WNBA Today, 09/09/2012: Déjà vu for Storm and Shock

As mentioned in the past, as a rule I typically enjoy single-game nights in the WNBA. It provides a slightly more relaxing evening, and allows you to focus in on the matchups and development within one contest. However, most rules have occasional exceptions.

The problem with last night was that we’d seen it all before. And it’s not like you had to cast your mind back very far. Seattle faced Tulsa – in another single-game WNBA night – only two days earlier, and blew the Shock out in Key Arena. The only difference last night was that the venue had switched to the Shock’s own BOK Center back in Oklahoma.

Still, sometimes these quick-turnaround home-and-home games can be interesting, because you see what improvements either team has made to counteract what went wrong in the previous encounter. The first switch for Tulsa was to reinsert Kayla Pedersen into the starting lineup in place of Chante Black. Considering how the Shock had been ripped apart in the paint two nights earlier, you couldn’t blame Gary Kloppenburg for changing things up. Of course, Pedersen came off the bench in that game and was just as ineffective as the starters, but it was worth a shot. Tulsa also had veteran point guard Temeka Johnson back in uniform after missing a couple of games due to ankle and abdominal injuries, although Ivory Latta continued to start at the point. Seattle were unchanged.

Okay, enough with the pretense, this game was ultimately very, very similar to the encounter two nights earlier. The Shock couldn’t remotely handle Seattle inside, with Lauren Jackson’s size and strength, and Camille Little’s outstanding footwork and slippery movement far too much for them. In fact, having reminded themselves of their superiority over this team in the paint on Thursday, Seattle went inside far more in this game. They’d relied on an outstanding shooting night to pull away in the previous game – this time the base for everything came from the posts.

Not that Seattle had it all their own way from beginning to end. Both teams started out a little sloppy, with minimal penetration, and the only Storm offense in the first four minutes was a pair of Sue Bird threes. But even as the first quarter progressed, and Seattle held only a narrow lead, the difference in approach between the teams was evident. The Storm had intent to push the ball inside, especially when Jackson and Little were out there, but even when Ann Wauters and Tina Thompson took over from the bench. On the majority of possessions, Tulsa didn’t even seem interested in getting the ball down low. Apart from the very occasional pick-and-roll or slip screen from Glory Johnson, or the few minutes Courtney Paris spent on the floor, they shifted the ball around the perimeter and fired up jump shots. That was it.

To some extent, you have to credit Seattle’s defense. Forcing you into contested jump shots is exactly the point of their defensive system. But a lot of this comes down to Tulsa’s lack of options inside, where Glory Johnson has really become their only remotely consistent weapon. Also, after some strong performances since the Olympic break, this pair of games against the Storm have finally felt like the Shock would quite like the season to end. They were up against an opponent that was finally healthy and hungry, but they still lacked the penetration and energy that we’ve seen from Tulsa in prior games. It all felt a little lackluster from the Shock.

Seattle were firing up their fair share of perimeter shots and threes as well, but a lot of them were wide open in transition. Those shots you can live with, especially when they’re dropping. Shekinna Stricklen came off the bench to add punch from outside – something she’s been doing more and more consistently as the season has progressed – and even Little chipped in with a three when the defense left her alone outside. That shot pushed the Storm lead into double-digits midway through the second quarter.

On the bright side for Tulsa, they were doing a reasonable job on the offensive glass, so despite shooting 29% in the first half they only trailed 43-31 at the break.

Most of the discussion and much of the action on the night revolved around the Storm post players, so let’s focus on them for a moment. Camille Little had a field day against the Shock’s weak interior presence, sliding through gaps and twisting around opponents for an endless series of impressive finishes. She’s a joy to watch in this kind of mood, and she’s settled in as the 2012 season has progressed after a rocky start. Little’s also undoubtedly happy to have Jackson back in the fold, a return to her regular partner in crime rather than the revolving door of post teammates she worked with before the Olympics. How well those two reestablish their chemistry in the remaining games before the playoffs is going to be central to whether the Storm can actually give a good account of themselves in the postseason.

Jackson suffered with foul trouble in this one, but the two games against Tulsa have shown more signs of the Lauren Jackson that the Storm need to be successful. This is the LJ that wants to impose herself inside, that’ll set up down low and demand an entry pass, or can seal her defender and be ready for the entry from a different angle after the ball’s reversed. And as with virtually all shooting bigs, once they find their rhythm inside and build some confidence, the chance of making your jump shots when you pop outside rises dramatically. But these games were against Tulsa. It was a nice warm up, but it was like facing the JV team before stepping up to varsity. The Storm have a road trip through Atlanta, Indiana and San Antonio coming up, and home games against Connecticut, Chicago and San Antonio to follow. She has to keep up this attack even against teams that provide significantly more resistance.

Part of the reason Jackson needs to keep it up, is that Ann Wauters continues to be utterly underwhelming for the Storm. She’s somehow built up numbers similar to her previous stints in the WNBA this season (once you account for the slightly lower minutes), but she’s been consistently unimpressive on the floor. There were repeated fumbles when entry passes were sent her way last night, and those were hardly the first this year, but the bigger issues are at the other end of the floor. She still doesn’t look at all comfortable in Seattle’s defense, and the number of times an opponent is open for a shot or a layup and she’s 10 feet away from the scorer guarding no one is worrying. Most of the breakdowns seem mental rather than physical. Wauters is still ahead of Ewelina Kobryn in the rotation, and the numbers say that’s absolutely correct, but it feels like Kobryn’s been distinctly more successful in fulfilling her role this season. Wauters has been a disappointment.

Back to the game. It turned into a blowout in the second half, just like on Thursday night. Ivory Latta almost single-handedly kept Tulsa within range in the third quarter, more than once turning dead possessions into points when she drove and scored as the shot clock was about to expire. But with Little picking the Shock apart inside, Seattle never looked in any real danger of surrendering their lead. The gap just kept growing in the fourth quarter, and the Storm eased home comfortably with an 89-66 victory.

Little was the individual star of the night, finishing 12-17 for 28 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks in under 27 minutes of action. But once again, the Storm shot the ball remarkably well (58% from the field, including 9-19 from three-point range), and moved it impressively too (25 assists, after a franchise-record 29 on Thursday night). The 40 points in the paint will have pleased Brian Agler as well. There’s a temptation to say “well it was only Tulsa” about Seattle’s last two games, and to some extent that’s fair. But this Shock squad was gaining plenty of plaudits for impressive performances against Atlanta, Los Angeles and even Minnesota before they ran into Seattle. The Storm made them look like ‘poor little Tulsa’ all over again.

After hustle, heart, and a fair bit of skill led to wins against the Dream and Sparks (and putting a scare into the Lynx), the disparity in post players killed Tulsa against Seattle. Glory Johnson, Pedersen, Paris, Jen Lacy and Chante Black were no match for Jackson, Little, Wauters and Thompson. But beyond that, Kloppenburg will be disappointed at how many shooters were left open, and how freely that allowed Seattle to complement their posts with perimeter scoring. Sometimes teams just shoot well and there’s not much you can do about it, but Seattle were 60% from the floor on Thursday night, and 58% on Saturday. That’s unacceptable, especially when you’ve built your team starting with aggressive and active defense. Coach Klopp will be looking for a response from his team when they face San Antonio on Wednesday night.

 

Notes

At the Paralympic Games, Germany fought past Australia for gold in the women’s wheelchair basketball with the Netherlands destroying the USA in the bronze-medal playoff (Inge Huitzing was outstanding for the Dutch). In the men’s tournament, the USA were too much for Great Britain in the bronze playoff (booooooo), before Patrick Anderson was fantastic in carrying Canada past Australia for gold. That’s Olympic basketball finished for another four years.

 

Upcoming Games

Sunday September 9th (today):

Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Washington @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Los Angeles @ New York, 4pm ET

Chicago @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

Phoenix @ Indiana, 6pm ET

—–

Monday September 10th (tomorrow):

None

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