WNBA Today, 09/14/2012: Led by stud rookie, Sparks slip by the Sky

Just the one WNBA game last night, but it was an intriguing encounter. Chicago had the most to play for, coming into Thursday half-a-game behind New York for the final Eastern playoff spot. With the season series between the Sky and Liberty tied at 2-2, if they finished with the same record it would go to conference record to decide. New York were at 9-12 (with one Eastern game left in Washington on Sunday) and Chicago at 7-13 (two Eastern games left, against Atlanta and Washington), giving the Liberty the upper hand. An upset win in Los Angeles to pull them level in the standings would’ve been huge for their postseason push.

However, LA had their own reasons to fight for the victory. 1.5 games clear of San Antonio in second place in the West, they still need wins to make sure of home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series against the Silver Stars. But more importantly, the Sparks had lost 4 of their last 5 games, several of them with fairly pitiful performances. This was the start of a four-game home stand for LA to close out the regular season, and they needed to start finding some form before we hit the postseason.

The Sky were still without star center Sylvia Fowles and veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro, but having broken Minnesota’s 11-game winning streak on Tuesday night without either of those players, they should’ve been confident that they could survive without them. Courtney Vandersloot continued at the point, with Carolyn Swords in the paint.

As we saw when these teams played each other a couple of weeks ago, the way each team tries to set up their perimeter defense creates immediate interest. Both teams want their defensive stopper on the other side’s most dangerous perimeter scorer, which means Tamera Young guards Kristi Toliver for Chicago, and Alana Beard tracks Epiphanny Prince for LA. That’s fine for the Sparks, because the shooting guard is simply taking the shooting guard, allowing Toliver to defend Vandersloot, and DeLisha Milton-Jones to cover Young. But for Chicago, their small forward is sliding over to cover LA’s point guard. It leaves the Sky’s small backcourt of Vandersloot and Prince to cover Beard and Milton-Jones. Even on the official rosters (which tend to be generous), Chicago’s starting guards are listed at 5’8” and 5’9”. Beard and Milton-Jones are officially 5’11” and 6’1”. Basic size was going to be an issue for Chicago all night.

However, defense wasn’t the Sky’s main problem early on. Rather than just switching on practically every screen, which tends to be LA’s modus operandi defensively, they were trapping Prince and Vandersloot off ball screens with hard, active double-teams. And Chicago were absolutely atrocious at handling it. Multiple times they simply gave away the ball under LA’s pressure, unable or unwilling to make the pass out of the trap. It’s a pretty basic defensive tactic, which can be negated by quick ball movement, setting screens off the ball instead of on, or simply breaking down your defender without bringing a screen over to begin with. But Chicago didn’t manage any of that for much of the game – certainly not in the opening quarter.

Offensively, LA were creating points by constantly being the aggressor. Rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike in particular was active in attacking her defender – Swords to begin with, then Le’coe Willingham after the youngster was swiftly benched. Also, unlike the first time these teams met, Milton-Jones was actually making use of her significant size and strength advantage over Prince. DMJ’s spent most of the season staying out of the way and hoisting shots from outside, but if an opposition team is going to put a far smaller player on her, she has to attack. The Sparks were also scoring points simply by running the floor hard and finishing off the breaks created by Chicago’s ballhandling errors. They already held a 27-18 advantage after the first quarter.

Little changed in the second, with the Sparks still the team playing quicker, moving the ball with more confidence and finishing plays. Chicago had cut down on the turnovers, but the offense was still slow and stilted, lacking the movement or penetration that we’d seen in recent games. Bar the occasional make from Prince or Young, they were simply having trouble creating points. However, as if anticipating the third-quarter malaise that has affected them in several recent games, LA let the Sky slip back into the game just before the break. Chicago had a couple of scores in transition through Young and Vandersloot, then Toliver tried an unnecessarily flashy wraparound bounce-pass on a 2-on-1 break that went straight out of bounds. Cash closed the half with a nice cut and finish at the buzzer. Chicago had scored the final 6 points of the half, narrowing the gap to 44-35.

The Sparks must’ve been a little nervous heading into the third quarter. Ignoring the game against Washington – the Mystics barely count any more – LA lost 111-50 in the combined third quarters during their recent road trip. That’s staggering. They came out with evident instructions to continue feeding Milton-Jones to allow her to exploit the matchup with Prince, as she was on the low block looking to score over the Sky guard on multiple early possessions. However, Chicago head coach Pokey Chatman had clearly also spent the interval making it clear to her team what they needed to do. Finally, Prince was seeing the trap as it began, and moving ball quickly to a teammate to take advantage of the open space. Multiple times in the third quarter, she made the pass, and Swin Cash was left in acres of space to knock down an open three. Given how Cash has shot the ball for most of this season, you could understand LA being willing to let her have that shot. But she’s been playing much better since the Olympic break, and you don’t want to leave her completely unguarded. Cash got hot from outside in the third, and started to shoot Chicago back into the game. At least twice, Prince also used one of the other options to beat a trapping defense – she simply elevated and shot over both defenders before they could hassle her on the floor.

The third quarter still wasn’t quite as much of a disaster for the Sparks as it had been on the road. Ogwumike had recognised how the officials were calling the game in the first half, and was repeatedly going right at defenders, either for layups or seemingly inevitable free throws. But LA were doing virtually everything offensively without any help from their leading scorers. Toliver had either Young or Shay Murphy hounding her, and the Sky started to send traps of their own in the second half, frustrating Toliver to no end. She was struggling to find teammates, and certainly had no room to shoot. Meanwhile, Candace Parker was practically anonymous, significantly overshadowed by frontcourt partner Ogwumike’s activity. The LA trainer was constantly massaging around Parker’s right knee and thigh in every break, continuing to suggest that she’s playing at below 100%. Yet again, that raises the obvious idea of resting her until the playoffs, especially considering how many games she’s played poorly in since the Olympics. It makes no sense to have her out there doing what she can right now, when a full-strength Parker is what they need in the postseason.

So Chicago made a game of it in the third, with four Cash triples the main catalyst, and trailed only 61-57 heading to the final period. There was some pretty, back-and-forth basketball early in the fourth, with Parker hitting her trademark turnaround fadeaway over Cash, before Swin replied with a strong finish in the paint, and then Ogwumike fought Cash off for position under the rim and finished for a three-point play. When Chicago’s 2-3 zone was ripped open shockingly easily, with Parker feeding a wide open Beard for three, the Sparks were back up 73-63 with six minutes remaining, and Chatman was screaming for a timeout.

The first offensive possession LA ran after that timeout deserves a paragraph of its own. Milton-Jones had the ball well beyond the three-point line, just left of center, while Ogwumike arced around the right side of the floor. Toliver set a back screen on Ruth Riley, who was theoretically guarding Ogwumike, and probably felt there was little danger. Milton-Jones threw a perfect alley-oop pass, Riley was blocked by Toliver’s screen, and Ogwumike caught and finished in mid-air. It might not have been the crashing dunk you’d have seen on the same play in the NBA, but it was just as sweet in motion.

While that play was hardly Riley’s fault, it highlighted one of the central issues that LA can create for opposition teams. Even in her current state, Parker is too mobile and has too much range for most natural centers to guard, which means most teams try to cover her with their power forward (Swin Cash for most of this game). That leaves the center to try to cover Ogwumike, who does more of her work within 5 feet of the rim. But the rookie can move very quickly, had good feet, and she can jump out of the gym. When she’s as aggressive as she was in this game, the likes of Riley, Swords and Willingham have no chance against her. If they’re both healthy and fully involved in the game, few teams have two post defenders who can cover Parker and Ogwumike.

With three minutes remaining, this one looked over. Parker had gone past Willingham for a ridiculously easy layup, so Chicago switched the assignments next time down, only for Ogwumike to beat Willingham to an offensive rebound and drop in the putback. That gave the Sparks a 79-67 advantage. Suddenly, Prince popped up to drill a three – after disappearing from the game for the entire fourth quarter – then she and Vandersloot both had driving layups, before Cash hit yet again from long range. All LA managed during that stretch was another jumper for Milton-Jones over the top of Prince, and a series of sloppy turnovers. It was like they’d forgotten how to win, or had relaxed far too early. The giveaway that led to Cash’s three was worst of all, with Toliver half-asleep on an inbounds pass that was easily taken away. With the gap down to 81-77, LA head coach Carol Ross called a timeout, only to watch Parker throw the ball straight out of bounds on the ensuing play. Chicago had the ball back, with 40 seconds left, down only 4.

Then after the Sparks had opened the door for them, Chicago swiftly shut it again, right in their own faces. Vandersloot tried to make a pass across the top of the arc to Prince, only for the ball to go directly to Parker, who’d barely needed to move in order to jump the passing lane. After a foul forced LA to inbound again, there was a dead ball foul on Willingham for essentially hugging Ogwumike. Then the Sky defense fell to sleep, allowing Ogwumike to break towards the basket and finish the inbounds pass with an easy layup. That took her personal total to 30 for the night, and killed the game off once again. Beard tacked on a pair of free throws to complete the final 86-77 scoreline.

LA needed this win after the rough road trip, however it came about. Offensively they were strong, considering Parker and Toliver scarcely contributed. The ball movement and attack mentality compensated, and Milton-Jones (7-12 for 19 points, 5 rebounds) and Ogwumike (10-15 for 30 and 11) took up the slack. The defense also worked better than it has in many recent games, with the traps adding an extra element beyond their constant switching and weak pick-and-roll defense. However, not every team will have such a diminutive defender on Milton-Jones, and most will be better prepared for backcourt traps. They’ve got three more games to keep sharpening things up before the important stuff begins.

Chicago did an impressive job of making a fight of this game in the second half, but ultimately the slow start did them in. Prince (6-15 for 19 points) and Vandersloot (3-8 for 8 points, 9 assists, only 3 charged turnovers) eventually had reasonable numbers, but it just took them too long to figure things out. Cash got hot in the second half, providing another strong game ( 8-14 for 23 points) and Young did a strong job on Toliver, only for the Sky to come up short. After producing strong outings without her in recent games, this was one night in particular when they could’ve used Sylvia Fowles, especially defensively. Now a full game behind the Liberty and running out of time to catch up, the chances of yet another lottery visit are growing for the Sky.

 

Notes

No news yet on whether Alexis Hornbuckle’s Flagrant 2 foul towards the end of Wednesday’s game against Connecticut is going to result in a suspension. As mentioned in yesterday’s column, I expect the league to see a fine as sufficient punishment.

 

Upcoming Games

Friday September 14th (today):

Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET

Minnesota @ Indiana, 7pm ET

Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Tulsa @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Connecticut @ Los Angeles, 11pm ET

—–

Saturday September 15th (tomorrow):

None

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