WNBA Today, 08/20/2012: OT tedium in the East, no surprises out West

It was a weird day of WNBA basketball yesterday. Usually, games which go down to the wire are exciting, however poorly played they might’ve been. The opening game on Sunday illustrated that there are occasionally exceptions. The second game was so predictable, and so uncompetitive, that it set a new record for the fewest notes I’ve ever made about any WNBA game I intend to write about. Then the final contest, between arguably the best and worst teams in the WNBA, was refreshingly entertaining until it turned into a blowout in the fourth quarter.

Sometimes, the world of the WNBA is a strange one.

 

Chicago Sky 71 @ Washington Mystics 75

  • Washington trotted out the same starting five, while Chicago once again went small with Swin Cash at power forward and Tamera Young on the wing. At some point, you wonder if Sky coach Pokey Chatman might try starting the only true power forward on her roster – Le’coe Willingham – in that power forward slot she keeps messing around with. Willingham hasn’t made the greatest start as a Sky player, but at least she’d be a straightforward fit. Maybe that’s just too logical.
  • Michelle Snow picked up two very quick fouls, not that that was ever likely to make a great deal of difference to Washington’s performance.
  • Cash struggled at times defensively, because sliding to the four against Washington means trying to guard Crystal Langhorne. And when the Mystics actually managed to run something coherent and get Langhorne the ball – which wasn’t often – she’s too polished an interior scorer for Cash to deal with.
  • Chicago eventually built something of a lead late in the first quarter, although it was more down to the lack of offense or organisation from Washington than anything impressive from the Sky. If your opponent can’t score, eventually you should move ahead even if your own offense is poor.
  • With a little zone defense from the Mystics complicating things, and Chicago’s offense deteriorating even further to its common pathetic state, Washington clambered back into the game in the second quarter. Credit the Mystics’ efforts on defense a little, but it’s hardly the first time that the Sky attack has been so horrendously stagnant and unproductive. Chicago shot 1-13 in the second quarter, scored only 6 points in the period, and trailed 28-25 after a near-unwatchable first half.
  • One note of mild interest in the first half: Ruth Riley hasn’t only lost her starting spot, she appears to have dropped to 11th in the 11-player rotation. That three-year highly-paid contract which looked pretty terrible the day Chicago signed her to it is already looking even worse.
  • Chicago were a little better offensively in the third quarter, attacking the paint and pushing the pace more than they had in the first half. But they’d given the Mystics confidence with the dismal first half performance, so Washington were actually scoring a few points. Langhorne, Monique Currie and even Michelle Snow were producing buckets, and Washington had managed to build a 52-44 advantage by the end of the third.
  • Of course, anyone who’s watched the Mystics in the last couple of years was fully expecting them to find a way to blow the game, regardless of how Chicago were playing. Washington’s slogan since 2011 could easily be “We Find a Way to Lose”.
  • Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot had an excruciating afternoon. She shot 0-10 from the field for zero points, had only 2 assists to 4 turnovers, and generally looked in agony out there. She’s had some bad games in her first two years in the WNBA, but this was one of the worst. Chatman finally put her out of her misery with 8 minutes left in regulation, sitting her for good in favour of veteran Ticha Penicheiro.
  • It would be unfair to Sloot to say that was the key moment, but less than two minutes after the switch was made, a 9-point deficit was down to 2. It looked like Washington were going to pull off the anticipated collapse.
  • Willingham, unsurprisingly, played all the crunch-time minutes at power forward. Chatman might’ve started with Cash at the 4, but it didn’t take her long to realise that wasn’t a great idea against Washington. Given how few of the Sky’s perimeter players can actually shoot, Willingham’s accuracy from three-point range was proving just as useful as her ability to actually play in the paint alongside Sylvia Fowles.
  • From 8:20 left in regulation until there was less than a minute remaining, Washington scored a grand total of two points, reverting to their typical level. Fortunately for them, Chicago weren’t exactly lighting it up, and a late Cash putback had only given the Sky a three-point lead. Then we got the standard comedy of errors that is no longer a surprise from these teams down the stretch. Epiphanny Prince was picked clean by Matee Ajavon, who coasted in for a layup to cut the gap to a point. Willingham missed a couple of point-blank layup attempts which would’ve reestablished Chicago’s advantage (although credit Currie for the block on one of them). Then Currie drove into traffic, was easily blocked by Fowles, Jasmine Thomas tossed up a brick from mid-range, and Currie wandered in untouched for the offensive rebound before being fouled. Only to miss both the resulting free throws. Somehow, Chicago were still in front with 12 seconds remaining.
  • Prince was fouled and sank the pair, leaving Washington 10 seconds to rescue themselves from a three-point hole. Amazingly – and horrifyingly, for those of us who just wanted it to end – Matee Ajavon drilled an off-balance three under pressure from Willingham to tie the score with under two seconds to play. Chicago used a timeout to advance the ball, but the inbounds went to Prince in the corner and she couldn’t even force up a shot under pressure. Oh joy, overtime.
  • Chicago got off to the better start in OT, with Penicheiro forcing the issue and making things happen better than Vandersloot had all night. Then an atrocious foul call on Penicheiro sent Langhorne to the free throw line, on a play that would’ve otherwise ended with a shot clock violation by the Mystics. To make matters worse, the officials spent an age checking the replay, killing any momentum Chicago had managed to build.
  • Ajavon had been the guard getting things done for Washington all afternoon – it was reminiscent of last season, when anything good that happened for the Mystics came from Langhorne or Ajavon. She made a silly foul on Penicheiro defensively, before immediately making up for it by going past Cash for a tough layup at the rim. That put Washington up by a point with 45 seconds remaining.
  • Then a harsh reach-in call on another Sky possession that was going nowhere fast cost Ajavon her sixth foul and took her out of the game. Prince again hit both free throws, and Chicago were back in front.
  • Trudi Lacey takes a lot of criticism – most of it fully deserved – but to give her her due, Washington then ran a play which resulted in a wide open three for Jasmine Thomas. It may have had more to do with Penicheiro unnecessarily wandering behind a Snow screen than the scheme, but it still worked. Thomas made the shot, and the Mystics were back up by 2 with only 16 seconds left.
  • The remainder of the game was ugly for Chicago. Prince tried to drive by Thomas to the rim, and ended up being swamped by a combination of Thomas and Snow and giving up the ball. Washington just barely managed to inbound the ball, eventually finding Currie up the floor. Chicago had to foul, but unfortunately for them Currie was ahead of the pack when they grabbed her. It was ruled a clear path foul, Currie redeemed herself for her misses at the end of regulation by knocking down both shots, and Washington inbounded again. Chicago couldn’t even manage to foul again before the clock ran out.
  • Notice how few mentions there were of Sylvia Fowles in all the content above? There’s a reason for that. Chicago’s offense is still awful, and they still struggle horrendously to get her the ball. Fowles has to take some of the criticism, because this has been a constant issue under multiple coaches now. But Chatman’s offense is poor. There just seems to be so little to it, so little variation or movement. Fowles finished the game 5-10 for 13 points, and had to go to work hard on the offensive glass to create a lot of her own opportunities. The Sky still have holes on their roster, but the offense should work far better than it does. And it doesn’t seem to be improving.
  • Washington got the job done for once, albeit with a bumpy ride along the way. It’s probably not a coincidence that they pulled it off in a game where four starters played over 30 minutes each, and the other (Snow) over 24. Lacey actually used her bench to spell her best players, rather than randomly throwing everyone out there at different times and hoping something would work. Ajavon and Langhorne had 40 points between them to lead the way, and the few fans who showed up finally got to see a win for the Mystics. Unfortunately for them, they won’t be playing Chicago every night.
  • And I’d like to apologise for writing such a ridiculous amount about what was a pretty terrible game of basketball. Close games do that to me, even when they’re horrible.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 89 @ Phoenix Mercury 47

  • There’s no need to worry about me writing too much on this one, believe me.
  • The same starting units opened the game as in the teams’ previous appearances. Diana Taurasi was reportedly out due to a dental procedure this time, and could apparently be back next week. I’ll believe it when I see it.
  • Absolutely nothing new was revealed by this game. A monumental blowout on an epic scale, the Mercury squad which has been terrible for a while was terrible again; the cohesive and impressive Silver Stars team which had won 10 in a row was cohesive and impressive. The game was over quickly.
  • Phoenix don’t have anyone who can guard Becky Hammon. Nor do they have anyone who can guard Sophia Young, except maybe DeWanna Bonner if she wasn’t exhausted and busy trying to guard plenty of other people. Phoenix basically can’t guard anyone at the moment.
  • With all their missing players, the Mercury’s offensive system also no longer works. The high-tempo, high-volume offense needs scorers to function, and they don’t have any left. Bonner and Sammy Prahalis continue to try to carry them, but they end up taking bad shots because they know there’s no one else out there to score. It’s not pretty.
  • In fact, on a points per possession basis, the Mercury now rank 12th in the league on offense, and 12th in the league on defense. Out of 12.
  • For the record, despite what the boxscore currently tells you, Charde Houston didn’t play 28 seconds. She was in street clothes, still recovering from her knee surgery. Those 28 seconds belong to Lynetta Kizer, along with the 19:18 she was correctly attributed with. The league will probably fix that eventually, but it’ll likely take a while.
  • Kizer took a nasty (inadvertent) hit from Jayne Appel’s shoulder in the fourth quarter, which left her with a concussion. So the Mercury may be down yet another player.

 

Tulsa Shock 59 @ Minnesota Lynx 83

  • Tulsa made one enforced change to their lineup – Kayla Pedersen was out due to the flu and replaced by Jennifer Lacy – and one by choice, with Riquna Williams coming in for Amber Holt. Minnesota had their standard starting five.
  • Tulsa made a nice start playing with energy and a quick pace, with all the response for Minnesota coming from point guard Lindsay Whalen. Then a couple of poor shots from the Shock, and a turnover or two to ignite the Lynx running game, and Tulsa were 16-7 behind in the blink of an eye.
  • But as we all know by now, this Tulsa team has a lot of fight in them, and they rarely quit. Plus sometimes they get scary hot from outside. A series of threes from Ivory Latta and Scholanda Dorrell had them back within a point before the end of the first quarter.
  • The Shock can be a pesky and annoying defensive team, but the central negative aspect of the Lynx performance in the first half – far too many turnovers – seemed to come down to Minnesota’s own mistakes more than Tulsa pressure. It’s an issue that the Lynx have had several times this year. Making the extra pass is good, but being careless with the ball or trying to make a pass that isn’t likely to succeed is bad. Too often they drift into that latter territory, and it lets opponents off the hook. Shooting 56% from the floor – as Minnesota did in the first half of this contest – is great, but the effect of a superior shooting percentage is obviously limited by the number of possessions you give away. When you turn the ball over before ever getting a shot in the air, the percentage means nothing.
  • 13 Lynx turnovers, leading to 17 Shock points, kept Tulsa within 42-39 at halftime.
  • Oh, and we can’t pass over that first half without mentioning the wonder of Jeff Wooten, a referee who called a technical on the Minnesota bench for what appeared to be Erin Thorn standing up. Yes Jeff, everyone paid their money and showed up to the Target Center last night just to watch you work.
  • When Tulsa can’t hit from outside – and let’s face it, when you live by the outside shot, you often end up dying by the outside shot – it’s come down to rookie post Glory Johnson to make something happen this season. She was working hard against the Lynx: crashing the glass like crazy, playing tough defense with little help in the paint, finishing inside when the opportunity was available – generally doing a little bit of everything that was necessary. While Devereaux Peters has had her moments for the Lynx this year – and Johnson wouldn’t have received the same opportunities to play in Minnesota that she’s had in Tulsa – this game brought back memories of the 2012 draft. When Minnesota left Johnson on the board, and took Peters instead. You couldn’t help thinking that Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve and the other Minnesota front office members watching on might be thinking they’d made the wrong pick.
  • After a scrappy third quarter, the fourth was where this game was truly decided. With a lineup of Whalen, Candice Wiggins, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Minnesota stepped up their defense and stepped on Tulsa’s throat. Some of it was just regression to the mean for Tulsa – their shooting often fails to hold up throughout an entire 40 minutes – but much of it was the pressure from the Lynx defense. With Moore knocking down threes and Whalen continuing to attack, the points kept flowing for Minnesota while the Shock were horribly stuck. From 58-52 at the end of the third, Minnesota led 73-54 at the midpoint of the fourth. It was over.
  • It was a very creditable performance from Tulsa, in a game that was far tighter than the final 24-point gap suggested. They held firm with the champs for 30 minutes, despite never shooting that well and with Johnson doing much of the interior work on her own. She finished 8-11 for 17 points and 12 boards, with another “you should’ve picked me” performance. It’s going to be interesting to see how Johnson meshes with Aussie center Liz Cambage when she finally joins the fray in about 10 days.
  • They made heavy weather of it, but the Lynx eventually asserted their superiority. Moore, who seems to love playing against Tulsa, finished 7-13 for 22 points, 10 boards, 6 assists and 4 steals. All the other starters shot 50% or better from the floor as well. The Lynx tidied up their passing and ballhandling in the second half, refusing to give up possessions so cheaply, and it translated on the scoreboard. Of course, the schedulers couldn’t have offered the Lynx a much nicer way to ease back into the WNBA grind than consecutive home games against the Mystics and Shock.
  • For what it’s worth, this result mathematically qualified Minnesota for the playoffs. Because obviously they were deathly afraid that Phoenix might overhaul them.

 

Upcoming Games

Monday August 20th (today):

None

—–

Tuesday August 21st (tomorrow):

Tulsa @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

Washington @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

New York @ Chicago, 8pm ET

Minnesota @ Seattle, 10pm ET

Indiana @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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