WNBA Today, 09/17/2012: Sunday, bloody awful Sunday

Welcome to the new, little-publicised WNBA event: Unwatchable Sundays! Oh alright, that’s a touch harsh. We had an impressive upset to start, and an exciting finish to close, but wow was there a load of dross in the middle. The 2012 WNBA regular season isn’t so much limping to its conclusion as it’s crawling there on its hands and knees, begging for mercy. The playoffs are now only 10 days away, thankfully.

 

Tulsa Shock 80 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 70

  • San Antonio came into this game with lingering hopes of catching the Los Angeles Sparks for 2nd spot in the West and home court advantage in the first-round (although those hopes have been fading since LA started winning a few games). Tulsa have been playing for nothing but pride for quite some time now, but some decent performances have illustrated that they’re still fighting for wins, not ping-pong balls.
  • The central issue in this game all afternoon came down to our old favourite cliché: “it’s a make or miss league”. Tulsa shot well from outside, racking up threes consistently; San Antonio fired away just as often, and kept missing. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
  • I had the benefit of watching this game via archive rather than live, so having already seen the boxscore and noticed the significant discrepancy in three-point shooting, I kept a close eye on that aspect of the game. There really wasn’t one particular way that Tulsa created their three-point shots. There were a few on drive-and-kicks, which you’re always going to give up occasionally in San Antonio’s typical defensive schemes, where the wing defender is expected to shade in and help protect the lane if necessary. There were a few where defenders went under ball-screens, and the Tulsa shooter simply fired away with the space that created (arguably preventable by the defense if the post shows harder or if you fight over the screen, but they were hardly major breakdowns). And there were a couple which just came off solid ball movement or players moving well off the ball and finding space. There wasn’t one horrible, noticeable failing in the Silver Stars’ defense. They just got lit up.
  • Although this game did send me off looking for team stats on opponents’ three-point shooting percentage, and San Antonio are the worst team in the league in that category. So maybe there is a more systemic issue – all the help necessary to contain opponents in the paint and somewhat fix their rebounding issues may have led to too much room on the perimeter.
  • Tulsa were already 8-12 from beyond the arc at halftime, and led 48-44.
  • The game stayed tight through most of the second half, although it wasn’t particularly pretty at either end.
  • Facing the Shock was a strange place for it to be shown up, but the Silver Stars are starting to look a post short. Dan Hughes apparently has no faith in either veteran Tangela Smith or rookie Ziomara Morrison, which leaves him with a three-post rotation of Sophia Young, Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams, with Shameka Christon occasionally sliding over to play some power forward. That’s worrying for a playoff series with LA, where they’ll be trying to keep up with Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike.
  • Tulsa got a strong game out of Courtney Paris against that limited front line, with Shock coach Gary Kloppenburg careful to ensure that most of Paris’s minutes were up against Adams. San Antonio perhaps didn’t attack Paris enough, but having Adams out there at least gives her someone she can compete with on defense. Appel was hardly going to dominate her, either.
  • With Tulsa up 70-68, and under five minutes left in the game, someone in silver and black may have somehow angered the basketball gods. They’d just converted a beautiful alley-oop where Becky Hammon, inbounding from halfcourt, found Young by the rim for the finish. But nothing went right for them from that point onwards. Hammon drove and picked up a very dubious charging call when Jen Lacy slid under her. Christon had a three which went in-and-out before Appel was tied up on the rebound for a jump ball, which she lost to Glory Johnson. Then Jia Perkins tipped the ball away from Temeka Johnson, it clearly went out of bounds off Johnson’s foot, only the official standing right next to the play gave the ball to Tulsa.
  • Meanwhile, offensively, Tulsa were penetrating and scrambling their way to points. Temeka Johnson and Ivory Latta both made their way inside, and found Paris to complete the play. Then Latta had a pullup jumper from 15 feet. San Antonio just kept tossing the ball into the crowd for turnovers, missing on drives, or firing up bricks from outside. And that was it. The only points they scored after that pretty alley-oop was a meaningless Adams jumper with 25 seconds left.
  • All about the long ball. Tulsa finished the game 12-19 from beyond the arc, with the quartet guard attack of Temeka Johnson, Latta, Riquna Williams and Roneeka Hodges combining for 10-14. They didn’t play that well, and they won on the home court of a solid playoff team regardless. This squad is definitely offering the fans who’ve suffered through all the losses some hope for next year. Who knows what they might do with some added reinforcement in the paint.
  • San Antonio are just desperately screwed if they shoot like this. They finished 4-22 from three-point range, Christon and Hammon sharing the makes, but also combining to go 4-15 between the pair of them. Most of their attempts were just as open as Tulsa’s, they simply couldn’t knock them down. Not being able to buy a call in the last five minutes completed the job. They’re still, technically, in with a shot of the #2 seed – they need to win their three remaining games, and LA would have to lose their last two. It’s not looking likely.

 

New York Liberty 75 @ Washington Mystics 68

  • Lather, rinse, repeat. Ad freaking nauseum. Facing each other for the third time in 16 days, we got another chance to see a team that looks like it’s going to claw its way into the playoffs, against a poor, weakened opponent who can’t play for 40 minutes. Guess what happened? You’re exactly right – the same thing that happened in the last two.
  • The task was made even tougher for the Mystics when leading scorer and rebounder Crystal Langhorne was ruled out with a foot injury suffered in their previous game (she was already playing through a knee issue). Noelle Quinn also missed her second straight game with a shoulder problem (apologies for not noting that in the review of Friday’s matchup with Atlanta – I honestly didn’t notice, which says a lot about Quinn).
  • Washington started both Michelle Snow and Ashley Robinson to fill Langhorne’s spot, two players who’ve shared the starting center role all season (each losing it regularly due to poor performance).
  • New York pulled out an early 9-point lead, and looked like they might kill this one off early, but they’re not actually that much better than the Mystics, so it didn’t last. The New York offense dried up – the extra center was actually working for Washington, as they were piling up blocks – and the game got close again.
  • Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, essentially the only backup post left for the Mystics with Robinson and Snow both starting, had another strong showing. She’s been one of Washington’s better players in the second half of the season, probably earning herself a contract with somebody for next year (or at least a look in training camp). She’s a big body that can fill space inside, and she can finish. She’s not going to set anyone’s world on fire or play heavy minutes on a good team, but she might still have a career in this league as a decent backup.
  • New York were very, very reliant on Cappie Pondexter to carry their offense. Even more than usual. She was even crashing the boards and helping them survive on the glass (despite being all of about 5’9”). As people have started to mention in recent weeks, if the Liberty’s record wasn’t so dismal, she’d be an MVP candidate. Few WNBA teams would be so completely lost if you took one player away from them.
  • New York led 35-33 at halftime, but for much of the second half it looked like they were going to let this game slip away. The Liberty offense was consistently going absolutely nowhere against a defense that’s broken down constantly all season. When Iziane Castro Marques – who’s done virtually nothing since joining the Mystics – hit two straight baskets early in the fourth quarter, Washington were ahead 56-47.
  • We really should’ve known better. Betting on Washington finding a way to lose could probably make you rich, if you could find anyone dumb enough to take the wagers. Pondexter dragged New York back into it initially, then there were a series of offensive boards and second-chance points, with Nicole Powell making a couple of big threes from the corner.
  • Twice in the last 90 seconds of the game, the Washington players looked ready to run a play and make something happen, only for head coach Trudi Lacey, in her own inimitable style, to call timeouts and bring everything to a halt. The plays they ran out of both timeouts ended up being essentially “give the ball to Matee Ajavon and let her try to get to the rim”. The players probably could’ve managed to design that on their own. Considering neither resulted in any points, they definitely could’ve replicated the results.
  • When Trudi finally ran out of timeouts, with Washington down 71-65 with 33 seconds left, the Mystics went straight down the floor and Jasmine Thomas drilled a three. But with New York making their free throws – 8-8 from the line in the fourth quarter – it wasn’t enough. Another scraped win for the Liberty; another disappointing near-miss collapse from Washington.
  • Same again from Washington, tired of talking about it.
  • The key thing from this win for New York is that it sealed the tie-breaker over Chicago, should they end up level with the Sky on overall record. The first tie-breaker is season series – which the Liberty and Sky tied 2-2 – but the next is conference record. This win took New York to 10-12 against the East (their remaining three games are all against Western opposition), with Chicago currently at 7-13. So Chicago now have to finish above the Liberty on basic win-loss record to make the playoffs. However, New York’s final two games against Tulsa are looking a little trickier than they did a while ago, with the Shock continuing to fight to the bitter end. This win came down to Pondexter – 9-17 for 30 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists – and Nicole Powell stepping up in the clutch. And Washington being bad. That was it.

 

Chicago Sky 86 @ Phoenix Mercury 55

  • If you thought I didn’t have much to say about the last game, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Chicago were still without center Sylvia Fowles and point guard Ticha Penicheiro, not that it mattered. Phoenix continue to have a far better team in street clothes – Samantha Prahalis (shoulder), Penny Taylor (knee), Diana Taurasi (nothing), DeWanna Bonner (back) and Candice Dupree (knee) – than in uniform.
  • There was no energy in this game at all, from beginning to end. The Mercury were horrid, with an endless stream of turnovers leading directly to Sky points in the first half. The Sky did what you’re supposed to do to a team like that – get on top of them early, build a big lead, and don’t let them even think about a comeback.
  • Shay Murphy had the first half of her life off the Sky bench, and was 8-11 for 20 points at halftime. She was wide open for a bunch of threes, and the recipient of plenty of the gifts Phoenix offered up in transition.
  • Chicago led 55-26 at halftime, and if you missed the whole thing, congratulations.
  • The Sky stay one game behind New York with this win, each with three left to play. They need a two-game swing – not impossible, but looking unlikely.

 

Connecticut Sun 60 @ Seattle Storm 58

  • Once again, Seattle were without star pair Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, due to hip and hamstring issues respectively. Alysha Clark was out for this one as well, with the flu. Connecticut continue to struggle on without Asjha Jones.
  • Unsurprisingly, this was not a pretty game. The one thing that Seattle can still do without their leaders, at least a little, is play defense. Unless you count turning the ball over – they’re exceptionally good at that, and they keep practicing. So the Storm could make things difficult for Connecticut – who’ve struggled offensively in several recent games without needing much help from their opponents – but running cohesive or coherent offense was rare. Hence the low, low scoring.
  • Whenever Tina Charles was left single-covered, usually by Ann Wauters, she was scoring with ease. So most of the time, Seattle were collapsing double and triple-teams on her, forcing the pass, and hoping for a steal or to recover in time elsewhere on the floor. Mostly it worked, partly because Kara Lawson was the only player on the Sun’s perimeter who could make a shot.
  • By the midpoint of the second quarter, it was looking like Connecticut were going to fall into a win by default. They were up 26-13, despite playing pretty poorly, because Seattle’s offense was just a complete shambles. Then Tina Thompson, Ewelina Kobryn and Svetlana Abrosimova came off the bench, and injected some life into the team. Thompson hit a couple of shots, they managed to run a little in transition without giving the ball up, and the crowd woke up. A 12-0 run pushed them right back into the game, and only an offensive board and putback by Charles at the buzzer finally got Connecticut off 26. They’d been stuck there for over 5 minutes.
  • The third quarter was barely any better. After 11 turnovers in the first half, Seattle added 8 more in the third quarter alone. Charles had a couple of nice finishes past Wauters, before Seattle remembered that whole ‘double-teaming’ concept. Then Connecticut’s offense disappeared again. When the Storm did hold on to the ball long enough to shoot, the Sun were essentially daring Seattle to beat them from outside. Abrosimova and Shekinna Stricklen made a couple to close the third quarter, energise the crowd again, and keep things interesting. It was 41-39 Connecticut after three periods. Yes, three.
  • The fourth quarter was bizarre. After playing with two posts all night long (Charles and Mistie Mims had played heavy minutes, with Kelsey Griffin occasionally spelling them), Mike Thibault went to his small lineup with Danielle McCray as a pseudo power-forward for the fourth. He’s done that before to wake up his team. But it didn’t make much sense. Bar a couple of late shots, Seattle were already struggling horrendously on offense. He didn’t need extra perimeter defense or speed, as he has in several recent games where he’s used the same tactic. His team should have been able to assert themselves without the gimmick. And while Seattle are often a mess, they’re still smart. This is a veteran team. They’ll recognise junk defenses and mismatches, and early in the fourth the Storm took their first lead since the opening quarter.
  • Talking of junk defenses, I don’t even know what Connecticut were playing for most of the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a man-to-man, but it wasn’t quite a zone. It was some kind of ultra-switch-based man-to-man-ish thing where everyone kept passing assignments around but also trying to step up and fill spaces. It looked like a mess most of the time.
  • But Seattle’s offense was still a mess, so it fit. On six consecutive possessions between the six-minute and three-minute marks in the fourth quarter, Seattle had five turnovers. The only possession that didn’t end in a giveaway came straight out of a Brian Agler timeout. He drew up a long curl for Stricklen, who broke wide open for a three and nailed it. Unlike with Lacey in Washington, it usually makes sense for Agler to call timeouts.
  • The vets made the big plays for Seattle in the final moments, and it looked like they were somehow going to snatch the win. Thompson bailed them out of yet another sloppy possession with a deep three. Katie Smith followed with her own three from the corner, after being left alone by the strange Sun defense. Then Smith was forced into a tough baseline jumper by an expiring shot clock, and hit it. That gave Seattle an unlikely 58-54 lead with under 90 seconds remaining.
  • Oh, and guess what Thibault did after Smith hit that three? Brought Mims back in alongside Charles, and went to a standard man-to-man. What a concept!
  • In the final minute, Connecticut finally found a way to make the crucial, game-clinching plays. Solid ball movement, which we’d seen very little of all night, found Lawson for a three to pull them within a point. Ridiculously, that was Lawson’s only shot of the fourth quarter. Then Renee Montgomery blocked Tanisha Wright’s attempted pullup jumper in the lane, before pump faking Camille Little into the air at the other end, and drawing a foul. Close examination of the replay showed Montgomery almost certainly travelled before the contact, but it was the kind of shuffling players usually get away with in those situations, and this was no different. She hit both free throws, and Connecticut were back ahead with 14 seconds remaining.
  • Oh how Seattle missed Sue Bird at the end. The play Agler drew up looked like it was probably meant for Stricklen, but the initial passing lane got cut off by the defense. Eventually, Stricklen got the ball and threw up an ugly flippy hook thing over her shoulder, which just about hit the rim. Mims tracked down the rebound, and was fouled.
  • Seattle had one last chance, after Mims missed the first but made the second free throw. With under 3 seconds on the clock and no timeouts remaining, Thompson threw a long baseball pass, which Stricklen stretched up to catch. She came down, turned, and was wide open for three, albeit from over 25 feet out. The effort was long, bouncing straight off the glass, and that was that.
  • In some ways, I feel like Seattle should get some credit for competing without their two biggest stars, fighting it out, and nearly sneaking out a win. But damn that was ugly. They finished with 25 turnovers (which makes 74 total in the three games Bird has missed, by the way), and it was simply painful to watch for much of the contest. Congratulations to the crowd for providing a remarkable atmosphere for what was such a poorly played game most of the night. It’s hard to see this team beating Minnesota in the first round (even once), even if Bird and Jackson return 100% healthy. But if they do, it’ll likely be Game 2 in front of this raucous bunch.
  • Connecticut are really struggling. Maybe it seems strange to say that after a game they pulled out, and considering they’ll probably still cling on to the #1 seed in the East, but some of these performances lately can’t be filling their fans with confidence heading into the playoffs. Jones still isn’t back, Charles tied her career low in rebounding again in this game (with 3), and the perimeter offense is wildly hit or miss. The positive is that if they do hold on at the top of the East, they’ll face New York or Chicago in the first round (likely the Liberty). That should be a much easier introduction to the postseason than either Indiana or Atlanta would provide.

 

Notes

Don’t forget there was a game tonight (Monday games are rare in the WNBA), which means there’ll be a WNBAlien entry tomorrow. It was a better game than any of the four above, too.

 

Upcoming Games

Monday September 17th (today):

Indiana @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

—–

Tuesday September 18th (tomorrow):

New York @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Chicago @ Seattle, 10pm ET

Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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