A triple-game Sunday for the WNBA yesterday, but due to technical issues only two that anyone could watch unless you happened to be in Tulsa. So you’ll have to make do with two typically detailed reviews, and one summary compiled entirely on the basis of play-by-play details and boxscore numbers. I’ll throw in some bitching about LA’s defense and some criticism of how terrible Tulsa are just to make it feel like I watched it.
The first game up yesterday was a rematch of Friday night’s overtime thriller between Atlanta and Connecticut, with the venue switching to the Mohegan Sun. The Dream pulled off a remarkable victory in the previous game, shutting down Tina Charles for the final 25 minutes and forcing the extra period with an unlikely three-pointer from Sancho Lyttle. They received an assist from the Sun themselves when coach Mike Thibault benched starting point guard Renee Montgomery at the end of the third quarter for what he later described as an ‘internal matter’. Which probably means she said something naughty, and he showed her who’s boss. She was back in the lineup for this game, so presumably they’ve put it behind them. That loss was Connecticut’s second in a row, the first time they’ve lost consecutive games since early July, so they were looking to stop the rot before it could gain any more traction. Losing both halves of a back-to-back in overtime can be waved off as bad luck – drop the next one as well and it starts to look like a losing streak.
For Atlanta, that win over the Sun was their 10th in 13 games, a run of results that has completely turned their season around. With everyone bar backup point guard Shalee Lehning finally healthy, they’re looking up and entertaining the possibility of climbing the standings beyond their current fourth. A win here would’ve brought them within 2.5 games of Connecticut and given the Dream a 2-1 advantage in the season series between the two teams. While they still have to hold off Chicago to ensure their playoff spot, second in the East might’ve started to look somewhat plausible. It’s a far cry from the 3-9 record they opened the season with.
The standard starting fives began the game for both teams once again. Immediately, Tina Charles and Erika de Souza picked up their battle under the basket right where they left off on Friday. Dream coach Marynell Meadors gave de Souza the majority of the credit for the way her team stopped Charles in the previous game, and she certainly makes Tina work hard for anything she gets. de Souza is a huge presence, and not afraid to use her big frame to its best advantage against anyone who wants to bang with her in the paint. Still, Charles was clearly determined to prove that her disappearance in the second half and overtime on Friday was more a fluke than Atlanta or de Souza working out how to play her effectively. She had two early scores right over de Souza. On offense, Atlanta opened the game exactly the same way as in the previous game – with a series of buckets by Sancho Lyttle, mostly from midrange. Her offensive approach is looking more and more like that of her counterpart at power forward in this game, Asjha Jones. Jump shot after jump shot, with the occasional low post finish if the opportunity presents itself. Good thing that Lyttle’s jumper is a lot more accurate than it used to be.
At the five minute mark, with Lyttle replaced by Alison Bales, the first run of a very streaky first half began. Bales picked up right where Lyttle had left off, nailing shots from outside despite being a giant post player. With Connecticut going through a period of sloppy play as their bench players struggled to pick up the tempo of the game, Atlanta turned a 10-10 tie into a 26-12 lead. Angel McCoughtry even hit a three as part of the run, not something that you see very often from Atlanta.
Then it was Connecticut’s turn. Over the last minute of the first quarter and first six minutes of the second, a 27-4 run by the Sun took over the game. Told you the first half was streaky. Kara Lawson gave the Sun a boost of energy by firing away from outside, and with Meadors trying to steal some rest for her starters the Dream offense lost its composure. A 25-2 advantage in points off turnovers was central to Atlanta’s win on Friday, but their own repeated giveaways were helping ignite the Sun’s offense on Sunday. When Connecticut gain confidence, especially with that Mohegan crowd behind them, it can be very tough to stop their momentum. They just keep rolling. With Lawson back on the bench, Jones and Montgomery took over and kept the scoreboard ticking. Renee sank a contested three, before following up with a driving layup and a perimeter jumper to take the score to 39-30 Connecticut. The Dream were in danger of letting this game slip away before we even hit halftime.
Atlanta kept themselves involved through a little offense from Lindsey Harding and Erika de Souza. The former was at least making Montgomery work at both ends of the floor, while the latter was doing the same to Charles. Still, Montgomery and Lawson nailed another three each to close the half, and the Sun headed in at the break ahead 48-41, with the rhythm of the game very much in their favour.
The third quarter was even more physical than the first half, as both teams fought fiercely for position in the paint and battled for supremacy. Unlike the streaks of the first half, the gap between the teams never seemed to move very far – Atlanta would create a Sun turnover or two to pull themselves within a couple of points, before a Jones jumper of Charles putback would keep the Sun those few steps in front. Charles wasn’t having much joy against de Souza on straight up post moves, but she could still go after the boards. Twice in the late stages of the third, she read the path of missed shots by her teammates, and was right there to pluck the rebound out of the air and drop the ball back in. Sometimes you have to find ways to contribute when the more standard routes aren’t available.
With the Sun up 66-63 heading into the fourth, the game was still in the balance, even if Atlanta hadn’t led since early in the second quarter. Then Connecticut found an edge, and it came from an unlikely source. Unlikely this season, anyway. Tan White’s had a frankly terrible year, after forcing me to take back all the nasty things I’d said about her in the past with her performances last season. Maybe she’s in the process of snapping out of it. After shooting 6-11 for 14 points in Friday’s game against the Dream, she stepped up for her team again last night and proved vital to the Sun’s fourth quarter performance. She was driving to the hole for layups and free throws, nailing threes from outside, and just generally providing the big shots that kept Atlanta at bay. Her three-point-play with seven minutes left gave Connecticut a 73-65 advantage, before Angel McCoughtry shrank the gap to four with her typical attacking approach. White responded by drilling a three from the corner to push the lead back out.
The Dream threatened to make it a contest a couple more times, but never quite edged within range. When de Souza powered inside to cut the lead back to four again, Montgomery hit a jumper, Charles read another miss to earn another putback, and a poor pass from Armintie Price across the front of the defense was picked off by Montgomery for a layup at the other end. The 82-72 advantage that created with under five minutes to play just about killed the game off, and Connecticut held on for a 96-87 win. Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but it tastes pretty sweet when it comes barely two days later in your very next game as well.
This may well have been another game where it just meant that little bit more to one team than it did to the other, and that made the difference. Basic desire can give you the edge when teams are so closely matched. After losing their last two in overtime, including one to this very same opponent, the Sun wanted this one. Charles finished 9-20 for 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Not the best numbers you’ll ever see from her, and she’ll be disappointed to have only shot one free throw all day, but she did the job. Some opponents are just tough matchups, and de Souza’s one of those for her. A playoff series between these teams would be an absolute war underneath the basket, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Jones added 18 points on 8-13 shooting, while Montgomery went 7-12 for 21 and eight assists (although the official scorer seemed to be very generous with the assist numbers, so take that with a little pinch of salt). White’s 13, Lawson’s 11 and even Jessica Moore’s six points off the bench were important for the Sun, and if their reserves can be a little more consistent it’ll take some of the pressure off their ‘Big Three’ starters. The chase is still on to hunt down Indiana for the Eastern crown.
Atlanta won’t be too distraught about dropping this one on the road. The Mohegan’s a hard place to win at the best of times, never mind when you’ve just upset its occupants a couple of days earlier. de Souza finished 7-13 for 17 points and 10 rebounds, but their perimeter players weren’t quite accurate enough to compete with the Sun in this one. 15-43 combined from their three perimeter starters is never likely to be enough unless they shoot a ridiculous amount of free throws, and while they shot more of them than the Sun, 28-17 wasn’t a big enough edge. The strange thing about how this team has evolved is that they’ve become hugely reliant on their starting five. They went deep into their rotation last year, often playing reserves more minutes than the starters if they earned it on any given night. Lately, apart from the occasional outburst from Coco Miller, the bench has been there almost exclusively to spell the starters for a few minutes before they can take over again. It’ll be interesting to see if that persists into the postseason, because it gives them a different look from last year – opponents won’t have to prepare for quite so many variables.
Next up, top vs. bottom in the East, as Indiana played host to Washington. After a pitiful offensive display against LA’s comedy ‘defense’ on Thursday night, this was the Fever’s first opportunity to make things right, and they could hardly have chosen a better opponent to do it against (Tulsa don’t even count as an opponent at this stage). The Mystics assaulted their fans with yet another heartbreaking loss the previous evening against Chicago, even if most of the vitriol was sent the way of the officials, so they weren’t exactly heading into this one with great enthusiasm. If you’re a Mystics fan and you’re still going out to games and catching the road appearances on LiveAccess, I salute you. I’m not sure that I could take this any more.
Suffice it to say – if there were other games to talk about from yesterday, we wouldn’t be spending much time on this one. The usual fives took the floor, and it was swiftly very apparent which team is worrying about home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and which has already packed for the offseason. The hard-nosed, constantly-trapping defense of the Fever had the Mystics completely disrupted early in the game, and with Tangela Smith making shots and Erin Phillips driving the lane Indiana built an early lead. When even Katie Douglas started knocking down threes, despite being as cold as a witch’s proverbial appendage lately, you knew that Washington were really in trouble. The Fever led 23-11 at the end of the first quarter, and that seemed to flatter the Mystics.
Nothing much changed for the rest of the evening. Indiana’s offense was never particularly efficient, but it didn’t need to be. Washington barely seemed capable of noticing where the basket was, never mind putting the ball into it, so Indiana were in complete control. Despite shooting only 39% from the floor in the opening 20 minutes, the Fever took a commanding 39-23 lead in at the break, and if it had been an option LiveAccess viewers would’ve been switching over to the Tulsa-LA game. It was likely to be more competitive. Indy had 20 points off turnovers in the first half alone, and already the question seemed how much they’d win by, not whether they’d hold on for the victory itself.
In fairness to Washington, it took Indiana a while to kill them off. The lead dropped to 14 a couple of times in the third quarter after Crystal Langhorne and Matee Ajavon both discovered a morsel of offense, and the Fever couldn’t pull away to turn the entire second half into true garbage time. However, when the gap broke 20 and kept rising in the middle of the fourth, everyone was done for the night. My favourite part of the second half was when the commentators started discussing names for the Indiana defense. My suggestion via tweet was ‘Fire & Ice’, which they were about to discuss further when Tamika Catchings made yet another outstanding defensive play to break up a two-on-one fastbreak. That girl just never stops playing defense. I think she probably flies out of nowhere to break up passes when people toss sticks for their dogs in the park. Indiana ran out hugely comfortable 83-51 winners.
Much as I keep complimenting Washington for continuing to fight in games despite how their season has gone, you can’t really blame them for the capitulation in this one. On the second half of a back-to-back, after a horrible loss the night before, against the best team in the East – it was ready made for a heavy defeat. The ludicrous aspect was that rookie first-round pick Victoria Dunlap saw exactly four minutes of action all night long (and never even took her warm-ups off in the second half). Why on Earth isn’t she playing? The season is essentially over, and this particular game was finished well before the end – shouldn’t the kids be provided with a chance to gain some experience? The kids that are supposed to be the future of your franchise? I don’t know what the hell Trudi Lacey is doing with this team at times, because finally giving Langhorne some rest was nice – but resting her for 33 year-old 11-year vet DeMya Walker isn’t taking your franchise anywhere. Come on, Trudi.
Indiana did the job, even if their offense only managed to shoot 40% on the day. It was a wildly dominant performance, and once again they forced their way to the free throw line over and over again. It’s become a central part of their offense, and they do it better than anyone in the league outside of Phoenix. You can make up for dubious shooting accuracy if you keep getting fouled and converting those easy opportunities at the stripe. 28-31 at the line in this game – compared to 6-11 for Washington – was a central part of their advantage, and it’ll continue to be key for them. Along with that Fire & Ice Defense (come on people, I reckon we can make this the accepted name if we push it hard enough).
Last but, well, probably least too if we’re being honest, the game no one saw (outside of the few hardy souls still heading out to Shock home games). Los Angeles were in Tulsa looking to make further inroads into the gap between themselves and the pack of Western playoff teams. With Candace Parker back, the hopes for a revival had been given new inspiration, but the state of their defense in recent games had left a vast amount to be desired. There’s only so much Parker can do. Still, only three games behind San Antonio, and 3.5 behind Seattle, the chance is still there if they can spark a run of wins. Three of their final nine games feature Tulsa as the opponent, and obviously they were all down as must-wins. You have to take advantage of the easy matchups on the schedule if you’re going to make a comeback. For the Shock, this was the last chance to avoid one of the many negative records that they’ve been plummeting headlong towards all season. The longest losing streak in WNBA history was 17 games, previously held by the 2008 Chicago Sky, and Tulsa had lost their last 17. A loss here would knock off the Sky and hand the Shock that particular line in the record books all on their own.
Joe Bryant stuck with the same starting five he’s used in the last couple of games, with Jenna O’Hea at shooting guard and longtime starter Noelle Quinn relegated to the bench. Tulsa benched Andrea Riley and Kayla Pedersen from the unit that started their last game, promoting Amber Holt and Jen Lacy back into the starting lineup. Considering the random lineup generator they seem to have been using all season, who knows why.
Tulsa jumped out to a shockingly fast start, even considering the level of defense they were facing. With Sheryl Swoopes, Ivory Latta and Jen Lacy piling up the points, I could almost see LA’s pathetic defense 10 feet away from any shooter in my mind’s eye. Who needs LiveAccess when you have the power of imagination, eh? Tulsa led 17-5, and then 26-11 in the first quarter. Were we really going to miss the Shock’s second win all year thanks to technical difficulties?
While their offense slowed a little in the second quarter, Tulsa managed to hold on to most of their lead and went in ahead 45-32 at halftime. Both teams were already in double-digits in the turnover column, so we weren’t exactly missing out on a classic. However, not for the first time this season, Tulsa came out for the third quarter and fell to bits. As far as you could tell from the play-by-play, anyway. Nine points in the entire quarter from the Shock, while the Sparks piled on some threes and a bunch of free throws, and the game was back in the balance. Tulsa led 54-53 at the end of the third quarter.
With Parker, Ticha Penicheiro and Kristi Toliver – having her first mildly productive offensive outing in ages – leading the way, LA pushed into a lead in the fourth quarter that they wouldn’t relinquish. A 14-2 run to open the quarter gave them a 67-56 advantage, and the Shock never got the gap below five the rest of the way. LA held on for a 73-67 win.
Obviously I can’t tell you much about the performance or how the win was achieved, but barely managing a win in Tulsa after falling behind by as many as 15 points isn’t impressing anyone. Parker finished 9-14 for 23 points and nine rebounds, DeLisha Milton-Jones was 5-10 for 15, and Toliver shot 4-12 for 14. After starting the game, O’Hea played less than nine minutes, and after starting the first 23 games of the season, Quinn didn’t play at all. Yeah, I’m still not convinced that Jellybean knows what the hell he’s doing.
For Tulsa, Swoopes rolled back the years, playing over 37 minutes and shooting 6-12 for 17 points and six rebounds. After criticising Tulsa so many times for performances I’ve actually been able to watch this season, I’ll leave them alone for blowing a contest I couldn’t even see. Still, they now own the record for consecutive losses, and it’s hard to see them winning enough games to avoid the 1998 Mystics’ 3-27 record for the worst regular season mark in WNBA history. Poor Tulsa.
In other news…
It almost seems wrong to be relegating this to ‘other news’ territory, but here it is. The WNBA today signed a ‘landmark multi-year partnership’ with Boost Mobile to be the first league-wide marquee partner of the WNBA. It basically means that you’re going to be seeing Boost and their logo all over the league, appearing on 10 of the 12 team jerseys just under the numbers, and as the presenting sponsors for various major events. San Antonio and Phoenix already have deals with other phone companies, so won’t be part of the jersey sponsorship.
There’s a lot more detail and commentary to be found here, although they’ve removed the part that earlier stated that the deal was for around $10million over four years, and are now only calling it a ‘multiyear, eight-figure deal’.
This could be vitally important for a league that is always struggling to find new revenue streams and keep itself afloat in a very competitive market. As someone who comes from Europe and grew up with sponsors’ logos across the front of every soccer team I saw, I was always a proponent of jersey sponsorship, long before WNBA teams finally started utilising it. The practice might be against everything American sportsfans are used to, but it’s an obvious way to earn money and the league failed to exploit it for a long time. This deal extends what we’ve seen in the past with McDonald’s and BBVA where they’ve put logos on multiple teams’ uniforms for the Finals or an All-Star Game. The only thing I don’t like is that it’ll make the uniforms look even more similar league-wide, but for extra financial stability that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Practically anything that brings extra investment into the WNBA is a positive step (y’know, within reason. Let’s hope they don’t make the players play in their underwear or hold ritual executions at halftime any time soon).
Players of the Week were named today as Angel McCoughtry and Candace Parker for the Eastern and Western Conferences respectively. Angel was a reasonable pick in the East, but it’s a little surprising to see Parker win the award in the same week that she was thrown out of a game for going nuts on court and refusing to stop haranguing the officials. On play alone, she had a pretty strong case, but you might’ve expected that outburst to tilt the decision in a different direction. Makes for a nice story that she won it in her first week back though, as long as you leave out the bit about the ejection.
Los Angeles @ Washington, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET
New York @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET