WNBA Today, 09/01/2011: When key pieces are missing, wins don’t come easy

A WNBA double-header tonight, and just for a nice change, you’re getting WNBAlien coverage of both games only hours after their conclusion. The first game to tip off was in Washington, where a miniscule crowd watched their Mystics take on Atlanta. For Washington, these games don’t mean anything. Having traded away their 2012 first-round pick, even tanking to improve their lottery odds isn’t worth the effort. However, the fans did have the prospect of Monique Currie returning from her ACL injury and seeing her first action of the season tonight. If that’s enough to make you want to renew your season tickets, more power to you. Atlanta had bigger issues on their minds. Just half a game behind New York for third in the East, and 1.5 behind Connecticut for second, the Dream’s late charge has given them a shot at improving their seeding for the playoffs. Also, mathematically, they haven’t even made the postseason yet. Although it’s going to take something dramatic from both Atlanta and Chicago to take the spot away from them.

Making Atlanta’s task more difficult was the loss of their starting center. After stepping on Jessica Davenport’s foot and spraining her ankle, Erika de Souza was on the bench in t-shirt, shorts and a walking boot. Why on Earth she even bothered to travel with the team for a one-game roadtrip she was never going to participate in, I have no idea. Can’t be much fun flying coach when you’re 6’5” with a sprained ankle. She was replaced by Alison Bales in the Dream’s starting lineup. For the second straight game, Mystics coach Trudi Lacey tinkered with her starting lineup as well, although her moves have been through choice, not injury. The three players she promoted from the bench for the last game – Jasmine Thomas, Kerri Gardin and DeMya Walker – all retained their spots, but Matee Ajavon was benched for Kelly Miller. Nope, I have no idea why either.

Once again, the most interesting aspect of the opening minutes was a defensive decision by the Dream coaching staff. Last time out against Indiana, they kept Angel McCoughtry away from Tamika Catchings to keep her out of foul trouble. This time, Sancho Lyttle was on DeMya Walker, while Bales tried to deal with the far greater threat of Crystal Langhorne. Lyttle hasn’t been completely healthy all year, but she’s the far more mobile defender so it seemed like a strange decision. Maybe they were worried about Lyttle ending up in foul trouble this time, especially with de Souza out and therefore even more depending on Lyttle down low. Langhorne had a putback and a hook shot in the lane – right over Bales – inside the opening two minutes.

The first quarter in general was tight. Bales was actually doing a reasonable job on Langhorne, and Courtney Paris didn’t do too badly once she came in either, with their basic size making it difficult for Langhorne to convert inside. For Atlanta, most of the offense was the typical barrage of Angel McCoughtry jumpers and drives. Her shot was falling nicely early on, but without a great deal of offensive help from her teammates it didn’t translate into a lead. A fast-paced, high-scoring encounter – just the kind of game Atlanta enjoys – was led by the Mystics 25-24 at the end of the first quarter.

With Lyttle having picked up her second foul midway through the first quarter – on a hack on Langhorne, ironically enough – the Dream had to survive with their reserve post players in the second quarter. As long as she kept things simple, Sandora Irvin was working out okay as an alternative option, grabbing a few boards and converting layups when they prevented themselves. It’s when she tries to shoot from outside that my head’s in my hands before the clanking noise even reaches my ears. Irvin and the other reserves kept the game close for Atlanta until McCoughtry came back in, at which point she took over the offense again and led the Dream on a run. With a couple of poor turnovers and several missed jumpers from outside, Washington allowed Atlanta to go on a 10-2 run in the middle of the second quarter – including five straight points from McCoughtry – that built a 42-36 lead. Monique Currie made her first two baskets of the season in the closing moments of the half to keep Washington within four at 46-42 at halftime.

For whatever reason, Dream coach Marynell Meadors never reinserted Lyttle into the game during the first half, after pulling her due to those two early fouls. That may have had something to do with the 10 offensive rebounds the Mystics had already racked up by halftime. Washington have been strong on the offensive glass all year – one of their few areas of strength – and they were utilising it to keep themselves in this game. McCoughtry was 6-12 for 15 points in the first half, Langhorne 4-11 for 10 points and seven boards – the leaders were both playing key roles for their teams.

Statistically, this game was a matchup between the league’s fastest-paced team (Atlanta are minutely ahead of Phoenix right now) and its second-slowest (only Seattle grind it out more than Washington). One of the Mystics’ problems in the first half had been the pace of the game, with Atlanta dragging them into a back-and-forth encounter just like they did to Indiana in their recent games. It carried into the third quarter, when the increased speed of the action really seemed to be affecting the Mystics. This isn’t the smartest team in some areas, or the most composed with the ball, so they were turning the ball over or taking bad shots on multiple possessions. Atlanta broke out to a 10-point lead at 54-44 barely three minutes into the second half.

From there, it would’ve been easy for Washington to capitulate. There’ve been glimpses of a team that would rather go home and relax in their last few games, but we’ve also seen a squad that’s willing to keep fighting in several late-season encounters. Jasmine Thomas led the fightback in this one. The rookie guard had struggled to finish at the rim in the first half, but she went straight to the basket on three consecutive drives for three baskets to narrow that 10-point gap. On the third and final play before Meadors called a timeout to stop the run, McCoughtry essentially just watched as the rookie sped straight past her to the basket. Nice defense, superstar.

Meadors benched McCoughtry after that play, which may not have been the best idea. I hate matador defense as well, but the Mystics comeback simply continued without the Dream’s leader on the floor to take charge and bring it to a halt. With Bales still defending her rather than Lyttle, Langhorne finally took full advantage, and scored a series of baskets to tie the game back up at 60. She was proving what we all knew coming in – Lang is too quick and too skilled for Bales to deal with on the defensive end. An Ajavon drive and Langhorne pair at the line subsequently took Washington into the lead. All Atlanta had mustered through this entire run was an array of forced jumpers from the likes of Lindsey Harding, Armintie Price and Iziane Castro Marques. Sometimes, one or more of those players can get hot and hit those shots, but in this game McCoughtry had been practically the only productive element of their offense from outside. Admittedly partly because she wasn’t keen on passing the ball, but it was still a fact. When McCoughtry returned her team were behind, but she scored the final four points of the quarter to send us to the fourth tied back up at 64.

With Atlanta having thrown away their lead, and Washington having expended their energy making the comeback, no one could build a lead for much of the fourth quarter. Irvin picked up her fifth foul with five minutes left in the game, sending her to the bench to be replaced by Bales. Notably, however, Langhorne was being defended by Lyttle on every possession for the rest of the game. Part of the problem for Atlanta when McCoughtry is such a ridiculously dominant part of their offense early in games, is that no one else has any rhythm at all when it matters at the end. With the Washington defense keying on her and Angel not always taking the smartest of shots, Matee Ajavon was proving a more effective scorer in the closing stages. A couple of jumpers and a pair at the line from Ajavon carried the Mystics to a 79-74 lead with three minutes to play, while double and triple-teams were forcing McCoughtry to either pass or take bad shots from beyond her range (she’s a quietly horrible three-point shooter, who takes far too many attempts from out there).

However, this was the Mystics – who’ve made an art-form out of losing close games this season – and the Dream – who’ve been winning games from every conceivable position lately. We were just waiting for the collapse. Monique Currie, trusted to be in the game in crunch time in her first game back, drove and drew a blocking call on McCoughtry that allowed her to push the Mystics’ lead to seven at the line. But with McCoughtry drawing two fouls and making 3-of-4 foul shots, plus dishing nicely to Lyttle for a jumper, Atlanta cut the gap to two. All Washington had managed in the meantime was an offensive foul from Currie and an awful jumper from just inside the arc by DeMya Walker. I wouldn’t back her to hit that 3 times out of 10 in an empty gym. But with under 90 seconds to play and her team’s lead dwindling, Ajavon took charge as she has so many times this season and drilled a three. That was clutch, even in a game that didn’t really mean anything much to her team.

After McCoughtry drove and kicked to Lyttle again, Lyttle missed the shot and McCoughtry herself was far too strong on the putback attempt. Ajavon missed a step-back jumper at the other end, but yet another offensive board by the Mystics – this one by Langhorne – kept the possession alive. Down five with 38 seconds left when Lang grabbed the rebound, most teams probably would’ve fouled immediately. It’s the smart play to make. Instead, Atlanta allowed the Mystics to run down the clock. They ended up fouling anyway, when Thomas made a nice pass out of a trap to a wide open Walker under the basket. She made one-of-two, and Washington had an 85-79 lead with 18 seconds left. Surely even they couldn’t blow it from here.

As it turned out, Lindsey Harding did the blowing for them. She dribbled swiftly down court, and took the quick shot that her team needed, but clearly had one foot planted solidly on the three-point line. The shot dropped, but it only counted for two points, so we still had a two-possession game. An awful error by a point guard who should be smarter than that, but has been known to make similar errors in the past.

That was just about it, even when Washington had trouble inbounding the ball and ended up with a jump ball that Lyttle won, rather than foul shots. Atlanta had the ball with 4.9 seconds left, but down four they didn’t have many options – barring an extraordinary error by the Mystics. For once Washington avoided that, as Ajavon kept her arms by her sides and backed away from McCoughtry while she put up a three-point attempt. It found nothing but air, and the game was over. Upset win for the Mystics, 85-81, breaking a nine-game losing streak.

Does this mean I have to give credit to Trudi Lacey, now that she finally managed to drag an extra win from her squad? Nah, let’s credit the players. Once again, Langhorne was the star, shooting 10-20 for 25 points. Responding well to her strange benching, Ajavon played 26 minutes anyway and shot 7-11 for 19. Thomas was an ugly-looking 5-14 from the field in her second start, for 12 points, but it was her run of baskets in the middle of the third quarter that ignited her team’s comeback. A very important 5-14, if you will. There’s some fight in this group, and some spirit remaining after what must have been a painful season to endure. Marisa Coleman only played 8 minutes, making her first entrance in the third quarter after starting 28 games this year, and Victoria Dunlap once again didn’t play at all. So who knows what Lacey’s doing. But the team came away with a nice victory.

I’ve kept saying in the second half of this season that Atlanta were hugely reliant on their starting five, so maybe it’s not too much of a surprise that they lost a game when a key component of that group was in street clothes. de Souza is a big part of their team, but she also simply helps bring some balance to the squad. She’ll play down low, present herself as a target, and provide an extra element to the offense. You don’t get that from Bales, who’s just a giant jump shooter. McCoughtry finished 10-21 for 30 points, and had Lyttle, Bales and Harding all in double-figures in support, but the whole game was Angel and not much else. They need de Souza – and a little more balance – back in their lives.

—–

For the second game, we switch to the Western Conference, and a contest which had playoff implications for both teams rather than just one. Phoenix travelled to San Antonio with a half-game lead on Seattle for second place in the West, and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. San Antonio, on the other hand, are just trying to make the postseason in the first place. Having broken a six-game losing streak with a much-improved performance and resulting win over Connecticut on Tuesday, the Silver Stars held on to their 1.5 game lead over the Los Angeles Sparks. Maintaining the momentum from that win over the Sun could be vitally important for their efforts to reach the playoffs, even if their trip to LA next week looks like the probable key game.

Phoenix were still without Penny Taylor for this matchup, robbing them of arguably their best player this season (although don’t tell the diehard Diana Taurasi fans that). After her explosive offensive outing against Tulsa, DeWanna Bonner kept her place in the starting lineup as Taylor’s replacement. San Antonio also kept faith with their starters from their previous game, which meant that Jia Perkins was once again on the floor from the start. It created an interesting contrast, because Perkins and Bonner were the nominal ‘small forwards’ for their respective teams, despite Perkins being listed at 5’8” and Bonner at 6’4”. To start the game, Bonner was guarding Becky Hammon, trying to disrupt Hammon’s game with her length, but Perkins was on Bonner at the other end. Phoenix aren’t the sort of team who are going to set their bigger player up on the low block and try to exploit a mismatch, but it was still amusing to witness.

The one thing San Antonio have been able to rely on this season, through all their struggles in the second half, is their defense. They’re not always perfect, but they work hard and everyone out there is well aware of exactly what her responsibility is at any given time. Faced with that defense, and the absence of Taylor, Phoenix could barely make a shot to save their lives in the first half. They were missing threes, they were missing mid-range jumpers, and they were even missing at the rim. On one particular occasion, Bonner was so open underneath the hoop she had time to stop for some Gatorade if she’d wanted, but still managed to blow the layup. The only thing keeping the Mercury in the game was free throws. San Antonio were guarding a little too tightly on several occasions, fouling players on jump shots – and as anyone who’s ever listened to a basketball coach will know, you’re never supposed to foul a jump shooter. The San Antonio offense was running far more smoothly, even penetrating the paint occasionally, and they were shooting far better than Phoenix, but still trailed 21-20 after the first quarter. Phoenix were already 12-12 from the free throw line.

But at some stage, being unable to shoot will tend to hurt you in the game of basketball. After Taurasi was fouled for the second time in the game on a three-point attempt, sending her to the line for three shots that took the Mercury 24-23 in front, San Antonio finally took hold. They threw in some zone defense to shake things up, and hopefully force Phoenix to make some shots over the top of them, and it allowed them to avoid fouling quite so much. At the other end, with Perkins shooting the lights out and Danielle Adams using her bulk to good purpose down low, San Antonio created a 17-0 run, for a 40-24 lead. Eight of the points during that stretch were from their own free throws, showing that Phoenix weren’t the only ones who could force the officials into making calls. Adding Perkins into the starting lineup has given this team a more direct approach from the very start in their last two games, and it’s transitioning through the team as the game goes on, whatever lineup is on the floor in later stages.

San Antonio were also helped during that streak by Mercury turnovers, as Phoenix fell foul to the Silver Stars playing the passing lanes rather than just bodying up to their assigned responsibilities. Taurasi picked up her third foul after her pass was picked off by Danielle Robinson, followed by Taurasi trying to prevent the breakaway layup by reaching in. That sent Taurasi to the bench for the remainder of the half, but her teammates helped her out. San Antonio went cold for the final few minutes, Bonner nailed a couple of those rainbow threes from miles out that she likes to throw up, and Phoenix were within 42-36 at the break. Despite shooting an amazingly poor 27% from the field, somehow they were still in the game (17-17 at the free throw line had obviously been a significant factor).

And here we hit more trouble, because LiveAccess once again suffered technical issues in a broadcast coming from San Antonio’s AT&T Center. The second half was largely unwatchable. Fortunately for everyone except Silver Stars fans who’d like to watch their team in full flow, the game wasn’t much of a contest in the second half. So we didn’t exactly miss a nailbiter. With four turnovers in the opening four minutes of the second half – three by Taurasi – the Mercury helped the Silver Stars break the game open early in the third quarter. Phoenix weren’t missing as much any more, but it was only because shots weren’t even going up. An 11-2 San Antonio run opened the period, led by the speed and skills of Danielle Robinson, and sealed with a Becky Hammon three on a possession that featured three offensive rebounds by San Antonio. Mercury coach Corey Gaines called a timeout and made substitutions, but he couldn’t break the momentum that the home team had built up.

Phoenix’s running game never got going in the first half because they couldn’t create enough turnovers and all those free throws killed the pace of the game; in the second half especially, it was San Antonio who got out and ran. They were forcing turnovers, and with Phoenix’s awful shooting display from the first half barely given a chance to recover in the second, the Mercury couldn’t respond. They were behind by as many as 18 in the third quarter, and 26 in the fourth when everyone had thrown the towel in. San Antonio eventually eased to an 86-68 victory, but as far as you could tell, it wasn’t even that close.

Maybe this game was an illustration of precisely how valuable Penny Taylor is to the Phoenix Mercury. They managed to blow Tulsa off the court a couple of days ago without her, but against a vastly more talented team with everything to play for, they got blown out themselves. Taylor leads the Mercury in assists, and it’s not just because their point guards are barely mediocre. She’s become an excellent facilitator, and much of their offense runs through her. She’s a scorer when necessary, a creator when the opportunity is available, and even with Bonner producing they desperately miss her. Bonner finished 7-15 for 23 points and seven rebounds, while Taurasi only officially took six shots for her 18 points due to limited minutes (foul trouble, then rest once the game was decided). No one else helped out much at all, and without Bonner coming off the bench they needed something from a Marie Ferdinand-Harris or an Alexis Gray-Lawson. It was an ugly performance from the Mercury, shooting 31% as a team, but maybe it simply meant more to the Silver Stars. They needed this; Phoenix just vaguely wanted it.

Hughes’s new starting lineup is working out so well, it’s making him look silly for not switching to it sooner. The bench production of Adams, Perkins and Danielle Robinson was key to their performances earlier in the season, but now Perkins and Robinson are injecting extra life into the starting unit (and Adams is still enough to give them some punch off the bench). Perkins shot 10-18 in this game for 23 points, mitigating Sophia Young’s 2-6 for four points, and Hammon’s 6-15 shooting performance for her 16 points. Having Perkins in the lineup gives them a little more leeway if one or more of their regular stars are off their games. Robinson filled the box score, shooting 5-7 for 15 points, and throwing in seven assists, five rebounds and five steals on top. Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot may have been the rookie point guard with all the hype this year, but Robinson’s been the more effective, impressive and consistent performer as the season’s gone on. D-Rob’s probably been in a better position to flourish, but she’s still had to go out on the floor and prove her worth. Tonight was another very impressive step in the right direction.

San Antonio now have a two game advantage over LA for that fourth playoff spot. If the Silver Stars beat Seattle at home while LA lose in Phoenix on Saturday night – two distinctly possible results – the gap could be three games by the time they face the Sparks on Tuesday. The Silver Stars might be able to sneak in even if they lose the game in LA. On the other hand, they’re also only two games behind Seattle and Phoenix in the standings after tonight’s win. Second or third in the West – and avoiding Minnesota in the first round – still isn’t impossible if they can keep up this newly-discovered level of performance.

 

In other news…

It was a big day for the Minnesota Lynx today. Most importantly, starting power forward Rebekkah Brunson signed a multi-year extension to her contract. She would’ve been an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season – although they likely would’ve cored her to prevent her leaving – so it’s a very positive move for the Lynx to tie up another one of their key players for future years. It also allows them to consider using that core spot on Taj McWilliams-Franklin at the end of the season, because they’ll no longer need it for anyone else. Taj has shown a tendency to switch from team to team in recent years, and despite being 40 years old has been a key component of the successful Lynx squad this season. They’ll definitely look hard at the option of coring her. Regardless of that, it’s a nice move to get Brunson’s deal locked in rather than have to worry about it in the offseason. She’s an obvious max-player, so it’s not like much negotiation will have been necessary.

Also among the Lynx announcements today, Maya Moore was named the Rookie of the Month for August. It’s the second consecutive time she’s won the award, and as with the last one there wasn’t a great deal of debate. They might as well have handed her the Rookie of the Year trophy at the same time to save themselves the trouble of going back in a couple of weeks.

Yet more Lynx news, as Lindsay Whalen was named Western Conference Player of the Month for August, joined by Sylvia Fowles in the East. It’s the third straight time that a Minnesota player has won in the West, with Brunson and Seimone Augustus taking the first two this season. It just shows how talented and balanced their team is that different players are producing well enough to take home the trophies. After shooting 68% for the month, averaging over 20 points per game and nearly 12 rebounds, Fowles was also a worthy winner. She’ll probably have to make do with this award as a consolation prize, because despite her play, the Sky’s record is likely to keep her out of the running for MVP.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET

Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Indiana @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET

Washington @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET

Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

New York @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 09/01/2011: When key pieces are missing, wins don’t come easy

  1. […] I’ll leave it up to Richard to figure it out: When key pieces are missing, wins don’t come easy A WNBA double-header tonight, and just for a nice change, you’re getting WNBAlien coverage of […]

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