Okay let’s face it, the big WNBA event of Saturday night came late in the evening, when many saner people than I had already gone to bed. But we’re going to build up to it, Shock fans (oops, spoiler alert). Every game yesterday had at least some level of playoff implications, so it’s not like we can just ignore all the basketball that went before in favour of those few final seconds. However much we might want to.
Having already covered the Phoenix-Connecticut matchup in yesterday’s column, next up was San Antonio’s trip to face Minnesota. While the Lynx are still playing to mathematically win the West and seal home court advantage throughout the playoffs, their regular season is already winding down. Everyone knows they’ve won the conference, and they’ve got a couple of games on Indiana for home court. Their last few matchups are more about preparing for the playoffs than anything else. The situation in San Antonio is a little different. Having lost eight of their last ten, the Silver Stars were only 1.5 games ahead of LA for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West heading into this one, and the gap seems to have been decreasing by the day. A road game against the Lynx obviously wouldn’t be your first choice to turn a spiralling record around – in fact it might be just about last on this list this year – but it’s dire straights for San Antonio at this point. They need to scrap for any possible win they can find, and if they can snatch a couple in unlikely places it’ll be an added bonus.
Helping the Silver Stars out for this game, Danielle Adams was finally back in uniform after missing 11 games due to her mid-foot sprain. Bear in mind that Seattle went 10-10 without Lauren Jackson, while LA went 5-10 without Candace Parker – San Antonio were even worse, at 3-8 without Adams. They’d started to lose a few games before she got hurt, but the slide really began when they lost their big-bodied high-scoring rookie. Maybe Parker’s return won’t turn out to be the most important recovery in the Western playoff race after all. After switching to Danielle Robinson at the point in their last game, Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes stuck with her for this game as well, with Tully Bevilaqua coming off the bench instead. Adams was primed and ready to come off the pine as well. The Lynx stuck with that same, monotonous, game-winning five they’ve used all year (bar the one game where Taj had a minor injury, I know, no emails please).
The entire first half was nip and tuck all the way. The biggest lead was right at the start, when Lindsay Whalen’s penetration was causing problems for San Antonio, creating an 8-2 Lynx lead. A couple of shots from San Antonio and that gap was taken care of, leaving us with a tight game. The problem was that it felt like one of San Antonio’s better performances for weeks, and yet they weren’t breaking away to any kind of lead. They were creating more offense in the paint than you typically see from them, with backdoor cuts, drive-and-dish finishes, and even an offensive board and putback for Porsha Phillips. That’s not something you see very often from far and away the worst offensive rebounding team in the WNBA (it’s a frankly ridiculous gap).
San Antonio were playing solid defense as well, and when Adams returned they were quickly reminded of exactly what they’d been missing. She looked a little too eager to make an impact in the first quarter, but in the second there was a nice post-up move on Taj McWilliams-Franklin for a layup, then a catch-and-shoot three on the very next play. Oh how they’ve cried out for an extra offensive weapon like that in recent games. Even Sophia Young, a target for frequent and probably slightly unfair criticism here this season, had several nice scores. But San Antonio trailed 18-17 to end the first quarter, and 38-36 at halftime. It’s always scary when the other team’s taken your best punch and not even been rocked back on their heels.
The reason Minnesota were winning despite San Antonio’s positive performance was largely down to their point guard and their posts. Whalen was beating up on Danielle Robinson and Bevilaqua, using her strength and physicality to create points for herself and her teammates. Down low, as you’d expect, Minnesota were dominating on the boards. San Antonio can’t rebound. Losing Adams didn’t help, but they were an awful rebounding team before her injury as well, and getting her back didn’t make much difference. It’s hard to win games when you can’t pull the ball down off the glass.
The only first half negative for San Antonio – besides being behind, obviously – was that Becky Hammon couldn’t buy a basket. But she was still creating well for her teammates, and added her seventh assist of the game on a feed to Adams early in the second half – Hughes put his returning rookie in from the start in the third quarter, unwilling to wait for her additional offense. After relying on Whalen and the post players in the first half, Minnesota’s All-Star wings started to impose themselves in the third quarter. It’s scary how many different angles this team can hurt you from. Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus were hitting shots with nightmarish accuracy, and there was nothing San Antonio could do. It’s hard to stop a team that can attack you from five spots on the floor. A Moore turnaround jumper took the Lynx lead to 56-46 midway through the third, and it was all San Antonio could do to hang around.
To their credit, the Silver Stars kept themselves in it, with Jia Perkins providing her own boost of offense from the bench – it’s not all on Adams. They were within four at 61-57 heading into the final quarter. It took literally two-and-a-half minutes of action in the final period for Minnesota to essentially kill the game off as a contest. Moore curled around a screen and took a Whalen feed before nailing a three; Augustus hit a jumper while Perkins fouled her, and added the free throw; Whalen jumped a passing lane, grabbed a Hammon pass for the steal and blew the breakaway layup, but Augustus was right there to clean up; Moore missed a triple, but McWilliams-Franklin was too big and too strong, grabbed the offensive rebound and dropped in the putback; and finally, a messy, broken possession still ended in an open jumper for Rebekkah Brunson, and when it bounced out Moore was there for her own board and putback. From a close game that San Antonio were significantly involved in, suddenly the Lynx were up 73-57 and disappearing off into the distance. The only shots that the Silver Stars took in that entire stretch were a Jayne Appel effort near the rim that was too hard, and a Hammon attempt for three that rimmed out. Outside of that, it was just turnovers created by Minnesota’s pressure defense, and their crowd was loving it. The Target Center can actually get loud for Lynx games. Who knew?
San Antonio didn’t quit, but the game was all but over from that point. The lead was never back in single-digits, and Minnesota finished off an 85-75 victory without much trouble. When they’re firing on all cylinders like they were to start the fourth, this team can destroy anybody. It was another game where Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve depended heavily on her starting five, but it’s a hell of a five. Augustus led the scoring with 19 points on 7-9 from the floor, Moore had 18, Whalen had 14 and nine assists, and Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin were both in double-digits as well. You’d love a little more from the Lynx bench, especially considering how much talent is sat there, but benches typically have very little to do with playoff success in this league. It’s the starters that decide most of the games. If that five can stay healthy, the youth and playoff inexperience as a unit seems unlikely to matter. They’re going to scare the hell out of people in the postseason as well.
The trouble simply deepens for San Antonio. Of course, you’re not really expected to win in Minnesota these days, but they can’t afford to concede anything right now. It was a solid performance, especially in the first half, but Hammon never could find her shot – shooting 0-8 for an extraordinary zero points. They’re heading home for four straight at the AT&T Center now, and it’s always nice to play in front of your own crowd, but they’re .500 at home this year and it’s a tough slate. Minnesota again, Connecticut, Phoenix and Seattle – all good teams, and all still playing for something. They’ve got to win a couple of them, just to rebuild a little confidence. I still have them as favourites to make the playoffs ahead of LA – my comments about the Sparks in previous articles and later in this one make it pretty obvious why – but they’re going to have to win a game or two somewhere. If they can’t rediscover a little winning spirit, what’s the point in making the playoffs anyway?
Next up on our winding path to the night’s big shock (yikes, these hints are landing like anvils), a matchup between the bottom two in the East. We’ve covered Washington in great detail before – terrible team, lots of injuries, lots of brain-frazzling losses, still fighting, bizarrely not playing the kids, yadda yadda yadda. You know that story. The team this game actually meant something to was Chicago. The crushing defeat to Atlanta on Tuesday night had probably ended their season. Now two full games behind the Dream, with Atlanta holding the tie-breaker as well, the Sky were now relying on an awful lot of help to make the postseason. But it was still a possibility. Two games back with seven to play, chasing an Atlanta team that’s well known for being streaky, you never know what might happen. Plus their two games after this one are both against New York, and if Chicago can somehow beat the Liberty twice in a row, they might be dragged back into the battle for fourth. For any of that to come into play, they had to take care of business at home to the worst team in the East. Otherwise it really was time to pack up and start planning for Europe.
Sky head coach Pokey Chatman made a couple of big changes to start the game. It brought to mind a certain saying involving horses, stable doors and bolting, but maybe it could be better late than never instead. The young starting backcourt of Courtney Vandersloot and Epiphanny Prince were both benched, with veterans Erin Thorn and Dominique Canty taking their places. Sloot and Prince are the future of this franchise, but turnovers have hurt Sloot’s game all year, and Prince has disappeared into her shell in recent weeks (after shooting a pretty ugly percentage most of the season anyway). It was an understandable change, although doing it now seemed a little weird. If Chatman was going to pull this particular trigger, it probably should’ve been yanked weeks ago. In addition to the lineup changes, Chicago were without bench warrior Shay Murphy due to an injured thumb which could sideline her for a couple of weeks (practically the rest of the regular season). Washington, of course, maintained their standard starting five.
The changes seemed to work for the Sky early on. They avoided turnovers, Canty and Thorn both knocked down shots from outside, and Chicago built a 12-5 lead to start the game. But the positive mood didn’t last long. An offensive foul barely four minutes into the game was Sylvia Fowles’s second, so she sat down – the Sky without Syl is like Cleveland without LeBron, so good things didn’t seem likely to follow. However, those lineup changes still seemed to be working a treat. Both Prince and Vandersloot came off the bench, and seemed immediately comfortable in their new roles. Prince got to the rim, Vandersloot ran the offense and knocked down a three, and Chicago still led 27-17 to close the first quarter. Who needs a franchise center anyway?
Well, Chicago do. Chatman left her sat down for as long as possible, and with a string of Cathrine Kraayeveld threes her team even pushed the lead to 40-25. Fowles returned when the porous nature of the Sky interior defense had already allowed the lead to drop to eight, but another offensive foul quickly sent her back to the bench. Fortunately, Prince’s rediscovered offensive touch produced five points for Chicago in the final seconds of the half, and the Sky clung on to a 45-38 advantage at the break.
For Washington, it was predictably all about Crystal Langhorne, who already had 11 points by halftime on 4-10 shooting. Holding her to that despite Fowles’s absence for all but five minutes of the first half was something of an achievement for Chicago, but their own nine turnovers were the other threat to their lead. Changing the guards hadn’t solved that issue in the first half, and it cost them again early in the second. The first six minutes of the third quarter featured an 11-4 Mystics run, keyed by yet more horrible Sky turnovers. It’s killed them this year, and starting out the second half with Thorn/Canty as the backcourt hadn’t worked out any better than Vandersloot/Prince. Marissa Coleman had been awakened from her typical slumber via the opportunities handed to her, and a game that meant far, far more to Chicago than it did to Washington was tied at 49. There was no way this game should’ve been back in the balance.
Chatman was pissed. Seething with rage kind of pissed. She called a timeout after that Mystics run, which had concluded with three straight Sky turnovers by Thorn, Fowles and Michelle Snow. Chatman tossed her clipboard away in anger, and didn’t even talk to her team in the timeout. She just let them stand there, think about what they were gifting away, and realise how ridiculously easy they were making it for Washington. She also benched Snow, Canty and Thorn coming out of the timeout, reinstating Kraayeveld, Vandersloot and Prince. She might not have said a word, but the statement came through loud and clear. Sort yourselves out, or I’ll find someone else.
Her team responded. An 8-0 run, including a monster offensive board and putback by Fowles, then a pretty running bounce pass from Prince to a streaking Fowles for the layup, took the game back for Chicago. They were making it clear that they hadn’t given up on this season just yet, certainly not against the freaking Mystics. They maintained a 61-55 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Sky killed the game early in the fourth quarter. Determined not to let it be decided in the dying seconds – or by the vagaries of an official’s whistle – they wanted this one finished as soon as possible. Fowles was playing heavy second half minutes after all the rest she got earlier on, and as is often the case, Washington couldn’t deal with her size and athleticism. When Prince and even Snow joined in the scoring, Chicago had a 74-58 lead with six minutes left when Mystics coach Trudi Lacey called a timeout to try to calm everything down. If the game wasn’t already over at that point, it certainly was when her team turned the ball over cheaply out of the timeout, and Prince nailed a three at the other end. Ballgame. Chicago eventually allowed the gap to narrow to 80-67 at the final buzzer, but the result was never in question again.
Eventually, this was a pretty solid win for the Sky. They survived without Fowles for a huge stretch of the first half, responded when necessary to pull out a game that they were letting slip away, and closed out a victory that they absolutely had to have to retain any hope of making the playoffs. It’s a distant hope, but at least it still exists. Maybe Prince needed the pressure of being a starter taken off her shoulders – she shot 6-13 for 18 points off the bench, and while Vandersloot didn’t match her offensive outburst, five assists vs. one turnover was a very positive outing for her as well. Fowles finished 5-9 for 14 points and 12 rebounds despite only playing 23 minutes. If her team could only win a few more games, she’d be a leading candidate for MVP. The Sky host New York on Sunday afternoon, then visit the Liberty on Tuesday night. It’s essentially do or die stuff now, and maybe that’ll bring the best out in them. Two wins would open up some possibilities; anything else and the only ones holding out hope will be the people dedicated to calculators.
Yeah, Washington. Eh. Langhorne was decent, but struggled with her accuracy for once. I think she’s tired, physically and mentally, which is hardly a surprise. Once again, rookie Victoria Dunlap barely played, receiving all of one minute of action. I still have no idea what Lacey’s doing with this team, unless she thinks 7-27 might keep her job but 5-29 will lose it. Seems unlikely to me.
On to the main event. Which is a strange thing to say about a matchup between the two worst teams in the Western Conference, who also happen to be the two worst defenses in the entire WNBA (both visually and statistically). Tulsa had lost a record 20 games in a row, while Los Angeles had somehow won a completely misleading five out of their last seven games. As I’ve continued to bleat on about, LA’s defense is an abomination, and an insult to the word ‘defense’ itself. Candace Parker might be back, but many of the Sparks’ problems remain, and aren’t getting any better. Still, with San Antonio collapsing and practically begging them to steal away their playoff spot, LA certainly should’ve had the motivation to take Tulsa’s streak to 21. Right?
Well, personally I fancied Tulsa and the points (+12.5 at tip-off) pretty heavily considering how poor LA had been recently while managing to improve their record, and I still thought the Shock looked good to at least cover after the first quarter. The Sparks were dominating on the scoreboard in the early going, but they were ridiculously hot. That rarely lasts, even against terrible defenses. Tina Thompson and Jenna O’Hea were knocking down shots from outside, DeLisha Milton-Jones was a reliable option, even Ticha Penicheiro was producing points – but LA weren’t pulling away too far. The lead reached 10 a couple of times, but LA can’t defend anyone, so it started shrinking. With Sheryl Swoopes continuing her recent run of turn-back-the-clock performances, and Tiffany Jackson taking advantage of the Sparks’ dismal interior defense and rebounding, Tulsa hung around. They were only down 26-22 after the first quarter, and it barely felt like LA had missed a single shot.
The introduction of Kristi Toliver for LA helped Tulsa out in the second quarter, as she played like a walking, talking turnover and began to infect her teammates. Of course, she was balanced out by Andrea Riley’s presence for Tulsa, who persistently throws up atrocious shots that make you wonder why she’s still on a WNBA roster. Tulsa were also hurt early in the second quarter when rookie center Liz Cambage collapsed to the floor in pain, with an apparent shoulder injury. Her size can cause all sorts of problems, especially against teams like LA who can’t compete with her inside, so losing her should’ve made things more difficult for the Shock. When Parker reentered the game late in the second quarter after a long rest, it looked like she might take the game away from Tulsa. A pretty turnaround bank shot dropped in, and a three-pointer followed on the next possession for a 39-32 lead. However, Tulsa once again closed out the period far stronger than LA. A Jackson post move for a three-point play, an Ivory Latta jumper, and then a prayer from three-point range by Latta after she’d nearly given the ball away, somehow gave the Shock a 40-39 lead going into the locker room. It was their first lead since 3-2.
If Tulsa could’ve made a layup in the third quarter, they might’ve built on their lead. Instead, LA took over behind their veterans. After a solid first quarter, DeLisha Milton Jones spent the entire second on the bench – Joe Bryant’s rotations for LA leave a hell of a lot to be desired – but she was back and scoring again in the third. With help from Thompson and Penicheiro, LA established a 60-56 advantage by the end of the third quarter. Latta and Jen Lacy were at least scoring enough points to keep Tulsa in touch.
With Parker resting and rookie center Jantel Lavender stuck to Bryant’s bench, Tulsa took advantage of LA’s pathetic interior defense to start the fourth. Buckets for Jackson, Cambage (recovered from her injury) and Latta – all in the paint – took back the lead for the Shock early in the final period. Then some nice ball movement ended with Jackson kicking to Karima Christmas in the corner for an open three. Just a couple of minutes into the fourth, Tulsa had a five-point lead at 65-60.
The closing minutes were a complete shambles, ably illustrating why these teams are floundering at the bottom of the standings. dismal turnovers abounded, with only the occasional Milton-Jones free throw, Thompson three-point bomb or Tiffany Jackson post move to cling to. Parker was out there from the 6:21 mark, but very quiet and largely ineffective. Maybe the weight of having to carry a team days after returning from a knee injury was finally telling on her.
With barely a minute left, a backdoor cut by Swoopes got her to the line when Natasha Lacy’s leg tripped her. Swoopes was prostrate on the ground for some time, but after playing heavy minutes maybe she just needed the rest. She sank both shots for a 72-71 Shock lead. Natasha Lacy drove wildly for the Sparks at the other end, and missed the rim entirely with her effort. Tulsa barely managed to beat the eight-second mark in pushing the ball across halfcourt, but once they did Amber Holt headed straight for the rim. Her spin move drew another foul, and she went one-of-two at the line – only for Tiffany Jackson to easily grab the offensive rebound ahead of Thompson. Down two with 40 seconds left, Milton-Jones stupidly fouled Jackson right after her rebound, but got bailed out when Jackson also only hit one-of-two. Fortunately for the LA rebounding group, it was the second one that she made.
Thompson sank a running bank shot out of an LA timeout, where she was lucky not to draw an offensive foul call. If it wasn’t the last minute of the game, the call might well have been made. Now down just a point with 34 seconds left, LA tried to run a full-court press rather than foul yet again. The Shock broke it with comical ease, Jackson dribbling down the center of the court herself, and drawing another foul. However, yet again Tulsa could only split the pair. With 26.6 seconds left, LA were within two and looked like they might somehow drag this one out of the fire. It looked even more likely when Thompson made a nice play, driving into the paint and feeding Milton-Jones underneath the hoop, before she converted a tricky finish. 22 seconds left, tied ballgame.
Teresa Edwards decided to trust her team. Or perhaps more importantly, she decided to trust Sheryl Swoopes. No timeout, Swoopes simply dribbled the ball up the floor and ran the clock down, with rookie Jenna O’Hea lined up to guard her. Swoopes dribbled, dribbled some more, stepped in to about 17 feet, and drilled a line-drive jumper over O’Hea’s outstretched hand. It might have been there a long time, but there’s still ice water running through those veins. LA had 2.9 seconds to respond, but no timeouts. Parker inbounded to Milton-Jones, who nearly turned the ball over (which would’ve been a perfectly apt conclusion). Instead, her halfcourt heave fell well short. That worked too. For the first time in what feels like years, Tulsa win! Tulsa win! T-t-t-t-Tulsa win! 77-75.
It’s not like I didn’t warn you. The Sparks are bad, with or without Parker. Milton-Jones finished 11-16 for 24 points and eight rebounds, playing exactly 30 minutes – the first, third and fourth quarters, with nothing in the second. That’s just bizarre. Thompson was her main support, shooting 6-13 for 16, and playing the exact same 30 minutes. Joe Bryant is making some utterly unfathomable decisions as the coach of this team. Parker was completely anonymous in under 27 minutes, shooting 3-7 for seven points and seven rebounds, making one wonder if she was feeling her injury or at least suffering from fatigue. While they had to rely on their vets in this one, the Sparks’ offense is pretty much fine. It’s hardly perfect, and they suffer from occasional turnover-itis, but it’s largely okay. It’s just the defense. And the rebounding. They’re atrocious at both, and it’s been that way all year. They somehow seem to have gotten even worse, especially defensively, with Bryant switching from one system to another on a nightly basis but faring no better whatever he uses. On the bright side, at least San Antonio lost as well, so LA are still only 1.5 games out of the playoffs; but still, they lost to Tulsa.
What a way to end the worst losing streak in league history. A living legend herself, going through a purple patch of form after an inconsistent season, drills the game winner against LA. How many times did she beat this franchise when she was in Houston? Pure drama, and a fabulous way for the Shock to finally sneak a win. It was thoroughly deserved as well. They’ve been playing better of late, looking more composed, and apart from that stretch in the fourth where nerves clearly played their part, it was a strong performance. Swoopes shot 6-15 for 17 points and nine rebounds, ably assisted by Latta with 18 on 8-11 from the floor. In the paint, Tiffany Jackson shot 7-14 for 20 points and 11 boards, seven of them on the offensive glass. Considering the group she was going up against, I kind of expected her to pull down 20 in this game, but that was still pretty good. I just feel happy for their fans, who’ve suffered through such a horrifying season, but finally have a second victory to cheer. Maybe they’ve got a chance to beat out the ’98 Mystics’ 3-27 record after all. They do have another game left against LA, don’t forget.
In other news…
Alternative title for today’s column: Shock to the Sparks, but they’re to blame; LA you give ballin’, a bad name. But it seemed a bit long.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET
Connecticut @ Tulsa, 4pm ET
Phoenix @ Washington, 4pm ET
New York @ Chicago, 6pm ET
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 9pm ET