WNBA Today, 09/10/2011: Liberty keep Sunday interesting and assorted other contests

Before the excitement of the Western Conference home court decider between Phoenix and Seattle last night, the East had some fun of its own. Considering I’ve already printed the resulting playoff scenarios, I’m sure you already know the result of Indiana’s trip to New York. But after covering every single game of the WNBA regular season for its first 97 days, I’m certainly not going to skip any with only three days remaining. Which means you not only get the Fever’s clash with the Liberty in this piece, but the three completely meaningless games that have also taken place over the last couple of days. If nothing else, I’m at least a completist.

Indiana seemed primed for New York to take advantage of last night. The Fever had nothing to play for, having sealed the #1 seed in the East days earlier. They’d lost their starting point guard to a nasty-looking ankle sprain in their last game (that’s the second starting point guard, after the first one blew out her knee a couple of months ago). They had no real reason to care about this game. New York, on the other hand, still had plenty to fight for. Opening the game in fourth place in the East thanks to Atlanta’s recent winning habit, two wins in their last two games had the potential to bump the Liberty as high as 2nd in the conference. That would obviously come with the added bonus of home court advantage in the first round, and after a slow start in their new home out in Jersey, the Liberty have settled in and entered this game 11-5 at the Prudential Center. After spending practically all year chasing after Indiana and Connecticut in the standings, sneaking into second on the final day of the regular season would be a nice bonus heading into the playoffs.

Third-string point guard Shannon Bobbitt took Phillips’s place at the point for Indiana – Phillips is expected to be ready for the playoffs, but there’s no point risking that ankle until then. New York opened with their standard starting five. In the early stages of the game, it seemed like the Liberty’s greater interest in winning the game was going to be the primary influence on the result. They were playing with a lot of energy, especially defensively, and out-hustling the Fever. Of course it also helped that Cappie Pondexter had made a couple of shots – something that’s been a bit of a struggle in recent games – hitting consecutive threes to take New York 19-11 ahead midway through the first quarter.

However, Indiana aren’t the sort of team who’ll show up and roll over, handing victory to their opponents. New York were always going to have to perform to take the win, even if the Fever didn’t care that much about the result. The problem was that multiple Indiana possessions were stagnating horribly. Bobbitt has a tendency to pound the ball for far too long up top, leading to possessions that go nowhere until deep into the shot clock. Even when it didn’t result in a shot clock violation, there were multiple occasions where Indiana players had to force shots up purely to beat the buzzer. Pondexter picked up her second foul barely seven minutes into the first quarter, but Essence Carson came into the game and picked up right where she left off, carrying New York to a 29-21 lead at the end of the first quarter.

It was a shockingly high-paced opening period considering the teams involved, and unsurprisingly the scoring-rate dropped a little in the second quarter when both coaches went deeper into their reserves. But in terms of balance, it was essentially more of the same. The energy level was higher from New York, effort coming only in spits and starts from Indiana. The Fever were staying within range by making a few shots, but the Liberty looked fairly comfortable and Carson was getting the better of Tamika Catchings in their matchup. A couple of plays where Carson went straight by Catch on drives left the Fever’s typically energetic leader looking tired. Catchings is the last person you’d expect to concede a game, however meaningless in the standings, but it’s been a long season. You couldn’t blame her for conserving her remaining dregs of energy for the postseason. New York led 47-35 at the half.

A series of Indiana turnovers to start the second half made it look like the Fever were ready to give up and move on. It wasn’t Catchings’s day at all, driving into traffic and then losing the ball before she could make any use of it on more than one occasion. New York’s lead stretched to 55-38 early in the third quarter.

Then Indiana gave the Liberty something to get a little nervous about. Rookie Jeanette Pohlen hit a three from the corner, Katie Douglas followed with one of her own from the same spot, and then Bobbitt sank two triples to pile on top. In the space of barely two minutes, a 17-point lead had become seven, and it was a contest again. The Liberty never do anything the easy way, do they? The gap dropped as low as five when Catchings hit three free throws – one of them the result of a technical on frustrated New York coach John Whisenant – before the Liberty responded, Carson and Kia Vaughn combining to build the lead back to 65-55 at the end of the third.

The fourth quarter was a strange beast. Indiana weren’t playing all that well, or looking particularly invested, but New York were playing a little too nervously to put them away. The game was rarely close enough to be too worrying, but every time it looked over the Liberty would commit a thoroughly unnecessary turnover or someone in a Fever jersey would sink a three. When a fourth consecutive New York possession ended in a cheap giveaway with just over three minutes left, and Douglas bailed Shavonte Zellous out after she missed a breakaway layup by dropping in the putback, the score was 75-69 with over three minutes remaining. But when Douglas missed the free throw after being fouled on that putback, and Catchings grabbed the offensive rebound from the miss but couldn’t quite stay inbounds, it summed up their evening. They sort of cared about the game, but not quite enough. Vaughn and Pondexter came back in to close it out, Vaughn made a layup, and then Leilani Mitchell sank a dagger three with barely two minutes left for an 80-71 New York lead. There was no coming back from there. The Liberty held on for the win they wanted, 83-75.

When Tamika Catchings has a night quite that far below her typical form, it’s always going to be hard for Indiana to win. A lot of her shots were coming up short, making it seem like she really had just run out of fuel for this game. Hopefully for the Fever that’s only the case for this particular contest or for the regular season, and there’s a reserve in there somewhere for the playoffs. With this version of Catchings – 2-8 for nine points, six boards and five turnovers – they’d undoubtedly be first round casualties. Bobbitt had a pretty stat-line in 36 minutes as the fill-in point guard starter. She shot 6-7 for 16 points, including 4-4 from long range, and added seven assists and just two turnovers. Well, two official turnovers. Shot clock violations – of which Indiana had four, and several near-misses – are credited to the team. With her at the helm, the offense was frequently stilted and bogged-down, even if her unlikely shooting performance somewhat made up for it. They need Phillips back for the postseason.

This was a solid win for the Liberty, even if they had far greater motivation to pull it out. The scoring was balanced, with five players in double-figures led by Carson with 18. Vaughn especially had a nice game, 5-6 from the floor for 15 points and nine rebounds (five of them offensive) and five assists. Her passing game, both making the high-low pass to fellow posts and out of double-teams from the low block, has come on in leaps and bounds. The only worry for New York is Pondexter. She’s had outbursts this season where she’s come through late in games when her team needed her, but damn she’s been cold lately. 4-12 in this game for 12 points, she’s a combined 19-68 in her last five games (28%). Even with the likes of Plenette Pierson, Vaughn and Carson performing at their best, this team is going nowhere in the postseason without Pondexter leading the way.

Once again, the scenarios for tomorrow afternoon are here (the WNBA has also posted a potential schedule here). Connecticut have only lost twice at home all season, so winning there to create the possibility of the #2 seed won’t be an easy task. If the Liberty lose, it’d be interesting to know who Whisenant and his team will be supporting in the later game between Indiana and Atlanta. Would the Liberty rather take on Tina Charles and the Sun, having just lost to them for the third time in four tries this season, or the Fever team that they just beat? If I’m New York, I think I’d rather take on Indiana, even if they are the #1 seed. But I’m sure the Liberty would prefer home court advantage if they can steal a win tomorrow instead.

—–

The other game on Friday night featured Tulsa in Los Angeles, a matchup of the two worst defenses in the entire WNBA. Yes, Mercury fans, this season these two have been so bad that you’ve been pushed out of the bottom two (even out of the bottom three, in fact, thanks to Washington). Tulsa had sealed the ‘alternative’ #1 seed – highest chance in the lottery – a while ago, so technically LA had more reason to lose this game. Staying behind Chicago over their remaining games would give the Sparks a greater chance in that same draw. But after being embarrassed by Tulsa on their own floor just a couple of weeks ago, LA probably wanted to avoid losing to the Shock again.

Or maybe they didn’t care. LA left Candace Parker on the bench for ‘precautionary reasons’, which probably means either the lingering effects of her knee injury, or abject disgust at the way her team has played this season. Both would be understandable. As you might expect, it wasn’t much of a game. Jantel Lavender started in place of Parker (you could make a decent argument that she should’ve been starting at center for most of the season), and her all-rookie center matchup with Tulsa’s Liz Cambage was the most interesting aspect of the game all night. Lavender’s a big body, usually pretty adept at finishing inside and has a reasonable mid-range game as well. Once the vets move on, she and Parker look like a solid starting frontcourt for the forseeable future. Cambage is still coming off the bench, but she’s been more effective in a couple of recent games. Of course, playing Phoenix and LA will tend to help a post player produce.

LA broke out to an early lead and held a 10-point advantage at the end of the first quarter. and a 50-39 edge at halftime. Essentially, their offense is better than Tulsa’s, and both of them are dreadful defensively, so LA were coming out on top. The remarkable thing about the first half was that there were only 10 combined turnovers from both teams. Considering how cheaply both these squads have been giving up the ball this season, that was something of an achievement.

Tulsa could never quite make a game of it in the second half. The gap was down in single-digits briefly in the third quarter, but ballooned as high as 17 in the fourth, and even a string of LA turnovers couldn’t bring them back. The Sparks coasted home for an 84-73 win, moving them within half a game of Chicago for that fourth-worst spot that they don’t particularly want. LA face the Sky in a loser-takes-the-ping-pong-balls game on Saturday night (more on that below).

Just one game left for Tulsa to try to avoid the worst record in WNBA history now, at home to San Antonio on Sunday night. In this one, Andrea Riley had 18 points, but shot 5-15 to get there. Cambage was far more efficient for her 18, shooting 8-10 from the floor in only 20 minutes of action. The big Aussie is finishing the season out strong, which is nice to see after such a horrible year for the Shock as a team (and after being benched). Come back once you’re done with the Olympics, Liz. It’s going to be fun to see how much better you can get.

The other rookie center, in just her second start of the season, had 19 points on 8-12 from the floor and 12 rebounds, all in just 26 minutes. Lavender had 21 and 9 in her previous start earlier this year as well. You think maybe she should’ve played a little more over the season? The Sparks had balanced scoring from across their roster as Joe Bryant spread the minutes around, and LA took care of the Shock like they should have two weeks earlier. If they’d managed to beat Tulsa back then, maybe this game still would’ve meant something. But the 2011 Sparks season had been chock full of ifs, buts and maybes.

—–

The first game on Saturday night was in San Antonio, where Washington‘s season finally came to a merciful end. The big news of the day for the Silver Stars was that Becky Hammon had signed a contract extension – all they wanted from this game was a little momentum heading into the playoffs, and everyone staying as healthy as possible. With a game in Tulsa tomorrow as well – which scheduling nazi gave them a back-to-back to close the regular season, by the way? – you knew that San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes was going to go deep into his bench. But then, he’s one of the few coaches in this league who uses a 10-player rotation most of the time anyway. All Mystics fans wanted was for this season to finally end. And maybe a new owner and/or a new head coach. We could guarantee that the season would end after tonight – they’re probably going to have to wait for a while to see if the other dreams might come true.

For the last game of her season, current Mystics head coach (and GM) Trudi Lacey messed around with her lineup one final time. Why not, eh? Nicky Anosike moved back into the starting center spot ahead of DeMya Walker, and only a few games after coming back from her ACL tear, Monique Currie was starting at small forward. If only she’d been there all season, the Mystics might not have been quite so terrible this year (although you wonder how much difference one player could’ve made). San Antonio held firm with the same five that have started all their recent games.

It was Washington who got off to the better start, perhaps more comfortable with the whole ‘playing for nothing’ concept considering their season realistically ended weeks ago. As is often the case, San Antonio were wandering around the perimeter and taking a host of jump shots, rather than finding anything at the rim, and the shots weren’t dropping. When the Mystics started knocking down threes, they built a 22-10 lead. San Antonio managed to pare it down to 22-15 by the end of the first quarter.

Early in the second quarter came the scariest moment of the night. Hughes’s heart must’ve been in his mouth when Danielle Adams made a turnaround jump shot in the lane, drew the foul, and then collapsed to the ground clutching her right leg. The Silver Stars went 3-8 this season when Adams went down with a sprained right foot, so with the playoffs less than a week away that was the last thing they needed. Fortunately, Adams stood up, was healthy enough to take the free throw that came with the foul on her jumper, and seemed fine for the rest of the game. So a scary moment, and maybe it’ll ache a bit in the morning, but nothing too serious. Let’s hope everyone gets through tomorrow without any fresh injuries as well.

With San Antonio’s starters ineffective – only Adams and Tully Bevilaqua were providing much offense – Washington held on to their lead until halftime, up 41-34 at the break. As happens in practically every Silver Stars game, they were getting killed on the glass, down 24-13 in overall rebounding in the first half. It’s going to be a problem in the first round of the playoffs as well, against a Minnesota team that crashes the boards with abandon. Rebekkah Brunson’s over/under for rebounds in the series would probably be about 25 if you could find anyone to take the bet. And that would be assuming the series might be over in two games.

The vast majority of San Antonio’s offense was still coming from jump shots in the third quarter, but with more of them starting to fall in, the Silver Stars were quickly back in the game. An Adams three midway through the period tied it all up at 51, although she then proceeded to miss three more attempts at triples in a single possession the next time down. The girl has absolutely no conscience about shooting practically every time she touches the ball (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing).

Washington held on to a narrow 58-57 lead at the end of the third, but early in the fourth quarter a beautiful over-the-shoulder flip-pass from Becky Hammon to Scholanda Robinson under the basket created a layup for a 61-60 San Antonio edge. It was the first lead they’d had all night long. That was already Hammon’s seventh assist of the game, and with a little help from her friends she took over the next few minutes. She drove right down the middle of the lane for a two-handed scoop layup, then fed Sophia Young on a pick-and-roll to lead Young in for a layup. She drove and kicked to Scholanda Robinson for a three, then dropped in a pass to Jayne Appel on another pick-and-roll for another layup, then led Young in again for yet another finish at the rim. By the end of that run, Hammon’s assist total for the night was up to 11, San Antonio had scored 13 points on five layups and a three, and the Silver Stars held a 72-65 lead. If they can create shots like that going to the basket against Minnesota next week, they might have a chance. Of course, it’ll be tougher against the Lynx defense than it was against the Mystics.

When that streak of Hammon feeds was followed by another Young layup and a Hammon three for a 12-point lead, the game was up. 12-point comebacks don’t generally happen when the losing team don’t particularly care – and don’t forget, Washington were awful in the closing stages of games this season back when they did care. The game drifted to a close with a final score of 82-74 San Antonio.

It was a shockingly balanced scoring effort from the Mystics in their final contest, after relying so heavily on Crystal Langhorne and Matee Ajavon all season long. The four starters not named Langhorne were all in double-digits, while Crystal herself was stuck on just nine. Maybe the weight of carrying this team all season had finally taken its toll. I’ll be looking in more depth at the state of the Mystics in the WNBAlien End of Season Reports that I’ll be writing for every team, but obviously this closed out a hugely disappointing season. From top of the East last year to rock bottom and 6-28 this year, it’s a painful fall for a franchise that was finally headed in the right direction before a disastrous offseason. Lots of work is necessary in the upcoming offseason to turn things back around, but one wonders if the proper personnel are in place to make the right changes.

It was only against Washington, but it was nice to see the improvements in San Antonio after halftime in this game. They recovered on the glass from 24-13 at the break to 36-32 at the end, meaning they won the second half rebounding battle 19-12 (aided by a solid performance and extra minutes for Jayne Appel). They also finished the game with 36 points in the paint, significantly higher than they typically manage, and key to the run that won them the game. Those are two categories that will be important in the first round, because San Antonio have the worst rebounding percentage, and score the lowest number of points in the paint, among all 12 WNBA teams this season. Conversely, Minnesota have the highest rebounding percentage in the league, and allow the fewest points in the paint by opponents. If the Lynx dominate those two categories as overwhelmingly as the numbers suggest they will, San Antonio are screwed in the first round. The second half tonight might’ve been the first step in preparing for those issues next week, and trying to do something about them.

—–

Last up, tonight’s Battle of the Ping Pong Balls between Los Angeles and Chicago. Tulsa had secured the #1 spot in the lottery and Washington the #2 quite some time ago, but #3 was still up for grabs. Chicago entered this game 14-18, with tonight’s game in LA and a matchup with Seattle left to close out the season. LA were 14-19, and their season ended tonight. A Chicago win would’ve dropped LA into the definitive third-worst spot and left them there; an LA win would take them half a game above the Sky, leaving Chicago in the third-worst spot and needing to lose to Seattle tomorrow to stay there. All of this for a few extra lottery combinations in what is generally considered a terrible draft, by the way. Which is probably why neither team was exactly throwing in the towel. If this was 2012 and Brittney Griner was at the end of the lottery rainbow, Sylvia Fowles might’ve suddenly come down with a case of the sniffles.

As it was, LA once again rested Candace Parker for ‘precautionary reasons’. Apparently her right knee flared up, although presumably she would’ve been far more likely to play through it if the Sparks were still in the playoff hunt. Rookie center Jantel Lavender once again started in her place. Rookie big Carolyn Swords continued to start at power forward for Chicago ahead of Michelle Snow, and the veteran Erin Thorn/Dominique Canty backcourt continued to start for the Sky as well. Exactly why coach Pokey Chatman continues to start those two ahead of Courtney Vandersloot and Epiphanny Prince in largely meaningless games, I have no idea.

To the credit of both teams, they weren’t playing slowly or lazily. Or no more so than they have during meaningful games, anyway. Chicago took the early lead when LA’s interior defense struggled to deal with Fowles, even with the assistance of Lavender’s extra size inside. The Sky led 17-8 before LA’s perimeter shooting gunned them back into the game, and left the Sparks only 19-15 down at the end of the first quarter.

In possibly the last game of his second stint as Sparks head coach, Joe Bryant was again spreading minutes liberally around his roster, so everyone had a chance to make an impact. Noelle Quinn, LaToya Pringle and Jenna O’Hea all came off the LA bench to make shots in the second period, and with typical turnover issues afflicting Chicago the Sparks moved in front. A 34-30 lead late in the half was cut into by a Canty layup and Fowles free throw, leaving the game at 34-33 LA at the half.

There was never more than five points between the teams in the third quarter, first because neither could stop scoring, then because neither could make anything. Two Fowles layups sandwiched a Ticha Penicheiro elbow jumper and tied the game at 51 with 3:33 left in the period. One point was scored in total for the rest of the quarter, on a Natasha Lacy free throw, as jumper after jumper clanked off the iron. If ever a Los Angeles-area fan wanted an excuse to leave a basketball game early, the last three minutes of the third quarter in this one happily provided it.

Those who stuck around witnessed their team pulling away in the fourth quarter and ultimately winning with room to spare. The Sky’s offensive futility carried into the fourth, despite LA’s half-hearted defense, while Lacy, Quinn and DeLisha Milton-Jones started picking up some points for the Sparks. Even Pringle received some crunch time minutes for once, playing the entire fourth quarter, and produced. Somewhat sadly, considering it might be the final game of her 15-year WNBA career, the last we saw of Tina Thompson on the court was when she was subbed out with a minute left in the third quarter. It might’ve been nice to give her a minute or two at the end to receive a send off from the crowd. Regardless, LA ran out 74-67 winners, and it was actually more comfortable than that sounds for most of the fourth quarter.

So LA are so bad this season, they can’t even lose right. This win takes their record above Chicago’s, and if the Sky do the sensible thing and lose in Seattle tomorrow it’ll be Chicago who have the third-highest chance of success in the draft lottery. Of course, you can’t blame a team for playing properly and winning a basketball game. Milton-Jones and Kristi Toliver were the only players in double-figures, but Lavender, Thompson, Lacy and Pringle all had eight or more in support. It was a balanced effort and a reasonably well executed win, but they were playing a mediocre team that drops to poor on the road. The damage was done to LA’s season much, much earlier than this.

I don’t think Pokey Chatman and her players are trying to lose these games, but that’s four in a row now and it’s increasing their chances of adding that extra piece I’ve been saying they needed all season. Still, in a game played thousands of miles away from your own fans, after your season has been over for some time, I can’t fathom how little she used her prized youngsters. Vandersloot only saw eight minutes of action, and admittedly didn’t play that well in her brief appearances, but how about giving her a chance to improve? Prince played under 13 minutes and also didn’t perform that well, but at least she received a little more time to impress. I understand that Chatman always wants to win the game at hand, but there’s a bigger picture here. Erin Thorn and Dominique Canty aren’t taking you anywhere. If they could, you’d have won more than 14 games this season. Vandersloot and Prince might take you somewhere in the future, if you give them a chance to learn and develop. The best way to do that is to play. I don’t understand what Chatman’s doing, unless she doesn’t expect to be around this franchise in future (which would be a shame). The kids need to play.


In other news…

As mentioned in the piece about their game above, San Antonio announced today that Becky Hammon has signed a multi-year contract extension. She’s been a great fit since being traded there from New York, and the fans adore her, so this is a good move for all parties involved. Also, there’s no way in hell that Hughes was going to allow her to become an unrestricted free agent anyway – she’d have been cored immediately. This saves the Silver Stars from having to go through that process, and avoids tying up their core spot should they need it for anyone else.


Today’s Games (already completed):

Washington @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Chicago @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET


Tomorrow’s Games:

New York @ Connecticut, 1pm ET

Atlanta @ Indiana, 5pm ET

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 6pm ET

San Antonio @ Tulsa, 7pm ET

Chicago @ Seattle, 9pm ET

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