WNBA Today, 09/02/2012: Triple-header topped off by Merc surprise

Triple-header Saturday in the WNBA, with the three games neatly spread out so that you could catch all of them with a little rest inbetween, or pick and choose to your heart’s content. Of course, inevitably, the only one worth watching finished when the sun was coming up in my part of the world, but you still have to applaud the effort of the schedulers. This was a significant upgrade on nights when four games take place simultaneously, WNBA.

On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.

 

Washington Mystics 73 @ New York Liberty 79

  • Both teams made changes to their starting lineups. Trudi Lacey shuffled her Mystics pack yet again, promoting Noelle Quinn over Matee Ajavon at shooting guard (for the second time in 10 days), and Ashley Robinson over Michelle Snow at center. Shifting deckchairs on the Titanic, again.
  • New York’s changes at least seemed to serve a purpose. Essence Carson replaced Leilani Mitchell in the backcourt, while Kara Braxton came in for Kia Vaughn at center. Essentially, John Whisenant was putting all his scorers on the floor from the beginning. Using Carson over Mitchell would seem to put more pressure on Cappie Pondexter to run the offense, but Carson can pass the ball as well and offers more of a threat to score. Vaughn’s barely been involved in the offense lately, while Braxton is always looking to score while she’s on the floor – even if she can’t keep moving for long. This was a clear effort to create more offense.
  • It sort of worked in the early stages, but a lot of New York possessions were boiling down to Carson or Pondexter going one-on-one. That’s useful on occasion, but you don’t want to revolve your entire offense around it.
  • For Washington, Monique Currie was driving, drawing fouls as she often does. Crystal Langhorne was finishing inside, as she typically does when they can get her the ball. And the guards hit a couple of threes. That was enough to hang around in the first quarter.
  • However, Washington’s offense disintegrated in the second period, as their common affliction – turnover disease – returned with a vengeance. The Liberty still had Pondexter and Carson making plays, and received a boost when the aggressive and effective version of Kara Braxton made an appearance. She and Michelle Snow – a similarly talented yet painfully frustrating center – went at each other, and both scored buckets past the other’s half-hearted defense. Braxton eventually came out on top by making one or two extra plays, and having guards who could find her in better positions. The Liberty were up 45-32 by halftime.
  • In fairness to the Mystics, they showed a little fight in the second half, but the lead was never below 8 points until the very last shot of the game. Washington still simply aren’t very good, and their players are starting to look as tired of playing in these games as we are of watching them.
  • This was still a useful outing for New York, even if it was against a largely useless opponent. The lineup changes worked, with Carson finishing 8-13 for 20 points and 6 assists, and Braxton 7-10 for 14 points (although only 3 boards in 22 minutes is ridiculous for someone of her size). Returning to the starting lineup seemed to remind Carson that while they need her to score, she can create for others as well. She ran the pick-and-roll nicely at times, and looked to feed the post, rather than constantly trying to create her own shot. It doesn’t leave them a lot of production coming off the bench – unless Vaughn snaps out of her malaise, or Mitchell has one of her hot nights from outside – but they may have to try to ride this group for the rest of the year. Plenette Pierson’s cooled off since her hot streak right out of the Olympic break, and isn’t playing with quite the same energy any more. Hopefully that will return, now that she has extra players taking the offensive pressure off her shoulders.

 

Chicago Sky 64 @ Indiana Fever 81

  • Sky fans, bear in mind throughout this review that we’ll be covering you again tomorrow, and it’s going to be an awful lot more complimentary. Sunday went a lot better than Saturday for your ladies.
  • There was positive news for Chicago before the tip-off, with star center Sylvia Fowles returning after missing two games for unspecified ‘personal reasons’. She immediately returned to the starting lineup ahead of Carolyn Swords, while wing Tamera Young also regained her starting spot, replacing Shay Murphy. Indiana opened with the same five we’ve become accustomed to this season.
  • For the first 7 minutes or so, everything went fantastically for Chicago. They were penetrating and attacking, playing with more speed than we’ve seen from them for most of the season, and generally carrying over some of the positive elements from their home-and-home against Connecticut last week. The return of Fowles hadn’t stifled them at all. Also, Indiana couldn’t hit a shot to save their lives.
  • Then Briann January and Karima Christmas – who was only on the floor due to early foul trouble for Shavonte Zellous – knocked down a bunch of threes, Indiana remembered how to score, and Chicago began the swift process of falling to pieces.
  • Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. They’ve killed Chicago all season long (and in previous years), and it kicked in again in this game. It wasn’t the brand where they desperately try to force the ball in to Fowles and repeatedly screw it up. At the very least, they’d avoided slipping back into that painful offense. But sloppy passes, mental errors, illegal screens – they were finding every other method of handing over possession.
  • The Sky’s turnovers and the frequent ensuing breaks helped Indiana find some offensive rhythm, with Katie Douglas in particular capitalising. Chicago weren’t doing a good job of forcing her right in the halfcourt – she’s a lefty, and one of the most one-handed players in the entire league – but when she was ahead of the field for layups they didn’t even have the chance.
  • Chicago’s turnovers also inevitably dented their own confidence, and their ball movement suffered. When they did hold on to it long enough to try to score, too many possessions ended in one-on-one drives or shots, rather than rotation or teamwork. It wasn’t pretty, and Indiana were 45-31 ahead by halftime. They’d trailed 18-8 after Chicago’s hot start.
  • As with the earlier game, this was never a contest in the second half. Indiana’s lead was always at least 12, and they eventually coasted home for the win. There was one brief unsettling sequence for Indiana, when they started the fourth quarter with Douglas and Tamika Catchings on the bench and Chicago made a quick run. Catchings returned, instantly snared a January airball and reversed in the putback while being fouled for a three-point play, killing the game off again. There’d been no need to worry.
  • The Sky were certainly worried early in the third quarter, when Fowles was innocently jogging downcourt and tripped over January’s foot. Fowles instantly started hobbling, with what looked like a right ankle injury. Her right leg was already heavily strapped and protected, so it didn’t look good when she limped to the bench before returning to the locker room. She never came back into the game. However, one benefit of publishing this piece so late is that we already know that she played and looked reasonably healthy in the Sky’s game against Los Angeles the following night. So it can’t have been too bad.
  • This was a poor night for the Sky. Once Indiana started making outside shots, and Chicago started turning the ball over, everything just snowballed and the Sky could never find a way to stop it. Epiphanny Prince scored 22 points – although she needed 19 shots to get there – while the only other bright spot was another solid game from Swords as Fowles’s fill-in. Another game to forget for Chicago in a long line of them in recent months.
  • The strange aspect of Indiana’s recent run is that they’ve won 6 out of 7 since the Olympic break, and yet still don’t look particularly convincing. They’re a decent team; they’ll often get hot from outside; they’ve got players who can make plays defensively – but there doesn’t seem to be a true reliability to their offense, or a confidence and consistency in what they’re doing from night to night. Over the course of the season, they’ve been solidly the second-best team in the Eastern Conference – and it’s not like Connecticut have looked like a dominant, dead-cert Finals team themselves. But the Fever just seem consistently unreliable. A playoff run when the postseason gets underway wouldn’t be a huge shock, if they managed to turn it on enough to sneak through. But it also would hardly be a big surprise to see them swept away in the opening round.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 90 @ Phoenix Mercury 94

  • Apparently, the right ankle injury that seemed largely innocuous when Jayne Appel picked it up against Connecticut on Thursday night, was a little worse than it looked. She was in street clothes for this game, forcing a change to San Antonio’s starting lineup for the first time in months. Danielle Adams came in at center.
  • Phoenix had the same group as for their win in Seattle, which meant another appearance for Diana Taurasi. Good to see that winning a game hadn’t led the Mercury to discover an ailment that could keep her off the floor.
  • Promoting Adams into their starting five changes a lot of things for San Antonio, because she’s a completely different player from Appel. Adams offers an extra scoring option, but that starting unit already has a variety of scorers within it. Appel is the bits and pieces player, who fills the lane defensively, sets some screens, grabs some boards, and only occasionally chips in a point or two. Also, obviously, San Antonio’s bench loses a significant part of its firepower. If Appel’s injury persists, we might see Tangela Smith or Ziomara Morrison starting at the 5, purely to keep the rotation closer to what’s been established this year. They’re not like-for-like replacements for Appel by any means, but it might make for a smoother fit.
  • Phoenix are playing incredibly loose right now. Taurasi’s return has simultaneously relaxed and energised everybody, providing a focus for her teammates to work around, and her characteristic life-of-the-party attitude is pushing them to enjoy playing again. Samantha Prahalis, Alexis Hornbuckle and Taurasi herself were raining threes early in this game, keeping Phoenix in it.
  • Because at the other end, a theme for the evening was developing – no one in a Mercury uniform could guard Sophia Young, and Sophia Young knew it. She had all kinds of finishes on pretty post moves, pick-and-rolls, or just running the floor. The likes of Nakia Sanford, Krystal Thomas and Avery Warley had no chance; DeWanna Bonner was the only Mercury defender with even a prayer of stopping her.
  • Young already had 14 early in the second quarter, when San Antonio took a 33-27 lead – and Phoenix exploded. Young, Adams and Jia Perkins were all on the bench, with San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes expecting Becky Hammon to be able to carry his usually reliable bench players. Suddenly, the Mercury were hitting everything from outside, driving for layups as well, while San Antonio fired up quick shots and hit nothing. Even Phoenix’s recent rookie pick-up Briana Gilbreath drained a couple of threes in a 23-2 Mercury run that took less than 6 minutes of playing time.
  • Young, Adams, Perkins and Danielle Robinson all came back in during that Phoenix streak, but couldn’t stop the rot. The Mercury led 52-41 at halftime – Phoenix having scored 5 more points already than they’d managed in an entire game against San Antonio two weeks earlier. This was the fun, exciting brand of basketball that we used to see regularly from the Mercury, but which has disappeared this season under the weight of all their injuries. Plus they were 9-17 from three-point range in the first half, which helped the scoring along nicely.
  • San Antonio struggled for much of the second half to get a grip on the game. Adams picked up her fourth and fifth fouls in quick succession early in the third quarter, sending her to the bench (the refs were calling all kinds of bumping fouls inside all night, while ignoring plenty of other contact – it was a frustrating evening for many of the posts). With Hammon and Perkins both having off-nights, Young remained the only reliable scoring option. Bizarrely, Phoenix were more balanced, moving the ball and finding production from different areas.
  • DeWanna Bonner took a lot of those shots, and as has often been the case this season, missed a lot of them. But she already looks more comfortable with Taurasi on the floor. It allows her to take more shots within the offense, and make better, more considered decisions. Plus she can focus defensively, rather than exerting all her energy trying to carry the scoring load. Although she still found a way to jack up 24 shots by the end of the night.
  • Taurasi picked up another technical foul. That’s two, for those tracking whether she can chase down the league lead (currently at six) before the end of the season. She’s led the WNBA in technical fouls for each of the last four years.
  • Phoenix’s advantage floated around 10 points for much of the second half, until San Antonio finally started making inroads in the last 4 minutes of the game. Adams was back in, and started offering Young some support on the scoreboard. She had a bunch of threes and putbacks, and after an incredibly dumb offensive foul by Hornbuckle – she reached out and shoved Perkins for no particular reason – Adams nailed another triple to cut the score to 83-80. It looked like San Antonio might just pull this out of the fire.
  • But even though Hammon finally drilled a long three in the final minute, Phoenix made more plays down the stretch. After Young couldn’t buy a call on a drive with plenty of contact, Taurasi drew a whistle while making a tough fallaway at the other end. Bonner attracted a gaggle of defenders before passing over the top of them to a wide open Krystal Thomas under the hoop. Then Taurasi spun into the lane, dropped the ball off to Thomas on the low block, and she dropped in a pretty mini-hook with her left hand. That put the Mercury up by 4 with 19 seconds left, and the game was iced when Hammon was called for travelling while trying to make something happen in the lane. This Mercury team that was supposed to have given up on the 2012 season had won their second game in a row.
  • One was a fluke, but two is becoming a habit, and you have to give Phoenix some credit for how they performed. Head coach Corey Gaines has his faults, but he does an impressive job of making sure his young players have absolutely no fear on the court. There’s no reticence or passivity in the play of these kids, and the likes of Prahalis, Thomas and Gilbreath all made big plays. Taurasi herself was 8-15 for 25 points and 4 assists to lead the offense. They’re not going anywhere except the lottery, but this team is going to enjoy playing spoiler for their remaining games.
  • San Antonio lost their fourth game in their last five, and must be getting a little worried by now. Hammon has slid into a mini-slump, failing to score more than 13 points in any of those five games. She’s the engine that makes this machine run, so it’s been a tough stretch for the Silver Stars. On the bright side, Sophia Young was absolutely outstanding in this game, finishing 14-20 for 32 points and 8 boards. Adams, when she could stay on the court, was useful as well, putting up 21 points on 6-11 shooting. But that was about it. Danielle Robinson started quickly, then disappeared; Shameka Christon is still doing absolutely nothing besides jacking up threes, and she’s not hitting enough of those to be worthwhile; and the bench was quiet. During their 12-game winning streak, it seemed like this team could hurt you from more angles than it was possible to deal with. Now they’re struggling to come up with more than one or two. Fortunately, 6 of their final 8 games are at home, giving them a chance to rediscover their form before the postseason. It could easily return just as quickly as it’s seemed to fade away.

 

Upcoming Games

Sunday September 2nd (today):

Connecticut @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Los Angeles @ Chicago, 6pm ET

—–

Monday September 3rd (tomorrow):

None

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