WNBA Today, 06/19/2012: Sparks prove a pain in the Nnek for Mystics

Sometimes, single-game nights in the WNBA can be especially useful and interesting. It allows the focus to narrow for specific concentration on just one contest and two teams, without having to split your attention. On other occasions, it means there’s only one awful game to watch, and nothing else more deserving of your time to concentrate on. Suffice it to say, this won’t be one of the longest WNBAlien columns since the inauguration of this website.

The easy storyline coming into last night’s game was how ridiculously comfortable both teams should’ve been with facing each other. On the Los Angeles roster, Alana Beard, Marissa Coleman, Coco Miller, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Nicky Anosike are all former Mystics. For Washington, Noelle Quinn, Natasha Lacy, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Shannon Bobbitt have all previously played for the Sparks. The Mystics also have LaToya Pringle on their suspended list, and Marianne Stanley and Jen Gillom on their coaching staff, all of whom were also once employed by last night’s opposition. These teams knew a hell of a lot about each other before we got started.

The important news for LA was that Nneka Ogwumike was back, after missing Saturday’s game in San Antonio in order to attend her graduation ceremony at Stanford. She went right back into the starting lineup in place of Miller. After finding a way to beat Indiana on Friday night with an altered starting five, Washington unsurprisingly stuck with that group, featuring Jasmine Thomas and Matee Ajavon in the backcourt.

It was a desperately, pathetically ugly first quarter. Multiple layups were missed at both ends of the floor. Both teams, especially Washington, were committing the kind of cheap, lazy, unnecessary turnovers that you wouldn’t accept from a high school team. Both teams even managed to look messy and unsure defensively, but it made little difference because the offenses could rarely string two passes together or hit a shot. Blech.

The one highlight of the opening period – and it proved to be the shining beacon all night long – was watching Nneka Ogwumike go to work. This rookie is so athletic, so energetic, so mobile, and so damn talented that it’s almost unfair. The Sparks run nothing for her. Not ‘very little’ – absolutely nothing. It makes no difference. 10 games into her pro career, she’s one of the greatest ‘bits and pieces’, clean-up-the-garbage, make-lemonade-out-of-everyone-else’s-lemons players that you could ever hope to see. She flies after every loose ball and offensive rebound. She makes smart, quick, unscripted cuts to the hoop when other things are breaking down. She’s just really, really good. It’s kind of unfair that LA got her after finishing 15-19 last year – it feels like someone this impressive should be helping a team that was much worse – but Sparks fans certainly aren’t complaining. She’s an absolute joy to watch.

The second quarter was virtually as bad as the first. Natasha Lacy and Natalie Novosel had come into the game for Washington and offered up a few points – which was more than you could say for their starters. Michelle Snow was having one of her minor offensive outbursts, thanks to Candace Parker constantly fading away from her to offer help defense elsewhere. And there was one gorgeous LA fastbreak when Beard picked off an awful Jasmine Thomas pass, fed the ball to Toliver, who went behind-the-back to a charging Ogwumike for the finish. For a split-second it felt like Nneka was going to throw it down, and we’d have been left with the most repeated WNBA highlight in league history, but she ultimately just layed it in off the glass. Toliver fired in a three at the halftime buzzer from ridiculously deep (a typical “no, no, no, *swish*, yes!” play) to give LA a 44-36 lead at the break.

The problem for Washington in the first half, and really throughout the evening, was that they couldn’t get the ball to their best player. Ogwumike was doing a very nice job defending Crystal Langhorne (along with a lot of help from a team who were obviously clear on where the main threat lay), and Lang just couldn’t get involved in the game. She was 0-2 for zero points at halftime. Of course, the basic fact that Washington couldn’t pass the damn ball wasn’t helping, and neither was the thoroughly uninventive offense. Chicago – often not the greatest offensive team themselves – faced similar defensive concentration on Sylvia Fowles from Indiana on Friday night. Several times when she was being fronted by a defender, the Sky simply cleared space, reversed the ball around the perimeter while Fowles sealed her defender, and then fed her in the paint from the new angle. When Langhorne was fronted, the Mystics either threw the ball out of bounds or just stood there and watched her while looking dumbfounded. Ladies and gentlemen, your Washington Mystics offense.

The third quarter was where the game was really blown apart. Washington continued to throw the ball away – 12 turnovers in the first half, 10 more in the third quarter alone – and LA were carrying all the momentum and extra opportunities into their offense. The Sparks were getting a ridiculous number of points from easy chances on the break or simply by beating the Mystics down the floor and actually completing one pass before a layup. Swap the teams around and the pass would end up in the third row. LA also had Ogwumike continuing to crash the glass, and it seemed like every time the Sparks missed she was right there to clean up. LA won the period 29-16, giving them a 73-52 lead overall, and the game was essentially over.

Langhorne finally got her first bucket of the night with a minute left in the third, but even for that she had to drive from the free throw line under pressure and make an off-balance layup. For a rookie, especially one who was doing so much in other aspects of the game, Ogwumike really did a fantastic job on her all night. Even if she was getting some help.

The fourth quarter was basically extended garbage time, although for some reason Ogwumike played all 10 minutes. Maybe Carol Ross felt like watching Nneka was the only thing keeping her awake. It also allowed Sparks backup center Jantel Lavender to show that she’s still got some finishing ability, but playing against a defeated and dispirited Mystics team is hardly the toughest of opposition. An April Sykes three from deep gave the crowd what they wanted at the buzzer, sneaking LA over the century mark, and making the final score 101-70.

LA will be pleased with how their defense played for most of the night, even if Washington seemed to do a lot of the work for them. Still, the other team doesn’t commit 27 turnovers without at least a little defensive influence. Ogwumike led six Sparks in double-digits by going 11-14 for 24 points and 7 boards (6 of the rebounds were offensive, and 4 of those were tip-ins or immediate putbacks). She just gets so much done on the floor, and her engine never stops. Candace Parker was 5-12 for 11 points and 8 boards in this game, and as is so often the case her remarkable gifts showed up on occasion, only for her to disappear for long stretches. Ogwumike is completely different – not quite as naturally skilled, but always active, and always inserting herself into the play somehow. With the pair of them on the floor, LA are a threat to anyone. Just don’t go graduating too often, Nneka.

Turnovers are an age-old problem for Washington. Part of it is simply a lack of skilled ballhandlers and distributors, but so many of them were practically unforced, with attempted connections flying way off-line or stupid passes into traffic resulting in near-certain giveaways. It was embarrassing. While the Mystics won her first game as a starter, don’t be surprised if second-year guard Jasmine Thomas finds herself back on the bench sometime soon – she’s simply not ready to be a starting point guard at WNBA level. Her ballhandling and decision-making are just too poor. Lacy, Bobbitt, or even sliding Quinn over look like preferable options at the moment. Although to be fair to Thomas, everybody was turning the ball over with regularity last night. It was a team effort in being consistently terrible.

 

Notes

Chicago added former Texas A&M guard Sydney Carter to their roster today, in an attempt to cover the holes left by injuries to Epiphanny Prince and Ticha Penicheiro, and Shay Murphy’s sojourn to Europe to represent Montenegro. There was no mention of cutting anyone, so presumably the Sky made use of the hardship exception that they were eligible for due to the injuries. Carter was drafted in the third round this year by Chicago, and was one of their final cuts, so should presumably have an idea of their system already. She obviously won’t be able to replicate what Prince has been doing this year, but at least it gives the Sky someone else who can play on the perimeter.

Tulsa have some injury issues as well, with Scholanda Dorrell and Jennifer Lacy both being ruled out for 4-6 weeks with meniscus tears in their right knees. It’s unfortunate for the Shock, who lose two players who’d been starting for them recently. The timescale essentially means that they’re done until the Olympic break, which means they’ll miss eight games. The Shock are now eligible for that same hardship exception that Chicago just utilised if they want to make use of it.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Tuesday June 19th):

Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

New York @ Atlanta, 7pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Wednesday June 20th):

Washington @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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