It was a Friday night triple-header this week in the WNBA, and seeing as the general opinion seemed to be positive last time we tried it, we’re going to tackle them Bullet Point Breakdown style.
- San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes stuck with his itty-bitty starting lineup, With Danielle Adams at center and Jia Perkins the nominal small forward. Connecticut’s Mike Thibault changed things around a little, with Allison Hightower getting the start ahead of Kalana Greene on the wing. Renee Montgomery continues to come off the bench for the Sun (and isn’t very happy about it, according to local press).
- Tan White is back practicing for Connecticut after her concussion, but didn’t play. Rookie Ziomara Morrison, who was supposed to help provide size and bulk to San Antonio’s interior, is reportedly limited by a finger injury but continues to dress and played very briefly.
- Adams did a decent job on Charles early, despite the extra inches that the Sun center has on her. Adams can use her bulk to at least make it difficult for Charles on the low block.
- At the other end, Charles had a few problems. She likes to play free safety a little bit, drifting in the paint to be able to offer help defense when her teammates need it. Against a lot of 5s that’s fine, but with Adams, if you sag back she’s just going to sit happily at the three-point line and fire away all day. The same problem occurred when Adams set screens for her guards, because Connecticut typically trap the ballhandler (or at least show hard with a ghost of a double-team) on pick and rolls. So Adams sets the screen, the guard’s defender and Charles slide over to challenge the ball, and if the guard can pass back to Adams she’s often wide open for a jumper. The defense depends either on a third defender rotating across to cover quickly, or Charles recovering in time to challenge the shot. Both of those are difficult to keep doing effectively.
- So Adams led the scoring for San Antonio, mostly with three-point shooting, throughout the first half.
- However, the Silver Stars weren’t getting much else offensively, and ended up a bit jumper-happy (a curse that often plagued them last season). Even with great shooters, when you live by the jump shot, you frequently die by the jump shot.
- Montgomery came off the bench and was instantly aggressive, creating offense and points with her attacking mentality. As Rebecca Lobo pointed out in the commentary, it’s a double-edged sword for Monty – play badly and she’ll stay stuck on the bench because she won’t deserve a promotion; play well and she’s the perfect sixth-woman injection of pace and offense, so she’ll stay a ‘reserve’.
- Connecticut built a small lead in the opening quarter and into the second, when Hughes played a lot of reserves simultaneously and his offense deteriorated markedly. San Antonio made a run just before halftime, led by two trademark ridiculous interior finishes from Becky Hammon, that cut the score to 36-35 at the break. The Sun started to settle for too many jumpers themselves late in the half.
- The very first possession of the second half featured Charles physically posting Adams up on the low-block, going right at her, and then feeding Asjha Jones for the finish. Connecticut are one of those teams where you can always tell exactly what the coach has been screaming and bitching about at halftime – they came out and went right to what they’d forgotten about in the second quarter.
- San Antonio kept hanging around in the third quarter and on into the fourth. The Sun were typically the aggressor, but the Silver Stars were hitting enough from outside that they just wouldn’t go away.
- The key sequence that decided the game was from around the 8 minute mark in the fourth, when Connecticut ran off a 12-0 run in the space of less than three minutes. Adams came out for San Antonio – she physically can’t survive for huge minutes – and with Jayne Appel in at center instead the Silver Stars had no answer. The Sun guards were digging and helping defensively, San Antonio gave up a couple of cheap turnovers, Appel made a couple of errors on ball retention and simple finishes inside, and suddenly 62-60 had become 74-60 with five minutes left. Ballgame.
- The Silver Stars made a late run, and Shameka Christon being fouled on two consecutive three-point attempts helped them out, but it was never really a contest again.
- Ultimately, Adams (21 points on 7-14 from the field) didn’t get enough offensive help for San Antonio. Hightower (and help) did a solid job on Hammon most of the night, holding her to just 8 attempts, Sophia Young was a virtually invisible 3-11 for 9 points, and Shameka Christon firing away from outside can only do so much. Like I said – die by the jump shot. On a positive note, Danielle Robinson’s mid-range jumper looks significantly improved, which will help her game going forward.
- The Sun, as usual, were led by Charles (8-16 for 18 points), Jones (7-12 for 16) and Montgomery (8-16 for 23). Moving to 3-0, they’re looking good in the early stages of the season, although I’m still not convinced by the post backup behind Charles and Jones. They’re moving the ball nicely, finding the right players in the right positions and playing smart team basketball. Earning over 31 minutes in this game – again despite poor shooting – Hightower has added an extra defensive option on the perimeter that’s been a nice bonus for Thibault as well.
- My only fear with Renee Montgomery as a bench guard is that she may look for her own offense a little too much. That’s great when she’s rolling; when she’s not, they’ll want her to pass more.
- Lineup changes for both teams. New York’s John Whisenant bowed to popular wishes and replaced Nicole Powell with Essence Carson at small forward for the Liberty; Marynell Meadors inserted big Belarussian Yelena Leuchanka at center after she’d recovered from a concussion, replacing rookie Aneika Henry.
- Due to a foot injury, wing Alex Montgomery didn’t travel with the Liberty. Although Whiz rarely uses her much, anyway.
- From the very early stages, this was much more like the Dream team we remember from previous years, rather than the echo we saw last week in a loss in Indiana. They were running at every opportunity, playing ballhawking defense, and just generally playing at a much higher pace and energy level. That’s what this team has to do to be successful.
- Kara Braxton was awful in the opening minutes, with her sloppy hands, mental breakdowns and general poor play offering nothing good for New York.
- Fortunately for the Libs, Angel McCoughtry couldn’t hit anything in the early stages, because her teammates weren’t missing much.
- Two early fouls sent Sancho Lyttle to the bench for Atlanta, and when she came back in the second quarter it took seconds before she picked up her third. Fortunately for Atlanta, her teammates picked up the slack.
- While Carson and Plenette Pierson had their moments, Kia Vaughn was really the only effective offensive player for the Liberty in the first half. There were a couple of interior finishes, but mostly it was her little midrange jumper that was dropping nicely. That sign of reliability was a refreshing change from Braxton. Even rookie Kelley Cain got a couple of minutes before Whiz was willing to let Braxton back on the floor.
- Despite Vaughn’s efforts, Atlanta took over the game in the second quarter. McCoughtry found her offense, driving to the basket aggressively rather than firing jumpers, and creating opportunities with her defense. In fact, the whole team were playing passing lanes and digging for steals, igniting their transition offense. New York’s sloppiness with the ball and half-interested appearance was playing right into Atlanta’s hands and helping them build their lead.
- Lindsey Harding came out aggressive from the tip, rather than just waiting for the game to come to her, which helped the Dream a lot as well.
- On the other side, New York might just have the worst point guard situation in the league (although Washington certainly give them a run for their money). Leilani Mitchell and Kelly Miller don’t create for their teammates, essentially just bringing the ball up the floor and handing it off. They don’t penetrate much either, and on the rare occasions they do Mitchell’s too small to finish inside and Miller’s too slow and unathletic. Miller had a horrid stretch in the second quarter, giving passes away, having the ball picked from her, and being murdered by Harding on the defensive end. It might be time for Kelly to hang ’em up – and Whiz might end up having to play Cappie Pondexter at the point to avoid playing either of the other options.
- Just to top things off, New York were getting killed on the glass too. Yelena Leuchanka might not be ‘all-world’ as Marynell Meadors once described her to me, but she significantly deepens Atlanta’s post rotation. Her layup from a McCoughtry feed at the halftime buzzer gave Atlanta a 48-33 lead at the break. Barring natural disasters, it felt pretty close to over already.
- And so it proved. Pondexter at least got herself somewhat involved in the second half, after going 0-3 for zero points in the first 20 minutes. But that can’t happen for this team – a passive Pondexter leaves them completely toothless. Unfortunately, she’s looked like she was pretty much going through the motions in New York’s games so far this year. That’s the recipe for a lottery appearance.
- It was blowout-city and acres of garbage time in the second half. Atlanta ran out 100-74 winners without ever being remotely worried.
- After her slow start, McCoughtry was special the rest of the night. She finished 9-17 for 23 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, and 6 steals. The assists are especially nice to see from a player who’s been known to call her own number a little too frequently. Harding was the primary additional scorer with 19, but there was help from everywhere. It was an encouraging game all around for the Dream, even considering the dispirited opposition.
- There were one or two positives for New York. Offensively, Carson did okay as a starter and Powell hit a few shots off the bench, and Vaughn had her nice burst in the first half. But that was about it. Pondexter hit a few shots in the second half, but the game was essentially over, so who cares? The defensive rotations and rebounding help were slow and lazy. If you want to be kind, you could say this team looks tired. They’ve played more games than anyone in the opening week of the season, and maybe Whiz worked them too hard in the abbreviated preseason. A less generous assessment would say they look disinterested, passive, and already drained of belief and confidence.
- Whiz did eventually switch to Pondexter at the point for much of the second half. It didn’t make much difference.
- Indiana stuck with their small lineup with Tamika Catchings at power forward, although Tammy Sutton-Brown got her starting spot back at center after recovering from a sprained ankle. Chicago had the same starting five as in last week’s win over Washington.
- Sonja Petrovic is still out with her broken finger for Chicago, and apparently Ticha Penicheiro did get hurt in the Washington game, a calf injury leaving her in a walking boot and unavailable for this game.
- The fascinating aspect of this game from the start was Indiana’s quick but undersized front line – Katie Douglas at small forward, Catchings at the 4, Sutton-Brown at the 5 – facing up to Chicago’s size – Swin Cash, Ruth Riley and Sylvia Fowles.
- By choice, in the early possessions, it looked like both teams wanted Catchings and Fowles matching up against each other, Sutton-Brown and Riley pairing up their offensive passivity, and Douglas lining up against Cash. Catchings’s quickness and constant hard work against the pure size and athleticism of Fowles was the highlight.
- That said, Cash had a couple of nice early plays on a post up and jumper where she made use of her physical advantage over Douglas.
- The game was tight throughout the first half. Indiana are a noticeably quicker and more aggressive offensive team these days, looking to push the ball and fire away when open. They’re not afraid to take perimeter shots in transition, either, even when offensive rebounders are sparse. With Douglas and Catchings both scoring well in their early games, the faster pace has been working for them.
- Chicago’s size and rebounding was helping the Sky stay even, with Epiphanny Prince providing some useful scoring help as well. With Penicheiro out Prince has to take on more of the ballhandling responsibilities, and she can do that, but she’s much more comfortable as an attacking scorer. Distributing the ball and finding teammates isn’t really her game.
- A silly second foul while showing too hard on a screen sent Fowles to the bench in the first quarter, which didn’t help the Sky.
- While Indiana weren’t exactly pulling away in the third quarter, the pattern that started to develop was worrying for Chicago. Their high rate of turnovers, something which caused them all sorts of problems last season, raised its head again. It wasn’t quite like the New York game, where sloppiness faced with constant strips and quick hands kept leading to opposition breakouts. For Chicago, it’s more like stagnation and a lack of movement lead to almost inevitable giveaways. They’re trying to force the ball in to Fowles in the post, but the sets aren’t particularly imaginative, the ball movement isn’t great to create different angles, and there’s a lot of standing around waiting to see if they can get it down to her. Indiana simply ended up the more active and energetic team, keeping up the pace of their game while Chicago repeatedly coughed up the ball.
- However, a lot of it merely came down to Catchings and Douglas making shots. Both shot really well, created on their own when they had to, and every time Chicago drew close one of them would pop up and hit a shot to keep the Fever’s noses in front. Big Jessica Davenport, having one of those days where her midrange jumper was falling, helped out as well.
- With the turnovers limiting Chicago’s offense, and Prince fading out of the game for much of the second half, Indiana pulled away in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, they looked deeper, and more comfortable as a unit at this early stage in the season. With all the Sky’s new pieces, it’s not surprising that they’d look less cohesive than Indiana. In the three remaining matchups between these teams, it’ll be interesting to see how Chicago adapt and grow against a team whose core has been together for years.
- Fowles finished 7-11 for 21 points and 10 boards. Yes, she needs to get more shots than that, but the system also has to do a better job of creating opportunities for her. That was a central part of their problems last year, and even with improved pieces around her they still need to work on it.
- After Cash’s strong start, Douglas ended up comfortably winning their matchup as Swin disappeared from the game as it progressed.
- Two games in, the ‘Catch at the 4’ experiment is proving very successful. The extra ballhandler, additional shooter and increased quickness has noticeably helped their offense and ball movement. The only question is whether they’re going to continue to be able to overcome the negatives. They got their first offensive rebound of this game midway through the third quarter, and lost the overall rebound battle 37-25. If that keeps happening game after game, they’re going to need their jumpshooters to stay hot to compensate. As we’ve seen in previous years and with other teams, that often isn’t something you want to rely on.
- Catchings also expended a lot of energy fighting with Fowles for position in the post and preventing lanes for entry passes. The wear and tear on her doing that for 34 games could hurt them later this year.
Notes and Mini-Previews for Tonight
No official announcement of Zane Tamane’s replacement yet in Phoenix, although that often doesn’t mean anything with this league.
Two games tonight, starting with the clash of teams that won only 9 games between them last season. Obviously, both Tulsa and Washington will be seeing this as a prime chance to grab their first win of 2012, and get their season rolling.
Later in the evening, LA tip-off against the Mercury in Phoenix. Noises out of the Mercury camp suggest Diana Taurasi will play, although she may well not be back to full strength. The Sparks are yet to make any moves to replace point guard Sharnee Zoll or add any backcourt depth. Phoenix are more rested, after not playing since Tuesday, but LA have been rather more impressive in the opening skirmishes of the season. Should be an interesting clash.
Tonight (Saturday May 26th):
Tulsa @ Washington, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Tomorrow (Sunday May 27th):
Indiana @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, 7pm ET