It’s fair to say that last night was not exactly an evening of WNBA basketball for the ages. Four games, all ending in double-digit margins, three of them featuring teams who would love the 2012 season to just end. While the fourth game involved a team missing its entire starting backcourt. It was a night of blowouts and minimal excitement, and Carolyn Peck. Yeah, if you missed it, I wouldn’t worry too much.
- This game was yet another repeat of countless other Mystic appearances over the last couple of years – enough fight in them to make it competitive for a while, but not enough quality or composure to play a full 40 minutes.
- For the first three quarters, Washington were in this. They spent most of the first half trailing by 5 or 6 points, with Cappie Pondexter dominating the ball even more than usual for the Liberty. Monique Currie was aggressive going to the rim, constantly creating layups or free throws, and Noelle Quinn hit a couple of shots from outside. Against a New York team that looked a little anxious, and was sometimes playing too quickly for their own good, that was enough to be within 37-34 at halftime.
- It was still all Currie for Washington in the third quarter – by the end of 30 minutes she had 22 points with only one bucket that wasn’t either at the rim or from the foul line. Fortunately for New York, Currie’s opponent at small forward – Nicole Powell – was having one of her rare effective scoring nights, with 15 points of her own on a perfect 5-5 from the floor. Considering Pondexter was receiving little help from anywhere else, it was a good thing for New York that Powell’s offense had decided to show up for once.
- In fact, the recent additions to New York’s starting lineup – Essence Carson and Kara Braxton – who’d been moved into the starting unit precisely to provide more offense, were benched for virtually the entire fourth quarter. Braxton played less than 9 minutes all night. Instead, it was Leilani Mitchell and Kia Vaughn given the opportunity to help New York home.
- And despite a 55-55 tie heading into the fourth quarter, it was ultimately very comfortable for the Liberty. Vaughn kept knocking down her mid-range jumper (and the Mystics kept leaving her wide open to take it), Plenette Pierson was linking up with Pondexter and sliding to the rim to finish (Washington struggled to cover the pick-and-roll and slip-screens all night long), and that was enough. Currie cooled off in the fourth quarter, and no one else could buy a basket for the Mystics. That was it.
- Opportunities like this are why many still favour New York to sneak into the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. They’re only half-a-game ahead of the Sky, but the Liberty play Washington again on Sunday afternoon, and close out the season with a home-and-home against Tulsa. A trip to San Antonio in the middle is their only tricky-looking game, and even the Silver Stars have struggled lately. It’s all about the schedule. New York didn’t play particularly well in this game, with Braxton having one of those nights where her brain doesn’t show up and Pierson suffering some foul trouble, but they got the job done. They also had the positive of Vaughn’s best game in a while, which could help bolster her confidence for the remaining games. They did enough to win, but they were probably fortunate that the opponent was Washington.
- Same old, same old for the Mystics. One player showed up, no one else did, and they quietly fell to pieces in the final period. Season’s nearly over Mystics fans, I promise.
- The betting line for this one was Indiana -5.5, and I was sorely tempted to put money on the Fever, even before news filtered through that Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright would be sitting out. According to Storm coach Brian Agler, Bird is dealing with some pain in her hip (not the one that was operated on a while back, but the other one), while Wright was resting her knee. Considering Seattle were on the second half of a back-to-back, and Wright is the player who keeps their ballhandling remotely competent when Bird is off the floor, this looked like practically a done-deal before tip-off.
- Svetlana Abrosimova and Shekinna Stricklen started for Bird and Wright.
- On the scoreboard at least, Seattle did a solid job of keeping the game competitive for as long as they could. On the floor, they were finding every conceivable way to turn the ball over. Ten turnovers in the first quarter from Seattle set the tone for how their offense played all night – it was a discombobulated mess, struggling to string passes together, and firing up a lot of threes whenever they did manage to get a shot off.
- At the same time, Indiana were rarely managing to create points off all those turnovers, and spent most of the first half missing a lot shots from outside. It was like they’d been lulled into a false sense of security by Seattle’s missing players, and the fact that the Storm kept coughing up the ball – but the Fever had neglected to remember that they still had to score. They spent a lot of time just shifting the ball around waiting for something to happen.
- It was also one of those games where Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings weren’t getting a lot of help. They had 4 of Indiana’s 5 makes from beyond the arc in the first half, and 23 of their 35 points overall. Fortunately for the Fever, Seattle’s miserable excuse for an offense had only produced 26.
- Even through most of the third quarter, Seattle were still hanging around thanks to their team defense – credit to them for continuing to work hard in a game they could easily have conceded by that point – and Indiana’s poor shooting.
- The Fever finally killed it off in the closing minutes of the third period, when Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen hit threes, and Erin Phillips drove for a layup. In the same stretch, Seattle had a couple of Stricklen bricks from outside, and four more turnovers. With Indiana ahead 56-37 heading into the fourth quarter, Agler cleared his bench and called it a night.
- There’s not much to take from this one on either side. When you take Bird and Wright away from Seattle, they’re never likely to pose much of a threat. They finished the game with a painful 28 turnovers. The problem is, we’re now only two weeks away from the start of the playoffs. The Storm were meant to be using this time to develop some chemistry, and make sure they were healthy for the postseason. While I’m sure they were being ultra-cautious in regards to Bird and Wright, it’s a bad sign that they needed the night off. They’ve got five games left to build any real belief that they can compete with the Lynx in the first round.
- Indiana, eventually, did what they were supposed to do and took care of a severely undermanned opponent. Phillips, Pohlen and Jessica Davenport eventually provided some support for the ‘big two’, and that was enough. Sometimes it can be tricky against a team without its usual stars, who aren’t quite what you expected to face when you showed up at the arena on the night. But Indiana shot really poorly, and only came up with 18 points in the paint by the end of the game. They were going inside a little more in the second half – that was how they ended up at the free throw line a lot more frequently – but it’s still the lingering fear with this team. That they’ll go cold from outside for a game or two, and that’ll scupper their chances in a playoff series.
- Tulsa moved Temeka Johnson back into the starting lineup at point guard in place of Ivory Latta. San Antonio had their standard starting unit out to open the game.
- After losing 6 of their last 7 games, San Antonio were in desperate need of a confidence-boosting win, preferably by a comfortable margin. Through the entire first half, it looked like that was exactly what they were going to get. They were moving the ball crisply, scoring in the soft center of Tulsa’s defense, and knocking down everything from outside. Shameka Christon, Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins were all firing away and sinking shots from range, and Tulsa had no answer whatsoever.
- Even Becky Hammon looked like she was climbing out of her slump in the first half. In San Antonio’s previous seven games, Hammon shot 22-79 (28%), including 7-32 from three-point range (22%). That from a player whose percentages had been out of this world this season (she was threatening 50% both overall and from beyond the arc). In the first half of this one she had a couple of nice drives, a bomb from deep, and performed her regular role as the leader of this team. San Antonio went in at halftime up 51-27 and feeling very happy with themselves.
- Maybe a little too happy. Tulsa didn’t quit, started to attack the paint considerably more both on drives and cuts to the rim, and San Antonio went cold from outside. Just like with Indiana, this is a ‘live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot’ kind of team, and suddenly in the third quarter it was killing them. Tulsa had all the energy coming out of the locker room, and started dominating on the glass while little guards like Temeka Johnson and Ivory Latta were penetrating for points. The 24-point halftime lead had dwindled to 8 by the end of the third quarter, at 64-56.
- San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes started the fourth quarter with starting frontcourt Jayne Appel and Sophia Young reunited in the post. He desperately needed more of an interior presence at both ends of the floor than his players had offered in the third quarter, along with someone who’d put up a fight on the glass. It worked. San Antonio’s offense didn’t improve much at all – they were still struggling to hit anything – but they reasserted themselves defensively and on the boards. That shut down Tulsa’s scoring, and stalled the comeback.
- Two gorgeous moves from Glory Johnson – a drive straight past Young for a layup, then a low-post spin into a one-footed fadeaway jumper (for a three-point play) – gave Tulsa a final chance. That cut the score to 72-63 with barely three minutes left, before another Christon brick from distance led to a Shock break. Latta was open for three, and if she’d fired and hit, the 6-point game with 3 minutes remaining could’ve been interesting. However, Latta turned down the shot, drove and missed a floater in the lane, before Danielle Robinson knocked down a jumper at the other end. Instead of a 6-point gap, the lead was back to 11, and the game was over.
- Ultimately, Tulsa probably came away from this game feeling better about themselves. After a horrendous first half where nothing went right, they came out and made a fight of it. Glory Johnson was the focal point, yet again, finishing 7-13 for 18 points and 5 rebounds. If only the first 20 minutes hadn’t been quite such a disaster.
- San Antonio didn’t really end up with that confidence boost after all. The overall numbers look pretty solid, with four players in double-digits, a 37-31 advantage on the glass and an 11-point win. But they had to work damn hard to cling on in a game that looked like being a walkover at halftime. And Hammon finished just 4-8 for 11 points, in what was ultimately yet another quiet scoring night for her. She’s still distributing and creating, but not posing the same offensive threat or dominating games the way she was earlier in the season. Hopefully she’s just saving herself for the games that matter in a couple of weeks’ time. Otherwise the Silver Stars are in trouble.
- Continuing ESPN’s remarkable knack for screening WNBA games where superstar players are on the sidelines, Connecticut center Tina Charles sat out this game due to hip and groin issues that need rest. Asjha Jones continues to be in street clothes due to her achilles injury, meaning the Sun were left with a starting frontcourt of Mistie Mims and Kelsey Griffin.
- Compounding things further, it was announced just before the game that Phoenix were shutting down Diana Taurasi for the rest of the season. They didn’t even bother to come up with an injury or excuse this time – she just needed more rest. Indiana coach Lin Dunn – whose team are still in a fight with Connecticut for the #1 seed in the East – was understandably unimpressed. Point guard Samantha Prahalis was still out due to her shoulder injury, so Alexis Hornbuckle was joined by Charde Houston in the Mercury backcourt.
- While the ESPN2 audience was still watching baseball, it was Phoenix that got off to the quicker start. In Charles’s absence, it fell to Kara Lawson to play the central role in holding the Sun together and dragging them into the game. She hit a couple of threes to keep them in contention in the first quarter, and then started scoring in transition in the second quarter to accomplish the same feat. With DeWanna Bonner inevitably leading the scoring attack, Phoenix were on top for most of the first half, and it wasn’t until Renee Montgomery started hitting from outside that Lawson had any real help.
- As in several previous games, too often Connecticut’s response to facing a 2-3 zone was just to jack up a shot over the top of it. Admittedly, most of the shots were open, but that doesn’t always make them the right shot to take. Sometimes you need to keep working the ball and look for something better than yet another three.
- Dymond Simon, the diminutive rookie guard Phoenix had re-signed in place of post Avery Warley, actually showed some decent flashes in the first half. Briana Gilbreath, a long-limbed shooter, looks like she might be more of a find for the Mercury, but Simon at least looked moderately competent. She’ll probably be back for Phoenix’s 2013 training camp, at least.
- Having already narrowed their deficit to 45-43 before halftime, Connecticut came out with some renewed energy in the second half. Although in truth, little changed about their pattern of play – they just started to shoot a lot better. Defensively they were making more of an effort to put pressure on Bonner, forcing anyone else to beat them, and that helped keep the Mercury offense in check.
- Lawson was still the hot hand, shooting 4-6 in the second half – all from beyond the arc. But Danielle McCray and Tan White joined in, raining in their own three-pointers, and Connecticut finally started to take charge.
- The one positive that may have come from all of Connecticut’s frontcourt injuries since the Olympics, is the potential reemergence of McCray. Sun head coach Mike Thibault had virtually given up on her, with Lawson, Montgomery, White, Allison Hightower and Kalana Greene all ahead of her in the perimeter rotation. But almost by accident Thibault’s discovered the option of a small lineup with McCray as the closest thing to a power forward on the floor. While it can leave them scrambling on the glass, it helps space the floor with an extra shooter, adds speed defensively, and allows them to switch and rotate with greater ease. Who knows whether he’ll continue to use it if Jones and Charles are both back for the postseason (as they’re supposed to be), but at least the option is there. It’s also given McCray the chance to press her case for minutes again, even if it’s back as a true wing rather than a makeshift power forward.
- After a string of Lawson threes had built a lead for the Sun in the third quarter, it was White’s outside attack that killed the game off in the fourth. ESPN and their commentators had barely been paying any attention to the game all night, but now it had reached the stage where they actually needed to fill.
- Only for Alexis Hornbuckle to give them something to talk about. The game was already over as a contest with under five minutes remaining, when Hornbuckle used both arms to throw Mistie Mims to the ground while supposedly fighting for a rebound. One arm was right on Mims’s head. It was called a Flagrant 2, which is the kind that results in immediate ejection, a ruling that was upheld after review of the video. Hornbuckle showed absolutely no remorse, and just carried on joking with her teammates while the officials looked at the tape, then waved and high-fived with the fans on her way back to the locker room. I’ve got no problem with players being thrown out for over-the-top and unnecessary plays like that. She got what she deserved. It probably won’t be enough to draw a suspension – merely a fine, which the league won’t make public – but a one-game ban wouldn’t be a complete surprise.
- So a game which started with the unhappy news that Taurasi was done for the year ended with a slightly sour taste in the mouth as well, but Connecticut will be happy to go home with the win. They took a calculated risk by keeping Charles on the sidelines, knowing she needed the rest and that they had a decent chance of winning even without her – and it worked. Lawson led them in practically everything, shooting 9-17 for 30 points, 7 assists and 8 boards. Clearly she enjoys performing in front of ESPN cameras whether in a studio or on a court. The worry for Thibault would be that the Sun scored the vast majority of their shots on perimeter jumpers, but that kind of thing tends to happen when your All-Star frontcourt is sat in street clothes. The win was the only important thing for them from this game.
- Phoenix are playing out the string, as the shutdown of Taurasi makes even clearer. Talking about their performances seems about as worthwhile as discussing the Mystics at this point. Their next meaningful event is on ESPN on September 26th, when the 2013 draft lottery results are announced.
Thursday September 13th (today):
Chicago @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET
Friday September 14th (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Connecticut @ Los Angeles, 11pm ET