WNBA Today, 06/25/2012: Ever Increasing Victories

So, three WNBA games this Sunday, and the levels of defeat became increasingly comprehensive as we went along. It was like the basketball gods were tired of this week and just wanted it over and done with. They had no time left for tight, hard-fought contests. This was a day where the threat of overtime never even remotely raised its head above the parapet.

First up was Atlanta’s trip to New York, a game which completed the four-game season series between these teams, despite the fact that it’s still June. Address all complaints to the WNBA scheduling department. While they’ve had a largely miserable start to the season, two of the Liberty’s four wins this year have come over the Dream, so a win in this game would’ve taken the series 3-1 and given them the tie-break over Atlanta. Assuming New York still have hopes of making the playoffs, that’s something that could come into play later in the year. Thoroughly inconsistent themselves this year, the Dream were looking to bounce back from a loss to this same Liberty squad last Tuesday.

Making that recovery far more likely was the simple fact that leading scorer and star player Angel McCoughtry was back in uniform, after missing a couple of games with an MCL sprain. There was more encouraging news for the Dream in that both Tiffany Hayes and Lindsey Harding were dressed and ready to play after their ankle injuries late in the last game. Ketia Swanier had been moved into the starting lineup, but Harding was fit enough to come off the bench. She looked like she was in a lot of pain on Tuesday night, so it was good to see her in one piece. New York were still without Plenette Pierson due to what was previously a hyperextended knee – although the official listing in the box score for this game read ‘calf strain’.

The first quarter was dominated by Atlanta. McCoughtry came out firing, but the Dream swiftly realised that they could knife through what New York were generously calling ‘defense’ at will. While the Liberty were clanking perimeter jumpers off the rim, Atlanta were constantly in the paint for layups, either in transition or in the halfcourt. It was far too easy for the Dream, and they were up 26-16 by the end of the first quarter.

The opening period also contained one of the worst charging calls you’re ever likely to see. Armintie Price was coming in for a layup, and Essence Carson was still sliding both backwards and sideways when she flopped on the ground after barely any contact from Price. Hideous call.

The only good sign for New York in the first quarter was that point guard Leilani Mitchell was already 3-3 from three-point range. In general, when Mitchell’s produced points this season, the Liberty have won games. Now they just needed to remember how to do everything else.

It got better for New York in the second quarter. Firstly, Sancho Lyttle picked up a harsh blocking call in the opening seconds that could easily have been a charge on Cappie Pondexter. Instead, it was Lyttle’s third foul and she was done until the second half. Atlanta’s defense always takes a step backwards when Lyttle isn’t on the floor. Secondly, the Liberty started working harder and moving better defensively, which left fewer lanes for the Dream to penetrate. Instead, Atlanta were firing jumpers, and their offensive efficiency goes through the floor when they can’t get to the rim.

In contrast, Pondexter and Carson started driving a little more, which at least got them to the free throw line, even if they were still rarely converting the baskets. The net result of it all was that when Mitchell nailed her fifth three in five tries with eight seconds left in the half, it gave New York their first lead since the opening seconds of the game – and a 40-38 advantage heading in at halftime.

Unfortunately for the Liberty, it was the third quarter that decided the game, and things didn’t go quite as well for them as they had in the second. Pondexter was still ice cold from the field, and with Lyttle back out there it was much harder to penetrate the Dream defense. Meanwhile, players like Kia Vaughn were attacking the offensive glass, but repeatedly failing to convert those opportunities into points. The Dream weren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard – in fact, McCoughtry continued to fire up far too many bricks from outside – but New York’s inability to score and carelessness with the ball allowed Atlanta to pull away. After her five buckets from long-range had all been on passes from Pondexter and Carson in the first half, Mitchell’s only three attempt in the second was on a kick-out from post DeMya Walker. The penetration had dried up, and therefore so had Mitchell’s good looks.

Up 63-50 at the end of the third, Atlanta’s lead reached 18 before they almost contrived to let New York back into the game. For a team that essentially can’t shoot, Atlanta too often fall into the trap of firing away from outside, and they were doing it again. Fortunately for them, Pondexter was the one who’d finally injected some pace into the Liberty’s game to ignite a mini-comeback, and she fouled out on a silly reach-in foul on McCoughtry with three minutes remaining. That killed the game off, and Atlanta coasted home for a 74-64 win.

While she can be a hugely frustrating talent at times, Atlanta are simply a far more threatening team with McCoughtry in their ranks. She finished this one 7-20 for 23 points, and took a whole bunch of ill-advised shots, but she gives them a focal point and a driving force. Lyttle finished with a +/- of +20 for the game, which illustrated her importance on the afternoon. New York made their comeback when she was on the bench in foul trouble, and as soon as she came back for the third quarter the Dream pulled away again. Like McCoughtry, she takes too many jumpers, but she was 7-13 for 19 points, 6 boards and 5 steals. Her mobility and those long arms create havoc defensively and often create points by leading into Atlanta’s transition game.

Swanier also had a solid game in place of Harding, producing 9 assists and only 2 turnovers in 17 minutes of play. She took a nasty hit to the nose from a Vaughn elbow in the third quarter – and took a couple of awful shots in the fourth when she returned – but overall it was a good showing. Still, the Dream will still be very happy that Harding’s not going to miss any time (and she looked to be moving okay, despite the ankle injury).

For New York, Pondexter finished 4-17, Carson 2-10 and Vaughn 1-11. With numbers like that, it’s amazing this game stayed as close as it did. Their key players just couldn’t hit anything all day, and apart from that brief stretch in the second quarter couldn’t penetrate enough to make up for it. Mitchell was quiet in the second half without anyone creating for her, and they wasted one of Kara Braxton’s rare offensive outbursts (14 points, 13 boards). They miss Pierson, and it continues to look like a painful season for the Liberty. They’re probably looking forward to the Olympic break at this point, and someone in the front office may be wondering whether to allow head coach John Whisenant to keep his job for the second half of the year.

—–

Next up we were in Seattle, where Washington were the visitors. These squads have been comfortably the two slowest-paced teams in the league this season, so it wasn’t a game to tune in for if you enjoy a deluge of points (something I mention largely because I’m angry at myself for not betting on the under). The Storm were riding a three-game win-streak, so they were looking to maintain their momentum against a Mystics team that lost to the Mercury backups last time out.

Washington opened the game with the same starting five they’ve used recently (not that it’s been working particularly well). Head coach/GM Trudi Lacey continues to refuse the novel idea of starting all her best players, with Monique Currie currently consigned to the bench. Seattle had their regular starters as well.

After a slow start that allowed Washington to build a 7-2 lead, Storm coach Brian Agler called a timeout, reminded his team that they’re markedly better than this Mystics squad if they bother to wake up, and things sharply turned around. Seattle were instantly looking for quicker offensive opportunities, playing with more speed in general, and closing out better on shooters.

After the trouble she had with Jayne Appel against San Antonio, Ann Wauters looked far more comfortable matched up with Michelle Snow. The Mystics made pathetically little effort to put Wauters into situations where she has difficulty – rotating defensively, switching, pick-and-roll recovery – and instead just left her with straightforward one-on-one defense. Which she can do in her sleep against someone like Snow. The Mystics are also very poor at moving the ball, so they weren’t creating anything much for anyone else.

It was a bizarre first half, in some ways. Two teams that have had horrible issues with turnovers in the past barely turned the ball over at all; there were very few fouls called despite the slow pace and physical play; and while Seattle shot 52% to Washington’s 27% in the first 20 minutes, they only led by 11 at the break. Far less unusual was the fact that Crystal Langhorne was the only player doing anything worthwhile for the Mystics. Seattle, on the other hand, were spreading the wealth around nicely, and seemed largely in control. Holding your opponent to only 20 points in a half is usually going to put you in a strong position.

Washington got off to a surprisingly effective start in the second half, with Matee Ajavon and Noelle Quinn hitting threes, before Langhorne added a baseline jumper. They were back within seven points, barely three minutes into the half, and finally had a little rhythm. Then, just to cement her position as one of the most unfathomable coaches in the WNBA, Lacey made four simultaneous substitutions that robbed her team of any possible momentum they’d managed to gather. Langhorne was the only one left out there, and Seattle instantly ran off a 9-0 stretch to retake control. On occasion I’ve come to Lacey’s defense in the face of Mystics fans who pour criticism down on her, but sometimes it’s just impossible. At times she just seems utterly clueless.

As a contest, that was just about it for this game. The Storm lead was never below 12 the rest of the way, and the Mystics rarely looked like scoring enough points to make it remotely interesting. On the vast majority of possessions they just ran the shot clock down, went nowhere, and fired up an ugly miss. It was, largely speaking, a mind-numbing game of basketball. Storm fans probably enjoyed most of it, though.

There are plenty of positive signs for Seattle lately, and not just the fact that they’ve now won four in a row. Along with Tanisha Wright’s noticeable improvement, fellow Storm veteran Camille Little seems to be emerging from her own funk. She’s more spritely, throwing herself around more, and generally having a far greater impact on games. It’s like Wright and Little needed a holiday after their seasons overseas, but took the vacations while still appearing on the floor for Seattle. Now they’ve actually arrived in both mind and spirit and are playing more like themselves. Sue Bird’s jump shot looks like it might have been on the beach with them and finally flown back into town as well.

Still, the Storm win-streak covers a game in Tulsa, and then three home victories. If you remember, the Storm were a hideous road team last season, often unrecognisable from the team that played in Key Arena. They’re already 1-6 on the road, and about to embark on another four game roadtrip. Let’s see if they can keep this improvement going on opposition floors. Fortunately for them, the trip begins with the return against this Mystics squad, so they’ve got every chance to open with a win. Unfortunately, it’s in front of a national TV audience on ESPN2. Another game like this one isn’t going to attract many new fans to the WNBA (and Washington’s sparse crowds won’t look great either).

While some credit has to go to Seattle’s team defense, this was a largely pathetic performance from Washington. No one showed up besides Langhorne, including the coaches. The rotations, if you can call them that, make no sense. The sets and ball movement on the floor are either useless or nonexistent. At some point, don’t you have to make a move just to keep the few remaining fans interested? To let them know you’re paying attention? This is just depressing.

—–

The final game of the night was in Los Angeles, where San Antonio were the visitors. The recent uptick in performance from the Storm means that it may not be the near-foregone conclusion it seemed that these squads will meet in the playoffs, but it’s still important for the Sparks and Silver Stars to assert themselves in direct competition. After missing the trip to San Antonio last week due to her Stanford graduation, this time LA had Nneka Ogwumike in the lineup, so they had high hopes of revenge for the overtime loss they suffered in that earlier encounter.

The Sparks also had superstar Candace Parker back, after she’d skipped the previous day’s game against Phoenix, so they returned to what’s become their standard starting five. San Antonio also seem to have settled on a lineup, with Jayne Appel and Shameka Christon looking more comfortable now that they’re involved in games from the opening tip.

In fact, Christon looked far beyond comfortable in the opening stages of this game. She was smoking hot. A messy start from both teams was lit up by a barrage of threes from Christon, cut short when she picked up her third foul late in the first quarter and had to head to the bench. It was still largely her scoring that energised the team and carried them to a 26-20 lead at the end of the first.

LA went to their 2-3 zone in the second period, bringing rookie wing April Sykes in from the bench to offer some extra energy at the top of it. Even with their offense continuing to struggle, the zone helped LA get a foothold in the game, as San Antonio’s offense failed to deal with the new look. It was 42-36 Silver Stars at the break, and it still felt like the early Christon flurry had carried them there.

There’s a conspicuous difference in look and feel about how these two teams play the game. San Antonio know who their primary weapons are, but they’re always willing to make the extra pass to the next open player. At least seven or eight players can hurt you as a result on any given night. It’s rare that you see LA make that extra pass. It’s not that they’re greedy per se – although that accusation has certainly been thrown at Kristi Toliver over the years, and even Parker – but they don’t have the confidence in each other or the chemistry that you see with the Silver Stars. Right now, when LA win games, it’s more likely that their stars have overwhelmed the opponent through their sheer talent. Rather than structure, balance, or teamwork carrying them there.

They’re also vulnerable, of course, to the whims and form fluctuations of their point guard. It’s not that Toliver dislikes passing – she seems to especially enjoy them when they’re of the Globetrotter variety – but she’s a natural scorer. She doesn’t naturally want to run an offense or move the ball. And that’s the case whether she’s 9-9 or 0-19: she still wants to shoot. For a team that don’t have too many different offensive weapons, sometimes that’s a positive – they often need her to score. But when she’s cold, it can noticeably damage her own team. With the short roster currently available in LA, head coach Carol Ross doesn’t have many other options to turn to on those bad nights.

While they made a couple of brief runs, the Sparks fell further and further away as the second half progressed. San Antonio were playing both with more composure, and with greater energy, two aspects that combined to put them in control. They also broke out their own zone defense at times in the second half, and LA were painfully static against it. One of the negative aspects of the Dream squads that Ross seems to have brought with her is the overreliance on one-on-one creation offensively, which too frequently leaves them stuck and going nowhere with the ball. On this particular night, they also had the problem of Toliver firing brick after brick (3-14 from the floor) and Ogwumike struggling horribly at the free throw line (2-9 from the stripe).

The game looked like tailing off into a run of the mill loss for the Sparks, but the final minutes turned it into a complete whupping. San Antonio played out the game with energy until the final moments, while Ross seemed to have too many players she wanted to bench and not enough left she even wanted out there to finish the game. The final score was 91-71, but if anything the gap seemed even wider than that.

It was a strong win on the road for San Antonio, against a fellow Western Conference playoff contender. Christon got them off to the strong start offensively, but the production came from all quarters as the night wore on. Sophia Young, Becky Hammon and Danielle Robinson were the others in double digits, while they also received impressive outings from rookie Shenise Johnson – whose energy and all-round game provided a necessary boost in the second quarter – and Jayne Appel (9 points, 11 rebounds), who stayed strong in the center of the defense. The depth of this squad is impressive when they’re flowing, and on this particular night their teamwork comfortably outplayed the individual stars of the Sparks.

This was a night LA will want to forget. Toliver grew increasingly frustrated as her shot refused to fall all night, and she allowed the rest of her game and work rate to suffer as a result. Parker also started to force shots as the game wore on, and 6-17 for 15 points is one of her worst outings of the year. Maybe the knee soreness that kept her out the night before was bothering her (although she looked fine physically), and maybe the tiredness caused by the back-to-back had an impact on everyone else, but playing a team with as much organisation and chemistry as the Silver Stars highlighted the flaws that remain in the Sparks. There’s still a long way for LA to go this season, and they now trail 2-0 in the season series against the team trying to chase them down in the West. They face each other yet again on Thursday.

 

Notes

Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings were named Players of the Week in their respective conferences. It wasn’t a week with true standout candidates, but they were still somewhat surprising choices. I’ve essentially given up trying to decipher what the league is thinking with these awards.

The Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament got started today, with the first four games all going exactly as anticipated. This competition will decide the final five teams who make it to London. The schedule can be found here, and you can watch all the games at FibaTV if you’re willing to pay for them.

Don’t forget there’s a camp day game in Atlanta tomorrow, so we get underway far earlier than usual.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Monday June 25th):

None

—–

Tomorrow (Tuesday June 26th):

Indiana @ Atlanta, Noon ET

Seattle @ Washington, 7pm ET

Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

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