For anyone who missed it, I covered two of Tuesday’s games in yesterday’s column. Now it’s time for the remaining three. Chronologically, Minnesota’s trip to Tulsa came first, but let’s face it, top vs. bottom doesn’t mean a great deal at this point in the season. So we’ll get to that game at the end. First, the two contests that involved teams still fighting it out for playoff positions, and even to make sure they reach the postseason to begin with.
Live on ESPN2 in the US, Cappie Pondexter returned to Phoenix with her New York Liberty squad for the second time since forcing a trade prior to the 2010 season. When she went back last season the teams ended up in a scuffle that led to Pondexter being ejected from the game, so it was an interesting choice for national TV. If you’d had to assign probabilities of a brawl for every game all season, this one might’ve had the highest value on the schedule. Maybe they were working on the age-old maxim of “any publicity is good publicity”, and hoping there might be some extra-curricular activity. The chances of any kind of scuffle decreased a little when news filtered out that Diana Taurasi would miss her second straight game due to back spasms. Apparently she wanted to play, but the Mercury medical staff decided against it. Probably a good idea considering how chippy the game was always likely to become.
After winning four of their last five games, Phoenix had moved 1.5 games clear in second place in the West. However, with a four game road trip coming up, this would’ve been a nice game to win to send them out on their travels on a positive note. For New York, the win Atlanta completed over Chicago just before this game tipped off gave them a little breathing room to make the playoffs, but made their grasp on 3rd place even more tenuous. It’s still a combination of trying to hold Atlanta off while trying to chase down Connecticut for them, just as it’s been for several weeks now. They were helped out a little for this game by the return of backup center Quanitra Hollingsworth, deepening their post rotation and reducing their reliance on recent acquisition Kara Braxton. It was Braxton’s first appearance back in Phoenix since being dumped for pennies on the dollar by the Mercury earlier in the season, due to her attitude and a physical altercation with Olayinka Sanni. Judging from the boos that greeted her when she entered the game, the Mercury fans didn’t exactly welcome her back with open arms.
By the time Braxton made her first appearance at the start of the second quarter, the Phoenix fans had other reasons to be edgy and annoyed as well. The pace was pretty high in the first quarter, suiting the typical Mercury style, but the Liberty were doing a decent job getting back in transition and forcing Phoenix to run offensive sets. The Mercury would much rather beat you down the floor and not have to worry about anything as mundane as an actual set. With New York working hard defensively and the jumpers not dropping from outside for Phoenix, New York built an advantage that reached 18-8 by the end of the first. They weren’t exactly lighting it up, but Phoenix couldn’t hit anything, and they couldn’t get out fast enough to create easy scores before the Liberty defense was in place. That left them with limited remaining options for ways to score, especially considering that New York didn’t commit their first turnover until the final minute of the period.
The pattern largely continued in the second quarter – not much pace, very little scoring for a Mercury game, and a largely uninspiring contest. But Phoenix are never likely to stay cold for an entire evening. Thanks to a little help from Alexis Gray-Lawson and DeWanna Bonner off the bench, the gap was reduced to 24-21 before Bonner suffered a painful-looking twist to one of her spindly arms while trying to defend Liberty center Kia Vaughn. That brought backup Krystal Thomas into the game for her first meaningful minutes as a Mercury player, and she made an immediate impact. Thomas dropped in a nice little hook shot within seconds of entering the game, added a little bulk inside to the Phoenix defense, and New York went cold. As Pondexter, Plenette Pierson and Leilani Mitchell tossed up a series of misses in the closing stages of the first half, Thomas, Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree finally supplied a little offense for Phoenix and took them in at the break ahead 31-30. It was the first lead they’d had since 6-5.
A couple of other interesting notes from the first half. Diana Taurasi just couldn’t stay out of the action, picking up a technical foul for something she said to the officials from the bench. It’s the 7th tech she’s been assessed this season, a number which results in a one-game suspension according to the rule book, but apparently one of her earlier technical fouls was rescinded after the fact. So officially she’s still on six. Also during the first half, the commentators related a more detailed story about Kara Braxton’s departure from Phoenix than had made it into the public domain beforehand. Apparently Braxton and Sanni had a physical altercation requiring them to be separated by their teammates. That then led to Braxton’s trade to New York, after which Sanni asked to be released by the Mercury and was. What on Earth could’ve been so bad that Sanni wanted out even after the team traded Braxton away, I have no idea, but that’s what ESPN2’s commentators told us.
Back to the basketball. The scoring picked up a little in the third quarter, but only a touch. Phoenix went on a small run when New York went cold, pushing to a 43-36 lead (Bonner had returned by this point, so the elbow injury obviously wasn’t serious). Nicole Powell was key to the New York response, partly because the Mercury kept trying to defend her with guards. Whenever Penny Taylor wasn’t on the floor, Phoenix essentially had three-guard lineups out there. While she isn’t the most aggressive offensive player in the World by any stretch of the imagination, Powell’s smart enough to realise when she has a complete mismatch, and hit a couple of shots over the smaller defenders to help her team back into the game. A three from backup Mercury point guard Ketia Swanier gave Phoenix a 52-49 lead late in the third quarter, and Pondexter couldn’t hit her attempt to respond at the buzzer. So Phoenix took that three-point lead into the fourth.
Here’s where it all got interesting. Pondexter only had eight points at this stage, and early in the fourth quarter she was still trying to play facilitator for her teammates. They weren’t converting, and the Liberty were starting to look a little tired and dispirited defensively, allowing Phoenix to take a 61-53 lead with just under seven minutes left in the game. New York coach John Whisenant took a timeout at that point, and whatever he said during that pause in the action, he needs to remember it for future use. Pondexter emerged from the huddle, and was suddenly the Cappie we all know and love. Pure offense, pure drama, all on her own. She had a couple of jumpers right out of the timeout to reenergise her team and remind them that the game wasn’t over, then just kept driving them forwards over the remaining minutes. A Pondexter three over the outstretched arm of Gray-Lawson gave New York the lead back at 68-67 with 3:27 to play, and Mercury coach Corey Gaines took a timeout. It was partly to try to cool Cappie off, partly to get Penny Taylor back in the game after he’d removed her a couple of minutes earlier to give her a brief rest. He simply couldn’t afford to have Taylor sat on the bench any longer while Pondexter took over.
It made no difference. Looking discombobulated due to all the momentum that Cappie had created – and the lack of Taurasi on the floor – Phoenix committed a 24-second violation out of their own timeout. They only had eight of those all season in 2010. Pondexter curled off a screen to hit a mid-range jumper on the following possession, then drilled a ridiculously difficult three in Dupree’s face after Phoenix had turned the ball over again. After being 61-53 behind, New York now led 73-67, and Pondexter had scored 16 of their 20 points in that stretch. That’s a much better way to make an impact on your return than starting a fight.
However, as we all know by now, a six-point lead with a couple of minutes left to play is nothing to Phoenix. Especially when Pondexter missed her easiest attempt of the entire quarter, an open layup that would’ve killed the game, and quickly became a Taylor layup at the other end. That brought Phoenix within three points with 40 seconds left, and after Pondexter ran down the clock and Kia Vaughn set her a half-hearted screen that only helped an extra defender come across, she fed the ball to Powell. Her three rimmed out, and Phoenix had 13 seconds to rescue the game. They ran a very simple play with Taylor curling up to receive the inbounds pass and immediately hoisting a long three to tie, but it wasn’t close. A New York rebound and a free throw from Pondexter closed the game out at 74-70 New York.
For the Liberty, there’s not much to say about this game except that sometimes your superstar can win games for you. Pondexter had a thoroughly uninspiring evening until the final seven minutes, when she completely took over the game. She’s just that good. Besides her outburst, Whisenant will be happy with his defense, which kept the most explosive team in the league quiet for most of the evening. Taurasi being sat on the bench wearing sweats all night obviously helps, but this team can still put points on the board in a hurry. They did a solid job keeping Phoenix out of the paint, and Nicole Powell especially had a surprisingly effective performance keeping Penny Taylor in check. There’s a reason that Taylor kept driving and heading to the free throw line in the last game against San Antonio, but was throwing up step-back threes late in this one – it was nowhere near as easy to penetrate. Powell’s defense was a big part of that.
While the last game might’ve proven that Phoenix can win without Taurasi, this one illustrated why they really never want to have to try. With her on the floor, maybe they could’ve countered Pondexter’s offense in the fourth quarter, and prevented New York from running away with the game. Maybe the Mercury would’ve been too far in front in the first place. Either way, Taylor, Dupree and bit-parts isn’t really enough to consistently beat good teams. Gray-Lawson had a nice appearance off the bench, and may well be earning herself more minutes as we head into the final weeks of the season, but 4-15 from Taylor for 14 points and 7-15 from Dupree for 17 wasn’t quite enough to carry the team. Phoenix shot 4-22 from behind the arc as well – another number that Taurasi should help them improve upon when she returns.
Next up, a game that probably carried even more importance for the teams involved. San Antonio tipped off in Seattle quite possibly already aware that LA had scraped past Washington for another win earlier in the evening. That cut the Silver Stars’ gap to just two games over the fifth-placed Sparks in the struggle to make the playoffs. A win in this game not only would’ve pushed that gap to 2.5, it also would’ve dragged Seattle below them in the standings and made the Storm the nearest option for LA to hunt down. On top of that, it would’ve tied the season series with Seattle at 2-2, with the final game to come in early September. A loss, and they’d a) lose the season series and primary tie-breaker to Seattle, b) drop 1.5 games behind the Storm in the standings, and c) fall back to .500, just 1.5 games ahead of the Sparks. This was a huge game for San Antonio.
For the obvious similar reasons, it was also a big game for the Storm. With Lauren Jackson back and a mood of optimism around Key Arena after they somehow scraped a win over New York in her return, the last thing they needed was for the bubble to burst against San Antonio. The Silver Stars had lost three in a row and seven of their last nine coming in, and if Seattle could compound their misery it would go a long way towards making it a two-way battle between San Antonio and LA for the final playoff spot. That was a fight Seattle would be more than happy to avoid.
Tanisha Wright returned to the starting lineup for Seattle after having had a couple of days to recover and practice after only returning from her mother’s funeral just before Saturday’s game. San Antonio also made a change to their starting lineup – the first switch in quite some time – promoting rookie Danielle Robinson ahead of veteran Tully Bevilaqua at the point. Robinson’s been part of the successful bench unit for San Antonio this season, but obviously coach Dan Hughes felt that his team needed some extra energy from the start. Also, with Wright always tasked with defending Becky Hammon when these two teams meet, Robinson would have the opportunity to attack Sue Bird with her speed. It was understandable that Hughes would want that matchup from the very beginning.
San Antonio were poor defensively to start the game, first allowing a wide open jump shot from Jackson in the corner then a series of layups at the rim that were far too easily achieved by the Storm. It was unusual to see from the Silver Stars, but it didn’t seem like they’d been mentally ready for the tip-off, and Seattle scored the first 10 points of the game. Outside of that early run, defense dominated at both ends for the entire first half. San Antonio couldn’t penetrate the Seattle defense or even create decent shooting opportunities from outside, which led to several possessions where either the shot clock ran out or they forced up efforts just to beat the buzzer. Of course, with Swin Cash misfiring lately and Jackson still working her way back in, Seattle’s offense isn’t exactly high-powered these days either, so they only led 16-9 at the end of the first quarter.
The referees didn’t help the game in the second period. With the defenses already making it hard to score, calling all the touch fouls, push-offs and illegal screens that officials often let go killed the pace of the game even further, leaving us with a pedestrian defensive battle. Despite their early dominance, Seattle couldn’t pull away because they couldn’t score, so San Antonio gradually came back into the game. Late in the half, Sophia Young finally got involved in the offense, converted a couple of nice finishes in the lane under heavy traffic and the game was tied. After being bottled up by Wright and Seattle’s help-defense all night, Hammon scored her first points of the game on a double-pump driving finish inside that gave San Antonio their first lead of the game, and a 28-26 halftime lead.
The third quarter, frankly, was more of the same. So we’ll largely skip it. San Antonio’s best opportunities to score were proving to be when they could push the ball down the floor fast enough to shoot before Seattle could set up their defense. If they were forced to attack in half-court sets, nothing much was working. But Seattle are good at getting back in transition, so those quick scoring opportunities were hard to come by. The Storm looked a little more capable of piercing the San Antonio defense for high percentage opportunities inside, but they weren’t making enough shots to take advantage. Whoever stole Swin Cash’s offensive game needs to return it as soon as possible. I’m sure the Storm would happily offer a reward. San Antonio led 42-41 at the end of the third.
Bizarrely, and completely out of nowhere, the game turned into a shootout in the closing stages. A Camille Little layup gave Seattle a 51-46 lead with five minutes to play, the biggest lead we’d seen in the game for quite some time, forcing Hughes into a timeout. San Antonio emerged from that and ran a play that went nowhere, but Jia Perkins bailed them out by nailing a three from the top of the arc and we were away. A pretty pick-and-roll between Bird and Jackson led to an LJ layup, before Wright spun down the lane to earn herself a foul and two free throws. She sank both, kicking Seattle’s lead up to 55-49 with three minutes to play.
Then we entered a passage of play where the gap between the teams bounced back and forth between four and six points like a tennis match, going endlessly from deuce to advantage and back. Young hit a tough jumper in the lane for San Antonio (down to four); then Jackson schooled Ruth Riley on a spin move in the post (up to six). Danielle Robinson was too quick down the floor for Seattle to cope with (down to four); then Bird missed a jumper but grabbed her own rebound, kicked it out to Jackson who fed Wright in the post, who repeated LJ’s spinning post move for a layup past Robinson (up to six). Riley pulled an upfake on LJ, then hit a leaner after sliding underneath her (down to four); before Bird drilled a long jumper from behind a Jackson screen (up to six). 35 minutes of defensive attrition and a Mercury game breaks out.
The pattern finally broke on the next possession, when Camille Little showed hard off a screen and stripped Hammon of the ball. finally, Seattle had managed to keep that six-point advantage and get the ball back, and there was under a minute left to play. That was the key moment. Seattle didn’t do much on their possession, ending with a Bird miss, but they ran the clock down and by the time San Antonio recovered the ball there were only 28 seconds left. Hammon never touched the ball on the following possession, which seemed a little strange even given the poor night she was having, and it finished with a Perkins airball from three-point range. That definitely finished matters. A pair of Wright free throws closed out the scoring, and Seattle left with a 63-55 victory that didn’t quite reflect just how close the game had been.
This was yet another game that San Antonio were very much in with a chance of winning, but couldn’t quite pull out in the end. It’s amazing how many times they’ve come close to winning in this streak of poor results, only to come up just short. It can’t all be about the absence of Danielle Adams, even though losing her offensive threat has obviously hurt. The problem is that beyond their obvious deficiencies – lack of rebounding, lack of interior offense – losing becomes a habit just as much as winning. Even with the veteran experience of players like Hammon, Young and Riley, they’re not quite expecting to squeak out these tight victories, and it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s reaching a dire stage now. The gap between San Antonio and LA is down to 1.5 games, and while five of their last eight at home sounds nice, their next five games are against Minnesota (twice), Connecticut, Phoenix and Seattle. Yikes. The game after that run, against LA themselves, is looking like it might be crucial. This wasn’t supposed to happen to a team that started 11-5 (although some of us did have an inkling).
For Seattle, this was a second game in a row that they’d managed to find a way to win own the stretch. Even if she fouled out of the last game and played under 25 minutes in this one, it can’t be a coincidence that the wins occurred just as Jackson returned. She shot 6-11 for 13 points and seven rebounds in this one, and you can see the extra confidence that just having her out there gives her teammates. Their turnovers will come down simply because “throw it to Lauren” is now an option again. Now only half a game behind Phoenix after Tuesday’s results, with Tulsa and LA (twice each) featuring in their next four games, home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs has become a possibility again. It’s nice when LJ comes back from an injury late in the season, instead of succumbing to one.
Last of the bunch, Tulsa welcomed in Minnesota for the final meeting of worst and first this season. The Shock lost by 28 to the Lynx a couple of weeks ago, but that game was actually pretty close much of the way before it turned into a blowout in the fourth quarter. The Shock had managed to beat Seattle in Tulsa last season, so who’s to say that they couldn’t pull off something similar again, right? Stranger things have happened.
Teresa Edwards stuck with the same starting five that so nearly beat LA a couple of nights earlier, while Minnesota certainly aren’t changing their starters at this point after the season they’ve had. It was too easy for the Lynx to score inside early on. They were sliding into the paint and reaching the rim without much trouble, which led to very straightforward points. However, perhaps understandably considering the opponents, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of urgency about the Minnesota performance. They eased to a 17-10 lead almost without trying, but that was down to 19-16 by the end of the first quarter.
The gap didn’t go anywhere in the second quarter either. It was fun watching Taj McWilliams-Franklin take on Liz Cambage in the post – Taj is literally old enough to be her mother, but still showed more agility and quickness than the big rookie in sliding past her for a couple of layups. Then Liz decided enough was enough, and just reached over and blocked a McWilliams-Franklin attempt from behind. Sometimes it’s good to be 6’8” tall. Tulsa shot a far, far lower percentage from the floor than Minnesota in the first half (37% to 57%) but with effort on the offensive boards and an unusual ability to avoid turnovers, they hung around. Minnesota were only up 36-34 at the break.
The Lynx kept threatening to take the game away from the Shock in the second half, but never quite managed to complete the job. They were up nine after a run of Lindsay Whalen buckets early in the third quarter, before Amber Holt and Jen Lacy knocked down a couple of shots from outside to peg them back. Then early in the fourth quarter, with Monica Wright coming off the bench to help the Lynx offense by attacking the basket for high percentage efforts and free throws, the lead grew to 62-52.
One of the key reasons that Tulsa had managed to hang around in contention that long was that they were avoiding the dumb turnovers that have plagued them most of this season. It prevented the Lynx from getting easy scoring opportunities in transition and forced the game into being a much slower contest. It’s much harder to get blown out when the scoring is lower overall. In the middle of the fourth quarter, it seemed like they’d finally succumbed. A terrible crosscourt pass by Tiffany Jackson was easily picked off by Wright, and eventually led to a McWilliams-Franklin layup at the other end off a nice interior pass from Rebekkah Brunson. Then Sheryl Swoopes repeated Jackson’s mistake, throwing a silly and unnecessary crosscourt pass through traffic, which Seimone Augustus snared before passing out to Wright for a breakaway layup and a 68-57 lead. Avoiding these kinds of errors was exactly how Tulsa had kept the game close in the first place, and now they were giving it away. Edwards called a timeout to calm her team down, and immediately afterwards a miscommunication between Ivory Latta and Lacy led to another sloppy turnover. This was a sad way to go out after such a positive performance.
But Tulsa didn’t quit. To their credit, they kept fighting, and amazingly enough a comeback took shape. They were still down by nine with 44 seconds left, after McWilliams-Franklin once again drifted past Cambage for a layup and Whalen went one-of-two at the line. Then Latta charged to the rim for a three-point play, and followed a pair of Augustus free throws with a bomb for three over Brunson. Another intentional foul sent McWilliams-Franklin to the line, she split the pair, and then Holt nailed a triple of her own. From nowhere, we had a one-possession game at 75-72 with 20 seconds left.
Unfortunately for the small but remarkably loyal band of Shock fans, it wasn’t to be. McWilliams-Franklin split yet another pair of free throws, then Latta came out of a timeout and spun down the lane looking for a quick score. Taj made up for the couple of late attempts she’d missed at the line by stretching out an arm and catching a piece of the shot, and that was the game. Two more free throws, this time from Wright, closed out the scoring at 78-72. Tulsa covered the spread – easily covered the spread – but that will be little comfort when you’ve just lost your 19th game in a row.
The Shock did look better in this game. You have to give them credit for continuing to work hard and showing some improvement. Under Edwards, they’ve slowed down dramatically, and it’s helping them take better care of the basketball. There are fewer easy giveaways, and as a result fewer transition opportunities for their opponents (which also helps cover up their terrible transition defense). It’s disappointing that Cambage and Kayla Pedersen, the two rookies who are likely to be centerpieces of the future for this team, have been playing fewer minutes in recent games. But you can understand Edwards sending out whichever units she thinks can finally find this team a win. For those fans still hanging around, it’d be nice to reward them with at least one more victory before the end of the season.
Minnesota made very hard work of winning this game, and frankly playing McWilliams-Franklin for 36 minutes is completely ridiculous. I understand that head coach Cheryl Reeve is trying to ensure that her team wins the West first of all, and then cements home court advantage throughout the playoffs by holding off Indiana, but come on. There’s no need to play your 40 year-old center for that many minutes against the worst team in the WNBA’s history. Use that highly-touted bench a little. In her crazily high playing time, Taj led the Lynx with 18 points on 7-13 shooting, and had a nice game showing kids like Cambage what she can still do. There was just no need to have her show it for quite that long. The other central positive for Minnesota was the play of Monica Wright off the bench, who kept Maya Moore sat down for much of the fourth quarter she was performing so well. Wright’s had a few good outings in the last couple of weeks, and with both her and Candice Wiggins producing behind the starters it gives the Lynx an extra edge. That’ll help when they hit the playoffs. Let’s just hope that McWilliams-Franklin’s legs haven’t fallen off by then.
In other news…
It’s been a very quiet day in WNBA-land, once it became clear that Taurasi wasn’t headed for a suspension after all. No more news.
Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET