All the focus was on just one game in the WNBA last night, with the New York Liberty looking to build on their first win of the season from Sunday night. In these early stages of the season, last night’s visitors Atlanta look like the most realistic option among the other top teams in the East for New York to beat out for a playoff spot. So having lost to Atlanta once already, it was an important game for the Liberty to ensure they didn’t drop behind 2-0 in the season series against the Dream. New York also needed to prove, both to their fans and themselves, that the performance against Indiana two days earlier hadn’t just been a fluke. Atlanta have had a choppy start to the season themselves, looking impressive one moment and terrible the next, so finding some rhythm and putting some space between themselves and New York in the standings would’ve been useful for them as well.
New York finally stuck with the same starting lineup from their previous game, hardly a surprise considering they came away with a victory last time out. Atlanta also continued with the same starting five that they’ve used since center Yelena Leuchanka returned to fitness. The Dream’s bench was a little different after Courtney Paris was cut in favour of Jessica Moore, but that didn’t change much besides the name next to ‘Did Not Play’ in the boxscore.
It was a tight first half, with neither team managing to establish much of an advantage. New York’s confidence was noticeably higher after finally getting their season going against Indiana. They were knocking down jumpers from outside early, and role players like point guard Leilani Mitchell and center Kia Vaughn were stepping back up to the levels we’ve seen from them in previous years.
Atlanta couldn’t get much going early on, and bizarrely the only shots dropping for star scorer Angel McCoughtry were three-pointers – a shot she typically struggles with. Still, the Dream were finding a few points in transition when they managed to create turnovers, and driving into contact to force their way to the free throw line, which was enough to keep pace.
In a second quarter where no one had led by more than three points at any stage, New York made a little push in the final minutes. A baseline drive from Essence Carson, a jumper in traffic from Cappie Pondexter, then two layups from Plenette Pierson – one after running the floor hard in transition, the other after driving right by a flat-footed Sancho Lyttle – gave the Liberty an 8-0 run to close the half, and a 48-43 lead. All Atlanta managed during that sequence were bricked jumpers and missed layups under pressure.
That’s often the problem with this Dream squad – when the opposition are smart enough and execute well enough to avoid turnovers, thus negating much of Atlanta’s running game, you’re sometimes left wondering where their scoring will come from. Lyttle’s offensive game boils down to an awful lot of jump shots these days, and without Erika de Souza they don’t really have a true post-up threat. Point guard Lindsey Harding is frustratingly inconsistent, and when she does attack and create it’s usually for herself rather than anyone else. Armintie Price will rack up points when their transition game is flowing, but is very limited offensively in the halfcourt. McCoughtry’s a volume scorer who can take over games at times, but needs help to come from somewhere. Chicago turned around a 22-point deficit against the Dream at the weekend when they stopped handing the ball over cheaply and dragged Atlanta into a halfcourt game. New York were slow to get back a couple of times in the first half, but had largely avoided sloppy turnovers and kept the pace of the game under control. That in turn had held Atlanta in check.
As with Sunday’s win, New York head coach John Whisenant was keeping his rotation tight, leaving backup point guard Kelly Miller on the bench and using Kara Braxton for limited minutes as the reserve center. That proposition got more difficult, however, when Plenette Pierson left the floor barely three minutes into the second half. She was wincing as she went to the bench, but it was hard to see what injury she’s suffered or how it had been caused. Nonetheless, she never returned to the game, and Whiz stuck with Vaughn, Braxton and DeMya Walker as his post rotation for the rest of the night. Apparently he has absolutely no trust in rookie Kelley Cain at this point.
It was, frankly, an ugly, brick-laden second half. Neither team was having much joy from the perimeter, so only when they actually moved the ball and found the open player under the basket were points being accumulated. The officials had also decided to go with a “let ’em play” philosophy, which frustrated both Pondexter and McCoughtry at different times. McCoughtry, and Atlanta as a team, rely so much on their ability to penetrate and create free throw opportunities that their life becomes much more difficult when the referees start letting contact slide. Angel has a tendency to get frustrated and start whining more than playing, while firing up three-pointers that she shoots at a 27% clip for her career. That’s not good for the Dream.
Still, with Kia Vaughn’s little free-throw line jumper the only reliable shot for New York on the night, they were hardly running away with the game, despite Atlanta’s difficulties. It was 67-66 Liberty with five minutes to play, when Pondexter made a horrible looping pass that Atlanta easily picked off. Fortunately for New York, both McCoughtry and Price missed layup attempts from the resulting break, the latter thanks to a big Vaughn block, so the Liberty got away with it. They then responded with the deciding stretch of the game.
Pondexter went by McCoughtry and around a Vaughn screen, finishing the layup and adding a free throw on top. Harding tried to cross over in front of Mitchell, but was picked and the resulting scramble ended in a jump ball. New York secured it, and Mitchell penetrated before making a pretty bounce pass to Vaughn for the finish at the rim. After a Dream timeout to come up with a better plan, McCoughtry penetrated and found Harding open in the corner, only for her to miss badly from three-point range. Then Nicole Powell found Vaughn just below the free throw line, where she knocked down the little jumper yet again. Without needing either of their primary creators, Pondexter and Essence Carson, to play that big a role, New York suddenly found themselves 74-66 ahead with barely three minutes remaining. This was the Liberty of the second-half of last season, or at least a reasonable facsimile – contributions from multiple places, everyone taking responsibility, and finding a way to gut games out.
Even when the Liberty’s offense wasn’t clicking in the second half, they had the sense to play smart, deliberate basketball, avoid turnovers wherever possible, and keep the pace of the game under control. Harding seems to have trouble against Mitchell, who’s seen that spin move into the lane so many times that she just stands there waiting for Harding to rotate back around, and is still right there to challenge the shot. The combination of Carson and Powell was giving McCoughtry a difficult time as well, forcing her to work hard for anything she got. Atlanta just don’t have the halfcourt execution to find easy points on the interior when their perimeter players can’t create any points off their own back.
Atlanta did get within three points in the waning seconds after they’d started fouling to extend the game, but the Liberty made enough free throws to hold on down the stretch for an important 79-74 win. They needed this game to keep the momentum going from Sunday, and they found a way to grab it.
New York got big games from Vaughn (7-13 for 15 points and 8 boards) and Mitchell (7-11 for 18 points and 4 assists), but they also finally got the kind of offensive production from Cappie Pondexter that they’re going to need. Vaughn’s looked much better since returning to the starting lineup (plus it limits the bonehead errors from Braxton), and Mitchell’s been exceptional in two straight Liberty games now, but Pondexter’s their leader. The 9-21 or 6-23 shooting nights that she’s been producing just aren’t good enough when you’re the superstar that everything else revolves around. This time she was 8-17 from the floor, and 7-7 at the line, for 26 points. She popped up at important stages throughout the game to keep the scoreboard ticking over. She’ll always need help from the balanced group of role players around her, and the team defense Whisenant’s known for will always be important, but Pondexter’s the star that has to lead the way. Without that production this team’s going nowhere.
Ultimately, Atlanta just didn’t have the weapons, and that’s been an unfortunately common refrain so far in this young season. McCoughtry finished 8-22 for 21 points, 14 boards, 7 steals,, 2 blocks and 6 turnovers. Her attempts to take over when the help clearly wasn’t going to arrive just weren’t enough. She also shot 0-5 from three-point range after those first two long-range efforts dropped in the opening quarter. Backup post Aneika Henry’s been a nice bonus, but when she’s your second-leading scorer – which she was with 14 points – something’s probably gone wrong.
Leuchanka’s been virtually useless in every game since her promising opener against New York, which led to Henry getting so many minutes. Harding had another of her passive, quiet games, until the fourth quarter when she attempted to attack and struggled. Lyttle couldn’t find her range, continuing to shoot too much from outside, and went 6-18 for 12 points. And besides Henry, the bench offered nothing. Head coach Marynell Meadors and her team have to come up with some better ways to attack in the halfcourt, because they can’t always rely on transition and running to create points. Sometimes, the other team won’t give you the ball, the game slows down, and you have to come up with something else.
Notes and Mini-Preview of Tonight’s Game
Sharnee Zoll has been officially waived by the Los Angeles Sparks, which isn’t a surprise considering they’re expected to add Coco Miller. Assuming Miller’s signing for a pro-rated portion of the veteran’s minimum, by my numbers she can just squeak into LA’s remaining cap space some time in the next couple of days. So don’t expect to see that signing announced just yet, but it’s coming.
It’s unfortunate for Zoll, but with 11-player rosters it’s hard to justify holding on to an injured player throughout a season unless they’re a truly established top-level player. Much as the Sparks liked her and expected her to be a solid part of their backcourt rotation this year, Zoll simply isn’t that. They’ll still want to re-sign her for next season, and with their point guard situation more open than most around the league, Zoll will likely want to come back as well. The stories floating around about Zoll being kept within the Sparks organisation after being cut come awfully close to being salary-cap circumvention, so we’ll see whether the League lets them get away with that. Either way, she’ll probably be back in camp in LA next year.
The only game tonight sees troubled Seattle visit undefeated Minnesota. I can’t remember the last time I saw Seattle as a double-digit underdog on the betting line, but that’s where they are for this game, and it’s perfectly warranted. The Storm have played in Minnesota once already this year, and lost 84-71 in a game that wasn’t even as close as that scoreline makes it seem. Seattle have had problems creating scoring chances in the paint this year, and Minnesota close off the paint so well that the Storm fired 34 three-point attempts in that previous encounter. Expect plenty of threes to go up again tonight from the team in green. Minnesota will just be hoping that if they push out to a big lead, the collapse doesn’t start again. After blowing advantages of over 20 points twice in the last week, only to cling on for victory, they need to show they can ice games and keep their concentration for a full 40 minutes. Still, when you’re 7-0, it’s hard to find too much fault with how you’ve been playing.
Tonight (Wednesday June 6th):
Seattle @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Tomorrow (Thursday June 7th)