 23 points but throwing in four rebounds and five assists as well. de Souza was 9-15 for 18 points and 13 boards against LA’s overmatched posts, and every other starter finished in double-figures. This is a much better team when they play as a unit, not Angel and the McCoughtryteers.
Disappointing for LA to lose the game, but holy cow were they a lot more fun to watch. Parker doesn’t solve all their problems – transition defense is still an issue, rebounding’s still poor – but you add an MVP-level player to this team and obviously they improve dramatically. She looks fully healthy, and played 26 minutes for 15 points and 10 rebounds, shooting 5-7 from the field. They’re only three games back of Seattle, or 3.5 away from San Antonio, but there are only 11 games left on their schedule. A comeback run is possible, especially with three games against Tulsa and a key home-and-home with Seattle still on the slate, but it’s going to be tough. Also, I’m still not remotely convinced that Bryant knows what the hell he’s doing. Lavender was left on the bench far too long while the undersized vets continually failed to deal with Atlanta’s size. Jenna O’Hea didn’t play at all for some reason, despite being one of their better players in recent weeks. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But regardless of the coach and his decisions, the golden girl gives them hope.
Yes, I know there’s still one game left to go. Apologies to Connecticut and Minnesota fans. But this has gone on long enough, so I’m going to post it as it stands. An addendum will arrive later tonight with coverage of that one remaining game, I promise.