Everyone played tonight in the WNBA, with six games taking place across the country. Including five games tipping off within an hour of each other. The WNBA does not like to make my life easy, and with all kinds of LiveAccess issues, it only got more difficult. For quick coverage tonight, we’re going to tackle the most meaningful game of the evening, which also happened to be the first game to tip off. The murky playoff picture is starting to clear up just a little.
The opening game was clearly the most critical for the teams involved. Chicago beat New York on Sunday night, but still sat 1.5 games behind Atlanta and 2 behind the Liberty in the chase for the playoffs. A win on New York’s home floor tonight would’ve brought them within a game of the Libs, and depending on what happened elsewhere, potentially half a game away from Atlanta. A Sky win would also seal the tie-breaker over New York, which would mean they’d only have to draw level with them in the standings to sneak into the postseason. A loss, and the Sky’s season was essentially over. New York had allowed their playoff future to become far too perilous. A win in this game would effectively dispose of the Sky, leaving them to worry about fighting for positioning with Connecticut and Atlanta over the last ten days of the season. A loss, and the nerves would really start to jangle.
The starting fives were as expected, Chicago sticking with the Erin Thorn/Dominique Canty backcourt that has brought them two wins since Sky coach Pokey Chatman promoted them. These teams know each other so well by now, that there were no surprises in the opening quarter. Kia Vaughn once again flashed her skills, after proving to be easily the most effective Liberty post player against Sylvia Fowles on Sunday night. She already had six points by the time the Liberty took a 10-5 lead, and was working hard against Fowles defensively. But as the quarter wore on, and Liberty coach John Whisenant left Vaughn out there (presumably because he remembered how much of a downgrade her backups had been on Sunday), Chicago came into the game. With Fowles starting to find some room in the paint, and Epiphanny Prince and Cathrine Kraayeveld coming off the bench to make a couple of shots, Chicago spun the game around and led 18-11 at the end of the first. Vaughn finally got a rest with just a minute left in the period.
However, the second quarter reminded us exactly why the Sky were 14-15 coming into this game. With Fowles on the bench, they hit one of their typical passages of sloppy passing, poor shooting, and generally dumb basketball. It was highlighted by a foul by backup center Caroline Swords, jumping out to challenge a Cappie Pondexter three and essentially running straight into her. Pondexter twisted her ankle on the play, but was okay to continue after a timeout and some treatment, and knocked down all three foul shots. By the time Fowles came back in with under seven minutes left until halftime, the lead was down to 18-16 and New York had all the momentum.
Chicago managed to cling on for the rest of the half because their defense was largely good enough to force New York into endless misses. As in their last meeting, the Liberty guards couldn’t hit anything, and the resulting dismal shooting percentage kept Chicago in the game. In fact, at halftime, Chicago led 32-31 – but when you hold your opponent to 28% from the field, you’d expect to be ahead by rather more than a single point. Two factors kept the Liberty close, despite that horrible figure. They were repeatedly drawing fouls and heading to the free throw line – shooting 15-21 in the first half to Chicago’s 8-8 – and the Sky had 12 turnovers. That’s far too many in a half, especially when so many of them are horrifyingly cheap. All season long, the Sky have made too many passing errors, and it continues to haunt them.
After barely three minutes of the second half, just as in the first, Liberty small forward Nicole Powell was pulled off the floor by Whisenant. The problem against the Sky is that she’s typically a mismatch at both ends. Chicago use Tamera Young and Epiphanny Prince to defend Pondexter, which often leaves small guards like Dominique Canty on Powell. But because she rarely makes use of her size and strength advantage, it’s the Sky who benefit from having a quickness edge when they have the ball. Even with Powell sat down and the matchup issue neutralised, the Liberty began to fall behind in the third quarter. Pondexter was becoming frustrated by her own inability to make shots in the face of the Chicago defense, and it was translating to her team. A series of Chicago-esque cheap turnovers allowed the Sky to go on a run, and although they weren’t exactly flying offensively, they were converting enough to build a lead. Prince was helped out when fouled on a made three, completing the four-point play, and with Fowles converting down low whenever the Sky could actually get her the ball, Chicago were pulling away. They led 52-39 after an 11-0 run, and a Kara Braxton layup was all the response New York could muster before the end of the third quarter. The crowd was quiet, the Liberty players looked like their heads had been taken out of the game, and at 52-41 heading into the fourth, Chicago looked in prime position to pull out the win.
New York finally made a couple of shots to open the fourth quarter, through Pondexter and Essence Carson, but with Powell stupidly fouling Thorn for another four-point play and Fowles responding with two buckets of her own, Chicago pushed their lead to 60-46 with 7:49 to play. Then everything changed. With a lineup of Pondexter, Carson, Powell, Plenette Pierson and Vaughn on the floor, New York finally woke the hell up. A Pondexter triple and a Carson step-back jumper showed signs of life, and Chatman understandably took a timeout to try to halt the comeback before it began. She also put Courtney Vandersloot into the game for Thorn, in the hope that an actual point guard being on the floor could prevent the turnovers that have thrown away countless games for the Sky this season. It didn’t help. The Liberty emerged from that timeout with renewed defensive energy, and as we’ve seen in other games in recent weeks, Pondexter started pushing the pace when New York had the ball.
For possession after possession, Chicago couldn’t find a way to get the ball in to Fowles – Vaughn was doing a phenomenal job on her, as was the help defense from everyone else – and the Sky resorted to ugly jumpers instead. At least they did on the rare occasions when they didn’t simply throw the ball away. It just about summed up Chicago’s season. A game they had a comfortable lead in, where they’d played solid defense all night, fell apart because they couldn’t feed Fowles or make any shots, and kept giving up endless turnovers. After those 21 free throws in the first half, New York hadn’t shot a single one in the third quarter. In their final, game-winning run, the procession back to the line resumed with full force. When they weren’t finishing with layups the Liberty were knocking down pairs at the charity stripe, and then with barely a minute left in the game Carson completed the run with a pretty step-back jumper. In under seven minutes of action, they’d gone on a 22-2 run, and taken a 68-62 lead. It involved eight Liberty free throws, five Sky turnovers, and six Epiphanny Prince misses – and one team’s season was over.
Even when Price finally made a shot, sinking a three with 16.8 seconds left to cut the gap to three points, the Sky still seemed dead in the water. Carson sank both shots after being intentionally fouled, and after a Fowles layup – where had that been for the last eight minutes? – Pondexter going 1-of-2 at the line was enough. New York won the game 71-67, and essentially confirmed their 2011 playoff spot.
You have to give credit to the Liberty for the way their response in the fourth quarter. It was a moribund performance in the second half to that point, admittedly probably not helped by the referees seeing the scoresheet at halftime and wanting to balance out the free throw discrepancy a little. But when the time came to step up in the fourth quarter, New York came through. That five player unit that played out the closing stages showed dogged determination, significantly raised their defensive effort, and built everything from there. Chicago completely ran out of ideas when they couldn’t find Fowles, and the Prince jumpers that ended up jacked in the air instead rarely had a prayer of going in. Offensively, Pondexter will be happy to see the back of the Sky, after shooting 5-13 for 19 points. The support came from Pierson with 17 on 6-13, Vaughn with 15 on 5-9, and Carson with 14 on 4-8. The key stat was at the free throw line, where the Liberty finished 27-35 as a team, and all four of the players just mentioned made repeated visits. The Liberty wouldn’t be denied, and although not yet mathematically in the postseason, their real struggles now are with Connecticut and Atlanta for seeding.
It’s sad to see Chicago’s season go down in flames like that, but disappointingly apropos. They had to win this game, and for three-and-a-bit quarters they were pulling it off. But when New York raised their intensity level, there was nothing in the locker to respond with. They either tried desperately to force the ball to Big Syl and turned it over in the process, or stood around looking for Fowles, realised the shot clock was running out, and watched Prince fire up a jumper. I know Fowles is their main weapon, and should be their first option on every trip down the floor, but it would’ve been nice to see them look for something else at some point. Y’know, after it had failed seven or eight consecutive times. Fowles finished 9-11 for 22 points, illustrating how effective she was whenever they could get her the ball. Prince was 4-15 for 15, showing that she did hit some shots, just none down the stretch. The Sky closed out the game with 22 turnovers, and that’s their season in a nutshell. They can’t take care of the ball, or make smart passes where and when necessary, so they give games away that they should be winning. On a playoff team, Fowles would be an MVP candidate; on this squad, she’ll be waiting for the result of the lottery draw for yet another year.
In other news…
All five remaining games, even those ruined by LiveAccess issues, will be covered in tomorrow’s column.
Apologies for mentioning this a couple of days late, but we also have a new qualifier for next year’s Olympic Games. After losing to Korea in double-overtime in the group stages, China faced them again in the final of the Asian Championships. Led by old standbys Miao Lijie and Chen Nan (both of whom have tasted WNBA action in the past), China got their revenge with a 65-62 comeback win in the final. That makes China the Asian Champions for 2011, and qualifies them directly for the women’s Olympic basketball tournament in London next year. Korea and third-placed Japan join Croatia, the Czech Republic, France and Turkey in the pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament (along with six yet-to-be-determined others) that will decide the final five spots. The next regional ‘tournament’ to take place is in Oceania, where Australia and New Zealand will play a best-of-three series from September 7th-11th. The Aussies are the heavy favourites, even without all the players currently on WNBA squads.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Chicago @ New York, 7pm ET
Indiana @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Connecticut @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Phoenix @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Washington @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET