WNBA Today, 08/19/2011: A New York state of desperation

There were three games in the WNBA yesterday, but one turned out to be the game of the night by some distance. So we’re going to concentrate on the top contest and worry about the others later. After blowing out league-leading Minnesota in their previous game, Connecticut headed into last night on a high. Having won 10 of their last 13, they were looking upwards with hopes of chasing down Indiana, rather than worrying about what was going on behind them. Despite being just one place lower in the Eastern standings, and only 2.5 games behind the Sun, things haven’t been quite so rosy for New York of late. They finally scraped a win over Washington on Tuesday night, but three losses in four prior to that and some tired-looking performances had left them glancing over their shoulders at Atlanta and even Chicago. A win over Connecticut would’ve provided a much needed fillip, and resurrected faint hopes of catching the Sun for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It also had the potential to reassure players and fans alike that they were going to make the postseason in the first place.

The pre-game news for New York wasn’t good. Quanitra Hollingsworth was still in street clothes due to her ankle sprain, limiting the Liberty’s post options for the second straight game. Joining her on the bench was Nicole Powell, out due to a bone bruise or a left-knee contusion, depending on which injury report you wanted to listen to (they’re essentially the same thing, just phrased differently). Powell hasn’t had the greatest of seasons to say the least, but losing your starting small forward rarely increases your chances of victory. Essence Carson replaced her in the starting lineup. The Sun had everyone available, and stuck with the same starting five that they’ve used throughout their 10-3 run.

The first half was nip and tuck all the way, without either team managing to take control. Outside of Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles, no one was hitting any shots for the Sun, but those two can do a lot of damage on their own. For New York, Kia Vaughn had a strong first quarter from inside and out, finishing the first ten minutes with nine points and six rebounds. This was the Vaughn that Liberty fans remember from the first half of the season, that’s rarely been glimpsed over the last few weeks. She led New York to a narrow 20-16 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Led by Montgomery nailing a couple of threes, Connecticut swung the game back around in the second, but didn’t exactly charge off into the distance. Offensive boards by the Sun were hurting New York, but they were still hitting more shots which kept them in touch. By halftime, Connecticut had 12 offensive rebounds, and Charles had 17 points, but they were only ahead 40-39. Liberty superstar Cappie Pondexter had played every second of the first half, reflecting how important this game was to New York, but shot just 3-10 for seven points. It was the likes of Vaughn and Carson keeping New York in the game.

The second half turned out to be a game of two halves, if that makes any sense. The third quarter belonged to Connecticut. The pace of the game died completely, and it seemed to suit the Sun, who pounded the ball in to Charles in the paint. With Vaughn and Plenette Pierson struggling inside, Liberty coach John Whisenant inserted Kara Braxton, who’d seen limited action in the first half after racking up three fouls in quick succession. Braxton gave New York some offensive intent down low, but she gave just as much away with turnovers and slow defensive rotations as she added with her scoring ability. With Kara Lawson once again adding a scoring punch off the bench for Connecticut, the Sun led 67-52 by the end of the third quarter, and it was only that close thanks to a late Pondexter three. New York looked in dire trouble.

But this wasn’t over. ‘Half of two halves’, remember? The fourth quarter was all New York. Braxton’s pure size and bulk started to have an impact down low whether she was paired with Vaughn or Pierson, New York finally managed to keep Connecticut away from the offensive glass, and Pondexter decided that this was her time. Again and again, Cappie either grabbed defensive rebounds herself or took outlet passes from her bigs and pushed the ball quickly up the floor. It didn’t always lead to quick scores, but it injected some energy and life into her team that had been sorely lacking for much of the evening. Even the crowd woke up. Suddenly every possession for Connecticut was one-and-done, while New York had discovered a little rhythm offensively. Even when Pondexter charged down the floor, went straight to the rim and was denied by a physical block from Tan White, her team and supporters loved the aggression and attacking mentality. When exactly the same thing happened again later in the fourth quarter, the comeback was already well underway and the lack of a foul call united everyone even more fiercely behind the cause.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Connecticut seemed to have forgotten that Tina Charles played for them. It was like some of those desperate games we’ve seen from Chicago this season where Sylvia Fowles has become an afterthought – Charles was apparently invisible. Perimeter jumper after perimeter jumper clanked off the rim, doing nothing to slow New York’s momentum. It was honestly hard to remember the last time Charles had even touched the ball. With under three minutes to play, Pondexter penetrated and found Carson underneath for a layup. Following a Renee Montgomery three-point brick, Cappie stormed the length of the floor again and found Leilani Mitchell for a three-pointer that tied the game at 71. The Connecticut lead that had been as high as 18 late in the third quarter had been completely wiped out.

Energised by the comeback she’d been a key part of, even Kara Braxton was working hard and desperately trying to finish this recovery with a win. It’s just unfortunate that she’s not always the smartest player in the world, regardless of enthusiasm. She got lucky when a poor pass intended for Pondexter was picked off, but only resulted in yet another missed three by Montgomery at the other end. With barely a minute left in regulation, Braxton was denied on a layup attempt by Charles, but was quick enough and lucky enough to snare the resulting rebound. The ball worked its way out to Pondexter with the shot clock running down, and she hit one of the more ridiculous shots you’re ever likely to see. With her body twisted in the wrong direction, taking off from one foot and moving forwards on the release, Cappie hit nothing but net on a three to put her team up 74-71. That why the ball’s in her hands late in games.

It was more orthodox, but on the following possession a pin-down screen from Charles broke Lawson open behind the three-point line, and she drilled it. Tied game with 38.5 seconds left, and hardly the first time we’ve seen Lawson step up in big moments like that either. Out of a timeout, I didn’t like the set New York ran at all. It looked a lot like the plays Seattle always run late in games, where Sue Bird runs around baseline screens hoping to break open for a perimeter jump shot. Cappie played the Bird role, never got open, and the shot clock just kept on ticking. The Liberty ended up with a three from Mitchell, which admittedly nearly fell in, but you want something better than that on a closing possession. I’d even have preferred the old four-down set while just handing Pondexter the ball out top. Connecticut had 12 seconds to get something done, but they might as well not have bothered. Montgomery ran the clock down, but slipped as she tried to start her move. With only 1.7 seconds left she had the presence of mind to call timeout rather than allow the clock to expire, but it didn’t leave the Sun much time to create anything. All they ended up with in the 1.7 was a Charles heave from deep that never had a chance, and we were headed for overtime.

Connecticut coach Mike Thibault made a gutsy move to start the extra period, benching Montgomery in favour of Lawson at the point with White and Kalana Greene on the wings. Montgomery hadn’t been covering herself in glory during the fourth quarter, taking too many contested jumpers instead of focussing on feeding the post, but she’s still been their driving force for much of the season. After she’d played the entire fourth quarter, Whisenant understandably sat Braxton for OT and went with Vaughn and Pierson in the paint. There’s only so long you can ride Braxton. A Pondexter jumper and yet another make from mid-range by Vaughn gave New York a four-point lead, before Charles finally got back involved. She had to do it via an offensive rebound and a putback, but at least she’d touched the ball. New York’s defensive style can make entry passes difficult, but the Sun hadn’t had any problems in the first half.

Thibault hadn’t given up on Montgomery for the night. Inserted with two minutes left in OT, and with her team still trailing by four after yet another Pondexter pull-up jumper, Montgomery nailed a three on her first touch of the ball in OT. She never has been afraid to take the big shot. With 90 seconds left and New York looking to her on every single possession, Pondexter forced a fadeaway over Greene that was well short. The rebound broke to Lawson, who pushed down the floor and fed Greene for the breaking layup. Connecticut had their first lead of the overtime at 81-80 with a minute to play.

After Pierson was called for an offensive foul when she leaned her hip too far out on a screen, Montgomery returned the favour by throwing a dumb blind bounce-pass out of bounds. She was looking for Charles, which was a positive, but the pass never had a chance. That left New York with the ball and 32.6 seconds on the clock. Guess who they went to? Bizarrely defended by Lawson, after Greene had been doing a decent job for most of the night, Pondexter drove left, put Lawson on her ass when she backed up and lost her footing, then nailed yet another mid-range pullup jumper. Liberty by a point with 24 seconds left.

Connecticut did what they should’ve remembered to do in the fourth quarter, which could’ve prevented all this extra action – they fed Charles. It looked a lot like the shot she took to beat Phoenix on the final play of an overtime period a couple of weeks earlier, but she ran into a little more traffic, and missed the shot as a result. It took the officials an age examining multiple replays to decide that the rebound had last been touched by Pondexter, which gave Connecticut another chance with 10.8 seconds to play. The ball went to White in the paint, but Cappie had one last highlight-reel play in the tank. And maybe she wanted a little revenge for those two big rejections in the fourth. She dropped down to help, and pulled out a monster block as White tried to put the ball up. The rebound got kicked to Asjha Jones, who missed another effort from 15 feet. Finally, New York grabbed the rebound, and it looked like they might hold on.

Except that intentional fouls sent Pondexter to the line, and after all her heroics she missed both shots. The Liberty’s lead remained at one and Connecticut had 1.8 seconds to pull this out of the fire. However, New York weren’t going to let this one slip away. Another steal by Essence Carson – who’d been playing tough defense all night on the Sun perimeter players – prevented White’s inbounds pass from even reaching a teammate. White grabbed her to stop the clock yet again, but Carson sank both free throws and the Sun were out of timeouts with 0.6 seconds to play. A javelin pass went nowhere, and the game was finally over. New York had prevailed 84-81, and after all that work it felt like they deserved it.

Pondexter’s raw numbers from this game aren’t that pretty if you just glance at the box score. Which just goes to show that you need to watch the games (and/or read WNBAlien, of course). 11-26 shooting to produce 27 points, and four assists versus three turnovers aren’t the greatest stats you’ll ever see from her, but she willed the Liberty to this victory. Down 15 heading into the fourth quarter, she took over the game and hauled her team to a vital win that allayed some of those fears about dropping into a dogfight over the final weeks of the season. Not all of the fears, but definitely some. Pondexter also played every single second of the 45-minute game, illustrating just how vital her coach felt it was as well. Of course, she had some help. Carson finished 8-17 for 19 points, eight rebounds, three assists and five steals, showing what she might be able to provide if Whiz backs off a little from his love of Nicole Powell. Vaughn was 8-15 for 17 points and 11 boards, while Braxton’s eight points and nine rebounds were very important to the comeback. It was a team effort for New York, but it was their star who dragged them over the line. With a tough schedule coming up over their last eight games, the Liberty needed this one.

Maybe that’s what it came down to in the end – New York needed it just that little bit more. Charles finished 10-20 for 29 points and 14 rebounds, and the Sun had a ridiculous 21 offensive boards, but there wasn’t quite the sense of desperation about them that you could feel from New York. The Liberty win drops the gap between the two teams to only 1.5 games, and narrows the season-series to 2-1 Connecticut. They play their final game against each other on the last day of the season, and after this result it might still be decisive in who has home court advantage in the first round. Either way, there’s a strong chance that we’ll be seeing a lot more of this matchup before the season’s done. If they’re all as exciting as this one, that’ll be no bad thing.

—–

The other early evening game was in Washington, where Minnesota were the visitors. As we’ve known for a while, the Mystics are playing for nothing but pride, future contracts, and to provide their long-suffering fans with some entertainment. They don’t even have their own 2012 first-round pick any more – having traded it to the Lynx for Nicky Anosike – so there’s no benefit in losing extra games, either. Minnesota have followed precisely the opposite trajectory from the Mystics this season, going from lottery team to the top of their conference. However, their last time out on Tuesday in Connecticut, they were dominated by the Sun and lost by nearly 30. Teams that have gotten used to winning don’t let games like that linger, and tend to respond as quickly as possible. Washington offered the first opportunity.

The standard starting fives took the floor for both teams. The first half was high on effort, but not exactly dripping in entertainment value. Minnesota were moving the ball better, as you’d expect given the respective records of these two teams, but Washington were knocking down enough shots to stick around early on. The Mystics led 18-17 to close the first quarter, but with Crystal Langhorne on two fouls already and sat on the bench as a result, there were some worrying signs.

By the time Langhorne came back in, Minnesota had pushed to a 23-20 lead. After barely two minutes on the floor – during which she’d finally scored her first basket – she picked up her third foul and sat back down. With the Minnesota defense stepping up the pressure a little and creating easy transition opportunities, they started to twist the knife as the game headed towards the break. A ridiculous leaning, off-balance three from Lindsay Whalen with Kelly Miller right in her face closed out the first half at 39-29 Minnesota.

It was odd, drifting second half. Washington didn’t go away, and with Langhorne back in the game Matee Ajavon had a teammate on the floor to help her with the scoring load. But they were never really in it. The 10-point halftime lead rose as high as 14, very occasionally dropped down to nine, but the Mystics couldn’t put together any kind of sustained run to worry the Lynx that their lead might disappear. Minnesota’s superior ball movement always made it seem like they could score at will whenever they truly wanted to, and the Washington defense never looked like it could stop them consistently. The Lynx just couldn’t quite kill it off.

60-49 at the end of the third, the comeback was still theoretically possible, even if it didn’t feel like it was ever going to materialise. After Seimone Augustus’s jump shooting had taken care of much of the scoring in the first three quarters, she got to rest while her teammates finished the game as a contest early in the fourth. They upped the pace a little, attacked the rim on the break, and ran off a 13-3 run to open the final period. 73-52 ahead after that push, the remaining six minutes of the game were garbage time – although Mystics coach Trudi Lacey left most of her starters in until the bitter end for some reason. Minnesota coasted home for an 81-62 victory.

Not a lot to say about this matchup. One team has a lot more talent, and is drowning in confidence after only losing six games all year. The other has nothing to play for and has only won five. It played out exactly as you’d expect. Augustus led the Lynx with 18 points, Maya Moore shot 6-8 for 14 after her disappointing return to Connecticut on Tuesday, and the team as a group shot 57% from the floor. You’re not going to beat many teams when they score that efficiently, and with the way Minnesota play defense, you’re definitely not going to beat them. The only negative was that Taj McWilliams-Franklin played over 30 minutes. Really Cheryl? Your 40-year old center needs to play 30 minutes against the second-worst team in the league when their only interior scoring threat was sat down with foul trouble for most of the night? Adair and Harris should’ve played more, but I’m admittedly nit-picking.

Washington were ultimately outclassed, but they’re hardly the first to suffer that fate at the hands of the Lynx. Ajavon led their scoring with 15 points, but the fact that she shot 6-19 in amassing that total was more illustrative of her effectiveness. They don’t have much chance against teams the calibre of Minnesota in the first place – when Langhorne misses key stretches with foul trouble, their chances diminish to nearly nothing.

—–

Our final game of the night took us out to Los Angeles, where the Sparks hosted Indiana. Assuming you missed this game through lack of interest or because it was on too late, I can’t stress enough that you should not bother to catch up with it on LiveAccess. You check the boxscore and it looks like a reasonable contest; trust me, it wasn’t. Awful, awful game.

I continue to wonder whether Joe Bryant has the first clue what he’s doing with this Sparks team. After leaving Jenna O’Hea on the bench for the entire game against Atlanta on Tuesday night, he shifted her into the starting lineup for this one in place of Noelle Quinn. Precisely why, I have absolutely no idea. Quinn’s had a thoroughly forgettable season, and it’s a switch that could’ve been made ages ago, but why start her all year and then replace her with someone who you ignored two nights ago? Bizarre. He also made another change to the starting lineup, although this was far more understandable, replacing Ebony Hoffman with newly-healthy superstar Candace Parker. Hoffman has actually played better than Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones during most of the time that Parker’s been hurt, but it always seemed like the vets would be the ones to retain their starting spots when Parker returned. Can’t afford to upset the golden oldies, can we?

I spent the entire first half shaking my head in a combination of disgust and amazement. LA’s defense was hideous. It was a some sort of scrambling cross between a man-to-man and a matchup zone, I think, where they basically switched on every single screen. Absolutely all of them, whoever was involved. They even barely seemed to bother matching up with applicable players at the start of possessions, seemingly just picking up whoever happened to end up mildly near to them. But the head shaking wasn’t just for the Sparks.

Indiana started hot against the appalling defense, breaking out to a 16-4 lead. Tammy Sutton-Brown had seven of the 16, because with all the switching she was constantly defended by players who couldn’t remotely stop her under the basket. But then Indiana began making a complete mess of attacking the LA defense. It was pathetic. Honestly, all they needed to do was set one screen and make a couple of passes, and they had mismatches all over the floor on every damn possession. But they started taking far too many jumpshots instead of just punishing the Sparks inside, and let LA wander back into the game. Hoffman came off the bench, and either determined to prove to Bryant that she should’ve been starting, or inspired by facing the franchise she represented for seven seasons, she was smoking hot. Seven straight Hoffman points had LA back within 21-16 by the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was more of the same. Hoffman rained in a series of jumpshots, Indiana’s offensive execution was pathetically failing to exploit LA’s defense, so the Sparks’ comeback continued. I ran out of synonyms for ‘mess’ and ‘shambles’ while taking notes. In amongst the dubious shooting from both teams and the inadvertently effective defense from LA, both teams were throwing in their fair share of weak turnovers as well. The half eventually ended 32-31 Indiana, but just because the game hadn’t been painful enough, the officials took two points off the board after reviewing a bucket during the break. Officially, LA led 31-30, and the one bucket Katie Douglas had managed in the entire half was wiped away for failing to beat the shot clock. That about summed things up.

The second half was no better. I’m still baffled by Indiana’s complete failure to take advantage of the LA defense, but the only one making shots was point guard Erin Phillips. She was open a lot thanks to all the switching and collapsing help that naturally has to come across when guards switch on to post players. At the other end LA were hardly lighting it up, and with Bryant refusing to rest his barely-healthy star, Parker was doing the best she could. Her efforts were helping to keep LA in the game, along with Indiana’s offensive ineptitude, but she was hardly dominating. Which made Bryant leaving her out there for practically every minute of the game even more painful – she could’ve rested and it’s unlikely that it would’ve made much difference. Certainly not for just a few minutes. Tamika Catchings used a screen to bring Parker onto her as her defender and drove straight by her for a layup to end the third quarter. That gave me some hope that the Fever had finally worked out what to do, and cut the score to 55-54 LA heading to the fourth.

Nope, Indy still sucked. It looked like they were going to steal the game anyway in the middle of the fourth quarter, when Tangela Smith, Catchings and Douglas hit consecutive threes to put the Fever in front. Douglas followed that three – her first official basket of the night – with a driving layup, and Indiana had a 66-62 lead with five minutes left. No one deserved to win this game, but it’s not like the league is allowed to declare it a no-contest and send everyone home. Someone had to walk away with the W.

More strange coaching from the Fever’s Lin Dunn didn’t help her team late in the fourth. While Shannon Bobbitt had been on the floor for that run of threes that took Indiana in front, she hadn’t been particularly involved. Regardless, Dunn left her out there for far, far too long, until there were only two minutes left on the clock. That left their best shooter all night – Phillips – sat on the bench while LA went on an 8-0 run that turned the game. Bobbitt wasn’t producing anything useful offensively, and Natasha Lacy was abusing her at the other end. I think Dunn might’ve fallen asleep.

It was hard to believe, but at 70-66 with two minutes left, LA looked probable winners. The teams exchanged more turnovers and bricks than it was worth counting in the final minutes, and the refs joined in by calling all kinds of touch-foul junk that they hadn’t been calling all night. Douglas went to the line with 20.6 seconds left after one of those calls and drew Indiana within two. They fouled Parker, who’s always been a streaky foul-shooter and was already 6-10 in this game. She unsurprisingly missed one, leaving Indiana down 71-68 with 19 seconds to play. More Joe Bryant craziness led to the insertion of LaToya Pringle for the first time all night to challenge the inbounds pass. You do that when there are only a few seconds left Joe, not 19 and she’ll actually have to play defense if they get the ball in. Catchings inbounded the ball, went straight past Pringle and took the return feed before heading to the basket for a layup. She was ridiculously open, and Pringle had barely moved. Amazingly, Catchings blew the layup, and when Hoffman grabbed the rebound the game was essentially over. How appropriate that a terrible miss effectively completed the action. Hoffman free throws and an ultimately meaningless Phillips layup closed out the game, with LA winning 75-70. They all count.

I can barely believe how poorly Indiana executed their offense in this game. It’s not just that Douglas was stone cold, shooting 2-13 for seven points, or that Catchings was only slightly better at 6-15 for 16. It’s that Sutton-Brown only took five shots all night after three baskets in the opening minutes. It’s that Jessica Davenport only played 11 minutes and only shot four times. They were a combined 7-9. They should’ve destroyed this LA team and their mockery of a defense in the paint, but it never happened. Good thing they win most of their games with defense, because that was really, truly poor.

LA won the game, but I’m not remotely convinced by how they managed it. The offense was a little better than it has been, but then they’ve got Parker back so it damn well should be. She played 39:30 of the 40-minute game, which is insane for a player just coming back from a knee injury. I understand that the Sparks’ season – and likely Joe Bryant’s job – relies on a run of wins to sneak them into the playoffs, but killing Parker still doesn’t seem like a wonderful idea. She finished 5-11 from the floor for 18 points and six rebounds, while Jantel Lavender – who could’ve provided some bulk inside to cover while Parker rested – played barely five minutes. Bryant’s coaching is baffling. With Lauren Jackson on her way back for Seattle, I’d still make this LA mess the favourites to be left out in the cold come playoff time. Parker or no Parker.

 

In other news…

Lauren Jackson was medically cleared today to return to action for the Seattle Storm. Brian Agler is being coy on whether she’ll actually play in tomorrow’s game against New York, but given that this is LJ it’d hardly be a surprise to see her out there. She must be absolutely itching to play by now. For those interested in the maths, this is a little earlier than even the most optimistic end of the timescale offered when Jackson had surgery on her hip. The statement back then said 8-12 weeks, and we’ve barely reached seven. Good news for the Storm; bad news for the rest of the Western Conference.

Jackson wasn’t playing all that well before her surgery, but presumably that was at least in part because she was fighting through pain. There might well be a period of recovery time while she works her way back to full fitness, but the Storm should benefit from her presence immediately. If nothing else, she adds someone with true size to their diminutive front line, and an elite interior defender even if her shot takes its time coming back. It’ll be interesting to see how fit she is and how long it takes for her to reacclimate.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Chicago @ Washington, 7pm ET

Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

New York @ Seattle, 10pm ET

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s