WNBA Today, 06/20/2012: Eastern Promise

It was an all-Eastern affair in the WNBA last night. The significantly more appetising game of the two available was in Connecticut, where Indiana were the visitors. While Indiana have lost a few games lately, and Chicago’s hot start has pushed their name into the conversation, the Sun and Fever remain two primary candidates for the Eastern crown. They’d already met once this season, and on that occasion hot shooting from Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas hadn’t been enough to hold off a balanced Connecticut attack. Given the significant possibility that these teams might see each other in the postseason, Indiana won’t want to allow the Sun to dominate the regular season series and build up a mental edge over them.

Erin Phillips was back from her European trip with the Australian national team, but Briann January retained her spot in the starting lineup. For Connecticut it was once again Allison Hightower and Kalana Greene ahead of Danielle McCray on the perimeter.

As in the first game between these teams, Connecticut’s balance gave them an advantage early on. It was 11-2 midway through the first, and each of the Sun’s starters had one basket apiece. Catchings was trying to shoot her team into the game from outside early on, and while Catch can get hot out there, that’s rarely going to be a good choice.

Both of these teams thrive on creating offense from their defense, turning poke aways and steals into quick points back the other way. It kept the pace of the game high while everyone looked to sneak in front and take the ball away. The Sun dominated much of the first half, receiving a surprising level of scoring from players like Hightower and Greene to complement the usual sources. But a late run for the Fever was ignited by defense and January’s scoring, and allowed them to trail only 45-39 at halftime.

The Fever kept hanging around in the second half, with Douglas and Phillips hitting some big shots, and Jessica Davenport carrying over her solid play from the Fever’s previous game (the last one was against Chicago and Fowles, this one versus Connecticut and Charles – maybe Jess just needs a real challenge every night to excel). Phillips hit a deep three late in the third quarter to give Indiana their first lead of the night.

Still, the Fever’s most effective method of offense remained creating turnovers, so when Connecticut managed to take care of the ball they were typically in control. The impressive part for the Fever was that they weren’t allowing the Sun’s post players to beat them. While they have guards who can score on any given night, it’s Charles and Asjha Jones who the Sun rely on and they weren’t able to get much done. This despite the undersized post situation that the Fever are running with this year.

Nonetheless, the scoring of Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery kept the Sun’s noses in front for most of the fourth quarter. Then in the final minutes of the period, Connecticut went cold from the outside, Douglas hit another big three, Catchings drove into the paint for a layup, and we were tied with 13 seconds left in regulation.

The play that the Sun ran to try to win the game was interesting, because it illustrated that when push comes to shove, the Fever know how to defend this team. Connecticut ran a high pick-and-roll with Montgomery and Charles, but Douglas was heavily shading Montgomery towards her left hand, and forcing Montgomery over to that side of the floor. Douglas knows precisely what it’s like to be overwhelmingly one-handed – she’s just as dependent on her left as Montgomery is on her right – so she was doing precisely the right thing. Driving right, Montgomery would’ve gone straight to the hoop. Instead, she stopped, pivoted, saw that Indiana’s defensive rotation had cut off the pass to Charles, and had to settle for Jones from 18 feet for a jumper to win it. That’s a shot Jones can make, but the defense would much prefer it to Charles in the paint or Montgomery at the rim. Jones missed, and we were headed to overtime.

It wasn’t the prettiest overtime in history, and both teams looked a little fatigued from their earlier exertions. Douglas hit a couple of shots early on, the Sun got yet another unlikely bucket from Hightower, and with a minute left Indiana were up by a point with the ball. Then followed one of the reasons that Davenport still isn’t a regular starter in this league, when she forced up a contested jumper from 15 feet that never had a prayer (and there were still 12 seconds on the shot clock). That’s simply not a shot you can take in a one-point game with a minute left. Just dumb.

Hightower once again showed her development as an offensive player, driving into the paint and drawing defenders before making a wrap-around pass to Charles for an easy layup and a Sun lead. Then Asjha Jones made the defensive play of the night. Catchings tried to attack her off the dribble, Jones backed up enough to avoid picking up what would’ve been her sixth foul, and still managed to contest and ultimately block the shot attempt. Jones may not have been scoring too well of late, but she’s still staying involved in other areas.

At the opposite end, under all sorts of defensive pressure from January, Kara Lawson managed to hang on to the ball and fire up a 15-footer that swished home with only five seconds remaining. Lawson’s been shooting well all year, and there’s not a single-shred of fear in her body. She’ll take those all night.

The Fever’s final attempt to tie the game was basically a mess, with Davenport eventually receiving the inbounds pass well beyond the three-point line. She gave it up to January, whose wildly off-balance effort hit high on the side of the backboard and bounced away. Connecticut escaped with the 88-85 victory.

This was just a solid, hard-fought game between two of the strongest teams in the WNBA. The Sun were a little too careless with the ball (17 turnovers that led to 22 Fever points) and will be disappointed that they comfortably lost the points in the paint battle, but seeing players like Greene and Hightower show that they can produce offensively more than made up for it. Lots of teams, if they’re capable of it, will try to do this to the Sun: a) keep Charles and Jones out of the game as much as possible by collapsing on them and making it hard to get them the ball in the first place, b) use your best perimeter defenders to keep Montgomery and Lawson as quiet as possible. It’s easier said than done, but if teams sell out to pull that off, it’s nice to see that the others pieces can occasionally step up.

The only thing that’s a little worrying for the Fever is that they achieved what they’d typically want to manage against this team, and still didn’t pull off the victory. Charles only had 14 points, and overall the Fever kept things pretty much even on the glass. They took better care of the ball than the Sun, while creating and capitalising on turnovers. They even hit a few more shots than they had been recently, with Douglas 5-8 from outside and 9-18 overall for 23 points. Somehow, it just barely came up short. But there are more battles to come against this team, and the war certainly isn’t over yet.

In fact, they play each other again tomorrow.

—–

The other game last night was in Atlanta, where New York provided the opposition. The Liberty had lost their previous game by over 40 points in Connecticut, and looked absolutely dismal. Atlanta still had Angel McCoughtry in street clothes due to an MCL sprain (she remains ‘day-to-day’, and it looks like it’s probably a real injury rather than the semi-suspension I mooted the other day), while the heart of New York’s post corps Plenette Pierson was also out due to her hyperextended knee. Suffice it to say, this one didn’t have quite the appeal of the first game.

The first half proved just as poor to watch as one might’ve expected. When Atlanta can’t get out and run, preferably off steals (but misses and long rebounds will work in a pinch), their halfcourt offense is typically pretty awful. With McCoughtry and Erika de Souza missing, that awfulness only gets worse. When they had some speed and momentum in the opening minutes of the game, the Dream were fine; when that broke down, it barely looked like they knew what a basketball was. New York weren’t great by any means, but they were good enough to at least build a little edge with nine different players scoring at least one bucket each in the opening half. The Liberty led 36-30 at halftime.

Although she was the point guard in charge of this weak halfcourt offense, to Lindsey Harding’s credit she tried to attack and provide the Dream with direction and some scoring. She was 5-9 for 10 points in the first half, and in a game without McCoughtry and where her team had no real flow, she was one of the few positives.

The Dream hung around in the third quarter, but they were managing it with methods that didn’t seem sustainable. Sancho Lyttle was hitting shots from outside, and Cathrine Kraayeveld was chipping in as well. You’re really unlikely to lose a game due to letting Lyttle take jump shots, or concentrating your defense in places besides Cathrine Kraayeveld.

At the other end, Cappie Pondexter spent most of the second half throwing passes around, driving and kicking or simply finding shooters in the right place to fire. She took the scoring responsibility upon herself in a late third quarter run, pushing a gap that had dropped to three points back up to 58-49 at the end of the third. New York were never really threatened in the fourth quarter after that surge put the Liberty in control.

In fact, the important moments of the fourth quarter had nothing to do with the scoreboard. With five minutes left in the game, rookie guard Tiffany Hayes turned her ankle nastily and had to go to the bench. She was replaced by Harding, because it was still only a 10-point game at that stage and a comeback remained plausible. Unfortunately, Harding was only back out for about 20 seconds before a breakaway for New York found Essence Carson attacking her in the paint. Carson trod on Harding’s left foot as she tried to spin around her, tripped and fell, accidentally rolling under Harding from behind as she did so. Somehow, Harding’s right foot then got trapped under Carson, and Harding ended up on the ground in a lot of pain. She was helped back to the bench while putting absolutely no weight on that left foot or ankle. By the end of the game, Hayes was up and walking through the handshake line without too much trouble. Harding definitely wasn’t, and later left the locker room on crutches. You just have to hope that it’s a nasty sprain rather than a break or significant ligament damage.

The game itself meandered to a finish with New York taking home a comfortable 73-60 win. Maybe they’d actually been embarrassed enough by the 42-point loss to the Sun that they’d responded.

It wasn’t a glorious Liberty performance by any means, but at least they showed some pride and came away with a win on the road, even if it was over an understrength opponent. Pondexter finished 6-14 for 14 points, but the standout number in her stat-line was the 13 under assists. It shows both that Cappie was doing the job of finding people in position to score, and that her teammates were stepping up and knocking down the necessary shots. They still look short without Pierson, but at least against Atlanta they were able to work around the problem. Coach John Whisenant finally bit the bullet and played Nicole Powell at power forward for long stretches, because he simply doesn’t trust his remaining backup posts to produce. Of course, other teams won’t be sending out Cathrine Kraayeveld at the 4 so that Powell has someone comfortable to guard at that spot.

Forget the individual result, the real fear for the Dream is that their top players are disappearing. With Erika already missing due to the Olympics, and McCoughtry struggling, Dream fans must have their hearts in their mouths waiting for news on Harding. It was bizarre that Marynell Meadors had only used her for less than 9 minutes in the second half – considering Harding had been her most effective player in the opening 20 minutes – but if she’s out for a while it’ll really hurt. Ketia Swanier would have to step up as the replacement, and that isn’t an experiment that Meadors will be keen to try out. Let’s hope that all Atlanta lost on this night was the game.

 

Notes

Great Britain stuffed the Czech Republic 81-57 today in an Olympic preparation game. Connecticut Sun draft pick (see, WNBA relevance!) Johannah Leedham led GB with 19 points and 12 steals. None of which is particularly relevant to the WNBA, but I just like mentioning it.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Wednesday June 20th):

Washington @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Thursday June 21st):

Connecticut @ Indiana, 7pm ET

New York @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

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