Yes, with barely time to catch our breath after all the Olympic excitement, the WNBA got back underway last night. Some still seemed to be suffering from an Olympic hangover; some looked rested and rejuvenated; some picked up right where they left off; and one quite literally didn’t even bother to show up. Regardless, WNBAlien is back for the stretch run of the regular season, before we hit the games that really matter in September. Three games last night, and we welcome everyone back with a Bullet Point Breakdown of all of them. Enjoy.
- As much as anyone in the league, the Liberty welcomed the Olympic break. Without a single player heading to London, they had time to heal from a variety of injuries and try to rebuild some of the chemistry that had been sorely lacking in the first half. Plenette Pierson was back in the starting lineup after recovering from her left calf/knee injury. Kia Vaughn and DeMya Walker, who both suffered with injury issues in July, looked healthier as well.
- Connecticut, on the other hand, were one of the few teams who would’ve prefered if the season had kept on rolling. With a 15-4 record from the first half, their only fear coming back was that the momentum they’d built would’ve been killed off by the break. Due to a strained achilles, they also had to play without one of their gold medallists, as Asjha Jones was sidelined. Jones is only expected to miss a week or two, and was replaced by backup Mistie Mims.
- New York made an extra unforced change, promoting Nicole Powell back into the starting lineup over Essence Carson. Possibly an attempt to recapture last season’s form by reinstituting something close to last season’s rotation.
- It wasn’t exactly a glorious first half to welcome the world back to WNBA basketball. Still, Pierson clearly made a difference for New York. Her hustle, her energy, her interior presence and her basic leadership gives this team something they’d been missing late in the first half of the season. Of course, the Liberty were pretty terrible even in the games she played this year, so it wasn’t all about her. At times it was noticeable that the Liberty had been together as a group for the last couple of weeks, while Connecticut had been without Jones and Tina Charles – New York were a little more cohesive.
- That cohesion showed up in the turnover column. New York were avoiding them, while Connecticut made unnecessary errors and coughed up the ball.
- Still, the Liberty didn’t convert it into much of a lead. Allison Hightower was unusually productive offensively, while Mims was making her typical hustle plays. That kept the Sun in touch, and they trailed only 39-35 at halftime. It took a Cappie Pondexter three in traffic at the buzzer to even manage that.
- Tina Charles played less than 12 minutes in the first half, and went 0-3 from the floor for zero points and six rebounds. New York were doing a solid job defending her, but you’d barely noticed she was even out there. Olympic fatigue seemed to be playing a factor.
- Unlike Connecticut’s typical modus operandi of coming out of the halftime break strong and fixing their issues from the first half, the Sun were still sleepwalking to start the third quarter. Charles was still a non-factor, and without her or Jones to focus around, the Sun couldn’t get anything going. Behind Pierson in the paint and a combination of Pondexter, Essence Carson and Leilani Mitchell on the perimeter, New York took control.
- New York’s post rotation was back to the group that started the season looking like they could be solid and dependable. Pierson, Kia Vaughn, DeMya Walker and Kara Braxton aren’t superstars, but if all four are healthy then Liberty coach John Whisenant can rotate through his options without too much drop-off. Vaughn and Pierson in particular were keeping Charles desperately quiet.
- Charles started to drift further and further away from the basket, just to get a touch of the ball. She finally made her first basket late in the third quarter with a mid-range jumper. She’d virtually quit on trying to score inside.
- New York were up 59-48 by the end of the third, and led by double-digits the rest of the way. Without Jones or anything resembling the real Tina Charles, they didn’t have it in them to mount any kind of comeback.
- This was just how New York would’ve wanted to re-start their season. As their announcers repeatedly mentioned, they came in last night only 2.5 games outside the playoff spots, despite their atrocious first half of the year (the announcers skipped the ‘atrocious’ part). It’s up to them to make this a race, by hunting down the likes of Chicago or Atlanta, and this is how they’ll do it. They stepped up their game defensively, restricting the Sun inside and forcing turnovers on the perimeter. Then with healthier post players, the inside-out game was far more effective offensively, with Pondexter not having to carry quite the same load.
- Cappie still took 23 shots, hitting 9, for 24 points, 5 assists and 5 steals. Mitchell was a useful 3-3 from beyond the arc – the Liberty always look far better when she’s hitting from outside. Pierson finished 8-14 for 16 points and 4 boards to lead the supporting cast, while none of the post players had to play more than 27 minutes. It’ll benefit the Liberty significantly if they can maintain that stat going forward.
- Connecticut will put this one down to an Olympic hangover, and try to forget it. Charles finished 1-7 for 4 points and 12 boards, barely making any kind of impact. If she needs a rest after London, Sun coach Mike Thibault might have to think about letting her take a couple of games off alongside Jones.
- The only potential positive for Connecticut was Renee Montgomery, who ended the game 7-15 for 16 points. She had a miserable first half of the year after being relegated to the bench, and it’d give the Sun a useful shot in the arm if she could rediscover her form over the remaining weeks of the regular season. They used her to try to find some offense in this game, and for a while it almost worked. Unfortunately, as her zero assists attest, bringing her in sometimes stalls the ball movement and teamwork in the Sun offense because she’s always looking to score. It’s a difficult balance to find, both for Montgomery and Thibault.
- Same old, same old for Washington, despite their 4-14 start to the season. No trades or signings, no new coach, and they were essentially healthy before the break so nothing much to recover from. On the bright side, as with the Liberty, there weren’t any Mystics in London, so the entire squad had been around to practice as a unit. Whether a few weeks practice with Trudi Lacey is a good thing or not, you can draw your own conclusions.
- Indiana had an uneven first half to the year, but still sat solidly in second place in the East when we went on hiatus. Tamika Catchings had made her way back from Blighty with her gold medal and was in the lineup as usual, in the same ‘small’ starting group we became accustomed to over the first half.
- It was a messy, sloppy opening to the game, especially from Indiana. They trailed 13-6 after less than five minutes, when head coach Lin Dunn brought in Erlana Larkins to replace starting center Tammy Sutton-Brown. Larkins has been Catchings’s backup at the 4 for most of the season, and is significantly undersized to play center, but she brings energy, hustle and rebounding that Dunn can’t get from her true 5s. And it’s not like Michelle Snow was going to take much advantage in the paint.
- Larkins immediately went to work on the glass, while Indiana started to shoot themselves back into the game. As we saw in the first half of the year, this Fever squad has become a team heavily dependent on three-point shooting. They take a lot of them. Briann January and Erin Phillips both started to rain in shots from outside in the first quarter, and Katie Douglas joined the party in the second.
- Indiana had to play some zone defensively to cover up their lack of size, with Sasha Goodlett seeing some minutes when Larkins needed a break, but they largely got away with it. The Fever only led 40-38 at halftime, but it already felt like they’d retaken control of the game.
- In the third quarter, Indiana started to make it tell on the scoreboard. Their defense inside, primarily led by Catchings, had shut down Crystal Langhorne. The Mystics had managed to compete through balance in the first half, finding a little scoring from a variety of sources, but that dried up in the third. At the other end, the Fever were finally more aggressive in creating points at the rim rather than firing endless threes. They were hardly lighting it up, but with Washington barely registering even an occasional point, it was enough. Indiana led 60-47 to close the third quarter, and the game was already virtually over.
- As with the game in New York, the gap was never in single-digits in the fourth quarter, and Indiana coasted home for a comfortable win.
- It’s going to be interesting to see if this game was the first in conscious moves from the Fever for the second half of the season, or if Dunn was simply rolling with what worked on a particular night. Sutton-Brown played less than 11 minutes, while her regular backup Jessica Davenport featured for less than 4 minutes until garbage time at the end. Instead, Larkins and Goodlett were the options inside with Catchings, providing extra quickness and energy. Larkins finished 4-6 for 16 points, 7 boards and 3 steals, while Goodlett was 3-4 for 7 points and 2 rebounds. Against some teams they’ll need the size and defense of true centers, but it’s a nice option for Dunn to have in her armory.
- It was more of the same from the Mystics, unsurprisingly. Flatter to deceive for a while, then get comfortably turned over by a more organised, more talented team. As usual, Lacey’s rotations made little sense, but in fairness she was scrambling for anything that might work in the second half. Their schedule doesn’t get any easier, but maybe that’s a good thing – it’s slightly less embarrassing to lose repeatedly to decent teams rather than terrible ones.
- Surgeries on left knee issues during the break took Candice Dupree and Charde Houston off the floor for the Mercury. The timeframes offered when the procedures took place would have both returning before the end of the season, but given how Phoenix have approached most of this year, it’ll be a surprise to see either in a Mercury uniform again before 2013.
- Diana Taurasi was also missing last night, for essentially no reason beyond ‘she might help Phoenix win’. As she illustrated in London, Taurasi’s healthy enough to play basketball, but the Mercury don’t really want her to in 2012. The box score listed her left hip flexor as the reason behind her absence; ‘jet lag’ or ‘tanking’ both would’ve been more accurate.
- Unlike Taurasi, Sue Bird had somehow managed to find a flight back from London in time to take the floor for Seattle. However, Lauren Jackson is still in Australia being celebrated for her bronze medal, and won’t join the team until next week. Ann Wauters was also still missing due to the achilles injury she was struggling with before the Olympics, leaving Ewelina Kobryn to start in her place. Tina Thompson had used the break to recover from her knee injury, but was clearly still restricted by it and playing limited minutes.
- The game shared a lot of characteristics with the two we’d already seen earlier in the evening. The home team – Seattle, in this case – played poorly enough to allow the visitor to hang around in the first half. Then finally took control in the third quarter. Then, for the third time in three games, the gap was double-digits throughout the final period. This was not a night of nailbiters.
- The early stages of the game featured Camille Little showing off her subtle scoring skills for Seattle, while rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis took on most of the offensive burden for the Mercury.
- Then in the second quarter, Seattle apparently forgot how to attack a basic 2-3 zone. With essentially a 7-player rotation, 4 of them posts, Phoenix had little choice but to use a bunch of bigs simultaneously and hope they could survive on the wings of the zone. Instead of actually moving the ball – or themselves – Seattle grew desperately stagnant offensively and fired up shots over the top. They’re not a good enough shooting team to do that effectively. Storm head coach Brian Agler called two timeouts in quick succession midway through the second period, and finally jerked his team out the slumber that had led to a 24-19 deficit.
- With the energy and activity from players like Shekinna Stricklen and even Thompson, Seattle finally got a grip on the game and led 34-29 at halftime. Fortunately for them, Phoenix’s offense sans Taurasi, Taylor, Dupree and Houston, is pretty horrible. It largely consists of endless forced jumpers, mostly from Prahalis and DeWanna Bonner. The latter was painfully cold all night, which left Phoenix struggling for points.
- The scariest moment of the game for Storm fans came at halftime, because Sue Bird failed to emerge from the locker room for the second half. Eventually it was revealed that nothing worse than the stomach flu was keeping her out, which was a blessed relief considering all the injuries this year. And it’s not like Seattle needed her to take control of this game.
- It still wasn’t particularly pretty, but the Storm gradually pulled away in the third. Supporting players like Stricklen, Kobryn, Alysha Clark and Svetlana Abrosimova played their parts, and what’s left of the Mercury couldn’t keep up.
- Not for the first time, the disappointing part for Phoenix was that they got beaten at their own game. Seattle were the stronger team in transition in the third quarter, finding some cheap, quick points to take over the game. With Jackson, Wauters and then Bird missing for Seattle, it’s not like they were much deeper than the Mercury for this game, but there was more belief and more energy from the Storm. Plus, with the way the respective teams have approached this season, maybe the Seattle players simply see more interest in winning games from their franchise than the Mercury feel from theirs.
- Prahalis finished 7-19 for 15 points and 3 assists. The experience she’s gaining this season could prove invaluable, although her role in a team with vastly better teammates next year could be very different from the one she’s currently being asked to play. Bonner was 3-18 for 7 points in a night she’ll hope to forget. There was another nice little offensive cameo from Lynetta Kizer in garbage time, but that was about it for Mercury highlights.
- Little led the scoring for Seattle, finishing 7-12 for 17 points and 6 boards. The Storm never exactly found their flow, but you don’t often see a Seattle bench combine to shoot 14-31 for 32 points, and that was more than enough to hold off the Mercury. Even when Jackson returns, you wonder if Agler might change his natural habits a little and keep utilising this depth. Maybe he’s inadvertently proven to himself that you don’t actually have to ride aging starters into the ground to win basketball games.
- For what it’s worth, this win sealed the season series over Phoenix for Seattle, making an improbable Mercury run to make the playoffs even less likely (as the Storm now hold the tiebreaker). But it seems safe to say that Phoenix gave up on any interest in making the postseason quite some time ago.
On the returning player front, Jackson and Liz Cambage are both still in Australia. As mentioned above, Jackson is expected back sometime next week, while Cambage will reportedly make her season debut against Los Angeles on August 30th. LA’s own Jenna O’Hea is also still in Australia, and one reporter found a ‘WNBA spokesman’ to say she’d miss four or five games. The Sparks themselves have still never confirmed if they expected O’Hea to play at all this season, so it’s wait and see on her. Erika de Souza is with Atlanta, and will presumably make her first appearance of the season tonight in Chicago. Iziane Castro Marques, a Brazilian who never even appeared in the Olympics after being cut due to breaking team rules, remains an unrestricted free agent. Diana Taurasi probably won’t play for the rest of the season, and we’ll see whether the Mercury even bother to come up with an excuse as to why.
On the injury front, Epiphanny Prince will hopefully make her return for the Sky tonight; Tangela Smith is reportedly back and available for San Antonio; Nicky Anosike should be back for LA tomorrow (no news yet on Ebony Hoffman); Angel McCoughtry will presumably start playing for Atlanta again after looking healthy in the Olympics; and the post trio of Rebekkah Brunson, Devereaux Peters and Jessica Adair are all reportedly healthy and ready to return for the Minnesota Lynx (which means Julie Wojta is gone, because the hardship exception is no longer available to Minnesota).
Minor signing news over the break: Connecticut cut rookie Chay Shegog and signed veteran post Jessica Moore to a seven-day contract in her place. That move made extra sense when Jones was ruled out last night, meaning the emergency post might actually have to play. Thibault already has a comfort level with Moore after she played in Connecticut last season. Atlanta allowing Moore’s previous seven-day deal to expire means they won’t have to make any other cuts to make room for de Souza to join their active roster. Phoenix signed rookie guard Dymond Simon, after flirting with bringing back Kelly Miller, and Simon played briefly last night in the fourth quarter.
Friday August 17th (tonight):
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
Washington @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Atlanta @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Saturday August 18th (tomorrow):
New York @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 10pm ET