The solitary WNBA game last night featured the injury-riddled (and/or tanking) Phoenix Mercury, and the suddenly streaking San Antonio Silver Stars. The ever-useless pre-game graphics teased us with the possibility that Candice Dupree might be returning for Phoenix, but ultimately it was the same bunch that have been scrapping their way through recent games (sans Andrea Riley, who was finally cut for not being worth the paycheck). San Antonio, winners of five of their last six games – including inflicting Minnesota’s second loss of the season on Sunday – had the same ten players available that have produced their impressive recent performances.
The very first possession of the game was exactly like what we saw in that Silver Stars victory over the Lynx – Becky Hammon dribbled around a screen, the second defender didn’t show high enough from behind the pick, so she simply nailed the open jumper. But the rest of the first half didn’t go nearly as smoothly for San Antonio. All those perimeter jump shots that had been sailing through the net on Sunday were bouncing off the rim, and several of the passes that previously landed right in the hands of teammates were now finding the first row of seats. They just weren’t clicking.
Phoenix, on the other hand, were enjoying themselves. Or at least DeWanna Bonner certainly was. She’s been the leading light in several of the Mercury’s recent performances, forced into a starring role by the absence of so many top players. Her percentages have taken a hit as a result, but she’s stepped up to the mark and tried to lead the offense. Against San Antonio in the first quarter, she was taking over. She was hitting those long bombs for three. She was pulling up for midrange jumpers. She was driving to the rim and drawing fouls for free throws. Then she had a layup in transition to top it all off. By the end of the period, the Silver Stars only had 16 points; Bonner had 19 (of Phoenix’s 23). It was hard to see her keeping it up, but it was a hell of a start.
It was all pretty ugly in the second period. San Antonio persisted with their perimeter attack, but just couldn’t hit much; Bonner couldn’t quite carry the Mercury to the same extent. So the game stagnated. Phoenix were holding on to their lead, but in a twist to all earlier precedents, they were staying in front via defense. Statistically, the Mercury have yet again been one of the worst defensive teams in the league this season. In fact, this year they’re actually 12th out of 12 on a points-conceded-per-possession basis (last year you had to throw in the ‘apart from Tulsa’ caveat). But especially compared to the job Minnesota did on Sunday, they were closing out well on San Antonio’s shooters and making those perimeter shots difficult. They were hedging and trapping on ball-screens, rather than just fading into the paint as the Lynx had done, so unless the Silver Stars kept moving the ball, they weren’t as open as they might’ve expected. And San Antonio still don’t score many points at the rim, even against teams with interior defense as porous as Phoenix’s.
So it wasn’t until Jia Perkins and Hammon knocked down consecutive threes late in the half that San Antonio woke their home crowd up, and even then Charde Houston answered with a three of her own at the other end. Phoenix led 38-31 at the half, and Bonner was already two points away from her career-high with 25 points.
It got worse before it got better for San Antonio in the second half. Shameka Christon’s futility from outside continued, and the two shots already mentioned at the start and end of the first half were the only ones Hammon had made all night. Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes made early changes in the third quarter, hoping his team could dig themselves out of the 47-34 hole they’d dug for themselves. Sophia Young had already tried to establish some kind of interior scoring, but it was the introduction of Danielle Adams that had the real impact. Hughes had clearly instructed her to get to work in the paint, not just stand around outside and fire shots, and it gave them a real base to build from. Adams got to the rim for layups on post up moves or drives, or forced players like Krystal Thomas into fouls as the only way to stop her. Finally, San Antonio were attacking the weakness of the Mercury’s defense, rather than waiting around for their luck to change from outside.
The Mercury started to look like they were tiring late in the third quarter. Bonner had been invisible in the second half to that point, and with only 8 players in uniform it seemed like they were wearing down. The Silver Stars – still one of the poorest rebounding teams in the league – were hungrier on the glass, and the Mercury were committing silly, lazy offensive fouls that cost them cheap turnovers. Phoenix were still clinging to a 54-51 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but San Antonio had all the momentum.
After facing plenty of the Mercury’s zone defense all night, San Antonio went almost exclusively to their own 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter. Phoenix didn’t have the energy or the execution to penetrate it, so they were primarily left trying to fire in threes over the top of it. Fortunately for the Mercury, Charde Houston was having one of her hot nights, and her perimeter scoring was helping to keep them afloat.
Unfortunately for the Mercury, Becky Hammon had decided to join the party. The fourth quarter for San Antonio was all about Hammon and Adams. Houston’s shooting and Bonner’s attempts to re-enter the action weren’t enough to compete, and a Hammon three tied the game before an Adams layup in transition gave San Antonio their first lead since the opening minutes. Then Hammon made Phoenix look especially silly, spinning around to sneakily steal an inbounds pass from Avery Warley to Sammy Prahalis, and turning it into an instant layup (plus the foul). Trailing 68-61 with six minutes remaining, no one would’ve blamed the Mercury for closing up shop and going home having put in a solid performance in a losing effort.
But despite all their injuries, this Phoenix team have shown a lot of fight this year, and they didn’t quit. Houston kept firing, Bonner kept attacking, and somehow they clawed their way back into the game. With just under three minutes left, Perkins made the mistake of thinking about rotating to help defensively on Prahalis, leaving Houston momentarily open, and she drilled yet another three to give the Mercury a 73-72 lead.
However, down the stretch San Antonio just seemed capable of making that one extra play. Adams hit a three; then Hammon drove into the paint and contorted herself for a scooping layup amongst the trees (plus, yet again, the foul). Down 78-75, Bonner tried to hit from deep, but was way off, and the putback attempt from Houston missed as well.
After all the shot-making (which also included one or two wild, horribly forced shots), the final moments showed us the dunderheaded side of Charde Houston. There were still 40 seconds left when Hammon came down court with a three-point lead, but Houston played her far too tight and drew an inevitable foul call. Hammon, possibly the best clutch free-throw shooter in the game, made both. Alexis Hornbuckle kept it interesting with a ridiculous 30-foot three-pointer, that bounced hard and high off the back iron and yet somehow fell through. San Antonio ran down the clock, Christon missed, but the offensive board fell to Perkins who kicked it out to Hammon. Then Houston screwed up again, this time failing to foul quickly when her team desperately needed to stop the clock. There were only 2.4 seconds left when she finally hacked Hammon.
Hammon had spent most of the night missing from the field, but again, if you needed someone to shoot free throws for your life, she’d be high on the list. She sank both, and that sealed it. Bonner tossed in a three from the corner at the buzzer, but it made no difference to the result – San Antonio had stolen it, 82-81.
Phoenix were led, obviously, by Bonner, who finished the game 11-23 for 38 points. She couldn’t keep up the early pace, but it was still a superb performance, especially considering the lack of alternative weapons on her team. You’d think at some point San Antonio would’ve double or triple-teamed her to take the ball out of her hands. Houston was 7-17 overall, 5-11 from three-point range, for 17 points, and that was about it for the Mercury’s offense. Prahalis was in some early foul trouble, which seemed to limit her aggression offensively, and that’s pretty much the end of the list for healthy scorers in Phoenix at the moment. This team continues to fight, but the current roster is still more likely to pile up lottery balls than wins.
For San Antonio, the positive angle is that they found a way to win despite struggling most of the night. This wasn’t the smooth, team-oriented basketball we’ve seen from them in recent weeks. They couldn’t hit any shots early, and it took them out of their comfort zone. It was also an illustration of what can happen to the Silver Stars when their jumpers aren’t falling – they can end up looking a little lost. But eventually, Adams had her best game of the season so far, and it pulled them out of the mire. She finished 9-18 for 24 points, and only 6 of those attempts came from the perimeter – 8 of them were right at the rim. This team doesn’t have anyone else who can go to work in the low post, besides the very occasional effort from Sophia Young (who’d prefer to score in space or in motion). When Adams can use that big body of hers to produce more than just trailing threes, it’s a big help to their offense – especially on nights when no one can hit from outside.
The other star, unsurprisingly, was Hammon. On the night she was an ugly 6-20 from the floor, but when they needed her to step up in the fourth quarter she did just that. The Silver Stars basically put the ball in her hands and ran high pick-and-rolls with Young or Adams over and over again in the fourth quarter. Nothing else, just that old reliable option. And she made it work. She’s 35 years old now, but it’s not like you can tell on the court. She remains one of the best in the business.
By the way, blame San Antonio commentator Andrew Monaco for the title to this piece (although he said it purely because the Silver Stars kept feeding the ball in to Adams). My alternative was ‘Hammon Eggs San Antonio on to Victory’, which I decided was worse. I may need to eat better before writing these articles.
Today was, officially, the mid-point of the WNBA season (we’re through 48 days of this year’s 96-day regular season). Like everyone else, I’ll be waiting until the actual Olympic break for any midseason summary articles.
Apologies for the lack of a ‘Grading the Trade’ piece on Roneeka Hodges and Karima Christmas. It just didn’t seem worth it, somehow.
Today (Wednesday July 4th):
Tomorrow (Thursday July 5th):
Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 3pm ET
San Antonio @ Indiana, 7pm ET