WNBA Today, 08/21/2011: Wild West heating up

Saturday was a big night for the WNBA’s Western Conference, as all five teams still in with a shot of the playoffs featured. With one superstar having already returned, another making her first appearance in months, and a third taking the night off due to pain, it’s all gotten a little extra-interesting as we head into the final weeks of the regular season. The one East-only matchup had an exciting finish as well, but we’ll get to that at the end. First, the West.

Opening up our Western slate, the Los Angeles Sparks travelled out to face the league-leading Minnesota Lynx. With Candace Parker back in the fold, LA – somehow – managed to beat East-leading Indiana on Thursday night. To my eyes, as regular readers will remember, it was far more down to an inept performance from the Fever than a particularly impressive one from LA. Still, it had to give them extra confidence heading into the game with the Lynx. Compared to San Antonio, LA’s schedule is very straightforward for the rest of the season, meaning their playoff hopes are still alive despite being three games back prior to Saturday night. A win in Minnesota would get that playoff push off to a heck of a start. It hardly mattered, but the Lynx went into this game knowing that a win would officially, 100% statistically confirm that they’d made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. It’s been a foregone conclusion for weeks, but when you’ve been on the outside looking in for so long, it’s always nice to make these things official. There’s also still the small matter of home court advantage throughout the playoffs to fight for.

Minnesota’s starting five has barely changed all season, and nothing was any different for this one. LA stuck with the five that ‘worked’ against Indiana. The Sparks’ defense immediately presented itself as the exact same style and concept that they offered against the Fever. They were switching on everything, not bothering to fight over or around any screens regardless of the players involved. Lindsay Whalen’s not dumb. She brought Taj McWilliams-Franklin out to set screens on three Lynx possessions within the first three minutes of the game. Each time, LA switched and Taj was left being defended by Ticha Penicheiro. Yeah, that’s not going to work. Three easy buckets resulted, two for Taj on layups and one for a wide open Rebekkah Brunson when the ball was kicked to her. I hate this LA defense with a passion. It’s dismal.

The scary thing was that Minnesota started messing it up. After creating the switches, Whalen was reversing the ball to offer a different angle for the entry pass to her mismatched post players. But her teammates weren’t cooperating, and they started taking too many jumpshots instead of entering the ball down low. However open you are, those jumpers don’t always drop. Meanwhile, at the other end, LA had Ms. Parker going to work. With Candace raining in jumpers from outside, LA built a 20-10 lead – the defense looked horrible, but the scoreboard looked pretty for the Sparks.

Finally, over the closing minutes of the first quarter and practically the entire second, the World started to make sense again. Monica Wright, Jessica Adair and Candice Wiggins came off the Minnesota bench and gave their team a kick, and that 10-point Sparks lead swiftly disappeared. The Lynx weren’t taking advantage of the mismatches that LA’s defense offers up in the paint, but they were turning it into wide open shots on the perimeter and knocking those down instead. You see when you switch everything, and someone tiny like Natasha Lacy ends up trying to guard Adair, Brunson or McWilliams-Franklin in the paint, every other Spark knows that if the ball goes into the post they’re going to have to come and help. Fast. That means that they’re forced to hedge down towards the paint, even before the pass is made, which leaves the opposing guards on the perimeter ridiculously open. It’s not Candace Parker’s fault that she was left guarding someone like Candice Wiggins on repeated possessions, or that she was too far away from her when Wiggins caught the ball and launched multiple threes. There’s only so many places on the floor that one player can simultaneously defend.

So with Wiggins firing threes, Wright aggressive offensively as well and the starters coming back in and maintaining the momentum, Minnesota took over the game. LA cooled off at the other end, unsurprisingly, and started tossing in a few of their trademark ridiculously easy turnovers. They seem to enjoy trying to make passes that have absolutely no chance of success. It’s not just that they sometimes throw it in the wrong direction – it’s that even if it goes exactly where they’re aiming, the ball’s still likely to get picked off. That’s not smart. In the 12 minutes of action after being down 20-10, the Lynx ran off a 36-14 streak that turned the game on its head, taking a 46-34 advantage into halftime. This was the demolition that Indiana should’ve accomplished against the miserable LA defense the last time they tried it.

There’s not much point going into detail about the second half. Maya Moore came out firing, determined to improve upon a quiet first half performance that was limited by foul trouble, and the Lynx quickly took the game away from LA. The Sparks kept that atrocious defense going and I just spent the time asking around for synonyms for “really, really bad”. I think FUBAR was the best one offered up. The Sparks defense is FUBAR (Google it if you don’t recognise the acronym). It’s not that switching is bad. It’s not even that switching on everything is necessarily bad in all situations. Good defensive teams like Seattle and San Antonio switch a lot. But they fight over screens as well when it’s an option. They’re drilled in how and when to switch, and in how to recover and rotate back to an appropriate man as quickly as possible. The Sparks don’t have a clue. They look like they’ve just been sent out there with “switch everything” as a basic instruction, and not much else. There’s no fighting over or around anything, and no understanding of when to help, when to recover, or how to rotate everything back around. It’s ugly. The game finished 87-68 Minnesota, by the way. It wasn’t really that close.

Parker’s very, very good. We know this. She’s come back and instantly looked like an MVP-level player, shooting 7-14 for 18 points and eight rebounds in this game. But she can’t do it all. Coach Joe Bryant doesn’t seem to know what to do with this team, playing with lineups and rotations on a nightly basis, and somehow hoping this defensive shambles will work well enough to pull out wins. I don’t see it. Even if their helpful schedule and Parker’s talents somehow drag them into the playoffs, any of the other top teams in the West should rip them to bits. What’s the point? Take your lottery pick, go hire a coach and balance the roster out a little in the offseason. Because this mess isn’t going anywhere.

It was nice to see a team actually pick apart this LA defense and back up what I honestly believed I was seeing. If the top team in the West had followed the best in the East by falling to it, I might’ve had to reconsider. As it was, this was a nice performance for Minnesota, with Adair, Wiggins and Wright making key contributions to the victory. McWilliams-Franklin still led them in minutes, but at least she was down to 29 in this one. The rebounding edge was insane, with 20 offensive boards helping the Lynx to a 43-24 advantage overall (that’s another aspect of the Sparks’ defense by the way – so much help and so many guards defending the paint, everyone ends up out of rebounding position). Led by Seimone Augustus’s 17 points but with balanced scoring across the roster, Minnesota did what they were supposed to do and comfortably disposed of a barely mediocre team. Welcome to the postseason, Lynx fans. It’s been a long time.

—–

Next up, another all-West matchup, as San Antonio travelled out to face Phoenix for the fourth time this season. This was a big game for the Silver Stars. After six losses in their last eight games and a dangerous-looking schedule approaching over the next couple of weeks, Candace Parker and her Sparks have started to loom rather too large in the rearview mirror (however terrible their defense is). A win here would’ve built a little extra room and placed San Antonio only a game behind Phoenix for second in the West, never mind worrying about fourth. It also would’ve given them a 3-1 lead in the season-series with Phoenix, meaning they’d have sewn up the tie-breaker with the Mercury should it come into play. All in all, an important game but not one they can have entered with much confidence after all those recent losses.

The Mercury have been doing okay of late, winning three of their last four following a rocky couple of weeks around the All-Star break. Their problem heading into this game was the loss of their star, Diana Taurasi, who’d wrenched her back making a turn in practice and sat out as a result with back spasms. She was still on the bench, doing her fair share of yapping as usual, but the Mercury would have to survive on the floor without her. Marie Ferdinand-Harris replaced her in the starting lineup.

There was nothing much in it early on, as Phoenix’s running game and easy scores were balanced out by the perimeter gunning of San Antonio. The surprising star of the early moments was 6’5” center Ruth Riley, who was firing away from outside and knocking down practically everything she threw up. Two threes and another with her foot on the arc gave her eight points in the opening five minutes, and San Antonio held a 22-18 edge after the first quarter.

The Silver Stars had a slight problem with turnovers in the first half, but fortunately most of them were dead ball giveaways which didn’t fire up Phoenix’s running game. At times the Mercury seemed like they were almost trying too hard to compensate for Taurasi’s absence, putting up shots that they wouldn’t normally take because they felt a need to replace her offense. Nonetheless, with DeWanna Bonner coming off the bench to add her customary spark for the Mercury, they manged to hang around. San Antonio only led 41-38 at halftime, despite the Mercury shooting 0-4 from beyond the three-point line compared to San Antonio’s 5-10. Considering they were without their leader, it was a solid performance from Phoenix. The Silver Stars had Riley to thank for her unexpected offensive outburst, and Becky Hammon quietly flirting with a triple-double at 11 points, six rebounds and five assists at the break.

Midway through the third quarter with San Antonio’s lead still at three, Mercury head coach Corey Gaines finally seemed to notice that none of the shots he’s always so keen for Marie Ferdinand-Harris to take were actually going in. Considering she’s shooting 35% on the season, it was hardly a surprise. As a result, for the first time in weeks, rookie guard Alexis Gray-Lawson received some decent minutes off the bench and it gave her team a shot in the arm. With extra pace and energy introduced into their game, there was more life about the Mercury and a Gray-Lawson triple tied the game at 52, before a run of points from Candice Dupree helped Phoenix take control. Turnovers were again an issue for the Silver Stars in the third quarter, but it was the contrast between power forwards that gave Phoenix the edge. Sophia Young is typically the more complete player, but Dupree’s ability to run the floor and finish on the move within the Mercury system was proving more effective in this game. Layups and free throws dragged the Mercury to a 61-56 edge at the end of the third.

The fourth quarter was a lot of fun, but not all to the Phoenix crowd’s liking. Their team built a 65-56 lead, the biggest of the game for either team at nine points, before Big Shot Ruth decided to get involved again. DeWanna Bonner is probably the best defender on the Mercury roster – in fact, it’s probably not close – but she’s always looking to slide over and help her teammates out when they’re beaten by their own defensive assignments. That sometimes takes her a little out of position, and she was cheating down off Riley to help cover other threats. That left Ruth wide open out top, in the exact same spot she was hitting from in the first half (only at the other end of the floor, obviously). She had five points in the 9-0 Silver Stars run that tied the game at 65 with six minutes left to play.

Riley was only the big story because the other players showing up in crunch time were the same people we’ve seen do it over and over again for these teams. Becky Hammon and Penny Taylor were having some kind competition down the stretch. Taylor would either spin and twist her way down the lane for a layup, or force her way to the free throw line for easy points at the stripe. After going cold in the third quarter, Hammon was back to knifing into the paint for layups amongst the trees, or bombing away from deep. Her latest three cut the Mercury’s advantage to 74-73 with 2:33 left on the clock, and we were all set for a grandstand finish.

The thing is, we never quite got it. Phoenix were so good at driving into the paint, creating contact and drawing whistles, that San Antonio simply couldn’t stop them. It was mostly Taylor, striding past whoever was guarding her and penetrating for fouls, but at times it was Bonner following her lead and doing the exact same thing. Hammon did her best at the other end, Riley nailed yet another three from the same damn spot on the floor, but they couldn’t keep up with the endless stream of free throws that Phoenix were knocking down. Riley followed a Bonner three-point-play with her trey to cut the gap to three, before Taylor went right back to the line. Hammon slashed through the lane for her trademark spinning layup but Bonner was right back shooting free throws again. It was almost monotonous.

Down 83-78 with 39 seconds left, Hammon found Scholanda Robinson in the corner. Her jumper was short, but she grabbed her own rebound, only to put too much strength behind the easy putback and overshoot it. Somehow, the bouncing ball ended up back in her hands yet again, but her third try ended up wedged between the rim and the backboard. When Bonner beat Riley in the resulting jump ball, that was just about it. There was time for more fouling and more free throws, but the Mercury held on for an 87-81 victory.

This might’ve been San Antonio’s big chance to steal a victory over the next couple of weeks. Facing the Mercury without Taurasi, the opportunity was there. Now they head to Seattle and Minnesota, before facing Minnesota again, Connecticut, Phoenix and Seattle at home in quick succession. That’s a tough slate of games, especially when you know that LA get to play Tulsa a couple of times and head to Washington. The Silver Stars have been close in a lot of the recent games, but without the scoring of Danielle Adams, with Young continuing to produce quiet performances, and with their rebounding repeatedly terrible it’s adding up to losses. Hammon finished this one 8-16 for 22 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, narrowly short of that triple-double (but then she’s tiny – eight rebounds is pretty remarkable on its own). Riley was 6-12 for 16 points in easily her most productive offensive game all season, but Young was 5-16 for 11 points against a team she frequently dominates. It wasn’t enough. Adams is supposed to be on the road to recovery, so maybe she can come back soon and give them a boost, but it’s not going to get any easier for the Silver Stars over the next week or two. Then again, outside of that Parker girl, LA suck. So they might be okay regardless.

You have to give the Mercury credit for finding a way to win without their leading scorer. They shot 15 free throws in the final five minutes of the game, and only four of those were offered up intentionally by San Antonio to stop the clock. They won the game with the drive and determination not to let it slip away, and the resolve to force the officials to make calls. Over the course of the game, they were 28-32 at the line, compared to San Antonio’s 11-16, and that was the difference. Taylor was 7-14 from the floor, 13-13 at the stripe, for 28 points. Her second-half performance was the Taylor that Mercury fans grew used to watching early in the season. Dupree finished with 7-12 shooting, adding 6-8 at the line for 20 points and 10 rebounds, stepping up in Taurasi’s absence, while Bonner also had a double-double off the bench. Tying the season series with the Silver Stars (with one game to go), this gives them a little breathing room. They won’t want to have to play without Taurasi again, but at least they proved that they can survive without her for one night.

—–

Now for our second big return in recent days. Parker came back for LA after missing 15 games, but Lauren Jackson had been missing for 20 for Seattle. Her teammates managed to go 10-10 without her, but it often wasn’t even close to pretty. They’ve had turnovers galore, awful road performances, and an embarrassment on their own floor a week ago against Atlanta. Going into Saturday’s games, they were also half a game behind San Antonio in the standings, and just as worried about the possibility of an LA push to sneak into the playoffs. It’s safe to say that they were happy to welcome LJ back into the fold. Their opponents were New York, coming in off the back of two tight wins over Washington and Connecticut. After briefly looking like their own playoff spot might be in danger, if the Liberty could build on those victories second place in the East and home court advantage in the first round was still within reach. Considering how Seattle have played in recent weeks, losing four of their last five, it certainly seemed possible. Except now they had the big girl back.

Brian Agler didn’t hesitate, putting Jackson straight into the starting lineup in place of Ashley Robinson. Having only just returned to Seattle after dealing with her mother’s death, Tanisha Wright was in uniform and available, but Katie Smith remained in the starting lineup ahead of her. New York had their own returning player, although not quite as important as LJ. After missing one game with a bruised left knee, Nicole Powell was back in her standard position as the starting small forward, with Essence Carson returning to the bench. Backup center Quanitra Hollingsworth was still out with her ankle injury.

It didn’t take LJ long to make an impression. On the very first play, she posted up on the low block, took a pass from Sue Bird, and drew a foul that sent her to the free throw line. This looked familiar. After knocking both shots down, she took a pass on the next possession at the top of the arc, and drilled a three without a second’s hesitation. Very familiar. Next up, she forced Plenette Pierson to alter her layup attempt, then blocked Pierson’s second effort. Yes, this was definitely Lauren Jackson. More importantly for Storm fans, this brief glimpse looked a lot like the 2010 version of LJ, not the 2011 facsimile that they watched struggle through the opening five games of this season. A healthy Jackson seemed like the answer to all their prayers.

Just to make things easier for Seattle and their returning heroine, Cappie Pondexter picked up two fouls in the opening 91 seconds of the game, sending her straight to the bench. Adding a superstar of your own while watching the other team’s version sit down before even working up a sweat was the perfect start for the Storm. Jackson took a seat after less than four minutes of play, but her teammates kept up the momentum, pushing Seattle to a 17-3 lead six minutes into the game. If the Liberty didn’t get a grip on this quickly, they were going to end up the sacrificial lambs welcoming LJ back with a slaughter. Pondexter was already back in. New York coach John Whisenant obviously decided that he had no option, regardless of foul trouble, and was willing to take the risk that his star might draw her third very early in the contest. It was actually her teammates that helped drag the Liberty into the game, with Carson, Pierson and Powell all knocking down outside jumpers. However, Jackson returned before the end of the period, and sent the crowd into raptures by closing the quarter out with another three. Seattle led 24-13 at the end of the first.

After all the emotion of the opening stages, everything became a little muted in the second quarter. There was never an obvious streak of points or a collapse from the Storm, but ever so quietly, the lead began to shrink. With Jackson back, too many of her teammates seemed to have left their shooting touch at home, and LJ couldn’t do it all on her own. The pace of the game died, as bricks, turnovers and the battle in the paint dominated the action in the second quarter. It was almost a merciful end when we headed to the interval at 32-27 Seattle. Jackson was already 3-5 for 10 points in barely nine minutes of action, but she wasn’t getting much help. Fortunately for them, in the face of Seattle’s defense, New York’s offensive production had been even more anaemic.

It took the Liberty barely three minutes of the second half to tie the game up on a Kia Vaughn layup off a nice Pierson pass, before a Leilani Mitchell three took them into the lead. After so much excitement heading into the game and the burst of adrenaline caused by Jackson’s return, this was the come-down for Seattle. LA had ultimately lost the game that Parker returned in against an Eastern Conference opponent on their own floor – were the Storm going to suffer the same fate?

It was a sluggish, sloppy game as the third quarter progressed, defenses dominating nearly as much as they had in the 58-56 contest that these teams played out a couple of weeks ago. Seattle trailed 49-45 at the end of the third, before two Jackson buckets to open the fourth tied the game back up. Agler probably hadn’t wanted to rely on his star quite so much in her first game back, but he had little choice. She was the only one producing. The next six Storm points were all her as well, smartly jumping into a moving Essence Carson to draw a foul, and adding an extra free throw when Carson threw off her protective glasses in disgust and drew a technical. Jackson followed that with another three. Meanwhile at the other end, LJ’s mobility clearly wasn’t up to her old standards quite yet, and the Liberty were scoring enough points to hold on. It also led to some cheap fouls when Jackson reached in on plays that she would’ve typically been in better position to deal with. Immediately after the three drew her team within 57-55, Jackson committed her sixth foul by reaching in on Kara Braxton, and fouled out of the game. She exited to a well-deserved ovation, but it left her teammates with four minutes to pull this game out of the fire without her. They hadn’t looked particularly capable of doing so through most of the game.

Bird tied things up after stripping Carson and running out for a layup at the other end; Pondexter put New York right back in front with a jumper. Camille Little was called for a completely undeserved travelling violation on the next play, before Braxton caught the ball at the top of the arc wide open. She thought about it, thought about it some more, the Storm and their crowd even silently tempted her to shoot it, and then she did – and it went in. With 2:22 on the clock, New York had reestablished a five-point lead.

Then, amazingly enough, LJ’s cohorts remembered how to shoot. Bird knocked down a three to slash into the lead, before a horrible possession for New York. The ball was kicked out to Pondexter, who was relatively open and could’ve shot, but made the extra pass to an even-more-open Nicole Powell. When Powell turned down that opportunity, the play devolved into a mess, ending in a Pierson turnover. It might blame her on the stat-sheet, and she’d missed her fair share of layups and easy scoring opportunities during the course of the game, but that one wasn’t on Pierson. The ball never should have ended up back in her hands. Seattle compounded the misery by running a mess of a possession themselves, but finishing it by kicking the ball to Katie Smith, who never needs a second invitation to shoot. She drilled a three as the shot clock expired, the crowd went nuts, and Seattle were back up by a point. Braxton handed the ball straight back to them by bowling over Little in the lane for one of the more obvious offensive fouls you’re likely to see.

With 52 seconds left, Seattle ran their typical set in situations like that – Bird runs around off the ball, while her backcourt partner dribbles the ball out top and waits for her to get open. It was Smith this time instead of Wright, but the principle remained the same. Bird caught the pass and launched a three, missed, but Ashley Robinson tipped out the offensive rebound, allowing Seattle to run more time off the clock. Bird drove, tried to throw a wraparound pass to Robinson, but in such tight quarters had little chance of success. It ended in a turnover, and New York had 14.4 seconds to find a winning basket.

As ever, the ball was put in Pondexter’s hands for the Liberty. As she made her move, Seattle brought a second defender over to help, and Pondexter made the play you’re supposed to make in that situation – find the open teammate. She hit Kia Vaughn with a pass, and Vaughn was wide open from 10 feet, but her shot rimmed out. Swin Cash grabbed the rebound, and waited. She was under pressure from Pierson, but the New York forward didn’t seem to be trying to foul her. If the Storm had just waited, either the clock would’ve run out, or Pierson would’ve eventually remembered that she needed to foul and hacked Cash. Instead, the Storm bailed New York out and called timeout, which made little sense to me. We were left with three seconds on the clock, Seattle ball, still up by a point.

Then for the real drama. Katie Smith was making the inbounds pass, and threw it a little high as Sue Bird came back towards her own end of the floor to receive the pass. Essence Carson made an athletic play, leapt up and stole the pass away from Bird before taking off for the basket. Bird trailed her, swiped at the ball from behind as Carson went up for the layup, and stripped the ball out of her hands as time expired. It might’ve been a foul – God knows that most plays made in that sort of situation from behind end up as fouls – but there was no whistle. Storm hold on for the 63-62 victory on Jackson’s return, Key Arena goes insane, and Bird gets some revenge for having her shot blocked by Carson on the final play of that 58-56 loss ten days earlier.

A couple of notes on that last play. First of all, never ever throw an inbounds pass back towards the basket you’re defending in that situation. It’s the only way that seriously bad things can happen. If you throw the ball the other way, even if it goes straight to an opponent, they’ve got three seconds to make it the length of the court to score. Or they need to think quickly enough to call timeout, then they have to inbound the ball and find a way to score against your set defense, all in a total of three seconds. Those things are a lot more difficult than poking a ball away and charging in for a layup. It was almost a completely unnecessary catastrophe for Seattle. Secondly, the reports about how crazy some of New York’s players and coaches went after that play are a little disturbing. LiveAccess cut off too quickly and was on too tight a shot for us to see it outside the arena, but even ignoring his outraged players, multiple reports mentioned Liberty head coach making choking motions towards the officials. Come on coach, you know better than that.

It wasn’t pretty for Seattle, but they got the all-important victory regardless. Jackson finished with 20 points on 6-10 shooting and seven rebounds, looking better in this game than she did in the five that she played to start the season. She’s clearly still not all the way healthy – there was a little hitch in her step at times, and fatigue caught up with her on the defensive end – but 22 minutes in her first game back was a hell of first step. With a remotely healthy Jackson, this team can beat anyone. All she needs now is for her teammates to hit a few shots. Bird was 6-18 for 14 points, Cash 2-9 for eight to continue her dismal recent shooting, and with Wright not yet back to her old self the Storm were short of weapons. However, with Jackson back, they’ll be confident of pushing forwards rather than looking back over the final weeks of the season, and heading into the postseason on a positive note. After all those years with impressive regular seasons before Jackson got hurt and they fell apart in the playoffs, maybe this year can reverse the format – dubious regular season, Jackson back to full fitness, playoff success. Stranger things have happened.

New York played a tough, physical game in an arena that’s always hard to come to, faced an emotional crowd given a huge lift by Jackson’s return, and nearly stole away with the win. That’s not too bad for a night’s work, even if the loss is disappointing. Whisenant restricted himself to a seven-player rotation, which was an interesting move in such a physically demanding game, especially after rookie Alex Montgomery had a decent outing against Connecticut a couple of days earlier. Maybe he felt that he needed experienced players to deal with the atmosphere at the Key. Considering the final four games on New York’s schedule feature Minnesota (twice), Indiana and Connecticut, the three remaining games in August could be important. There’s a national TV meeting with Phoenix on Tuesday, when they might still be without Taurasi, followed by two games against Chicago. Three wins would not only practically confirm their playoff spot, but give the Liberty a chance of snapping at Connecticut’s heels for a higher playoff seed. Two or three losses and who knows what might happen from behind them. At least they won’t have to face Lauren Jackson again this year – unless it’s in the WNBA Finals, a course of events I’m sure they’d happily settle for.

—–

Now we’re done with the West, the only Eastern matchup of Saturday night, which featured Chicago in Washington. The Sky are trying to catch either Atlanta or New York for a playoff spot, but have been heading in the wrong direction over the last month. A strong win in San Antonio last week gave them hope, but the Dream insist on repeatedly winning games, which isn’t helping Chicago’s chances. As we all know by now, Washington are done for the year and playing out the string, but have been putting in some decent performances anyway. Although it’s usually only enough to lose by less than you’d expect.

Anyone who’s stuck with me this long, I thank you and promise to keep this one relatively brief. It was, after all, a contest between two teams who’ll likely be on the outside looking in when we head for the playoffs. The standard starting fives opened the game, and typically for Chicago, rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot was benched after barely two minutes following two early turnovers. The Pokey Chatman hook is very, very quick for her rookie guard. Chicago took a narrow lead at the end of the first quarter because Washington couldn’t deal with the size, length and athleticism of Sylvia Fowles. They aren’t the first, and they won’t be the last. Washington opened the second quarter with a series of threes and a ridiculously easy breakaway layup that instantly turned the game around, producing a 27-21 Mystics lead. The game spun back when something similar happened at the other end, as Erin Thorn and Cathrine Kraayeveld started to nail threes for Chicago. It’s been the story all season for the Sky – if they can hit from the perimeter to help Fowles out they can win, if not, they’re screwed. They were up 42-38 at the half because they were hitting.

With Crystal Langhorne good enough to remain a threat inside despite the presence of Fowles, and the Sky shooters disappearing again, Washington made a run to start the second half. However, they seemed to keep forgetting about Kraayeveld. There weren’t too many white, 6-3 forwards on the floor who do nothing but shoot perimeter jump shots, so you’d think they would’ve remembered her, but apparently not. Yet another jumper from Kraay put Chicago up 58-57 to end the third.

The closing minutes were a comedy of errors, illustrating why neither of these teams is likely to make the playoffs. Turnover followed turnover as they seemed to invite each other to please take the victory off their hands. Matee Ajavon decided enough was enough with just over a minute to play, drove into the paint and drew a foul. Her free throws put Washington up by two, and a pretty Ajavon jumper off a curl pushed the advantage to 69-65. In a game this messy, a four-point lead with under a minute left seemed enormous, but these are the Mystics we’re talking about. It’s amazing how many times they’ve found a way to lose games this season.

An inbounds lob pass to Fowles found her underneath the basket for an easy score to cut the gap to two, before an Ajavon/Langhorne pick and roll looked good until Tamera Young stripped the ball out of Langhorne’s hands. Chicago ball with 25 seconds left. Out of a timeout, veteran guard Erin Thorn made her second awful turnover of the closing minutes, throwing a lob from half court intended for Fowles under the basket. It was just too dangerous a pass to make in the circumstances, and Nicky Anosike picked it off. Intentional fouls sent Ajavon to line, where she made one-of-two for a three-point lead; a terrible Chicago possession ended with a forced Epiphanny Prince three that wasn’t close, but Fowles managed to grab the rebound a put the ball back in with 4.7 seconds left. A quick foul sent Ajavon back to the line yet again.

Here’s where things went horribly wrong for Washington. First, Ajavon missed the first free throw. Not good, but it happens. Then she chose to miss the second intentionally, which didn’t seem like a great idea with 4.1 seconds on the clock, but made a little sense. Chicago didn’t have any timeouts, so they were going to have to grab the rebound and make it the length of the court in the brief time remaining. When the ball skipped out of bounds and the referees went to the replay to make sure who had possession and how much time was left, Chatman got a free timeout to organise her troops. A nice inbounds play gave Prince the chance to make it most of the way downcourt, but it still ended with a forced three from at least 30 feet. In front of her, Anosike made a nice play, blocking the attempt and stopping the ball from ever reaching the rim. Dangerous to do on a final-second heave, but okay when it works. Unfortunately, from the side and slightly behind, Ajavon reached in as Prince went up. The refs blew up for a foul. It was a harsh call, and hard to see much contact even on the replay, but you just don’t make that reach on a final-second play. Let her shoot. She’s only going to make that shot about 1-time-in-10 if the gym was empty and she was playing on her own. Prince hit the first two free throws, missed the third intentionally, and the game was over. Chicago win 71-70, and Washington discover yet another way to blow a basketball game.

What more is there to say about the Mystics? Ajavon went 7-13 for 23 points, and they wouldn’t have been in the game without her, but the missed free throws and boneheaded reach on the final play killed her team. Langhorne played an insane 37 minutes, shooting 8-14 for 18 points. That was about it. They’re not really developing any youngsters, they’re still losing games every which way possible, but the players are still fighting for the cause. Same old, same old.

Chicago made damn hard work of that, and only escaped with the win thanks to a whole bunch of help, but they got the W. Fowles was 11-17 for 25 points and 11 rebounds, and got enough help from Kraayeveld and Young to make up for Prince throwing enough bricks at the rim to build a house. They still look a player or two short to me – a situation which might be helped if they ended up in the lottery again – but the playoffs are still within reach. After two straight wins, both on the road, they head home for a run of games which will decide their 2011 destiny. Atlanta, Washington and New York all visit Allstate Arena in the next week, and then there’s a game in New York to follow. A run of wins would put the Sky right back in the mix for the postseason, and give some meaning to their West coast road trip to close the season. Otherwise they’re done. Scraping a win over the Mystics by the skin of their teeth doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about their chances.


In other news…

This has been so long, I have nothing left to give. No other news, I’ll see you all tomorrow with details of Sunday’s action.


Today’s Games (already completed):

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

Washington @ Indiana, 6pm ET

Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 7pm ET

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3 comments on “WNBA Today, 08/21/2011: Wild West heating up

  1. norwester says:

    Does Chatman’s quick hook seem to be affecting Vandersloot’s confidence? Or is her head still up when she returns to the game? And given Pokey’s allowing Prince to throw up so many bricks, would she yank Sloot for laying bricks as quickly as passing turnovers? I haven’t watched much of the Sky this season, so I’m curious.

    • It’s hard to tell, because Chatman’s been doing it all year long. The leash hasn’t really gotten shorter – it’s just been insanely short from the beginning. This isn’t the Vandersloot we saw at Gonzaga, but obviously a lot of that is down to the vastly improved level of competition. I think Sloot’s gotten used to it, to be honest, and just carries right on playing whenever she gets the chance. Sometimes she barely gets to play again – she only played 9 minutes in this game, for example, with Thorn getting most of the point guard time.

      I think she’d be less likely to get pulled for putting up a load of shots, because Chatman knows her team needs perimeter offense and they’ve been encouraging Sloot to look for her shot more all year. Which makes it to Sloot’s credit that she’s stll looking to pass – I think a lot of players would just be jacking up shots in an effort to stay on the floor by now.

      But it has to be pissing Vandersloot off. It pisses me off, and I’m several thousand miles away and not even a fan of the team. I’m sure Pokey sees it as teaching – it’s not like she just orders the kid to sit down when she pulls her, there’s usually a long conversation between the two as Sloot heads to the bench. But learning out on the floor would be better. If Chicago play a couple of games at the end of the year with no playoff implications, hopefully she’ll leave Sloot out there to just play. When wins are irrelevant, the leash should get longer.

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