WNBA Today, 09/21/2012: Playoff ‘race’ concludes with a whimper

So last night brought the 2012 WNBA playoff chase to a conclusion in an entirely appropriate way, considering how the final two contenders have played for most of the year. Not with a bang or an explosive victory, but with the faint whistle of the air finally being sucked out of a wrinkled balloon. Or, if you prefer less flowery language, someone had to fill the spot, and finally a team was shoved over the line.

There was also a nightcap game between the teams which may well contest the Western Conference Finals, but unless you’re an optimistic Los Angeles Sparks fan, that was equally uninspiring.

 

New York Liberty 66 @ Tulsa Shock 78

  • New York had their destiny in their own hands. A victory over Tulsa would’ve stamped their ticket to the postseason. After missing the final 7 minutes of their previous game for no obvious reason, Plenette Pierson began this one on the bench, with DeMya Walker starting in her place. With Tulsa providing the broadcast, there was no information as to why, but presumably Pierson’s either carrying an injury or there was some kind of disciplinary reason. She was in the game after less than five minutes. Tulsa’s starting lineup was unchanged.
  • New York didn’t look much like a team fighting to confirm their playoff spot in the first half. In fact, most of their play looked half-hearted and aimless, with plenty of sloppy turnovers and a host of jacked up jump shots. The only effective offense was when they found Kara Braxton in the post, who took advantage of Tulsa’s lack of interior presence to provide some buckets.
  • Meanwhile, Tulsa fired away from long range and sank a host of threes, often left wide open by the lackadaisical Liberty defense. There was the occasional drive from the likes of Ivory Latta, but the perimeter bombing made up the bulk of Tulsa’s offense, and carried them to a 45-30 halftime lead. Temeka Johnson was 5-6 overall, 3-4 from beyond the arc, for 15 points in the opening 20 minutes.
  • Nothing much changed in the second half. New York made a quick early run when Pondexter hit a couple of shots and Braxton bullied her way to more points inside, but the Shock swiftly stretched their lead out again with more perimeter shooting. The Liberty had a more coherent attack plan in the second half and Pierson saw a lot of the ball inside, but they could never string enough stops together to make the game close. Johnson, Latta, Jen Lacy and Amber Holt continued to knock down threes, and on this night, that was enough.
  • You have to credit Tulsa for they way they’re finishing out the season. They’ve continued to play hard and work on picking up wins. Even after a couple of ugly losses to Seattle at the start of this month, they’ve bounced back to win their last three in a row. The offense still isn’t particularly varied or dynamic. There’s a lot of one-on-ones, and a lot of perimeter gunning (they finished this game 14-30 from three-point range, and only took 64 shots total), but they’re finding a way to get the job done. Temeka Johnson led them to their ninth win of the season with a remarkable 10-12 shooting night for 26 points and 6 assists against the Liberty. The Shock have two games left – against this same opponent back in New York, and then in Indiana – to try to reach double-digit wins. A vote for Gary Kloppenburg as Coach of the Year is something you could at least defend with a very reasonable argument.
  • New York were pretty pitiful. Their backcourt of Pondexter and Essence Carson finished a combined 11-28 for 25 points, while leaving far too many shooters open at the other end. Seeing Braxton and Pierson both aggressive and effective offensively was a nice bonus, but Connecticut’s post defense is a far cry from what they saw from the Shock. Keep playing like this, and the Liberty will last all of two games in the postseason.

 

Atlanta Dream 75 @ Chicago Sky 66

  • As this contest was taking place simultaneously with the game above, the Sky players didn’t know that New York were leaving the door open for them yet again. But they came into this game knowing full well that they had to win to keep their hopes alive – so it shouldn’t have mattered. Chicago were once again without center Sylvia Fowles due to her lower leg injury, and Carolyn Swords continued to fill in. Atlanta were the same as last time out, with Angel McCoughtry once again starting at small forward, and Tiffany Hayes coming off the bench.
  • To Chicago’s mild credit, they played with more attacking intent than they managed in the dismal loss to Seattle two nights earlier. It would’ve been hard to play worse than they had against the Storm. There was a little more penetration, and a little more effort to look for Swords inside – it wasn’t all a case of firing away from outside and praying shots would fall.
  • Atlanta took a while to wake up, which was perhaps understandable in a game that meant absolutely nothing to them. But after the first timeout midway through the opening quarter, when head coach Fred Williams presumably asked for more energy and effort regardless of the value of the game, the Dream showed more energy. Finally the league-leading defense was more active, closing down lanes and poking balls away, and Chicago ended up stuck on 13 points for a long time.
  • The Sky made a run late in the first half, when a couple of feeds found Swords underneath, and a jumper or two fell from outside. They clawed back as close as 34-31 with under three minutes to play. But Atlanta responded. Some of it came down to the lack of real fight and grit that Chicago seemed to exhibit, but it was also just a bad day (from a Sky perspective) for Atlanta to hit so many jump shots. Typically, this Dream squad struggles if you force them to beat you with jumpers, but it was a series of makes by McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle that had Atlanta back up by 41-31 before the break.
  • It was a similar story in the second half. Chicago would make a faint push – Epiphanny Prince had a couple of drives to pull them within three in the third quarter, Swords had some offensive boards and putbacks, Le’coe Willingham hit a deep three to cut the gap to four – and Atlanta always had an answer. A cold stretch of 4 minutes without a point for the Sky killed the Prince run, and two immediate triples from Hayes and Cathrine Kraayeveld answered the Willingham three. Chicago never really looked dangerous.
  • The gap was never below 10 in the fourth quarter until the final 2 minutes, when Atlanta got a little tentative and started worrying more about running time off the clock than continuing to run an offense. Even then, Chicago couldn’t find any breaks, and a Shay Murphy three that made the score 71-63 with under 30 seconds left was far too late. Chicago’s season was over.
  • It must’ve felt even worse for the Sky when they came off the court and discovered the Liberty had lost as well. This team showed a little life in the closing weeks of the season, even with Fowles on the sidelines, but once they’d created the chance that insipid performance in Seattle blew it all over again. This was just the icing on a nasty-tasting cake. Swords (8-12 for 16 points and 9 boards) was a bright spot, but they won’t feel like looking for any positives from this game. It’s a 7th straight season where this franchise will be watching the playoffs from home.
  • Yet again, Atlanta finished a game with a remarkably high total in the assists column, finishing with 26 on 31 baskets. That’s been a feature of their recent play, both before and after McCoughtry’s return. They’ll hope that jump shots aren’t quite so heavily featured in their offense during the playoffs, but if they have to shoot from midrange this was a nice piece of preparation. Even Armintie Price was making shots, and Sancho Lyttle was taking the bulk of her efforts from inside the lane. Those are distinct positives for the Dream.

 

Minnesota Lynx 76 @ Los Angeles Sparks 92

  • While this was always likely to be a slightly cagey affair with the distinctly possibility of a rematch occurring in couple of weeks for the Western Conference crown, the luster was taken off it even further with the news that Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen wouldn’t be taking part. She was sick and in street clothes, leaving Candice Wiggins to take over her spot. Backup post Amber Harris was unavailable again, also due to illness. Los Angeles had all 11 players in uniform, and their regular starting five ready to go, for what was their final game of the regular season. Everyone else finishes at the weekend, but the Sparks closed out with this one. They may have to play Game 1 of the first-round away from their regular home court, but they’re getting three extra days to rest and prepare over all their Western rivals.
  • From the very start, the Sparks looked far more invested and interested in playing this game (and winning it). They had a breaking Alana Beard layup and a quick-hit finish for Candace Parker under the rim on their opening two possessions. Then Nneka Ogwumike came flying out of nowhere for an insanely athletic offensive rebound and putback, all in one motion. She was beyond the three-point line when the original shot went up. Meanwhile, Minnesota started the game with an array of seemingly endless bricks from the perimeter, interspersed with the occasional turnover. It was 11-2 after less than 4 minutes, when Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve brought in backup posts Jessica Adair and Devereaux Peters to try to wake up her team.
  • That was how things progressed through most of the first half. All the energy was coming from LA, along with all the finishing and shot-making. Minnesota looked lethargic and struggled to get into the game. The close of the first quarter typified matters, with Monica Wright taking a shot far too quickly while teammates and coaches shouted “One!” (meaning hold the ball for the last shot of the period). Wright missed, and left plenty of time for Parker to saunter down court and drill a three over Rebekkah Brunson at the buzzer. LA led 29-15 after 10 minutes of play.
  • The Lynx threw some different things at LA in the second quarter. There was some zone, a little trapping to try to frustrate Kristi Toliver, and an occasional burst of the press defense that Minnesota have been working on over the latter half of the season. They also played a significant section of the period with Maya Moore sliding over to power forward, which caused immediate matchup issues and substitutions for the Sparks. They had Jantel Lavender on the floor and with Moore/Peters the frontcourt for Minnesota, and it’s hard for Lavender to cope with their mobility. But the Lynx were still struggling to score – most of the limited success they had was coming in transition.
  • A late Lynx run gave the halftime scoreline a gloss that Minnesota scarcely deserved. McWilliams-Franklin came back and made a couple of shots to finally offer a little halfcourt offense, and then free throws chipped in a few more. But with Parker twice sinking her favoured turnaround from upwards of 15 feet, and DeLisha Milton-Jones converting a scoop shot over her head for a three-point play to close the half, LA still led 44-36 at the break.
  • The Sparks opened the second half with a 13-0 run that essentially killed the game off. Just as at the start of the game, LA were the ones with all the energy and the desire to take over the contest. Minnesota took barely three minutes to send in several reserves, and their regular starters were all glued to the bench for the fourth quarter.
  • LA head coach Carol Ross used her starters for a lot longer, with Parker, Ogwumike, Beard and Toliver all making fourth quarter appearances. That illustrated how unsure Ross is of her reserves, and the basic fact that LA cared a lot more about this game than Minnesota.
  • Even in a game that meant nothing to them, this was a slightly depressing performance from the Lynx. Seimone Augustus’s shot was off again, and they would’ve been hoping to see her find some rhythm for the playoffs. Similarly, Brunson had another poor game after struggling in the home-and-home against Indiana, when they would’ve hoped to see her bounce back. The minutes and production they’re getting from backups like Peters (6-8 for 17 points, 13 rebounds) and Monica Wright (4-8 for 19 points, 4 rebounds) are great for their depth, but the main pieces deciding Minnesota’s playoff success are going to be their starters. The Lynx obviously missed Whalen, who keeps everything organised and gives them drive at key moments, but this was still a little more one-sided than they would’ve liked.
  • LA sent the message they wanted to send, although it was largely for their own benefit rather than to affect anyone else. Ogwumike (10-13 for 22 points, 11 boards) and Parker (9-15 for 22 points, 11 boards) dominated inside, and as with an earlier encounter between these teams, made you wonder how the Lynx will counter the speed and athleticism of that pairing if they meet in the Western Finals. Adair and McWilliams-Franklin both looked too slow to handle Parker, and we might see Peters getting decent minutes in a playoff series against LA thanks to her extra footspeed. Of course, with Whalen back and the team playing like it cares, Minnesota would also expect to give LA a lot more to handle at the other end of the floor. That’s where the big difference should be if we’re watching these teams square off again in a couple of weeks.

 

Notes

Lauren Jackson is expected to return from her hamstring injury for Seattle tonight.

 

The results above confirmed all the playoff matchups, which led to a full first-round schedule being available from the league:

Thursday September 27th:

New York @ Connecticut, 8pm ET

San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET (at USC’s Galen Center, not Staples Center)

—–

Friday September 28th:

Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET

Seattle @ Minnesota, 9pm ET

—–

Saturday September 29th:

Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Connecticut @ New York, 7pm ET

—–

Sunday September 30th:

Indiana @ Atlanta, 4pm ET

Minnesota @ Seattle, 9pm ET

—–

Monday October 1st:

New York @ Connecticut, 7pm ET (if necessary)

San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET (if necessary, and back at Staples Center)

—–

Tuesday October 2nd:

Atlanta @ Indiana, TBD (if necessary)

Seattle @ Minnesota, TBD (if necessary)

 

Upcoming Games

Friday September 21st (today):

Indiana @ Washington, 7pm ET

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET

—–

Saturday September 22nd (tomorrow):

Tulsa @ New York, 2pm ET

Washington @ Chicago, 8pm ET

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