WNBA Today, 07/09/2012: And on the seventh day, blowouts

After the exertions of Saturday night, Sunday was a much more relaxing quad-game day in the WNBA. The games were more spread out, and they all ended with double-digit margins. It was like the basketball gods took pity on your poor, tired WNBAlien correspondent and took it easy on him. Which isn’t to say that our coverage will be any less comprehensive than usual, of course. All four games, Bullet Point Breakdown style to get right to the point. Enjoy.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 94 @ New York Liberty 81

  • New York were still without Plenette Pierson and Kia Vaughn, leaving them down to the bare bones in the post. On the bright side, Sophia Young is pretty small herself for a power forward, so San Antonio are one opponent where playing Nicole Powell at the 4 doesn’t leave you horribly undersized.
  • The Liberty tried to force the ball down to Kara Braxton on early possessions, but Jayne Appel did a decent job of making things difficult for her, and Braxton lasted only three minutes before being subbed out by John Whisenant. While it’s primarily her brain and the dumb mistakes she makes that are frustrating about Braxton, her physical fitness limits the number of minutes she can play even when she’s mentally engaged.
  • Of course, with Vaughn and Pierson out, Whiz doesn’t have many options, and rookie Kelley Cain got abused by Danielle Adams on multiple possessions after she replaced Braxton. The kid’s doing her best, but there are reasons why Whiz barely used her until injuries forced his hand.
  • Outside of a very occasional feed into their posts, the vast majority of New York’s offense in the first half came from perimeter jumpers. Fortunately, Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson were both shooting well, and both are well capable of creating their own opportunities when necessary. Without much of a post presence left, the Liberty’s in-to-out offense has dried up, which leaves a lot of it being generated by individuals in isolation. Liberty shot-making was keeping them right in the game, but San Antonio were moving the ball noticeably better.
  • And good ball movement hurts this Liberty defense. So much of their defensive system relies on help coming across from the weak side, but an unselfish team can move the ball away from that help to the open shooter before the defense can recover. So even while shooting the lights out from the perimeter, New York were giving it all back at the other end.
  • After Carson, Pondexter, Powell and Leilani Mitchell had shot them into a lead early in the second quarter, New York closed the first half horribly. Cheap turnovers and missed layups let San Antonio run off a string of unanswered points. Mitchell topped it off with a lazy inbounds pass in the final seconds that Jia Perkins stole and tossed in for a 51-42 halftime lead.
  • The interior injury situation got even worse for New York early in the second half, as DeMya Walker’s left knee finally gave out barely two minutes into the third quarter. She’d clearly been playing hurt, fighting through the pain for a team that needed her on the floor, and her body simply couldn’t take it any more. Powell played power forward for the remaining 18 minutes of the game.
  • New York shot an insane 8-10 from three-point range in the first half (San Antonio’s 8-16 was pretty good too), and while they couldn’t quite keep up that pace, Pondexter and Carson tried to carry the offense the rest of the way. Both are impressive, athletic scorers, and San Antonio had trouble containing them
  • However, in the end, it simply felt like San Antonio had more weapons in their arsenal, and more directions to attack from. Not to mention more balance and structure to their offense (you know, something beyond just asking Cappie or Essence to go score). The Liberty were right in the game until midway through the fourth quarter, when the offensive effectiveness of Young, Perkins and Becky Hammon just became too much. A few misses from the Liberty gunners, a couple of breakouts and drilled jumpshots for the San Antonio scorers, and suddenly a four-point game was double-digits and virtually over. New York didn’t have the energy or the manpower to stage a comeback.
  • As ever, Hammon running the high pick-and-roll was San Antonio’s play of choice down the stretch. They have a series of variations they can go to out of it, including what’s happening away from Hammon and the screener, but that’s still the core play. It’s fascinating how, for all the plays and designs that coaches go through, a huge number of pro teams come back to that play when they need a score late in games.
  • Perhaps the most telling stat in this contest was that San Antonio finished with 26 assists on 38 baskets, whereas New York had only 14 on 30. As much as anything, the Silver Stars’ ball movement and teamwork beat the Liberty, who were over-reliant on individualised scoring. It’s often been an issue for Whisenant’s Liberty, but with the post corps so depleted it’s even more apparent.
  • Pondexter (7-19 for 23 points) and Carson (11-19 for 25) were putting on a show at times offensively, but San Antonio just had too much for them.
  • The Silver Stars had a ‘Big Three’ on this occasion of Hammon (8-14 for 23), Young (9-12 for 21) and Perkins (10-17 for 24). New York’s perimeter defense left a lot to be desired on several occasions, failing to challenge or follow the guards when they came around screens, leaving open shots available. A lot of that comes down to a lack of energy and mobility for the remaining posts, who couldn’t move out in time to contest the shots. The Liberty are yet another team desperate for the break to arrive.
  • San Antonio are one of the few who’d happily keep playing. In the middle of a road trip, this was their seventh consecutive win, and they’re absolutely flying right now. Also, Hammon’s the only player they’ll lose over the break (playing for Russia in London) so they’re one of the better positioned teams to practice or rest as they choose over the next month. The sun’s shining in San Antonio these days (metaphorically, obviously – they already get more than their fair share of sun in Texas).

 

Washington Mystics 62 @ Tulsa Shock 78

  • The Griner Bowl! Okay, with the way certain other teams have been playing this year, it’s no longer a nailed-on certainty that these will be the top two seeds when the 2013 draft lottery takes place, but it’s still a pretty strong bet. Heading into this game, they were dead last in their respective conferences, with a combined 5 wins and 24 losses. It’s probably fair to say that not many people tuned in to watch who aren’t fans of one team or the other.
  • Starting lineups were the same as in the last games these teams played.
  • The first half was, well, pretty much garbage. Anyone who did tune in despite not being a fan, probably didn’t last long. Tulsa play hard, but still don’t have an awful lot of talent, and you can tell that Gary Kloppenburg has spent most of his time working on their defense. Washington continue to be a walking disaster, and could barely string two passes together without turning the ball over. If Trudi Lacey wasn’t both the GM and the head coach of this team, the GM might well have fired the coach by now. Unless said GM was simply hoping to maximise her lottery chances.
  • The Mystics got the turnovers somewhat under control in the second half, and star forward Crystal Langhorne started to make more of an impression, but it was still ugly. With the small but passionate home crowd behind them, the Shock seemed to have more energy for the fight, and started to take control in the closing minutes of the third quarter.
  • A Riquna Williams three pushed Tulsa’s lead into double-digits with the first score of the fourth, and the advantage was never below 10 for the rest of the game.
  • The general frustration and misery surrounding the Mystics came through with about 8 minutes left in the game, when Monique Currie crashed into Glory Johnson to prevent a breakaway layup. It was rightfully called a flagrant foul, and Currie was perhaps a little lucky not to be thrown out. Fortunately, Johnson came away with nothing worse than a slightly sprained wrist.
  • This might be the most comfortable win Shock fans have ever experienced. And I say that despite clear memories of them blowing out the Los Angeles Sparks less than two weeks ago. The Mystics look like they’ve had enough. The moves GM Lacey made in the offseason still seem defensible, considering the calibre of players that were probably willing to play for the franchise. But the job Coach Lacey is doing isn’t up to much. A change over the Olympic break would be welcomed by many – including both fans and players, by the looks of things – but it also wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them let Lacey finish the season. The extra lottery balls she could deliver might be viewed as more valuable than the uptick in atmosphere a new head coach would offer.
  • The crazy thing is that Tulsa – still one of the poorer teams this league has seen in recent times – won this game without even playing particularly well. Their little guards – Temeka Johnson, Ivory Latta, Riquna Williams on her hot days – still provide most of the offense, with Glory Johnson doing her best to provide the inside presence that otherwise is lacking for the Shock. It’s nice to see them pick up their third win of the year, but they’re still a ways off being good. The Mystics are just that bad.

 

Atlanta Dream 63 @ Los Angeles Sparks 79

  • Once again, Atlanta were without star scorer Angel McCoughtry, who didn’t even make the trip to LA. It looks like she might’ve shut herself down for the remainder of the first half in order to rest her knee for the Olympics.
  • Atlanta’s double-overtime game in Phoenix the night before ended sometime approaching 10pm local time. They took a bus from there to LA, for a game that started at 5.30pm in the same time zone. The Sparks were playing the second half of a back-to-back as well, but both games had been in their own arena (and they’d blown out the Storm the night before). It’s safe to say that LA were probably a little better rested heading into this one.
  • Even early on, when they were still right in the game, Atlanta’s help defense looked a step slow. Too often, someone would get beaten by their man, look behind expecting help to slide over, and the extra defender just couldn’t get there.
  • Fortunately for Atlanta, Kristi Toliver was nowhere near as hot as she had been in LA’s previous couple of games. If she’d been knocking down her perimeter jumpers, the Dream probably would’ve trailed by 20 by halftime.
  • One Atlanta player had even more right to be tired than the rest. Sancho Lyttle has flown back and forth over the Atlantic this week to represent Spain, then played over 42 minutes and took 27 shots in the 50-minute win over the Mercury on Saturday night. Nonetheless, Atlanta played far better with her on the floor in the first half. Many of us have criticised her for taking too many jump shots these days, taking her away from the rim and lowering the percentage success rate. But without McCoughtry, at least Lyttle gives them someone who wants to take shots, some impetus to their offense. Plus that jumper works pretty well at times, and she remains their best interior defender by some distance. The Dream essentially ran LA even for the 12 minutes Lyttle played in the first half – unfortunately, the other 8 minutes didn’t go so well and they trailed 44-36 at the break.
  • Atlanta hung around within about 10 points for much of the third quarter, but fatigue and a lack of scoring options compared to LA caught up with them in the end. Tiffany Hayes is developing as an extra scorer on the wing, and Aneika Henry can finish if you hand her the ball near the rim, but with Lyttle tiring and Lindsey Harding not offering a great deal, the Dream didn’t have enough. Armintie Price was once again utterly invisible on offense, as she has been in several recent games. She may well not be fully healthy (if anyone is at this stage).
  • For LA, while the usual suspects of Toliver and Candace Parker provided much of the offense, they also got some help for once. Nneka Ogwumike did her typical job cleaning up around the rim, but DeLisha Milton-Jones, Marissa Coleman and Jantel Lavender had decent outings as well. Thinking beyond this game, LA will need performances from their role players to win consistently, so that was good to see for them.
  • While she didn’t face a great deal of resistance, it was also nice to see Toliver keep playing and working despite her shots bouncing out in the early stages. She finished the game only 6-18, but still had 19 points and 6 assists, and played the entire 40 minutes. While the point guard position has been a dual job between Toliver and Alana Beard since Sharnee Zoll blew out her knee, the Sparks have increasingly moved Toliver off the ball. She looks more comfortable there, and prone to fewer errors. But once again, we’ve seen these passages of play from her before. Now keep it up for more than a couple of weeks at a time, Kristi.
  • This was a game too far for Atlanta without McCoughtry. Smack in the middle of a road trip, after a long game the night before, they probably would’ve conceded before the tip-off and rested up for Wednesday in Seattle if that was allowed. For a team that wants to rely on active defense and quick offense, it’s especially hard to play shorthanded and tired. They never stood much of a chance.

 

Phoenix Mercury 68 @ Seattle Storm 83

  • There was good news and bad news for Seattle on the injury front. Ann Wauters was still out due to her achilles, and after the nasty twist to her knee in LA the night before, so was Tina Thompson. But on the bright side, Sue Bird was healthy enough to play after sitting out the LA game with a hip flexor injury.
  • For Phoenix, it was back to the same group – Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi still out, and Candice Dupree back on the sidelines after playing a few minutes the night before in her comeback from a knee injury. Considering she didn’t play in the second half (or overtime) of that game, and was skipping the clash with the Storm, the return hadn’t gone well.
  • Ewelina Kobryn, one of several players taking part who wasn’t fully healthy, moved into the starting lineup for Seattle to replace Thompson (who had herself replaced Wauters).
  • It was Sue Bird Bobblehead Night in Key Arena, and the opening Storm possession offered a taste of how Bird intended to celebrate. She came off a screen, which created acres of separation from Mercury rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis, and drilled home a three.
  • Phoenix were the other team involved in that double-overtime game the night before, and they didn’t even get to walk away with the emotional boost of eventually winning the game as Atlanta did. Considering the Mercury have been pretty bad for long stretches in recent weeks (in large part because they’re without several key players), it was hard to put all their poor play down to fatigue. But they were awful for most of this game. At least some of that could be put down to simple physical exhaustion.
  • The Mercury didn’t seem to be running much on offense. It mostly appeared to be a case of whoever ended up with the ball tossing up a shot with the mild hope that it might fall in. DeWanna Bonner occasionally threw in a drive to break the monotony, but that was about it.
  • At the other end, Seattle scored the opening 12 points of the game – Bird had 10 of them after adding a couple of pullups and another three – and led by double digits for the rest of the night. It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that makes it sound, but it wasn’t far off.
  • Bird was ridiculous in the first half. Making a mockery of the fact that she nearly missed the game, she knocked down shot after shot, and Phoenix couldn’t do a thing about it. In fact, at times you wondered if they were even trying to do anything about it. The Mercury’s defense on her off screens was deplorable, repeatedly just watching Prahalis get picked off, and not showing or rotating or doing anything to contest Bird’s shots while Sammy was blocked. Bird was wide open for most of her attempts, although knocking down all of her first nine efforts was still very impressive.
  • Thanks to their injuries, Seattle had to use some unlikely lineups (so it was fortunate that they’d burst out to such a great start, and that their opponents were Phoenix). Both Katie Smith and Shekinna Stricklen were used as pseudo-power forwards at times, and Alysha Clark was receiving more minutes than she ever had before in a WNBA game. Phoenix just weren’t good enough – or big enough – to capitalise, and Bird’s shooting was more than enough to beat them.
  • Bird had 26 at halftime, narrowly trailing Phoenix’s 28. Seattle had 45 as a team.
  • Very, very briefly at the start of the second half, you wondered if it might become a game again. The Mercury came out, actually ran a couple of discernable plays, and scored the first six points of the third quarter through Charde Houston, Bonner and Prahalis. But Camille Little scored a pretty layup after faking Bonner out her shoes; Bonner jacked a three that was way short; Houston missed a turnaround by miles; and a Bird look-away feed from halfcourt led Kobryn in for a transition layup. The natural order from the first half had been quickly restored.
  • The only worry Seattle had in the second half was foul trouble. With only eight players available, and only two of them actual posts, Brian Agler didn’t have many options when players like Kobryn, Smith, Stricklen and Little started amassing fouls. It left some of us checking the rule book to see what happens if a team drops below 5 healthy, non-fouled out players. For the record, no, they don’t play with four – the final fouled-out player stays on the court, and any personal foul from that point on also becomes a technical.
  • Fortunately it never reached that stage, although it would’ve been nice if the officials had let the game flow a little more in the second half. Both teams clearly would’ve been happy to call it a night before even starting the fourth quarter, and all the whistles did was prolong the agony for their aching bodies.
  • It was Bird’s night for Seattle. She didn’t need to do much in the second half, finishing the game 10-11 for 31 points (two short of her career high). Considering they were the only posts available, and neither is fully healthy, Little (5-12 for 18 points, 9 boards) and Kobryn (4-10 for 10 and 6) also have to be commended for their efforts. The first half of the season has been a struggle for Seattle, and there won’t be many teams happier to see the Olympics arrive, but I remember saying before the season began that they just needed to reach the break at around .500 and they could push on in the second half. This win took them to 8-9, with two games to go. Considering how hard it’s been to reach this point, Agler will probably settle for that.
  • This was an ugly performance from Phoenix, with all their injuries and the long game against Atlanta finally building up and overwhelming them. Bonner was their leading scorer with just 12 points, and she only made two baskets from the field all night. The mild positives were seeing rookie post Avery Warley go to work on the glass again (13 boards), and a little cameo from recent pickup Lynetta Kizer in the fourth quarter (although Seattle were begging for the final buzzer by that stage). Besides that, the Mercury would happily burn the tape of this one.

 

Notes

Minnesota have lost yet another post, with starting power forward Rebekkah Brunson ruled out until the break due to the left calf strain that sidelined her late in the Lynx’s loss to Connecticut on Saturday. They’ve signed rookie forward Julie Wojta to a seven-day deal via a hardship exception to help fill the gap. Fortunately, both of Minnesota’s remaining games before the Olympics are against Tulsa, who don’t have the personnel to attack them in the low-post. But they’ll still have to survive with Amber Harris, Maya Moore and Wojta logging minutes at power forward alongside Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Brunson, Devereaux Peters and Jessica Adair are all expected to return after the break.

Don’t forget that all of tomorrow’s games tip off ridiculously early, as they’re all Camp Day games packed with screaming kids. Four games, and they’ll all be over before most Americans have left work for the day.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Monday July 9th):

None

—–

Tomorrow (Tuesday July 10th):

Connecticut @ Washington, 11.30am ET

New York @ Indiana, 12pm ET

Minnesota @ Tulsa, 12.30pm ET

Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 3.30pm ET

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