WNBA Today, 06/30/2012: Playing away can be fun

Three WNBA games last night, all overlapping each other. Sometimes, the multi-game view in LiveAccess can be very useful. Considering very few of the fans in attendance went home happy, maybe they’d have been better off in front of a computer screen as well. Let’s get right to it, via the Bullet-Point Breakdown.

 

Connecticut Sun 77 @ Washington Mystics 64

  • For the fifth straight game, Sun coach Mike Thibault retained the same starting lineup, with Kalana Greene and Alison Hightower on the perimeter ahead of Danielle McCray. Washington switched things up a little, bringing Shannon Bobbitt in at the point to replace Jasmine Thomas. For whatever reason, Monique Currie continues to come off the bench – so the Mystics still haven’t tried starting all their best players together for a single game this season.
  • Washington were without backup guard Natasha Lacy due to concussion-like symptoms.
  • The game started poorly for Washington, with multiple turnovers and a forced timeout when Bobbitt picked up her dribble and was trapped. It looked like a blowout waiting to happen.
  • Despite those early problems, Bobbitt illustrated quickly that she was an upgrade on Thomas. Bobbitt has drawbacks – she’s tiny, at times she over-dribbles or has tunnel vision, she often can’t finish inside, and she’s not as good a shooter as she thinks she is – but she makes things happen. If the shot-clock’s running down she’ll penetrate and create something, even if it’s something fairly undesirable. Even when the ball’s in someone else’s hands, she’s often pointing and directing everyone as to what they should be doing. She gives this team a pace and directness they haven’t had with their other lead-guard options.
  • After their lead went as high as 11 in the first-quarter (ooh, unintentional Spinal Tap reference), the Sun relaxed a little too much. It had almost been too easy, and they took their foot off the gas. The ball stopped moving as well as it usually does in their offense, their key post pairing of Tina Charles and Asjha Jones faded out of the game, and Washington drifted back into it.
  • Offensive rebounds were helping the Mystics as well, even if they often only led to an extra opportunity to miss. I’ve never been able to work out exactly why – besides the obvious talents of Crystal Langhorne – but Washington have been an excellent offensive-rebounding team for years now. When you score as poorly as they do in many game, it’s a useful attribute to possess.
  • Connecticut led only 36-32 at halftime, and the key stretch of the game came at the start of the third quarter. I’ve mentioned it before, but Mike Thibault is one of the best coaches in this league at drawing a response from his team out of the locker room. They often fix whatever’s been going wrong in the first half during the interval, and come out strong. A 12-0 run to open the second half of this game virtually killed it off.
  • There was a clear effort to feed Charles and Jones in those early second-half minutes, preferably in the paint. The Sun’s perimeter players had combined to shoot 4-16 in the first half, so they were going to ride their interior power base instead. Meanwhile, Langhorne settled for too many jumpers and they all bounced away.
  • Things got worse for Langhorne when she fell over Hightower in the chase for a loose ball, and twisted her right ankle. She left the court as a result (although she returned in the fourth quarter). The Sun’s takeover was already well underway before Washington lost their best player, but that obviously didn’t help the Mystics.
  • That was virtually all she wrote. The game essentially came down to Washington not being very good, and Connecticut being better. It took a while, but 40 minutes of basketball eventually bore that out.
  • The fourth quarter did contain a little drama. There was a technical foul called on Langhorne (for throwing Mistie Mims down after they got tangled in the paint); a clear-path foul on Matee Ajavon (yet another illustration that WNBA refs don’t remotely understand that rule); and a flagrant foul on Bobbitt (after Renee Montgomery annoyed her enough to provoke a shove in response). All it really did was extend the agony.
  • The Sun made hard work of beating a pretty poor team that didn’t play all that well. Tina Charles was quiet, but still ended up 6-15 for 13 points and 10 boards. Jones compensated with one of her better offensive outings this year, finishing 8-13 for 20 points and 11 rebounds. Backup post Mims added 15 points of her own. The main reason Connecticut struggled to put the Mystics away was a lack of scoring from their guards. The perimeter players didn’t offer much support for the bigs, so it took them a while to take control. Still a comfortable win.
  • The best player for Washington was Currie, who piled up 21 points on 7-15 from the floor. Maybe that’ll get her back in the starting lineup. Bobbitt gave them some extra energy, and Langhorne did her best, but this team is still a mess. Their defense sometimes looks solid, but breaks down under minimal pressure; their offense is just ugly.

 

Atlanta Dream 102 @ Tulsa Shock 92

  • After two games pointlessly coming off the bench due to an ankle injury, point guard Lindsey Harding was back in Atlanta’s starting lineup. Tulsa’s starting five remained the same as in their blowout win over LA on Tuesday night.
  • It was immediately, blindingly apparent that the Dream are a very different proposition from facing the Sparks. Tulsa want to play an open, running, action-packed game, and that approach took LA apart three days earlier. The problem is, Atlanta want to play that way as well. And they’re better at it. Speed, penetration off the dribble, and boundless energy had Atlanta in control of the game very quickly.
  • They also play some actual transition defense, which is more than can be said for Los Angeles on Tuesday.
  • Armintie Price, with her speed and athleticism, is an absolute joy to watch when the game’s wide open and flowing from one end to the other. She had 10 points in the first quarter, and Atlanta were already up 28-17.
  • Angel McCoughtry joined in for the second quarter, and the lead grew as high as 17 before Ivory Latta started hitting in some shots for the Shock to rein Atlanta in a little. The Dream still led 57-43 at the break.
  • The game looked like it was being killed off early in the second half, as Tulsa simply couldn’t deal with Atlanta’s higher talent level. Their little guards (Latta, Temeka Johnson, Riquna Williams) were continuing to attack, but they weren’t anywhere near as effective as they’d been against Los Angeles.
  • Still, Atlanta contrived to let the Shock back into the game. A lineup featuring Ketia Swanier, Laurie Koehn, Tiffany Hayes, Catherine Kraayeveld and Aneika Henry just wasn’t good enough to keep things rolling for the Dream, and Tulsa took advantage.
  • The Shock also received a boost early in the fourth quarter from former Dream post Courtney Paris, who came out and went to work in the paint. With under 7 minutes left in the game, the Atlanta lead had been cut to 7 points (after reaching 24 in the third quarter).
  • Even the return of the Dream starters struggled to reestablish their grip on the game, as all the momentum was now with Tulsa and their remaining fans now had something to cheer about. But Atlanta did just enough to cling on.
  • An Amber Holt layup cut the gap to 6 with under two minutes remaining, but a smooth pick-and-roll found Sancho Lyttle on a feed from Harding for a layup. Then the exact same play – only with an extra pass from Lyttle to Henry for the layup tacked on at the end – pushed the lead to 10 moments later. That finally ended it.
  • Credit Tulsa for continuing to fight when they easily could’ve quit down 24 points in the second half. They didn’t give up, and they nearly made it all the way back. Paris looks like a useful addition (although we’ve said that before about her, only to witness a precipitous drop-off), and this contest even saw flashes of the effective, versatile game Kayla Pedersen showed off early in her rookie year. They’re still simply going to lose a lot of games because other teams have more talent.
  • And after playing a central role in the blowout of LA, Riquna Williams shot 5-15 for 15 points. She’s not afraid to shoot – ever – but she’s at 30% for the year. She has to become a little more selective, and a little more creative in regards to something other than firing up shots. Otherwise she’s an even lower-percentage version of the Tan White I used to hate watching in a Connecticut Sun uniform – a player praised for being a ‘scorer’ and ‘energy boost’, but who misses far more than she makes.
  • It was a lovely first half for Atlanta, playing their free-flowing game and taking the attack to the Shock. They even finished the entire night at a remarkable 61% from the field. But letting Tulsa back into a game that should’ve been well and truly finished won’t have pleased coach Marynell Meadors. McCoughtry led the scoring with 24 points, but she also led the parade of turnovers with 7. The Dream should’ve been prepared for Tulsa’s willingness to jump passing lanes and gamble for steals – it’s exactly how they play themselves most of the time. McCoughtry’s turnovers in particular have reached scary levels this season, and it’s something they need to curb. Creating steals often ignites their own offense – but giving them right back negates the advantage.

 

Phoenix Mercury 84 @ Chicago Sky 81

  • Same old injury story for Phoenix, with the same litany of players missing. The Sky responded to the Mercury’s mobile lineup by relegating post Ruth Riley to the bench, and promoting forward Sonja Petrovic in her place. Le’coe Willingham was back in uniform after missing the last game due to personal reasons – but Epiphanny Prince, of course, was still out.
  • For a while, this game felt a lot like Phoenix’s trip to Minnesota on Wednesday night. They were hitting enough shots to hang around in contention, but you were waiting for the opponent to realise they were basically playing the Mercury’s bench and take over. However, it didn’t take too long to spot that the Sky didn’t have an extra gear to step up to. Without Prince, this is what they are – a typically strong defensive team, who struggle to find their one elite player on offense. That’s about it.
  • Phoenix were doing the same things they had against the Lynx, and essentially the same stuff they’ve been doing since being cut down to this skeleton squad. Relying on DeWanna Bonner to attack and create points, watching rookie point guard Sammy Prahalis become a more aggressive offensive player, and hoping they can hit some threes. On this occasion, Charde Houston was contributing from behind the arc.
  • They were also – and I feel like I should almost have to whisper this – doing a decent job defensively. The Sky create a lot of their own problems, running a slow, stagnant, predictable offense most of the time. But the other team still has to work hard to prevent the entry passes to Fowles. And most of the time, the Mercury were keeping the ball away from Fowles, frustrating her to no end. Phoenix led 49-43 at the half.
  • The most noticeable surprise in the numbers for this game was on the glass. Phoenix are a mediocre rebounding team at best. Being forced by their injuries to use young posts Krystal Thomas and Avery Warley has actually improved matters slightly, but not much. Chicago, on the other hand, have been the best rebounding team in the league so far this year (led by Fowles’s renewed dedication to crashing the boards). Last night, especially in the second half, Chicago got destroyed on the glass.
  • Of course, one obvious reason for that – ignored entirely by our esteemed commentators – was that Fowles was practically working alone. Petrovic started the game as the de facto 4, and Swin Cash was there for the vast majority of the second half. Neither of them is an actual power forward in the modern pro game (well, not in the WNBA anyway – Cash might see some time there for Team USA next month). It left Phoenix keeping countless possessions alive with offensive boards, and the majority of Chicago possessions ending one-and-done. Not once did Chatman try Riley or Willingham in the second half to stem the tide.
  • Chicago did at least make it interesting. A couple of three-pointers late in the third got them back in the game, and an endless barrage of Mercury misses late in the fourth kept them in it.
  • Fowles had touched the ball so infrequently during the game that when they finally did force it in to her, she had absolutely no offensive rhythm. An ugly sweeping hook that barely caught iron was the most obvious example. That left players like Tamera Young and Shay Murphy trying to provide the Sky’s offense.
  • Another pathetic piece of officiating helped Chicago out in the final minute. Thomas and Ticha Penicheiro were tangled up in the fight for a rebound, and Thomas brushed Penicheiro off with a bit of a flailing arm. Referee Lauren Holtkamp was standing right in front of it, and was clearly going to let it pass and wait for everyone to calm down. Then the officials huddled, and decided it was a technical foul after all. Terrible. Call what you see; don’t make it up after the fact.
  • Anyway, Chicago were down 82-78 with 33 seconds left and possession. A dreadful shambles of a play – either Chatman drew up something terrible in the preceding timeout, or her players made a mess of it – resulted in a Petrovic travelling violation and a turnover. Fortunately for the Sky, Murphy immediately pressured Bonner into returning the favour. This time, Chicago found Petrovic behind a Fowles screen, and she nailed the three to pull the Sky within a point.
  • Thomas was fouled and calmly sank both free throws, leaving Chicago with eight seconds to find a three to tie the game. They’ve pulled out multiple games like this already this season, but with one key difference – Epiphanny Prince was invariably the one sinking the crucial shots. With Prince on the sidelines in a boot, it’s not quite so easy. The inbounds pass went to Fowles in the paint, but the Mercury largely did a solid job of remembering that a two-point basket was no good to Chicago. Fowles kicked it to Penicheiro, who rotated it to Petrovic, who moved it on to Cash – who hit glass and iron with her effort from deep, but no net. Ballgame over, Phoenix holds on.
  • Whether you believe the missing Mercury players are all currently incapable of taking the floor, or that the franchise is mercilessly tanking to enter the 2013 lottery, the fight being put up by the remaining players is impressive. Bonner finished 9-19 for 27 points, Houston (6-11 for 16) and Prahalis (5-15 for 14) joined in, and as a team they had 17 offensive boards. Even Alexis Hornbuckle was at least serviceable for an evening (and Andrea Riley played her part by sitting on the bench for over 33 minutes of game time). They’re doing what they can with limited resources, and making opponents work. Against a struggling Sky team, it was enough to come away with the win. And with the improvements San Antonio and Seattle have shown lately, the (theoretical) tanking effort is going pretty well anyway.
  • While I understand trying to match up with Phoenix’s team speed and agility, it made little sense to persist with the small lineup all night long as Chatman did in this game. The Mercury are so undermanned, opponents should be making them adjust, not changing their own approach. Chicago lost this game on the glass, because while Fowles was ineffective, Cash, Young, Murphy and Courtney Vandersloot all had solid offensive games. In fact, the presence of the new young thing on the point-guard block in Prahalis seemed to bring out a more focussed performance in Vandersloot than we’ve seen much of the year. Just because Prince is missing doesn’t mean that you have to play four perimeter players simultaneously to compensate – Fowles could’ve done with some help on the boards.

 

Notes

Japan blew out Korea 79-51, and Canada fought past Argentina 58-41 in the semi-finals of the Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament today. That sets up a playoff for the very last spot in London between Japan and Canada tomorrow. Then they’ll make the draw to decide which of the extra teams – Croatia, Czech Republic, Turkey, France, Japan/Canada – are placed in which group at the Games.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Saturday June 30th):

Seattle @ New York, 4pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Sunday July 1st):

Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Phoenix @ Washington, 4pm ET

Seattle @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

Atlanta @ Chicago, 6pm ET

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