WNBA Today, 06/09/2012: Four Nailbiters and a Mess

Let’s get right to this: five games last night, including several tight ones (a couple of which never should’ve been remotely close at the end). And one game that left you thinking an early night would’ve been a better idea.

 

New York Liberty 76 @ Washington Mystics 70

  • Trudi Lacey made a change in her starting lineup, inserting Michelle Snow ahead of Ashley Robinson at center. Snow offers slightly more offense, without quite the defensive presence or instincts of Robinson. It’s much of a muchness, to be perfectly honest. The decaying corpse of Dominique Canty continues to start at point guard (not that Washington have glorious options to replace her with).
  • New York, as expected, kept the same starters that have led them to win their last two games. That meant Plenette Pierson had been ruled healthy enough to play, after missing nearly the entire second half of Tuesday’s game with some kind of injury (the Liberty are typically thoroughly unhelpful in regards to letting us know about things like that).
  • Unfortunately for New York, Pierson played less than three minutes of this game before subbing out, and stayed out for the rest of the night. It’s still hard to tell what the injury actually is – she didn’t seem to be clutching anything as she left the floor – but regardless of the ailment, losing her hurts this team. She’s their engine, their solid, reliable core. The Liberty have other post options, but none of them are as dependable or as mobile as Pierson.
  • Fortunately for New York, they’ve got a lot of confidence right now whoever’s out there – and they were playing the Mystics. It was already 11-6 when Pierson sat down, and the massacre snowballed for the entire first half.
  • New York were just moving the ball better, working harder, and generally looking far more organised than the Mystics.
  • Washington were a mess. Crystal Langhorne was their only bright spot, and she couldn’t do it on her own. Yet again, the Mystics were being blown out in the first half. This team doesn’t dig holes; it digs canyons.
  • The Liberty lead was 35-13 after just the first quarter, went as high as 29 points, and they coasted to a 55-33 advantage at halftime. It was a demolition.
  • Star Cappie Pondexter and the revitalised Leilani Mitchell were the scoring leaders for New York, but posts Kia Vaughn and DeMya Walker were playing heavy minutes in the absence of Pierson. Coach John Whisenant really doesn’t trust rookie Kelley Cain or wildcard Kara Braxton at this point.
  • For something like the 893rd time (number approximate), Lacey drew a response from her team after a horrific start. It’s becoming completely ridiculous. Time, and time, and time again, this Mystics team start slowly, eventually make it a game, then lose anyway in tight finishes. Guess how this one played out?
  • The Mystics came out with a little extra fire in the second half, while New York got a touch passive trying to hold on to their lead instead of simply maintaining their level of performance. Fatigue was inevitably a factor as well, with Vaughn playing all 20 minutes and Walker nearly 17. They can’t keep doing that.
  • Washington started Jasmine Thomas, Matee Ajavon and Noelle Quinn on the perimeter in the second half. Canty didn’t play at all. Surely a backcourt lineup change is coming soon for this team?
  • Langhorne went wild in the second half (in a good way), showcasing all those gorgeous post moves that we know she has in her locker. Tired opponents undoubtedly helped, but sometimes she’s just in the mood to take charge.
  • The gap was down to 15 at the end of the third quarter, and kept drifting downwards in the fourth. A double technical on Snow and Walker seemed to inject some extra oomph into Snow with seven minutes to play. Pondexter blew a layup on the break for New York, and Washington responded with a Quinn triple in transition back the other way – cutting the score to 69-64 with four minutes to play.
  • Ultimately, the chasm Washington had created for themselves was just too big to cross. An Ajavon triple pushed the gap down to three points with 90 seconds left, but Essence Carson immediately responded with her own shot from deep to push it back up. That was all she wrote.
  • The Mystics just can’t keep doing this to themselves. They play so poorly, and look like complete strangers, then something finally clicks and they start competing. It’s extraordinary. It’s also hard to believe that the Ghost of Canty’s Past is going to keep her starting spot for much longer. Thomas, Ajavon and Natasha Lacy all look preferable at this stage, even if none of them are going to set the world on fire.
  • Langhorne finished with 24 points on 10-16 shooting, and must be getting tired of wasting these performances.
  • Too close for comfort for New York, considering the 29-point lead they had at one stage, but it’s still a third straight win in the fight to turn their season around. Pondexter finished 9-13 for 25 points, but did most of her work in the first half. It would’ve been nice to see her take control when her team was falling apart in the second.
  • If Pierson’s injury is going to linger, Whisenant has to do something about his post rotation. He’s always said that his defensive system saps the energy of his team, necessitating the use of a lot of players. It was close to a two-player post ‘rotation’ in the second half, with Braxton barely on the floor long enough for Walker to catch her breath. Either Braxton or Cain will have to play a little more, or Nicole Powell will have to play some power forward, or they need to make a roster move. Or, ideally, Pierson needs to shake off whatever’s hurting her.
  • Mitchell finished 5-9 for 16 points and 4 assists (4-7 from beyond the arc). She’s playing with oodles of confidence right now, and it’s nice to see. Opposition guards can still attack her on the defensive end though, and it becomes more conspicuous with tired posts behind her who can’t rotate in time to cover.

 

Connecticut Sun 89 @ Indiana Fever 81

  • Mike Thibault brought Allison Hightower back into the Sun’s starting lineup ahead of Kalana Greene. Indiana had Briann January replacing Erin Phillips at the point while she’s in Europe with the Australian National Team, and switched Jessica Davenport in for Tammy Sutton-Brown at center. TSB’s had a slow start to the year while still recovering from an ankle injury (and continues to suffer from the advance of Old Father Time), so that was an understandable move.
  • Connecticut moved the ball well in the opening quarter and knocked down their shots, eventually pushing them to a 27-18 lead. They also had only one turnover in the period, key to preventing easy scoring opportunities for an Indiana team playing at a significantly higher pace this year.
  • The unexpected element was that Connecticut built their advantage largely when both teams started going to their bench. It’s Indiana who’ve shown their depth in other early games this season, but this time it was players like Mistie Mims and Tan White producing off the pine for the Sun.
  • It didn’t last. With a boost from Erlana Larkins and Sutton-Brown off their own bench, several Sun turnovers that offered easy points, and Katie Douglas simply making some shots, Indiana took over in the second quarter. They scored 16 points off Sun turnovers in that period alone, and had swung the game around by halftime. The Fever led 47-41 at the break.
  • The back-and-forth swings in this game continued in the second half. Tamika Catchings took an unfortunate elbow from teammate Sutton-Brown early in the third quarter, and while she headed back to the locker room to be stitched up Connecticut took advantage.
  • Kara Lawson was big for the Sun in the third, knocking down several jumpers both off the dribble and while spotting up. If Tina Charles isn’t going to get dependable support from Asjha Jones and Renee Montgomery every night, this is what the Sun need – players like Lawson, Mims and Danielle McCray stepping up to fill the void.
  • Connecticut were up 67-60 to close the third, and pushed the lead to double-digits in the fourth quarter’s opening minutes. It looked like the game might be drifting away from Indiana. But there were still more twists to come.
  • Catchings had a huge offensive board and putback (while being fouled) with seven minutes left that energised her team and kept them alive. Then Catchings started raining in threes like she was Reggie Miller, and suddenly the Fever had taken a 79-78 lead with three minutes to play. The crowd, unsurprisingly, was going nuts. Out of nowhere it looked like they might steal this game.
  • But there was one last swing. Montgomery hit a floater to take back the lead, then picked the ball from January at the other end. Lawson hit a pull-up in the lane, before Douglas missed a jumper under double-team pressure. Then Montgomery penetrated and got herself to the line, before hitting both free throws. In the space of a minute, the Sun had responded to Indiana’s charge, quieted the crowd, and turned a one-point deficit into an 84-79 lead.
  • That was it, finally. Indiana couldn’t hit any more bombs from deep, and the Sun knocked down their free throws to close the game out.
  • Some Chicago fans might argue, but these are the best two teams in the East right now. While there are undoubtedly plenty of momentum changes to come over the course of the season, this could easily have been a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.
  • The especially encouraging aspect for Connecticut was that they beat Indiana with balance. Charles was only 4-14 for 12 points, but six other Sun players contributed double-digit scoring as well. That’ll please Thibault, who’s had to depend heavily on Charles carrying his team through the mire at times this year. It was an illustration that if teams want to collapse and help on Charles over and over again, the Sun still have players who can punish you. Sometimes.
  • Conversely, Indiana’s stars didn’t get enough help. Catchings was an unreal 10-15, including 6-9 from three-point range, for 31 points. Douglas was 9-19 for 23, and alternated between streaky hot and freezing cold all night. No one else gave them much. It also felt a little like coach Lin Dunn gave up on her depth, with Larkins, Davenport, Roneeka Hodges and Sasha Goodlett barely playing in the second half. The Fever will have better nights, although it’s a shame to waste an explosion like that from Catch.
  • Indiana continue to get beaten on the boards with their small lineup, but compete well enough not to let it become too overwhelming. The Sun were on top 42-33 overall on the glass in this one, which isn’t great, but it’s a small enough gap for the Fever to cope on a lot of nights.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 57 @ Atlanta Dream 60

  • As the scoreline suggests, this one wasn’t pretty.
  • San Antonio stuck with the same starters, keeping faith with Jayne Appel at center. Atlanta made a switch in their own interior, with Aneika Henry taking over from Yelena Leuchanka, who’s been very disappointing in recent games.
  • The most notable part of the first quarter was the Angel McCoughtry picked up her second foul on a charge taken by Danielle Adams only six minutes into the game – and Dream coach Marynell Meadors left her in. Maybe it was just because Meadors felt her team would’ve collapsed without McCoughtry – so benching her would’ve been even more risky – but it was nice to see a coach trust her player and realise that automatically replacing her made no sense.
  • The major talking point of the second period also involved a head coach – with San Antonio’s Dan Hughes exploding at referee Denise Brooks and being ejected from the game. It was a weird sequence. The play that enraged Hughes appeared to be a charge/block call that went against Adams, after Leuchanka ran into her on her way to the hoop. The call in the scorebook actually went against guard Tully Bevilaqua reaching in from behind, for what little difference that made. Hughes went ballistic, picked up the first technical quickly from Brooks, and then had to be restrained by his assistant as he continued to rant and rave. The ejection was certainly warranted, but it was difficult to see what he was so upset about. It was hardly the worst call we’ve ever witnessed in the WNBA. Maybe he had an early dinner reservation.
  • Meanwhile, there was a completely forgettable basketball game going on. It was 28-28 at halftime, with Atlanta’s advantage in the paint balanced out by slightly better shooting from San Antonio.
  • The game didn’t change much in the second half. It was still a slugfest, there was still some pretty terrible passing going on, and neither team could create much of a lead.
  • At least in the second half the Silver Stars put Sophia Young in motion a little more, which created better scoring chances for her. Meanwhile Lindsey Harding, who’d done absolutely nothing in the first half, started penetrating and hitting some shots for the Dream. That brightened things up a bit.
  • The game was tied at 53 with just over five minutes to play, when the Silver Stars hit a scoring drought. They just couldn’t hit anything, and when all you can create is jumpers of varying degrees of difficulty, it’s hard to alter that momentum. Atlanta, at least, were still finding the occasional steal, an offensive rebound or two, and scrambling a few points here or there as a result.
  • So Atlanta had a 59-53 edge, only for Young to hit a gorgeous turnaround jumper, and follow a Harding brick with a layup off a nice set-play drawn up by the San Antonio assistants. 59-57, 34 seconds remaining.
  • Keeping with the general tone of the game, McCoughtry clanked a jumper off the rim, Shameka Christon did the same at the other end, and San Antonio had to foul to stop the clock. McCoughtry went 1-of-2 at the line, leaving 8.5 seconds for San Antonio to bridge a three-point gap.
  • It looked like the play was intended for Becky Hammon to take a pass from Adams off a Young screen and fire away for the tie, but with Atlanta switching defensive assignments McCoughtry was on top of her preventing the shot. Hammon stepped in, realised a two wasn’t good enough and tried to pass, only resulting in a turnover as time expired. An ugly finish for the Silver Stars, and a victory in an ugly game for Atlanta.
  • San Antonio still look so lightweight in the paint. Young was effective whenever they put her in motion or found her in low position – although she tried to drive from the free throw line against longer, stronger defenders far too many times. But she’s not getting much help from any other post players on the roster. It leaves them weak inside at both ends of the floor, gets them beaten on the glass, and despite their well-drilled defensive system makes it easier to get to the rim against them. You can rotate well all you like in help defense; it’s a lot more useful if the help defender is athletic and 6-4, rather than 5-10 or slow as a rock.
  • Offensively, as ever, San Antonio shot a hell of a lot of jump shots. It’s hard to win that way.
  • Honestly, besides ending in a victory, it was a pretty miserable night for Atlanta as well. McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle were both firing blanks for most of the night, and there weren’t many alternatives. Henry’s looking like a useful find as a rotation post player, and Leuchanka was mildly improved off the bench, but they were lucky that Harding had one of her hot halves in the final 20 minutes. There’s no way they pull this out, otherwise.
  • For some reason, Dream coach Marynell Meadors decided that virtually her entire bench was useless for this game, and besides Leuchanka barely played any of them. Bizarre, considering how deep she’s gone in several earlier games.

 

Tulsa Shock 91 @ Chicago Sky 98

  • With veteran Jen Lacy proving one of his most reliable players in recent games, Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg went big and inserted Lacy into his starting lineup in place of Jene Morris. Either Lacy, Karima Christmas or Kayla Pedersen was the theoretical shooting guard – take your pick. Chicago kept the same starters that had taken them to a 4-1 start. The Sky bench was slightly shortened because Shay Murphy had left for Europe in order to play for Montenegro in upcoming EuroBasket Women 2013 qualifiers. She’s expected to miss five Sky games.
  • Let’s skip over the first half – it was 35-34 Chicago at the break, and no one had shot well or done anything particularly memorable. Sylvia Fowles was already illustrating that no one in a Shock jersey could handle her on the glass, though, with nine rebounds in the first half.
  • Fowles had a couple of layups, Epiphanny Prince hit a couple of threes, and Chicago looked like they were pulling away in the early minutes of the third quarter. Tulsa still had no reliable offense, so with the Sky finally producing some points their lead grew quickly to 13.
  • Only for Tulsa’s defense to become the dominating force in the game. Chicago have had so many problems with turnovers in the last few years, and they’re still fighting to overcome that issue this season. With veteran point guard option Ticha Penicheiro still sidelined by her calf injury, the only point guard options are Courtney Vandersloot and Prince, with Tamera Young the only real backcourt help. Tulsa were pressing, harassing, trapping and generally causing mayhem with the energy and activity of their defense. Chicago kept coughing up the ball.
  • The problem wasn’t just the turnovers, either. When you break out of a full-court press or a trap, you should have an extra-man advantage in the space that’s left behind. Whenever Chicago managed to get past that first line of pressure, they were making a complete hash of trying to capitalise on the remaining space. Often, they still managed to turn the ball over anyway, just with the second or third pass instead of the first. Pokey Chatman’s head was about to explode on the sidelines.
  • Chicago had a ridiculous 17 turnovers in the second half, for 19 Tulsa points. 10 turnovers in the fourth quarter alone. It was embarrassing. Lacy was practically the only Tulsa player who’d been able to hit a shot from outside two-feet all night long, and the Shock still had a 72-66 lead with 46 seconds left. The Sky had to start fouling to extend the game.
  • Unfortunately for Tulsa, they still don’t know how to close out games. And the 2012 iteration of the Chicago Sky just don’t quit. Between them, Lacy, Temeka Johnson, Ivory Latta and Scholanda Dorrell missed five out of ten free throws in those closing 46 seconds. Meanwhile, Prince hit an unbelievable turnaround three, Vandersloot sidestepped a defender for a three of her own, and Prince added a pair at the line when a full-court charge was halted by Johnson grabbing her. Somehow, Chicago were inbounding the ball under their own basket with 7 seconds left, down only three.
  • Cue Epiphany Prince. Yet again. After her remarkable heroics last week, Prince went the length of the court, pulled up from at least 28 feet out, and banked in the tying three over Lacy with only 0.1 seconds left on the clock. No one in a Shock jersey got close enough to grab her in time to prevent the shot. Unbelievable stuff, and the Tulsa players were the most stunned people in the building. 0.1s is pointless in the women’s game, and Coach Klopp knows that, so the Shock just inbounded the ball and accepted that we were headed to overtime.
  • Tulsa never had a prayer in the OT. They opened it with a Latta triple to take the lead, but the stuffing had been knocked out of them by Prince’s big shot. They couldn’t believe the game was still going on. Chicago didn’t have a single turnover in the overtime until there were only 9 seconds left, and as a team they went 12-14 from the free throw line in OT. That was more than enough, and yet again, Chicago had somehow pulled out a game that looked dead and buried.
  • The Sky are 5-1. It’s hard to believe. The countless turnovers and passing errors in this game were ridiculous, and although Tulsa’s defense has given several teams problems, it highlighted what pressure can do to this young Sky backcourt. The Sky are far more advanced defensively than they are offensively, where Fowles’s rebounding and Prince’s shot-making keeps bailing them out. It’s been exciting, but Chatman would undoubtedly prefer to see a nice comfortable blowout or two.
  • Fowles finished with 14 points on 5-9 shooting and 21 rebounds. Tulsa do a solid job of dropping down and helping to compensate for their lack of individual post presence and size, but they can’t do anything about their lack of height and talent on the glass. Prince finished 10-20 for 32 points, joining the legendary Cynthia Cooper as only the second player in WNBA history to score 30 or more in three straight games. She’s redefining ‘clutch’ while she’s at it.
  • Poor old Tulsa. They had this game won. For the fourth time this season, one of their games went down to the final possession, and they came out on the wrong end. This one, of course, never should’ve got there. Latta led them with 25 points and 6 assists, while Dorrell, Lacy and the Johnsons (Temeka and Glory) chipped in. The win’s coming, but it must be hell waiting for it to show up.

 

Phoenix Mercury 74 @ Los Angeles Sparks 90

  • Last and very much least, this shambles.
  • Marissa Coleman got the start for Los Angeles, who had Alana Beard missing due to a hamstring injury. They did at least have an extra backcourt option, as Coco Miller had finally been signed earlier in the day and was in uniform. Phoenix continue to play without Diana Taurasi, and once again started Charde Houston as a ‘guard’.
  • To sum this game up in brief – both these teams are pretty bad, but Phoenix are significantly worse.
  • Without Taurasi and Penny Taylor, the Mercury don’t have the talent to compensate for their shortcomings. They play no defense, their system’s a mess, they’re porous in the middle, their defense is awful, they don’t rebound, and if I forgot to mention it – they’re horrible defensively. LA took advantage.
  • LA still have their own problems, they’ve just got the individual talent and the confidence to overcome them against teams this weak. Their defensive rotations and help are still slow, and it still frequently looks like players don’t know where they’re supposed to go. Fortunately for them, Phoenix aren’t moving the ball well enough to take advantage, and have even less depth than the Sparks at the minute. So LA were comfortably on top.
  • The Sparks did pick up yet another injury, however, early in the second quarter. Ebony Hoffman went down clutching her left ankle, and with a combination of being carried and frantically hopping, she headed back to the locker room. She eventually emerged on crutches, but could be out for a while.
  • When they can’t create any turnovers or grab any rebounds, Phoenix can’t create any easy points. And stuck in the halfcourt, their offense is often a stagnant mess. As a result, LA were grabbing steals of their own for easy scores, while Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike were finding buckets a lot easier to come by than anyone in a Mercury jersey.
  • Ogwumike’s ability to play an important role and fill up the boxscore without anything having to revolve around her is remarkable. She goes after every ball, and finds lanes for herself on offense that other players don’t see or don’t have the physical tools to create. The girl’s special.
  • LA led 43-28 at the break.
  • Andrea Riley’s still terrible, by the way.
  • LA allowed Phoenix back into the game in the third quarter, slipping into their unfortunately common routine of firing up too many perimeter shots rather than moving the ball and attacking the paint. Phoenix finally made a few shots from outside, and a gap that had been as high as 22 came down to 7 late in the third.
  • In response, LA trotted out their 2-3 zone to open the fourth quarter, which Phoenix had failed miserably to deal with in the first half. Against several other teams this year, even the dismal Storm, that zone has looked atrocious. There’s such a big hole in the middle of it, and the rotation and communication is so poor, that it’s given up easy scores quickly and LA have come out of it after a couple of possessions. The Mercury, on the other hand, couldn’t move the ball any more, and LA eased away again on the scoreboard. A couple of buckets from Ogwumike and DeLisha Milton-Jones, and some penetration from Kristi Toliver, and this game was over. Few who witnessed it will remember it fondly.
  • Ogwumike was the star, with 25 points on 11-14 from the field and 12 boards. DMJ and Parker both had 20+ as well, while Toliver had a quiet but composed game for 14 points, 9 assists and only 2 turnovers. They even got solid minutes from rookie backup April Sykes, although many of her positive moments came from Phoenix throwing her the ball at the top of that zone. Coco Miller played 22 minutes in her debut without scoring, but at least gave Carol Ross another player who can compete on the perimeter and not embarrass herself. The Sparks needed her, especially with Beard out. They’ll be desperate to have Alana back for the tougher tasks ahead, though.
  • Phoenix are just bad. Right now, LA are the second-best team in the West, but it’s more through a lack of competition than being an outstanding team. Phoenix made them look like world-beaters for long stretches. DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree look distinctly like the complementary starters that they are, not the leaders that they’re being asked to step up as on this squad. Houston was an impressive 7-11 from the field for 22 points, but continues to be an energy scorer pressed into greater responsibility. They’re undermanned, and they were a .500 team back when everyone was healthy. It’s ugly.

 

Notes

As mentioned above, Coco Miller was signed by the Sparks to replace Sharnee Zoll. She’s not great, and she’s always been more of a scorer than a distributor, but she gives Ross an extra backcourt option to turn to.

As also mentioned above, Shay Murphy has left Chicago to represent Montenegro. The Sky have enough cap space to temporarily suspend her and sign a replacement, if they wish, but as she’s only expected to miss five games they may well not bother. If the timetable announced by the Sky holds up, she’ll only play in half of Montenegro’s qualifiers before returning to the US, so it’s better than it might’ve been.

Atlanta’s Sancho Lyttle is wanted by Spain for that same series of qualifiers, but as we saw last night, she’s currently still in the US. The European games start on Tuesday, with Spain’s first game the following day, so we’ll see if Lyttle sticks around beyond Atlanta’s game in Connecticut tomorrow.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Saturday June 9th):

Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Sunday June 10th):

Chicago @ New York, 4pm ET

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

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