WNBA Today, 08/24/2012: Comebacks, non-comebacks, and the Sparks send a message

Last night in the WNBA was all about comebacks. One superstar returned for her first appearance of the year; one was supposedly on the brink, then yet again absent; another was a hot topic of conversation despite her team not even having a game. There was even a storming comeback to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in one of the games, while the dominant performance in the evening’s big matchup was by a player in her first season back after years out of basketball.

So read on, enjoy, and please come back again soon.

 

New York Liberty 89 @ Phoenix Mercury 77

  • So Diana Taurasi was supposed to play in this game. The Mercury swear her name was on the lineup sheet, and she was even going to start. Then apparently she felt dizzy and light-headed in warmups, so Phoenix head coach Corey Gaines pulled her. She spent the rest of the night offering encouragement from the bench. Now it’s perfectly plausible that someone who had multiple wisdom teeth removed last week, and has been on prescription drugs since, might not feel 100% when asked to play professional sports. And you’d expect the Mercury to be extra-careful with her, especially considering they have few remaining reasons to win games this year. But you just had to laugh. She’ll probably play eventually this season, and the Mercury are bad enough to carry on losing even with her on the floor, but on the face of it the excuses are becoming increasingly ludicrous. Maybe she’ll miss Saturday’s game with a hang nail.
  • Continuing the comeback theme, New York’s star and leader is Cappie Pondexter. She made her name and won a couple of titles with the Mercury, before forcing a trade to the Liberty. She’s had some spiky encounters with her old team in the years since, including one minor fracas that got her ejected. Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton both have chequered histories with the Mercury as well, but without quite the same profile.
  • Same starting five again for New York; Nakia Sanford arbitrarily in for Avery Warley in the post for Phoenix. The Mercury also had recent signing Briana Gilbreath in uniform for the first time, and with their pile-up of injuries, she had to join the action pretty quickly.
  • The early minutes were just like every other recent Mercury game. Terrible defense, allowing the Liberty whatever they wanted inside or out; and DeWanna Bonner and Sammy Prahalis taking virtually every shot at the other end, mostly from long range. With Pondexter leading the attack and point guard Leilani Mitchell knocking down threes, New York inevitably grabbed a comfortable 30-16 lead by the end of the first quarter.
  • However, as everyone who’s raised the ‘tanking’ issue has mentioned this year, the players actually on the floor for Phoenix are playing hard. No one sensible has ever accused the players out there of actively trying to lose. And in the second quarter, with New York settling for too many jump shots and Bonner driving a little more, the Merc made a run. The lead had been as high as 18, but New York needed a late pullup three from Pondexter to grab a double-digit advantage at the break, 50-40
  • By the way, how many times does Pondexter have to pull that final-possession pullup three move before defenders play her tighter and force the drive? A thousand?
  • The Bonner and Pondexter show continued into the second half, with Cappie firing at will and carrying her team offensively. Bonner got a little help from her post players, as the Mercury bigs crashed the offensive glass to create second-chances. Pondexter had 15 on her own in the third quarter, but the Mercury were still hanging around.
  • New York finally put the game to bed in the early minutes of the fourth quarter. Bonner was tiring and still getting very little offensive support. Meanwhile, Kara Braxton decided to wake up and play in only her second encounter with the franchise that dumped her midway through last season. She scored inside, went after rebounds at both ends, and threw in a godawful three attempt and a terrible turnover just so we’d remember who we were watching. She even played 7 straight minutes, which is a long stretch of action for her these days, but by the time she subbed out with 3 minutes remaining in the game, New York were up 13 and cruising.
  • There’s not a great deal new to say about Phoenix. The comedy with Taurasi continues, and Bonner’s still doing the best she can while pushed into a starring role. She finished 11-26 for 34 points and 7 boards, but just doesn’t have the necessary talent alongside her. Although young center Krystal Thomas had a useful outing on the glass, finishing with 14 rebounds (8 of them offensive).
  • The Liberty got the job done eventually, but then they damn well ought to against what’s left of the Mercury. It took an unusually efficient performance from outside (13-27 from beyond the arc as a team), the late burst of effectiveness from Braxton, and Pondexter lighting it up yet again to pull it off. Cappie ended 9-15 for 31 points, and had four teammates with double-figure scoring alongside her. With Chicago inactive, this win took the Liberty into sole possession of fourth in the East, the final playoff spot. However, the last two stops on their Western road swing – a back-to-back in LA and Seattle over the weekend – won’t be quite so easy.

 

Indiana Fever 68 @ Seattle Storm 66

  • LJ’s back! Every Seattleite’s favourite Aussie, Lauren Jackson, made her return only a couple of days after flying back into the US, sliding straight back into the starting lineup in place of Ewelina Kobryn. That gave the Storm nine healthy bodies, with Tina Thompson (knee) and Ann Wauters (achilles) still working on their respective injuries. Both are expected back in the not-too-distant future.
  • Same starting five again for Indiana.
  • On the bright side for Jackson, her life was made easier by the abilities of teammate Camille Little. You see, Indiana’s Tamika Catchings had to try to defend Jackson, then had Little and the rest of the Storm focussing on stopping her at the other end. Jackson, on the other hand, was matched up with Tammy Sutton-Brown defensively, so she was less taxed when the Fever had the ball.
  • However, that didn’t fix everything. Seattle’s defense in the early minutes wasn’t pretty, and a lot of the problems came down to Jackson and her unfamiliarity with the team and system around her. Seattle do switch defensively a lot of the time, but not to the extent that you see teams like the LA Sparks do it. Having Jackson on the floor instead of Kobryn seemed to have convinced the Storm that they could lazily switch on everything, and barely bother sticking with their initial assignments at all. It left Seattle mismatched and scrambling far too often, and Jackson looked a little lost. A player as good as her will find her way, but on the opening night it was rough going.
  • So Indiana had an early 12-3 lead on open threes and the occasional runner, before Sue Bird took matters into her own hands. She drilled a couple of shots from midrange, and stopped the rot. Then Storm coach Brian Agler made a necessary move, replacing Jackson with Kobryn, and adding some youth and aggression by inserting Shekinna Stricklen for Katie Smith. Suddenly, the Storm had some drive. No one would ever suggest Kobryn is a better player than Jackson, but the defense looked more comfortable with a player out there who’s been on the squad all season. The Polish big had a block and a layup in quick succession, while Stricklen had a nice finish inside and a three to close the quarter. 12-3 Indiana had swung around to 15-12 Seattle.
  • The whole game became rather bogged down in the second quarter. Despite the defensive breakdowns at either end – both teams switching a lot, then desperately trying to cover the holes and mismatches that were left behind – neither team could build much rhythm offensively.
  • Jackson’s first field goal attempt was a wide open three that missed long by a mile.
  • That said, Jackson’s mere presence was creating some room for her teammates. Indiana clearly understood her threat, and a play where she was swamped inside, leaving Alysha Clark in acres of space for an attempted three, illustrated her effect.
  • Indiana got a nice few minutes from rookie post Sasha Goodlett, who even made Jackson look silly once or twice with her scoring moves down low.
  • The Fever were attacking the glass a little better than the Storm, Seattle were shooting slightly better than Indiana, and it all practically balanced out. Seattle led 29-27 at halftime.
  • Indiana’s offense is still a game-by-game proposition. Sometimes they look pretty good. Catchings playing power forward gives them an extra ballhandler, and increased quickness on the floor. When they penetrate or move the ball inside then out, all those threes they take can be wide open, fairly high-percentage looks. But sometimes they’re just static, can’t get inside for love nor money, and every slow, ponderous possession ends up with a turnover or a low-percentage force from outside. They spent the majority of the third quarter in that latter style.
  • It took until the final minutes of the period for Seattle to truly capitalise. Bird had already made a couple of big threes by curling around screens from Kobryn and Jackson earlier in the period. Then fear of the Bird/Jackson pick-and-roll left Little wide open for a triple, and Jackson followed it with a three of her own. Jackson’s first bucket of the season gave Seattle the first double-digit lead of the game, at 49-38.
  • With the Storm rolling and the Key Arena crowd reenergised, the fourth quarter opened with a big play for the Fever. Erin Phillips drove around a high screen from Jessica Davenport, was forced to the baseline by Jackson, before finding Briann January in the opposite corner. She knocked down the three, and was fouled in the process by Tanisha Wright, who’d been jumping back out to try to challenge the shot. It was big because it cut an ominous gap to 5 points and quieted the crowd, but it’s a play that’s also worth remembering for something that happened later on. Keep it in mind.
  • The Fever finally decided that going big might be a worthwhile idea in the fourth quarter, considering they were facing a team whose starting center wasn’t quite at the races. Jessica Davenport played the entire period, after barely appearing in Indiana’s other games since the break, firstly with Goodlett and then Catchings alongside her. This is the balance that Fever coach Lin Dunn needs to find. She’s got options on her roster these days, and if one style isn’t working, there are alternatives. Different opponents, or just different nights, require a change of attack. She can’t fall in love with one option just because it worked in the previous game.
  • Indiana cut the deficit to 6 again midway through the fourth on a Phillips three, before a Storm run looked like it might’ve killed the game. Again, Stricklen played a central role, nailing a big three before Bird hit a trademark pullup jumper for a 66-53 lead with 4 minutes remaining.
  • Unfortunately for Stricklen, after such an impressive outing, she was also central to a pivotal moment seconds later. Phillips missed a layup in traffic, and Little, Bird and Smith were all involved in the resulting fastbreak back the other way. Smith handed off to Stricklen for what should’ve been an easy finish and a 15-point lead. She blew the layup, under virtually no pressure whatsoever. Amazingly, Seattle wouldn’t score another point the rest of the way.
  • It was an ugly final four minutes for the Storm (although credit also has to go to Indiana for finally making some shots). Little had two straight turnovers on a forced pass and an offensive foul when she bulldozed over January. Jackson followed with two of her own, giving up the ball to Davenport under her own basket (for an immediate Davenport layup), then throwing the ensuing inbounds pass straight to Katie Douglas. From nowhere, Indiana were back within three points with over 90 seconds still remaining.
  • It might be a little harsh, but you could easily question the decision-making of Brian Agler down the stretch. Pre-game stories had suggested the jet-lagged Jackson would only feature for 10-15 minutes, and it’s not like her performance had demanded extra playing time. Meanwhile, Kobryn’s +/- on the night was through the roof (while Jackson’s was well below the floorboards). But it was Jackson on the floor for the final three minutes, as Agler went back to the players he trusts the most.
  • A horrid, forced brick from Jackson, followed by a smooth 12-foot turnaround from Davenport, made it just a 1-point Storm lead in the final minute. Bird missed an open three, but Seattle were lucky enough to pick up the rebound. Tanisha Wright ran down the clock, with Bird standing on the wing completely uninvolved. Jackson set a screen for Wright, who went into the lane and was comfortably blocked by Davenport. Indiana had 17 seconds to steal it.
  • Dunn trusted her players on the floor, and didn’t call timeout (which is unbelievably rare in this league, even more so than in the NBA). Now remember that play that started the fourth quarter and ended with a January four-point play? Well they ran it again, albeit with the personnel slightly switched around. January had the ball out top, and curled round the Davenport screen. Jackson tracked the January drive, and forced her low onto the baseline. Unfortunately for Seattle, both Wright and Bird spotted Catchings popping out to the top of the key, and both of them followed her. It’s Indiana’s version of the Jackson Effect: everyone’s worried about Catchings. But that left Shavonte Zellous in the same corner January had been in to open the fourth, and with Wright following Catch, Zellous was wide open. January made the baseline pass, Zellous knocked down the three as time expired, and that was the ballgame. A painful loss for Seattle on LJ’s return.
  • Although the eventual method of defeat was excruciating, the Storm can put this one down to growing pains and hope it benefits their development. Jackson’s involvement in the offense was kept as simple as possible, because she still has to learn (or re-learn) many of the plays. Her involvement defensively was often ugly, but that’s just a matter of Agler tweaking a few things and the team getting used to each other again. Bird and Little both scored well, while Kobryn and Stricklen had impressive games off the bench (significantly more impressive than the players they came in for, in fact). And in the grand scheme of things, we already know they’re finishing fourth in the West, so another loss doesn’t mean much. But it still hurts.
  • Indiana were pretty horrible for most of this game. Katie Douglas was utterly anonymous for virtually all of it, and Catchings struggled to find her range. But they fought tooth and nail to the end, clawed out a victory, and reminded themselves that Jessica Davenport can still be of use in the right situations. They’re also starting to prove that as a team they can be a serviceable rebounding group, although it’s still hard work for them in there.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 77 @ Los Angeles Sparks 101

  • No intrigue or excitement in the lineups before this one: everyone healthy, standard starting fives.
  • That said, the anticipation for this clash had been building for a while. San Antonio had won 12 in a row, and they’d kicked off that run back at the end of June by twice beating the snot out of this Sparks team. In fact, the Silver Stars were 3-0 against Los Angeles this season, and this was the last time they’d see each other before a potential meeting in the playoffs. LA had their own streak rolling, having won their last 7, and were in no mood to give it up.
  • LA’s defense continues to be fascinating. Their two best scorers, Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver, are both fairly dismal individual defenders. Both those players have to play a lot of minutes for this team, so the defense obviously has to cope with them being on the floor. But as a unit, this is starting to look like a far, far better defensive squad. They’re still switching an incredible amount on screens. It verges on a matchup zone some of the time, with Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and DeLisha Milton-Jones trying to make sure they pick up any player heading into the paint, and pass off anyone on the perimeter to the guards. But sometimes it just leaves the LA bigs trying to use their length and athleticism to survive while switched onto little guards. It’s the same basic structure they started the season with, but they’ve worked on it, and this game against San Antonio was an illustration of how much better they’ve become at running it. There are still breakdowns, but they’re fewer and further between.
  • It also helps that Alana Beard has become the real Alana Beard again, adding an elite-level perimeter defender into the mix.
  • Of course, having said all that, San Antonio point guard Danielle Robinson was on fire to start this game, using her speed to get to the rim (invariably going right by Toliver to get there), and knocking down the mid-range jumper.
  • LA hung around while Robinson was exploding, mainly through free throws and some typical hustle plays by Ogwumike, and then their own guards took over. Whatever you may say about Toliver – greedy at times, not a true point guard, moody, weak defensively – the girl can shoot. I mean really, really shoot. And as this season’s progressed, Beard’s stroke has improved right along with her defensive mobility. So Beard was hitting, Toliver knocked down three threes in quick succession to close the first quarter, and LA had sprung to a 29-17 lead.
  • One of those Toliver triples was a thoroughly pretty play, the triangle offense returning to Staples Center with aplomb. Toliver drops to Beard, who feeds Parker in the post, who touch-passes back to Toliver in the corner, who nails the three. Gorgeous.
  • San Antonio briefly discovered a little offense in the second quarter through Danielle Adams, but it wasn’t consistent and they still couldn’t stop the Sparks. Even when LA’s dismal bench came into the game, Jantel Lavender made a couple of plays to keep things rolling. Then Beard came back, and started firing in more jumpers.
  • San Antonio were settling for jump shots on too many possessions, and while Sophia Young reentered the game (and highlighted Parker’s awful pick-and-roll defense on two consecutive plays), they couldn’t keep up. LA had the occasional finish inside, but largely speaking they were simply giving the Silver Stars a taste of their own medicine. They were shooting the freaking lights out.
  • By halftime, LA were 7-9 from beyond the arc as a team, Beard and Toliver were a combined 11-16 for 32 points, and the game was all but over. The Sparks led 59-35 (setting a new franchise record for first-half scoring), and were completely dominant. Only Robinson, and briefly Adams, had shown an offensive spark for the Silver Stars. Becky Hammon, blanketed by Beard and all kinds of interior help, had been a non-factor.
  • It was never a game in the second half. The bench played so many minutes for LA that their commentators got to blather on nonsensically about how the game had shown that the Sparks now have some depth. Utter tosh, by the way. Lavender was the only bench player who did anything much for LA, and both Beard and Milton-Jones had to come back into the game in the fourth quarter when the lead dropped to 20 points and Sparks coach Carol Ross got a little scared. But this was a blowout, and finished well before the buzzer sounded.
  • So LA have shown that they can beat San Antonio after all. Beard/Toliver may not yet be the best backcourt in the WNBA, but it’s definitely becoming one of the scariest. They’ve both started the second half hot from outside, Beard’s a nightmare at the other end as well, and it’s not like you can focus everything on them – there’s still Parker and Ogwumike to worry about. The team defensive improvement is the key. If they can keep that up, using their length and athleticism to challenge everything inside without giving too much up on mismatches, they can frighten the life out of people. The only other fear is that so much of their success in recent games has been built around outside shooting. Parker’s had a slow re-start to the season, and it’d be nice to pick up more of their points via high percentage shots inside. Jump shooters can always go cold. But they’ll take 24-point blowout wins however they come.
  • San Antonio’s streak had to come to an end at some point. But this was a dramatic and ugly way for it to end. They got stuffed. It was the old issue of Young disappearing into the background against bigger posts, no one else being able to offer anything inside, and then they’re screwed unless Hammon goes berserk. Still, the counter-argument is that they’ve beaten up on this Sparks team at other times this year, and the Beard/Toliver combo won’t be that hot every night. Danielle Robinson can also still go past Toliver at will, as she illustrated with 22 points on 10-14 from the floor. Right now, this would be a first-round playoff matchup in the West. And it would be a hell of a lot of fun.

 

Notes

The McCoughtry Mess continues in Atlanta. She didn’t make the trip to Washington for tonight’s game, and the whole Dream organisation is remaining very non-committal about what’s going on. Her absence has been called both ‘indefinite’ and ‘day-to-day’ at different points. Her twitter account suggests she was out on the town last night while supposedly missing from the Dream due to ‘personal reasons’. And all this is especially under the microscope because there’s a WNBA Finals rematch between the Dream and the Minnesota Lynx on ESPN2 on Saturday night. As always, you’ll know what’s going on as soon as I do. Meanwhile, your wild speculation is as good as mine.

 

Upcoming Games

Friday August 24th (today):

Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET

Chicago @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

—–

Saturday August 25th (tomorrow):

Minnesota @ Atlanta, 7pm ET

Tulsa @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Indiana @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

New York @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm

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