There were two games in the WNBA tonight, one completely meaningless to both teams, and one involving Tulsa on the road. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the dog days of the WNBA regular season.
Let’s start with the game that at least remained vaguely relevant to how the season might play out. Phoenix hosted Tulsa knowing that they needed to take care of business before their crunch matchup with Seattle tomorrow night. A win would tie the Mercury in the standings with the Storm. If they could follow up with a win in Key Arena, then beat a Minnesota team with nothing to play for on Sunday, they’d steal home court advantage in the first round from Seattle. Also, mathematically, San Antonio could still catch Phoenix for the #3 seed, and a win tonight would take care of that small possibility. Tulsa, being Tulsa, had nothing to play for but pride and that fourth win of the season that would allow them to avoid the worst record in WNBA history.
Given that they were playing the Shock, Phoenix took a couple of risks with their lineups. Penny Taylor stayed in her warmups all night, resting due to the back spasms she aggravated in the Mercury’s last game. The hope is that she’ll be fit to play tomorrow against the Storm, and once again DeWanna Bonner took her place in the lineup. It also became evident as the game went along that Mercury coach Corey Gaines was trying to use his entire roster and balance out the minutes, keeping everyone as fresh as possible to face Seattle. Tulsa began the game with what’s become their standard starting five in recent games. That left rookie center Liz Cambage coming off the bench again, despite the combined 50 points she’s scored in 55 minutes against the Mercury across three games so far this season.
Tulsa got off to a decent start, with Andrea Riley looking willing to penetrate for once rather than jack up threes from so far outside she can barely see the basket. The Shock kicked up a gear when Cambage entered the fray less than four minutes into the game. Phoenix sent rookie big Krystal Thomas in at the same time – the first indicator that Gaines was going deep into his bench tonight – but she couldn’t remotely deal with Cambage. Scoring largely on layups that were easy thanks to her size and deep position in the paint, Cambage had six points in the quarter before Shock coach Teresa Edwards sat her back down again. Fortunately for Phoenix, they’d received a boost from their own reserves. Ketia Swanier came into the game and pushed the pace a little, even throwing in a three, while Marie Ferdinand-Harris was having one of her hot nights. The Swanier/MFH-propelled run took the Mercury from 21-20 behind to a 29-24 lead at the end of the first quarter.
After some decent penetration and ball movement in the first, Tulsa’s offense stagnated in the early stages of the second period. They were lucky that Phoenix weren’t taking too much advantage, missing shots of their own during that stretch, but the Mercury still held a 37-28 lead when Cambage returned to the game with 6:30 left in the first half. The Mercury defense for the rest of the half was atrocious, and not just on Cambage. While they still couldn’t deal with the big Aussie inside, players like Riley and Karima Christmas were also finding wide open lanes to the basket for layups, and that allowed the Shock to make a small comeback. The Mercury’s offense was producing its typically high percentage shots, but when you repeatedly give up uncontested baskets at the rim you’re in trouble however good your offense is. Tulsa were dominating the offensive glass as well. By halftime, Phoenix only led the worst team in the league 48-45.
At the break, Cambage was already 5-8 for 12 points, and Riley was 5-9 for 11. The midget point guard’s line included 1-5 from three-point range, and two occasions where I shouted at my monitor in exasperation at her ridiculous efforts from somewhere in the vicinity of Mexico. If she could just get it through her skull that those attempts from 25 feet and beyond are terrible shots, she might be a serviceable player in this league. Until then, she’s right around 132nd in my virtual mock draft of current WNBA players.
The early stages of the second half were slightly worrying for Phoenix, but not due to anything that affected the scoreboard. Diana Taurasi got tied up with the Shock’s Tiffany Jackson, they became a little heated for a few seconds, then continued jawing at each other after teammates and officials had separated them. Taurasi, if you remember, is officially on six technicals for the season (after one was rescinded), and the seventh is an automatic one-game suspension – which would’ve ruled her out of tomorrow’s game with Seattle (unless the league decided to rescind another one overnight). Some referees would’ve called a double-tech on Taurasi and Jackson there to calm things down, but the officials were undoubtedly aware of Taurasi’s situation and refrained.
In terms of the actual basketball, the Mercury had a positive start to the third quarter. They came out with a little more energy on the defensive end, closing off those easy scoring opportunities that were available to the Shock in the first half and creating a couple of turnovers. The five giveaways Tulsa had in the first half was startlingly low for them, so it was about time that Phoenix applied some pressure and caused them more difficulty moving the ball. As is often the case, Taurasi channeled the energy from her spat with Jackson into offense, nailing a three and then driving for a three-point play on the break, pushing the Mercury lead to 60-50 midway through the third. It was Jackson who eventually bitched a little too much and picked up the technical foul, not Taurasi. However, although they’d improved slightly and were making her life more difficult, Phoenix still couldn’t defend Cambage. More points from her kept the Shock in the game, and the Mercury lead was only 70-62 at the end of the third.
The start to the fourth quarter was a shocking mess for Tulsa. Well, not that shocking considering their season, but a mess nonetheless. Three awful passes (two from Riley, one from Abi Olajuwon) coughed up needless turnovers before Edwards called a timeout to settle her troops. Then right out of the timeout, Olajuwon jacked a hideous turnaround jumper that caught nothing but air. They were once again fortunate that nothing was dropping for Phoenix while they were committing all these errors, but Taurasi eventually opened the fourth quarter scoring nearly four minutes into the period with a three. Tulsa responded with yet another Cambage basket at the other end, but Taurasi drilled another triple seconds later. That gave the Mercury a 76-64 lead, and the gap was starting to look a little too big for the Shock to cross.
Tulsa looked tired in the fourth quarter, perhaps not surprising for a team that’s been through a long, dispiriting season. When Taurasi came around ball screens, there was no hedge at all from the second defender, therefore leaving Taurasi wide open until her defender could fight around the pick. That’s either poor instruction for the defense, poor execution, or simple tiredness from the post players failing to step out and challenge the shot. Regardless of the reason, it led to those two quick-fire threes, and a third one Taurasi hit barely a minute later. Cambage was still scoring at the other end, but at 81-66 with under five minutes to play, this game was all but over. The lead didn’t drop below 12 the rest of the way, and the Mercury reserves closed the game out comfortably, 91-76.
It wasn’t as easy as it might’ve been, but Phoenix eventually did the job. Taurasi finished 7-15 for 21 points and no technicals in under 23 minutes of action, no one played more than 30 minutes, and the bench received plenty of time to show what they could do. Marie Ferdinand-Harris has no conscience whatsoever on a basketball court, but when she shoots 6-11 for 14 points, that’s okay. Alexis Gray-Lawson chipped in 12 of her own, on 6-7 from the floor. That win officially confirms the first-round pairings in the West, with Minnesota-San Antonio the 1-4 matchup, and Seattle-Phoenix the 2-3. Or maybe the 3-2. Phoenix have lost nine of their last ten encounters with Seattle, and the one win was by the skin of their teeth against the Jackson-less Storm last time out in mid-August. At some point, they’re going to have to win in Seattle if they want to advance in the playoffs this season – either tomorrow night, or during the first round series. You can bet they’d prefer to get the job done tomorrow, and steal home court for the games that truly matter in a week’s time.
All in all, that was a reasonably positive night for Tulsa, even if they couldn’t steal the win. Admittedly against a fairly pathetic post defense, Cambage was a beast, going 9-13 for 22 points. Fellow rookie Kayla Pedersen earned herself a few more minutes than Edwards has been giving her in recent games as well. Riley had a decent outing, whenever she refrained from bombing away from 25 feet and beyond. She was 1-7 from three-point range (the vast majority NBA three-point range), but 5-5 when she stepped inside for closer jump shots or layups at the rim. She’s always going to be small, and her decision-making even besides the threes isn’t great, but tonight was at least better. Apart from the threes. Please, please, please Andrea. For the sake of various appliances in my house that could be hit by something I throw a little too hard: stop taking three-pointers from the moon.
The opening game of the evening was in Minnesota, where Fan Appreciation Night offered up a completely pointless game with Chicago. The Lynx have tied up everything at this stage, and all they want is some rhythm and perfect health heading into the postseason. Chicago are at the other end of the spectrum, with their future counting lottery combinations confirmed once again. While no professional team ever wants to lose, the Sky actually would’ve been better off dropping this game (and the other two remaining in their season). If they can ‘catch’ LA in the loss column before the end of the season, their chances of a higher draft pick go up. But I doubt those were the instructions Pokey Chatman sent her team out with before tip-off.
The Lynx rolled with their usual starting five, while Chicago stuck with the veteran Erin Thorn/Dominique Canty backcourt despite their season being over. Carolyn Swords started at power forward for Michelle Snow for the second straight game, reportedly due to Snow’s foot problems (although her mediocre performances may have had something to do with it as well).
The first quarter was basically Lindsay Whalen vs. Sylvia Fowles. Whalen was making Thorn look silly, driving around her with ease in the halfcourt or getting out on the break for multiple layups. Meanwhile, Fowles was receiving the ball deep in the paint, and dropping in layup after layup herself. Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Rebekkah Brunson have done yeoman’s work in the paint for Minnesota this season, but sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do against Big Syl. Whalen had eight points, Fowles had 11, and Minnesota had a 22-19 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Unsurprisingly, the Lynx made a run to open the second period while Fowles was resting on the bench. Once she returned, the Minnesota offense dried up, and a 30-19 lead narrowed to 32-28. But as the quarter progressed, the basic talent gap between the teams increasingly seemed to tell, as Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore started knocking down some shots. The Lynx led 41-32 at the half.
After a couple of Whalen drives into the paint and a couple of Augustus jumpers opened the second half, it seemed like the game might already be drifting to a close. It was 47-34 less than two minutes into the second half when Chatman called a timeout, clearly unhappy about her team’s performance since the interval. Something she said woke them up, because a run led by Thorn and Fowles out of the timeout pushed the Sky back into the game. With Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve going all the way down her bench to hand out minutes (except for rookie Amber Harris, who was out due to a concussion), Chicago had a foothold back in the game. When the Sky’s backcourt-of-the-future Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot sank back-to-back threes, the gap was down to a single point at 51-50. Reeve’s lineups made it clear that winning wasn’t a huge priority on the night, but in front of a large crowd that wanted to be ‘appreciated’ with a win, they were still looking for a way to take the victory.
The fourth quarter was an interesting combination of trying to win the game for the fans, and testing things out for the future for the Lynx. It’s been rare that we’ve seen Maya Moore at the power forward spot this season, but the one time we did for any length of time was in the last matchup with Chicago, when Cathrine Kraayeveld was in the game. The same thing happened tonight in the fourth, Reeve responding to Chatman’s insertion of Kraayeveld at the 4 by pulling Charde Houston for Whalen, and shifting Moore to power forward. The difference on this occasion was that even when Chatman pulled Kraayeveld back out for the more low post-oriented Swords a couple of minutes later, Moore stayed right where she was. Reeve’s won a lot of games this season without Moore seeing much time at all away from the small forward spot, but it never hurts to see how a different combination might work out.
A pair of big threes from Thorn and a three-point play from Swords with under four minutes left cut the score to 67-66 (Moore’s modest stature for a post player and limited experience down there showed on that play). But on the next possession an offensive board broke to Moore and she found herself defended by Fowles. Moore crossed over and tried to shake her, rose up for the jump shot and was utterly denied, but was fortunate enough to receive a home town call from the officials and head to the line for free throws.
Then came the other interesting aspect of the fourth quarter: Minnesota went zone. You don’t see much of that from Reeve, but if she’s going to use Moore as a power forward in future, it might have to be a bigger part of the repertoire. Unsurprisingly, considering their lack of composure offensively throughout the season, Chicago looked confused. A poor pass from Tamera Young was picked off by Whalen, who coasted in for a layup at the other end and a 71-66 lead. Chatman took another timeout at that point, but her team was no better at attacking the Lynx zone when they emerged from it. Two ugly forced three-point efforts by Prince and a shot clock violation ended their next three possessions, a Fowles brick from 15 feet ended the fourth, and both of them were summarily benched by Chatman for the rest of the game. By then it was over anyway, and the Lynx fans were left to cheer home their team to a 78-69 victory. For the first time in years, this was just the last regular season game they’d see until next year – they’ll be back next week for the playoffs.
The star attraction for the Lynx on the night was home town girl Lindsay Whalen, who finished 10-15 for 20 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and zero turnovers. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the first time in league history anyone’s put up 20 points/10 assists without a single turnover. Not a bad way to remind everyone that she’s an MVP candidate as well, in the wide open race that we’re presented with for that award this year. Some of the starters probably played a little more than Reeve would’ve liked, with Augustus and Moore both creeping over the 30 minute mark, but clearly she wants to keep up the winning momentum heading into the postseason. Augustus finished with 22 points and Moore 16 as Whalen’s support acts. Just one more game to go for Minnesota, Sunday afternoon in Phoenix, before the postseason gets underway. Phoenix’s win allowed the league to announce part of the schedule, so we now know that the opening Lynx playoff game – the first since 2004 – will take place on Friday September 16th at Target Center. After all those years of waiting, I’m sure the Lynx fans are already primed and ready for it to arrive.
It was a creditable performance from the Sky, but after her dominance in the first quarter Fowles had a fairly quiet evening for the rest of the game. She finished 7-13 for 17 points and six rebounds, disappointing when you consider she had 11 and four after 10 minutes of play. That can happen against Minnesota’s defense (or when your own team tends to forget about you). Her main assistance came from Erin Thorn, who shot 6-11 for 17 points of her own. Chatman gave her young guards plenty of minutes to gain some experience and showcase their talents, but unfortunately neither had a particularly impressive outing. Prince continues to take some terrible shots, but with some of her teammates’ reluctance to shoot, you can’t always blame her. She ended the game 3-12 from the floor for eight points, while Vandersloot was 2-10 for seven. They both have a lot of talent, and they should be part of this franchise’s future for a long time to come, but there’s still a lot of development required before they’re the finished article.
In other news…
The Western Conference first round playoff schedule has been released, although obviously without venues for the Phoenix-Seattle series. Considering the trouble they’ve had with local broadcasts working from the AT&T Center, I’m just happy that the one San Antonio home game in the first round is on ESPN2. The Silver Stars are probably a long-shot to be hosting any other games until next year.
According to Erin Phillips herself via twitter, her ankle is okay and she’s on track to be ready for the playoffs. Unless it’s a cunning ruse by Fever coach Lin Dunn to force her first-round opponent to prepare for Phillips when she won’t be there, that’s very good news for Indiana. With the #1 seed in the East sewn up, don’t expect to see much of the Aussie point guard in their final two regular season games.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Chicago @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Indiana @ New York, 7pm ET
Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET (yikes, how many people are going to watch this one?)