WNBA Today, 09/08/2012 (Part Two): East meets West, while the Sky keep hope alive

So while we’ve already looked at the standout game from Friday night, there were four other games of varying levels of interest as well. Three were cross-conference matchups, which are always more intriguing purely because the teams play each other far less frequently. The squads don’t know each other quite as well, and players clash with different opponents for a change. The fourth was the vital matchup between the two teams still squabbling over the only playoff spot yet to be decided. So let’s get to it.

 

Los Angeles Sparks 96 @ Washington Mystics 68

  • We’re getting this one out of the way as quickly as possible, rather than giving it pride of place at the top of the column because it deserves it. The starting fives were the same again for both teams.
  • There were actually a few positive signs for Washington early on. They were creating points by being aggressive off the dribble, and exploiting the flaws in LA’s pick-and-roll defense (which had been highlighted for them in several recent LA losses to better opponents).
  • Unfortunately for the Mystics, Candace Parker opened the game actually scoring in the paint. Yes, Parker was posting up, looking for feeds down low, and running for finishes in transition as well. That’s what we’ve needed to see from her for a while.
  • LA started to take control towards the end of the first quarter, when Alana Beard was on the floor with a bunch of Sparks backups. It was Jenna O’Hea’s second straight impressive outing, and her arrival looks to have given the LA bench the shot in the arm they were hoping for. She knows her role, she can consistently hit that corner three, and she doesn’t try to do too much in other aspects of the game. So kind of like what Marissa Coleman was supposed to be offering all year, but has largely failed miserably to provide.
  • But talking of Coleman, the collection of former Mystics on the LA roster were enjoying themselves back in D.C. Coleman made a couple of shots – which is a couple more than she’s made in most of LA’s games this year – and Alana Beard was being especially aggressive. Returning to the floor she spent so many years on – and the last couple of years sitting next to – Beard was driving, scoring and distributing with aplomb. When Kristi Toliver was resting on the bench, leaving Beard at the point, Washington were left trying to guard Beard with the likes of Shannon Bobbitt and Jasmine Thomas. Beard had them for lunch.
  • LA blew it open for good in the last five minutes of the first half. They were running the floor quickly and moving the ball well, creating easy shots. Meanwhile Washington’s offense had ground to its typical halt, lost its penetration, and gone very quiet. When Toliver started firing and hitting in the final minutes before the break, Washington were really in trouble. LA led 54-39 at halftime, with a Bobbitt bank shot from halfcourt at the buzzer required to keep it that close.
  • The second half was just the continuation of the blowout, and scarcely worth watching or talking about with so many other games to focus on. Crystal Langhorne had a horrible day, at both ends of the floor, which left Washington without much of a base to work from. Thomas was productive at least (7-16 for 15 points), but that was about it. If the remaining Mystics fans had any fun, it was watching some of their old favourites playing in the other team’s colours.
  • Beard (16 points, 4 boards, 5 assists) and Toliver (18, 3 and 6) had their double-act rolling again, but the important part for LA was Parker. She finished 9-14 for 18 points, 8 assists and 9 rebounds. She only played 25 minutes, and maybe if it was a closer contest she’d have finished off the triple-double. The question is whether she can keep up this kind of performance against teams that still give a damn about the 2012 WNBA season. But just the fact that LA moved the ball well enough to pick up 26 assists as a team was a positive sign, however poor the opponent.

 

Phoenix Mercury 91 @ Connecticut Sun 82

  • Phoenix lost their previous game two nights earlier in New York by nearly 30 points, and capitulated very early. This game felt like the Sun showed up expecting the Mercury to roll over just like that again. They didn’t.
  • For some reason, Connecticut coach Mike Thibault went back to Kelsey Griffin as his starter in place of Mistie Mims at power forward, although Mims was available off the bench. Asjha Jones continues to sit on the sidelines. Phoenix were forced into a change, with rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis missing due to the shoulder injury she picked up against New York. Veteran center Nakia Sanford came into the lineup, sliding everyone else over a spot. Alexis Hornbuckle and Diana Taurasi were left to handle the point guard duties.
  • Both teams were a complete mess in the opening minutes, but Phoenix were the ones who sorted themselves out the quicker. DeWanna Bonner was firing away and hitting from outside, then driving and hitting on the inside. Connecticut couldn’t come up with anything to stop her. Offensively, they were jacking up jumpshots rather than working for anything inside or high-percentage, and it took a remarkably long time before the commentators even had to mention the name Tina Charles. She wasn’t involved at all. Phoenix were up 26-16 by the end of the first quarter.
  • It somehow got even worse for the Sun. They just hadn’t woken up in time for the game. Phoenix, led by Bonner, were hitting everything from anywhere, while Connecticut committed sloppy turnovers or took bad shots. The Mercury lead hit 19 midway through the second quarter.
  • Finally there was a sign of hope for the Sun, and it came in the form of Renee Montgomery. She hit three threes in the space of less than 90 seconds of game time, and was fouled on both the first and third effort, leading to four-point plays. Then Kara Lawson joined in, drilling her own triple, and the gap was down to 10. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines called timeout, and changed almost his entire lineup. Most importantly, Bonner and Taurasi returned.
  • Still, even with that fillip, Connecticut trailed 52-40 at halftime. There were some startling stats at the interval – Phoenix were up 18-6 in points in the paint, and led 21-7 on the boards. As mentioned earlier, Charles had been invisible.
  • The third quarter was just more of the same. It opened with a Taurasi three at one end, and a shot clock violation at the other. The Mercury lead soon hit the 20-point mark. It was just a horrendous day at the office for the Sun, and Bonner was continuing to rain in points from every angle.
  • Finally, finally, the Sun produced something resembling a response in the fourth quarter. Once again they kicked it off with a bunch of threes, Danielle McCray and even Charles chipping in. But that was a sign that the penetration within their offense still hadn’t improved all that much. They’d simply managed to make a couple of shots. It was against largely the same Mercury group that had given up the run in the first half as well, although Bonner was out there with them this time. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines left Taurasi on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, allowing his kids to try to handle it without her.
  • Phoenix’s utter domination on the glass had continued into the second half. Krystal Thomas, Phoenix’s second-year center, was doing her best Rebekkah Brunson impression. Charles was nowhere.
  • Just when you thought Phoenix were going to find a way to give the game up – Mims hit a pair of free throws to narrow the score to 85-80 with 51 seconds remaining – the star of the night stepped up again. Bonner nailed a deep three from the top of the arc, and that was the dagger. Comeback over, and on the night the right team won. Connecticut didn’t remotely deserve this one.
  • For Phoenix, it was all about Bonner and Thomas. The former finished 12-23 for 35 points, taking on her starring role once again even with Taurasi in uniform. Bonner’s more comfortable taking all these shots now, and when they start falling for her, she’s hard to stop. The only problem’s been that she’s shooting 36% this season. Thomas racked up 16 boards, 7 of them offensive. The impressive aspect team-wide was that they responded strongly to the embarrassment of the New York loss two days earlier.
  • Connecticut fans are starting to worry. According to reports, and judging from this performance, Charles isn’t anywhere close to 100% healthy. She played over 35 minutes, but only took 8 shots against Phoenix’s usually porous defense and only grabbed 3 rebounds all night. That’s not Tina Charles. The problem is that without Jones they’re already light inside, and they don’t want to give up the top spot in the Eastern Conference before the playoffs (especially as it would likely mean facing Atlanta in the first round again). Eventually, Charles is probably going to take a game or two off, and they’ll live with whatever playoff spot they end up with. Better to have her somewhere near full-health, than the #1 seed and an ailing star. Already, Jones is only expected to play one or two regular season games before the playoffs begin (and with how long she’s been out, even that’s a matter of ‘believe it when we see it’).

 

Chicago Sky 92 @ New York Liberty 83

  • New York came into this contest half a game ahead of the Sky for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They also held a 2-1 edge in the season series between the teams. So a Liberty win would create a 1.5 game lead, and seal the tie-breaker over Chicago. A win for the Sky would leapfrog them back over New York, and level the season series. For the record, the second tie-breaker is conference record, which New York narrowly lead over Chicago. After that it gets even more complicated.
  • Chicago still had Ticha Penicheiro in street clothes with a hamstring injury, leaving Courtney Vandersloot to start at the point. New York kept faith with the starting lineup that had helped win their last two games, featuring all their offensive weapons on the floor from the opening tip.
  • The perimeter matchups when these team clash are weird. Chicago want Tamera Young on Cappie Pondexter, because Young’s considered their best perimeter defender. But that leaves them trying to work out what to do with Vandersloot and Epiphanny Prince, who are left to cover Essence Carson and Nicole Powell. They started off with Sloot on Carson, and Prince on Powell – which gives Prince more time to rest so she can produce offensively, but leaves the Sky hoping Sloot can survive against the bigger, quicker Carson. New York are a little different. Especially since the Olympic break, they seem very concerned with keeping Pondexter away from primary offensive options and point guards, trying to give her as little as possible to worry about defensively. So she stayed on Young, while Powell largely took Vandersloot, and Carson tried to track Prince.
  • The Liberty tried to feed Carson down low to take advantage of the mismatch with Vandersloot on the opening possession. That didn’t work at all, and then Carson fouled Prince on a made three at the other end, turning it into a four-point play. Not a great start for Essence.
  • In fact, New York didn’t start well in general. Too many unnecessary turnovers, and too many open jumpers given up to the Sky.
  • Vandersloot’s been impressive lately, stepping into her jump shots with far more confidence than we’ve seen in the past. It started when she moved to the bench behind Penicheiro, but she’s managed to maintain the attitude and effectiveness since becoming the starter again.
  • Neither team had anything much going in the paint in the opening quarter, but Chicago made a few more shots than New York and held a 25-18 lead at the end of the period. Carson and Plenette Pierson had both picked up two fouls already, which helped the Sky’s cause.
  • However, complicating matters for Chicago, Sylvia Fowles came up lame in the early seconds of the second quarter, limping to the sidelines and then to the locker room. There was no noticeable incident that caused the injury, she just suddenly started hobbling. It was the left leg this time, rather than the right one which was causing problems a week or two ago. Nothing more detailed than ‘lower leg injury’ was ever revealed, but she never returned to the game. In fact, she never even came back to the sidelines.
  • But Chicago discovered something when Fowles missed two games for personal reasons a couple of weeks ago – they can actually still play a little without her. The ball movement in this game wasn’t as impressive or crisp as on some of those previous occasions, but it was good enough to get the job done. Even without Fowles, their lead began to grow.
  • Kara Braxton in the paint was virtually all New York had in the way of offense for much of the second quarter. They’ve successfully found a way to get Braxton to care lately, but she’s still not someone you want to revolve your offense around. And she does tend to be late sliding over right in the middle of their ‘white line’ defense, which is a big problem in the heart of that system.
  • Late in the first half, with Powell and Alex Montgomery hitting threes, then Pondexter and Pierson creating points inside, New York made a run to keep it interesting. After trailing by as many as 13, they were only down 46-41 at halftime.
  • The teams were tied on 6 assists apiece at the break, illustrating the general lack of ball movement at either end. There’d been a lot of one-on-one creation, and Chicago had just been more effective.
  • The Liberty tried to go to Carson on the low block against Vandersloot again to open the second half, and again it failed. It baffled me why they wouldn’t just hand Carson the ball on the perimeter, and let her break down Vandersloot off the dribble (or just shoot over her). For some reason that didn’t seem to be in the gameplan.
  • One mismatch they did utilise more effectively was Pierson against Swin Cash inside. Pierson’s too big and too strong for Cash to stop consistently on her own, which led to a couple of buckets for Pierson. Again, however, New York seemed to forget the option rather too easily. It’s amazing how teams go away from something that their opponent has never really worked out a way to stop.
  • The Sky continued to be the more effective offensive team in the second half. Their ball movement improved, and when they rotated it to the open man they were regularly knocking down shots. One of the key shooters having a strong night was Young, whose extra inches over Pondexter allowed her to constantly shoot right over her defender. Although on multiple occasions Pondexter wasn’t close enough for the height disparity to even matter. Part of the reason New York are trying to hide Pondexter on lesser threats isn’t just to rest her – it’s because her defense often isn’t that great.
  • New York kept hanging around in the second half, without ever fully sustaining a comeback. They were within three points midway through the third quarter, then went cold and allowed Chicago to stretch it back out to double-digits before the end of the period. When the Liberty threatened another run in the final quarter, Prince drilled a pair of threes over Montgomery to virtually ice the game with 4 minutes left. When Cash hit her own triple moments later, it was definitely over.
  • Chicago deserved this win, playing the superior team basketball, staying solid defensively, and simply making their shots from outside. The loss of Fowles cut into what they could do in the paint, but they didn’t allow it to stop them from playing their game. It keeps the playoff hunt interesting for the rest of us as well, because on paper Chicago have the tougher run-in. New York get to play Washington and Tulsa twice each in their last six games, while the Sky have Connecticut, Minnesota, Atlanta and a west coast road trip all left to come. Playing like this they still have hope, even with Fowles struggling.
  • New York will be disappointed with this performance, after two big wins. Maybe they were a little overconfident after blowing out Phoenix two nights earlier. Pondexter was decent – 7-19 for 24 points and 4 assists – but outplayed by fellow Rutgers grad Prince (8-18 for 30 points, 4 assists). Pierson and Braxton both had solid games offensively as well, and even Carson discovered a few points eventually, but there were too many breakdowns defensively, and too many open shots left for the Sky. On another night – and Chicago have certainly had plenty of them in the past – the Sky would’ve missed several of those shots, and New York might’ve come away with the win. This time it wasn’t enough, and they’ve still got a fight on their hands to make the postseason.

 

Indiana Fever 82 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 78

  • Last but not least, an outside contender to be a WNBA Finals preview. You’d probably still get decent odds on it happening, but you never know.
  • Jayne Appel was back from her ankle injury for San Antonio, and slipped right back into the starting lineup, reestablishing their regular rotation. Indiana opened with their regular five.
  • It was a fast-paced, high-scoring opening, with Shameka Christon actually sinking a few of those three-point bombs that have become practically all she offers offensively. With Danielle Adams providing a boost from the bench – a role that seems to suit her better than starting, as she’d been doing in Appel’s absence – San Antonio pushed 10 points ahead late in the first quarter. The always-entertaining Sophia Young-Tamika Catchings matchup at the 4 was going Young’s way to that point.
  • As has been the case in a few games in recent weeks, San Antonio’s depth didn’t look quite so impressive late in the second quarter, and Indiana made inroads against the Silver Stars backups. Players like Shenise Johnson and Tangela Smith haven’t been able to maintain what the top six or seven players in the San Antonio rotation have established lately, and Indiana cut a lead that had been as high as 14 to only 5 at halftime, 42-37. Shavonte Zellous played a big role in the Fever push, showing that on occasion they’re more than just Catchings and Katie Douglas.
  • But let’s face it, this team is still going to go about as far as those two can carry them. San Antonio were still making the extra pass and moving the ball well offensively in the second half, but Catchings was on a mission to drag her team back into the game. She was flying to the rim, charging after rebounds, and generally dominating Indiana’s production at both ends of the floor. Then everything went helter-skelter at the end of the third quarter, with the ball rocketing from one end to the other and no one sinking anything. It was like a streetball game for a couple of minutes, before a Catchings three and a Jia Perkins layup closed the period with San Antonio up 59-54. A hectic 10 minutes of basketball had changed very little.
  • Considering how often I’ve bitched about it when Fever coach Lin Dunn has made this move and it’s backfired this season, I have to give her credit when she pulls the same trick and gets away with it. Both Catchings and Douglas were resting on the bench for the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter, something which has led to collapses in other games this year. Instead, with a lineup of Briann January, Jeanette Pohlen, Zellous, Erlana Larkins and Sasha Goodlett, Indiana held their own while waiting for the stars to return. In fact, the gap had shrunk by a point when they came back in.
  • Big center Jessica Davenport came back alongside Catchings and Douglas, missed one jumper and committed one foul, then got pulled again for Larkins. Dunn decided that energy and rebounding instincts were more useful to the Fever in this game, whether San Antonio wanted to go with Adams or Appel in the middle.
  • The fourth quarter was nip and tuck throughout, but the only player producing offensively for San Antonio was Becky Hammon. She was using her trademark drives to create something out of nothing inside, but that was about all they had. Indiana were active enough offensively to repeatedly end up at the foul line, and both Douglas and Catchings made big threes. Suddenly they were the ones clinging to a narrow lead, instead of San Antonio.
  • San Antonio even tried Appel in crunch time, which is unusual for them, but she missed a short jumper and was quickly pulled again for Adams.
  • The crucial play came with just under a minute left. Jia Perkins had been fouled – dumbly – by Zellous on a three-point attempt. She made 2-of-3 to cut the score to 78-76. Indiana’s offense didn’t go anywhere much, and was left with Catchings needing to create something. She forced up a tough off-balance jumper, but followed her shot and grabbed the offensive board. Indiana ran the clock down again, and the ball was poked out of bounds when Douglas tried to drive. They had 6 seconds left on the shot clock, with 15 seconds left in the game.
  • Following a timeout, the ball went to Larkins at the high post, Catchings cut hard into the paint to receive the quick feed, and was fouled yet again. She made both shots at the line, before Hammon pulled out another circus layup at the other end. This time the Indiana inbounds pass went to Larkins, who was fouled before she could get rid of it. She calmly sank both free throws anyway, and that iced the game. The Fever were 15-15 at the free throw line in the fourth quarter, including 6-6 from Larkins alone.
  • This was a gutsy win from Indiana, more than anything else. They fought hard for everything, stepped up to make shots when they had to, and kept forcing the officials to make calls late in the game. Catchings (9-16 for 26 points, 11 boards, 4 assists) and Douglas (8-18 for 18, 9 and 1) led the way, but role players like Larkins and Zellous made plays when they had to. 11 offensive rebounds as part of a 40-32 overall edge on the glass showed what they can do on the boards when the whole team goes to work there as well (although San Antonio’s own rebounding issues undoubtedly helped).
  • A tough loss for San Antonio, who were right there for most of this game and just couldn’t pull it out in the fourth quarter. Young faded out of the action disappointingly in the later stages, and Hammon tried to take over but couldn’t quite make enough shots. Both these teams have become very reliant on outside shooting, and Indiana were slightly more accurate from beyond the arc, before becoming slightly more aggressive in the closing minutes. In the end, that won them the game.

 

Notes

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inducted this year’s class on Friday night, including the very deserving All-American Red Heads, a pioneering women’s basketball team from long before anyone even considered a WNBA. Congratulations to John Molina, who’s led the crusade for the team to be remembered and recognised, and of course congratulations to all the ladies themselves.

 

Upcoming Games

Saturday September 8th (today):

Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

—–

Sunday September 9th (tomorrow):

Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Washington @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Los Angeles @ New York, 4pm ET

Chicago @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

Phoenix @ Indiana, 6pm ET

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