WNBA Today, 09/05/2011: Eastern race takes center stage

So after Saturday took a stab at clearing up the Western Conference playoff picture – and got nowhere – Sunday was the turn of the East. Mathematically Chicago were still in with a chance of making the postseason, but realistically this had already become a fight for seeding. After Connecticut’s blowout win over Indiana on Friday night, the Sun had moved just half a game behind the Fever at the top of the East. New York were only a game further back, and Atlanta a game behind them. With just eight days left in the regular season, practically any final order was still possible, and with all four playing on Sunday any of them could make a move if someone slipped up. At the same time, all four were playing in separate games, so there was potential for the same thing to happen as Saturday – everyone wins, or everyone loses, and the status quo remains. And for the calculator fans out there, yes, the four-way tie is still a possibility.

The first game to tip off was in Atlanta, where Tulsa provided the opposition. After winning 14 of their last 19 games, the Dream may be in fourth place but they’re looking a dangerous threat in the postseason. However, before they became too concerned with seeding, they still needed one more win to officially confirm that they’d seen off Chicago and made the playoffs. A home game against Tulsa seemed like the perfect opportunity. The Shock may have finally won a couple of games, but this is still the weakest team in the league with very little to play for. Pride, and the one extra win necessary to avoid the worst record in WNBA history is about it. That’s a nice team to see on your schedule when you’re looking to clinch a spot in the postseason.

Good news for Atlanta, as center Erika de Souza returned to the starting lineup after missing a couple of games due to an ankle sprain. I guess the walking boot she’d been wearing was largely precautionary. Without wishing to rain on the Dream fans’ parade, however, I do want to mention one potential hitch in Atlanta’s plans for another assault on the playoffs. The FIBA Americas Tournament takes place in Colombia from September 24th to October 1st. This year it isn’t just a continental championship, but also the regional qualifying tournament for the London 2012 Olympic Games. The winner qualifies for the Olympics, and the teams in 2nd/3rd/4th will head to the additional Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year. The dates are right in the middle of the WNBA playoffs, and both de Souza and Iziane Castro Marques are Brazilian. I’ve heard nothing from the players or the Dream about what the plans are, but even if they left at the last possible moment to reach Neiva for the start of the tournament, they’d miss games 2 and 3 of the Conference Finals, and probably game 1 of the WNBA Finals (assuming Atlanta advanced that far). That’s if they’re willing to forgo any preparation time with the Brazilian team whatsoever. So she might be healthy, but the Dream could be losing their starting center sometime soon anyway.

Tulsa were still without starting point guard Ivory Latta, due to what’s now being reported as impending surgery on her knee. Still no news about what the injury actually is, and Betty Lennox is still reportedly suffering from a concussion – the Shock are very tight-lipped about releasing information on injuries – so the Shock were down to nine healthy bodies. However, the game started very similarly to their matchup with Seattle on Friday. Their opponent looked sloppy, and threes were raining in for Tulsa from all angles. Jen Lacy had a couple, Amber Holt nailed one as well, and the Shock jumped out to an unlikely 11-2 lead. de Souza looked to be moving freely, but her first couple of moves in the post were drifting away from the basket, which isn’t where she’s at her best. They need her using that big frame to go at opposing post players and towards the basket, not fading away from it.

The first quarter continued to be a messy, disorganised exhibition of basketball, but the Shock caught up with the Dream in giving the ball away. After Atlanta settled down a little and Tulsa cooled off from outside, the score drifted closer and the Shock led 15-13 to end a period that contained 17 combined turnovers. The most notable sequence was when Tulsa’s rookie center Liz Cambage was introduced into the game midway through the quarter. She committed an offensive foul with a barely illegal screen, created a steal by tipping away a pass, failed to catch a bullet pass from Tiffany Jackson, and was a little late on one defensive rotation. That was all she had the chance to do before Shock coach Teresa Edwards benched her again barely a minute after she was introduced. Pokey Chatman has been doing the same thing with Courtney Vandersloot all season in Chicago, pulling her prized rookie off the floor for any minor error, and it’s even more disappointing here. At least Chatman was still trying to earn a playoff spot with the Sky. Tulsa’s playoff chances have been dead since June. Wouldn’t it be a reasonable idea to let the supposed future of your franchise play through some of her mistakes?

With Coco Miller providing some perimeter offense from the bench and Alison Bales looking a little more confident after her solid performances replacing de Souza earlier in the week, the Dream kicked on in the second quarter. Several bench players were given a lot of minutes in the period by Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors, in what felt like an attempt to build the reserves up for the stretch run. Last year she relied on her entire squad to win games, but her team’s winning run has been heavily reliant on the starting five this season. If the bench can step up for the postseason, it’ll give them more options when the games really matter. And give them some backup if Castro Marques and de Souza fly out to Colombia half way through.

The latter part of the second quarter belonged to Angel McCoughtry, who took over after a reasonably quiet opening period. A rainbow three, several driving layups, a pullup jumper or two and McCoughtry had 14 by halftime. Her team led 36-26, after Tulsa’s offense collapsed into a pile of turnovers and bricked threes late in the half.

It didn’t take long for the Dream to kill the game off as a contest in the second half. The gap in the scores was still only 12 points midway through the third quarter, but they felt awfully comfortable against a Shock team that had largely run out of ideas and was struggling to deal with Atlanta’s length and speed. The rest of the game was a track meet. I lost count of how many times Armintie Price leaked out and took an outlet pass either from a post player who’d grabbed a defensive rebound, or a guard leading the break. Price would then careen to the basket, as she always does, usually converting the layup (although not always, which is why you run the floor on fastbreaks just in case, kids). McCoughtry, Lindsey Harding and Castro Marques love to run as well, so Price was hardly on her own on all these breakaways. Tulsa continued to turn the ball over at an alarming rate, and with the score at 59-41 to end the third, the game was essentially over.

Still flying up and down the floor at every opportunity, the Dream continued to entertain their home crowd through the fourth. However, why Meadors left her key starters in the game for so long in a game that was finished well before the end I have no idea. The loss of Shalee Lehning and the scare with de Souza should’ve been a warning, and Price took a smack in the face in the first quarter that bloodied her nose and took her out of the game for several minutes as well. Nonetheless, Harding, Price and Sancho Lyttle were all still in the game in the waning minutes, and it came back to bite Meadors with 2:29 left in a 21-point contest. Lyttle grabbed a rebound with Jen Lacy right behind her, and the slight contact from Lacy into Lyttle’s back sent her to the deck. It didn’t look like a hard hit, but Lyttle was in a lot of pain on the floor, maybe tweaking a muscle in her back, and went to the bench to ice it. The injury was probably minor, but considering Lyttle’s struggles with her health this season and the complete pointlessness of her being on the floor, it seemed a dumb thing to have allowed to happen. The game finished a few minutes later as a 73-52 Atlanta victory.

Besides the injury scares with Price and Lyttle, that was just what Atlanta wanted to see from a game like this. Their defense created havoc, grabbing 15 steals and causing 24 turnovers, they pushed the ball over and over again, scoring 22 fastbreak points, and the eventual win was utterly comfortable. That’s what you’re supposed to do against the Shock, but there’ve been plenty of teams who’ve made hard work of it this season. McCoughtry finished 7-15 for 19 points, but the attack was more balanced than it has been in several recent Dream contests. Price was 6-13 for 13 points, Harding 5-10 for 13 points and 10 assists, and they even got some production from their bench. They’d done their job, and now it was up to the rest of the Eastern Conference to match them and maintain their respective leads.

I’m not sure what Teresa Edwards was trying to do in this game. Is she trying to teach her rookies a lesson by making them watch the games rather than participate in them? She didn’t make a single substitution in the entire second half, running Andrea Riley, Amber Holt, Sheryl Swoopes, Jen Lacy and Tiffany Jackson for the entire 20 minutes. I thought Kayla Pedersen at least had produced a reasonable little stretch of play in the first half, even if Edwards felt that Cambage and Karima Christmas had underperformed to such an extent that they deserved to stay sat down. Plus the five that were out there weren’t exactly lighting up the stage, with an extraordinary streak of endless turnovers. Jackson even had a pseudo-triple-double, with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 turnovers. Cambage and Pedersen didn’t deserve a chance to get back into a game like that? I give Edwards credit for largely making this a more settled, even-keeled team in the latter part of the season, but she almost seems to have quit on her youngsters. That makes no sense on a team that should be building for the future, and could lead the owners to look elsewhere for their head coach in the offseason.

—–

The Eastern contender with the toughest game on paper was New York, facing a Minnesota team that were so good they’d already wrapped everything up in the West. But on Friday night, playing the same team in Minneapolis, the Liberty had pulled off a 78-62 victory. How hard could it be to beat them again, now that they were back on the East Coast and the Lynx officially had nothing whatsoever to play for?

Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve unsurprisingly stuck with her standard starting five for this game, despite having sealed home court advantage throughout the playoffs. She might be looking to rest them a little more over the final few games, but she won’t want to upset the rhythm of her team too much. New York sent out their established starters as well.

The first quarter quickly showed that Minnesota had no intention of lying down and handing the game to an opponent who needed the win far more than them. In fact, the Lynx looked even more dangerous now that the pressure was off. The opening minutes were an offensive barrage from Minnesota, who seemed to have learned from their clash with the Liberty a couple of nights earlier. Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore sank five threes between them in the opening four minutes of the game, often on kicks from Lindsay Whalen or crosscourt passes that exposed the weakness of Liberty coach John Whisenant’s White-Line defense. Fortunately for New York, they were producing at the other end, as a couple of shots by Nicole Powell and Plenette Pierson attacking the basket from the high post kept them in touch.

Late in the first quarter, Minnesota’s posts picked up where their perimeter players had left off, and the scoring simply continued. The Liberty had no answers, and now it was Taj McWilliams-Franklin on slip-screens or high-low finishes that was adding to the total. Minnesota led 31-21 at the end of an electric first period, and it felt like New York were lucky to be that close.

The Lynx cooled off a little in the second, but the Liberty couldn’t pull much closer. Their offensive game revolves around star Cappie Pondexter, and in the last few games she’s struggled to find her shot. Whether due to the ankle sprain that has limited her practice time, the significantly improved defense of Seimone Augustus, or even distractions from her company’s upcoming event at New York Fashion Week, she wasn’t producing points. That’s always going to make it far more difficult for New York to win games. Even when Pondexter pulled out a pretty spin move to beat Augustus in the lane and get to the hoop in the second quarter, she blew the layup at the rim. This was not her day.

It got a little testy between Rebekkah Brunson and Pierson late in the half – what a shocker, Plenette Pierson finding herself tied up and jawing with an opposing post player – which showed that both teams were invested in fighting for this win. Leilani Mitchell offered up an echo of her hot shooting night against the Lynx two days earlier with a three in the last minute of the half, and Pondexter drew a foul for free throws that at least kept New York in touch. 52-41 at the break.

They weren’t in touch for much longer. New York had a miserable offensive night against a Lynx team that may have had nothing to play for, but apparently didn’t appreciate losing to the Liberty on Friday. After playing her starters the same heavy minutes that she usually does in the first half, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve gave her bench a lot of time in the second half, but they still stretched their advantage. Stifled by the Minnesota defense, missing layups and jumpers from every possible spot on the floor, the Liberty scored only five points in the third quarter. Without Pondexter as a Get Out of Jail Free card, they were stuck, and Minnesota led 67-46 to end the third. This one was over early, and it was the team who were still supposed to be fighting for something that were being dismantled.

As with Meadors in Atlanta, it was hard to understand Whisenant’s lineup decisions in the fourth quarter (although his team was down by 20 instead of up, the same rules apply). Most of the new York starting lineup have been banged up at some point this season (that’s ‘banged up’ as in suffering from minor injuries, not in jail, for those rare English readers). Pondexter in particular has carried a heavy load all year and has supposedly been unable to practice due to her ankle – so why did she play over 35 minutes in a lost cause? When even Cheryl Reeve has cleared her bench, you know it’s time to send in the scrubs. Pondexter was still on the floor at the end as the game petered out into an 86-68 Lynx win that probably flattered New York. An 18-point gap barely did justice to Minnesota’s dominance.

Just about the perfect afternoon for the Lynx. Their shooters fired them in front; their post players continued to drive the attack; and the bench continued the onslaught. Cheryl Reeve even clearly won the chess match with Whisenant, finding the holes in the defense that her team had failed to exploit when the teams faced each other two days earlier. Although having Moore and Augustus open the game smoking hot would’ve made a lot of coaches look smart. Minnesota had five players in double-figures, led by Moore’s 7-13 shooting for 19 points, but were probably most happy about rookie Amber Harris’s 6-8 for 12 points and three blocks. The depth of this team and their consistent performances (and surprising health) has kept this year’s #4 overall pick sat on the bench for most of the year. It’s also unlikely that she’ll see much time in the playoffs. But she’s expected to be a big part of Minnesota’s future, and we saw a few glimpses of her natural talent late in this contest. Yes, it was all garbage time, but she’s a big body with some range on her jumper and good mobility for her size. If she can ever harness it all together, she could be something special.

For whatever reason, New York never showed up. After the impressive win on Minnesota’s floor on Friday, when the Lynx started the game still playing for home court advantage, everyone expected more from the Liberty against a Lynx squad who’d already sealed everything. Pondexter didn’t make a single shot from the floor all night, shooting 0-9 for nine points (all from the free throw line, obviously) and seven assists. She still draws attention and can create for her teammates, but without her scoring New York will rarely win games. After her scoring outburst on Friday, Leilani Mitchell predictably returned to standard form, shooting just 2-4 for five points after exploding for 24 in their last game, leaving Plenette Pierson to try to carry the offense. 7-17 for 17 points was a worthy effort, but never anywhere near enough. The loss dropped New York into a flat tie with Atlanta, while waiting on other results to see if the teams above them would drop down as well. The Liberty own the tie-breaker over the Dream thanks to a 3-2 record in the season series, which keeps them in third place for the time being. Their last two games are against the teams above them, but catching either Indiana or Connecticut to finish higher than third looked a long shot after this disappointment.

—–

It was Fan Appreciation Day in Washington on Sunday, which raised a snicker or two. The few fans they have left – whose dedication I applaud – would’ve appreciated it if they hadn’t dismantled the front office and coaching staff that led the team to the top of the Eastern Conference last season. They’d have appreciated more than six wins this year. A free extra ticket for a meaningless game in September? Not so much. The visitors were Connecticut, who had far more reason to be up for the fight. Their blowout win over Indiana on Friday was a statement that they’re heading into the playoffs with expectations of advancing, and gave them a shot at overtaking the Fever for the #1 seed in the East. Indiana held a half-game edge before Sunday, and sealed the tie-breaker over Connecticut weeks ago, but if they slipped up in their last few games the Sun had to make sure they took advantage. Also, given that they were tipping off two hours earlier than the Fever, they had the opportunity to pile the pressure on Indiana. For a couple of hours at least, they’d be tied at the top of the East if the Sun could take care of the Mystics.

For the first time in a couple of months, there was a change to Connecticut’s starting lineup. Allison Hightower came in to replace Kalana Greene, who was feeling unwell. Hightower is typically towards the bottom of Mike Thibault’s rotation, but he likes to insert her if one of his starting wings is hurt because then the bench rotation can remain intact. She’s hardly elite, but Hightower is good enough not to be a glaring weakness in that role. Washington stuck with the same starting five that opened in Atlanta on Friday, and had Monique Currie available again off the bench.

There’s not much of a story to tell with this game. For over four minutes of game action, all those much-appreciated supporters were left standing (I find the ‘stand until we score’ thing thoroughly dumb, but more and more teams seem to be doing it). By the time DeMya Walker sank a long jumper to allow Mystics fans to rest their weary feet, Connecticut already had 11 points. The gap was never less than seven for the rest of the night, although it certainly went a lot higher.

I’ve been saying for weeks – maybe months – that the one positive aspect for this Washington team and head coach/GM Trudi Lacey was that they were still fighting. They hadn’t quit, however unsuccessful they’ve been and however little the games have meant in the final weeks of the season. Even on Friday night, they came back from a 20-point second half deficit to draw within eight points of Atlanta before the Dream pulled away again, and that was after beating Atlanta the night before. But in this game, you really got the feeling that most of the players would’ve rather been anywhere else. It’s tough to keep performing when you get off to a bad start in a game that doesn’t mean much to you, especially against a Sun squad that enjoys being the front-runner.

Connecticut led 21-12 by the end of the first quarter, and with Tina Charles revelling in the amount of space and freedom she was being given, the lead expanded before halftime. By the break, Charles had 16 points on an array of jumpers, layups and putbacks, already shooting 8-11 for 16 points and 11 rebounds. She had zero assists – it might’ve been a few more if she’d been at home with the helpful Connecticut scorer – but her team had a 42-24 lead and the game was as good as over. Asjha Jones (4-9 for 12 points) was the only real support Charles had in the first half, but that was more than enough on this particular afternoon. Washington had barely got out of bed.

Unlike the previous Mystics game against Atlanta, there was no comeback on the cards in this one. Connecticut were too confident and controlled after their first half dominance, and showed no interest in relaxing enough to let the Mystics back into the game. Hopefully, not too many of those remaining Washington fans brought new viewers to this game, because it wasn’t pretty for anyone except the Sun faithful and people who enjoy horrendously one-sided blowouts. The lead was over 30 by the end of the third quarter, and Connecticut took their foot off the gas entirely in the fourth. The game ended 79-48 when the buzzer finally sounded and put remaining witnesses out of their misery.

From a Sun perspective, that’s just the kind of game you want during a stretch run. A dispirited opponent who you kill off through you star early in the game, allowing every healthy payer to share the minutes and the key starters to get some rest. Charles finished 10-14 for 24 points and 15 rebounds, padding her resume for the MVP debate that continues to roll on. Asjha Jones was 6-15 for 16 points and 10 rebounds, her sixth double-double of the season, all in the last month. She sometimes becomes a little too shot-happy from outside, whether they’re falling or not, but she’s rounded into some better form in the second half of the season. That’s a positive sign for the playoffs, because teams are going to gameplan primarily to stop Charles – Jones needs to step up and punish them for that. This win moved the Sun into a tie with Indiana atop the East, and two games clear of both New York and Atlanta – who provide the opposition in the Sun’s two remaining games. If they lost both, Connecticut could still drop in the standings, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. A win in either of those contests would seal at least the #2 seed, and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Given how much better Connecticut have been on their own floor, that’s the least they’ll want.

This was a frankly pretty pathetic capitulation by Washington. Probably the only one who drew any value from it was Monique Currie, whose 5-10 shooting for 13 points and six rebounds might help her earn an overseas contract during the WNBA offseason. They shot 27% as a team, and gave up early. What Lacey’s doing with her squad is still hard to decipher. At least Crystal Langhorne was only required to play 27 minutes, a virtual vacation for her considering the load she’s been carrying all year. But Victoria Dunlap still saw less than three minutes of action, and Marissa Coleman was 0-5 for zero points in under 13 minutes off the bench. It might be what Coleman deserves after an inauspicious season, but pissing her off in the last few weeks, and further destroying any trade value she had left if you want to move her in the offseason seems counterproductive. As the commentators delighted in repeating ad infinitum during the game, Washington have eight free agents in the coming offseason. Of course, many of those are restricted free agents, which means the Mystics still control their future, but there may still be quite a bit of turnover before next year. But it’s distinctly questionable who’s going to want to come into this mess and try to improve matters.

—–

The final matchup of the evening featured Eastern Conference leaders Indiana, who found themselves tied at the summit for the first time in well over a month. Holding the tie-breaker over Connecticut gives them a tiny speck of breathing room, but after being atop the East for so long they won’t want to give up that #1 seed in the final days of the regular season. If they both make it through the first round, keeping the Sun away from the Mohegan Sun Arena could be vital in making the WNBA Finals, which makes that top seed especially important. Connecticut are 14-2 at home, 6-10 on the road – that’s a big gap. To recreate their half-game lead, Indiana would have to win in Chicago, against a team whose fate had been sealed earlier in the day. Until Atlanta blew Tulsa away, the Sky still had a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, but when that result filtered through they knew another trip to the lottery awaited them. It’s the sixth season in a row – covering all six years the franchise has existed – but all they could do now was try to produce a performance worth watching in their last home game of the season.

Despite losing their last three games, and four of their last five, Indiana continued with their established starting five. There was a lineup change for Chicago, because Michelle Snow was dealing with pain in her left foot. She was still in uniform and ready to play off the bench, but rookie Carolyn Swords replaced her to start the game. The veteran Erin Thorn/Dominique Canty backcourt retained their starting spots, even with the chances of making the playoffs now at zero.

It was a surprisingly high-scoring, high-paced first half. Both these teams are built around defense-first principles, but Chicago seemed more relaxed with the pressure of needing to win games off their shoulders. They were knocking down shots from outside, and playing with an unusually high tempo that created a few layups as well. The Sky have rarely been able to do this all year – at least not without turning the ball over on every other possession. Led offensively by Aussie point guard Erin Phillips, the Fever did their best to keep pace. When Katie Douglas joined in with a couple of drives to close the quarter, Indiana drew within 26-25 to close the first period.

Nothing much changed in the second. The personalities were different – Epiphanny Prince leading the attack for Chicago, while Jeanette Pohlen and Jessica Davenport provided offense from the Indiana bench – but the scoring pace continued. It was entertaining from a neutral perspective, but continued to be a surprise. The Fever are supposed to shut teams down with their defense, but without Sylvia Fowles even making much of an impact, Chicago were racking up points. The Sky were managing to move the ball out of all the traps and double-teams that the Fever throw at you without turning the ball over, a minor miracle for Chicago, which was creating layups and open jump shots that they were knocking down. The final score of the half was a nicely drawn up play by Fever coach Lin Dunn, which saw Tamika Catchings inbound the ball and then cut straight to the hoop, receiving the return pass from Davenport for a layup. That score was the only edge Indiana held at halftime, leading 51-49.

After a first half where both teams shot over 63% from the field, they emerged for the second half and played like they’d remembered who cared more about this result. The Sky started settling for jumpers rather than moving the ball and finding lanes to the basket as they had in the first half, and the shots stopped falling. Meanwhile, Indiana’s offense continued to flow, and their shooters were still knocking down efforts from outside. With Catchings, Douglas and Phillips still firing, and receiving a little help from fellow starters Tangela Smith and Tammy Sutton-Brown, Indiana led 67-53 less than seven minutes into the second half. At which point it would hardly have been a surprise if Chicago had simply accepted defeat in a game that had lost all meaning to them before tip-off.

But a combination of four people brought Chicago back into the game, and gave us a tightly contested game for the rest of the evening. The two most obvious participants were Epiphanny Prince and Sylvia Fowles, who produced the points on the floor. When she moves into attack mode and everything’s working, Prince can be a devastating scoring weapon, reminiscent of fellow Rutgers grads Cappie Pondexter and Matee Ajavon. She scored 12 points in less than four minutes of action across the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, dragging the Sky back into contention. She inevitably had help from Fowles, who’d been quiet for much of the game but always remains a threat to finish inside or keep a possession alive on the glass.

The third character involved in the recovery was Chicago coach Pokey Chatman, who picked up a well-timed technical foul late in the third quarter. The Michelle Snow foul she went nuts about was clearly the right call on the replay, but coaches are often looking for an excuse to pick up a tech like that. It reminded her team that she was still heavily invested in winning this game, even if their playoff chances were dead. If she cared that much, they had to as well. The fourth and final member of the Sky comeback was Shannon Bobbitt, who happens to play for Indiana. Awful defense on Prince, multiple drives that went absolutely nowhere before she got lost in traffic and coughed the ball up, and several possessions that died before they began under her control helped Chicago back into the game. That 67-53 Fever lead was down to 76-75 by the time Dunn finally pulled Bobbitt and put Phillips back in the game with 7:27 remaining.

The remaining minutes were an offensive disaster on both sides that balanced out the shootout we’d been treated to in the first half. I try to keep this site family friendly, but the descriptive term I wanted to use rhymes with fluster-duck. Indiana could not finish a possession to save their lives, first missing layups, then dissolving the offense into awful side pick-and-rolls involving Douglas and Sutton-Brown that went nowhere. The only points they managed in over seven minutes of basketball were from a Katie Douglas three from the corner for a 79-76 lead. Otherwise it was complete futility.

Fortunately for the Fever, Chicago’s run of offense had utterly collapsed as well. Three free throws, one from Fowles and two from rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot, brought the Sky within a point at 79-78. Besides that, in those same seven minutes, Chicago produced six turnovers and all kinds of awful decisions and bricks, mostly from Epiphanny Prince. This is the negative side of Prince. She tries to take over, whether it’s working or not and with little regard for any other option on the floor. It’s why the comparison to Ajavon is more appropriate right now than the one to Pondexter. And it’s the Ajavon of previous seasons that came off the Washington bench like a bull in a china shop that I’m usually reminded of, not this year’s somewhat more effective and controlled version.

After another of those ineffective right-side pick-and-rolls between Douglas and Sutton-Brown resulted in a Phillips three from the corner that rolled off, Catchings grabbed the offensive rebound to keep the possession alive. She’d been everywhere on hustle plays during the barren stretch of scoring, even if she hadn’t been able to help the offense. The Fever ran the play with Douglas and Sutton-Brown again, and were lucky that the ball got tipped out of bounds to allow them to retain possession with barely a minute left in regulation. Dunn called timeout to try to come up with something better.

Finally, she did. They kept it incredibly simple, feeding Catchings immediately on the low block, and she spun around Tamera Young for a left-handed scoop finish and the foul. After Catchings added the free throw, Indiana had a four-point lead that looked like a chasm. It grew after Prince drove the baseline and tried to throw an impossible pass back through traffic to Fowles. Turnover number a-million-and-one, and Canty compounded that error by immediately fouling Phillips. She extended the lead to six at the line, and the game was thoroughly over when Prince dribbled downcourt, crossed over, and jacked up yet another three that clanked off the iron. More Fever free throws and a meaningless Fowles layup left us with a final score of 88-80 Indiana.

It was yet another game that provided an illustration of Chicago’s season in microcosm. Very impressive and effective for long stretches, but with sequences of awful shots, dreadful decision-making and killer turnovers that sap energy and momentum and lead directly to losses. It’s happened repeatedly this year. Prince finished the game with a pretty nice line, shooting 7-15 for 21 points and six assists, and her team never would’ve been back in the game without her. But she took them out of it just as surely as she’d shot them back into it. She could well be the offensive running mate to Fowles for many years to come in this league, but she has to harness all that raw talent somehow and play more in control. Chicago have three games left, all out West. Hopefully it’ll give Chatman a chance to offer her young players more opportunities to play, after they tried to win this one for their home fans as a going away present. Vandersloot needs as much time as possible to learn the pro game and this league, preferably with Prince alongside her. Three of the long-term building blocks for this franchise are already in place – now they need a chance to grow. Some help in the lottery wouldn’t hurt, either.

It was a strange performance from Indiana, relying on their offense most of the night to keep the game alive rather than their defense, but they found a way to win. That’s been the Sky’s other main problem this season – closing games out – but the Fever are a veteran squad who know what it takes at the end of games. Catchings was 5-10 for 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while Douglas finished 6-14 for 17 and Phillips 5-8 for 16. They also got 14 points from Davenport off the bench on 6-10 from the floor, and 8 from Jeanette Pohlen who was 3-3. Neither of those two have produced much at all in recent weeks, Davenport cooling off after what looked like being a breakout year, and Pohlen either hitting the rookie wall or simply falling into Dunn’s doghouse. If they’re waking up in time for the playoffs, it’ll be a massive boost to the depth of this team. The win takes them back up by half a game on Connecticut, with three left to play. The ball is firmly in their court, and home court advantage is theirs for the taking. It’d be a shame to give it away after so long in the driver’s seat.

For the record, the four-way tie remains a possibility after Sunday’s results, but it now requires Indiana and Connecticut to lose every game they have left. Including a home game for the Fever against Washington on Wednesday. It’s not looking likely, much to the chagrin of the little mathematician who lurks inside me. The writer who wants things kept simple for a nice relaxing week heading into the postseason is rather happier.

 

In other news…

No news of the Players of the Week just yet, thanks to the long weekend in the US.

Also no update on whether the league is going to change the numbers for that triple-double-that-wasn’t by Tina Charles on Friday. I’m guessing it’ll happen sometime in late-October if they ever get around to it.

 

Today’s Games:

None

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET

San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 09/05/2011: Eastern race takes center stage

  1. Kim L. says:

    Truth is with a pre- existing back injury any slight hit that tweks the back again can become serious. Looked as if Sancho was in a whole lot of pain. And at the end of the game she went stright to the locker room and did not throw t-shirts with her team. With backs you never know. I have to say it was not smart to have the starters in the game with the win in hand. If Atlanta does not have DeSouza and /or Sancho is not 100 percent the Dream can not win it all. Not a chance.
    I am an Indy fan and I do not wish injury on anybody but Sancho Little hurting her back could have not come at a better time.

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