Regular readers will have picked up that we typically look at the previous day’s games in chronological order. If you tipped off first, you go first in the column, unless there’s a very good reason. Well guess what, last night’s exploits count as a damn good reason. The abominable excuse for a basketball game that was Washington’s encounter with Tulsa is relegated to the end of this piece; LA’s trip to Phoenix is promoted by default.
Despite the athleticism of LA’s stars and the typical entertainment value provided by the Mercury’s offense, it was an oddly uninvolving and unexciting first half in the desert. So we’ll skim over most of it. Both teams stuck with the same starters they’d used in their previous games, Diana Taurasi in the lineup again despite playing very limited minutes against Tulsa due to her hip injury. LA still haven’t done anything about the lack of depth caused by the injuries to Sharnee Zoll and Nicky Anosike.
There wasn’t much pace to the game, despite how Phoenix like to play and LA’s athletes. Taurasi had a nice spin move and a couple of shots where she looked pretty close to full fitness (although it’s not like she’s ever been lightning quick). Rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis had a nice baseline drive finished off with a wrap-around feed for an Avery Warley layup. Warley herself looked like a solid, useful interior pickup for an undrafted rookie. And Candice Dupree showed off her typical offensive arsenal to lead the Merc’s scoring. But with their dominance on the offensive glass – a 10-3 edge in the first half alone – LA had far more scoring opportunities than Phoenix and grabbed a narrow 43-37 edge at the half. Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike were once again their offensive leaders, although before she hit some foul trouble DeLisha Milton-Jones was also hitting some shots for the first time this season.
The third quarter was much the same, the Sparks clinging to a narrow lead and Mercury unable to reel them all the way back in. Both these teams are still working through several issues, especially defensively. For all the claims coming out of the Mercury camp, their defense is still pretty woeful. Dupree puts up pretty offensive numbers in several games, but gives a lot of it back when she falls asleep, shows a lack of effort, or just gets beaten at the other end. Also, this is the second time in two games against teams that actually have an interior presence – Tulsa doesn’t count – that they’ve been destroyed on the boards. Giving decent minutes to the likes of Warley and Nakia Sanford will help a little, but if head coach Corey Gaines keeps resorting back to his Dupree/DeWanna Bonner frontcourt they won’t beat anyone on the glass.
Hopefully, the Sparks are still learning the defensive principles that new head coach Carol Ross is trying to drum into them. Because if this is anything close to the finished article, they might want to start over. As mentioned in previous columns, they switch a lot. That’s often fine for bigs like Parker and Ogwumike, who are both mobile enough to do a reasonable job challenging guards on some possessions, and even players like Alana Beard can switch down onto bigs and at least survive briefly. But there has to be some recognition, some basic mental acuity, to go along with this process. Candace Parker can’t just happily switch on a screen if it means Kristi Toliver is going to be left trying to hold up Dupree in the post. And if that happens, you either have to rotate help, switch back as quickly as possible, or bring a double-team the instant the ball goes anywhere near Dupree. Pick-and-rolls left players like Toliver isolated and helpless far too often in this game, and the help never came close to arriving in time. Maybe Parker’s following Ross’s instructions, and the help is meant to come across from a third defender. If so, that’s breaking down instead. Something’s still amiss in this defense.
But back to the game. Toliver hit a beautiful high-arcing step-back late in the third quarter, followed by a weak Taurasi crossover that was stolen, becoming an and-1 layup for Ogwumike at the other end. Suddenly LA’s lead had ballooned to 11, and although Taurasi answered with a 4-point play (with a leg kick-out and flop for the foul – she hasn’t lost it) the Mercury gave two back with an easy layup by Toliver to close the period. LA went to the fourth up 73-64.
With Ross trying to grab some rest for a couple of key players, Phoenix picked up the energy to start the fourth quarter and the Mercury began to sneak back into the game. It was unlikely lineup of Alexis Gray-Lawson, Charde Houston, Bonner, Dupree and Sanford that did the work, speeding up the game and pulling the crowd back into the contest. Then at the 6:21 mark, Gaines did something that would rarely be considered a mistake – he put Diana Taurasi back in the game. While she’s not 100% healthy yet, she’s Diana Taurasi so you want her in at crunch time. The part that seemed poorly thought out was putting her in for Sanford. The Mercury had finally been putting up a fight on the glass in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, and he was taking out his center. Also, already in this young season we’ve seen Candace Parker struggle against big, solid defenders late in games when she’s worn down and tiring. With Sanford (and Warley) out of the game, Gaines had removed his only legitimate physical presences. Bonner and Dupree may be the better all-around basketball players, but someone has to be in the paint and play some defense down the stretch.
So although Taurasi’s first act after coming back into the game was to nail a three that cut the score to 81-79, LA started to pull away again from that moment on. Bonner and Dupree couldn’t deal with Parker inside, even if she was tiring, and between Parker, Ogwumike and Toliver the Sparks just had too much down the stretch.
The dagger came with 3:30 left, as Parker missed a little turnaround hook over Bonner. Dupree fell asleep on the glass (hardly the first time) and Ogwumike snuck in, leaping first to tip the ball up and keep it alive, then to tip it in while being fouled. Adding insult to injury, she missed to free throw, only for Parker to beat Bonner to the board, then spin around her for a lefty finish. That made it 93-84 and everyone could start heading home. The game eventually finished 99-88; it was 10-3 Sparks on the glass, and 14-4 in points in the paint, over the course of those final six minutes after Taurasi returned.
Phoenix are still going to outscore some teams this season. This many athletes, their typical system, it’s inevitable. But even once Taurasi’s fully healthy, they still look very vulnerable (and it’s not all caused by the lack of Penny Taylor). Gaines doesn’t know what he wants to be, half the time. If you’re going to keep three centers on a ten-player roster (assuming Krystal Thomas is the upcoming replacement for Zane Tamane), you have to be willing to use those bigs at meaningful moments. Falling back on small lineups and hoping to outscore teams like LA that will destroy a Bonner/Dupree front line is often a bad idea. Prahalis is doing her best at the point, and has had a reasonable start to her pro career, but she’s really small and her offense is largely limited to open outside jumpers when they’re available. Also, for a coach who’s always gone on about how his system and depth can wear other teams out, Gaines is riding Dupree and Bonner into the ground right now. Their ineffectiveness against Parker late in this game may have been down to their own tiring limbs, as much as a general inability to defend her.
Despite a few lingering issues, the Sparks will be delighted with how their season’s started and the 3-1 record they’ve compiled. The defense is a work-in-progress, but the effort and energy increase at that end from last year is an excellent sign. The frontcourt of Ogwumike and Parker is just scary. So athletic, so mobile, and both extremely capable finishers. There just aren’t many teams in the WNBA who can match up with that and deal with them. Toliver’s revelling in her increased role in the backcourt. Yes, maybe she still shoots too much, but her willingness to pass and create is much improved. Alana Beard is doing her best alongside Toliver, although her legs still don’t look like they’re quite there yet. She doesn’t have the same lift that she used to, and it’s affecting her jump shot (which has been badly off so far). But she’s working hard and giving them everything she’s got, and the veteran presence is important for this squad.
Ross has to find some backup for this backcourt, though. Jantel Lavender and Ebony Hoffman haven’t been great so far, but at least they can spell the frontcourt starters (and there’s still Anosike to return as well). With Zoll out, all Toliver and Beard have behind them is April Sykes – who doesn’t look ready for this level – and a sliding over Marissa Coleman (who’s better off at small forward, and preferably playing limited minutes there). Beard has barely played in two years due to injury. She can’t keep playing 32 minutes a night. Even with the slim pickings in the free agent market, someone out there must be able to help the Sparks out. It’s hard to see them surviving like this through 34 games.
So on to what I’m calling the D.C. Debacle. Considering these teams won 9 games between them last year, maybe we should’ve expected this. But somehow, I had hopes that it’d at least be a little better than what we ended up with.
Washington moved Dominique Canty into their starting lineup ahead of Natasha Lacy, hoping that opening up with the veteran guard rather than the quick little sparkplug might ease their turnover problem. That didn’t work out so well. After shooting a combined 6-25 in Tulsa’s first two games, Riquna Williams was relieved of her starting duties, and replaced by Ivory Latta. Temeka Johnson and Latta makes for a tiny backcourt, but with Canty and Noelle Quinn on the opposite side the Shock obviously weren’t cowering in fear about being lit up as a result.
Starting as they would go on (and on, and on…), Canty threw a crappy entry pass that was easily picked off on the very first possession of the game. And so began a nightmarish illustration of every possible way to turn over a basketball, and an illustration of just how ugly you can make it look along the way. By halftime, Washington were shooting 58% from the field while holding Tulsa to 28%, both teams had shot 18 free throws apiece, and yet somehow the Mystics only led 40-34. A 15-10 ‘lead’ in the turnover column wasn’t doing them any favours.
A central part of the reason Washington were even in front at halftime, and one of their few reasons for optimism coming out of this contest, was the return of Matee Ajavon from injury. She gives them a directness and aggression from the perimeter that they just don’t have amongst their myriad other guard options. She also gives them someone who doesn’t mind if you throw her the ball late in the shot clock and just expect her to do something. And while she will pass on occasion these days, Ajavon’s default options are to fire a shot or barrel straight towards the rim – both of which are better alternatives than throwing the ball to the other team. Which seems like the primary option within the Mystics offense.
Washington pushed their lead as high as 16 in the third quarter, and finished the period up 56-43. For all their problems, they’ve got significantly more talent among their key players than the Shock, and it seemed like they were finally making it tell.
Then panic set in. Maybe they remembered all the games they gave away last season (although only four players remain from that roster, and they’re the good ones). Maybe they saw how far ahead they were and felt like it was just wrong, so they had to let Tulsa back in. Maybe I should give more credit to the Shock’s pressure defense, which is admittedly far better than when Nolan Richardson was supposedly instilling his ’40 Minutes of Hell’. Regardless of the reason, the fourth quarter was an embarrassing comedy of errors, where Washington’s turnovers seemed to be even more ridiculous than in the opening three periods (and they had 23 turnovers in those first three).
Tulsa knocked down a few shots, got to the line a couple of times, and happily snaffled up all the balls Washington kept throwing them, until with a minute left it was somehow a two-point game. Both teams still seemed desperate to throw the game away. An offensive foul from Ashley Robinson gave Tulsa a chance, before Williams missed a jumper. Ajavon succumbed to pressure yet again and couldn’t get the ball over halfcourt, only for Tulsa to throw the ball back to her, only for her subsequent pass to be tipped and nearly go back to the Shock yet again. It was like watching 7 year-olds play pickup, or maybe a really bad game of dodgeball.
After Tulsa decided not to foul when the Mystics had possession and only a three-second differential between shot and game clock, an Ajavon miss fell for Crystal Langhorne off the offensive glass, and she was fouled in the process of grabbing it. She went one-for-two at the line, creating a three-point lead with four seconds remaining. No, not overtime, please.
Fortunately for basketball lovers everywhere, Tulsa ran a play that looked like it was supposed to be a return handoff to inbounder Ivory Latta for the tying three, but it took far too long to develop. She eventually fed Riquna Williams in the corner, but her tying three attempt (which actually went in), was clearly after the buzzer even without going to instant replay. The officials, of course, checked the replay anyway, just to stretch out the agony for a few extra seconds. Mystics win, 64-61, in a game that ought to have been declared a mistrial and had everyone sent home without their dinner.
Washington had thirty-two turnovers in this game, including the four team-turnovers. Nine different Mystics had at least two, with Noelle Quinn’s line in the box score looking lonely on zero in the turnover column (rookie Natalie Novosel didn’t play). It was embarrassing, even though Ajavon gave them a burst of extra energy (19 point on 5-11 shooting), and Langhorne and Monique Currie offered scoring support. And somehow they won the game. Wow. Their guard play, besides Ajavon’s regular forays to the hoop, was horrific. Canty looks 98 years old (and she wasn’t that good when she was 28). Jasmine Thomas made some unbelievably terrible decisions and resultant passes. Noelle Quinn somehow played nearly 32 minutes and you barely knew she was in uniform. Natasha Lacy got under three minutes of floor time, despite how the others were playing. There just seems to be a level of panic in this squad that shouldn’t be there on a professional basketball team. They were playing Tulsa, for crying out loud. They were six-point favourites with the bookies. Show some confidence and composure. Please. I’ve still got to watch you play 32 more times.
Tulsa had one of the games that we’ll see at times from them this year. For all their effort and energy, for all the turnovers they pressured Washington into – and they really are getting pretty good at that, regardless of the help the Mystics gave them – the Shock just couldn’t score enough. They got to the free throw line quite a bit (21-26 as a team), a sign of their aggression offensively, but unless the little guards are knocking down shots, they’re very limited in their offensive options. The defensive intensity is a start, though.
Notes and Mini-Previews of Today’s Games
Not much point going into detail on today’s early game between Indiana and Atlanta, seeing as it’s probably already on (or finished) by the time you’re reading this. The extra speed Indiana are playing with this year, up against Atlanta’s general inclination to play passing lanes and run at every opportunity, could make it a fun matchup.
The late game features Seattle in Minnesota, and if both teams play as they have so far this year it’ll be a massacre. After five days of practice, hopefully the Storm’s guards are more prepared to play, and the squad as a unit have managed to build a little more chemistry. Otherwise that Lynx squad will tear them apart, especially on their own floor.
My Olympic tickets arrived the other day. Nothing much to say about that, just wanted to gloat.
Today (Sunday May 27th):
Indiana @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, 7pm ET
Tomorrow (Monday May 28th)