WNBA Today, 09/18/2011: Do-or-die brings the best out of Libs and Merc

Part of me hates these best-of-three playoff series that the WNBA uses for its first two rounds. You play for months to get here, and then everything can be over in the blink of an eye. A slightly shorter regular season allowing longer playoff series would be a better framework in my eyes. But you can’t deny that it makes the postseason instantly exciting. After losing their opening games, New York and Phoenix went into Saturday’s games in do-or-die situations. Win, and they’d have a chance in a deciding game on Monday night; lose, and all the hard work all season long would’ve been for naught.

After a forgettable performance in the opening game in Indiana had still left them with a shot to win at the buzzer, New York had every reason to believe that they could turn things around in Game 2. The Prudential Center out in Newark might not have the history of Madison Square Garden, but their 12-5 regular season record there showed that the Liberty made it feel like home pretty quickly. Combining the home crowd with the extra impetus of having their backs against the wall, New York had to come out and remind everyone that they were a better team than Thursday night suggested.

The starting fives were the same as Thursday, although Shavonte Zellous was back in uniform on the Fever bench to add a little extra depth to their reserves. The necessary urgency was there from New York in the early minutes. There seemed to be more energy about their play than in Game 1, and there was more effort on the defensive end. Offensively, both Plenette Pierson and Kia Vaughn looked far more interested in being part of the solution than they had on Thursday, with Pierson knocking down two early jumpers from midrange. Even more important, Nicole Powell seemed to have discovered the shooting touch that eluded her in the previous game, finishing a layup inside before nailing each of her first three efforts from long-range. The only negative for New York in the first quarter was that once again Katie Douglas was winning her personal duel with Cappie Pondexter. While the Liberty’s leader forced a couple of efforts from outside that wouldn’t fall and went to the bench with zero points, Douglas had 11 in the first period on three treys and a putback, keeping her team in the game. An energetic, high-paced first quarter ended 23-20 Fever, despite most of the drive and purpose in the game seeming to have come from New York.

While backup point guard Shannon Bobbitt showed off her fancy dribbling moves, going absolutely nowhere while running down the shot clock and driving me nuts, fellow Fever reserves Zellous and Jessica Davenport helped keep the Indiana’s nose in front early in the second quarter. Indiana coach Lin Dunn eventually tired of Bobbitt’s pointlessness – and the three turnovers in under five minutes of action – and sat her back down, although by then New York had started to gain momentum. Pondexter hit a jumper, got bailed out after an awful three-point attempt when the offensive board fell to teammate Leilani Mitchell, then received some help from the officials when a dubious blocking call on Zellous handed her a three-point play instead of an offensive foul. Maybe it was going to be Pondexter’s day after all. Those baskets heralded another increase in the pace of the game, which had fallen into a lull with all the reserves on the floor, and a Liberty run that took them into the lead. Mitchell nailed a three before a nice post move by Pierson on Davenport, followed by Tamika Catchings throwing away a long pass that she never should’ve attempted. Dunn tried to cool things off with a timeout at that point, but it didn’t work. Pondexter crossed over Douglas and drilled a three; Mitchell took a charge from Catchings; Mitchell hit a three of her own; Phillips turned the ball over on a poor pass; and New York broke for a Powell layup on a Pondexter feed. Two minutes on the clock had taken us from a tie at 34 to a 44-34 New York lead, and they’d blown the game open.

With Douglas’s long-range shooting cooling off, it was all the Fever could do to cling on to the Liberty’s coattails heading into halftime, New York holding a 50-41 lead. The final minutes included yet another turnover from Catchings, her fifth of the half, this time on a clean strip by Powell as Catch looked to raise up for a long-range jumper. This looked like the Tamika Catchings that I’d said seemed tired in the last game she played in the regular season, and she’d scored a grand total of five points in the 49 minutes of basketball since taking a smack to the head from Powell’s swinging arm in Game 1. 0-6 for zero points and five turnovers from your star player is always going to make it very hard to win a playoff game, even with her typical sidekick Douglas playing well. Just as in Game 1 where Douglas had outperformed Pondexter and led Indiana to victory, this time Powell was comfortably winning the matchup with her more illustrious opponent. 5-6 from the field, including 3-4 from three-point range, Powell’s efficient 13 points were important to New York’s success in the first half.

If you wanted to be kind about the third quarter, you could say that the defenses dominated. It’s certainly true that the pressure from both teams was making it hard to score. But a less generous description might just call it a brick-fest. Neither team was creating any penetration, leading to jumper after jumper from outside, and very few were falling. The pace of the first half had completely dissipated. With Douglas’s touch having deserted her from outside, Indiana looked bereft of ideas as to how to put points on the board. Late in the period, at least Catchings finally scored her first points of the game, hitting a long jumper after the officials rightly ignored a dramatic Pierson flop.

That Catchings shot made it 56-47 New York with under two minutes left in the period – yes, a pathetic 6-6 in the first eight minutes of the half – and Dunn went to her bench in a desperate search for offense (and to give her starters a much-needed breather). But with Bobbitt, Zellous, Jeanette Pohlen and Jessica Davenport all out there together to end the third, and the first three still on the floor to start the fourth, things began to fall apart even more dramatically for Indiana. A 6-3 Liberty run ended the third quarter, before a 14-5 push opened the fourth and killed the game off. The Fever starters all returned at various points during that stretch, but couldn’t do anything to stop New York’s momentum this time around. Pierson hit a ridiculous spinning turnaround jumper in Catchings’s face late in the third, Essence Carson had a jumper and a pretty alley-oop finish from a nice Powell pass to open the fourth, and then Pierson had three straight driving layups on passes from Kara Braxton (twice) and Carson. With five minutes left in the game, New York’s lead had shot up to 21 and we were heading to Game 3.

Dunn conceded defeat with five minutes on the clock and cleared her bench – especially necessary when Catchings took another shot to the face from Powell’s arm. New York coach John Whisenant left it several minutes longer to hand it over to his reserves – your guess is as good as mine why it took him so long – but even he had rookie point guard Sydney Colson in the game for the last couple of minutes. Pohlen and Zellous padded their stats with some late buckets, leaving us with a final score of 87-72 New York. Conseco Fieldhouse can start getting ready for Monday night.

It was a far more polished performance from New York than in the opening game, but the most noticeable difference was just in their energy and speed. They simply seemed more up for the fight in front of their own fans than they had in Indiana. Of course, knocking down shots helps considerably as well. Pondexter was once again rather scattershot, going 5-15 for 14 points, but with Powell 6-9 for 19, Pierson 7-11 for 15, Carson 4-10 for 12 and Vaughn 2-3 for 10, she had more than enough help from her teammates. They also hit big shots at key times, building those runs in the second quarter and early in the fourth to take the game away from the Fever. If they play a high-paced game like that and perform as a team on Monday, maybe they can win this series even without Pondexter producing her usual heroics. Bet they’d prefer it if her shot showed up for Game 3, though.

Indiana were practically a one-woman team for far too much of this game. And it wasn’t even the one who usually leads the way for the Fever. Douglas ended the game 7-16 for 20 points, but once New York noticed that no one else was stepping up for Indiana, their defense become more focussed and it was far harder for her to produce. Catchings was 1-8 for just two points, and although her hustle still seemed to be there for most of the game there was a lack of energy and aggression in her offensive efforts. If that’s all that she has left to give – either because of the long season, or an injury we don’t know about, or that hit to the head she took in Game 1, or anything else – New York will have every chance of stealing Game 3 on the road. Douglas just can’t do it on her own.

If Dunn’s willing to leave them out there a little longer, she might get some offensive support from the bench. Bobbitt’s usually a nightmare for her own team, but Zellous, Davenport and even Pohlen have been known to produce quick offense. If Catchings isn’t going to do it, they can’t rely on defense alone to win a deciding game. If nothing else, the size of Davenport in the post and speed and directness of Zellous from the perimeter might get them back to the free throw line. The Liberty’s 20-21 at the stripe dwarfed Indiana’s 5-10, and illustrated how much quicker and more aggressive their offense was – especially considering Indiana finished 3rd in free throw attempts per game in the regular season, while New York were a distant last. Home court will inevitably help, but Indiana have some things to fix in the quick turnaround before Monday night’s decider.

—–

After being blown off the floor in Game 1 of their series on Thursday night, Phoenix had already been left with a lot of things to fix before facing Seattle again. Led by Tanisha Wright and Camille Little, not even needing dominant performances from stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, the Storm had ripped them to shreds in the opening game. Given that it was Seattle’s 11th win in 12 games against the Mercury, you could’ve forgiven Phoenix for wondering if this team just had their number. But you don’t play all season to quit halfway through the first round of the playoffs. Just like New York, Phoenix had their backs to their wall and they were going to come out with all guns blazing.

Despite rumours to the contrary before tip-off – NBA TV proving itself a wonderful source of misinformation as usual – Mercury center Nakia Sanford started the game on the bench once again. She was at least in uniform, but no one seemed sure whether she’d be taking part at any stage. The game got underway with DeWanna Bonner once again replacing her in the starting lineup, and Seattle fielding their standard five.

It was immediately very clear that this would not be a repeat of Thursday night. Candice Dupree opened the scoring with an easy layup after a Jackson error left her wide open under the hoop, and Seattle proceeded to turn the ball over three times in the first three minutes. The Phoenix team that was determined to run and produce quick offense was back in evidence, right alongside the Seattle team that had underperformed on the road all year long. The Mercury even received some bizarre assistance from the officials four minutes into the game, when Wright ran into a Penny Taylor screen, knocked her down, and the officials somehow decided to count Diana Taurasi’s three that came well after the contact. Taylor’s free throw gave the Mercury an early 11-2 lead, and with plays like that going their way it was looking good for Phoenix.

The only thing that kept Seattle remotely in the game for the rest of the opening period was a remarkable succession of three-pointers. It was Bizarro-WNBA. Phoenix were more active defensively, producing better offense and scoring inside as well as on jump shots; Seattle were just firing away from long range. Four triples from Bird (x2), Jackson and Katie Smith enabled Seattle to finish the first quarter down only 23-18. Given the balance of play and momentum of the game, they were lucky to only be behind by five.

Very little changed in the second quarter. Wright had picked up her third foul late in the first on a harsh call while she battled Sanford in the paint, which left her on the sidelines for practically the entire second quarter (she came back briefly, but was benched again so quickly that I think Brian Agler temporarily forgot about her foul trouble). It was an incredibly physical game, with Phoenix putting up far more of a fight down low than they had in Game 1. Sanford deciding she was healthy enough to provide some backup to Bonner and Dupree obviously helped, but it was a team-wide effort – the Mercury had come out from the start and made themselves the aggressor at both ends of the floor. They weren’t going to allow the Storm to dominate them for another game. The referees, in admittedly a very difficult game to officiate, had absolutely no clue what to call. Assault in the paint on one possession went ignored before the barest of touch fouls was called next time down.

Still desperately hoisting threes to keep themselves in the game, Seattle briefly came within a point at 33-32 midway through the second quarter when two Smith triples bracketed one from Jackson. But it simply wasn’t sustainable. Jackson was having a nightmare, looking desperately short of fitness and uninterested in being part of the war underneath the basket. Dupree was scoring on layups, tip-ins and the occasional jumper largely because Jackson’s restricted mobility was making her a defensive liability. Meanwhile Swin Cash was completely invisible, out on the floor but barely taking part in the action at all, and leaving a string of zeroes next to her name in the box score. The half was summed up when Sanford confidently knocked down a wide open jumper from just inside the free throw line with eight seconds left, before Sue Bird dribbled out the clock without coming close to creating a shot attempt. Alongside Smith, Bird had probably been the Storm’s best player in the first half, but even she was suffering from the malaise. Only the parade of treys (9-12 in the half as a team) had Seattle as close as 51-40 at the break, and Brian Agler will have been horrified by the 28-4 Mercury advantage in points in the paint, along with the 20-8 lead on the glass.

It was a strange third quarter. Brian Agler and his team clearly weren’t happy with how they’d played in the first half, but couldn’t seem to snap out of it and play like themselves. Dupree continued to dominate offensively, Taurasi continued to look for every available shot just as she had in the first half and the game continued to be played at the Mercury’s pace. But every time you looked up at the scoreboard, the lead still wasn’t going anywhere. It felt like a 20-point blowout, but the gap was rarely much more than 10 or 11 points.

Wright had picked up her fourth foul barely a minute into the second half on yet another dubious call, sending her to the bench again, but when she came back with four minutes left in the third period she ignited a little Storm run. A three and a drive that drew a whistle to send her to the line cut Phoenix’s lead to 67-60, and there was a nervous little feeling that Phoenix might somehow find a way to give away a game that they’d controlled from the opening tip. Bonner responded with a driving finish over Jackson and Le’coe Willingham to quell the mini-run – Bonner driving instead of hoisting three-pointers from 25-feet was a noticeable change all night – and the Mercury held a 71-62 lead going into the fourth quarter.

It was honestly baffling that this game was still remotely a contest. Taurasi’s shooting had been inaccurate all night, which helped, but Jackson had continued to do nothing except jack threes and watch Dupree go past her, Cash was still a passenger, and even Bird was far less effective in the second half. After falling behind by 15 with seven minutes remaining on another Bonner finish off the glass, Seattle still had one last comeback left in them. Wright was the key element, following a pair of threes with a pair of free throws, bringing the score down to 81-76 with barely four minutes remaining.

It would’ve been a travesty of justice if Seattle had somehow won this game. Taurasi responded to the Mercury lead dropping to five with a gorgeous spinning drive to the hoop that split Wright and Little for a layup. Little drew Dupree’s fifth foul on a drive and cut the gap back to five at the free throw line, before Dupree ghosted past Jackson for yet another easy finish at the rim. Jackson made one of her rare forays into the paint on Seattle’s next possession, and this time it was Dupree who was unlucky to draw the ire of the officials, picking up her sixth foul trying to fight LJ down low. So the Mercury had lost their most effective player on the night, and the lead was still only seven with nearly three minutes remaining. The comeback still looked possible. But after Jackson went 1-of-2 at the line, Sanford took her turn attacking LJ at the other end, dropping in a little left-handed floater after shaking Jackson with a pivot move.

Bird tried to shoot her team back into it from long-range in the closing minutes, but as mentioned earlier, the Storm were never going to survive with just the long ball. Consecutive misses  from Bird left the eight-point lead in place as the clock approached the final minute, and Phoenix looked safe even though their own offense had cooled. Consecutive turnovers from Little and Bird, the former forcing an outlet pass after grabbing a rebound, the latter travelling when her passing lane closed unexpectedly, killed the game entirely. The Mercury came away with a richly deserved victory, 92-83.

As much as everything went wrong for the Mercury on Thursday night, practically everything went right on Saturday. The speed and energy they have to inject to create their kind of basketball games were there at both ends of the floor, and they were on top to a far greater extent than the scoreboard suggested for most of the night. Dupree finished 12-14 for 29 points and seven rebounds, scoring with ease and even defending Jackson without too much trouble. If all LJ is going to do is drift around the perimeter looking to shoot threes, even Dupree can defend her. Bonner was 6-12 for 13 points and 13 rebounds, only taking one three-pointer all night. Pretty as those high-arcing threes from crazy-deep are, it was good to see her regularly driving to the hoop and looking for better shots. Her rebounding was central to Phoenix’s dominance on the glass as well, eventually resulting in a 37-24 overall edge. Seattle can’t allow that to happen, but it was a side-effect of the Mercury being the far more enthusiastic and active team on the night. Much of rebounding is about effort, and Phoenix produced a lot more of that in Game 2.

If Taurasi had shot at her usual levels, maybe the Mercury would’ve avoided some of the nail-biting in the fourth quarter. 9-23 for 26 points made her a central part of the Mercury offense but not the most efficient element. It was still comfortable enough. Head coach Corey Gaines also played his part, not just bringing this performance out of his team but also shortening his rotation to keep his best players on the floor. In a do-or-die situation, he essentially went with seven players, Marie Ferdinand-Harris staying benched all night and Krystal Thomas’s 44 seconds barely counting. His team doesn’t have nearly as much depth as he’s been trying to convince us of all season, and this game suggested that he might finally have realised that himself.

Just a deplorable outing for the Storm. After their road woes all season long maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, but after the overwhelming performance on Thursday it seemed reasonable to expect better than this. They actually avoided the worst of the turnover-itis that had plagued them all season, giving up just 11 on the night, but their trademark defense was missing in action. Usually the best team in the league at keeping the opposition away from the basket, Seattle lost the points in the paint battle by an extraordinary 58 to 12. That shows how often Phoenix’s running game created easy scores before the defense got back in transition, and how frequently the lane was wide open for penetration and finishes by the post players. If Brian Agler can bring himself to watch the tape, he’ll be shouting at the screen.

It’s a slightly disturbing thought, but if that’s the best Lauren Jackson can provide at her current health levels, he might be better off giving more minutes to Ashley Robinson instead. A glorified 6’6” three-point shooter who can’t defend isn’t much use to the Storm, even if she did win last year’s MVP. The only real positive was Wright, who was bright and effective when she was on the court, but desperately needs to stay out of foul trouble so that Agler can keep her out there. The solace for the Storm is that they’re heading back to Key Arena for Game 3. It’s been a season-long story how much better they’ve been at home, and that home court advantage they fought so hard for was specifically in order to play this game at the Key. With the home crowd behind them and maybe the real Swin Cash returning (I can only presume she stayed home for this game), the Storm will still believe they can win this series. They just better not play like this again.

 

In other news…

Still nothing much happening besides the playoffs, but Sue Bird and Ruth Riley were reportedly named the co-winners of the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award (no league announcement as far as I can find, but there’s a San Antonio release here). Congratulations to both.

 

Today’s Games:

Connecticut @ Atlanta, Game 2 (Dream lead 1-0), 3pm ET

Minnesota @ San Antonio, Game 2 (Lynx lead 1-0), 5pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

New York @ Indiana, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 8pm ET

Phoenix @ Seattle, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 10pm ET

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