WNBA Today, 06/14/2012: Parker puts on a show; Sky box out the Storm

So there were two WNBA games taking place last night, one on national television, and one available for live viewing virtually nowhere. So we likely had one of the most watched games of the regular season, and one of the least watched, taking place simultaneously. Fortunately, the one on ESPN2 was the significantly better spectacle. We here at WNBAlien, of course, play no favourites. Full coverage of both games follows, and yes, every minute of both games was witnessed. Just not live, thanks to those silly blackout rules.

Let’s start with the big game on the ‘Worldwide Leader’. Both Connecticut and Los Angeles came into this matchup with only one loss, but due to the teams they’d beaten and some late escapes the Sparks generally weren’t considered as impressive. This was their chance to prove themselves against a real test. LA had guard Alana Beard back in the lineup after she missed their previous game with a hamstring injury, but now had backup post Ebony Hoffman missing thanks to an ankle sprain. Connecticut had no injury issues, and head coach Mike Thibault stuck with Allison Hightower in his starting lineup ahead of Kalana Greene.

It was a scrappy start from the Sun, who were making too many passes that resulted in turnovers or at least tips by the Sparks defenders. LA are a long team – DeLisha Milton-Jones at small forward is far bigger than any of Connecticut’s wings, and Beard is pretty big for a guard as well – and it took the Sun a while to adapt. Meanwhile, although the Sparks were firing away a little too freely from outside, Nneka Ogwumike was doing her typical yeoman’s work on the offensive boards and cleaning up the leftovers.

Out of a timeout only six minutes into the game, we got a taste of what was to come for much of the night. The Sparks came out in their 2-3 zone – a zone which several other teams have found almost pathetically easy to score against this season – and Connecticut immediately gave up a 24-second shot clock violation. The Sun looked lost and confused as to how to attack a simple, straightforward zone that they all must’ve seen hundreds of times throughout their careers. It’s pretty easy to guess what the first order of business will be at Sun practices for the next few days.

Consider those last three paragraphs the last time anyone will go that long in discussing this game without mentioning Candace Parker. She’s always the first option for LA, but this game took it to an extreme. We’re talking a LeBron-back-in-Cleveland level of domination. She was scoring on jumpers and layups, finding shooters in the corners with passes, leading the break, crashing the glass, and even playing something resembling solid defense in the paint. It’s been practically a mantra from this writer over recent years – Parker has been nowhere near as good a defender as her physical attributes ought to allow her to be. A few weak-side blocks don’t make up for countless mental breakdowns and defensive plays that simply suggest a lack of interest or effort. This was more like it. This was the dominant basketball player that we all know a healthy Candace Parker can be when she’s on song.

Still, Candace wasn’t getting that much help. Ogwumike picked up her second foul late in the opening quarter, and Sparks head coach Carol Ross mystifyingly left her on the bench for the rest of the half. Jantel Lavender came in and scored a few points, but that was about it. Kristi Toliver couldn’t buy a bucket in the face of tight defense from Connecticut’s guards, and that left the Sparks with precious few options. Good thing Parker was playing out of her mind.

In contrast, without ever fully hitting their stride, the Sun were getting a little bit from a whole variety of people. Asjha Jones and Tina Charles knocked down a couple of shots from midrange, they turned a couple of steals and long-range rebounds into fastbreak points, Renee Montgomery repeatedly penetrated off the dribble for layups or free throws, and then Kara Lawson got in on the act and knocked down some jumpers. It all added up to a 45-40 Sun lead at the break. Parker had 17 points, 8 boards and 4 assists already, but the Sun’s balance and chemistry still had them on top.

Despite their narrow lead, it didn’t seem like we’d seen enough of Connecticut forcing LA into switches and taking advantage of the resulting mismatches in the first half. The Sparks’ willingness to switch even completely unbalanced pairings and inability to rotate back and help players who needed it has been glaring in some early games, but the Sun were rarely running plays or sets that capitalised on that issue. In the second half, LA essentially removed the option. They came out in the 2-3 zone, and stuck with it continuously – which obviously makes it more difficult to create mismatches with screens. Ross had seen the trouble that the Sun had encountered in trying to score against the zone, and she was going to force them to figure it out. The Sun didn’t have much success.

The entire third period, Connecticut struggled to score. They didn’t seem sure whether they should just keep moving the ball to find open shots over the zone, or attack the gaps, or what. They also had Tina Charles missing shots that you’d typically expect her to convert, including close-range putbacks when she managed to corral offensive rebounds. It’s a lot harder to win when the ball isn’t dropping on easy opportunities for your superstar.

Which isn’t to say that LA were exactly running away with the game. Ogwumike picked up her third and fourth fouls inside the opening three minutes of the half, and Toliver was becoming increasingly frustrated with her inability to hit shots and her own foul trouble – picking up her fourth while fighting with Jones for a rebound late in the third quarter. They were still heavily reliant on Parker carrying them, with other players knocking down an occasional shot – usually when Parker drew lots of attention and passed it to them. We were tied at 66 heading to the final period.

Connecticut had looked like they were finally remembering how to attack a zone late in the third period, driving the baseline into gaps, using Jones in the hole at the free throw line and knocking down a couple of threes from the corners. They were also starting to remember that one of the easiest ways to beat the zone is to score before it can even set up, and LA were coughing up too many cheap turnovers to give them the chance. Parker can distribute, and it can be a lot of fun watching her run the break, but you’re simultaneously crossing your fingers that a pass doesn’t end up in the third row or her high dribble isn’t picked away by a nippy little guard. Fortunately for the Sparks, Connecticut were still contriving to miss the vast majority of their shots.

Ross took a big risk with five minutes left to play, and Connecticut up 75-72. She came out of the zone that had worked pretty nicely throughout the second half, and went back to her more standard switching man-to-man. It worked nicely, largely because her most talented players went to work. Ogwumike grabbed a crazily athletic offensive board and threw in the putback while being fouled. Parker drained a three, then grabbed an offensive board of her own and dropped it back in. Meanwhile the Sun had fallen into such a slump against the zone that they couldn’t score against the man-to-man any more either.

Some costly Sparks turnovers (Parker and Toliver the culprits) and Sun free throws allowed Connecticut back into the game, and Charles finally made a layup – although she needed two attempts after Montgomery put it on a plate for her – to give the Sun an 81-80 lead with 90 seconds left to play. It stayed a one-point game after Toliver was stripped and Charles was charging in for the layup on the break, only to see Parker fly across and erase the attempt with a hyper-athletic block. Jones committed an idiotic foul on the break that followed, allowing Ogwumike to take the lead back for LA at the line.

Montgomery drove for a layup attempt, only to have Milton-Jones block it from the weak side. Then both Montgomery and Charles missed jump shots – and Tina’s was wide open from about five feet. The dagger came on the next play from LA, as Toliver penetrated, stopped, and threw a glorious over-the-shoulder, no-look, thread-the-needle pass to Ogwumike under the hoop. Nneka finished while being fouled, added the free throw, and LA had an 85-81 lead with only 20 seconds to play. The Sun had time to miss three more shots – including yet another Charles effort from right under the rim – but that was it. LA completed their biggest win of the season so far, 87-81.

Ogwumike, Toliver and Lavender had their highlight moments, but this night was all about Candace Parker putting on an MVP-calibre display for a national TV audience. She finished 12-22 for 33 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals and 5 blocks (at least she did officially – as someone who’s examined the tape, I can tell you she actually had 7 assists and 2 blocks. I’m not sure what game the Connecticut scorer is watching sometimes). She’s an absolute nightmare to deal with purely because she can score from anywhere, and because for someone her size she’s remarkably agile and athletic. If she can just stay healthy she can carry them on nights when no one else can get going – jut like this one.

The main worry for Connecticut was just how miserable they were at finding offense against LA’s zone. Still, most nights Charles isn’t going to miss the endless stream of easy finishes that she couldn’t convert in this game (a horrible 8-26 by the end), and Renee Montgomery would hope to shoot better than 4-15 most of the time as well. But it’s an illustration that if you can keep Charles under control and force the rest of the Sun to beat you, sometimes they just can’t step up. Asjha Jones has gone quiet for several games already this season, Montgomery’s missing a lot, and all those wings are significantly more likely to miss from outside than they are to score. They won’t be too worried by one upset on their own floor, but they might be seeing a lot of zone defense from other teams in upcoming games.

—–

Meanwhile over in Chicago, we had another cross-conference matchup, but this time between teams in very different situations. The Sky look like they’ve finally pulled themselves together, and a 6-1 start has them not only looking towards their first ever playoff appearance, but aiming for a high seed. With the reverse record of 1-6, Seattle are desperately searching for a way to turn their season around. The expected arrivals of Svetlana Abrosimova and Lauren Jackson may eventually help, but when you’re as bad as the Storm have been you can’t just wait around. They need an improvement in both attitude and performance from what we’ve seen so far this year.

Both teams opened the game with the starting fives we’ve come to expect. On the very first possession, we had a hint of what was to come. A Ruth Riley shot bounced off the rim, and the offensive rebound fell right to Epiphanny Prince, who put it back up and in. Second chances for the Sky were going to be a theme for the evening.

Now any basketball player, coach or fan will admit that some offensive rebounds are just luck. Sometimes the ball simply bounces off the rim perfectly for you, lands in your hands, and there’s very little the other team could’ve done about it. But when it happens over, and over, and over again – it’s a little more than good fortune. As the night wore on, Chicago’s dominance on the glass in this game reached the levels of embarrassing. Sylvia Fowles repeatedly outmuscled Ann Wauters for position and snagged rebounds, either outfighting her for position while the ball was in the air, or simply using her strength and athleticism to grab the carom whatever her situation was on the floor. It wasn’t just Fowles, either. Other Sky players were repeatedly chasing down rebounds ahead of their Storm counterparts. Some of it was due to Seattle’s defense, which often had them scrambling to contest shots, leaving them out of position to chase boards. Some of it was just effort. At the other end, it’s remarkable how often the Storm fire up jump shots and there’s no one anywhere near the rim to chase after a potential board. Suffice it to say – Seattle were getting murdered on the glass.

In fact, it was somewhat shocking that Seattle were hanging around as close as they were. Fowles and Prince were the unsurprising scoring leaders for Chicago, but weren’t receiving all that much help. Seattle picked up a basket or two in transition, Wauters worked herself loose for a couple of buckets, and Tina Thompson hit a couple of her trademark rainbow threes. Hey presto, Seattle were at least in touch, down only 40-31 at halftime.

The Storm used to be able to hang their hat on defense. Even if they went cold from outside or their execution broke down offensively, they’d keep teams out at the other end and frustrate them long enough to get their scoring going. It’s not been the case this year. Wauters really isn’t good defensively – or at least she certainly doesn’t look good in this system. The Storm’s strength used to be the collective way they seemed to almost telepathically communicate and help each other, covering holes that had been created by switches or rotations. It’s just not there any more with this squad, and the gap’s often where Wauters has swung round or switched, or it’s where she should be to help. Camille Little’s having a tough time in the paint as well, without Lauren Jackson as her partner in crime. Even ignoring the giant discrepancy on the glass, it’s Chicago who looked the solid, team-oriented defensive team in this game. They slide over and rotate to fill gaps. More and more, Seattle watch while teams score in those gaps, then look moribund about the fact that they allowed them in.

Still, Chicago aren’t the smoothest offensive team at this point – they just have two dynamic scorers in Prince and Fowles – so Seattle continued to hang around in the second half. A lot of referees’ whistles seemed to be going against Chicago, which was sending Storm players to the free throw line repeatedly, and keeping them in touch. In fact, when Ewelina Kobryn came off the bench to spell Wauters and hit a pair of layups from Sue Bird feeds to close the third quarter, the score was cut to 54-50 heading into the final 10 minutes.

But given that it was only a four-point gap at the start of the fourth, it’s remarkable how little of a contest it felt like throughout the final period. A series of offensive boards and second-chance points allowed Chicago to quickly stretch their lead again. That was in spite of Fowles spending several minutes on the bench due to a twisted ankle suffered when she landed on Kobryn’s foot (while Fowles was dropping in an offensive putback, naturally). Even with Riley and Carolyn Swords as the frontcourt pairing for the Sky, they continued to dominate the offensive glass, and Tamera Young was repeatedly open for midrange jumpers that she knocked down. Now that her role is more defined and some of the pressure has been taken off her, Young seems to have improved this season, and she showed it in the fourth quarter of this game.

One Seattle possession in the fourth quarter was especially reflective of how the fortunes of these teams have gone this year. The gap was only six points, and Seattle had resorted to their zone defense – not for the first time in the course of this game – which is invariably a sign of desperation from coach Brian Agler. It also makes it even more difficult to snare defensive rebounds. Riley missed a jumper, but Swords bodied Little under the hoop and grabbed the offensive board with ease. The ball was kicked out to Prince, who penetrated past Tanisha Wright before drawing a quintuple-team. I kid you not. All five Storm players collapsed on Prince, who kicked it to a wide open Young to hit the jumper. It was a reflection of just how well Prince has been playing that she scares teams that much right now, but also an indication of the fractures within Seattle’s defense. They’re not certain where the help is supposed to come from, so sometimes it never gets there, or sometimes it comes from everywhere. Just to top things off, Young landed on Wauters, who was desperately trying to recover and challenge the shot, and Wauters had to go to the bench in pain.

That was it. That Young shot from the Prince kick-out started an 11-0 Sky run that killed the game, and Chicago eased home 74-58 winners. The only important news from those remaining minutes was that both Fowles and Wauters returned to the game following their injury breaks, although Fowles was still limping a little when she left the game for good minutes later.

This was a strong, solid win for Chicago, albeit over a team that’s having all kinds of problems this year. Fowles (8-10 for 16 points and 15 boards) and Prince (6-16 for 18 points, 6 boards and 7 assists) led the way as usual, but it wasn’t just a two-woman show. They got offensive contributions from Riley, Young and Sonja Petrovic, and solid minutes from bit-part players like Swords. It was more of a team effort than we’ve seen in some earlier Sky games. As a unit, they won the rebounding battle by a ludicrous 44-21 margin, including 18 offensive boards. That’s absolute domination, and it enabled them to take 19 more shots than the Storm on the night. When you pull that off, you’re usually going to win, even if your offense isn’t flowing smoothly.

It was another pretty miserable outing for the Storm. Wauters’s 5-10 for 12 points and 8 rebounds looks better in the boxscore than it did on the floor. Sue Bird finished with 10 assists, but was 3-9 for 8 points and forced some ugly, off-balance shots in the fourth quarter when she was trying to will her team to hang on in contention. Her backcourt partner Tanisha Wright has actually looked a little better lately, driving inside more and making some things happen, but still finished this game 2-9 for 9 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist. With the way the rest of this roster is performing, they need more from their typically reliable Bird/Wright partnership, but they simply haven’t received it this year. This team just can’t find ways to score points consistently, inside or out. Combine that with the previously examined defensive issues, and it’s not hard to see how they’ve arrived at their 1-7 record.

 

Notes

Washington made a roster move, waiving Dominique Canty and bringing in fellow point guard Shannon Bobbitt. Given how poorly Canty had been playing, it’s not a big surprise (I didn’t describe her as “the decaying corpse of Dominique Canty” last week for no reason). At the same time, Washington head coach Trudi Lacey had given Canty the starting point guard spot in the Mystics’ last five games. It’s not often that you go directly from starter to being cut. Bobbitt has had a few shots at the WNBA, most recently in Indiana last season. She’s tiny and usually can’t shoot, but she’s quick and she at least gives the Mystics another ballhandling option. It would be difficult for her to do any worse than Canty.

Spain started their EuroBasket Women qualifiers without Atlanta’s Sancho Lyttle, but some in Spain are still suggesting that she will join them for later games in the qualifying campaign. It continues to be a case of wait and see.

Svetlana Abrosimova’s agent confirmed that she is expected to join the Storm around June 25th, which could allow her to make her first appearance in the ESPN2 game in Washington the following night. Alysha Clark is the expected cut to make room, although Victoria Dunlap wouldn’t be a huge shock either.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Thursday June 14th):

None

—–

Tomorrow (Friday June 15th):

Indiana @ Washington, 7pm ET

New York @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

Los Angeles @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET

Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

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3 comments on “WNBA Today, 06/14/2012: Parker puts on a show; Sky box out the Storm

  1. Jack says:

    I enjoyed these game stories. What you’re doing is clearly a labor of love.

    You know the League so well it would be fun to have you do some “what to look for” type preview posts once in a while You could still write the same number of words, but having some that suggest what you anticipate would also be useful to this reader.

    I will be back. Keep on keepin on!

    • Thanks for the nice words.

      I’ve tried the preview thing a couple of times, but the problem is getting them up in time for a decent number of people to read them before the games start. Game reviews and analysis can still have value for quite some time afterwards, but previews become a little worthless as soon as the games are played.

      Also, my inability to keep the reviews short means that I’m using the break days for a bit of a rest this year. Previews would cut into my recuperation time ;).

      • Jack says:

        I respect your process, and will certainly enjoy the reviews.

        I don’t quite agree, though, that previews become worthless after the game is played. For journalists whose job is to report news there’s a bright line distinction between pre- and re-. So if you were Jayda Evans I would agree.

        But as a niche blogger this blog is tacitly as much about Richard Cohen seeing the W as it is about the W. And so that makes the drama of you being spot on, or of a game playing out completely differently than you’d have expected, a potentially rich composing device for you. I’m suggesting previews can feed reviews.

        I think it seems to readers that a writer who declares an opinion before a game (only on those occasions when he has one) is making himself vulnerable to the game. That’s hot.

        I take your point that there may be less fans looking for pre- as opposed to post-analysis, but then again there’s a lot more game stories out there.

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