On with the slightly more timely coverage of Saturday’s games, where Eastern clashes went exactly as the standings would suggest, and home-court advantage wasn’t enough to compensate for injuries and absences in the one Western contest.
New York Liberty 74 @ Connecticut Sun 85
- Two teams which had faced each other only two days earlier in New York clashed again. Connecticut were looking for a quick rebound, after a pretty miserable loss on Thursday night. They were still without Asjha Jones due to her achilles injury. As you’d expect, New York kept faith with the same lineup that helped win the previous game.
- It was quickly apparent that Connecticut weren’t going to perform as they had 48 hours earlier. Tina Charles, who was utterly anonymous on Thursday, was straight into the action with a little jump hook over Plenette Pierson. Kara Lawson, also terrible in the last game, immediately started knocking down shots. A couple of days to think about their performance and rest up, plus the return to their own home court, appeared to have helped the Sun enormously.
- Although while their offense was much improved, Connecticut couldn’t stop New York at the other end in the early stages. Nicole Powell and Cappie Pondexter in particular were firing away and making shots, keeping pace with Connecticut. In fact, the Liberty held a narrow lead after a high-scoring first quarter, 26-23.
- Turnovers began to hurt the Liberty, and Connecticut took more of a grip on the game as the first half progressed. For possibly the first time all season, Sun coach Mike Thibault decided to simply ride Charles as far as he could, letting her play the entire 20 minutes of the first half. She rewarded him with 9-13 shooting for 19 points by the break, largely on layups and finishes around the rim. This was a Tina Charles making a statement, showing definitively that Thursday night was merely a blip. The Sun were up 47-43 at halftime, despite allowing New York to shoot 55% from the floor to that point.
- The third quarter was where the game was decided. The Liberty did a better job containing Charles, but instead it was Kara Lawson who took over. She went into attack mode, scored ten points in the period on a variety of jumpers, and combined with Connecticut’s team defense to take a stranglehold on the game. The continuing stream of New York turnovers helped, too.
- Pondexter played less than 6 minutes in the third quarter, strangely, and Connecticut’s lead went from 7 to 14 while she was off the floor. She wasn’t having nearly enough impact on the game, but she has to be out there to have a chance.
- Despite trailing 66-50 heading into the final period, New York flirted with shooting their way back into the contest. Essence Carson threes played a big role, as did a few Sun turnovers that brought back memories of their sloppy errors on Thursday night, helping the Liberty find some easy transition points. Carson’s third triple of the quarter pulled New York within 6 with under three minutes remaining.
- But that was as close as they came. Nicole Powell was called for travelling as she tried to make a move on the low block, then picked up a technical foul for whining about it. Then the Sun defense held firm when Pierson tried to make a play, before Renee Montgomery got a friendly roll on a running jumper. That killed the game.
- Mention should be made, yet again, of the performance and remarkable development of Allison Hightower. A player expected to be barely a part of Thibault’s rotation before the start of the season, she’s become a regular starter, defends the opposition’s best guard every night, and her confidence offensively is growing in leaps and bounds. She was central to keeping Pondexter relatively quiet for much of this game, and came up with 20 points on 6-13 shooting and 3 assists. She also takes on many of the point guard responsibilities, taking the pressure off Lawson to always be the one initiating the offense. Hightower has to be a frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award in 2012.
- This may not be a game that New York would expect to win, but it’s the start of a road trip where they may need to pick up something if they want to make a playoff push. Trips to Chicago, Phoenix, LA and Seattle are all coming up, and if they don’t pick up a win or two it could be a hard road once they finally return home. That said, Chicago seem to be doing their level best to keep the playoff door wide open for the Liberty.
- In a lot of ways, this wasn’t a bad performance from New York, against the squad that’s consistently been the best team in the East so far this year. It was the 26 turnovers that killed the Liberty, and that’s what they’ll need to clean up. You simply can’t give away that many possessions.
Atlanta Dream 72 @ Indiana Fever 86
- Both teams tipped off with their expected starting fives.
- Key stat for the game: Indiana had only 13 turnovers all night, and only 4 in the first half when they established their advantage. As mentioned in the column posted earlier today, taking care of the ball is huge against Atlanta. If you don’t cough it up, their running game can’t get started. Force Atlanta into a halfcourt game, and even with Indiana’s comparative lack of size they’ll have a strong chance of coming out on top.
- Indiana are one of the teams who’ve visibly put work in during the Olympic break and come up with some new quirks to their system and rotation. We’ve seen significantly more zone defense from them in their opening games, using it as a legitimate option rather than a desperation switch or a momentary move to unsettle the opposition. Also, once again, Erlana Larkins was the first post off the bench against Atlanta. She was almost exclusively Tamika Catchings’s backup at power forward in the first half of the season, but for two straight games now she’s been brought in at center. In pure inches, that makes the Fever significantly undersized against the likes of Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza, but they make up for it with effort, work rate and instincts.
- The Fever were already up 22-12 by the end of the first quarter, largely off the back of defense and hustle. Catchings already had 8 boards.
- Things kept rolling for the Fever in the second quarter, with backups like Erin Phillips and Sasha Goodlett fitting in smoothly. Dream coach Marynell Meadors was desperate enough to actually use her bench, a group who’d barely seen the floor in Atlanta’s previous game. The likes of Yelena Leuchanka, Cathrine Kraayeveld and even Laurie Koehn provided a little scoring, before the starters Meadors actually trusts came back en masse. Indiana still held a comfortable 46-33 lead at the break.
- If the first half for Indiana was built on heart and hustle, the second half featured what we’ve seen from them offensively for much of the year: the Fever love the long ball. They were an ugly 4-16 from outside in the first half, and showed that they can create a lead even when they’re not hitting from range. 8-11 from beyond the arc in the second half illustrated that their shooting will usually come back around if you have a little patience.
- Atlanta could never quite make it a game in the second half. Angel McCoughtry did her best, returning to the Angel we all recognise in a Dream jersey who looks for her own shot first, second and third. But besides a couple of seconds midway through the third quarter, the lead was in double-digits throughout the second half. Indiana just made too many shots, and Atlanta couldn’t consistently create decent offense. McCoughtry wasn’t going to score 50 on her own, and she wasn’t going to get enough help to pull off the comeback.
- The offensive star for Indiana, especially in the second half, was Katie Douglas. She had her best shooting night of the year, going 11-16 from the floor, including 7-9 from three-point range, for 29 points. Sometimes, Katie’s just that hot. Catchings had 17 points, 9 boards and 5 assists in support, and several teammates chipped in for an impressive team effort. It’s been a very solid start to the second half of the season for Indiana, although we’ve seen them have hot streaks before. It’ll take more than two games to get anyone overly excited.
- This was the bad version of Atlanta, the version they can slip into when games don’t start well and they forget how they need to play. McCoughtry finished 8-19 for 22 points, but the starting frontcourt of Lyttle and de Souza combined to go 2-8 for just 6 points and 9 boards. And that’s with Indiana playing a true center for less than 18 minutes of the game. It was an excellent defensive effort by the Fever, moving and rotating well, but Atlanta have to remember that they’re a more productive team when they utilise all their weapons, rather than becoming McCoughtry and the Angelettes.
Los Angeles Sparks 82 @ Seattle Storm 71
- Bad news before the tip for Seattle, with Sue Bird’s stomach flu leaving her on the sidelines. With Lauren Jackson still in Australia and Ann Wauters nursing her achilles injury, this one looked a tough proposition for Seattle before the game even began. They’d already lost to LA four times this year.
- The Sparks had golden girl Candace Parker back from London, and both Ebony Hoffman and Nicky Anosike had recovered from their injuries to add post depth off the bench. They also signed rookie point guard Dawn Evans earlier this week as an extra perimeter option.
- Seattle started the game remarkably well, with Svetlana Abrosimova taking Bird’s place in the starting lineup. There was a quick pace to the game, but while that would typically suit LA more than the Storm, Seattle were the ones turning it into points. Tanisha Wright had a solid start looking to score more aggressively than usual, Shekinna Stricklen made a couple of shots off the bench, and there was less of the stagnant feel to Seattle’s offense that we’re often forced to watch (even when Bird’s in the lineup). Unfortunately for Seattle, despite the bright start, LA were scoring well enough to hang around and trailed only 22-20 at the end of the first quarter.
- Much of the second quarter was similar, with Seattle showing a little rhythm offensively, but failing to hold on to a lead. Their lack of depth was highlighted when Camille Little picked up her third foul early in the period, sending her to the bench. Briefly, the Storm used 5’10” Alysha Clark as a de facto center in a insanely small lineup, because they’d run out of alternatives. Starting center Ewelina Kobryn wasn’t having a great night, but Storm coach Brian Agler really didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
- He also had the same problem with LA that’s reared its head every time Seattle have run into the Sparks this year: Kristi Toliver. If she could play every game for the rest of her career against the Storm, Toliver would be regarded as the best player on the planet. Yet again while facing the Storm, she couldn’t miss. And to her credit, she didn’t start forcing up shots just because a few had already fallen in. She made the shots that were there for her within the offense, and made the right pass when that was the play to make. The Toliver of old probably would’ve shot at least 15 times in the first half; this version was 6-7 for 16 points at the break.
- Parker, ludicrously, was just 1-4 for 2 points at halftime. Against a team this shorthanded in the post, she should’ve been on the low block demanding the ball practically every time down the floor. Instead, we got a steady diet of the Candace who likes to drift around the three-point line, or occasionally bring the ball up the floor herself. As a result, she was a complete non-factor in the first half, but thanks to Toliver and Alana Beard, LA led 40-38 anyway.
- The Sparks stepped up a gear in the third quarter. Little almost immediately picked up her fourth foul, which made things more difficult for Seattle inside, while Alana Beard’s ball-pressure on the perimeter began to have a seriously damaging effect on the Storm’s offense. Without Bird, they were looking to Wright, Abrosimova and Katie Smith to set things up, and they were struggling. Seattle repeatedly either turned the ball over, or ran the shot clock down so far that they were forcing up desperation efforts to beat the buzzer. Meanwhile LA still had Beard and Toliver in rhythm, and finally got a little offense from Parker. They were up by 12 at the end of the third.
- Tanisha Wright was the only player scoring for Seattle in the third quarter, and she so impressed the home scoreboard operator that she got four points for her bucket to end the period. The score was wrong for virtually the entire fourth quarter both on the in-arena scoreboard and the LiveAccess display. But it helped add a little tension when Seattle made a mini-run.
- It was a valiant effort from the Storm in the fourth, but they just didn’t have the horses. Tina Thompson had been shut down after a brief stint in the first half (her knee is still far from 100%), so the rotation was essentially down to 7, and maybe two-and-a-half of them were posts. On the bright side for Seattle, Wright was 9-15 for 21 points in one of her best offensive outings of the year, and rookie Shekinna Stricklen finished 6-12 for 16 points and 5 boards. At this point, Seattle are very unlikely to move up or down in the standings before the end of the regular season. They may have 13 games left to play, but they’re almost certainly finishing fourth in the West. So the remaining games are about getting healthy, developing their less experienced players, and building some chemistry. All of which, of course, will become much easier when Bird returns and Jackson arrives.
- It was a nice re-start to the season for LA, although perhaps not the kind of performance they can expect to duplicate every night. The backcourt of Beard and Toliver carried them through much of the game, finishing a combined 16-21 for 40 points. Parker should be offering more than 4-11 for 11 points against a weak front line, but rookie Nneka Ogwumike’s 17 points and 10 boards helped to compensate. The bench, despite the return of Hoffman and Anosike, still looks poor. This is yet another WNBA team that’s heavily reliant on its starters and treats any bench production as a useful bonus.
New York’s Plenette Pierson and Connecticut’s Kara Lawson have both signed contract extensions with their respective teams in recent days. Lawson’s was for three more years, while the New York release declined to mention a length. Both teams will be happy to have key players tied up into the future (and you can safely assume both signed for the WNBA maximum salary, so the players and their agents will be happy as well).
Lauren Jackson tweeted that she’s flying back to Seattle ‘tonight’ (it was already Monday morning in Australia when she said that), so Storm fans can expect to see their favourite Aussie in uniform sometime soon. Tuesday’s game against Minnesota may well come too soon, but Thursday against Indiana certainly could be possible.
Sunday August 19th (today):
Chicago @ Washington, 4pm ET
San Antonio @ Phoenix, 6pm ET
Tulsa @ Minnesota, 7pm ET
Monday August 20th (tomorrow)