WNBA Today, 08/26/2012: Superstars return, as WNBA leaders keep on winning

So with four games yesterday in the WNBA, and four comfortable wins for the obvious favourites, most of the interest was focussed on the soap operas. Would Angel McCoughtry return from her ‘personal reasons’ for Atlanta? Would Dream coach Marynell Meadors let her? Would Diana Taurasi finally play for Phoenix? Or would her dog eat her shoelace to keep her off the floor? Would the stars of Los Angeles and New York become so tired of all the attention drifting elsewhere that they’d start a fight to compete?

Well that last one’s a little unfair, but I had to throw in something from the other games. On to the Bullet Point Breakdown, where all will be revealed.

 

Minnesota Lynx 84 @ Atlanta Dream 74

  • As reported by Rebecca Lobo and her ESPN cohorts an hour or two before tip-off, McCoughtry was in uniform and ready to play in the nationally televised rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals. But there was still no coherent explanation for the absence, and Angel was ‘no longer a captain’ (they used to have three, now it’s just Armintie Price and Sancho Lyttle). So something happened, but we still don’t know exactly what.
  • Tiffany Hayes kept her starting spot ahead of McCoughtry. Minnesota, typically free from drama, had their standard five on the floor.
  • As she’d already illustrated in the two games Angel spent off-court, Hayes is developing into a pretty useful alternative. She was the one driving into the paint to create offense for Atlanta in the early minutes, while Minnesota settled for – and missed – a series of perimeter shots.
  • Barely three minutes into the game, Meadors got to make a pretty obvious point to her returning star. Armintie Price had picked up two quick fouls, and the straight swap off the bench would clearly have been McCoughtry. Instead, Meadors went to Cathrine Kraayeveld, who’s barely a small forward at the best of times – never mind when Maya Moore and Monica Wright are playing that spot for the other team. That was a pointed “the team’s bigger than you, Angel” statement from the coach.
  • The first quarter was also the high point for Erika de Souza, Atlanta’s big center who returned to the team following the Olympics. While her frontcourt partner Sancho Lyttle was firing away from outside (argh!), and both Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin were also throwing up jumpers at the other end, de Souza stood out as the post who wanted the ball down low. Between her and Hayes, and Atlanta starting out in their typical high-tempo style, the Dream were on top early on.
  • With Seimone Augustus starting to light things up for Minnesota – jumpers aren’t always a bad thing if the right person’s taking them – McCoughtry made her grand entrance with 1:52 left in the opening quarter. She was greeted by cheers from the crowd, but whether most of those in attendance had any idea about the drama of the previous few days, who knows.
  • The Lynx got a boost from their bench, with Amber Harris – who’s retained her spot as the first post off the bench in every game since the Olympics – chipping in some offensive production. Atlanta aren’t nearly as deep as Minnesota, although with McCoughtry coming off the bench and Kraayeveld hitting a couple of threes, they at least had something in reserve.
  • An entertaining game was still being played at Atlanta’s favoured pace throughout the first half, but Minnesota showed in the Finals last year that they can play that way too. Also, between Hayes, Lyttle, Kraayeveld and McCoughtry, Atlanta started out an unlikely 6-9 from three-point range. Long and consistent history told us that would never hold up, while Minnesota’s team shooting would likely improve. By the break, the Lynx hadn’t just whittled down Atlanta’s lead – they were up 43-42.
  • McCoughtry played 8:48 in the first half, shooting 1-3 for 4 points. When Meadors decided that Price shouldn’t start the third quarter – she was on three fouls – again McCoughtry would’ve been the obvious replacement. Once again, Meadors went with Kraayeveld. Lobo said on the ESPN2 broadcast that Meadors claimed to have put in some extra plays or sets in the days McCoughtry had missed, but frankly that’s nonsense. Atlanta don’t run anything particularly complex offensively, and their defense is man-to-man or a 2-3 zone. Something tells me Angel probably could’ve handled that.
  • Lyttle opened the third quarter raining in jumpers from outside, with remarkable success. There was no way that would last.
  • Behind the rebounding and activity of Brunson, and the ridiculous offensive skills of Augustus, Minnesota started to take control. Atlanta had flown in from Washington horrendously early in the morning, after a game the night before, so fatigue was inevitably a factor. So was how damn good Minnesota can be once they’re rolling.
  • McCoughtry came back with 3:20 left in the third, and Atlanta trailing by 9. She had two assists and a driving layup within minutes, and the gap was down to 3.
  • That said, there didn’t seem to be too many high fives for McCoughtry or communication with her from her teammates. Admittedly, I’d never paid that much attention to how often they high-fived or talked in the past, but it definitely looked a little frosty. On the face of things, it doesn’t seem like it’s just Meadors that isn’t too happy with Angel right now.
  • Minnesota blew this game open with a stretch to close the third and open the fourth. The Dream took a bunch of perimeter jumpers which wouldn’t drop, while Minnesota moved the ball well and a combination of Augustus, Harris and Lindsay Whalen converted their chances. Whalen completed the run with a nice finish on the break – eventually, the Lynx had shown that they can still beat Atlanta at their own game. The contest wasn’t over at 73-60 with nearly nine minutes remaining, but it was looking pretty close.
  • It also seemed like Meadors had forgotten that Armintie Price existed. Starting someone else for the second half with her on three fouls was a little unusual, but not unprecedented. Waiting until there were five minutes left in the entire game to use her again was bizarre.
  • The Lynx lead was in double-digits until the final minute, and even then Minnesota were in no real jeopardy. Atlanta spent too much time trying to shoot their way back into it from outside, partly because the strength and solidity of Minnesota’s defense made it hard to penetrate into the lane. Things don’t tend to end well for the Dream when they keep shooting from distance.
  • Overall, it felt like Meadors was more interested in making her point loud and clear during this game than doing everything possible to win it. McCoughtry played 20 minutes and finished 4-12 for 14 points, 3 boards and 2 assists, but she was still left sitting at surprising moments. de Souza disappeared after her hot start, and for whatever reason barely played in the second half. With 10 games to go in the regular season, hopefully Atlanta can sort themselves out before we hit the playoffs. They’re certainly unlikely to be pushed out of the postseason, considering the teams below them. Of course, the trade deadline still doesn’t hit until Thursday. You never know…
  • The Lynx, once again, did a professional job, played their game, and took care of business. Augustus was a joy to watch (9-17 for 23 points, 6 boards, 4 assists), Brunson outstanding again (8-11 for 21 and 13), while Moore, Whalen and even Harris played important roles as well. San Antonio and Los Angeles seem to be drawing more attention lately, as the new kids on the block in the Western Conference – but the Lynx just keep winning.

 

Tulsa Shock 71 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 91

  • The Shock came in on a high, after grabbing their fourth win of the year against Chicago the night before. Unfortunately, the late leg injury picked up in that game by starting point guard Temeka Johnson – which led to an amusing piggy-back ride from Ivory Latta to carry her off the floor – had apparently proven serious enough to keep TJ out of this one. Latta took her spot in the starting lineup.
  • San Antonio continued with their regular starters – one loss after a 12-game win streak wasn’t going to cause any panic from head coach Dan Hughes.
  • The most noticeable aspect of the opening minutes had nothing to do with the basketball: where had Danielle Robinson’s hair gone? Yes, the flowing and often colourful locks have been chopped off, replaced by a very short, cropped look. Aw.
  • As for the game, San Antonio were trying to push the pace whenever they could against a team that was on a back-to-back. The Silver Stars scored efficiently in the opening quarter, but Tulsa were finding a way to keep up. Latta, Roneeka Hodges, Riquna Williams and Scholanda Dorrell all tossed in threes, while the tricky little guards also found a few lanes to the hoop. Tulsa like playing up-tempo as well, even if they did play another game 24 hours earlier. A Williams drive and finish gave them a 27-25 lead after a high-octane first quarter.
  • The opening four minutes of the second quarter proved to be the telling sequence of the game. Tulsa couldn’t stay as hot as they’d been from outside, while San Antonio used the long Shock misses and a few turnovers to drive their own offense. The depth of the Silver Stars also came to the fore. With Jia Perkins, Danielle Adams and Shenise Johnson coming off the bench, they had firepower and increased energy that Tulsa couldn’t compete with. Adams, Robinson and Perkins dominated the scoring, largely on layups after impressive teamwork and ball movement. As a unit, San Antonio dominated every facet of the game in that stretch, ran off a 17-0 sequence, and took over the game.
  • The Shock got more of a grip for the rest of the first half, with Courtney Paris receiving some extended minutes and making the most of them, but they still trailed 50-38 at halftime. San Antonio were well in control.
  • Talking of Paris, someone is going to have to be cut when Australian center Liz Cambage arrives next week and takes up a roster spot. Either Paris or Chante Black looks like the most likely option, so it was a good time for the local girl to make an impression. Kayla Pedersen was once again missing for the Shock, still out with the flu-like symptoms that have led to her missing several recent games, so a conspiracy theorist might wonder if there’s anything else behind that. After starting for Gary Kloppenburg most of this season, it seems unlikely that Pedersen would be let go (or traded). But you never know.
  • This was never a game in the second half. Tulsa did their usual job of fighting it out, but there seemed to be an air of resignation that without Temeka Johnson, and after their exertions against the Sky, their chances of turning over the Silver Stars were always slim. San Antonio stopped bothering to penetrate and attack the rim anywhere near as much as they had in the first half, but with Perkins and Adams still smoking hot from outside, it didn’t matter. The Silver Stars held on with ease.
  • For Tulsa, Latta and Williams were the primary scorers with 15 and 17 respectively, while Glory Johnson did what she could on the glass. At times, Sophia Young gave the young rookie a bit of a lesson. The Shock were destroyed on the glass, 42-24, by a Silver Stars team that often struggles to rebound themselves. It was just one more illustration that Johnson could really use some help down there.
  • A home game against Tulsa, with the visitors coming in on a back-to-back, was a nice way for San Antonio to slip back into their groove after the heavy defeat in LA on Thursday night. It’s also been a while since we saw one of those offensive barrages from Perkins or Adams, so that will have been a nice tonic for Silver Stars fans. The real tests come next week, with a trip to Minnesota and a game at home against Connecticut. Then we’ll see if they can kick-start another winning streak, or if the final stretch of the season might prove a little rockier for San Antonio.

 

Indiana Fever 85 @ Phoenix Mercury 72

  • Ladies and gentlemen, introducing at forward, from the University of Connecticut, standing at 6 feet, Diana Taurasi! Yes, after a hip flexor injury, the Olympic Games, the removal of four wisdom teeth, and a bad reaction to the antibiotics prescribed for that procedure – plus however significant you feel the effect of Mercury ‘tanking’ has been – she was finally back. The Mercury star replaced Nakia Sanford in the starting lineup, sliding DeWanna Bonner over to power forward.
  • As with Minnesota against Atlanta, Indiana played the straight-man role – no drama, and the same starting unit as usual.
  • Ever the show-woman, Taurasi’s first effort was a quick-fire three, which summarily swished through the net. Now she was really back.
  • Indiana’s offense was static and mediocre at best early on, even against the Mercury’s porous and oft-confused defense. Then Taurasi took a rest, Briann January knocked down a couple of jumpers, and the Fever were finally rolling. They led 20-12 to close the first quarter, which finished with a Taurasi jumper that got a remarkably friendly roll off the iron – even the rims were welcoming her back.
  • Also interesting in that first quarter, Jessica Davenport was back to being the first post off the bench for Indiana. After barely featuring in the Fever’s first few games following the Olympics, her performance in the fourth quarter against Seattle had reminded head coach Lin Dunn that she was around and of use. While they still consider themselves a running team, Phoenix have got some big, solid girls inside these days – Krystal Thomas, Avery Warley, Sanford – so Dunn was giving Davenport a shot ahead of Erlana Larkins or Sasha Goodlett. Or possibly Dunn was just reacting to the comeback over the Storm, and going with what worked in that one. It can be hard to tell what she’s thinking.
  • Phoenix made a fight of it in the second quarter, and in a two-minute stretch where Davenport took a rest, they had a ridiculous 8-1 advantage on the glass. Taurasi was giving the Mercury more life and focus to their offense, her presence giving everyone a lift. Plus, obviously, her scoring ability finally gave them an alternative to simply asking Bonner and Sammy Prahalis to create something and fire away. Handing the ball to Diana and keeping out of the way is always a nice fallback option.
  • Recent seven-day signing Briana Gilbreath isn’t afraid to shoot, either.
  • Indiana were using Davenport to provide a focus to their offense, but with Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas relatively quiet, they were yet to take charge of the game. They found themselves clinging to a 35-31 lead at the break.
  • And again – Taurasi kicked off the second half with another triple. The crowd was loving it.
  • For once, it wasn’t Catchings or Douglas that Indiana needed to break a game open. It came down to January and Davenport. Either using her size inside or turning to knock down her well-practiced elbow jumper, Davenport was having her best game for a while for the Fever. On the perimeter, January was clearly convinced that Prahalis had absolutely no chance of guarding her. She either went right by the rookie, or floated behind screens and knocked down threes instead. The Fever lead hit double digits in the third quarter.
  • Of course, Taurasi wasn’t letting her team disappear quite as quietly as they might have without her. She had a weak-side block, fed Thomas for a layup, then hit an insanely tough turnaround over Douglas for the final points of the third quarter, cutting the score to 59-54.
  • Indiana killed it again in the early moments of the fourth, this time for good. Finally, Catchings and Douglas reminded us of their importance to this team. Douglas had a three-point play driving past Taurasi, before Catchings hit a runner. Then Douglas drilled a three, Karima Christmas had a baseline drive, and Erin Phillips added her own three to finish it off. Indiana were up 16, and no Taurasi magic was pulling this one back.
  • So when everything was said and done, everyone got what they wanted from this contest. Indiana got a win, with January (8-15 for 22 points) and Davenport (4-5 for 12 points, 6 boards) stepping up to help out their stars offensively, while Catchings and Douglas both played under 30 minutes. Phoenix got to keep losing, continuing the lottery race with Tulsa and Washington. And we all finally got to see Diana Taurasi on a WNBA floor, firing up shots and making things happen. She finished 6-14 for 19 points, 3 boards, 3 assists and 2 blocks, in 24 minutes of action. Without a single dubious excuse required.

 

New York Liberty 62 @ Los Angeles Sparks 87

  • Australian wing Jenna O’Hea was back in the US, but still in street clothes for this particular game. She should be in uniform for LA’s next game on Thursday night. Her arrival meant the exit of guard Dawn Evans.
  • New York kept things simple with the same starting group they’ve used since the Olympic break.
  • The pace was frantic in the early moments, as LA tried to run New York off the floor in the same way they’d gone by San Antonio and Indiana in recent games. The Sparks were up 12-4 before The Liberty even noticed the game had started.
  • LA’s supposed MVP candidate Candace Parker has been disappointing since returning from London with a gold medal in her pocket, but it’s only been so noticeable because her teammates have been playing out of their minds. Alana Beard is clearly healthier, and was blanketing Cappie Pondexter at the defensive end; DeLisha Milton-Jones looks reenergised, and is shooting with confidence; Nneka Ogwumike is her typical all-action self; and Kristi Toliver can’t freaking miss. While Parker was blowing layups, and doing a poor job of trying to front Kia Vaughn defensively, the other LA starters took over the game. Beard had her second poke-away steal of the first quarter against Pondexter, leading to a ridiculously deep three from Toliver to close the opening period. Toliver had 10 already, and LA were up 25-18.
  • Unfortunately for the Sparks, their starters couldn’t play 40 minutes apiece. The benches got involved in the game in the second quarter, and the LA lead began to shrink. Pondexter and Plenette Pierson were the main weapons for New York – yet again – with a modicum of assistance from Kara Braxton. LA’s offense stalled once there were only a couple of their starters left on the floor.
  • The Sparks ended the half strongly once their starting unit was reunited, bar Parker. She was getting some extra ‘rest’ on the bench – which translated to “she’d been awful, and LA were better off with Jantel Lavender at center”. To Lavender’s credit, she was playing hard and giving LA some interior presence. Proving that there is at least something useful to come off the LA bench. The Sparks led 45-38 at halftime.
  • There was a scary moment for LA early in the third quarter, when Ogwumike landed awkwardly and immediately grabbed her right knee. However, she walked off under her own power, and was back in the game only a few minutes later. Crisis averted.
  • Meanwhile, New York made a bit of a charge. Or at least, Cappie Pondexter did. Cappie seemed to come to the conclusion that the only way her team had a chance in this game was if she took it over, which led to a series of remarkable pullups and fadeaways that kept on dropping in. Beard was doing her best, and the standard switching within the LA defense offered some help, but Cappie kept hitting. With a few minutes left in the third quarter, she’d dragged the score back to 56-54 LA.
  • But a basketball team cannot survive by one player alone. Or at least it doesn’t happen often. Ogwumike came back in to liven up the Sparks, the guards hit a couple of jumpers, Parker had some luck when she screwed up a behind-the-back dribble and got it right back for a layup, and LA were up by double-digits again. It didn’t take long.
  • LA threw some actual zone at the Liberty late in the third and on into the fourth quarter. Nice to see that they still have an option besides the switching man-to-man (which sometimes ends up looking like a zone), even if they don’t want to use it too often.
  • The other positive aspect of the final period for LA was that they killed this game off with a couple of backups on the floor. The Sparks bench has been so poor this year that O’Hea must’ve been sat on the bench wondering just how many minutes she might be expected to play. But after Lavender’s strong minutes earlier, Ebony Hoffman and Marissa Coleman were both out there while LA put the knife in New York. Hoffman even contributed a three, although Toliver was once again the star in the fourth quarter. She’s got a couple of inches on Leilani Mitchell, plus the little fade Toliver has on her jump shot gives her extra room, and she clearly felt like she could shoot over Mitchell with ease. There were a couple of drives for layups and to draw fouls as well, just to show she’s not quite a one-trick pony. With only Pondexter and Pierson offering anything all night for New York on offense, they couldn’t answer.
  • It was yet another strong performance from the Sparks, led offensively by Toliver’s 8-13 for 26 points. With her scoring ability and Beard’s reinvigorated two-way game, that backcourt is just scary. Toliver’s shooting 62% from the field since the Olympic break, by the way. Despite Parker’s struggles, there was better balance to LA than New York, with all the starters posing a scoring threat, and the team defense is significantly more cohesive than it used to be. This was their ninth straight win, keeping their momentum rolling before they head off on a five-game roadtrip. It starts in Tulsa and Chicago, so they’ll be fairly confident of extending the streak even further.
  • LA is not an easy place to visit these days, but the issue for New York has become a familiar one. The defense has at least reached the level of ‘passable’ most of the time, but too often the offense is becoming Pondexter, Pierson, and not much else. Essence Carson has been very quiet since losing her starting spot for the second half of the season, which leaves them hoping one of the other posts (Vaughn or Braxton, typically) grabs a few buckets, or Mitchell gets hot from outside. Pierson’s hustle, energy and finishing ability inside is great, and Cappie’s an electric scorer, but you need more in this league against the better teams. And LA have become one of those teams.

 

Notes

Told you there might be a new arrival on the way in Washington. They signed Brazilian wing Iziane Castro Marques, most recently of the Atlanta Dream, in the hope she can boost their scoring options. Izi can be fun to watch on her hot nights, although they were few and far between last season in Atlanta. She at least gives the Mystics a little extra firepower. Guard Natasha Lacy was cut to make room, but she’ll get another shot somewhere, in training camp next season if not sooner. At a guess, the Castro Marques deal is for at least one season on top of this one, although the official release didn’t confirm that (and I’m yet to hear either way from other sources).

In today’s first game, which will be covered in tomorrow’s column, both Sylvia Fowles and Tamera Young were out due to ‘personal reasons’. There’s no news yet on whether there’s actually something wrong, or if the Sky were taking a backhanded shot at the Dream’s recent excuses. Or maybe ‘personal reasons’ has simply become the catch-all justification for players missing WNBA games.

 

Upcoming Games

Sunday August 26th (today):

Chicago @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

New York @ Seattle, 9pm ET

—–

Monday August 27th (tomorrow):

None

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