WNBA Today, 08/23/2011: A Spark of hope, but the Sky are falling

Yes, I know, this is being posted very, very late. I offer up the same apologies that always accompany a post that’s only ‘daily’ for those in Seattle, LA and all points even further west. What you get in this piece is detailed accounts of two of tonight’s early games – the ones that didn’t involve Tulsa. Check back tomorrow – or probably ‘today’, technically, by the time you’re reading this – for coverage of Tuesday’s other three games. The WNBA continues to make my life difficult by playing too many games on the same nights.

First up, a game between two truly awful teams. Sorry, not in the mood to sugarcoat it. By now, everyone knows how bad Washington are. When you’re 5-20 in the standings, it’s kind of hard to keep quiet. It’s really only the presence of the Shock that has kept people off their backs for how close they’re running some of the historically terrible teams in this league. Their opponents tonight, Los Angeles, have had a ready-made excuse nearly all season. Lose an MVP candidate to injury, of course you’re going to be bad. The same thing happened when they got a pass from a lot of people last season. The problem is, Candace is back, and they’re still dreadful. The Sparks have produced some of the most pitiful defense you’re ever likely to see on a WNBA level in their last few games, and it took some effort to stand out from the dismal defensive effort they’ve been producing all season. Thanks to a schedule that helpfully got easier just after Parker returned, and the continuing poor form of the San Antonio Silver Stars, LA are somehow creeping back into playoff contention. But that’s more a sad commentary on their competition and how easy it is to make the playoffs in this league, than a positive reflection on how they’ve been playing.

Sparks coach Joe Bryant sent out the same starting five he’d been using lately for this game. It was immediately apparent that he’d dumped the atrocious switch-on-everything defense that they’d thrown out on the floor against Indiana and Minnesota last week (no idea whether they used it in Tulsa, as that game still isn’t available online and probably never will be). In this game, they started with a terrible man-to-man that looked exactly like it does when you first learn it as a five year-old at school – that’s your guy, go follow him around the best you can. Occasionally, they switched to a terrible 2-3 zone instead (which might well be the second defense you learned at school). You know how some teams and coaches in this league have a defensive system, or at least a defensive ethos that they drill into their players? Yeah, not in LA. Admittedly, Bryant took over midway through this season, so it’s hard to install anything. But he doesn’t seem to be trying. Just like his lineups and substitution patterns, they throw out any defense they feel like on any given night – sometimes any given possession – and just hope that it works. It generally doesn’t.

Fortunately for LA, Washington suck. Also, the Sparks’ offense was running nice and smoothly in the first half, partly because the Mystics didn’t look particularly interested in working back on defense, partly because LA were knocking down outside shots. Parker was pretty quiet in terms of scoring for most of the half, but she was pulling down rebounds and dribbling the ball out on the break herself, feeding wide open teammates for layups and jumpers. However, with the state of LA’s defense and their typically terrible rebounding, Washington hung around. They were relying heavily on Crystal Langhorne, not that that was new, and she played the entire first half shooting 5-12 for 12 points, but it kept her team involved. LA only led 41-37 at the half, despite shooting 58% from the field to the Mystics’ 41%.

Bryant’s unfathomable moves had persisted in the opening 20 minutes. After shooting 5-6 from the field for 11 points in the opening quarter, DeLisha Milton-Jones didn’t even touch the floor for the entire second period. I’m not even sure if he knows who’s out there half the time. He did at least seem to have noticed Washington’s overwhelming reliance on Langhorne, because the Sparks were collapsing on her early in the second half even before she received a pass. It was crying out for someone else in a Mystics jersey to step up and help her out, but for a while no one did. LA stretched their lead to 53-41 midway through the third quarter, and it was 57-48 at the end of the period. It still felt like the game would draw closer before the end, purely because a middle school team could score against LA, but Washington were going to have to find the energy and desire from somewhere to actually make the run.

When the run came, it was still almost all through Langhorne – LA just couldn’t guard her. She was defended by a variety of LA post players, from Parker to Milton-Jones to Tina Thompson to Ebony Hoffman. It never made much difference. With a little help from Kelly Miller knocking down a couple of threes, and from the LA offense grinding to a miserable halt, Washington dragged themselves right back into the game in the fourth quarter. A stunningly stupid foul from DeMya Walker when Tina Thompson heaved one of her trademark threes from ridiculously deep gave LA a chance to slow the Mystics’ momentum, but Thompson missed all three of the foul shots to only encourage Washington further. Consecutive layups from Walker and Langhorne followed, the latter on a pretty bounce-pass feed from Matee Ajavon, giving Washington a 65-64 lead with five minutes to play. Bryant had allowed that entire Mystics run to progress without bothering to call a timeout to slow them down, but was finally bailed out when the game hit the required media timeout just after Washington stole in front. He certainly looked like he was awake out there, but I wouldn’t have liked to bet on it.

Some of the recognition, ball control and defense was so bad in the closing minutes that I don’t even want to discuss it. The Sparks tied the game at 68 after another dreadful Mystics turnover gave them the ball, and Kelly Miller was stuck defending Milton-Jones in the post. None of her teammates noticed or came to help, so DMJ took an easy pass and laid the ball in. Way too easy. Ajavon put Washington in front after deciding the best way to avoid yet another turnover was simply to drive and get fouled. She hit one-of-two for a one point lead, before Noelle Quinn nailed a wide open three with 90 seconds left to give LA a 71-69 advantage. I was wondering why she was on the floor in crunch time, after not being used at all in their last game against Tulsa – I guess that was why. Washington quickly tied the game when Walker barreled down the lane and drew a blocking foul on Thompson, then calmly sank both free throws. A good call by the way, despite Tina’s inevitable incredulity.

The final minute of regulation was a comedy of errors from everybody involved. For some reason, Parker was on the opposite side of the floor and completely uninvolved in the offense while Milton-Jones ran over her defender and was called for an offensive foul with 45 seconds left. Then it was the officials’ turn to screw up, as Crystal Langhorne tried to score inside for Washington, was fouled five separate times by Thompson according to my count, but couldn’t draw a whistle. LA ball, 24.9 seconds left. Parker took the ball out top, ran the clock down, and was forced to kick the ball out once her move led her into all kinds of traffic. Thompson made the extra pass when she could’ve shot, and Ticha Penicheiro was forced to put up an ugly heave as the shot clock expired. No good, and we were headed for overtime. Clearly someone up there doesn’t like us.

Washington took way too many jump shots in the extra period, but they almost got away with it. LA at least had the sense to head inside and force the refs to help them out with friendly whistles, and only a series of offensive rebounds and occasional tough shots that dropped in kept Washington in touch. With just over a minute left, the ball was kicked to Miller in the corner, and despite having to make a difficult catch down at her knees she knocked down the three to put Washington up 80-79. Somehow they were still in with a shot of taking the game and putting a serious dent in LA’s playoff chances.

But they’re the Mystics. They’ve built their season on losing tight games in every possible manner. This one was pretty straightforward. A couple of LA misses were rescued via offensive rebounds, and the ball ended up with Parker in the corner. She drove the baseline past Langhorne, who was probably a little tired after playing every single second of the 45-minute game, and put LA in front 81-80 with a finish at the rim. 39 seconds to play, the Mystics let Ajavon create, and she ended up nonsensically open right at the rim, but couldn’t make the stretching layup. She was even first to the rebound, but couldn’t make the tip-in either. Then Washington were forced to foul. Penicheiro made a pair of free throws, before Marissa Coleman clanked a step-back three off the iron that would’ve tied the game with 12 seconds left. More free throws followed, and the game was up. LA snuck away with an 86-82 victory.

LA won the game, but I came away from it still completely unconvinced that they’re any good whatsoever. They take so many awful shots – Thompson’s favoured three-point bombs from insanely deep being the common highlight – they’re awful on the glass, and they still can’t defend anyone. Anyone at all. Parker shot 5-12 for 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals. And she was kind of quiet. That’s how ridiculously good she is. She was helped out offensively by Milton-Jones, Thompson and Quinn, all of whom had their hot periods during the game. There still seems to be no rhyme or reason to Bryant’s lineups or substitutions, but maybe there’s a plan in there somewhere. At least he gave up on that horrifying all-switch defense. Problem is, they’re not much better at playing any other defensive system.

Washington easily could’ve won this game, which tells you more about the Sparks than the Mystics themselves. Langhorne finished 13-23 for 28 points and nine rebounds, and continues to be far and away the highlight of this franchise. It would’ve been nice to reward their remaining fans with a win, but I doubt their supporters expected them to finish the game off. By now they must be expecting to lose these tight games each and every time.

—–

Over in Chicago tonight, a game that would likely go a long way towards deciding the Sky’s season. After shockingly winning their last two games, both on the road, Chicago sat just a game behind tonight’s visitors Atlanta for fourth place in the East. The fourth place that would give Chicago the much-coveted playoff appearance that they’ve been searching for since their inaugural season in 2006. A win would draw them level with the Dream in the standings, and tie the season series with them as well. A loss and the gap would stretch to two games, while also concluding the season series at 3-1 Atlanta (hence giving the Dream the tie-breaker should the teams be tied at the end of the season). From that position, the Sky’s chances of making the postseason would look bleak, even with seven games left to play. This was about as big as they come for this franchise.

The problem for Chicago was that Atlanta have been playing pretty well of late. That’s how they’d managed to take over fourth place to start with. 10 wins in their last 14 games coming into this one gave Atlanta the edge in confidence and form, even if the Sky may have been slightly more desperate. The Dream will have known exactly how much this game meant just as well as the Sky.

If we want to be charitable, you could say that both sides showed their nerves in the first half. Less forgiving people might call it a turnover-fest. 13 giveaways between the teams in the first quarter left the game at 19-18 Atlanta with neither side capable of establishing any rhythm. The second quarter wasn’t much better, and it was 11-10 Dream in the turnover count by halftime, 40-38 on the scoreboard. The size of players like Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle was making it difficult for Chicago to find Sylvia Fowles inside, which was restricting their offense. Fowles didn’t miss from the field in the first 20 minutes, but the Sky could only find her five shots. The erratic scoring support she’s had from players like Epiphanny Prince, Tamera Young, Shay Murphy and Cathrine Kraayeveld all season remained similarly inconsistent in this game, but had at least kept the Sky in the game. Atlanta just couldn’t hold onto the ball long enough to build an edge.

The game stayed tight in the third. Atlanta had the more consistent offense, with de Souza and Lyttle always willing and able to receive dump off passes from their perimeter players and then convert the opportunities. Angel McCoughtry was her typical self, trying to drive her team forwards, but Tamera Young was doing a solid job defensively along with a whole lot of help. Defense is the one thing Chicago have been able to hang their hat on all season. Head coach Pokey Chatman has her team well drilled in what they’re supposed to do, and with Sylvia Fowles in the middle it gets a hell of a lot easier to close down the paint. As a team that scores the vast majority of their points inside or from mid-range, that makes things difficult for Atlanta especially, and was a central part of keeping McCoughtry quiet. It’s hard to score at the rim or even make it to the foul line if there aren’t any lanes available to get to the basket.

Kraayeveld sank a couple of big threes to keep the Sky in the game late in the third, and when Murphy chipped in with a jumper just before the buzzer, it cut the Dream’s lead to 61-60. Chicago were still very much in with a chance of taking this game, and another triple from Kraayeveld, followed up by a transition layup from Murphy took them into the lead at the start of the fourth. The small but vocal crowd was into the game and nearly as desperate for this vital victory as their team.

A couple of nice finishes by de Souza drew Atlanta back within a point, before Kraayeveld reminded everyone that she can actually do more than jack up threes when the mood strikes her. A rebound in traffic and putback was followed a couple of minutes later by a drive and dish to Fowles that gave Chicago a 74-71 lead with under five minutes to play.

Then – oh, how it pains me to say this – Chicago’s curse from earlier in the season returned with a vengeance. Turnovers. Sloppy, easy, horribly horribly cheap turnovers. After a nice defensive play coming over to help block a McCoughtry drive, Fowles threw her outlet pass straight out of bounds. Then rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot tossed a poor pass that was easily picked off by McCoughtry, before compounding the mistake by fouling de Souza on the resulting transition jump shot. Chatman immediately benched Vandersloot in favour of veteran Dominique Canty, who took all of nine seconds to throw the ball straight out of bounds herself. This was ridiculous. A pretty jumper from McCoughtry tied the game back up at 74, and Chicago hadn’t even taken a shot since the Fowles layup from Kraayeveld’s drive. They were just handing the ball back to the Dream.

More turnovers followed – one on a horribly lazy inbounds pass by Young, another when the offense took so long that the shot clock ran out – but two solo moves by Canty kept Chicago in the contest. Her spinning drive and finish at the rim tied the game at 78 with barely a minute left to play. McCoughtry drew yet another foul and hit one-of-two to create a narrow Atlanta lead, before Chicago turned the ball over yet again, this time on a simple handoff from Canty to Kraayeveld. I swear, sometimes you think two Sky players could turn the ball over while playing Horse.

Once again, Chicago’s defense gave them another chance. Starting their offense with 45 seconds left and a one-point lead, Atlanta ran down the clock, but then couldn’t penetrate the Sky’s defense. The shot clock expired, and Chicago had 21 seconds to turn the game around. For once, they pulled it off. Murphy curled around a screen at the top of the arc, while Fowles stepped in front of de Souza in the paint to present a target for the pass. Murphy hit her, and Fowles dropped in a nice little seven-foot turnaround jumper to give the Sky an 80-79 lead. Now they just had to hold out for the remaining 6.3 seconds.

McCoughtry took the inbounds pass and drove into the paint. Sancho Lyttle set a bone-crunching screen that shook Tamera Young off her tail, but Fowles and Michelle Snow were right there to challenge the shot. Unfortunately for Chicago, when the ball flew out of McCoughtry’s hands and almost straight up in the air, they heard the whistle blow. The call was on Snow, who reached in and might have very slightly glanced McCoughtry’s arm. If there was any contact it wasn’t much. But we all know by now, the basketball gods tend to bring everything back around. Chicago got a bail-out call on Saturday night when Matee Ajavon reached in on the final play of the game and sent Epiphanny Prince to the line to win a game for the Sky; now basketball karma had swung back and bit them in the ass. McCoughtry calmly sank both shots – there’s ice water in those veins, whenever they aren’t full of steam – and Atlanta were back in front. Amazingly we still weren’t done, because Chicago had a timeout left to advance the ball, and 2.5 seconds left to pull the game out of the fire.

They couldn’t do it. Fowles set a screen to fake out the defense, then headed for the basket. Kraayeveld tried to make a long, looping inbounds pass to her under the rim, but Big Syl just couldn’t quite catch it. de Souza backing very slightly into (and under) her had something to do with that, but she did it subtly enough to avoid the foul call, and Chicago were done. Harding sank a pair of free throws to close out the scoring, and Atlanta escaped from Allstate Arena with an 83-80 victory.

So very close but yet so far for the Sky. Those turnovers are just killers when they happen in crucial moments late in games. Then again, they had 24 in the game as a whole, so they were hurting themselves pretty much all night long. Fowles finished 9-12 from the floor for 20 points and 12 rebounds, and Prince, Murphy and Kraayeveld were all in double-figures in support. Outside of the turnovers, this was actually a fairly solid performance – they just gave the ball away too much. Their season isn’t over, but this result certainly made everything a hell of a lot more difficult. With seven games left, they probably need to win at least five, maybe six of them to be in with a chance of the postseason now that they’ve dropped the tie-breaker to Atlanta. Two consecutive games coming up against New York give them a chance to gain ground on the Liberty, but even winning both of those won’t be enough without help elsewhere. It looks like being yet another case of ‘maybe next year’ for the Sky.

Do you give Atlanta credit for grinding out a crucial victory, or wonder why they made such hard work of it? On this occasion, I’d lean towards the former. The Sky were desperate for this game, but Atlanta had just enough to hold them off for a vital win in their playoff push. McCoughtry had to work very hard, and it was a fairly inefficient 6-17 shooting night, but 10-13 at the free throw line compensated and took her total to 22 points for the game. 12-24 for 25 points and 10 rebounds combined from the two-headed Lyttle/de Souza monster in the paint kept pace with Fowles, while Lindsey Harding shot 6-11 for 15 points and nine assists. Just like last year, this team can’t shoot from outside to save their lives, but they’re finding a way to score enough points on the interior to win games. It’s hard work, and it makes a lot of matchups into physical, attritional battles, but they’re piling up the victories. For the second year in a row, no one’s going to look forward to facing them in the playoffs, which is where they now appear to be heading.

 

In other news…

Tomorrow’s column will cover the Minnesota @ Tulsa, New York @ Phoenix, and San Antonio @ Seattle games from this evening. All of them turned out to be pretty close encounters – yes, even the league’s best team against its worst – so check back for that piece later on.

You’ll probably have heard by now that Pat Summitt, legendary coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols, revealed today that she’s been diagnosed with early onset dementia. She may no longer be a part of the WNBA, but she’s had a huge impact across the women’s game throughout her career so it deserves mention here. It’s a horrible disease, and heartbreaking that it should strike such a remarkable character at such a relatively young age. All we can do is wish her and her family every possible success in dealing with and fighting the illness. She intends to continue in her position at Tennessee.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Los Angeles @ Washington, 7pm ET

Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET

New York @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET

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2 comments on “WNBA Today, 08/23/2011: A Spark of hope, but the Sky are falling

  1. […] WNBAlien Women's Pro Basketball coverage that's out of this world HomeAbout ← WNBA Today, 08/23/2011: A Spark of hope, but the Sky are falling […]

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