Kristi Toliver’s a polarising figure at the best of times. Gunners with little conscience often are, and when they come along with an attitude it only makes things worse. Last night was an illustration of precisely why she hasn’t been a regular starting guard in her first three WNBA seasons – especially a point guard – before she showed exactly why she’s such a tantalising talent. Oh, and there were some other players out there as well.
The Tulsa Shock came into Los Angeles last night at 0-3, and off the back of one of the ugliest games you’ll ever see against Washington on Saturday night. But new head coach Gary Kloppenburg seems to be on his way to achieving what Nolan Richardson spent the best part of two years making a mess of. Klopp knows his team doesn’t have the offensive talent of other squads in the league, but he’s got speed and quickness, a roster he can rotate without too much drop-off, and he’s got them playing high-energy, annoying defense. This is a hell of a lot closer to ’40 Minutes of Hell’ than Richardson ever got his Shock squads to play.
However, the early stages weren’t pretty for Tulsa. They were bricking jump shots, LA were moving the ball quickly up the floor, finding the open man, and knocking down their own open shots. Inside the space of two minutes, the Sparks were 9-0 up and Klopp was calling a timeout to halt the momentum. It looked like a massacre was on the cards if his team didn’t wake up quickly.
While Tulsa at least got into the game a little, the lead was as high as 14 in the opening quarter and finished with the Sparks on top 25-15. A central part of Tulsa’s issues early in this game – and something they’re likely to struggle with all season – is their complete lack of interior game. Defensively, they can rotate, help and double-team to cover for their lack of presence inside, but offensively is another matter. There just isn’t a real post-up threat. Chante Black looks just as lightweight and ignorable this year as she has in her earlier WNBA seasons; Kayla Pedersen’s shooting seems to have disappeared along with her confidence (and she was never really a low-block scorer anyway); Glory Johnson is a player who thrives off energy, activity and rebounds, rather than being someone you can toss the ball to on the block; Jen Lacy is mostly a jumpshooter; and Lynetta Kizer is the 10th or 11th player on the roster. That leaves all the scoring dependent on their little guards creating off the dribble, a lot of one-on-one attacks, and maybe some open finishes underneath if the guards can draw attention and find the open man. It’s a hard way to score points, and if the jumpers aren’t falling it can lead to some ugly nights on the scoreboard.
That opening flurry of easy points ultimately may not have done LA any favours. Both the team and the crowd seemed so relaxed and blasé about the eventual result, and Tulsa began to ease their way back into the game. Despite their obvious talent advantage in the post, all LA were creating in their offense was jumpers and turnovers, and if you give them enough opportunities even Tulsa will score some points.
The constant penetration that Tulsa’s offense typically revolves around has one nice side-effect, especially against defenses that aren’t quite at the races – lots of fouls. If the quick little guards like Temeka Johnson, Ivory Latta and Riquna Williams go by you, then perimeter defenders often get caught reaching after the ball, or the help slides over a little late and ends up with a blocking call when the guard creates contact. Key LA players ended up in foul trouble in this game as a result, with both Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike on three fouls by halftime. On a team like LA, already down to nine players due to injuries to Sharnee Zoll and Nicky Anosike, foul trouble for starters is something they’ll find difficult to handle.
Talking of finding things difficult to handle, back to Kristi Toliver. The high-pressure, high-energy defense played by those diminutive guards at the head of Kloppenburg’s defense was causing her all kinds of problems. Whether on entry passes, dribble penetration ending in kick-outs, or just getting caught in traffic, Kristi was discovering all kinds of ways to turn the ball over. This is why she was expected to be a scoring-burst energy-boost off the bench this season, not a starting point guard. She gets rattled a little too easily, her ballhandling isn’t the greatest, and her decision-making can sometimes leave quite a bit to be desired. So with Kristi making mistakes (7 turnovers in the first half alone), foul trouble restricting important pieces, and Candace Parker drifting through the game as a complete non-factor, Tulsa were right back in it by the half, trailing just 40-36.
The really disappointing stat for LA from the first half, besides the turnovers, was that they trailed 14-10 in points in the paint. And that didn’t get much better in the second half, either. As mentioned before, Tulsa don’t have much size in the paint, and with the likes of Parker, Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Ebony Hoffman, the Sparks should’ve been killing them in there. But it was hard to remember a single post move from LA in the opening 20 minutes. Ross has done a lot of good things since getting to LA, but there wasn’t a lot of variety to the offense when she was an assistant in Atlanta and that seems to have come across to the Sparks.
They run a lot of possessions out of the ‘horns’ set (point guard up top, two bigs at the elbows at the top of the key, two wings spread wide), which often is meant to end up with a post swinging down to receive the ball under the hoop. But if that doesn’t work, there don’t seem to be a lot of other options. It also brings Parker out towards the top of the arc to start possessions, and she does that enough on her own already. It’d be nice to see more options within this offense that don’t end up in perimeter jump shots, and that make greater use of their powerful post players.
Ogwumike was quickly back on the bench with her fourth foul early in the second half, and Toliver had already pushed into double-digits in the turnover column – so nothing had changed for LA. For the Shock, the streaky Riquna Williams had carried over her strong first half performance and was continuing to pile up points. The girl clearly has talent, and she’s very quick, it’s just a matter of whether she can find some consistency with her scoring (and improve her shot selection from ‘have ball, will shoot’). A Williams three midway through the third quarter put Tulsa in front for the first time, and a shock was starting to look legitimately possible.
LA weren’t waking up, and they weren’t changing much around. The offense was still all jumpers and turnovers, they still looked passive, and their defense still has issues. They’re still so willing to switch on screens that guards end up mismatched, and against this team even the athletic LA bigs have trouble keeping up with the guards. The Sparks tried their 2-3 zone to shake things up, but all that did was highlight why they’ve been sticking with the man-to-man. There are giant holes right in the middle of the zone, and the rotation isn’t quick enough to cover the gaps. The effort’s definitely better than last year, but the Sparks still have some way to come on the defensive end.
Still, LA were making enough of those jumpers to hang around, rookie April Sykes did okay when Ross finally went to the end of her bench in desperation, and Ogwumike’s energy and activity made a big difference when she came back for the fourth quarter. In fact, Parker found herself glued to the bench while the Sparks fought their way back into the game in the fourth, with a Beard/Sykes/Milton-Jones/Ogwumike/Lavender lineup doing the work. Having already comfortably broken the old WNBA record of 11 turnovers in a single game, Toliver was sat down as well.
The final minutes were a matter of who could hold their nerve. Tulsa kept pulling Ogwumike into pick-and-rolls, and with three minutes remaining finally baited her into her fifth foul. Parker replaced her, and Toliver was already back out there despite her giveaways – Ross doesn’t have many realistic alternatives for crunch time. Kayla Pedersen bricked a pair of free throws with two minutes to play, then Williams pulled off a phenomenal block of Lavender under the hoop before nailing a step-back three at the other end to give the Shock a 70-69 lead with under 90 seconds left. There were still plenty of twists to come.
Lavender blew an easy layup attempt, before Pedersen managed 1-of-2 at the line. Toliver penetrated, stopped, then threw the ball precisely where Alana Beard had been two seconds earlier before moving out of the way. The ball sailed out of bounds, and Toliver’s 14th turnover was marked on the scorecard. A Shock miss and offensive board ran more time off the clock, and we were down to 20 seconds left when Toliver fouled to send Temeka Johnson to the line. LA didn’t need to foul – the shot clock would’ve run out well before the game clock – but either they wanted to extend the game or Toliver made yet another error.
Now we had a free throw contest. Two for Johnson, two for Parker (on a generous call), two more for Johnson. Then when Parker found Milton-Jones for a miss from the corner, Toliver hustled after the offensive rebound and knocked down a short jumper with 7 seconds left, leaving LA still trailing by two. This time Tulsa couldn’t get the ball to Johnson on the inbounds, and it was left to Karima Christmas to head to the line instead. She promptly missed them both, and little Kristi was left with one last chance for redemption.
Ogwumike grabbed the board and sent the outlet to Toliver, who charged up the left-hand side of the floor (LA were out of timeouts). With no hesitation whatsoever, Toliver did what she does best – she let fly. A little step back to create space and make sure she was behind the three-point line, the shot was in the air with 1 second on the clock and ripping the twine as time expired. You knew it was in as soon as it left her hand.
This is the frustrating dichotomy of Kristi Toliver. A greedy, poor decision-making turnover machine at her worst; the player you want taking the big shot for all the marbles at her best. And often both at exactly the same time. Not many players could turn the ball over 14 times, then put that right to the back of their minds and win the game at the buzzer. But that’s Kristi.
Heartbreaking, obviously, for Tulsa. They were just too late with a tying three against Washington, had a tying two at the buzzer waved off against Phoenix, and now they’ve seen a two-point lead become yet another loss as the buzzer sounded in LA. Their pressure defense is really causing teams problems. They’ve forced their opponents into a whole host of turnovers in every game so far (24, 23, 32 and 28). They just have to convert them into a few more points, and learn how to close games out down the stretch. It’s a painful learning curve, but they’ve still taken a step up from last year.
Offensively, Williams was the star for the Shock, shooting 8-16 for 19 points. There just wasn’t enough support. The starting frontcourt was a combined 2-18 from the floor, and they can’t expect to get everything from their guards.
The Sparks will be delighted to have got away from this one with a win, when their largely dismal performance didn’t really deserve it. Maybe they simply took the Shock too lightly and weren’t mentally prepared for a fight, but the performance seemed to highlight other problems as well. Firstly, Candace Parker has to provide more than what we saw last night. A bare-miniumum double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds, against a team with no post presence, is pathetic. She just wasn’t involved for much of the game, and a player with her talent has to impose herself more than that. Playing alongside a talent like Ogwumike illustrates where Parker sometimes lets herself down. There’s a constant energy about Ogwumike, a never-ending motor that just keeps going whether the ball’s falling for her or not. Leave her out there and she’ll make something happen, whether you run anything for her or not. Parker, with greater natural gifts from the basketball gods, is much more passive. In a game like this, where someone needed to step up, their MVP candidate should’ve made a much greater impact.
And finally, perhaps most obviously, we saw once again how thin this LA team currently are. Nicky Anosike has decided to have surgery on her troublesome knee – not the first time she’s stayed ‘healthy’ to get paid overseas, then missed games in the US when her money is guaranteed – so the Sparks are officially down to nine players. The backcourt is the primary issue, seeing as they started the season without much depth there in the first place. Toliver and Beard are basically it, with Sykes sat on the bench during the vast majority of this game despite Toliver’s turnover issues and Beard’s foul trouble. Marissa Coleman also continues to disappoint, whether at her more natural small forward spot or sliding over to the 2.
The Sparks have multiple options. They’re eligible for a hardship exception now that Zoll and Anosike are both out, meaning they could sign a 12th player on top of their current roster. Or they could cut Zoll, Sykes or both to bring in new options. They’re also currently counting the temporarily suspended salary of Australian Jenna O’Hea against the salary cap, which somewhat limits the group of potential signings (minimum salaried players with 3 or more years of WNBA experience cost more than those with 0-2, and LA are close enough to the cap that the gap makes a difference). They could change the status of O’Hea to open up more room, if they’re not realistically expecting her to show up in August. Whatever they do, and whoever they bring in, there needs to be someone who can spell Toliver and Beard. They can’t expect a last-second shot to bail them out of a giant hole every night.
Anosike is expected to miss at least six weeks after her surgery today. That would basically put her out until after the Olympic break.
Ros Casares, this year’s EuroLeague Women champions (featuring Lauren Jackson, Sancho Lyttle, Maya Moore, Ann Wauters and a host of other talents), are no more. They’ve withdrawn from senior basketball competition, leaving several senior players looking for jobs next season.
Tonight (Wednesday May 30th):
Minnesota @: Washington, 7pm ET
Chicago @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Tomorrow (Thursday May 31st):
Phoenix @ Atlanta, 7pm ET