Paying no heed to the opening Sunday of the NFL season, there were five WNBA games on the slate yesterday. But we’ll get to those in a moment – unusually, there’s been some moderately worthwhile news emerging from our league over the last 24 hours.
Firstly, as announced by Cindy Brunson at the WNBA’s Inspiring Women Luncheon (and then first reported by Mel Greenberg via @womhoopsguru), the WNBA draft lottery will be televised by ESPN for the first time on September 26th. That’s much earlier than they’ve held the lottery before, but it should help build some buzz for the league heading into the playoffs. The extra interest this year obviously surrounds the 2013 graduating class that’s led by Baylor center Brittney Griner, with Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins considered pretty nice consolation prizes. It’s good to see both the League and ESPN showing that they’re invested in coming up with new ways to draw people into the WNBA, and get them talking about its potential.
The WNBA also announced today that they’re bringing back the concept of involving fans in the Most Valuable Player Award voting. It’s something they tried in 2008 when Candace Parker won the award, but there’s been a little more thought (and significantly more sense) put into the idea this time. Four years ago the fan voting was weighted as 25% of the overall vote, with the media balloting accounting for the remaining 75%. This time, the entire fan vote will count equal to one media member, with the results sliding in alongside the 41 individual voters. So rather than 25%, the fans’ opinions will be worth about 2.4% this time around. That’s a much better idea, if they really want to give the great unwashed a hand in the MVP award. Many of the media who are given a voice may not actually watch enough games for my taste, but the MVP shouldn’t be allowed to become just a popularity contest. Even I will take the media over the general populace in a vote like this. If you want to join in, you can vote daily here.
In less pleasing news for the WNBA, Mechelle Voepel at ESPN.com published a piece last night revealing that Kayla Pedersen and Temeka Johnson have both missed games recently due to yet another staph infection hitting the Tulsa Shock. It’s the third time in three years that Tulsa players have suffered from staph issues, and it’s not something that paints the franchise or the league in a nice light. It’s also slightly disappointing in the way it highlights the obvious lies that get spouted by teams and the league in relation to injuries. Pedersen was out with ‘flu-like symptoms’, and then just out with no explanation; Johnson had an ‘ankle/abdominal injury’. All of that might be true, but it’s also obviously an attempt to fudge reality.
While Voepel was revealing that unsavoury news on ESPN’s online portal, the TV branch was messing around with their schedules. In case you were expecting to see the Seattle @ Indiana game on ESPN2 on Wednesday night, be aware that you’ll now need either NBA TV or LiveAccess to see that game. Instead, ESPN2 will now be showing the far less interesting Connecticut @ Phoenix game several hours later. The Sun have also already stated that star center Tina Charles will be staying home from that game to rest hip and groin injuries, and recover from general fatigue.
And having got all that out of the way, let’s take a look at the basketball that was actually played yesterday.
- While San Antonio are back in one piece after center Jayne Appel returned on Friday, Minnesota began this game with star guard and leading scorer Seimone Augustus in street clothes. She was out due to a sprained foot suffered against Atlanta a couple of days ago (although she had been ready to go back into that game, so it’s unlikely that it’s particularly serious). Monica Wright replaced her in the starting lineup.
- Wright for Augustus takes some of my favourite ‘chess match’ elements out of the Minnesota-San Antonio (and Cheryl Reeve-Dan Hughes) matchup. The players can defend each other essentially straight-up, point guard to point guard, shooting guard to shooting guard, and so on. And that’s exactly what they did to start the game.
- It was Minnesota who came out of the blocks fast. It was a simple matter of drawing the extra defender, either by ball rotation, post entry or penetration, then finding the open player to finish the play. Sometimes it was Rebekkah Brunson or Taj McWilliams-Franklin inside, sometimes it was Wright or Maya Moore from the perimeter. Either way it was leading to points.
- It took the Silver Stars a while to get going, but they eventually shot their way back into it from the perimeter and trailed only 22-18 at the end of the first quarter.
- With Augustus out of the mix, Reeve shook up her normal rotation a little. There were no subs at all in the mandatory timeout in the first quarter (the timeout that arrives with the first stoppage after the 5-minute mark, when Wright and Candice Wiggins usually enter, often with one of the backup posts). Those moves came a little later in the period, and then Reeve started the second quarter with a very unusual lineup, featuring Erin Thorn, Lindsay Whalen and Wiggins all on the floor together. She’s trying a few new twists with the playoffs arriving shortly (although the Augustus injury obviously forced her hand somewhat).
- Thorn was impressive, considering how little she’s played all season long. She made the smart, safe passes, and when the Silver Stars backed off her in transition, she drilled the open three. That’s what you want from your veteran backup – always be ready to play at a moment’s notice.
- As a team, the Lynx began to pull away again in the second quarter. The energy and production from the bench was better than it’s been in recent weeks, with Thorn, Wiggins, Amber Harris and Devereaux Peters all contributing.
- San Antonio’s offensive production disappeared entirely for most of the second quarter. They had nothing in the paint at all, either on penetration or post moves, leaving them to fire a series of bricks from outside. This is the common problem with the Silver Stars, for all their qualities. Like Minnesota, they’re an impressive passing team, they’re unselfish, and they’ve got several players who can hurt you. But too often practically their entire offense still ends up coming from the perimeter. And unless they happen to strike gold from outside for the night, that tends to haunt them. The Lynx led 47-29 at halftime, and were coasting.
- San Antonio switched up the defensive matchups to open the second half, just to mess with Minnesota a little. Hammon took Moore, while Christon guarded Wright. It worked to some extent, mostly because on several possessions the Lynx were so conscious of the fact that they should have been feeding Moore to attack the mismatch, their offense stalled.
- Meanwhile at the other end, it was all about Sophia Young. The Silver Stars came out with a refreshed level of aggression and activity in general, but it was Young who was carrying the attack offensively. She went right at Brunson (or McWilliams-Franklin, it made no difference), and typically either scored or forced her way to the free throw line. And she did much of it from the low post. While there may be the occasional visit from Danielle Adams or Jayne Appel, Young is always going to be the basis of anything San Antonio can get in the paint. They need her to constantly be in this kind of mindset.
- Young’s play was contagious for her teammates, and it worked the Silver Stars back into the game. The gap dropped as low as 7, and at 59-50 heading to the fourth quarter, San Antonio were still in it.
- However, while the Lynx never really found anyone who could slow Young down, their own production was holding on to most of the lead. This was far and away the best Peters had played in months, allowing Reeve to actually give Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin some much-needed rest. Peters couldn’t stop Young either, but she made some nice plays offensively, and at least forced San Antonio’s star forward work hard for her points.
- The problem for the Silver Stars was that Young got practically no help. Becky Hammon had yet another quiet game. She’s had slumps like this before and simply snapped out of it, but that better happen soon, because they’ve got no chance in the playoffs with her playing like this. Without any of the other potential breakout scorers for San Antonio – Adams, Jia Perkins, sometimes even Danielle Robinson or Shameka Christon – getting hot, the collective strength of Minnesota eventually proved too much, and they pulled away again in the fourth quarter.
- That’s five losses in a row now for San Antonio, and a couple of weeks before the postseason isn’t the best time to hit a slump. The worrying thing is that most of their winning streak was against poor teams, or squads that were suffering through difficult stretches. Now they’ve played some good teams, and the losses have started to pile up. They might be that team in the middle – good enough to beat up on the weaker teams, but not to challenge the stronger ones consistently. It’s hard to see how they could beat a team like the Lynx in a playoff series without some unlikely twists or at least one freak game.
- Minnesota took home their 11th straight win, and barely seemed to notice the absence of Augustus. In fact, it may have benefitted them. The bench has played poorly in most of their games since the break, but when a star is missing there is more of an absolute need for the support players to step up – and they responded. Wright had a strong first half (although disappeared in the second); Wiggins offered some useful minutes; and Peters played virtually the entire fourth quarter, finishing the game 5-6 for 10 points, 3 boards and 3 assists. Even Thorn showed that she’s ready if called upon. The likes of Whalen, Moore and Brunson produced when necessary, but that’s expected at this point. The Lynx become even more dangerous if they’ve got some reliable backup.
- I swear I watched this whole game. But you’re going to have to take most of that on trust. It was another dismal Mystics appearance, and we’re not going to waste much time on it.
- Angel McCoughtry continues to come off the bench behind Tiffany Hayes and Armintie Price on Atlanta’s perimeter. Washington’s starting lineup was unchanged again.
- Atlanta came out fast in the first quarter, building a decent lead behind speed, attacking the rim and thanks the fact that the Mystics are terrible. Then the Dream gave most of it away when Lindsey Harding went to the bench, before blowing the game out again in the remainder of the second quarter. They were never in any danger for the rest of a completely forgettable game.
- Washington had 12 turnovers in the first half, and – I’ll say it yet again – just want the season to end. At this point, that draft lottery broadcast on ESPN is the next event of any meaning to this group and this franchise.
- McCoughtry had her first poor game since returning from suspension, but her team didn’t remotely need her. The star was Harding, yet again stepping up and leading this team to a win. She finished 7-12 for 15 points and 9 assists, and has regularly been outstanding since the Olympic break. She pushing the ball, keeping the pace up whenever possible, distributing and scoring herself with confidence. The comfortable nature of this game allowed Fred Williams to try Harding and Ketia Swanier in the backcourt together, an option Marynell Meadors said would be utilised before the season began but which we’ve rarely seen. It worked okay against Washington, but I wouldn’t expect to see too much of it in the playoffs. Harding has to rest at some point, and there are better perimeter options to find minutes for than Swanier.
- This game meant something to Los Angeles – who are still trying to make sure of the #2 seed in the West – but it meant a lot more to New York. The Liberty started Sunday half-a-game behind Chicago for the final playoff spot in the East, after losing to the Sky on Friday night. And while Chicago have the tougher schedule over the closing weeks, New York can’t just rely on the Sky to lose and help them into the postseason.
- Both teams were as anticipated to start the game – New York with their recently formulated offense-first group, and LA with the same five they’ve had virtually all season.
- From a New York perspective, it’s such a shame that Nicole Powell doesn’t have a post game. Opponents keep hiding their weakest perimeter defender on her because they know essentially all she does is fire up an occasional three. That’s allowed Courtney Vandersloot and Kristi Toliver to guard her in New York’s last two games – two players who are far shorter and far weaker than Powell. If she could punish those players inside, the defense would have to set up entirely differently.
- LA were on top for most of the first half. New York missed an inordinate amount of finishes at the rim in the opening 20 minutes, while Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker were both making nice catches and completing plays at the other end. Parker’s soft hands were one of the very basic – but entirely central – reasons behind LA’s 48-36 halftime lead.
- There was also some impressive ball movement from the Sparks, shifting the ball around to find the open shot and then knocking it down.
- Essence Carson being stone cold helped too. She was 0-7 in the first half, unable to get anything to drop inside or out. That left Cappie Pondexter to keep New York in it as best she could, with a little help from Plenette Pierson. A late run of Pondexter jumpers and some hard work from Pierson inside at least kept the game alive before the break.
- And then LA’s third-quarter malaise struck yet again. They got destroyed in the third period of recent losses to Tulsa and Chicago, then Minnesota took the next game away from them in the third, a win over Washington followed (which scarcely counts), and then this game. That’s four games in a row if you ignore the Mystics (as we all should be by now). Whatever LA are doing/saying/drinking/eating/whatevering at halftime, head coach Carol Ross needs to change it up, quickly.
- New York increased their defensive pressure in the backcourt in the third quarter, which made LA’s ball movement more difficult, and began to frustrate Kristi Toliver. So LA started turning the ball over, taking bad shots whenever they actually had the ball long enough to fire, and the lead came trickling down.
- Crucially, Carson also started to have some success. With LA converting less frequently on offense, and therefore having less time to set up their defense, they weren’t able to choose their matchups as often. Several times, that left Toliver on Carson (because Carson was defending her, and the easiest person to pick up in transition is whoever is already next to you). The New York guard was enjoying the option of scoring over or around Toliver far more than she had the prospect of attacking DeLisha Milton-Jones in the first half. By the end of the third quarter, Carson had 11 points in a period New York won 23-7, taking a 59-55 lead into the fourth.
- Parker, by the way, seemed to shoot nothing but turnaround fadeaways in that third quarter. Whether defended by Pierson, Kara Braxton or Kia Vaughn, it was always the fadeaway. It’s a pretty shot when it goes in but a) it’s a tough shot, and b) you’re rarely going to be fouled while taking it. So she scored zero points in the third, and took zero free throws.
- The fourth quarter was nervy for everyone involved. Ross started the period with several bench players on the floor, looking for a spark (no pun intended). Toliver and Pondexter cancelled each other out, both hitting a couple of shots, but both playing a little too much hero-ball (heroine-ball?) at times. LA got their boost from the unlikely source of backup wing April Sykes, who hit a midrange jumper and a three, before Parker finally got one of those turnarounds to fall. With 5 minutes left, LA had clawed their way back to a 67-63 advantage.
- Ross made some interesting decisions in the fourth quarter. Having started the period with Jantel Lavender and Nicky Anosike in the post, they were replaced by Parker and Ebony Hoffman a couple of minutes later. Despite a largely pretty strong night for Nneka Ogwumike, Hoffman was kept in the game for virtually the entire fourth quarter ahead of the prized rookie. Toliver also spent a long period on the bench, with Sykes being the choice until 2:21 remained in the game. Decisions like that are always easy to second-guess after the fact, but the Hoffman-over-Ogwumike choice was particularly puzzling.
- There were a lot of forced jumpers from both sides in the closing minutes, the vast majority of which clanked off the iron. Toliver, inevitably, drilled a three moments after returning to the game, giving LA a 70-67 lead with under 2 minutes to play.
- That lead could’ve grown, when Parker easily picked off a lazy Pierson pass and took off downcourt. Fortunately for New York, Parker got caught by defenders and tried to pull a ridiculous behind-the-back move in traffic that ended in an inevitable travelling violation. A five-point lead for LA at that stage might’ve killed the game.
- Instead, New York called timeout, Pondexter missed a three, but collected the offensive board and kicked it to Carson, who nailed her own three to tie the game again.
- Back we went to the other end. An awful piece of defense by Carson, caught ballwatching when the ball was fed to Parker, left Toliver wide open for yet another triple in the corner – only for the Sparks gunner to surprisingly miss. The rebound bounced long, and Pondexter was fouled by Alana Beard in the process of corralling the rebound. With LA in the penalty, Pondexter went to the line, and made both shots for a 72-70 New York lead with 22 seconds remaining.
- New York’s defense slipped up again. The inbounds pass went to Parker on the low block, but a little too low for her to try to score herself. She fed it along the baseline to Hoffman, who used a simple pump-fake to drift easily past Braxton, who turned and all-but crushed Hoffman while trying to prevent the shot. Fortunately for Braxton and New York, Hoffman went 1-of-2 at the line, leaving New York up by a point with 15 seconds left.
- Now typically in this situation, the defending team is forced to foul. Of course, you always say ‘go for the steal, then take the foul’, but you’re essentially expecting to hack the player with the ball. Carol Ross actually set her team up to honestly pursue the steal. They knew that the Liberty would be trying to get the ball to Pondexter, so they set up with Milton-Jones as a spare defender, floating rather than guarding the inbounder. The inbounds pass went to Pondexter as expected, and Milton-Jones was instantly right there to reach in and force a jump ball rather than a foul. She won the tip, and LA had 11 seconds to win the game.
- While they only needed a two, LA could hardly complain about the shot they ended up with. The inbounds again went to Parker in the low post, and rather than trying to score over Pierson, she kicked out to an open Toliver for three. Once again, Carson had left her with far too much room, although a little bump (or moving screen, if you want to be technical) from Milton-Jones had helped create the space. But there were to be no heroics from Toliver this time. She hit the back of the iron, the ball bounced away, and again it was Pondexter who was first to the loose ball.
- LA did, theoretically, have yet another chance, when Pondexter made the first but missed the second free throw. However, with only 2.2 seconds on the clock, and no timeouts (ignore the LiveAccess commentary at the time from Mike Crispino – they had no timeouts left), LA were essentially sunk. Parker grabbed the rebound, but had nowhere to go, and time expired.
- This was a huge win for New York. Their closing schedule, featuring two games apiece against Washington and Tulsa, always looked favourable for a late run to sneak into the playoffs. But this was a game that they weren’t necessarily expected to win. Those are the ones that really give you a lift. Pondexter was immense, finishing 7-20 for 21 points, 8 assists and 12 rebounds, and is doing her best to drag this team into the postseason. The key in this game, as it has been in a few recent New York victories, was that Pondexter and Pierson got a little help. Carson’s enjoying her return to the starting lineup, and though she was 6-18 in the game overall, she was big in the second half and crunch time. Cappie has to keep getting some backup offensively, because the defense is rarely good enough to allow her scoring to win games on its own.
- For LA, this was their fourth loss in five games, and it was another ugly one. They were thoroughly on top in the first half, and then the game just went away from them. Alana Beard had a quiet afternoon offensively while trying to chase Pondexter around, and there wasn’t quite enough production elsewhere to make up the gap. It’s remarkable how San Antonio and Los Angeles have hit tough stretches at exactly the same time, and both are desperately struggling to pull themselves out of the mire. Whichever team manages it first will likely come out on top in their almost-certain first-round playoff series.
- There was no Sylvia Fowles for Chicago, the star center having already returned home after suffering a lower left leg injury in their last game against New York. So we were once again robbed of the Fowles-Tina Charles matchup that makes these Sky-Sun clashes so appealing. Despite carrying injuries, Charles played, with Kelsey Griffin once again deputising for Asjha Jones. Carolyn Swords started in place of Fowles for Chicago.
- After their miserable loss to Phoenix on Friday night, where Charles was a non-factor for most of the night and grabbed a career-low 3 rebounds, it was quickly clear how Connecticut intended to respond. They were going to Charles, early and often. She was in the low post scoring over Swords, then popping out to hit jumpers from 15 feet. The Sun were clearly intent on getting her heavily involved from the start.
- However, after that early Charles burst, it was Chicago who took control of the game. The Sky have shown lately that they can play some decent stuff without Fowles. Once again, their ball movement and penetration was better without her than it has been for most of the season with her as their pivot. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot hit a couple of jumpers, and then Swin Cash took charge, both driving for buckets and hitting from outside. This was the old Swin Cash, the version Chicago had hoped they were acquiring when they traded for her before this season. She had 10 points in the opening quarter, and Chicago already led 27-15.
- Chicago continued to be the aggressor for most of the first half. They were the team moving the ball and making things happen, while Connecticut were playing far too passively. Only a couple of missed shots by the Sky allowed the Sun to pull as close as 44-37 at halftime. They were probably happy to be down by just 7.
- Charles had faded out of the game badly after her hot start, and the opening minutes of the second half featured another concerted effort to force the ball to her. The Sun were going to get their star back involved in this game if it killed them.
- Sun coach Mike Thibault also quickly altered his approach barely 4 minutes into the third quarter. Griffin was benched, and Mistie Mims never even appeared in the second half. Instead, Danielle McCray played as a pseudo-power forward, in what was essentially a four-perimeter-player lineup. It allowed the Sun to be more active defensively, rotating and switching quicker, and closing out better on shooters. With Charles still picking up very few rebounds, it left Connecticut vulnerable on the glass, but without Fowles Chicago are hardly dominant in that area themselves. The additional speed, mobility and shooting was far more valuable to the Sun.
- And while some of it simply came down to Chicago missing more shots, the changes allowed Connecticut to work their way back into the game. With extra defensive speed on the floor for the Sun, Chicago’s ball movement became more difficult, and their old issue with turnovers began to resurface. And once Chicago start turning the ball over, they tend to snowball.
- Connecticut had the score down to 58-55 by the end of the third quarter, before a series of threes early in the fourth finally pushed them in front. McCray, Tan White and Renee Montgomery were the sources, and the Sun were quickly up 69-62. To close the game out, it was back to Charles, who played the entire second half regardless of whatever ailments she was suffering through. She scored repeatedly over Swords in the final minutes of the game.
- Ball movement had largely gone by the wayside for Chicago by this point, with individual creation and shooting from Cash and Epiphanny Prince about all they had to offer. It was nearly enough, with Prince repeatedly answering Charles’s efforts in the fourth quarter, but ultimately Connecticut clung on.
- With Charles poised to take at least one game off to rest hip and groin injuries – she won’t be playing in Phoenix on Wednesday – this was a big, necessary win for the Sun. They had to work hard for it though, and the gap left by Asjha Jones is looking more and more conspicuous. They keep needing to heat up from beyond the arc to shoot their way into games, where earlier in the season that was simply a part of their offense rather than a central requirement of it. Charles ended up 11-15 for 24 points, and they needed every last one of them.
- With New York winning against LA, this loss once again dropped the Sky out of the playoff positions. They started strongly, but ultimately faded back into a style that too closely resembled their play from earlier in the season. The absence of Ticha Penicheiro hurt as well as the loss of Fowles, because there was no one to take over from Vandersloot when the youngster needed a break (mentally as much as physically). She ended the game 5-18 for 15 points and 5 assists, but with 8 turnovers. With Minnesota coming into town tomorrow night, it’s not going to get any easier for Sloot and the Sky.
- Phoenix were once again without rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis due to her right shoulder injury. Indiana had their usual lineup in place.
- Diana Taurasi opened the game with two long bombs from outside. Then Alexis Hornbuckle followed with one of her own. Apparently Taurasi’s shooting is contagious as well as her willingness to pass.
- The opening minutes went in the Mercury’s favour, as they continued to rain shots in from outside. The return of Charde Houston has provided another player who’s more than willing to fire away, and with both her and DeWanna Bonner finding their range from outside, Phoenix led 26-15 after 8 minutes of action.
- However, the momentum of the game swung inside that scant two minutes at the end of the opening period. Erlana Larkins was already in the game at center for Indiana, and she was joined off the bench by Jeanette Pohlen, who hasn’t seen much playing time of late. Between those two and the Fever’s typical key duo of Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, Indiana grabbed repeated steals and offensive rebounds in that stretch, creating a 12-0 run to close the period and take the lead.
- Phoenix hung around for much of the second quarter, but with all due respect to them, you can only survive with Briana Gilbreath and Lynetta Kizer carrying your offense for so long. With Indiana shooting better in the second quarter, Phoenix had fewer opportunities to run, and their offense began to stall. Once again the Fever got a nice boost from an unusual source, with rookie post Sasha Goodlett running the floor hard and finishing at the rim in traffic. That was more than they’d received from veteran options Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport. Indiana led 54-41 at the break.
- The second half was essentially dominated by Indiana, although they could never 100% kill the game off. Douglas was on fire, both with her perimeter shooting and her ability to convert at the rim, providing the bulk of the Fever offense. Phoenix’s defense wasn’t even near her on a lot of the efforts, but she was in such a rhythm that everything was dropping even when she was under pressure.
- Taurasi played barely 4 minutes in the second half, all right at the start. You can put that down to Mercury coach Corey Gaines managing his team and giving his youngsters a chance, or the possibility that Phoenix would still quite like to pile up some additional losses before the end of the season. The choice is yours.
- Douglas finished 12-18 for 30 points, ably supported by Catchings, who was 6-14 for 19, 5 boards and 4 steals. Although they’re still making hard work of some games, right now the Fever are the hottest team in the East alongside Atlanta. They’re 1.5 games behind Connecticut for top spot in the conference, with a final clash between the two looming in just over a week. That could well decide who earns the #1 seed in the East, and avoids Atlanta in the first round.
Tuesday September 11th (tomorrow):
Seattle @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Chicago, 8pm ET