Either by coincidence or design, the WNBA left last night free for everyone to focus on the NBA Draft (which was filled with kids who wouldn’t be eligible for the WNBA equivalent if they were female, but that’s a debate for another day). The only game yesterday was yet another Kids’ Day contest in the early afternoon, featuring the third match-up in the recent weeks between Los Angeles and San Antonio.
The Silver Stars won both previous encounters – the first in overtime, the second in a blowout – so this was a chance for either confirmation of superiority, or revenge. Having lost to Tulsa on Tuesday night in another embarrassing defeat, the Sparks needed some kind of bounce-back performance to snap them out of the funk they’ve slipped into. San Antonio were just looking to continue their development, cut further into LA’s advantage in the standings, and send all their screaming fans home happy.
The same starting lineups began the game as in the last clash between these teams, and the game picked up right where Sunday night had left off – San Antonio dominated. The Sparks started out with a couple of plays that had clearly been scripted by the coaching staff – post-ups for Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike – but their offense quickly devolved into far too many jump shots. Meanwhile, at the other end, the Silver Stars were picking them apart.
Once again, the most noticeable difference between these teams was the chemistry and teamwork that San Antonio exhibit. They make the extra pass, and they rotate to help defensively when necessary. This is a team to a far greater extent than LA. Their execution offensively is also far superior. They move without the ball and find the open shooter, and if someone slides open on a pick-and-roll, more often than not they’ll receive the ball. LA just aren’t anywhere near as organised or crisp, there’s a lack of communication on screens and traps, and it leaves them looking a mess. And when these breakdowns give up points on the defensive end, their heads drop and it affects their offense as well.
Of course, it helped San Antonio that they were making every shot on offer as well. LA’s weak rotations and inability to close out on shooters helped, but there’ll be days where they’re this open and still not hit much. With everything falling for Sophia Young, Shameka Christon and Jia Perkins, the Silver Stars were up 26-11 less than nine minutes into the game.
The fact that Young had 11 of San Antonio’s points at that stage didn’t reflect too well on Parker. The Silver Stars had come out with the same defensive assignments as in previous games – Jayne Appel on Parker, Young on Ogwumike – but LA had switched around. Parker was the primary defender on Young, and it didn’t work at all. All the statements about her new dedication to defense from earlier in the season seem to have been forgotten, and Candace is back to being the same defender she’s been for most of her career. We’ll still see moments of athletic greatness, often resulting in impressive blocks, but she gets lost or gives up far too frequently. She also drifts too far away from her own defensive assignment at times, anticipating the need to move over and help somewhere else. Being ready to help-defend is good; leaving your own man open in order to get there quickly isn’t.
Sparks head coach Carol Ross called a timeout late in the first quarter to remind her team to play with some energy, to suggest that scoring in the paint would be a nice idea, and to switch to their 2-3 zone for a while. It worked, but only very briefly. San Antonio were just moving the ball too well and shooting it too accurately to be overly affected by a switch in defensive scheme. Danielle Adams came off the bench and played with more versatility than we’ve seen in a lot of her games this year, scoring inside, fighting for offensive rebounds, and then knocking down outside shots. Too frequently she’s settled for simply firing from deep, but this was much better and it kept the Silver Stars rolling.
Defensive breakdowns continued to murder the Sparks. There was one occasion where Becky Hammon was inbounding on the baseline, Christon drifted into the opposite corner and was just ignored by the defense, leaving her to receive the pass and hit the wide open three. It was pathetic. Some of the Sparks’ defensive issues are understandable – new coach with her own ideas, some new players, some players who just don’t have the physical attributes to keep up with the opposition – but a lot of it is effort, communication, paying attention, and using your damn brain. The pick-and-roll defense, most notably when Kristi Toliver is involved, is just deplorable. They don’t seem to know whether they’re trapping (which requires a third defender to know she has to slide across), or switching (which requires talking to each other), or trying to fight through (which requires some actual work). It’s ugly, and Ross has got a job on her hands to fix it.
So with the Sparks in disarray, and all their own jump shots falling in, San Antonio led 57-37 at halftime. It was an absolute destruction. Amazingly, LA were actually up 22-12 at the break in points in the paint, which illustrated just how much of San Antonino’s attack had come from outside. They were finding that extra, wide-open shooter, and knocking down their shots. They were an outstanding 8-13 from three-point range in the first half.
The other remarkable stat at the break was that Kristi Toliver had played 12 minutes and failed to take a single shot. While she’s being asked to distribute and play some defense as well, shooting is the central point of Toliver being on a basketball court. If she stops doing that, she may as well not be out there. Ross, apparently, agreed with that sentiment. Toliver was benched to start the second half, and didn’t reappear until the fourth quarter. After such a superb start to the season, it’s a shame to see her collapse into yet another pouting funk, but it’s hardly a surprise. Maybe the benching will send a message that Kristi will understand, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
The lead reached 29 in the second half, but you have to at least credit the Sparks for not completely capitulating. Regardless of the defense, there was no way that San Antonio could shoot that well again in the second half, but players like Alana Beard, April Sykes and even Marissa Coleman continued to play hard. Nonetheless, the Sparks were still flattered by the mere 14-point margin at the end of the game. It was much worse than 94-80 suggests.
Candace Parker finished with an impressive stat-line. 10-17 for 25 points and 13 boards almost makes it look like she dominated while her teammates let her down. Don’t be fooled. Most of those numbers were piled up in the second half when the game was virtually over, and she’s as responsible for the defensive frailties of this squad as anyone. She also pouts nearly as much as Toliver, just not quite as conspicuously. They don’t just need you to pile up numbers Candace, especially in virtual garbage time. They need you to lead, they need you to play hard from minute-one, and they need you to keep your head in the game. On a more basic level, they also need you to play some decent defense, and plant yourself on the low-block more often offensively. Personally, I’m tired of seeing Parker jack up shots from 18 to 25 feet out; I can only imagine how tired of it Sparks fans are.
San Antonio have looked very impressive lately – although some of that comes down to playing LA so frequently. They match up well against the Sparks, taking advantage of their weaknesses, and their unselfishness attacks right at the heart of LA’s problems. Young led the scoring in this one (9-15 for 23 points), but Hammon, Christon, Adams and Perkins all contributed heavily as well. When they’re allowed to settle into their rhythm, they’re a scary team and a lot of fun to watch. The development of Jayne Appel into something resembling a serviceable post gives them an option against bigger interior players as well. The question is whether the Silver Stars can maintain this level of performance against teams that play better defense, with more help and sharper rotations. Even in this game they were a bunch of jump shooters for long stretches – but with everything dropping in that worked out nicely. On a team that closes out better and makes those shots harder – or just on a day when they go cold from outside – they wouldn’t look nearly as impressive.
Seattle finally confirmed what we all knew was coming by signing Svetlana Abrosimova today. Having played there before, she should settle into Brian Agler’s system pretty quickly, and she’ll give him an extra guard option. Which’ll be nice, considering how many minutes Sue Bird, Tanisha Wright and Katie Smith have been playing lately. It might take a while for her to work up to full speed though, considering she hasn’t played for months, and even during the European season she was playing limited minutes. On the bright side, she should be well rested.
Croatia beat Canada, and the Czech Republic beat Japan in two tightly-contested quarter-finals at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. At time of writing, Turkey are in the process of blowing out Argentina in the third, with France-Korea coming up later. Looks like the four European nations could all be booking their tickets to London, leaving the others to fight it out for the final spot.
Today (Friday June 29th):
Connecticut @ Washington, 7pm ET
Atlanta @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Phoenix @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Tomorrow (Saturday June 30th):
Seattle @ New York, 4pm ET