WNBA Today, 08/31/2012: Five games, zero trades

Apologies for the lateness of this posting, but while yesterday was the trade deadline in the WNBA, today was the transfer deadline for English Premier League soccer teams. And because something actually happens on deadline day over here, following those events was higher up my priority list than detailing last night’s WNBA action.

In case there’s anyone still wondering, no trades whatsoever took place before the WNBA deadline. No big deal for Angel McCoughtry, no tiny deal for the 11th player on the end of a lottery team’s bench. In Connecticut, Tan White signed contract extension for an extra year and Jessica Moore was signed through the end of this season. That was it for transaction news league-wide. Ah well, maybe next year. On to the basketball.

 

Indiana Fever 76 @ New York Liberty 63 and

Washington Mystics 59 @ Atlanta Dream 82

  • Yes, for the first time in WNBAlien history (but probably not the last) we’re combining two games into one Bullet Point Breakdown entry. Two tight but exceedingly dull first-halves led into comfortable second-half victories, so this is all they deserve.
  • New York and Indiana had their expected starting fives on the floor again, while Atlanta and Washington were also both the same as in their previous appearances. Which meant Matee Ajavon kept her starting spot for the Mystics, and Angel McCoughtry was still nowhere to be seen for the Dream.
  • Again, remarkably tedious first-halves. In New York, Indiana’s offense was largely coming down to whether Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas could hit shots, and their limited accuracy kept the Fever’s offense from being particularly effective. The Liberty themselves were turning the ball over so often that they barely even seemed to have the chance to take a shot. Indiana led 30-26 at halftime.
  • Meanwhile in Atlanta, the turnovers were just as plentiful, but more evenly spread between the opponents. Sancho Lyttle – thank the heavens – was looking to pass more from the top of the arc rather than fire up threes, but the Dream were missing a host of layups even when they held on to the ball long enough to shoot. Between Crystal Langhorne’s ability to actually finish inside and Monique Currie hitting a few shots, Washington were actually competitive in the first half, and finished it up 33-31.
  • Between some aggressive driving from Catchings, a shot or two from Douglas and Shavonte Zellous, and the continuing stream of Liberty turnovers, Indiana pushed their lead to double-digits early in the second half. They were mostly staying out of the 2-3 zone that they’ve used so frequently since the Olympic break, keeping the pressure up within their man-to-man and freely switching when necessary.
  • Atlanta played with more defensive activity and intensity in the second half, and Washington’s offense capitulated. The Mystics hung around through much of the third quarter because the Dream’s own offense wasn’t exactly running like a well-oiled machine, but the writing was already on the wall. Even without McCoughtry, this Atlanta team has more than enough to beat Washington at this point.
  • Erika de Souza had a strong game for the Dream, especially in the second half. She’s got a big body and she knows how to use it to create room and present a target inside for her teammates to pass to. It’s one of the reasons that Lyttle hanging around on the perimeter isn’t always a terrible idea, because she’s so tall and long that she’s one of their best options to feed Erika inside. And Lyttle’s a willing passer when she stops thinking “Three! Three! Three!”
  • Beyond that, of course, the main aspects of Atlanta taking over the game came down to their running attack. Armintie Price and Tiffany Hayes fill the lanes on the break, and leak out for outlet passes at every possible opportunity. It was that speed that killed Washington off in the fourth quarter, as Atlanta quite literally ran away from them.
  • Back in New York, we at least still had something resembling a contest in the second half. Cappie Pondexter was trying to shoot the Liberty back into the game, and for the first time in what feels like an age, Essence Carson was offering some assistance.
  • There was also an interesting – albeit incredibly brief – sequence where New York coach John Whisenant tried something a little different. Instead of the regular rotation of his four bigs, Nicole Powell and Alex Montgomery closed the third quarter as the forwards, with Kara Braxton at center as the only ‘true’ post. Montgomery gave the Liberty an extra injection of energy, made a couple of nice plays, and then spent the entire fourth quarter back on the bench.
  • New York started to look like the energy-sapping west coast road trip they’d just returned from was catching up to them in the fourth quarter. Fever center Jessica Davenport finally started to pick up a few points inside, Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen sank threes, and the Indiana lead that had shrunk to a single point early in the fourth ballooned back to double-figures. Even with Carson and Pondexter continuing to attack offensively, the Liberty couldn’t get enough stops against the dynamic duo of Catchings and Douglas the rest of the way, and Indiana closed the game out reasonably comfortably.
  • Credit Atlanta for keeping to their typical gameplan, moving the ball well, and finding the reserves of energy to put the Mystics away in the second half. All the McCoughtry drama, plus five games in eight days with a short bench (Yelena Leuchanka is still out with a wrist injury, while Laurie Koehn remains virtually useless), must’ve been tiring. But eventually they did what every team should – beat the Mystics. Nothing new for Washington. Still poor when their opponent is awake enough to take care of them, still can’t avoid turnovers, still need a new coach. They’re playing out the string.
  • For New York, the loss will be worth it if it snaps Carson out of her slump. She finished 8-13 for 18 points, matching Pondexter’s own 18. They’ve got five more home games coming up over the next 10 days, including four against poor teams. This stretch will likely make or break their playoff hopes. Indiana have quietly won 6 of their 7 games since the Olympic break, albeit mostly beating struggling teams. This late in the season, they still seem to be trying things out. The rotation is fluctuating (occasionally it seems calculated based on matchups, but often it feels like a crapshoot). They also broke out what looked almost like a 2-3/3-2 combo-zone defense, although it might’ve just been New York’s limited offense making their floating man-to-man look strange. They’ve got 10 games left to work out the kinks before the playoffs.

 

Connecticut Sun 84 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 73

  • Kelsey Griffin kept her starting spot at power forward for the Sun, but it may not have been entirely by choice. Asjha Jones is still out with her left achilles injury – “I don’t know when she may be back, but it won’t be soon,” according to Sun coach Mike Thibault – and she’s now been joined on the sidelines by backup Mistie Mims, out with a pulled quad. That left Griffin and veteran Jessica Moore as the only healthy posts on the roster besides star center Tina Charles.
  • San Antonio had their regular starting group on the floor to begin the game.
  • Tipping off midway through the two snoozefests detailed above, this game was a blessed relief after sitting through those. Both of these teams are gloriously unselfish, both move the ball well, and both came out for this game attacking with pace. There was some solid defense as well, but the rhythm and speed of the offenses was often coming out on top.
  • Having undoubtedly seen Chicago use a 2-3 zone to such positive effect against the Sun a few days earlier, San Antonio broke out their version early in the second quarter. They didn’t stay in it for long. Danielle McCray, receiving some minutes again due to the Sun injuries, immediately hit a three right over the top of the zone, and Kara Lawson followed suit on the very next possession. Connecticut had a 32-24 lead out of nowhere, and San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes called a timeout. The zone was gone when the teams came back on the floor – although Lawson instantly hit another three against their man-to-man, so maybe the type of defense wasn’t really at fault.
  • With four minutes left in the first half, San Antonio center Jayne Appel stepped on Allison Hightower’s foot in a completely innocuous passage of play. Appel wasn’t even jumping, just walking down the lane while Hightower chased after Becky Hammon. Appel hobbled back to the locker room, although she wasn’t moving too badly. It was diagnosed as a right ankle sprain, and she never returned to the game.
  • Fortunately for San Antonio, Appel’s absence meant extra minutes for Danielle Adams, and she was making the most of them. She had a streak of points late in the first half, on a variety of jumpers, threes and free throws. Unfortunately for the Silver Stars, they missed Appel at the other end, where she’d at least made Tina Charles’s life a little difficult. Connecticut were scoring just as freely as Adams.
  • Adams also had a disappointing stretch in the final seconds of the half, giving up a turnover to Griffin under her own basket, before fouling Griffin for a three-point play immediately afterwards. Then as time expired, Renee Montgomery broke the length of the court and dropped in a floater right over Adams, for a 52-40 Connecticut lead at the break.
  • Should probably mention the officiating as well, simply because everyone hated it. By the second half, it felt like both teams would’ve happily sent the refs home and called their own fouls instead. There were technical fouls called on both Hammon and Charles in the first half for overly incredulous reactions to calls or no-calls.
  • The second half felt like an extended example of brinksmanship. San Antonio were constantly floating almost within range of pulling back into the game, while Connecticut repeatedly made the one defensive play or big shot necessary to hold them at arm’s length. The Sun lead was never bigger than 14, and never smaller than 6, for the entire second half.
  • San Antonio’s attack in the third quarter, led by Hammon and Young, forced Connecticut into the penalty very quickly. However, the Sun did a solid job of not allowing that to make their defense too passive, or sending the Silver Stars to the line too frequently for the rest of the period. The Sun offense went cold for a long stretch in the third quarter, with their shooters no longer hitting from outside, but their defense kept them afloat.
  • The fourth quarter was a little more comfortable for the Sun, with most of it spent slightly further in front. Lawson was the primary player making shots, with another big three from McCray helping out, and San Antonio could just never quite creep close enough.
  • Allison Hightower had a strange game for the Sun. She was doing a little bit of everything, as usual. Among other things, that meant chasing Hammon around most of the afternoon, and Hightower was remarkably successful at turning her into purely a distributor (the Silver Stars guard finished with 8 assists, but just 2-3 from the floor). But while she played tough defense, and racked up 8 assists, 4 boards, 2 blocks and 2 steals (plus zero turnovers), Hightower couldn’t hit a damn thing all night. She eventually finished 1-12 from the floor for two points (the one she made was a breakaway layup). It’s an indication of how much her confidence has grown that she kept trying to score even with all those misses. It’s an indication of how valuable she’s become to the Sun that Mike Thibault left her in the game.
  • Connecticut will be happy to have pulled out another win against a strong team, on the road, and without Asjha Jones. They miss her, and her ability to take pressure off Charles, but Griffin had a decent game playing heavy minutes against San Antonio. She was 5-12 for 13 points and 10 boards in 34 minutes, more action than she’s seen in a long time in a WNBA game. Charles was 9-17 for 20 and 10, in her customary role at the center of everything for the Sun.
  • There’s no need for San Antonio to panic, after losing three of their last four games, but a few little holes are starting to show. They haven’t gotten much out of Shameka Christon or Shenise Johnson lately, so they don’t look quite as deep as they seemed during their long winning streak. Also, they’re so small when they need to play Danielle Robinson, Hammon and Jia Perkins together to provide perimeter offense, that it creates problems defensively against good teams. But mostly it’s just the schedule. They ran into Minnesota, LA and Connecticut in the space of eight days. That’d be tough on anyone.

 

Los Angeles Sparks 85 @ Tulsa Shock 99

  • Usual starters for Los Angeles; Tulsa were without point guard Temeka Johnson again due to an ‘abdominal/ankle injury’ according to the official box score. We saw the ankle injury occur last week, but the abdominal part was new. Regardless of the ailment, she didn’t dress, and Ivory Latta started in her place at the point.
  • Let’s get this out of the way early: Candace Parker has been rubbish since the Olympic break, and this game was no better. She’s missing shots you’d expect her to convert, drifting through long sequences without making an impact, and playing utterly half-hearted defense (which isn’t new, but looks even worse right now). Apparently she’s playing through a knee injury of some sort, which would make sense considering how she’s performing. If that’s the case, and rest would help, then she needs to sit for a couple of weeks. At worst, LA would drop to the third seed in the West. Big deal. The Sparks can win on the road anyway, so take your chances that you can do it in the playoffs. A #1 or #2 seed would be nowhere near as valuable as a healthy Parker in the postseason.
  • Fortunately for Parker and LA, Kristi Toliver’s been playing out of her mind since the break. She was 5-5 in the first quarter of this game, including 3-3 from beyond the arc, to carry most of the Sparks’ offense. People don’t shoot this well in their dreams.
  • Toliver wasn’t receiving a great deal of help, however, and Tulsa were shooting well from outside themselves to keep pace.
  • LA head coach Carol Ross was unusually willing to use several of her reserves at the same time in the second quarter, apparently feeling that she could get away with it against Tulsa. It worked out fine for the Sparks, with Jantel Lavender in particular proving rather more effective than the player she replaced (Parker).
  • Latta was effective both shooting from outside and working the pick-and-roll with Glory Johnson, but with Alana Beard joining Toliver in heating up from outside, LA built a small lead. A ridiculous, off-balance leaning heave from Toliver somehow went in to close the half – she was just that hot – and LA led 50-42 at the interval.
  • The third quarter was the extraordinary, pivotal section of this game. Tulsa didn’t just dominate it, they blew the doors off the arena and left the Sparks in tatters. They even did it without much impact from Glory Johnson, who picked up her third and fourth fouls in quick succession inside the opening two minutes of the period. Then the Shock just started to rain in points at will.
  • This is part of where you have to give Gary Kloppenburg credit for the work he’s done this season as Tulsa’s head coach. This team has progressed. No longer is every possession Shock just a matter of someone creating their own shot, or jacking it up from outside before they’ve run anything. The ball’s moving, and the perimeter players are far more aware now that they can penetrate to create, not necessarily to score. They were 6-9 from three-point range in the third quarter, either on ball rotation where they made the extra pass, or on kick-outs after drawing the defense. Klopp had also clearly drilled his team in the knowledge that LA struggle against the pick-and-roll so they were utilising that too.
  • Defensively, they’re annoying and quick, and make you work for everything. Their rotation has improved as well, meaning that there’s still some backup if you can beat the first line of the defense.
  • The Sparks, of course, played a pretty significant role in their own downfall. There were copious turnovers in the third quarter, and when they did get shots in the air they were virtually all from the perimeter. For whatever ridiculous reason, Toliver wasn’t the one taking them, putting only one shot in the air through the entire period. She also had a couple of ugly turnovers, as LA just collapsed.
  • Ross tried to go to her bench to find a solution, but her group of reserves just doesn’t have many answers. The Shock won the third quarter an unreal 36-12, and had completely taken over the game.
  • Confidence is a wonderful thing in basketball. The exact same group of players, running the exact same system, can look entirely different when confidence is running through them. The fourth quarter was an absolute cakewalk for the Shock. They’d broken the Sparks in the third, and nothing was turning this around. Latta was having the game of her life, the crowd were enjoying the hell out of it, and had every right to. Tulsa coasted home to their second straight victory.
  • This Shock team – without their usual starting point guard, remember – played fantastically in the second half. They’ve really developed into a proper professional basketball team, not that bunch of misfits that was drifting through the WNBA for the last couple of years. They made LA’s defense, which has seemed improved in most of their games since the break, look absolutely terrible. They picked it apart, moving the ball to the gaps, and moving themselves to the extent that LA’s defense kept losing track of them. Latta was 8-15 for 21 points and 14 assists, with only 2 turnovers. Seven Shock players finished the game with double-digit scoring, in a thoroughly deserved victory. None of these players are thinking about draft position or ping-pong ball percentages – they’re playing hard, and playing to win.
  • This was LA’s second loss to Tulsa this season. The last one was by 16 points, and yet this was somehow even more embarrassing. They were torn apart. Losing isn’t that big a deal, even to a team from the WNBA’s basement. It’s the holes they showed up in the Sparks’ defense, and the continuing weak performance of Parker. Why Toliver stopped shooting, it’s hard to tell, but that’s easily fixable in future games. Parker’s mobility, or her attitude, or just her mentality – whatever the hell’s wrong – seems to be a more complex issue. Even with the way the other four LA starters have played since the Olympic break, their chances of a championship are decidedly slim if Candace continues playing like this.

 

Phoenix Mercury 75 @ Seattle Storm 68

  • Last up, the nightcap in Seattle. Diana Taurasi was once again in uniform for the Mercury, returning to an arena where the fans love to hate her, and she ‘loves’ them right back. Seattle again had Lauren Jackson starting at center, and all 11 players available.
  • It was a messy opening quarter, although Samantha Prahalis and Taurasi opened with back-to-back threes to fire Phoenix off to a quick start. Seattle had none of the pace to their play that had energised their offense in a couple of recent games, so they were slow and ponderous with the ball much of the time. Still, this was the Mercury they were playing, and Phoenix haven’t been able to score efficiently all season. So Tina Thompson came into the game late in the first quarter, hit a trademark three from NBA-range (or simply ‘Tina Thompson range’ in WNBA circles), and Seattle held an 18-17 lead to close the opening quarter.
  • But it didn’t get any better for the Storm in the second. Phoenix had settled into a 2-3 zone defense in the early minutes – not their old ‘rover’ zone, but a pretty standard 2-3 – and Seattle were making a meal of trying to break it down. Storm head coach Brian Agler was using of his new-found depth, bringing in the likes of Ann Wauters, Svetlana Abrosimova, Shekinna Stricklen and Ewelina Kobryn to offer extra options, but little changed. They couldn’t hit anything much, and the whole game was messy.
  • Phoenix, meanwhile, were at least relaxed about how things were going. They know they’re not that good, but they also know that there’s very little pressure on them at this stage. DeWanna Bonner hit a few shots, Taurasi contributed a typical quickfire pullup three, and the Mercury led 36-32 at halftime.
  • Lauren Jackson still couldn’t find her shot.
  • Rather than improving in the second half, after the probable tongue-lashing delivered by Agler during the break, Seattle seemed to deteriorate even further. Whenever they could force the ball inside, usually to Camille Little, the ball was getting stripped away by the collapsing zone. It led to several Storm turnovers and empty possessions. There just didn’t seem to be much energy in the Storm performance. In fact, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of energy in the usually noisy Key Arena. Maybe everyone had shown up expecting an easy win.
  • Everyone woke up a little when Taurasi said one of the magic words to an official halfway through the third quarter, and picked up a technical foul. With Tulsa’s Temeka Johnson already on 6 techs for the season, Taurasi might not have time to catch up for her traditional spot atop the league’s technical foul list. But she’ll give it a try.
  • Seattle even made something resembling a run at that point, with a Tanisha Wright three, a Thompson jumper, and a pair of Jackson free throws giving them their first lead of the half. Thompson in particular was providing a boost whenever Agler found time for her off the bench.
  • A rare piece of solid inside-out ball movement found Stricklen for a three late in the third, but Prahalis quickly countered with a floater in the lane to quiet the crowd before the end of the period. That left it tied at 54 heading to the final period.
  • Prahalis kept everyone quiet by hitting a baseline leaner over Sue Bird to open the fourth as well.
  • One disappointing aspect of the second half was the Brian Agler had come over all Agler-y again. Which is to say that he’d significantly shortened his rotation, with Wauters and Abrosimova barely seeing the floor, and Kobryn not making it out there at all (plus Alysha Clark had kept her warm-ups on all night). Against the Mercury, with all their injured players, for once one of the advantages Seattle has is depth. But he was sticking with the six or seven players he trusts the most, and barely using the others. Bird and Wright in particular were receiving virtually no rest at all.
  • And ultimately, Seattle got what they deserved in the fourth quarter. They still weren’t moving the ball well enough, couldn’t convert on the rare occasions they did move it inside, and certainly couldn’t hit much from the perimeter. Phoenix’s lead came down to 3 points a couple of times, because the Mercury themselves insisted on taking terrible shots that had little chance of success.
  • But it was Phoenix who made the necessary plays down the stretch. Bird had a couple of awful passes forced into traffic that were instant turnovers; and Wright, Bird and Stricklen all forced terrible shots in the waning minutes. Phoenix had a nice backdoor cut by Bonner which got her a layup from a Taurasi feed, and then Prahalis closed it out. The rookie guard drove and drew a foul on Jackson, then hit both free throws, before driving again to hit a nice floater right over the top of LJ. The kid’s got guts, and that was the game.
  • Virtually locked in the fourth spot in the Western Conference, wins and losses don’t mean a great deal to Seattle right now. But moribund performances like this one don’t inspire confidence. They’re trying to reintegrate the likes of Jackson, Wauters and Thompson after absence and injury, but they should be able to play better than this by instinct. In fact, they’ve already played better than this with these players, inside the last week. The report card on this one is ‘must do better’, both for the players and Agler.
  • While she didn’t actually play that well, the return of Taurasi adds extra life to this Phoenix team. She energises everybody. But with all due respect to the Mercury, and the effort they expended creating turnovers and holding the Storm at bay with that 2-3 zone they played all night, most of this win came down to how poorly Seattle played. Bonner, Prahalis and Taurasi took 51 of Phoenix’s 66 shots on the night, and hit only 17 of them. It proved to be enough.

 

Notes

Along with Connecticut’s moves mentioned in the introduction at the start of this piece, Phoenix made a switch today, cutting Alexis Gray-Lawson and signing Lynetta Kizer through the rest of the season. Gray-Lawson has struggled with an ankle injury for a while, and hasn’t performed well this year even when she has played, so this isn’t a surprise. She may well receive an invite to Mercury training camp next season though, with the chance to make her case for returning to the team.

 

Upcoming Games

Friday August 31st (today)

Tulsa @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

—–

Saturday September 1st (tomorrow)

Washington @ New York, 4pm ET

Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET

San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

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