Just two games last night in the WNBA, and it wasn’t exactly the high-flying, top-end teams providing the entertainment. In fact, heading into the matchups, the four franchises were a combined 27-59 this season. But as a Dolphins fan whose other option was watching that miserable team slog their way through another preseason defeat, basement-dwelling WNBA basketball was looking pretty appetising. And just because they’re down at the bottom, doesn’t mean the games can’t be close and exciting.
First up, we had Atlanta’s trip to Washington. The miserable Mystics actually won a game last week (albeit over one of the poor teams we’ll look at later), so at least they’d found some shred of light in the darkness of their 2012 WNBA season. Atlanta had played some decent basketball since the Olympic break, but were still dealing with the essentially unexplained absence of Angel McCoughtry. So they were only the favourites for this game, rather than the vastly overwhelming favourites.
Atlanta once again went with rookie Tiffany Hayes to fill McCoughtry’s spot, while Washington coach Trudi Lacey had decided she was done with this bizarre idea of playing a consistent lineup, and brought Noelle Quinn back in for Matee Ajavon. In fairness, when you keep losing games, you search for anything different that might help turn the tide.
The yin and yang, joy and frustration of Atlanta forward Sancho Lyttle was illustrated within the space of the opening few minutes. She started the game up on the low block, taking an entry pass, which was nice to see. Then she drifted out to beyond the arc, jacked up a three that missed, and following an Armintie Price offensive board, threw up another jumper from only slightly closer. Brick number two. Then she used those long limbs to poke the ball away from Crystal Langhorne, drove hard from the low post to score in the lane over Langhorne, then moments later ran the floor hard and knocked down another short finish in the lane. These are the things that are great about Lyttle. She can jump out of the gym to score over anyone, she’s got nice touch, she’s a strong defender – but that fondness she’s developed for outside jump shots is aggravating. Okay Sancho, we get it, you can shoot the three now. But you’re shooting 29% out there, and your overall field-goal percentage has plummeted to a career-low of 43%. More of those interior finishes, less of those bombs from 18-feet and out. Please.
As for the overall basketball game, it was about what we’ve come to expect from most Mystics games. Their defense was breaking down constantly, with the number of open layups for Atlanta frankly embarrassing. Offensively, the Mystics were giving the ball up far too cheaply, as lazy, sloppy turnovers once again plagued them. Atlanta happily grabbed the turnovers and ran, as they invariably do, and started to build a lead. It didn’t take long to hit double-digits, and it kept getting bigger.
When they could hold on to the ball long enough to run an offense, Washington were unusually productive. Langhorne was central to pretty much everything, even with Lyttle and Erika de Souza crowding her at every opportunity, and provided some solid scoring for the Mystics. But all those turnovers and the half-hearted defense meant it was in vain. A couple of possessions where Washington scored, only for Atlanta to pull the ball out of the basket, throw an outlet pass, and simply beat the defense down the floor for an easy layup were utterly ridiculous. There were also countless occasions when the initial defender was beaten off the dribble, and the weak-side help never even moved before the basket was scored inside. Atlanta led 49-33 at halftime.
In McCoughtry’s absence, Hayes has slid virtually seamlessly into the backcourt alongside Lindsey Harding. She’s doing a solid job both penetrating and distributing, taking some of the ballhandling responsibilities off Harding’s shoulders while providing her fair share of points as well. Harding’s scoring has also been in double-digits in every game since the break, and she was more than happy to attack the likes of Jasmine Thomas and Shannon Bobbitt off the dribble in this game. It was a desperately one-sided first half.
Somehow, the Mystics found a way to play even worse in the third quarter. It basically seemed like they quit, which was sad to see from a team that has fought through some terrible performances this year but usually played hard right to the end. Atlanta’s lead hit 28 at its apex.
It seems a little strong to say the Mystics ‘fought back’ in the fourth quarter. In essence, Atlanta didn’t just relax once they thought the game was over – they went catatonic. Which obviously helped. But with Lacey deciding none of her starters had any right to keep playing, she went to five bench players, and they showed some life. Matee Ajavon – the former starter Lacey had benched for this game – was the central figure, firing away from outside and repeatedly knocking down threes. She put a little scare into Marynell Meadors and her Dream squad, dragging the gap down to 8 points at one stage late in the game, but that was it. The chasm Washington had dug for themselves was just too big, even with Atlanta sleepwalking through the final ten minutes. Atlanta held on to win, 81-69.
There doesn’t seem much point in analysing the Mystics and their performance. Langhorne carried them in the first half; Ajavon dominated the fourth quarter; and Monique Currie made a few shots over the course of the game. That was about it for the offense. They brought the turnovers under control in the second half, but that always felt more like relaxation from Atlanta than an improvement in control from Washington. This team is bad, and there aren’t many signs of them getting better (although there may be a new addition to the roster arriving sometime this week). Their remaining fans – and most of the players, frankly – are already looking to next year. And hoping this one will end as quickly as possible.
Ignoring the silly collapse in the fourth, Atlanta did what they were supposed to do. Ignored the absence of their star, showed up and played their game, and put a weak opponent out of sight as quickly as possible. Price, Harding, Lyttle and Hayes all scored in double-figures, with Cathrine Kraayeveld chipping in a few points from the bench. Undoubtedly they’d like to have McCoughtry back in the fold, but two solid performance since her ‘personal reasons’ took her off the floor (against admittedly awful opponents), have shown that they can still perform without her.
Friday’s second and final game featured the Tulsa Shock, who’ve played hard but still won only 3 games all year, and the Chicago Sky, who’d lost 12 of their last 13 games coming into this one. If you paid to see this in person, I applaud you. Thanks to New York’s win in Phoenix the night before, Chicago were now outside the playoff spots on basic win/loss record, without needing a tiebreaker. Tulsa ought to have been the perfect place to try to break their horrible run, considering the Shock’s record, but right now the Sky’s confidence it at its absolute nadir. They wouldn’t have been confident about beating a kindergarten team.
Presumably still suffering somewhat from her right ankle sprain, Epiphanny Prince was relegated to the bench by Sky coach Pokey Chatman, who promoted Shay Murphy into her spot on the wing. For the second game in a row, veteran Ticha Penicheiro got the start at the point. Tulsa mixed their starters around yet again, despite coming desperately close to winning in Connecticut last time out. Ivory Latta went back to the bench, with Amber Holt jumping back into the starting five.
Let’s not waste too much time on the first half. Neither team produced much in the way of decent offense, with Chicago’s continued inability to feed Sylvia Fowles inside being matched by Tulsa’s general lack of interior threat. The scoreboard operator was at least given something to do, thanks to both teams finding their range from outside. They mirrored each other by shooting 5-11 from beyond the arc in the first half, with Murphy and Courtney Vandersloot doing the damage for Chicago, while Riquna Williams and Jennifer Lacy countered for Tulsa. It was 36-33 Chicago at the break, despite a frigid 6-6 tie in points in the paint.
Fowles has done her best through the course of this season, constantly fighting for position and trying to provide a target at the center of this pathetic and ponderous offense. But she skipped a couple of games at the Olympics due to injury, limped off before the end of a recent Sky game, and this was the most miserable and frustrated she’d looked for Chicago all year. Even when she created a lane and received the ball inside, she seemed overly desperate to do something aggressive with it, because the opportunities have become so rare. That led to mistakes, rather than production.
In fact, five minutes into the third quarter, Chatman substituted Fowles and Penicheiro, and that was the last we’d see of either on the floor for the rest of the night. In Fowles’s case, it was understandable, although she didn’t look significantly less healthy walking off the court than she had all night. But she was only 2-4 for 7 points and 4 rebounds at that stage, in 19 minutes of action, and certainly looked like she could use the rest. Penicheiro, on the other hand, was one of the few Sky players actually attacking the Shock defense and occasionally penetrating it. But she fell victim to Chatman’s whims, and Vandersloot’s unlikely scoring binge.
With Fowles benched, and Chatman barely trusting centers Carolyn Swords and Ruth Riley to carry the bags to the bus, the Sky went small for most of the rest of the game. Le’coe Willingham spent a lot of minutes as the de facto center, and the Sky spent a lot of time playing a 2-3 zone to cover their lack of inches. Against Tulsa, whose interior scoring options currently come down to Glory Johnson offensive rebounding and not much else, they largely got away with it. They also had Vandersloot firing away from outside with some confidence, making the vast majority, and Shay Murphy offering support. Tulsa’s struggling offense couldn’t keep up, and the Sky held a 65-55 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
However, we all know that Chicago aren’t exactly renowned for their ability to close games out. Even with Prince and Vandersloot penetrating to create shots more than is typical for the Sky, Chicago started to let Tulsa slip back into the game. Of course, the Shock had a hand in it as well, making some shots from outside, and stepping up their pressure defensively to force Chicago into errors. Riquna Williams and Jen Lacy made a few jumpers; Shay Murphy was called for a charge (on a slightly dodgy call by my WNBA officiating crush, Lauren Holtkamp); Vandersloot and Prince combined to commit an 8-second violation; and then Prince didn’t get the call she expected on a drive, leading to a Latta layup back the other way. Somehow, with 15 seconds left in regulation, Chicago’s lead was down to two points.
Once again, the Sky had a hand in their own downfall. After advancing the ball with a timeout, no one broke open to receive the inbounds, and Murphy’s pass went straight into Glory Johnson directly in front of her. The ball fell to Roneeka Hodges, who was hacked by Vandersloot to prevent the easy layup. Hodges made both free throws anyway, and the game was tied for the first time in the entire second half, with only 9 seconds left on the clock.
Chicago had no timeouts remaining, leaving Prince to try to create something on her own. In the first half of the season, with the way Chicago’s luck was running back then, she’d have managed it. This time, under heavy pressure from Williams (which could’ve drawn a whistle on a different day), Prince fought her way to three-point line and put up an effort, only to see it bounce away at the buzzer. Overtime.
Tulsa started the extra period stronger, with a Glory Johnson steal and layup, then a Hodges three building their first lead since the opening quarter. Chicago had lost all their momentum from earlier in the game, stopped penetrating to create opportunities, and were still struggling under the ball pressure from Tulsa’s defense. But Willingham hit a three and Prince battled her way to the free throw line to keep them in it.
Tulsa simply made more plays over the final couple of minutes in OT – it was as basic as that. Lacy was smart enough to know where the big hole was in Chicago’s 2-3 zone – it’s the free-throw line gap between the ‘2’ and the ‘3’ – which helped, while Latta went past Vandersloot for a layup and Williams hit a nice pullup over Murphy. Vandersloot hit yet another three for Chicago, but also committed a crucial turnover by travelling under pressure. After an endless possession where Tulsa ran down the clock and the officials required replay to decide who had touched the ball last before it fell out of bounds, Chicago had a final chance: 11 seconds left, trailing by three.
For some bizarre reason, Chatman benched Vandersloot, who was 5-7 from three-point range in the game and had scored 23 points. Her replacement was Sonja Petrovic, who hadn’t taken a shot all night, and hadn’t been on the floor since the third quarter. Still, the inbounds went to Petrovic, which was presumably why she was inserted – to help the Sky actually get the ball in. She rotated it to Prince, who missed a three under pressure. Swin Cash grabbed the rebound, kicked it to Murphy, who missed as well. That board went out of bounds off Cash, with only 0.8 seconds on the clock, and even Tulsa couldn’t screw it up from there. You can’t ask for much more than two decent looks to tie the game on your final possession. Again, back when their luck was in, they’d have tied it.
The amazing thing for Tulsa is that they finally won their fourth game of the season – and really didn’t play that well. Credit their defense in the final five minutes and overtime for putting some renewed pressure on the Sky, but otherwise they weren’t particularly great at either end of the floor. But when they needed to step up, their gunners made some big shots. Hodges is proving a useful addition to this squad after the midseason trade with Indiana, and finished 8-12 for 22 points. Williams had one of her better nights, shooting 7-14 for 22 of her own, while Jen Lacy was 5-12 for 15. Glory Johnson had her usual terrier-like performance inside, coming up with 12 rebounds (8 offensive), 5 assists and 4 steals. It was a team performance built on making shots at crucial times, hustling throughout, and taking advantage of a demoralised opponent. It was also a much-deserved win to reward their performances throughout the year. Although it does come with the unfortunate side-effect of pulling them into a tie with Phoenix in the lottery race.
Chicago yet again found a way to lose. They had this game under control, even with Fowles resting her tired limbs on the bench. But they just couldn’t keep their composure and make the requisite plays to close it out. The offense through the course of the game eventually looked a little better than it has in other recent games. Prince, Cash, Murphy and Penicheiro (when she was used) actually attacked and penetrated into the defense in the second half, creating opportunities that this offense usually struggles to find. But then it all fell apart. Now you start to wonder, if you can’t win in Tulsa, where can you win? A home-and-home against Connecticut is next up, and 7 of Chicago’s next 10 games are on the road. It’s starting to look like a tough road to make it back into that playoff spot which seemed a near-certainty only a couple of months ago.
Angel McCoughtry is in uniform and expected to play tonight against the Minnesota Lynx, but according to Rebecca Lobo is no longer a team captain. Make of that what you will.
Taurasi, of course, is also expected to return tonight. Maybe.
Saturday August 25th (today):
Minnesota @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Indiana @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
New York @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET
Sunday August 26th (tomorrow):
Chicago @ Connecticut, 5pm ET
New York @ Seattle, 9pm ET