Just one game in the WNBA on Saturday, and this report would’ve been up much sooner if I could’ve faced writing about the game before now. It wasn’t pretty. If you haven’t watched it yet – unless you’re a fan of the team that won, and really only if you’re a truly devoted fan – don’t bother catching it via the archive. This was one to skip.
Seattle came into New York (or really New Jersey) on something of a high. They’d won five games in a row, and just added old favourite Svetlana Abrosimova to the roster. But those of us who watched the ugly win over Washington on Tuesday, and who remembered how bad this team has often been on the road, were yet to be convinced. Still, with opponents like New York, they had every chance to keep the win streak going. The Liberty had lost four of their last five, looked absolutely dismal in several of those defeats, and still had Plenette Pierson out injured (it was a ‘left knee strain’ in the box score this time). Bar Washington or Tulsa, this is the road game you want to play right now.
New York coach John Whisenant made a move, promoting Kara Braxton into the starting lineup over DeMya Walker in an effort to get more out of the frustrating Braxton. You can make a bunch of money in this league just by being 6’5” and remotely able to move, but you’ll annoy a hell of a lot of people in the process if you’re as inconsistent and wasteful as Braxton.
The defensive assignments to start the game were interesting, with the two teams cross-matching on the perimeter. Seattle were comfortable with the natural matchups – Sue Bird on Leilani Mitchell, Tanisha Wright on Cappie Pondexter, Katie Smith on Essence Carson. That’s where the standard positions would have them. But New York wanted Carson on Bird, to hopefully trouble Seattle’s leader with her length; Mitchell on Wright; and Pondexter on Smith. Not too sure about the thinking behind those last two, but maybe the idea was that Cappie wouldn’t have to work so hard defensively, as Smith’s offense typically involves setting screens and firing threes these days.
At least that created something worth thinking about in the early stages, because the basketball was barely tolerable. Seattle’s offense, just like last year, can be absolutely hideous (especially on the road). There’s a lack of movement (both of the ball and the players), the shot clock winds down, and it ends in a jacked up three or a desperation drive from Wright. All of which is assuming they haven’t managed to turn the ball over by that point, which is a frequent occurrence. They were better during the recent three-game homestand, but this was back to the previous Storm, going nowhere offensively. A couple of threes from Bird when Carson went under screens and left her open were the only highlights.
Fortunately for the Storm, New York’s offense is pretty pitiful as well (especially faced with Seattle’s still-solid defense). Outside of a little perimeter scoring from Pondexter, and some similar production from Carson when Cappie took a rest, the Liberty weren’t exactly racking up points. They did enough to clamber to a 31-23 lead at halftime, however.
Notable moments in the first half included two post entry passes from Braxton that looked horrifically dangerous while she was trying them, but both somehow reached their intended destination. Then she even went on a stretch including a nasty block of a Camille Little drive (nasty in the good way), and a couple of offensive rebounds. It’s flashes of talent and natural ability like that which make Braxton all the more frustrating. For Seattle, Wright looks almost scared to shoot at times, and it’s obviously hurting her offensive game. She’s been poor from outside this season, but she still has to retain the confidence to take the open shot. Especially considering her efficiency in converting drives into points isn’t great.
The scary moment of the first half was with barely a minute left, when Kia Vaughn jogged to the sidelines to be subbed out – looking perfectly fine – then practically collapsed. She needed two people to hold her up as she moved towards the locker room, then needed a stretcher to complete the journey. Checking the video, the only moment I could see where anyone was close to her head was when teammate Cappie Pondexter was helped up from the ground, and might’ve caught Vaughn on the chin as she jumped up. But even that seemed doubtful. Vaughn never returned to the game, apparently due to a concussion. Hopefully it won’t turn out to be too serious.
The Storm shot 22% in the first half to New York’s 36%, and it was 15-11 in the turnover column. Yeah, it was that good.
The second half wasn’t much better. Seattle’s offense never got going all afternoon, and while Carson’s defense didn’t seem to be troubling Bird that much, Bird’s shots had stopped falling. The vast majority of her attempts were threes, usually curling around those on-ball screens the Storm set for her, and she had room to take them. But since the early pair that went in, little else would fall. And it’s not like anyone else was filling the void.
While they had plenty of problems of their own offensively, New York were the more aggressive team, taking the game to Seattle rather than drifting around waiting for something to happen. In Pondexter and Carson, they also had two players who were capable of creating their own offense – something Seattle constantly struggle to do. The Storm had more assists than the Liberty in the second half – 8 to 7 – but New York finished with far more field goals – 17 to 12. So on the rare occasions that Seattle managed to find the basket, it was via passes and ball movement; but New York’s basic capability to just make something happen was winning the day.
Of course, without Vaughn or Pierson in the second half, and with rookie Kelley Cain barely trusted to carry the bags off the bus, New York were struggling for post players in the second half. Along with her inconsistent play, Braxton has the additional drawback of a fitness level that barely lets her play more than 4 consecutive minutes. So DeMya Walker played a lot, and Nicole Powell was pushed into service as an emergency power forward. Seattle tried to exploit it. They fed Ann Wauters in the post, and even backup Ewelina Kobryn when Wauters turned an ankle and limped to the sidelines. Veteran power forward Tina Thompson was their most productive scorer in the second half. But the Storm weren’t effective enough at any stage to really threaten. New York eased home 77-59, and their lead was never lower than seven points throughout the second half.
It must be horribly frustrating for Storm head coach Brian Agler. Throughout last season and on into this one, his team are vastly different on the road compared to the performances they produce at home in Key Arena. Shooting, passing, moving – it all seems to fall apart. The most apparent issue last year raised its ugly head yet again: turnovers. 25 in the game is absolutely horrific, but it’s a symptom of the problems as much as it is the problem. The stagnant offense leads to forced or desperate passes, which obviously have a far smaller chance of reaching the player they’re intended for. It’s painful to watch. On the bright side, they’ve already played 9 road games this year, and post-Olympics 10 of their remaining 15 contests are at the Key. If they could only play every single game there.
From a New York perspective, it was a solid performance. You have to do at least a little something to make an opponent play that badly. Pondexter (8-16 for 20 points) and Carson (7-14 for 22) were the offensive stars, showing what they can do when they find a little offensive rhythm and are knocking down their shots. It’s been an all-too-rare sight for Liberty fans this season. The state of the post corps is worrying going forward. Pierson’s been out for a while, Vaughn’s concussion looked scary, and Whiz clearly doesn’t think Cain is ready for more than spot duty. Powell did okay as the emergency 4, but you can’t seriously go into games with Braxton and Walker as your only usable true posts. Given how she’s drifted out of the rotation, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see point guard Kelly Miller waived in order to pick up an extra big. If Vaughn’s going to be out for any length of time, they have to do something.
Talking of roster moves, one important aspect to note is that the mid-season point is nearly upon us. Non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed at the mid-point, so anyone you cut after that date has to be paid in full for the rest of the season. That’s obviously a particularly significant issue for teams close to the salary cap (Seattle and New York are the most obvious, a couple of others aren’t too far behind), because they wouldn’t have room to pay off players and sign someone else. The mid-point is July 4th, but because you have to cut players in time for them to clear waivers before that date, the deadline is really July 2nd. There could well be a couple of names on the waiver wire by the end of tomorrow.
Canada beat Japan 71-63 in the final Olympic Qualifying game today, celebrating Canada Day by claiming the last spot in London. The draw was then made for the final group positions, creating a Group A of the USA, China, Angola, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Turkey; and a Group B of Australia, Russia, Brazil, Great Britain, France and Canada. Not the worst draw our GB girls could’ve received, but not far off. The basketball gods haven’t been too kind to us throughout this draw process.
Today (Sunday July 1st):
Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET
Phoenix @ Washington, 4pm ET
Seattle @ Connecticut, 5pm ET
Atlanta @ Chicago, 6pm ET
Tomorrow (Monday July 2nd):