WNBA Today, 09/19/2012: Playoff Picture continues to clear, as Sky fade meekly away

Most of the important issues in the WNBA playoff race (and a lot of the unimportant ones) were decided a long time ago, which has made it a struggle to retain interest in the closing weeks of the regular season. However, technically, last night’s three games all still had some relevance to either playoff qualification or home court advantage in the postseason. Which isn’t bad with only six days left. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.

 

New York Liberty 66 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 77

  • The night kicked off with the only game where both teams had something to play for. Mathematically, at least. New York were the team who needed it more, with a ‘magic number’ of two heading into the night. They still needed a combination of two more Liberty wins or Chicago Sky losses just to sneak into the playoffs. San Antonio still had faint hopes of stealing home court advantage away from Los Angeles in the first round, but it was going to take wins in their last three games, and LA losing their last two, to get there.
  • Throughout the contest, San Antonio’s best player was second-year point guard Danielle Robinson, who’s had a very impressive season. She’s lightning quick, which both helps her get to the rim and pester opponents defensively. It also means that if she pokes away a steal or breaks out in transition, no one’s catching her. She’s also worked hard on her mid-range jumper, which has been falling consistently all season long. You can’t just leave her open to take that shot any more, because she’s shooting 55% from the field and it’s not just layups. In fact, she’s shooting 47% from both 11-15 and 16-20 feet, way above the league averages. Her control of the team as a point guard has improved as well. Since being drafted she’s benefitted from playing alongside Becky Hammon, who takes on a lot of the creative responsibilities, but she’s not just standing on the wing and watching Becky work any more. She’s legitimately the point guard on significantly more possessions, and has increased her assists while lowering her turnovers this season. The PG spot in San Antonio should be in good hands for years to come.
  • Robinson’s primary partner in crime early in the game was Shameka Christon, who seems to have rediscovered her three-point shooting touch recently. Which is a good thing, because she doesn’t do much else. The Silver Stars run plays designed purely to get her open from her favourite spots for three (diagonal from the rim out on the wing, on either side), and she was converting.
  • Despite head coach John Whisenant theoretically preferring to work inside-out offensively, the Liberty are becoming increasingly reliant on Cappie Pondexter to simply carry their offense. And they were already pretty damn reliant on her. She had a sidekick in Essence Carson through much of this game, who usually doesn’t need a second invitation to fire away, either. After a slow start, New York got a better grip on this game and tightened the scoreline.
  • San Antonio still have the frequent problem of completely quitting on any kind of post offense. New York at least occasionally try to play through Plenette Pierson or one of their centers down low. With Sophia Young failing to find any kind of accuracy in the first half, and Danielle Adams completely ineffective as well, San Antonio were left firing up jump shot after jump shot through most of the second quarter – with little success. That allowed New York to piece together a late run and take a 37-32 advantage in at halftime.
  • Practically the only good thing about ESPN2’s WNBA broadcasts is that we occasionally get glimpses into the locker room or the huddles. God knows the analysts aren’t improving the experience. As we saw Whisenant say at halftime, this game meant more to New York than it did to San Antonio. His players were meant to go out and show that. And they did – for about five minutes.
  • There was a glimpse of the good Kara Braxton, the one that uses her bulk to bully people inside and finish plays, and that helped New York to a 47-40 lead midway through the third quarter. Then San Antonio brought Adams back in, while Braxton was replaced by Kia Vaughn (Kara can only last for about 5 minutes without needing a breather). The game turned.
  • Unlike the first half, when Adams had been shooting from outside or trying to drive for her own shots and often turning the ball over, this time she went and planted herself down low, looking for passes from her teammates. It created some quick, easy points for the Silver Stars, and finally got their offense in some kind of flow. They need that from Adams, especially on nights when Young can’t find her game. No one else is going to give them a base in the paint.
  • Other changes helped San Antonio turn the tide. They had better ball movement, which shifted the New York defense and created better passing lanes to get Adams the ball. They also switched into their 2-3 zone right around the middle of the third quarter, leading to Liberty turnovers and bricks from outside, removing their brief interior attack. By the end of the third, New York still led 57-55, but San Antonio were the team with momentum.
  • Whisenant subbed Pierson out with 7:41 left in the game, replacing her with DeMya Walker, and Pierson never returned. She hadn’t played the best game of her life, but her hustle and defensive energy are usually a key part of any success the Liberty achieve. There was no noticeable injury, so it was a strange decision to leave her on the sidelines.
  • Especially considering the game started to slip away from New York. After several minutes of messy basketball where no one could score, Becky Hammon broke the drought with a deep three, before Christon added another. It was nice to see Christon back on the floor, after she’d taken a hit to the face early in the second half that left her with a bloody nose. Considering it was an elbow to the head that started her injury problems over two years ago, any contact in that area must be frightening for Christon, but she was back out there and making her old team suffer.
  • New York’s offense had devolved even further into a series of isolations for Pondexter, who couldn’t get anything to fall. Or occasionally she’d give up after running out most of the shot clock, and someone else tried to go one-on-one instead. With Adams on the bench, San Antonio’s post offense had disappeared, but between jumpers and free throws they pulled away. New York scored only 2 points in over 6 minutes of fourth-quarter play, while the Silver Stars broke out to a 7-point lead. The Liberty couldn’t answer.
  • It wasn’t much of a performance from the Liberty, especially considering they were the ones who really needed to victory. They shot a remarkable 2 free throws all night long, despite leading 32-22 in points in the paint, which suggests they didn’t get much help from the officials – but a lot of it was their own fault. Pondexter and Carson will drive for their points at times, but a lot of those drives end in pull-up jumpers. Unless the defender’s dumb enough to hack you on the shot, those rarely lead to free throws. Also, for much of the night, Hammon was being hidden defensively on Nicole Powell, who’s about 8 inches taller and maybe 50 pounds heavier than Hammon. But Powell’s got no post game. The one time she actually planted herself down low and tried to post up, Hammon swiped from behind and poked the ball away, igniting a San Antonio break. That just about summed up New York’s offense beyond Pondexter and Carson firing away.
  • While they got the win, it wasn’t a particularly impressive outing from the Silver Stars either. Robinson was electric, finishing the game 9-11 for 21 points on a series of athletic layups and mid-range jumpers, while adding 5 boards and 5 assists. But besides her, it was a bunch of threes and that brief burst from Adams. That was it. They used their defense to key into some offense late in the game, but it still feels like this team needs to shoot the lights out most of the time to win games. Especially when Hammon and Young combine to shoot 4-20 from the field, as they did in this one.

 

Chicago Sky 60 @ Seattle Storm 75

  • So the Sky players may not have been aware of it, but before this game tipped off New York had opened the door for them. A Chicago win would’ve tied the teams in the standings, and left us with a legitimate fight for the final Eastern playoff spot; a loss and New York’s magic number would drop to 1. Seattle had little to play for except pride and confidence, and the latter has been in short supply lately for the Storm. Fortunately, they had Sue Bird back in the lineup after resting her hip problem for three games (during which her teammates had committed 74 turnovers). Lauren Jackson was still missing, but is expected to practice on Thursday and play in Friday’s game against San Antonio.
  • Chicago still had their own key injury problem, with Sylvia Fowles once again missing due to her lower left leg injury (you’d think they might be a bit more specific about it by now, but that’s still all that’s been released). However, the Sky did at least have point guard Ticha Penicheiro available again off the bench, after being out for a couple of weeks.
  • There’s not a great deal to say about this game, because Chicago were awful. Especially considering this group were meant to be playing for their playoff lives, there was a pathetic lack of fire, aggression and basic energy. They seemed to sleepwalk through much of the game, and Seattle had a comfortable lead from late in the first quarter until the final buzzer.
  • There were still positives to take for Seattle, even with the weak competition. Bird’s return seemed to settle everybody down, and while there were still plenty of turnovers, there were fewer of the painfully unforced ugly ones which leave you with your head in your hands. Ann Wauters had one of her better offensive nights of the season, catching and converting inside with some consistency. The team as a whole shot well from outside, moving the ball far better than Chicago to find open shooters, and taking their opportunities. And alongside that, there was still more interior presence, a greater willingness to attack the rim, and significantly better rebounding from Seattle than Chicago.
  • The Sky spent practically all night firing up an endless stream of bricks from outside. Apart from an occasional Epiphanny Prince drive, and rare penetration from Courtney Vandersloot, that was essentially it. Jumper after jumper, clank after clank, no change, no attack, no nothing. It was a depressing way to virtually end their season. Seattle always try to close off the paint and force teams into shooting from outside to beat them, but they’re not that good at it (especially this year, and without Jackson). The Sky just capitulated disappointingly easily.
  • The evening did offer up one particular highlight, when Tina Thompson followed two trademark rainbow threes with a mid-range banker early in the second quarter. She’d come into the game on 6,993 points for her WNBA career, so that made her the first player in WNBA history to pass the 7,000-point mark. Others will follow and break her totals, but she’ll always be one of the legends of this league. The crowd saluted her, while she just kept playing the game.
  • Chicago’s chances aren’t completely finished. They have two games left, at home to Atlanta and Washington, while New York have a home-and-home with Tulsa remaining. Two Sky wins and two Liberty losses would still sneak Chicago into the postseason. But this squad looked like they’d decided a few extra days of vacation before their European seasons was preferable to a first-round series against Connecticut. It looks like a Sky representative will be at the lottery yet again, and the team will miss the playoffs for the 7th straight year.

 

Phoenix Mercury 76 @ Los Angeles Sparks 101

  • San Antonio’s earlier win meant that LA were still playing for something in this game – a win would seal the second seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Phoenix have long given up on the 2012 WNBA season, but surprisingly reintroduced two of their injured players. DeWanna Bonner returned after missing a couple of games due to a sore back, while Candice Dupree made her first appearance since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in July.
  • This game turned out to be slightly more of a contest than originally anticipated – but only slightly. Phoenix’s defensive effort was pathetic early on, and combined with frequent Mercury turnovers, LA ran out to a quick lead. Candace Parker was far too quick for Krystal Thomas inside, Nneka Ogwumike was crashing the offensive glass as usual, and DeLisha Milton-Jones and Alana Beard were hitting open jumpers from outside. The Sparks were up by 14 after barely 4 minutes.
  • Phoenix did at least rouse themselves to offer a little competition, mainly through the offense of Bonner. She was having one of her hotter nights from outside, and LA were committing enough dumb fouls to allow her to supplement her scoring from the foul line. The idea of Bonner as a Most Improved Player this season is ridiculous – her raw scoring average has increased significantly thanks to all the shots she’s had to take to carry this terrible offense, rather than improved performance. Her percentages have also dropped significantly, thanks to all the shots she’s forced up with so few scoring options in uniform for the Mercury. But saying that isn’t intended to insult her play this season. She’s done what they’ve asked of her, in a very trying situation, and on occasion produced excellent performances. But what I’ve seen is essentially the same player, with a lot less talent around her.
  • LA led 54-40 at halftime, although it felt like they’d dominated to an even greater extent than that scoreline suggests. Parker was already 6-10 for 14 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks, building on her improved performance against Connecticut on Friday night. While most quality players ought to pile up points against Phoenix, one of the most impressive parts of that stat-line is the assists. When she’s under control, Parker’s an excellent passer, with nice touch and good vision. It’s only when she tries too hard to take over as a pseudo-point guard, especially on the break, that her passing or ballhandling get her in trouble.
  • Yet again, the Sparks had third quarter issues. It seemed like they’d put those problems behind them once their road trip concluded, and they took over the third against the Sun on Friday, but the second half of this game began with a 13-6 Mercury run. Suddenly LA were taking poor efforts early in the shot clock, and being beaten down the floor in transition. Sparks head coach Carol Ross called a timeout, presumably reminded her players how much better they are than what’s left of the Mercury, and LA kicked back in to blowout mode. Led by Beard’s defense, Parker’s willingness to run the floor, and Phoenix’s frequent miscues and turnovers, the lead quickly ballooned back beyond 15, and the game was over.
  • The only remaining intrigue was over whether Parker could complete a rare WNBA triple-double. She had the points and rebounds by the end of the third-quarter, and an early fourth-quarter entry pass to Milton-Jones added her seventh assist. But either Parker didn’t know she was close to the statistical achievement, or she didn’t care. She continued to play her normal role in the offense in the fourth quarter, hitting a three and finishing a hook in the paint, without noticeably looking to drive up her assist numbers. Ross finally pulled her with under 4 minutes remaining, still on seven dimes. She’d played nearly 32 minutes, which was already heavy action for a player supposedly carrying an injury and facing a weak opponent.
  • So the Sparks comfortably completed the victory, and sealed home-court in the first round against San Antonio. However, in previous years there have been scheduling issues for LA in the postseason, so we’ll wait and see whether they actually get to play those home games at Staples Center. All five starters finished in double digits, and all made strong contributions to the performance. Gaining anything from their reserves is still a hit-or-miss affair, and it seems likely that the starting five will log big minutes in the postseason. But when that five is rolling, they can put a scare into anyone.
  • With Beard guarding her for the minutes that mattered, Bonner had a much quieter second half. Phoenix continue to play out the string, and gather up losses. As long as they avoid winning either of their final two games, they should finish with the second-worst record in the WNBA, and the second-best odds in the draft lottery on September 26th.

 

Notes

Sadly, Chicago Sky point guard Ticha Penicheiro announced today that she’ll be retiring at the end of the 2012 WNBA season. She spent the vast majority of her WNBA career with the Sacramento Monarchs, winning a ring in 2005. She was the consummate pass-first point guard, thrilling fans with her flashes of showtime skills, but always with the knowledge of how to run a team and make the right play. As with everyone, Father Time has caught up with her in her later years, but she’ll be fondly remembered as one of the best point guards the women’s game has ever seen.

Connecticut’s Danielle McCray sprained an MCL during Sunday’s game against Seattle, and isn’t expected to play tonight against Indiana. In fact, with the game meaning essentially nothing (and being a potential preview of the Eastern Conference Finals), expect to see a lot of action for both teams’ reserves.

 

Upcoming Games

Wednesday September 19th (today):

Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

—–

New York @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET

Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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