WNBA Today, 09/12/2011: East finally shakes out as regular season comes to a close

Sunday was the final day of the WNBA regular season, and there were still issues to be decided. Most importantly, the seeding and resulting first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference were still up for grabs, but the remaining games all carried some level of interest. Records were broken, a scoring title was won by the narrowest of margins, and we finally discovered who the hell would be facing whom in the postseason. Not a bad way to finish out the preamble before the real fight begins on Thursday night.

The opening game of the day, tipping off four hours before anyone else, was in Connecticut. Both the Sun and their visitors, New York, had every reason to go all out for the win. A Connecticut victory would confirm them as the #2 seeds, bringing with it the first round home court advantage that was vitally important to a team coming into this game with a 14-2 home record (and just 6-11 on the road). A New York win would’ve given them a chance to sneak into second place as well, although they would then be reliant on Atlanta beating Indiana in the game later in the afternoon. A loss for the Liberty would mean third or fourth, again depending on the later result. Regardless of the winner here, at least one team would be hanging on what happened in Indiana, but ignoring the permutations it was essentially like any other sporting event – win good, loss bad.

After a long ceremony to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, which can’t have helped the concentration levels of the players, the standard starting fives took the floor. Maybe the teams cooled down after such a long gap was created between their warm-up and the tip-off, because the first quarter wasn’t pretty. Both teams were missing a lot of shots, and Sun center Tina Charles was the only one who looked ready to perform. New York opened the game looking to take advantage of the most obvious mismatch among the starting lineups. Connecticut begin games with two wing players who are essentially guards, whereas the Liberty have a true small forward in Nicole Powell. She has an obvious size advantage over whichever of Kalana Greene and Danielle McCray ends up guarding her. New York tried to feed her in the post or even find her in position to shoot over her defender, but it didn’t really work. The Liberty have tried this in other games this season when Powell has had smaller defenders on her, but her lack of any real post game makes it ineffective. The plays don’t usually go anywhere.

The only offense New York did manage to create in the first quarter happened when Essence Carson entered the contest. Liberty coach John Whisenant went to her early, looking for some kind of spark, and she knocked down a couple of outside jumpers to at least keep New York involved. By the end of the first quarter we’d seen a lot of misses and a bunch of turnovers, and the Sun held a 15-10 lead.

The central problem for the Liberty of late has been the lack of offense coming from their star. Cappie Pondexter has been struggling to make any shots, and when she isn’t piling up points, New York often look short on ideas. She was 0-4 in the first quarter, and 0-6 by the time she finally drove and created contact with Charles to get herself to the free throw line three minutes into the second quarter. Only to miss both foul shots. After that, she desperately forced an off-balance jumper in the lane on New York’s next possession, and found it summarily blocked by Greene. Pondexter finally got off the mark after a very generous foul call on the next play sent her to the line again, and this time she made no mistake. A leaning jumper for a three-point play followed, illustrating exactly what she’s capable of when her game is working. That game needs to be ready for the playoffs, or the Liberty are in trouble regardless of their opponents.

That little sequence and Pondexter discovering some accuracy turned the momentum in the second period, and a 20-12 Sun lead became a 23-20 Liberty advantage. Cappie scored eight of the 11 New York points in that stretch. The only response Connecticut had was Charles. Her teammates weren’t producing much offense at all, and when they couldn’t feed her the ball the shot clock was frequently dwindling down to the final seconds. Fortunately for the Sun, Charles’s jumper was dropping, and she was keeping them in the game. Pondexter turned creator late in the half – something she’s still been able to do even through her slump – driving and kicking to Powell for a three before feeding a nicely judged lob pass to Plenette Pierson for a layup and a 30-24 lead. Charles appeared to have ended the half with another tough jumper over the outstretched arm of Quanitra Hollingsworth, but the 4.8 seconds remaining were enough for Liberty point guard Leilani Mitchell to sprint down court and put up an over-the-shoulder heave that banked in at the buzzer. Despite an ugly start and Cappie’s 3-11 shooting, New York led 33-26 at the break.

Both these teams have played decent defense all season. It’s where New York in particular build from. But it was hard to credit the defenses as the sole reason for the miserable lack of scoring in this game. There was minimal ball movement and a lack of penetration from both sides, and the shooting from outside had left quite a lot to be desired as well. Considering the teams combined for 14 points in the paint in the entire first half, that left us with a decided lack of scoring production. Besides Charles, Connecticut were 4-26 from the field at the break – even Tina can’t do it all on her own (and even she was probably taking too many jump shots).

The first real sign that Charles might be receiving a little help was midway through the third quarter, when two circus efforts from Asjha Jones somehow fell through. The Mohegan Sun rims were decidedly kind to her on those occasions, and after a 1-10 start to the game she needed the boost. The second Jones bucket tied the game at 39, but Kara Braxton provided a small offensive burst for the Liberty late in the third. As a result, New York still clung on to a 49-47 advantage as the game headed for the final stanza.

Unfortunately for New York, Pondexter’s offensive woes had returned after that brief stretch in the second. Without her scoring, the Liberty couldn’t take advantage of their ability to contain the Sun, and the score remained close. Kara Lawson was practically inviting Pondexter to shoot by the time the game reached the fourth quarter, which was a remarkable sight to see. After settling for long jumpers that wouldn’t fall for most of the afternoon, Jones finally moved into the paint to create some opportunities early in the fourth, and had some success. Two interior finishes and a nice pass to Lawson for a layup gave the Sun a 54-53 lead with less than seven minutes remaining.

Then New York made a little run. The energy and hustle they were showing defensively was keeping them in the game. That same level of effort saw Kia Vaughn follow her own shot and tip in the rebound to put her team in front, before Powell came off a down-screen and finally took advantage of her smaller defender to make a foul-line jumper. New York ran the exact same play the next time down the floor, breaking Pondexter open with the down-screen on the opposite side of the floor. This time she took the pass and made the jump shot to give new York a 59-54 lead with 3:33 to play. A five-point gap in a game where points had been at such a premium seemed enormous, which made Greene’s three from the corner on Connecticut’s next possession a huge score. The Sun hadn’t had time to dwell on the gap that had developed, because it was almost instantly back down to two.

By this point, Pondexter was 4-19 on the day, but you still knew that the ball was likely to be in her hands to win or lose the game for New York. This is what she’s there for. After a pair at the line from Jones had tied the game, Pondexter stepped up and nailed a mid-range jumper with Tan White right in her face. That was more like it. Renee Montgomery responded for the Sun by swishing a long three when Mitchell risked going behind Jones on a handoff.

It had cost them so rarely all afternoon, Connecticut were still defending Powell with much smaller players. Finally she took advantage of it in the paint, fighting for low position with Greene trying to guard her. Powell created a little seam, took the entry pass, and finished smartly with her left hand. A play like that makes you wonder why she can’t do it more often. That bucket put New York back up, 63-62, with 90 seconds remaining. As with Powell, Asjha Jones sometimes makes you wonder about her as well. She takes an awful lot of jump shots for someone who plays power forward and has a pretty solid frame. For once she used it to full effect on the next possession, finding Vaughn guarding her and driving towards the hoop. Jones came across the lane, created contact that drew a whistle, and found another friendly roll after she put the ball up on the rim. After adding the free throw, Connecticut led by two with barely a minute to play.

The remaining possessions reminded everyone that it just wasn’t Cappie Pondexter’s day. Her jumper rolled off, but New York managed to retain possession after Pierson grabbed the offensive rebound and won a jump ball after the officials deemed a reach-in by Jones legal. So it was still Liberty ball with 41 seconds left. Pondexter had the ball out on the wing, very slightly lost control of her dribble for no particular reason, and White swooped in to grab the steal. Forced to foul to stop the clock, New York sent Montgomery to the line and she made both shots for a four-point lead. The following Liberty possession never looked likely to succeed, seemingly drawn up for Powell to crack a three but ending with her driving to the hoop – only to be denied by a Greene block. That was the ballgame, and an extra couple of free throws left us with a final score of 69-63 Connecticut.

It was by no means an exhibition of beautiful basketball, but the Sun got the job done. Charles carried them through much of the game, finishing 9-17 for 18 points (0-0 from the free throw line shows just how many jump shots she took, though), and eventually Jones waking up and some timely shots from the rest was enough to drag them over the line. It probably wouldn’t have happened in any other arena, which was the whole damn point of fighting so hard for this win. The friendly confines of the Mohegan Sun arena – and even those helpful rims that eased in a couple of key Jones shots on the day – have now witnessed a 15-2 home record this year. They were 12-5 there last year when they only finished .500 overall, as well. Having sealed the #2 seed, the Sun might even be able to make the WNBA Finals without needing to win a single game on the road, should Indiana be knocked out in the first round. Whoever their visitors turned out to be, Connecticut had given themselves a good chance of advancing in their first playoff appearance since 2008.

New York have to be at least a little worried heading into the postseason. Pondexter’s now 24-89 (27%) in her last six games. They’re going precisely nowhere with their leader and star scorer shooting like that, even though it’s a tribute to their defense and effort that they were in this game until the very end. She finished 5-21, and although she’s still creating and distributing that’s not what they need. The rest of the team aren’t good enough offensively to generate the scoring necessary to win a lot of games, as we saw in this game where Powell led the Liberty scoring with 14 on 5-10 from the floor – while having a pretty poor game herself. New York had a couple of hours to relax before setting themselves up in front of the TV or their laptops to discover who their first-round matchup would be. Considering how little fun they’d just had against the Sun, they may well have been hoping Atlanta could win and leapfrog them into third, pushing the Liberty into a series with Indiana.

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However, Indiana and Atlanta were the ones that held all the cards. By starting their game four hours later, both these teams knew precisely what would happen depending on who won their encounter. And it was a bizarre situation. Arguably, both teams were better off losing. The Fever were already 0-3 against Atlanta heading into Sunday, but if they won this game they’d be forcing themselves into a playoff series against the Dream. Losing would allow them to face New York instead. From an Atlanta perspective, winning this game might’ve given them a higher seed, but it would jump them into a matchup with Connecticut and Tina Charles, rather than this Fever team that they’d had success against this season. It was a strange way to head into a basketball game.

Indiana sent out the most obvious opening salvo in the ‘we want to lose’ competition, leaving star player and MVP candidate Tamika Catchings in street clothes. In fairness, I said myself that she looked tired in the game against New York on Friday, so giving her a game off to rest made sense purely on a physical level. But you can bet she would’ve played if they really wanted to win this game. Point guard Erin Phillips was also still out resting her ankle sprain, but is expected to return when the playoffs get underway. Atlanta opened with their usual starting five, and WNBA gamblers everywhere rushing to place a late wager on them to win the game.

The other point of interest for this game, beyond playoff seeding, was the WNBA’s scoring title. Angel McCoughtry was just behind Diana Taurasi at the start of the day, needing to outscore her by around 15 points to take away the title on the final day (there wasn’t a precise figure because they’ve played a different number of games). It wasn’t quite David Thompson vs. George Gervin for the NBA historians out there, but you could tell that both players were aware of the possibilities. Taurasi had the advantage of her game tipping off an hour later.

Led by McCoughtry, Atlanta turned it into their kind of game from the opening tip. Indiana were leading thanks to some hot shooting from outside, but the frenetic end-to-end style of basketball was clearly in Atlanta’s favour. It was only a matter of time until the scoreboard reflected it, and the 13-8 lead that Indiana built was turned into a 29-24 Atlanta lead by the end of the first quarter. Katie Douglas hadn’t received the memo about losing being okay on this particular occasion, and was knocking down shots from outside, but Atlanta were the aggressor. Repeatedly driving into the paint and drawing calls from the officials, the Dream were 13-16 at the free throw line in the opening quarter (to Indiana’s 1-1). McCoughtry already had 12 points in her pursuit of victory and the scoring crown.

Everything swung around in the second quarter thanks to two people – Katie Douglas, and Dream coach Marynell Meadors. You see, while Indiana were probably more interested in ‘intentionally’ losing the game, Meadors’s second-quarter moves suggested she wouldn’t have minded dropping the contest and forcing a first round meeting with this same Fever ballclub either. She opened the period with just one starter on the floor – Armintie Price – and the only substitution she made from then until halftime was replacing Price with reserve Sandora Irvin (which left Atlanta playing most of the quarter with posts Irvin, Alison Bales and Courtney Paris all on the floor). They got away with it for a while, even stretching the lead to 39-28 behind the shooting of Bales and Coco Miller, but then Douglas got mad. Apparently, Katie didn’t like being presented with such an obvious second-choice lineup from her opponents. She drained three consecutive threes, and then the likes of Shavonte Zellous, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen joined in the offensive assault. Atlanta’s reserves haven’t been anywhere near the quality of their starters this season, and the entire second quarter of this game was a stark illustration of that – by halftime, Douglas had fired her way to 23 points on 8-9 from the floor, and Indiana led 55-47. If Dunn really wanted to lose the game, it was starting to look like she might have to make it really obvious and sit Douglas as well.

But apparently Meadors wasn’t committed to her all-reserves-all-the-time lineup from the second period, because Atlanta’s starting lineup was back in place to open the second half. McCoughtry doesn’t usually need a second invitation to put shots in the air (or even a first one, to be honest), and with a scoring title on the line she was ultra-aggressive offensively. As a result, the comeback began immediately. With the real Atlanta Dream back on the floor, the game turned into a track meet again, which is precisely how they like it. By the end of the third quarter they’d run their way back into a 71-71 tie, and all the momentum was with them unless Meadors pulled everyone out again.

After a couple of scary moments early in the fourth quarter, you wouldn’t have blamed her for pulling out every starter and wrapping them all in cotton wool – even though it was the Fever who had most cause to worry. Barely a minute into the fourth, Shavonte Zellous made a move near the top of the three-point arc and stepped on teammate Jessica Davenport’s foot. It didn’t look quite as bad as Phillips’s sprain a few days earlier, but it still resulted in a nasty twist of the ankle and yet another Indiana player writhing on the floor in agony. She was helped off the floor and reportedly available to return to the game after having her foot re-taped, but it still wasn’t what you want to see in the last game of the regular season. Less than a minute later, Douglas went ploughing into Lindsey Harding for an offensive foul, and both were slow to pick themselves off the floor. Neither left the game, but once again it was worrying. It’s incidents like that which make you understand why coaches sit all their best players as soon as playoff qualification is assured.

Despite the injury scares for her opponents, Meadors stuck with a more typical rotation in the fourth quarter than she had in the second, mixing in minutes for the reserves rather than using them all in one go. As a result the Dream pulled away, with Douglas unable to maintain her remarkable accuracy from the first half and continue to carry the Fever. McCoughtry just kept driving and shooting and driving and shooting at every available opportunity, and a three from her that stretched Atlanta’s lead to 84-75 with under five minutes to play was the last straw. Indiana didn’t have the energy or the enthusiasm to come back from there, and everyone in the building was well aware of that. Meadors sat her down, and her teammates closed out a 93-88 win. It wasn’t quite as close as that made it sound.

So if the plan was to sit Catchings and create a matchup with New York by losing, the gameplan worked out pretty well for Indiana. The only drawback is that they aren’t exactly heading into the playoffs on a high. Without Phillips for a couple of games thanks to her ankle sprain, and with Catchings having a poor game against New York before sitting this one out, the Fever will be looking for a light switch to flip as they enter the postseason. And it’s perfectly possible that it might happen. After all, they’re the #1 seeds for a reason, and Atlanta fought their way to the WNBA Finals last year after losing six of their last seven regular season games. You don’t always need to be on the crest of a wave heading into the playoffs to perform well.

The positive angle for the Fever is that losing Phillips and Catchings has forced Douglas to step up, and even Davenport, Pohlen, Zellous and Tangela Smith were more involved in the offense than usual during this game. Douglas finished 11-18 from the floor for 30 points, and it’s that offensively aggressive version that the Fever need in the playoffs. Davenport was 7-10 for 15 points and nine rebounds, offering the occasional flashback to her early season form. She’s another piece that could be very important in the postseason if she decides to truly show up for it. The Fever met New York at the same stage of the playoffs last year, and found themselves dumped out in three games – this year they get another chance, only with the addition of home court advantage. That #1 seed they worked so hard for all year could prove crucial.

As for Atlanta, they couldn’t help but win. They’ve now won 10 of their last 12, and they’re 17-5 since the painful 3-9 start to the season. This victory also completed a 4-0 season sweep of Indiana, which won’t hurt their confidence if they should happen to run into this team again in the Eastern Conference Finals. No one played more than 28 minutes in this game for the Dream, as Meadors shuffled her pack and rested key players as much as she could. McCoughtry ended up with 25 minutes of action, and finished 9-14 from the floor (plus 12-14 at the free throw line) for 32 points. You got the feeling that if Meadors hadn’t allowed her to play out most of the second half, she would’ve somehow snuck out there regardless (and forced up at least three shots before anyone managed to pull her off). She’s been a force of nature late in the season, and after her postseason performances last year when Atlanta went all the way to the Finals, you’d be brave to bet against her carrying her form into the playoffs. The matchup with Connecticut is a tasty one, even if they might’ve preferred Indiana. Erika de Souza will spend the entire series in a war with Tina Charles in the paint, while those undersized wings that New York tried to take advantage of with Nicole Powell will now have to chase McCoughtry around. It should be a lot of fun to watch.

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So with McCoughtry racking up 32 points in Indiana, Diana Taurasi needed 18 to remain atop the WNBA scoring charts for the fourth consecutive year. Of course, she didn’t know that at tip-off in Minnesota, because the Dream game was only an hour ahead of Phoenix‘s contest with the Lynx. Outside of Taurasi’s efforts to hold off McCoughtry, this game meant very little to anyone. Minnesota had been locked into the #1 seed for a while, and Phoenix were stuck at #3 after their loss to Seattle on Friday night. Winning momentum never hurt anyone, but ultimately there was little incentive for this game besides pride.

Penny Taylor was once again held out to rest her back, but it’s hoped that she’ll be ready for the first round matchup with Seattle. DeWanna Bonner started in her place as she had in the previous couple of games. Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve stuck with the same starting five that has carried her team to a 26-7 record all season long. The only one who’s missed a single start all year is Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and that was when she picked up a slight knock in the warm-up. She was back in that game well before the end of the first quarter. That remarkable health for a franchise that has suffered horribly with injuries in recent years has been a key part of their success in 2011.

Inevitably with two teams that like to run and a game without anything hanging on the result, this was a high-paced encounter. No one plays much defense when they don’t have to – and no one in Phoenix plays much defense at the best of times – so there was lots of running, lots of shooting, and an awful lot of Lynx layups. Phoenix led 25-24 after the first quarter, but with Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus piling on the points late in the second period, Minnesota took a 52-45 lead in at halftime. The performance was fine, and the entertainment level was even pretty good for a meaningless encounter – the only thing that worried me, just for a change, was Reeve’s distribution of minutes. McWilliams-Franklin, the 40 year-old center, was leading the Lynx in minutes yet again with over 16 in the first half. That seemed insane in a game that meant nothing, but Reeve has seemed more intent on maintaining rhythm and momentum over the closing weeks than on resting anyone. Good thing no one’s gotten hurt, or she might’ve been taking more heat for that approach.

Also, in fairness to Reeve, she’s been using the second half to spread minutes around more liberally in recent games. This one was no different, but there’s so much talent on the Minnesota bench that the Lynx lead didn’t dissipate. In fact, a run late in the third quarter led by the likes of Monica Wright, Jessica Adair and even the little-used Alexis Hornbuckle and Charde Houston pushed the Minnesota lead as high as 16 points, and they went into the fourth quarter up 79-63.

Taurasi had a quiet six points in the first half, but somewhere along the way news had clearly been passed to the Mercury bench of exactly what she needed to hold McCoughtry off for the scoring title. A three to open the fourth quarter took her to 16, leaving her just one basket away, and she nailed another from long-range with 6:15 left in the game. That was enough to stay top of the rankings, and although it also pulled Phoenix within nine points, she sat down for the rest of the game seconds later. Clearly winning this game wasn’t particularly high on Mercury coach Corey Gaines’s priorities list. Phoenix’s reserves almost gunned them back into the game in the fourth quarter – the Mercury scored 27 points in the period on nine three-pointers, zero on any other kind of shot – but the Minnesota reserves held on for a 96-90 win.

No one will place too much stock in this result, although it did give Minnesota a 3-2 advantage in the season series against Phoenix. No one on either side saw more than 30 minutes of action, and bench players who’ll barely feature next week were central parts of the rotations. This remains a very possible Western Conference Finals matchup, and if the Mercury play defense like they did in this game they’ll get killed, but you hope that even they would offer up a little more resistance in meaningful games than they did in this one. Taurasi got her scoring title – the first player ever to win it four years in a row – and no one picked up any fresh injuries, so everyone went home relatively happy. There are far more important battles to be fought next week.

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Next up was San Antonio‘s trip to Tulsa, in another game that didn’t mean much to anyone. Perhaps the one issue anyone was wondering about was whether Tulsa could finally pull off that last win necessary to avoid entering the record books as the worst team in WNBA history. The 1998 Washington Mystics ended their season at 3-27 (they only played 30 games back then – they didn’t just quit in disgust). At 3-30 entering this game, a fourth win would give the Shock a slightly higher winning percentage than those Mystics (.118 to .100) and avoid adding extra ignominy to a disastrous season.

The game meant so little to San Antonio that Becky Hammon was given the night off. She was still in uniform, but remained on the bench cheering her teammates on throughout the game. Jia Perkins was joined by Scholanda Robinson on the wing for the Silver Stars instead. The game was a homecoming of sorts for San Antonio’s rookie guard Danielle Robinson, who was still starring for the University of Oklahoma barely six months ago. She responded to the adulation and the absence of Hammon with an outstanding offensive first half, using her frightening speed to slice to the rim for layups, and showing unusual accuracy on her outside jumper as well.

But as with the game in Minnesota, no one had much interest in putting the effort in to play defense in a game like this, and San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes was spreading minutes between everyone he had available. Although he was leaving Robinson out there to enjoy herself. By halftime, D-Rob was 9-10 from the field for 20 points, the only miss coming on a layup she put a little too much mustard on in the waning seconds of the half. Nonetheless, more balanced scoring from Tulsa and half-hearted effort from the Silver Stars allowed the Shock to shoot 63% in the first half and hold a 52-51 lead at the break.

The second half was more of the same – Robinson kept going off, but Tulsa generally held on to a narrow lead. The oft-criticised (by me) Andrea Riley drove right past Tully Bevilaqua with under a minute to play in regulation for a layup that gave the Shock an 89-85 lead, and the home crowd began to anticipate that final victory they were so keen for. But the gods weren’t in their corner. Jia Perkins hit a drifting, fading three on the next possession, and the Silver Stars then committed a quick foul against the wishes of their coach. It worked out okay when Riley went one-of-two at the line, and Danielle Robinson flew the length of the court to take her personal total to 33 points and tie the game at 90. With just over 24 seconds left when they inbounded, Tulsa ran the clock down looking for the final shot, and the Andrea Riley that I’ve been bitching about all season long reared her head one more time. She dribbled, and dribbled, and dribbled, and jacked a three-pointer from 30 feet that never had the tiniest prayer of going in. I just shook my head, because I’ve run out of expletives to describe Riley’s decision-making. Her shot was an airball, and San Antonio had 0.7 seconds to save us all from overtime. They nearly managed it too, with a D-Rob lob finding Porsha Phillips on a backdoor cut at the hoop, but her attempted alley-oop finish was just too strong. The game headed for an extra five minutes.

Tulsa looked spent in the overtime period. A jumper from Danielle Adams and yet another layup from Danielle Robinson opened OT, and the Shock had nothing left to give in response. Two layups from Adams on putbacks added to the lead, and it was over. San Antonio eased home with a 102-94 win, and Tulsa were left with another record they didn’t want.

At least all those local fans got to see Danielle Robinson at her high-octane best. Her 36 points was the second-highest total for any rookie in WNBA history, trailing only Candace Parker’s 40. The especially impressive part wasn’t just that she did it efficiently, on 14-19 shooting, but that a significant proportion was on jumpers from a reasonable distance away from the basket. She’s even edging out towards three-point range. If Robinson can become more consistent from outside, she’ll be an incredibly dangerous offensive threat to every team in this league, and we’ll see performances like this on a more regular basis. Even at this young stage in her career, her speed can scare the hell out of the opposition. You can bet Lindsay Whalen won’t have enjoyed seeing her performance in this game, knowing she’s heading to Minnesota for the first round this week. Of course, it won’t be quite as easy to score against the Lynx’s league-leading defense as it was against Andrea Riley and the Shock’s league-worst group.

At least Tulsa fans were finally put out of their misery. Adding to their WNBA-record losing streak of 20 games from earlier this season, now they have the worst ever record for a full season. From here, the only way is up. They have the best chance to draw the #1 pick in the 2012 draft, which would almost certainly mean Nneka Ogwumike from Stanford. They just need lots of help. We’ll take a closer look in the upcoming WNBAlien End of Season Report.

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Closing out the WNBA regular season, Seattle played host to Chicago. There was still a little bit of meaning left in this one. A poor inter-conference record meant that Seattle lost most tie-breakers with Eastern Conference teams, so a win to tie with Indiana and Connecticut wouldn’t help them. But if Atlanta happened to emerge from the East, and Seattle were there for a re-match of last year’s WNBA Finals, a win in this game was necessary to give the Storm home court advantage. For Chicago, there was something of a reverse issue. They needed a loss to stay behind LA in overall record, and keep their place as the third-worst team in the league. A win would cost them chances in the lottery draw for the top three picks in next year’s draft. Attention was also on Katie Smith – two points away from 6,000 in her WNBA career – and Sylvia Fowles, who needed a minimum of 30 points and six rebounds to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for the season. Only Chamique Holdsclaw in 2003 had ever managed that in the WNBA before.

With the game only of minor importance to the Storm and her last couple of performances suggesting a need for rest, Lauren Jackson took the night off. Ashley Robinson replaced her, just as she had throughout LJ’s injury absence earlier in the year. Chicago continued with Carolyn Swords at power forward, and Erin Thorn and Dominique Canty in the backcourt – Courtney Vandersloot couldn’t even get her starting spot back in her homecoming to the area after a standout college career at Gonzaga.

The Storm got off to a startlingly hot start. After the number of games this season where they’ve struggled to hit shots, it’s almost a surprise now when the Storm offense runs smoothly and they’re finishing plays both inside and out. But in the first quarter the Sue Bird/Tanisha Wright backcourt were looking for their offense and knocking down shots, and Camille Little was converting plays inside that never would’ve dropped against Phoenix a couple of nights earlier. A Swin Cash layup took them to 19-8, and then the roof came off the building when Katie Smith drilled a three to break the 6,000-point barrier. This was why it was nice that she’d finished two points short on Friday night. The cheers were so loud and went on so long that they even drew a cute little wave of acknowledgement from Smith, who’s the sort of player who’d just want to get on with the game. Seattle led 24-12 by the end of the quarter, and it didn’t look like the game was going to be much of a contest.

Chicago showed some heart for the fight in the second quarter, as Fowles finally got some help from her teammates. The gap dropped as low as five at one point after an Epiphanny Prince three, but Seattle responded and pushed it back to 11. A Vandersloot heave for three at the buzzer drew loud cheers from the Gonzaga contingent who’d come out to see her, and cut the score to 41-33 at the half.

The problem for Chicago was that much of their push in the second quarter was at the expense of remembering to feed their biggest threat – Fowles. Others got going, but she slipped out of the game. It continued in the third quarter, and Seattle’s lead continued to drift along around the 10-point mark. They weren’t killing the game off, but without much involvement from Fowles Chicago weren’t looking likely to come charging back either. At the end of the third period the Storm held a 57-47 edge and Fowles only had 11 points. 30 on the night for the 20-point average on the season was looking unlikely as well.

 

One of two things happened in the fourth quarter. Either Chicago remembered that Fowles was their main threat and just kept feeding her in an effort to win the game; or they decided that the only thing remaining worth playing for was the get Big Syl to her 20/10 for the year. Possession after possession, they found a way to force-feed Fowles in the paint, and she either converted the layup or drew fouls that sent her to the line. After a steady diet of Fowles had already provided nine points in the period, a Cathrine Kraayeveld three cut the score to 65-60 with under six minutes to play. The big scores in maintaining the Storm’s lead for the rest of the game came from Le’coe Willingham, who sank one three the traditional way, before banking in a second triple barely a minute later. The glass has been kind to Seattle in a few games lately, and apparently this would be no exception. That bucket put Seattle up 75-64, and just about killed the game as a contest. Katie Smith added back-to-back threes of her own in the closing minutes just to make sure, and the Key Arena crowd went home happy with an 81-70 Storm win.

Sandwiched between those Smith threes was a Fowles layup that took her to 19 points in the fourth quarter alone, 30 points in total on the evening. The 20/10 achievement was complete, and she deserved it after a very impressive season. It was just a shame that it came in yet another mediocre Sky year. She finished this game 9-17 from the floor, 12-12 from the free throw line, and added 13 rebounds (seven offensive). She continues to be impossible to stop if you can feed her the ball down low, as that fourth quarter proved. The problems for Chicago continue to be elsewhere. Vandersloot and Prince were left coming off the bench late in the season – even after the Sky were eliminated from the playoffs – because coach Pokey Chatman felt that Thorn/Canty gave her a better chance to win. Last night it looked like she was right, with Thorn doing much of the creation in the fourth quarter, while Vandersloot had been turning the ball over on various occasions all evening. The future is still in the hands of Vandersloot and Prince, but they have plenty of things still to work on. Right now, it’s still Fowles and not enough else.

Seattle took care of business, and it’ll almost be a relief to face all the speed and scoring of Phoenix after trying to guard Fowles in that fourth quarter. Just to add to the milestones reached in this game, the win also tied Brian Agler for wins with Van Chancellor at the top of the ranks in US women’s professional basketball (if you combine Agler’s results in the ABL with his wins in the WNBA). Facing a half-hearted Chicago defense undoubtedly helped, but the Storm will be hoping that the effectiveness and accuracy of their offense can carry into the playoff series against the Mercury. Seattle shot 56% as a team, including 9-17 from three-point range, and numbers anything like that against Phoenix should be enough for victory. Swin Cash shooting 5-8 for 15 points, Camille Little 6-11 for 17, and Smith 5-8 for 17 were the leaders, but practically everyone was hitting most of what they put up. Oh how their season would’ve been easier if they’d been shooting like that all year.

—–

With that, the regular season comes to an end. Check back over the next couple of days for WNBAlien previews of the upcoming playoff series.

 

In other news…

To continue the run of star players extending their deals with their current franchises, the Phoenix Mercury announced today that Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor have both signed multi-year extensions to stay with the team. As with Lauren Jackson’s extension in Seattle, it could make the salary cap navigation a little tricky next year in Phoenix if Taylor doesn’t show up to play until after the Olympics, but when you’ve got the chance to lock up two players as good as Taurasi and Taylor, you take it. It also keeps their core spot free, should they need it in future years for someone else (Candice Dupree the most likely possibility).

The final WNBA Players of the Week were named as Angel McCoughtry in the East and Katie Smith in the West. McCoughtry was an easy choice in the East, averaging over 33 points at nearly 57% from the floor in a pair of games. Despite Smith’s outstanding scoring for Seattle, including a barrage against Phoenix that helped Seattle secure the #2 seed and reaching the 6,00-point milestone, she was something of a surprising choice in the West. Becky Hammon dragged San Antonio into the playoffs kicking and screaming, and her scoring average, shooting percentage and assists average were all higher than Smith’s on the week. Ah well, even the WNBA decision-makers have a few sentimental bones in their bodies, apparently.

 

Next Games – Thursday, September 15th:

New York @ Indiana, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2

Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET, live on ESPN2

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 09/12/2011: East finally shakes out as regular season comes to a close

  1. […] of L’Alien: East finally shakes out as regular season comes to a close The remaining possessions reminded everyone that it just wasn’t Cappie Pondexter’s day. Her […]

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