It’s about time the playoff picture in the WNBA was given at least a little clarity. Last night, San Antonio had the chance to complete the final eight, by mathematically eliminating Los Angeles with a win on the Sparks’ own floor. Tonight, Indiana had the chance to seal the #1 seed in the East with a win over basement-dwellers Washington. At least then the maths would become slightly easier.
San Antonio went into last night’s matchup with a two-game edge on Los Angeles. An LA win would’ve tied the season-series between the teams, and given the Sparks the edge in the next tie-breaker (conference record). They’d still have needed the Silver Stars to slip up in one of their remaining games against Washington and Tulsa, but it would’ve piled the pressure on San Antonio. However, the Silver Stars had actually produced a couple of decent performances in the last week, achieving comfortable wins over Connecticut and Phoenix before falling to Seattle. LA, on the other hand, had lost three of their last four and were still playing defense that could’ve been generously described as ‘rubbish’. San Antonio must’ve arrived at Staples Center feeling they had every chance to cement their postseason spot.
The expected starting fives opened the game, which meant Kristi Toliver remained at shooting guard for LA, and the 5’8” Jia Perkins at pseudo-small forward for San Antonio. With Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Candace Parker out there as LA’s frontcourt, Perkins had to guard one of them, and the Sparks were noticeably trying to take advantage of that mismatch in the early stages. It was usually Thompson that they were trying to force-feed, and she’s at least four inches taller than Perkins, but as Jia showed in battling Swin Cash last week she’ll put up a fight against anyone. The first time LA tried it, the possession blew up in their face when Perkins tipped the ball and created a turnover; the second time Thompson had an easy finish. Of course, the opposite side of the coin was that Thompson had to chase Perkins around at the other end, which was never likely to turn out well. Perkins nailed a three in the early going, and she was wide open when she took it.
San Antonio coach Dan Hughes ended the mismatch fun when he inserted Danielle Adams for Perkins halfway through the first quarter, but by then LA’s defensive scheme was already clear – we were back to ‘switch everything’. It’s an extraordinarily lazy defense. The Silver Stars didn’t even have to set screens – if two San Antonio players just happened to cross paths, the LA defender would hand over her matchup and switch over to the other Silver Star. There was no fighting around, over, under or through a screen at any point. Just “oh, she’s your problem now” and move on. Inevitably, that created all sorts of mismatches, just as it has done every time LA have tried this defense. Becky Hammon was left being guarded by Candace Parker, Sophia Young by Ticha Penicheiro, and so on. The other problem – again – was that LA are so poor at rotating and recovering to help when someone’s beaten in this miserable defense (which is a frequent occurrence). The extra defender has to come across and help out, or lanes end up wide open to the rim. It’s a basic concept of “help the helper” that you’ve probably heard several times if you’ve ever received any basketball coaching – and LA are atrocious at it.
However, as with the rest of the season, LA’s offense actually looked reasonably good, so they were right in the game. San Antonio were also making too many sloppy mistakes, or attempting to pass through gaps that weren’t there – something LA have been experts at this year, but were avoiding in this game – which kept things tight. Even without finding Parker for her first shot until over five minutes had elapsed in the game, LA were up 13-10 until Hammon decided enough was enough and created a five-point run on her own. A gorgeous post move that ended with a left-handed hook finish by Parker for her first points of the game closed out the first quarter at 20-18 San Antonio.
The Silver Stars built a lead in the second quarter, as LA started settling for jumpers and not hitting any. With Adams providing some offense off the bench, and a little zone defense confusing LA, San Antonio were ahead 37-28 midway through the second. LA’s lineup now involved several bench players, and with Noelle Quinn, Jenna O’Hea, Ebony Hoffman, Thompson and Parker as the five, switching everything would actually have made more sense. They’re all big enough to guard practically anyone San Antonio can put on the floor. But that group lacks speed, and their rotation and recovery help was even worse than the original five, so the defense was just as poor. Some solid work from Milton-Jones inside and a couple of friendly calls from the officials allowed LA to pull within 39-34 at the half.
A run of baskets from LA’s experienced frontcourt and a string of disappointing turnovers from San Antonio gave LA the chance to take charge in the third quarter. The Sparks’ defense might be pretty terrible, but it leaves a lot of players floating in the lane where you don’t necessarily expect them to be. San Antonio were throwing the ball into traffic, and LA were moving ahead because the Silver Stars weren’t even putting shots in the air, never mind making them. Milton-Jones had 10 points in the opening six minutes of the second half, Thompson had five, and San Antonio had five turnovers during the same sequence. LA led 54-49 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.
But one significant fact about this contest became increasingly important as the game progressed – Becky Hammon plays for San Antonio, and she’s very, very good. The little veteran guard (sorry, little veteran undrafted guard, I think there’s a law that we have to mention that) was keeping her team in the game with her typical brand of twisting drives and long-range bombs. She was culpable for a few of the Silver Stars’ turnovers as well, but a three and a drive the length of the court for a circus layup tied the game. Jayne Appel powered in a layup over Milton-Jones to close the third, and San Antonio headed to the final period with a 56-54 advantage.
The other element that led to that turnaround late in the third was San Antonio’s defense, which switched almost exclusively to their 2-3 zone. LA shouldn’t have been befuddled by it, considering they occasionally play their own version and it’s a pretty standard defense, but they started firing up far too many threes. Five triples were missed by LA in the closing stages of the third, along with several other jumpers from just inside the arc, and it allowed San Antonio time to settle down and find some offense. Or at least realise that they needed to give Becky the ball and get the hell out of the way. Parker sitting on the bench for the final 3:28 of the period probably didn’t help LA’s chances, either.
With Parker still on the bench to open the fourth, it was Hammon Time. A jumper from mid-range, another three from deep, a drive along the baseline before feeding a ridiculous wraparound pass to Perkins for a layup – Hammon was taking over just when her team needed her to. It was 63-58 San Antonio when Parker returned with six minutes left in the game, but the momentum the Silver Stars had built just kept rolling. Hammon hit another pullup jumper, Tully Bevilaqua exploited more terrible defense and drove an open lane to the hoop for a three-point play, and then Hammon knifed through the lane for yet another layup right in the heart of the defense. That made it 70-58 with under five minutes to play, and LA looked just about done for. The final nail in the coffin came seconds later, when a Hammon dribble deflected off an LA foot and went out of bounds. The officials kept the ball with San Antonio, but declined to re-set the shot clock, leaving the Silver Stars with one second to put up a shot. Hammon inbounded, and found Bevilaqua for a heave from over her shoulder, well behind the three-point line. It somehow banked in, the San Antonio bench exploded in glee, Tully threw a big jumping fist pump in celebration and LA were dead and buried. 15 points in four minutes isn’t impossible, but there was no way in hell that the Sparks were going to pull it off in this game.
LA coach Joe Bryant, undoubtedly sensing that his time as Sparks coach might be coming to an end, was enraged when neither Milton-Jones nor Thompson drew a call on a possession with just over a minute left. Looked like the officials got it right to me, but Joe didn’t think so, and picked up two straight technicals that added up to an ejection. With his team 15 points down and barely 60 seconds left on the clock, it hardly mattered. I doubt he’ll have trouble paying the fine. San Antonio closed out the game 82-65, and joyfully celebrated their postseason spot on the court. Meanwhile, a miserable Sparks team trooped back to the locker room, well aware that their season was over.
This was hardly a surprising result, as my repeated condemnation of LA’s performances in recent weeks had suggested. The Sparks aren’t good. There’s a lack of structure, or any idea who’s going to step up on any night, or even who’s likely to see the floor. And the rebounding and defense are both abysmal. They received double-digit scoring from Thompson, Parker, Milton-Jones and Toliver, all of whom shot right around 50% from the floor, but the rest of the squad was a combined 3-21 (14%). A team that’s been the best three-point shooting side in the league all season was 4-22 from outside in this game, and had no other ideas about what to do against San Antonio’s zone in the fourth quarter. The defense was slow and lazy, and there was so little effort on the boards it was embarrassing, losing the battle on the glass 34-24 to the worst-rebounding team in the entire WNBA.
There’s talent on this roster, but it’s obvious that changes need to be made. I wouldn’t expect Bryant to be back, but with GM Penny Toler in charge you never know what to expect (and I’d be shocked if they got rid of Toler after all these years). Thompson might retire, Penicheiro’s always a year-to-year proposition, O’Hea will probably stay in Australia to prepare for the Olympics – it could be a very different lineup by the start of next season. Parker is obviously a very nice building block (if she can stay in one piece), but she looked miserable out there last night. A better system, more balanced and consistent support, and a little bit of luck (with health, and maybe in the lottery) could quickly make this team a contender again. They just need far, far better organisation.
I’m pleased for San Antonio, who deserve their spot in the playoffs after an overachieving start to the season that collapsed in the middle. Hammon was unstoppable in the second half of this game, reflecting why she’s picked up such a devoted fan base as her career has progressed. After a decent first half, where she shot 3-6 for 11 points, Hammon was 11-13 for 26 in the second half alone, and carried her team to victory. Usually you need at least a couple of scorers to win a game, and she did receive a little support from Perkins and Bevilaqua, but this one was almost all on Becky’s back. It was a sight to behold, even if it was against some dismal defending.
Now that they’ve secured a spot in the postseason, San Antonio can look forward to an almost certain meeting with runaway leaders Minnesota. If Phoenix lost their last three games (at home to Tulsa, in Seattle, back home for Minnesota), and San Antonio won their last two (home for Washington, in Tulsa), they could theoretically leapfrog the Mercury into third. But that’s very unlikely. So the chances are that they’ll have to face the Lynx, who they’re 0-4 against this season. The Silver Stars can take some solace from the fact that the first two encounters both required buzzer beaters for Minnesota to come out ahead, but San Antonio will still be long shots to progress (and most people will probably expect them to get swept). From the smiles on the players’ faces at the end of the game, they were happy enough just to make sure they’d be there. Worrying about how they’ll deal with the Lynx comes later.
So that result last night left us knowing exactly who our eight playoff teams are, but still without much confirmation of the seeding, especially in the East. A home game against Washington offered Indiana the opportunity to remove themselves from any calculations, by conclusively securing the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Connecticut’s loss to Atlanta (covered in yesterday’s column) meant that the only way the Fever could throw away the top spot was to lose their three remaining games. With New York and Atlanta to come on Friday and Sunday respectively, tonight was both the first and easiest option to seal that spot. Losers of 11 of their last 12 games, and coming off a 31-point shellacking in Connecticut on Sunday, Washington can’t have arrived in Indianapolis with high expectations. At this point I’m sure they just want the season to end as quickly as possible. The perfect sacrificial lambs for the Fever, surely?
The starting fives were as expected, Indiana’s usual group and the same five that began Washington’s last game (no tinkering from Trudi Lacey this time). For most of the first half, it seemed like we were going to witness the anticipated near-walkover. Washington didn’t look like they wanted to be there in the first quarter, with all the energy and drive on the floor coming from the home team. Even the recently re-energised Katie Douglas looked like she desperately wanted to sew up the East tonight and relax for a couple of games before they hit the playoffs. With Washington turning the ball over far too cheaply, Indiana held a 22-11 lead at the end of the first quarter.
As turnover after turnover on repeated weak passes kept handing the ball back to the Fever in the second quarter, Indiana led 31-18 midway through the period. Then something very odd happened. A 7-0 Mystics run materialised out of nowhere when Matee Ajavon hit a three, Crystal Langhorne slid in for a layup, and Douglas stopped dribbling in anticipation of a call – only for Ajavon to scoop up the loose ball and coast in for a layup when the whistle didn’t arrive. Rocked back on their heels a little, Indiana’s flow completely collapsed for the rest of the half and they contracted the turnover disease that had been disabling Washington all evening. Four giveaways in the final five minutes of the half helped Washington back into the game, and somehow the Mystics led 37-36 at the break. The final play of the half, where Douglas penetrated with ease and tried to find Tamika Catchings under the hoop only to watch her pass go sailing out of bounds summed the last few minutes up. The script for the easy Fever win had been twisted.
Undoubtedly given a piece of coach Lin Dunn’s mind at halftime, the Fever came out with renewed aggression and energy to start the second half. Besides two wide open threes from Douglas and Tangela Smith, every shot they took was on a drive to the basket. Catchings, Douglas, point guard Erin Phillips and even center Tammy Sutton-Brown were all looking for high percentage shots in the paint, and they were either going to take those shots or force someone to foul them to prevent the attempt. Washington had no answer, and their defensive rotations were starting to look a lot like LA’s from the previous night, so barely five minutes into the third quarter Indiana led 56-41. Normal service had been resumed.
But not so fast. Phillips was replaced at the point for Indiana by Shannon Bobbitt, seconds after Kelly Miller had come in for rookie Jasmine Thomas at the same position for Washington. Miller attacked, Bobbitt was typically useless, and the Mystics made another comeback run. Miller sank a three before finding Monique Currie on a backdoor cut for a layup, Langhorne and Marissa Coleman followed with layups of their own, and suddenly the gap was back down to five points. On the final play of the third quarter, looking to extend a lead which had snuck back up to seven, Catchings lost control of the ball and Coleman stepped in to take it away. On the resulting break, Langhorne drew a foul just before the buzzer, and made the layup. It looked like a huge momentum swing, from what could’ve been a nine-point game to a potential four-point gap, but the damage was mitigated slightly when the officials used replay to rule the basket out. Langhorne made one-of-two at the line instead, leaving Indiana to head to the fourth up 64-58.
For a while, it was almost a game in the fourth quarter. An Ajavon drive for a layup, a weak turnover by Indiana on the following inbounds and a three by Coleman from the corner cut the gap to three points early in the period. It was the closest Washington had been since just after halftime. But with Sutton-Brown having far and away her best offensive outing of the season, and Indiana’s shooters making one or two more shots than the Mystics could manage, the Fever pulled away yet again.
An Erin Phillips jumper had made the score 75-65 before a couple of Washington possessions ended in trademark cheap and completely unforced turnovers. Sometimes it’s even hard to tell who they’re trying to pass to. But then came probably the most important moment of the game. This may have been a chance to clinch the Eastern Conference regular season crown, but the Fever would’ve happily waited for another day – or even accepted a lower seed – if they could’ve reached the playoffs healthy. Phillips drove into the lane for yet another attempt at a layup, and stepped on Langhorne’s foot. Phillips’s foot twisted at a nasty and unnatural angle, and she went down hard in a lot of pain under the basket. She had to be helped from the floor with a teammate under either arm, and was putting practically no weight on her injured foot at all.
Having lost original starting point guard Briann January earlier in the season to a torn ACL, the Fever have coped well with Phillips in the starting role and Bobbitt as her backup. But that didn’t look good, and without Phillips Indiana would be in trouble. Bobbitt was awful in this game, despite the four steals she picked up in quick succession in the first half. She’s not a starting point guard in this league, and it would likely leave Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings taking on a lot of the point guard responsibilities. That’s not a move Lin Dunn would want to have to make on the fly barely a week before the postseason gets underway. We can only hope that it was a sprain that looked worse than it was, and Phillips can be back by next week. Daughter of an Aussie Rules football player, Phillips is as tough as nails, so if her body can take it she’ll be out there. It’s just that when someone as strong and competitive as that goes down and stays down, you worry about how serious the injury might be.
The Fever raised themselves to close out the game fairly comfortably, even without the services of Phillips. By rule, Washington were allowed to pick the player that took her free throws, and rightly selected ice cold Shyra Ely, who hadn’t played all night. Teams so often choose completely the wrong player in that situation, I was actually impressed by Trudi Lacey for once. But it backfired. Ely not only knocked down both foul shots, she proceeded to play so well over the remaining few minutes of action that Lin Dunn never even subbed her back out. It left Douglas and Catchings as the Indiana backcourt, and for three-and-a-half minutes at least, that worked out fine. Ely had seven points by the end, as the Fever eased to an 87-69 victory. But at what cost?
It wasn’t a great performance by Indiana, but they’re hardly the first team to make hard work out of overcoming one of the WNBA’s weaker teams this year. Practically all the playoff contenders have had at least one close call against Tulsa or Washington, or even dropped a game or two to them. Douglas has looked better lately, snapping out of her second-half swoon to some extent and finally resembling the running mate Catchings needs once again. In this game, Douglas shot 7-14 for 21 points and five assists, while Catchings added 17 points on 5-10 from the floor and grabbed 10 rebounds. Tammy Sutton-Brown had one of her rare offensive outbursts with 15 points on 7-10 shooting to provide some assistance. But on the night when the top spot in the East was sealed, the story is Phillips. If she’s out, you have to fear for the Fever’s chances against whichever of the other three Eastern playoff teams they’re eventually presented with. It’d be heartbreaking for Phillips individually as well, after she’s done such a solid job replacing January and keeping the Fever in position at the top of the East. On the positive front, it was just being called a sprain in post game interviews, and while she won’t play against New York the Fever were only saying she might be kept out of the final game against Atlanta as a precaution. Let’s hope she’s back to start the playoffs.
Washington showed a lot more fight in this game than they did in their capitulation to Connecticut on Sunday, but ultimately horrendous turnovers did them in once again. It’s been a recurring theme all season, with so many unforced giveaways dropping right into the hands of opposition players or flying into the stands. Langhorne led them yet again, 8-14 for 18 points and 15 rebounds, but whenever they made a comeback it felt like it was more down to over-relaxation from the Fever than anything particularly effective from the Mystics. This team needs help, and lots of it, but then we knew that already.
In other news…
Shockingly quickly, the WNBA announced today that they were correcting statistical errors from the now-infamous Tina Charles triple-double-that-wasn’t. She’s down to seven assists in the game, after the three detailed here as being wildly erroneous were removed from her stat line. Well done WNBA for correcting the mistakes, even when they take away such a lauded achievement, although obviously it would’ve been nice if such egregious errors hadn’t occurred in the first place.
Australia took the first game of a best-of-three series against New Zealand today, 77-64. Led by former WNBA players Suzy Batkovic and Abby Bishop (hopefully future as well as former in Bishop’s case), it was fairly comfortable for the Aussies, as expected. The winners take the FIBA Oceania Championship, and a place in the Olympics next year. The losers head to the additional qualifying tournament. Game 2 is Friday in Brisbane.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Chicago @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 10pm ET