WNBA Today, 09/03/2011: Who Wants it More?

So having looked at Connecticut’s demolition of Indiana and Tina Charles’s ‘assisted’ triple-double in yesterday’s column, we now switch our attention to the three other games from last night. Unlike that contest between teams still fighting for playoff seeding, the three remaining games ultimately had real meaning for only one of the teams involved in each game. And guess which side came out on top in all three? Desire and need tends to be a key deciding factor when you hit this stage of the season.

Tipping off simultaneously with the Fever-Sun game, Atlanta and Washington had both flown south for the second half of a home-and-home series. I guess that’s one way to avoid giving either team an advantage on back-to-backs. After a great run of results, including consecutive wins over Indiana, losing on Thursday night in Washington was a disappointment for the Dream. You’re not supposed to lose to lottery teams when you’re fighting for playoff position. In fact, that was the second time they’d lost to Washington this season, so dropping another game to the Mystics would’ve been slightly ridiculous, considering Washington have only won six games in total all year. Meanwhile, the Mystics have nothing to play for, but obviously proved the night before that they’re still capable of playing the spoiler.

Washington coach Trudi Lacey reinstated Matee Ajavon into her starting lineup in place of Kelly Miller, after Ajavon proved a key element in dragging the Mystics to their win the previous night. It didn’t make much sense when Lacey benched her, so why should we expect any particular reasoning behind re-promoting her? The Dream were still without Erika de Souza, although her wardrobe is obviously more extensive back in Atlanta than it is on the road, because she’d gone from a t-shirt and shorts on Thursday to a little black dress for Friday. Well, probably not that ‘little’ considering 6’6” Erika was wearing it, but you know what I mean. Atlanta commentator Bob Rathbun said that de Souza told him she was hoping to be ready to play against Tulsa on Sunday, which is good news for the Dream. She was still in a walking boot though – and the opponent is Tulsa – so don’t be surprised if they hold her out for another game. Alison Bales continued to deputise.

The first half progressed more along the lines of how Atlanta would expect a game against Washington to go. The Dream pushed the pace, Washington and their rookie point guard Jasmine Thomas turned the ball over too much, and Atlanta took control. Bales plays a very different style from de Souza, far more comfortable from outside rather than banging in the paint, but she can knock down those perimeter jumpers and stretch a defense. She had six points in the first quarter, while Armintie Price and Angel McCoughtry attacked from the wings. Coco Miller came off the bench to add a couple of threes, and Atlanta had a 26-14 advantage at the end of the first quarter. This was more what you’d expect to see from a team that’s won 13 of its last 18 games when facing a franchise that’s been suffering through a torrid season.

It didn’t stop in the second quarter. After Miller had started the ball rolling, Iziane Castro Marques came off the pine and kept the scoring flowing from the Dream reserves. This is something that we’ve seen very little of from Atlanta in recent weeks. Their winning run has largely been generated by their stable starting five, who’ve increasingly been playing heavy minutes because they were the reliable members of Marynell Meadors’s squad. With Bales hitting shots and playing reasonable defense on Crystal Langhorne, Miller firing away from outside, and Izi hitting runners and deep threes like it was 2010 all over again, the Dream finally had some backup. McCoughtry got to spend an age on the bench in the second quarter, because for once Atlanta didn’t need her out there to power their offense. By halftime, McCoughtry had only taken four shots (fourteen has been more typical lately), but her team were up 49-31. Miller and Castro Marques were both already in double-digits.

When you’ve got an 18-point lead at halftime, and you push that advantage as high as 24 midway through the third quarter, you rather hope that you can relax for the rest of the evening. The problem is, if you relax too much too soon, things start to get a little nervous. As we’ve seen this season, whatever errors Lacey may have made with her squad, she’s still got them playing with spirit and a never-say-die attitude. They don’t quit. With Meadors using a lot of reserves simultaneously in the third quarter, probably hoping that her starters wouldn’t be required to play many minutes for the rest of the night, Washington made a run. Marissa Coleman hit a three, then Thomas drove and kicked to Kelly Miller for another triple. On the next possession Miller returned the favour, pushing down the floor and kicking out to Thomas for a three of her own. From nowhere, a lead of over 20 points had dropped to twelve, and it was verging on becoming a game again. Meadors sent all her starters back out on the floor, but Atlanta only led 72-61 at the end of the third quarter.

Appropriately enough on a night when Atlanta showed that they can still win games without de Souza, it was her replacement who nailed the key shots to quell Washington’s comeback. Early in the fourth, as yet another Mystics three had narrowed the score to 72-64, the Dream responded with their Duke connection. Even watching Atlanta practice in preseason, you could see the familiarity that Alison Bales and Lindsey Harding retained from their college days, and a high pick-and-pop left Bales open for three, which she knocked down without any hesitation. The exact same play – run from the other side, just for a little variety – found Bales open at the top of the arc on the next Dream possession, and she hit it again. They ran it a third time, and with the defense so petrified of Bales, Harding turned the corner and coasted in for a layup instead. 80-66 Atlanta, and this time it really was over. The Dream eased home over the rest of the fourth quarter, and closed out a 95-73 victory.

That was more like it from Atlanta. Bar the poor five minutes at the end of the third quarter, they used a balanced attack and their typical ballhawking defense to make Washington’s night miserable. Between Bales (3-3 from three-point range), Miller (2-4 outside) and Castro Marques (1-3), they actually had some outside shooting for once as well. It’s the occasional Achilles heel for this squad – they can’t shoot over anyone, so teams collapse in the paint and dare Atlanta to beat them from outside. Typically the Dream find that impossible, so they have to find a way to penetrate and beat those collapsing defenses on the inside anyway. They got away with it in the playoffs last season because Miller had a couple of exceptional games, Castro Marques was in the midst of a career year, and McCoughtry can be just that good. This season, with Izi slumping and Miller inconsistent, it was looking like they’d have to survive without much perimeter shooting. If they’re lucky, this is a sign that they might have some outside scoring for the playoffs after all. The balance was a positive move as well, with McCoughtry taking only nine shots all night, and playing less than 21 minutes. Atlanta had six players in double-figures, and didn’t need to rely on free throws or desperation drives from McCoughtry to keep themselves afloat. They’re still not mathematically in the playoffs, but they’re making the teams above them nervous. Either the Dream will overtake one or two of them before the end of the regular season, or they’re going to be a scarily dangerous #4 seed for the second year in a row.

Washington got a touch outclassed for much of this game. The speed, length and defensive activity of the Dream gave them fits, and the resulting turnovers helped Atlanta drive their running game. But the Mystics didn’t give up, and there were positives to take from the game. After being benched recently and barely playing the night before, Marissa Coleman looked more lively and aggressive. It’s only one game, but maybe she took the hint after Monique Currie was playing ahead of her in Currie’s first game back from a devastating knee injury on Thursday. On top of that, Jasmine Thomas continues to be a bright spot as well. She still has a long way to go in terms of point guard skills – creating for others, knowing how and when to pass, avoiding turnovers – but she’s shown some flashes of scoring ability and quickness that make it look like she could be a part of this franchise for years to come.

—–

Atlanta winning their contest kept them within two games of Connecticut for second place in the East, and if New York wanted to avoid dropping into a flat tie with the Dream, they needed to win in Minnesota. Entering the game, the Lynx knew that a win or an Indiana loss would cement the last regular season target the team had remaining – home court advantage throughout the playoffs. For New York, it was all rather more complicated. Mathematically they weren’t yet confirmed in the playoffs, and with teams right behind and just ahead of them in the standings, playoff seeding in the East was still on a knife-edge. A home-and-home series against the Lynx didn’t look like the most appealing way to start the hunt for those crucial last few wins, but at least the Lynx were running out of things to play for. Maybe that would help.

The standard starting fives took the floor for both teams, although Cappie Pondexter reportedly hadn’t practiced after spraining her ankle in New York’s last game against Chicago. The game started out ugly, and it didn’t get much better for quite some time. Minnesota especially were guilty of missing shots that you expect them to make, either open from midrange or layups at the rim. The most interesting part of the first quarter was watching Liberty backup center Quanitra Hollingsworth come into the game and go to work in the paint. The useful and largely reliable interior workhorse that Hollingsworth has become this year is exactly what Minnesota were hoping she’d develop into when they drafted her 9th overall in 2009, but saw very little of in her first two years as a pro. After joining the Liberty under John Whisenant, she’s finally flourished into a solid backup center. She and Jessica Adair were fighting it out in the paint, just like they fought for a roster spot in Minnesota’s training camp this year – and Hollingsworth seemed like she wanted to show the Lynx that they’d given up on her too soon.

After a first quarter littered with bricks finished 17-15 Minnesota, the first concerted run of the game arrived in the second period. Cappie Pondexter kicked the ball out for a three by Nicole Powell, a run of offensive rebounds finished with a Kara Braxton layup, and then Leilani Mitchell and Pondexter herself added threes as well – the latter after an appallingly lazy turnover by the Lynx on an inbounds pass. Suddenly New York had a 30-21 lead in a game that had been tight throughout. The Lynx continued to miss more shots than they made, but Maya Moore hit a three from the corner at the buzzer to narrow the score to 38-33 at halftime.

For the Liberty, it was a half lit up by an unusual source. Leilani Mitchell has had a largely miserable season, after a breakout year in 2010. Struggling to fit into Whisenant’s system as comfortably as she did Ann Donovan’s, Mitchell’s shooting has fallen off as well and that’s what made her so dangerous last year. In fact, in the three games preceding this one, she’d shot 0-14 for zero points (she almost never gets to the free throw line). In the first half of this game, with Lindsay Whalen’s defense showing very little respect for her, Mitchell already had 14 points and was 4-4 from three-point range. If she can make teams pay for sagging off her to help defend other players, it’ll help all of her teammates. The shooting just hasn’t been there this year – but it was last night.

Moving the ball a little better and finally making a couple of shots, Minnesota came back into the game early in the third quarter. They’ve been strong in the third all season – suggesting coach Cheryl Reeve may actually know what she’s doing, and is handing out the right instructions during the break – and when Moore followed a pair of threes with a putback of a Rebekkah Brunson free throw miss, the Lynx led 45-44. New York had a horrible start to the second half, repeatedly turning the ball over . Cappie Pondexter was having a rough outing, missing shot after shot, and without her the Liberty offense sometimes looked like they weren’t sure where the next basket was coming from.

However, the key scoring run came late in the third quarter, and it was New York who pulled it off. Whalen finally sank her first basket of the game – throwing an uncharacteristic fist-pump when it dropped, illustrating her frustration at all the earlier misses – which pushed the Lynx lead to 47-44 with under four minutes left in the third quarter. From there, the Liberty went on a 15-4 run to close the period. Essence Carson tied the game on a three, before Pondexter kicked to Mitchell for yet another three from their only hot scorer on the night. Two Plenette Pierson jumpers and a triple from Pondexter – one of her rare makes on the night – continued to build the run, while Minnesota were back to clanking repeated jump shots off the rim at the other end. New York led 59-51 at the end of the third.

The question about the fourth quarter – and even much of the third – is how invested Minnesota were in fighting for it. By this point, Indiana had been blown out by Connecticut, sealing home court advantage for the Lynx. The game no longer meant anything to them besides pride. While that shouldn’t affect the effort from the players on the floor, it certainly seemed to affect Reeve’s lineup choices, which offered far more time to her reserves than is typically the case. Then again, it’s not like the starters had exactly been shooting the lights out.

With a steady diet of bench players – of the starting five, only Moore and Augustus saw the floor in the fourth quarter, and neither played in the last five minutes – Minnesota never really threatened to make it a game again. With seven minutes left, a sequence where Mitchell made the extra pass to a wide open Nicole Powell to knock down a three, then Powell stole the ball from Monica Wright before coasting in for a layup, killed the game off entirely. New York led 66-51 at that stage, and Minnesota seemed to have lost their appetite for the fight. The Liberty eventually won the game 78-62, handing Minnesota just their third home loss of the season. New York win meant the Liberty had mathematically confirmed their playoff spot, and thanks to Indiana’s loss the Lynx had what they wanted from the evening as well. Everyone got to go home reasonably happy.

The positive aspect of this game for New York – besides the basic fact that they pulled off an unlikely win in Minnesota – was that they beat a good team when Pondexter’s offense was largely shut down. Cappie shot 4-17 from the floor for 13 points, although she also handed out seven assists in her role as a facilitator. The star of the night was Mitchell, who finished 9-12 from the floor, including 6-8 from outside, for 24 points. New York played solid defense against a very good team, holding the Lynx to just 34% from the field. They were assisted by some unusually poor shooting from the Lynx, along with a strange inability to finish layups, but New York’s defensive effort had something to do with all those misses as well. The win kept them a game ahead of Atlanta, a game behind Connecticut, and now just 1.5 behind Indiana at the top of the East. I’d go into all the permutations, but it’s a nightmarish mess that isn’t worth delving into just yet. The four-way tie is still possible, and it wouldn’t even take a particularly outlandish series of results. The final week could be one for the mathematicians in the Eastern Conference.

Not the prettiest performance from Minnesota, but sometimes the shots just don’t drop. Defensively you’d hope to do a better job on Mitchell – Whalen was ball-watching and drifting too far away from her to help – but given how Mitchell’s played this year leaving her open has usually been a reasonable option. Also, given my pleas for Reeve to use her bench more all season, I can hardly criticise her for finally going deeper into her reserves during a game that lost all meaning to the Lynx halfway through. Moore and Augustus led the Lynx scoring with 16 and 17 respectively, which isn’t unusual, but when they’re so far ahead of everyone else it’s usually a sign that Minnesota were settling for too many jump shots. They’ll correct that in future games – or they’ll just hit more of them. It’s now a balancing act for Reeve over the final three regular season games. She’ll want to rest her starters and limit the possibility for any of them to pick up injuries, but you don’t want to allow too much rust to build up before the playoffs get underway. Expect the regular starters to see somewhere in the 15-20 minute range, along with maybe a game or two off for anyone carrying a minor ailment.

—–

While the top team in the West are working out the best way to relax, the teams behind them are still scrapping it out. Seattle went to Tulsa in the remaining game from last night, looking to creep ahead of Phoenix again in their ongoing battle for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Mercury had done them a favour by losing in San Antonio the night before, so now it was Seattle’s turn to try to take advantage. The Shock proved with their two wins last week that they can’t be taken too lightly any more, and they pulled off an upset victory against Seattle last season when the Storm were winning nearly every game. So Seattle were going to have to be prepared and try to perform better on the road than they have in most games away from Key Arena this year.

Seattle sent out their usual starting five, but Tulsa were without Ivory Latta. The commentators were unsure throughout what was keeping her from playing, but it emerged after the game that Latta’s expected to have surgery in the near-future, and her season is therefore presumably over. Exactly what she’s having surgery on, no one has revealed yet, and she looked fine in Tulsa’s previous game against Phoenix. So more news on that when it becomes available. Andrea Riley replaced her in the lineup, leaving Sheryl Swoopes to actually take on most of the point guard responsibilities.

After the number of jump shots the Storm jacked up – and the number of threes Lauren Jackson took – in their last game, it did my heart good to see them run a play to find Jackson in the paint for a layup on the opening possession of the game. Barely a minute later, they fed Jackson on the low block again, and she sank a little turnaround jumper. LJ’s ability to score from a variety of different distances and angles is part of what makes her so dangerous, but the Storm have to start getting back to scoring inside. Find a rhythm closer to the basket, and the jump shots will come; just keep firing from outside and you’ll probably carry on missing. It was a good start.

Unfortunately for Seattle, Tulsa discovered a hot streak from outside in the first quarter, with Jen Lacy and Amber Holt raining in shots from beyond the arc, taking the Shock into the lead. Tulsa are playing with more composure and moving the ball better, but they only become a real threat when all the shots they take from outside start to drop. After shooting 5-6 from three-point range in the first quarter, the scary possibility for Seattle was that this would be one of Tulsa’s hot nights. A late Sue Bird three for the Storm kept them within range at 23-17 heading to the second quarter.

Can’t tell you much about the rest of the first half, thanks to yet more technical issues for WNBA.com’s LiveAccess. But purely from play-by-play text, it’s pretty clear that Tulsa dropped back to a more human level from outside, and Seattle made an inevitable run. Bird finished the second quarter just as she did the first, nailing a three, but this time it was to give Seattle a six-point lead at 40-34. After 5-6 from three-point range in the first quarter, Tulsa shot 0-5 from outside in the second, and that made the difference.

Seattle started pushing the ball a little in the early minutes of the second half, remembering that you’re allowed to run back down the floor instead of walk if you happen to feel like it. That allowed them to create easy scoring opportunities, and they finally converted a few layups, which made a nice change from the way some Storm players have been finishing at the rim of late. Swin Cash even sank a three during the run, which left Seattle up 55-41 less than five minutes into the second half. It looked like Seattle ought to be pretty comfortable for the rest of the game.

But no. The pace of the game completely died as the third quarter wore on, Tiffany Jackson made a couple of buckets on feeds from Swoopes, and an Amber Holt trey at the buzzer – from another Swoopes pass – cut the score to 62-55. Apparently Seattle were determined to avoid making this easy.

Lauren Jackson had enjoyed going to her turnaround jump shot from about 10-feet all night, but she tried it twice to open the fourth quarter and both came up short. That’s usually a sign of tiredness, which would be understandable considering she’ still building her fitness back up after the injury. When Lacy flashed back to the first quarter with another three, the gap was down to four with seven minutes left. Then Seattle remembered that they have one of the best players in the World on their team, and that she’s 6’6” – tiredness be damned. Two feeds from Bird to Jackson for layups, both after she’d established strong position deep in the paint before even calling for the ball, reasserted Seattle’s position as the favourites to win this game. When Kayla Pedersen missed a wide open putback attempt at the rim and Cash followed it with a layup at the other end, Seattle seemed in control again at 72-64.

Somehow it still wasn’t quite over. The Storm apparently grew tired of working for easy shots, and just started missing jump shots again instead. Then a terrible pass from Camille Little and a lucky bounce for the Shock created a Tiffany Jackson layup that cut the gap back to four with under two minutes to play. Seattle coach Brian Agler called timeout, and his team ended up with a Lauren Jackson three from the play they ran afterwards. It seemed like an odd choice to me, but it looked like that’s what the play was drawn up to create. Now down four with the ball and around 90 seconds left, Tulsa looked a little unsure of how they wanted to proceed. With no Latta to take charge and attack, and no Cambage as a target, Tiffany Jackson tried to post up but they couldn’t get her the ball. Eventually, Holt threw up an ugly turnaround, but got bailed out when the rebound fell to Swoopes. Trying again, the Shock possession went nowhere a second time as the clock ticked down. The ball was tipped out of bounds, and after an extended replay examination by the officials, it was Tulsa ball on the sideline with only four seconds on the shot clock. The pass went in to Holt right in front of her own bench, guarded tightly by Katie Smith, and Holt fell backwards straight out of bounds. Maybe Smith fouled her – it was hard to see why Holt fell over, otherwise – but it didn’t look like there was much contact. Anyway, no call, Seattle ball with 50 seconds left. Huge turnover.

The game was dead and gone seconds later. You’d expect a veteran team like Seattle to run at least 22 seconds off the clock on a late possession like that, but Bird brought the ball down, used a Lauren Jackson screen to break open at the three-point line, and put the shot in the air with 14 still on the shot clock. That was a horrible decision for half a second, then the ball went through the hoop. Seven-point lead, ballgame over. Seattle eventually ran out 78-72 victors.

I’m even less sure what to make of games like this now that Tulsa have pulled off a couple of wins. Do we have to take it more seriously now when teams beat them, even if they make it look like damn hard work? The Storm rode their superstar duo to this win, with Jackson shooting 8-15 for 20 points, while Bird was 7-12 for 21. The positive signs were there, with the inevitable caveat of “but it was against Tulsa”. The team shot over 54% from the field, turned the ball over only 10 times (in a road game no less), and had 42 points in the paint. All far, far better numbers than we’ve seen from Seattle in countless road appearances this season. It wasn’t a perfectly fluent performance, and they virtually had to win it twice after allowing Tulsa to close the gap, but they won the game. That’s always the main element, but especially in the final weeks of the season when you’re fighting for something. Just win, baby. This result took them half a game clear of Phoenix before both played on Saturday night. It still looks like the final Mercury-Storm regular season encounter next Friday will probably decide who has home court advantage in the first round.

It was a nice battling performance from the Shock, who just came up a little short on quality in the end. Lacy had 18 (4-4 from outside), Holt 17 (3-5 outside) and Tiffany Jackson had another double-double with 12 points and 10 boards. The improved performances over the last few weeks of the season may well be enough for Teresa Edwards to keep her position as Shock head coach for next season. Although hopefully she’ll eventually find more opportunities for prized rookies Liz Cambage and Kayla Pedersen if that’s the case. They played around 15 minutes each in this game, but Edwards has relied on the veterans to improve her team’s overall production. It’s the kids she’ll need to work with if this team is going to grow and improve in future seasons.

 

In other news…

Ownership of the Atlanta Dream franchise is transitioning from Kathy Betty to Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler, pending approval of the WNBA board. No one seems to know quite why Betty is pulling away, after being so enthusiastic about joining up with the WNBA a couple of years ago, but at least there are others who want to take over. Brock was in the UK for the Dream’s preseason game, and is certainly enthusiastic herself about the entire enterprise, so hopefully the franchise is in good hands. At least they’re being taken over by people who have no intention of moving them anywhere.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Tulsa @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Minnesota @ New York, 4pm ET

Connecticut @ Washington, 4pm ET

Indiana @ Chicago, 6pm ET

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