So after an all-West double-header on Saturday night, the schedule threw up a pair of all-East clashes on Sunday afternoon. Just to maintain the symmetry, the Eastern games followed the same pattern – the leaders keep winning, and the stragglers continue to struggle.
We open in New York, where the Liberty came in with a three-game winning streak that had finally given them some hope for the 2012 season. However, their visitors were the Chicago Sky, who arrived as a 5-1 team who’ve been finding a way to win games this season – instead of give them away as they have in previous years.
New York once again had Plenette Pierson in the lineup, despite an injury that’s finally been disclosed as a hyperextended knee. She was ready to give everything she could, but clearly wasn’t playing at 100%. Chicago are at nine players for now, with Ticha Penicheiro still out due to her calf injury, and Shay Murphy in Europe to represent the Montenegrin national team.
The opening stages were worrying for New York, because their ‘white line’ defense was getting picked apart with ease by simple passes over the top to Sylvia Fowles under the hoop. Even when the Sky couldn’t get the ball in to her and fired up jumpers from outside, the fronting involved in the defensive system left Fowles with immediate position on the offensive boards, making her the favourite to put the ball right back in.
The Liberty were at least keeping in touch early thanks to an aggressive Cappie Pondexter – who looked like she was determined to produce against fellow Rutgers alumnus Epiphanny Prince, who’s had the more impressive start to the season – along with some solid interior passing. The problem was that as the first half progressed, New York ran out of ideas against the Chicago defense. Pondexter couldn’t do it all on her own, and with Pierson playing at half-speed and no one else hitting their shots, the Liberty’s offense dissolved. Point guard Leilani Mitchell had gone cold after impressive shooting nights in recent games, and backup post Kara Braxton continues to look like an absolute disaster. Besides Nicole Powell knocking down a couple of threes, the Liberty simply couldn’t score.
Meanwhile at the other end of the floor, while New York had tightened up on Fowles, the player emerging as the other legitimate star on the Sky roster was taking over. Epiphanny Prince has had an extraordinary start to the 2012 season, scoring with far greater efficiency than she ever has before at this level, and taking over in crunch time. A couple of highlight-reel buzzer-beaters to save games that looked finished have simply been the cherries on top of a gourmet cake. You can almost see the confidence flowing through her veins right now, and wherever she shoots from it’s like throwing stones in the ocean. Prince was draining shots from everywhere, had 10 points in the second-quarter alone, and led the Sky to a 38-27 halftime lead.
For all the scoring of Pondexter and Prince, the glaring stat at halftime was that the Sky only had four turnovers. This is a team that’s had desperate issues avoiding giving away the ball for years now, and had 17 turnovers in a half only two days earlier against Tulsa. The Shock’s defensive pressure on Chicago’s guards had given them all kinds of problems on Friday, and yet there was barely any on-ball pressing or trapping coming from New York. Liberty coach John Whisenant is sometimes so concerned with playing his own style and system that he makes no adjustments for the team he’s facing. Allowing Courtney Vandersloot and Prince to move the ball around with ease and essentially do whatever they wanted was making things too easy for Chicago. Mitchell may not be the greatest defender, and Pondexter is already asked to do a hell of a lot, but expending energy on perimeter pressure also could’ve helped New York’s offense enormously. Cheap points via steals are incredibly valuable in a low-scoring game where you’re already having trouble manufacturing baskets.
With Essence Carson waking up somewhat as an additional offensive option in the second half, New York at least managed to hang around in contention for a while. But the Liberty still couldn’t stop Prince, and the Sky’s lead rarely dropped below double-digits. New York’s task got even more difficult late in the third quarter when Pierson set an overly aggressive screen on Vandersloot – it was whistled as an offensive foul – and ended up hurting herself. It looked like some kind of midsection injury caused by the collision, rather than an aggravation of her knee issue, but that was the last we saw of Pierson on Sunday.
The Liberty offered what they could in the final period, but with Pondexter drifting a little too far into hero-ball and Chicago continuing to score more efficiently they were never really in it. Even when Sky coach Pokey Chatman benched Fowles with five minutes remaining in the game and only an 11-point lead, the frontcourt pairing of Ruth Riley and Carolyn Swords had little trouble maintaining the lead. New York just didn’t have the bodies, the scoring, or the answer for Prince that they needed to compete in this one. Chicago ran out 73-64 winners.
Several Chicago players had solid games – Fowles with her customary double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds), Tamera Young hitting a few shots (12 points, 7 rebounds), Swin Cash having one of her better games as a Sky player – but yet again it was all about Prince. She was 10-18 from the floor, including 5-8 from three-point range, and it was a joy to watch. One sequence in the fourth quarter saw her split a double-team before pulling up for a jumper in the lane; helping steal a Pondexter pass at the other end; then drilling a three in Carson’s face from the corner seconds later. She’s scoring like a smaller Seimone Augustus right now, or, if you prefer, Pondexter when she was at her free-flowing best. It’s hard to believe that Prince can keep up her current levels for the entire season – she’s shooting 52% from the field, 53% from three, for 25 points per game – but the Sky are going to ride it for as long as it lasts. Fowles would probably like to touch the ball more inside, but while teams collapse on her and force the guards to beat them, Prince is going to take advantage.
It was largely back to the Liberty performances that saw them start the season 0-5 for New York. Pondexter shot 8-20 for 22 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists, but got nowhere near enough help. Kia Vaughn was decent offensively (6-12 for 16), but without Mitchell making her shots, with Carson quiet, and with Pierson playing under 18 minutes due to her injury issues, New York didn’t have enough. After starting the season looking like they were reasonably deep – even if they didn’t have the same top-end talent some other teams possess – the Liberty have quickly transitioned into a squad that looks painfully thin. Braxton’s been atrocious, mixing dumb errors and countless turnovers with her lack of fitness. Combined with Pierson’s fitness problems and Kelley Cain apparently not being ready to play at this level, the only posts left are Vaughn and aging veteran DeMya Walker. Meanwhile, point guard Kelly Miller only played three minutes in this game after several recent ‘Did Not Play: Coach’s Decisions’, and backup wing Alex Montgomery is either hurt or in Whisenant’s doghouse. That doesn’t leave much for Whiz to turn to in the search to help Pondexter win games.
Yesterday’s other game saw 5-1 Connecticut host the Atlanta Dream, who came in at 3-4 (although their wins were over Phoenix, San Antonio, and New York when they were at their desperate worst). This was a playoff matchup last season, but one of the key elements in Atlanta progressing was Erika de Souza causing Tina Charles all kinds of difficulties in the paint. There’s no de Souza for Atlanta this year until after the Olympics, which has played a big part in their weak start to the season. Now they had to face Charles and a confident Connecticut team on their own floor at the Mohegan Sun Arena – it wasn’t getting any easier.
Sun coach Mike Thibault once again flipped around his wing players, with Kalana Greene returning to the starting lineup ahead of Allison Hightower. For Atlanta, Aneika Henry held on to her starting spot in the post over Belarussian center Yelena Leuchanka.
It was a decent start offensively for the Dream, as Angel McCoughtry knocked down a couple of jump shots and a few unnecessary turnovers from the Sun allowed them to get out and run. Players like McCoughtry, Sancho Lyttle and Lindsey Harding were also attacking enough to work themselves to the free throw line, which is an important part of Atlanta’s offense.
However, Atlanta made the unfortunate mistake of running into Connecticut on a day when Asjha Jones felt like making her presence known. After several quiet games recently where you barely noticed if she was on the floor, Jones scored in all kinds of ways in the opening period, finishing the first quarter with 15 points. Atlanta couldn’t stop her, and once Connecticut stopped turning the ball over and started challenging shots without fouling, the Dream were in trouble.
The glaring difference between these teams, practically from beginning to end, was the remarkable chemistry and unselfishness that Connecticut play with. While occasionally someone will take a bad shot or Renee Montgomery will start thinking she’s Michael Jordan, this squad constantly makes the extra pass to the next open player. There’s also an evident partnership that’s developed between Charles and Jones in the post, where either player will give the other room to work when necessary, and each will look to feed the other when she’s open. The chemistry is huge defensively as well, where every player knows their role in traps and rotations, and there are far fewer gaps and breakdowns than you see with a team like Atlanta. Thibault was questioned by many for doing practically nothing in the offseason, with backup post Mistie Mims essentially the only addition. At this stage, it’s working out perfectly – the continuity has been a significant advantage.
Sancho Lyttle hit a couple of threes in the second quarter to offer Atlanta some points, but teams will let her take that shot all day long. You’re not going to lose a game by letting Lyttle fire away from outside. McCoughtry had gone cold after her early outburst, and that left Atlanta struggling in the face of Connecticut’s better ball movement and teamwork. By halftime, the Sun had pushed their advantage to 50-38.
It didn’t get much better for Atlanta in the second half, as McCoughtry kept missing while Kara Lawson started to knock home a series of shots at the opposite end. Finally, seconds before Lawson nailed a 3 to extend the Sun’s lead to 19, the Dream tried an option that we’ve barely seen this year – they went small. It’s something Atlanta have used in previous seasons, especially when they’ve suffered with injuries, where McCoughtry slides down to become the nominal power forward and they play with only one true post player (Lyttle, in this case). The main effect on this occasion was simply to shake up the rhythm of the game, forcing Connecticut to deal with something different. With a perimeter that now included Harding, Armintie Price and rookie Tiffany Hayes alongside McCoughtry, the Dream ended the third quarter on a 17-6 run that cut the score to 69-61.
The Atlanta comeback attempt took a hit early in the fourth quarter when McCoughtry tried to spin into the lane and ran straight into Tan White, a collision that sent McCoughtry to the ground in pain. The Dream stuck with their new approach even as their leader went to the bench, replacing McCoughtry with backup point guard Ketia Swanier. Whether you now counted Hayes or Price as the ‘power forward’, Atlanta were taking the small lineup to an extreme.
With seven minutes left to play, McCoughtry returned after recovering from her collision with White, but so did Charles and Jones after resting on the bench. Connecticut took off again, and within minutes the game was sealed. Atlanta’s small lineup might work for a while, especially when the likes of Mistie Mims and Kelsey Griffin are the opposition, but with Jones and Charles out there – and once the opponents have had time to adapt – it becomes far more difficult. Lawson was still draining shots from outside, Charles was finishing everything off in the paint, and Atlanta couldn’t answer. Connecticut ran out comfortable 92-73 winners.
This was a solid win for the Sun, over a team that they’re simply better than right now. Jones did very little scoring after her first quarter outburst, but she set the tone with that early display. Charles finished 11-16 for 22 points and 11 boards, while Lawson and Montgomery had 21 and 14 points respectively. Mims is also starting to look increasingly comfortable and impressive as the first choice backup to Charles and Jones down low. Their array of wings (Greene, Hightower, White and Danielle McCray) haven’t hit many shots this year, but they’ve been defending and moving the ball like they’re supposed to. This team is already pretty much where they want to be, and would probably happily start the playoffs tomorrow. It’s a matter of whether other teams can develop and find themselves over the rest of the regular season to challenge the Sun in the East.
Having made the WNBA Finals the last two years, Atlanta are one of those teams who’ll be hoping to significantly improve from what they currently offer. Lyttle was their most productive player on this occasion, shooting 8-16 for 21 points and 8 boards, but she’s still firing up too many of her shots from the perimeter. It takes her away from where the Dream need her to threaten teams in the paint. McCoughtry finished 7-24 for 23 points, but barely hit anything after the first quarter; Harding was a miserable 2-14 for 7 points, penetrating and attacking in the second half but unable to find her shot. Only their shocking total of 18 offensive rebounds kept Atlanta in this game for as long as they were.
It’s also hard to understand what Dream coach Marynell Meadors is doing with her rotation. In fact, it’s difficult to tell if she even understands it herself. Cathrine Kraayeveld didn’t play at all in this game, despite being in uniform and looking healthy on the bench. Leuchanka played under 6 minutes, and recently signed backup post Jessica Moore less than a minute. Meanwhile, three-point specialist Laurie Koehn seems to be thrown out at random for a couple of minutes in any given game to see if she can knock something down. After making heavy use of her bench on several earlier occasions, Meadors has barely utilised it at all in the last couple of games. The success of the small lineup in this game shook things up a little, but the rotation was already a mess, and the key starters are now playing very heavy minutes. The fluctuations from game to game don’t make a lot of sense.
There hasn’t been much activity in recent days besides the games. EuroBasket Women qualifiers start tomorrow, which is why Chicago’s Murphy has left the US. The few other Europeans or pseudo-Europeans currently in the WNBA are expected to remain with their WNBA teams, except perhaps for Sancho Lyttle. Spain have said she’ll be playing for them, while Atlanta have said she’s going nowhere, leaving everyone on the outside wondering what might happen. We’ll have to wait and see.
Today (Monday June 11th):
Tomorrow (Tuesday June 12th):
New York needs help.