WNBA Today, 09/05/2012: Conference leaders keep rolling

The Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx both led their respective conferences heading into the WNBA’s Olympic break, and both still sat in first place heading into their games last night. But their paths since the midseason hiatus have differed. Connecticut looked the more comfortable leaders in the first half of the season, but with injury issues in their post corps and some inconsistent performances, Indiana have been narrowing the gap. Minnesota had their letdown period and injury issues before the break, but have gotten healthy and are yet to lose a game in the second half of the season. Meanwhile, nearest Western challengers San Antonio and Los Angeles have started slipping up. The Sun and Lynx remain the favourites to meet in the WNBA Finals, but it’s Minnesota who’ve started to look more certain participants.

Connecticut were the first on-court last night, facing their fifth and final meeting of the season with the hapless Washington Mystics. Unsurprisingly, considering Washington were 5-21 coming into the game, Connecticut had won all of the previous four encounters. The Sun were still without starting power forward Asjha Jones due to her achilles injury, but at least her backup Mistie Mims was available again, after recovering from her own quad strain. Mims went right back into the starting lineup ahead of Kelsey Griffin. For the second straight game, Washington started Noelle Quinn on the perimeter and Ashley Robinson in the post, ahead of previous regular starters Matee Ajavon and Michelle Snow.

The official attendance released after the game read 5,980, but the number of people watching looked like it probably fell in the three-digit range. In that spirit, and due to the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to find anything worth saying about Mystics games, this report will hopefully remain reasonably short.

It’s not that this Washington team are completely untalented or consistently useless. If that were the case, they’d be losing every game by 30 points. They simply have too many breakdowns at either end of the floor, and too many mental errors to beat better teams. Their main chance of winning games at this point is the hope that a random player or two might get hot from outside, and their opponent might take them too lightly. Connecticut did their best to help Washington out early in this game, sleepwalking through the opening stages and allowing the Mystics to hold a 5-point lead at the end of the first quarter. Crystal Langhorne, Washington’s one true star-quality player, was the central figure in their offense, knocking down jumpers from the top of the key and finishing with her usual tenacity inside. The Sun seemed to have largely forgotten that they had Tina Charles as an option in the paint, and their only decent offense came from Kara Lawson jump shots.

Mike Thibault got his Sun squad to wake up at the start of the second quarter, Washington yet again performed their regular trick of handing over cheap turnovers, and a 13-0 Connecticut run swung the game in their favour. These are the lapses that Washington suffer from – they miss a shot or two, or cough the ball up unnecessarily, their heads drop and the opponent takes over. They usually snap out of it after a while, but those passages are costly over the course of games.

Plus, of course, there’s Trudi Lacey. It’s still hard to work out what she’s thinking with some of her in-game rotations, although when a team loses this much you can’t blame a coach for trying anything. While the Mystics were mired in that Sun run, Langhorne came out for a rest, came back, sat again, and came back in again. All in the space of less than 5 minutes. She’d picked up her second foul in the middle, but jerking around your one reliable scoring option doesn’t help, regardless of her foul situation.

However, the Sun don’t tend to blow teams out. They’re more a slow-burn winning team, who wear you out by executing better over the course of 40 minutes, and know how to finish. This was no exception. They took their foot off the gas, Quinn hit a couple of shots for Washington, and the Mystics were back within 40-37 at halftime. After hitting her first 7 shots, Langhorne finally missed a jumper just before the interval.

Connecticut dominated most of the third quarter. The Washington offense fell apart, as it often does, and there was little effort made to get Langhorne the ball. When her teammates did remember she was out there, the Sun did a decent job of keeping it out of her hands. Behind a few easy layups when the Washington defense broke down, and a pair of Lawson threes, Connecticut’s lead rose as high as 13.

The key strength of the Sun – besides Charles being one of the top posts in the world and Lawson having a career year – is their teamwork and cohesion. They buy in to the whole idea of team success being more important than individual production, and you can see it on the floor. Mims slips a screen and slides open underneath, Lawson turns down the three and finds Mims under the basket for the layup. Lawson sees Ashley Robinson has somehow ended up defending her, she rotates the ball so that it can end up with the post that Robinson should be matched up with, and the Sun big finishes for two inside. It’s a similar concept at the other end. Washington don’t have anything like that same unity within their play.

The game still wasn’t over. Washington crept back into it in the late minutes of the third quarter and opening stages of the fourth. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton once again proved more useful than Robinson or Snow in the paint for Washington – she’s been doing that a lot lately – and Shannon Bobbitt’s prayers were answered a couple of times when she fired from long distance. Meanwhile, the Sun had gone quiet yet again, and drifted out of the game offensively (Charles taking a brief rest on the bench didn’t help). Matee Ajavon hadn’t been able to hit a thing all night long – and had just returned from shooting 0-13 on a three-game road trip – but finally sank one from mid-range, then nailed a three on a kick-out from Langhorne with 4 minutes left. That put Washington up 67-66: their first lead since early in the second quarter.

You still wouldn’t have been able to find a single WNBA fan to bet on the Mystics winning the game without very generous odds – and they all would’ve been right to keep their money in their pockets. The one Sun player who sometimes strays from their team-concept – Renee Montgomery – stepped up and did what she does best. She fired away, immediately answering that Ajavon three with one of her own. From there, little went right for Washington.

Twice in the closing seconds, Trudi Lacey called timeouts, only for her team to run nothing of consequence when they emerged from them. The first time, an apparent effort to feed Langhorne never even approached working, but Bobbitt bailed them out by driving and finishing in the lane. The second time, a play that was supposed to be a pick-and-roll for Bobbitt and Langhorne – according to the broadcaster in the huddle – never went near either of them. The ball went to Ajavon, who jacked up a contested three that missed badly. Down only three points with 30 seconds left, just to compound the agony, Washington stole Connecticut’s inbounds pass – only for Jasmine Thomas to drive and lose the ball straight out of bounds. Those are the sort of errors Washington makes, and it helped Connecticut cling on to a 77-70 victory.

It wasn’t a particularly impressive win for the Sun, but a lot of their wins aren’t. Even if they win a WNBA championship next month, they’ll probably do it without winning a single playoff game by more than a dozen points. But the consistency of Charles, who finished this game 10-18 for 20 points and 13 boards, and their ability to step up and make the right play at the right time, means they keep winning the bulk of their games.

Langhorne was great (10-14 for 23 points and 9 rebounds), but just like everyone else in the Mystics organisation, she undoubtedly wants this season over and done with.

—–

It was Taj McWilliams-Franklin Bobblehead Night in Minnesota, as the Lynx played host to a reeling Los Angeles Sparks team. LA had won four straight out of the Olympic break, but they’d done it off the back of their Kristi Toliver/Alana Beard backcourt. In their last couple of games in Tulsa and Chicago, those two hadn’t been able to carry the load any more, and the lack of production from superstar Candace Parker had finally come back to bite them. Only the losses San Antonio have been piling up lately have allowed the Sparks to hang on to second place in the West.

Both teams had their standard starting fives out to begin the game, and it was all Minnesota to open the contest. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve had clearly drilled her team in what needed to be done against LA – plus they’ve played each other so often that the players had a pretty good idea anyway. Minnesota were setting endless picks within their halfcourt sets, forcing LA into the constant switches that are a central part of their defense, but which often leave them mismatched or confused about how they’re supposed to rotate. It created a whole bunch of open shots and lanes for Minnesota to start the game.

Defensively, the Lynx were pressuring both Toliver and Beard – but especially Toliver, because they know Kristi can lose her head when she gets frustrated – and forcing the ball out of their hands. It led to an array of turnovers, little decent offense from the Sparks besides a couple of nice finishes from Nneka Ogwumike, and more easy scoring opportunities for Minnesota on the break. The Lynx were up 20-10 after barely five minutes.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, their bench has been next-to-useless of late, and yet again their lead disappeared when Reeve brought in her reserves. LA’s bench has been virtually useless all year long, but between center Jantel Lavender – who’s been a better option at center than Parker lately – and recent arrival Jenna O’Hea, the Sparks backups were outplaying their Minnesota counterparts.

To be honest, while there was some decent shooting during the first half, the fact that the teams combined for 25 turnovers in the 20 minutes of action rather dominated proceedings. Parker was quiet yet again, making her presence known most conspicuously through a couple of her trademark horrendous turnovers. If you’ve watched her play, you know the ones I’m referring to – where she tries to play like a guard and bring the ball up herself, only to lose control and hand it right back to the other team. If I were Parker’s coach, I think I’d purchase a special alarm clock that wakes her up every day by screaming “Outlet Pass! Outlet Pass!” right in her ear. Give the guards the ball, run the floor, and they’ll give it back to you. Trust me, it’ll work better.

The Lynx were clearly very conscious of how insanely hot Toliver has been in recent weeks, and combined trapping the ball out of her hands with closing out hard every time she showed any sign of shooting. Seimone Augustus was the primary defender tasked with covering her, but the whole team was well aware that they needed to help keep Toliver quiet. She was 0-5 for 1 point in the first half, so that was going well. However, with LA’s bench contributions and Minnesota’s own 11 turnovers, the Lynx lead was only 41-37 at halftime. The Sparks would have been delighted to only be down by four after that half of basketball.

There was a scary moment in the second quarter, when McWilliams-Franklin dropped to her knees looking woozy without anyone near her. It was later reported that she’d been ill, which had left her somewhat light-headed, and led to that sequence. The fighter that she is, Taj was back out to start the second half.

LA tried to switch up their defense and hide Toliver in the early minutes of the third quarter, but Minnesota were too smart for that – and there aren’t any weak links to hide behind against the Lynx. Instead of guarding Whalen, Toliver was moved over to Maya Moore, who’d already had an impressive first half behind countless steals and breakaway points. Moore instantly recognised the situation, and posted up Toliver twice in two possessions. The first resulted in an easy basket, the second in Ogwumike’s third foul after she came over to try to help. The Toliver-on-Moore experiment swiftly ended.

Once again, the Lynx starters spent the opening minutes establishing a decent lead, with Augustus in particular starting to rain home jumpers from outside. The difference in the second half was that the likes of Candice Wiggins, Amber Harris and Monica Wright came into the game, and kept the Minnesota momentum going. A couple of times, Wiggins even drove the ball, something which seemed to have disappeared from her game completely in recent years. Wright’s offensive game has been shut down lately – it feels like teams have seen the tape on her now, know that she’s going to try that curling drive into the lane, and constantly cut it off. But she kept up the defensive pressure, got herself to the free throw line a couple of times, and generally played her part.

Sparks coach Carol Ross tried what she could, but she was running out of options. The ball pressure and repeated high sideline traps on Toliver and Beard were shuttling the ball away from them, and without the scoring production from that duo the Sparks offense quickly ran out of ideas. It’s similar to the cohesion and teamwork of Connecticut mentioned earlier in this piece. Minnesota can play that kind of defense because they trust the players behind them to be able to rotate over and cover if the ball gets out of the trap. They know each other well enough to fill in the holes. If the Sparks tried a similar defense for more than a possession or two, you can’t help feeling it would lead to and endless series of opposition layups.

It looked like LA might be giving themselves hope towards the end of the third quarter when Beard found a way to penetrate and dropped the ball off to DeLisha Milton-Jones for a layup, with under 5 seconds left in the period. That cut the Minnesota lead to 9 points – the oft-mentioned mental hurdle of narrowing the gap to single-digits. But the Lynx quickly inbounded, Wright slightly overthrew a 50-ft pass, which Moore somehow ran down before athletically contorting herself to finish the break at the rim. The crowd went nuts, and Minnesota had their double-digit lead back.

The Sparks threatened a comeback once or twice in the final period, but Minnesota always had an answer. O’Hea hits yet another three from deep? Moore knocks down a pullup from the baseline before Augustus drains a three. Parker finally scores inside? Whalen goes right to the rim for a three-point play that also drew Ogwumike’s fifth foul. Then with three minutes left, Augustus nailed yet another triple, Parker mystifyingly turned down an open three at the other end before throwing an awful cross-court pass for a turnover, and Whalen converted another three-point play on the resulting break. That iced it, pushing the gap to 17 points, with a few meaningless LA baskets making the final score a slightly more respectable-looking 88-77.

This was far from a perfect performance from the Lynx. They didn’t shoot that well from outside for much of the game, the bench took a long time to wake up, and the 11 first-half turnovers prevented what should’ve been a comfortable early advantage. But they showed up the holes in LA’s game with relative ease, and it’s difficult to see how LA can fix those issues well enough to come out on top in future encounters – unless Parker snaps out of her daze. The pressure Minnesota put on LA’s starting guards both created turnovers and kept them out of shooting rhythm, and the rest of the Sparks weren’t capable of stepping up enough to fill the gap. It’s a case of the Lynx forcing people besides Toliver and Parker (and Beard as well, ideally) to beat them, and LA not having an answer. Having wings like Augustus (7-16 for 23 points, 3 boards, 4 assists) and Moore (9-18 for 23 points, 9 boards, 7 steals) makes things easier, too.

While it was another loss for LA – the third in a row – the one positive was that they got something out of their bench. Ross has been reluctant to trust her reserves for most of the year, and with good reason considering how poorly most of them have played. But O’Hea shot impressively from outside, Lavender had a few decent minutes in the middle, and Ebony Hoffman can still score. The problem is, the bench is supposed to be a bonus. When Ogwumike’s in foul trouble all night, Toliver’s shut down, and Parker continues to drift aimlessly through games, the bench will scarcely matter.

 

Upcoming Games

Wednesday September 5th (today):

Phoenix @ New York, 7pm ET

Indiana @ Atlanta, 7pm ET

—–

Thursday September 6th (tomorrow):

Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET

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