WNBA Today, 09/04/2011: Western battles roll into final week

It was all about the West in the WNBA last night, with the battles for second and fourth in the conference played out across two games. In the end, everyone survived to fight another day. Which is a slightly more generous way of saying that absolutely nothing changed. But at least there was some reasonably entertaining basketball along the way.

Leading off the evening, Seattle travelled to San Antonio for the second game of a back-to-back. The first game may have been in Tulsa but it was still a taxing journey, especially for star Lauren Jackson, who’s continuing to work her way back to full fitness. However, at 5-1 since Jackson’s return, and with a win from the previous night against the Shock in the bank, Seattle were hoping to show some more road improvement against the Silver Stars. The Storm have been atrocious on the road this year, especially while Jackson was out, which is what makes these final few games so important. Currently holding a half-game edge on Phoenix for second place in the West, if Seattle can cling on to that spot they’ll host games 1 and 3 (if necessary) in the first round of the playoffs. Game three in Key Arena, versus game three anywhere else on the planet, makes a huge difference to Seattle’s chances of advancing.

For the Silver Stars, the game was just as important. Having broken a six-game losing streak against Connecticut on Tuesday, then carried that momentum into a win over Phoenix two days later, they’d reestablished a two-game edge on LA for the fourth playoff spot in the West. A win here and a loss for the Sparks in the late game would’ve left San Antonio three up with three to play, and heavy favourites to reach the postseason. It might even have given them a shot at overtaking Seattle or Phoenix and avoiding a first-round clash with Minnesota. But that was something they couldn’t concern themselves with just yet. First make the playoffs, then worry about who you might be facing.

The starting fives were as expected – Seattle featuring Lauren Jackson despite fitness concerns about her playing on consecutive days, and San Antonio continuing their three-guard set with Jia Perkins as the nominal ‘small forward’. After making me so happy with their opening possessions against Tulsa the day before, Seattle were a complete shambles immediately after winning the tip in this game. Jackson was caught in the air with nowhere to go before offloading the ball to Sue Bird, who promptly threw a pass straight out of bounds. Uh oh. Turnovers have been the Storm’s bête noire this season, especially on the road, and that wasn’t a pretty way to open up.

In fact, the first quarter wasn’t particularly pretty in general. While they avoided making too many cheap turnovers early on, Seattle missed at least four layup attempts in the first five minutes of action, with Swin Cash a repeated culprit. At 6’1”, mostly being defended by Perkins who’s listed at 5’8”, at least Cash was doing the right thing and situating herself firmly on the low block on several possessions. But with Perkins doing a pretty good job of contesting despite her lack of inches, and help coming when necessary, Cash was blowing efforts from point-blank range. Seattle’s playoff chances may come down to whether Cash can snap out of this ugly offensive slump she’s fallen into lately. Jackson and Bird are both likely to produce on most nights, but there has to be some support. The likes of Tanisha Wright and Camille Little will step up on occasion, but Cash is supposed to be the reliable third option. She hasn’t been that in the second half of the season, although she’s continued to produce in areas besides putting the ball through the hoop. San Antonio led 16-13 after a tight first quarter where both teams joined Cash in struggling to convert their scoring opportunities.

While Seattle continued to wrestle with their offensive demons, San Antonio built a small lead in the second quarter thanks to something else I’ve been begging to see all season – Sophia Young on the low block. Young has an excellent post game, as long as she’s not matched up against someone whose size makes things too difficult for her. With Camille Little and Le’coe Willingham trying to defend her for the Storm, Young took advantage. It was nice to witness, after a season when Young’s offensive passivity has been consistently frustrating. A turnaround jumper over Little, a post-up on Willingham for a layup, and then a pair of free throws when Willingham fouled her while she was posting up again took San Antonio into the lead. Then a kick-out when Young was double-teamed in the paint gave Ruth Riley an open opportunity to stretch the advantage. The Silver Stars led 24-17, and it was all about Young.

Of course, Seattle’s offensive futility had helped as well. Three turnovers and two missed jump shots were all they’d managed while Young put that run together, and any team will eventually build a lead if you can’t find a way to score against them. Mixing their standard man-to-man with a 2-3 zone that Seattle should’ve been far more adept at attacking than they indicated, San Antonio’s defense was keeping the Storm in check. Seattle finally got a boost from Willingham, a player who wants to be in the paint, where Seattle haven’t looked to score enough this season. A couple of layups from her and San Antonio’s lead was all but gone. Cash took the Storm into the lead when she finally made a couple of wide open shots – one for three over the top of the zone, then a layup in transition. The scoring for the half finished on a veteran play from Tanisha Wright, exploiting the physical advantage she has over Silver Stars rookie Danielle Robinson. Holding Robinson off with her body, hauling the lob pass in with her other arm and converting the layup, Wright’s basket gave Seattle a 30-29 lead at the break. It hadn’t exactly been an offensive showcase, but then anyone who came to a Seattle-San Antonio game expecting that was sorely misguided.

Although very much in the game, one issue San Antonio suffered from in the first half was a lack of production from their bench. With Danielle Robinson and Jia Perkins promoted into the starting lineup, most of their firepower is starting now. It leaves Danielle Adams as the primary offensive weapon among the reserves, and she was misfiring at 0-6 in the first half. You can’t blame Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes for his lineup changes, because his starting five needed the fresh injection, but it can leave his bench looking a little thin. It’s an indication that despite his impressive group of rookies and their much-improved performances this season, the Silver Stars may still be a player or two short of true contention.

The third quarter was a painful illustration of the positives and negatives about the Seattle Storm. Sometimes the precise and deliberate offense that runs through option after option to find the best shot available just ends up slow and ugly. They wander around looking fairly aimless, while the shot clock ticks inexorably down towards zero. But with Jackson nailing a three from deep beyond the line when she was forced to put it in the air to beat the clock, and Cash banking in a jumper she had to take for the exact same reason, Seattle somehow led 42-36. Turnovers also returned to haunt them in the third quarter, the Storm committing eight in that period alone. Their shooting had actually improved, and their defense was largely keeping San Antonio quiet, but the reckless disregard for taking care of the ball limited Seattle’s ability to increase their lead. A Young jumper, followed by her attacking Willingham off the dribble for an easy layup, brought the Silver Stars within 47-44 to close the third.

The key run of the fourth quarter happened within seconds of the restart. The old standby of a pick-and-pop play with Bird and Jackson created a three for LJ when Jayne Appel couldn’t step out to her in time. Becky Hammon responded with a floater in the lane, but Bird swiftly negated that with her trademark pullup jumper from the free throw line. Then yet again Bird was key, using her quick hands to strip Young on a drive to the basket, taking the outlet pass from Jackson and feeding Katie Smith in transition for an open three. Suddenly Seattle led 55-46, and in a game that had barely scraped together 100 points in over 31 minutes of action, that nine-point lead looked pretty big.

San Antonio kept trying, led by one of Young’s best offensive performances all season, but with Bird at the helm Seattle held them at bay. It wasn’t always her scoring, but Bird took over in the fourth quarter and imposed a level of composure that the Storm had lacked earlier in the game. She still committed her sixth and seventh turnovers of the game in the course of the period – her highest total of the season, which makes this a strange game to be waxing lyrical about her qualities – but her leadership and control were key in Seattle clinging on to their lead. The Storm still went back to taking far too many jump shots late in the game – something which may come back to bite them in the postseason – but their defense held firm and San Antonio never looked likely to stage a comeback. When a Cash three banked in off the glass with just over two minutes to play, you knew it wasn’t going to be the Silver Stars’ night. Seattle ran out 70-60 winners.

That was a big win for the Storm. While they obviously needed it in the standings, they also proved to themselves that they’re capable of beating a decent team on the road. Considering their 5-11 road record beforehand (including three wins in Tulsa and one in Washington), that’s been seriously doubtful for most of the year. Jackson finished 5-8 for 13 points while restricted to under 23 minutes of action by the coaching staff, and while I’d like to see her in the paint a little more, her presence has been an obvious boost to the Storm. Bird shot 5-8 for 15 points, stepping up to take the shots that she had to, while Cash was 6-16 for 14 points and 12 rebounds. The offense may still be inconsistent at best, but at least Cash is continuing to work her butt off for the opportunities and fighting to help her team in other categories. The issue for Seattle, once again, was turnovers. 19 in this game, and they continue to be one of the worst offenders in the league in terms of giving the ball away. It simply shouldn’t be the case for a team that plays at a typically pedestrian pace, and has a veteran roster that should understand the value of possession. They got away with it in this game, and their remaining two regular season games are back at Key Arena, but it could be fatal to their chances of repeating as WNBA Champions. Stop giving the damn ball away so cheaply.

I didn’t think that was a horrible performance from the Silver Stars by any means, but they came up short due to issues we’ve known about all season. They got killed on the glass, once again illustrating their status as the worst rebounding team in the league by losing out 40-21 in this game. And they came up a little short in terms of weapons against a polished defensive team. Hammon and Young both produced, two events that haven’t coincided too much lately, but they didn’t receive any help. Hammon was 6-11 for 14 points and four assists – more than she often manages in the face of Tanisha Wright’s defense – and Young finished with 22 points on 9-14 shooting. But with Jia Perkins cold for most of the night, Danielle Robinson failing to find her range, and Danielle Adams having an off-night, the non-Hammon/Young Silver Stars shot 9-36 for the game. That’s 25%, and that won’t get it done. However, they’ve still looked improved in their last three games, and they still had that edge on LA to work with. After the game they got to join the rest of us watching LiveAccess and NBATV, hoping that Phoenix would do them a favour.

—–

So attentions switched out to Arizona for the second game, as Phoenix tried to keep pace with the Storm, and Los Angeles looked to take advantage of San Antonio’s slip-up. The Mercury have been inconsistent in recent weeks, allowing Seattle to slide past them in the standings, and while the Storm appear to be getting healthy at the right time Phoenix have also been dealing with injury issues. LA have struggled to a 4-4 record since star Candace Parker returned, producing some decent offensive displays but often looking appalling defensively. They also continue to battle the Silver Stars for the title of worst-rebounding team in the WNBA. But regardless of all those contests that had gone before, a win over Phoenix would’ve drawn them within one game of San Antonio, before the two teams face each other on Tuesday night back at Staples Center. The playoffs were still very much within reach, if they could work out how to step up and take their chance.

Phoenix were boosted for this game by the return of Penny Taylor to the lineup, after she’d missed two games due to back spasms. They’re not the same team without her, and the bench looks thin when DeWanna Bonner has to step into the starting lineup to replace her, so the Mercury were very happy to see her back on the floor. Predictably, LA coach Joe Bryant stuck with the same lineup that beat Seattle on Tuesday night. He may have made some baffling switches to his lineups and rotation over recent weeks, but after finding a group that had managed to pull out a win, he wasn’t going to change the starting five for this one.

The opening few minutes were a mess for Phoenix, as LA picked their defense apart with ease and watched while the Mercury missed shot after shot. After barely three minutes, DeLisha Milton-Jones already had eight points – every one of them in the paint – and LA had a 12-2 lead. Then the Mercury seemed to wake up. They remembered that this Sparks team doesn’t particularly enjoy having to run up and down the floor, or bothering with the basic concept of rebounding. So Phoenix started to increase the pace at every opportunity, and the game turned. With Taylor running the floor and Diana Taurasi gunning away, the only thing that kept LA holding on was the offensive ability of Candace Parker. By the end of the first quarter it was 22-21 Phoenix, Parker already had nine points, and Taurasi was 5-7 for 12.

The LA lineup that started the second quarter indicated that maybe Bryant did have at least a modicum of sense, as Jantel Lavender was inserted into the game. Lavender tore Phoenix to shreds the last time these teams met, finishing an overtime win with 25 points and 10 rebounds, so she deserved the opportunity to attack them again. Unfortunately for LA, the rookie couldn’t repeat the trick, and spent most of the quarter putting too much force behind layups and seeing rim out. It didn’t look like she was going to repeat her heroics from her previous encounter with the Mercury defense. Fortunately for the Sparks, someone else stepped up. With Phoenix using their running game to exploit LA’s miserable transition defense, the Mercury had opened a 30-23 lead and looked in control. Then Kristi Toliver showed off her primary basketball skill – shooting the rock. Three straight threes, in the space of less than a minute, turned that seven-point deficit into a two-point LA lead, and suggested that maybe Parker would have some help in this game after all.

Parker’s assistance in the first quarter had come from Milton-Jones, and she was the central figure in the closing moments of the half as well. But not in a positive way for the Sparks. She picked up her third foul while bumping Nakia Sanford in the lane with under two minutes left to the break. The customary move there would be for the coach to pull her out, and that seemed to be what Milton-Jones was expecting. She even picked up a Delay of Game warning for waving her arm at the dead ball while waiting for a move from her bench. The move didn’t come, and it came back to bite LA when Milton-Jones added her fourth foul seconds later by going over the back of Candice Dupree in the fight for an offensive rebound. Trusting a veteran to play with three fouls and avoid the fourth isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the confusion around what was happening seemed typical of the 2011 Sparks. There’s a desperate lack of cohesion on this squad.

So now one of Parker’s key support acts was in serious foul trouble before we’d even hit halftime. Helped out by all the fouls and the resulting free throws, Phoenix took a 45-38 lead before Parker finished a drive with a pretty kiss off the glass to cut the gap to five with four seconds to play. Unfortunately for LA, four seconds was long enough for Mercury speedster Ketia Swanier to fly just over halfcourt and put up a heave that banked in as time expired. So Phoenix led 48-40 at the half, and the fans had something to cheer about heading into the break.

The stat sheet at halftime showed up several of LA’s problems. While they’d managed to avoid costly turnovers for once, they’d already given up nine offensive rebounds, and were losing the battle on the glass 26-16 overall. Phoenix were also ahead 16-0 in fastbreak points, illustrating just how awful the Sparks had been in transition. Parker already had 17 points, but it was counterbalanced by Taurasi’s 15, and it looked like LA’s superstar might need to completely take over the game for the Sparks to have a sniff of victory. Their chances were raised early in the second half when Taylor drove to the hoop and visibly tweaked her back again in the process. Mercury coach Corey Gaines called a timeout at the first available opportunity, and Taylor hobbled off the floor. She wouldn’t play again for the rest of the game, and at this stage Phoenix can only hope that she’ll be ready for the playoffs. Reportedly she was moving fairly freely after the game, but I wouldn’t count on her being used in any of the remaining regular season games, however important. As mentioned in previous articles, losing home court advantage to Seattle would make progress more difficult – but losing Taylor would be a far greater issue.

While Phoenix continued to run the floor as much as they could, Dupree gobbled up every rebound in sight and Taurasi continued to fire away in the absence of her primary running mate, LA handed the keys to Parker. It was all on her, almost every time down the floor, and her varied offensive arsenal was keeping LA in the game. She was scoring on threes, post moves, bank-shots and layups, anything and everything she could think of, and when Toliver came back in to help out, LA crept closer. Toliver scored 10 consecutive LA points from the end of the third quarter into the start of the fourth, and her fifth made three-pointer of the game opened the final period, dragging LA within 72-67.

While Bryant gave Parker a brief rest to start the fourth quarter, her teammates struggled to score. The Toliver triple was their only basket while she was on the bench, but with Phoenix failing to capitalise at the other end, the Sparks were only down 76-67 when she returned with over seven minutes remaining in the game. LA hadn’t played well, and they were overwhelmingly reliant on two players for their scoring production, but they were still within range.

After Parker converted a three-point play when Nakia Sanford fouled her on a drive with under five minutes left, LA moved within six. When Sanford fouled out on the next possession after a tussle with Milton-Jones, she protested a little too visibly and drew a technical foul on top, leaving Toliver to add the free throw. Now at 80-75, LA seemed to have a chance, but DeWanna Bonner had done a far better job than Sanford trying to contain Parker anyway – she was no great loss to the Mercury on the night.

The next couple of minutes killed the game. Parker missed a jump shot over Bonner; Tina Thompson continued a terrible night by badly missing a three; Taurasi drew a foul on Parker before making both free throws; and then Milton-Jones finally fouled out after an Oscar-worthy display from Marie Ferdinand-Harris. When Taurasi nailed a three on the following possession for Phoenix they moved ahead 85-75, before Bonner and Taurasi combined to deny Parker on a drive. LA still had three minutes to close the 10-point gap, but it looked decidedly unlikely.

Rather than make any kind of charge over those final few minutes, LA gave up five straight rebounds and three straight pathetic turnovers – two from Thompson, one from Toliver – to allow the Mercury to coast home. The game finished 93-77 Phoenix, who were ultimately 41-33 even from the point where Taylor exacerbated her injury. Just as Seattle had done earlier, the Mercury had eventually shown exactly why they’re fighting for second while LA and San Antonio scrap it out behind them. They’ve simply been a better team.

Parker did everything she could offensively. Shooting 13-25 for 32 points, it was an outstanding display of scoring ability, although it would’ve been nice to see her crash the boards occasionally. All the switching and desperate rotating that LA do defensively takes her out of rebounding position, which means she can’t always make up for her teammates’ deficiencies in that department. Toliver shot 7-15 from the floor, including 6-10 from three-point range, for 23 points in support, her best offensive display in well over a month. Maybe she was inspired by returning to the scene of her meltdown after elbowing Ketia Swanier in the head in early July (or by the booing she was treated to by the Mercury fans as a result). Milton-Jones was never really a factor after the sequence at the end of the first half, and with Ticha Penicheiro and Tina Thompson combining to shoot 2-17, and the bench invisible, LA lacked weapons. Parker’s very, very good, but with little help, poor defense and no rebounding, there’s only so much she can do.

Thanks to San Antonio’s loss earlier in the evening, LA are still only two games back. If they can beat the Silver Stars on Tuesday night, they’re still in with a chance, although they’ll need help from either Washington or Tulsa in one of San Antonio’s other remaining games. I said weeks ago that I didn’t think the Sparks were good enough to sneak into the playoffs, and I still stand by that. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go out with a whimper by losing to the Silver Stars at home on Tuesday.

Phoenix kept pace with Seattle, and besides the complete inability to deal with Parker it was a solid performance. They’re hardly the first team to have great difficulty defending her, and they won’t be the last. The question is how much have they lost in the process. Penny Taylor is a key part of the puzzle for this team, and hopefully she’ll recover in time to at least make it back for the playoffs. They’ll need her against better teams than LA. In this contest, Candace Dupree had a field day, shooting 9-13 for 22 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. LA are simply abysmal on the glass, losing the overall battle 46-27 in this game, but that’s still a heck of a day for Dupree. Bonner was 4-10 for nine points and 12 rebounds of her own, while Taurasi led the Mercury scoring with 24 points on 9-17 from the floor. Still half a game back, Phoenix have Tulsa to take care of on Thursday night before flying out to Seattle for their final regular season meeting with the Storm on Friday night. Whoever wins that game will likely take home court advantage for the first-round series (there are scenarios where that isn’t 100% the case, but they’re unlikely). It’d be a big boost to the Mercury if they could take home court away from the Storm, especially considering how dreadful Seattle have been outside the Key this year. But if they don’t have Taylor in one piece for Game 1 of the playoffs, Phoenix might be screwed either way.


In other news…

According to one report coming out of Tulsa, Ivory Latta’s impending surgery is on her knee. No news about precisely what the injury is or how long she’s had it, but that’s the story.

All of Sunday’s action will be covered in tomorrow’s column.


Today’s Games (already completed):

Tulsa @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Minnesota @ New York, 4pm ET

Connecticut @ Washington, 4pm ET

Indiana @ Chicago, 6pm ET

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4 comments on “WNBA Today, 09/04/2011: Western battles roll into final week

  1. “That was a big win for the Storm. While they obviously needed it in the standings, they also proved to themselves that they’re capable of beating a decent team on the road. Considering their 5-11 road record beforehand (including two wins in Tulsa and one in Washington), that’s been seriously doubtful for most of the year.”

    Make that 3 of those 5 road wins in Tulsa 😉

  2. Donny says:

    I enjoy your writing, and I hope to see you write a peice on the East like this.

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