After a long wait, finally the real games are underway. Last night saw the start of the 2012 WNBA playoffs, and after all the hoopla and horrified reactions to the draft lottery the night before, it was nice to get back to basketball. Let the games begin.
The postseason opened in Connecticut, where the 25-9 Sun hosted a New York Liberty team that backed into the playoffs despite a 15-19 regular season record. While ‘full strength’ might have been an exaggeration, both teams had all 11 players on their rosters available. Asjha Jones was in her familiar spot as Connecticut’s starting power forward, despite still shaking off the rust from missing a month due to her achilles injury. New York had Essence Carson in the backcourt alongside Cappie Pondexter, having only been cleared to play that morning after the leg injury picked up late in Saturday’s final regular season game.
The opening quarter was a sign of things to come for the rest of the evening. Both teams were living almost exclusively off jump shots. There was very little penetration into the paint, and few attempts to post up. New York were missing constantly, with Pondexter and Nicole Powell the primary culprits, but everyone joining in on occasion. Their only real success was coming on the offensive glass, where at least an occasional putback created a few points. Connecticut, however, were moving the ball a little better, and finding players in better position to score. It wasn’t all about creating their own shots, and the shooters had more space and rhythm to knock down their shots. The Sun have faced this Liberty team often enough to know where the holes are in the ‘white line’ defense, and kick outs or reverse passes were finding open teammates. Plus they were simply shooting better as a team, as they’ve done all year. The Sun led 23-13 by the end of the first quarter, and they’d really done nothing special to get there.
After the Connecticut lead reached 14 early in the second quarter, New York head coach John Whisenant called a timeout. Out of that break, finally, the Liberty fed the post, and Kia Vaughn had an easy layup. The next time down, Plenette Pierson drove for another straightforward finish at the rim. Apparently, Whisenant had reminded his team that you’re allowed to score from inside 15 feet. They also received a nice little boost from backup wing Alex Montgomery, with a steal and a three, which matched the energy Connecticut had gained from Tan White late in the first quarter. But the Liberty were quickly back to gunning away from the perimeter, and swiftly returned to being outshot by the Sun. That Connecticut led only 41-34 at halftime was down to Powell finally draining a pair of threes, and Pondexter actually drawing a couple of fouls late in the half.
The Liberty ask a hell of a lot from Pondexter, and sometimes it’s too much. She’s often the one standing around dribbling while whatever set the Liberty are supposed to be running plays out in front of her. Then she either gives the ball up and watches one of her less talented teammates miss, or is left with limited time to make something happen before the shot clock expires. But she also created many of her own problems in this game. With Allison Hightower, Danielle McCray or Tan White chasing her around the floor, Pondexter constantly settled for pull-up jump shots, usually while under tight pressure. In fact, she didn’t have an official shot attempt actually at the rim all night long (there were one or two where she drove and drew fouls, meaning the miss didn’t make the stat-sheet). That’s a credit to Connecticut’s defense, but Cappie’s one of the best offensive talents in the women’s game. She’s supposed to be able to create practically any shot she wants, whenever she wants it. An endless stream of bricks from outside isn’t going to cut it.
That said, Connecticut came out of the locker room like they thought the game was already in the bag. New York made an instant 7-0 run behind another Powell triple, a Kara Braxton finish in transition, and an easy Pierson drive when Jones offered up a wide open lane to the hoop. Sun head coach Mike Thibault was understandably unimpressed. Once again, a team remembered the concept of attacking in the post after a timeout, this time with the Sun actively feeding Tina Charles and Jones on the possessions that followed – only to revert to jump shots shortly thereafter. You’d think head coach instructions would linger longer in the memory than 45 seconds.
New York were still all over the offensive glass, with Charles having another game where she was being dominated on the boards. It’s strange to see a player who’s always picked up rebounds with such ease go through these games, but there’ve been several now in the last few weeks. It give Jones, Mistie Mims and her other teammates more work to do, but they’ll probably get away with it against New York. It could be a much bigger issue in the following rounds if she can’t get back to her usual form.
Another series of second chances allowed New York to tie the game up again at 45 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter, only to hit a horrendous drought. Pondexter went to the bench to rest for the final period, and their offense stalled even more with Essence Carson trying to perform all the creation rather than Cappie. Connecticut’s offense wasn’t exactly flying either, but they managed a couple of buckets in transition – virtually the first all night – and hit a couple of shots, leaving them back up 57-45 with 8 minutes left in the game.
The remaining minutes were simply more futile efforts from New York. The majority of Liberty possessions resulted in yet another jacked up jump shot, usually from Pondexter, and they never made serious inroads into the Sun lead. Charles, Jones and Hightower made enough plays offensively to keep them in front, and the final 65-60 scoreline made the game look closer than it had been for most of the night. One final chance with 90 seconds left, trailing 65-58 with enough time to make a final push, closed out the miserable offensive game for New York. Pondexter wasted 15 seconds dribbling and waiting for someone to get open, before calling Pierson over and giving it to her at the free throw line. She drove and missed, Braxton grabbed the offensive rebound over Charles and missed, then Pierson snared another offensive board and was summarily blocked by Jones on her putback attempt. New York had an outrageous 17 offensive rebounds on the night, to Connecticut’s 7, but only finished 17-16 in second-chance points. The jump shooters couldn’t hit, and all the offensive boards tended to result in was more misses.
Thibault won’t be particularly impressed by his team’s performance, despite the win. They moved the ball well at times, and showed the chemistry and teamwork that has led to much of their success, but they need more penetration and scoring attempts at the rim. On a night where they didn’t shoot so well, it could’ve hurt them. Charles finished 8-17 for 17 points – largely on short jumpers – and only 3 rebounds. Fortunately, the return of Jones has given Connecticut an extra go-to player and an extra athlete in the frontcourt, and she looks pretty healthy. She was 5-12 for 10 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists, and only had to play 29 minutes. The Sun will be looking to finish this series off on Saturday both to save themselves from the dangers of a deciding Game 3, and to give the players carrying injuries more time to rest.
If New York could’ve hit some shots, they might’ve snuck away with this one. They shot a deplorable 26% from the field as a team, with Pondexter’s 3-16 and Carson’s 2-12 the lowlights. They eventually managed to generate 16 free throw attempts (to Connecticut’s mere 9), but most of the game went as expected. They need to go inside more, either by Pondexter and Carson actually breaking down the defense, or by looking to Pierson and Braxton more quickly within the offense. It can be difficult against Connecticut’s defense, but at times New York are making it easy for the Sun. The answer to missing an endless series of contested jump shots isn’t to just keep firing away; you have to change up the line of attack, and create higher-percentage chances. The Sun may not be so generous on the boards for the rest of the series, and a chance like this might not arise again.
The second game of the evening was in Los Angeles, although at USC’s Galen Center, not the Staples Center that the Sparks usually call home. Batman Live had taken over Staples, so the opening game against the San Antonio Silver Stars was shunted over. As with the earlier contest, both teams had all 11 players in uniform and available to play.
The matchup issues highlighted in the WNBAlien preview of this series were evident in the opening minutes. First it was Candace Parker, scoring on an outside jumper when Jayne Appel didn’t get out to her in time, then going around Appel with ease to score in the post. LA’s own problems were shown up when Appel finished a wide open layup on a pick-and-roll between those two scores (where Parker was completely lost defensively). Then the focus went to Becky Hammon. There just isn’t anyone among LA’s starters that she’s comfortable defending. San Antonio don’t want her on Kristi Toliver, because Toliver’s such a dangerous scoring threat and she’d go right at or over Hammon. That leaves Alana Beard or DeLisha Milton-Jones, both of whom lick their chops whenever they see the much smaller Hammon as their matchup. She started on Beard, and the former-Mystics guard had three buckets in the space of a couple of minutes, simply by shooting over Hammon. It’s always going to be an issue when these teams face each other.
However, not everything was going LA’s way. Hammon was aggressive offensively early, which was nice to see after some of her quiet recent performances. Also, while LA had Beard, Parker and Toliver making plays, the superior chemistry and willingness to make the extra pass from the team in black and silver was quickly apparent. As was the greater depth of the Silver Stars, when Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins came off the bench and immediately boosted their offense. Adams drilled a three with her first touch, then provided an offensive presence down low, before Perkins chipped in with her own triple. Hammon had switched onto Milton-Jones after Beard’s early explosion, and while LA tried to exploit that mismatch as well it hadn’t been quite so easy. San Antonio led 25-24 at the end of the first quarter.
The Silver Stars went to a lot of 2-3 zone defensively in the second quarter, which negated the Hammon mismatches, and led to several Sparks turnovers on weak passes that hit the hands of defenders. Toliver eventually forced them out of it by draining a pair of jumpers over the top of the zone, but it took a while. Parker was setting up down low a lot, but missing several easy finishes inside, which was limiting her impact. San Antonio, despite a quiet first half from Sophia Young under the defensive pressure of rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike, held on for a 44-40 lead at halftime.
Two-and-a-half minutes into the second half, San Antonio’s lead was up to 8 and Parker was back on the bench next to LA head coach Carol Ross. Danielle Robinson had started the run by driving past Toliver – and Parker – to the rim, but then there was an even more embarrassing sequence for Parker. Hammon came around an Appel screen, and was left wide open for three when Parker just stood there watching her. The shot bounced off the rim with Parker still watching and barely moving, while Appel chased down the rebound. She kicked it back out to Hammon – Parker was still standing around doing essentially nothing – and this time the little guard drilled the shot. You could hardly blame Ross for dragging her star back to the sidelines.
Behind their impressive ball movement, Robinson’s drives and Hammon’s shooting, San Antonio were up 60-50 when Parker came back with 3:31 left in the third quarter. It was other key Sparks players who made the plays to keep them in the game while Candace tried to shake herself out of her stupor. Ogwumike had a big block of an Adams three, then an offensive rebound she had no right to claim and a putback that followed. Toliver was driving into the paint – past a tough defender in Robinson – and getting to the free throw line. Beard had been the one keeping them alive while Parker was riding the pine. Then late in the third Candace decided to show up, with a spin move past Adams on the low block, and an end-to-end drive right through the paint. LA were back within 67-65, and their temporary home was finally rocking.
The break between quarters didn’t offer any respite to San Antonio. They limited LA in the opening minutes of the fourth, but couldn’t hit anything themselves to take advantage. In fact, the Sparks had a 20-2 run across the late-third and early-fourth, with two huge plays by Jenna O’Hea topping it off. The ESPN commentators had been harping all night about how big of an advantage San Antonio had from their bench, and then completely ignored when someone finally stepped up for LA. O’Hea grabbed a loose offensive rebound, and calmly dropped in the putback, then after Toliver drilled another deep three O’Hea fought off Sophia Young for a defensive rebound none of her Sparks teammates had shown any interest in. Even following that she brought the ball clear, fed Parker in the middle of the floor, who then spun into the lane for a turnaround fling that dropped in. With 6 minutes left, LA had turned the game entirely around and now led 76-69.
San Antonio made it a hell of a fight down the stretch. Adams and Young both scored down low – something which had been sorely lacking for most of the second half – before Hammon made one of those trademark, ridiculous off-balance shots that somehow find a way into the basket. They’d gone back to their zone, and LA had gone back to struggling to figure out how to score against it. When the Sparks tried their own 2-3 zone with barely two minutes left, Robinson penetrated, kicked to Shameka Christon, who nailed a three to tie the game at 80. Then Toliver stepped up to drill her own three in reply. Then Hammon penetrated and dropped off to Young for an easy finish to cut it to a one-point game again. This was back-and-forth, high-octane basketball at its finest.
Solid San Antonio defense – back in their man-to-man – left LA with a Beard fadeaway from their next possession, which resulted in a miss and a tie-up between O’Hea and Young on the rebound. Then we saw another example of the smarts and well-coached aspects of the Silver Stars. From the circle nearest their own basket, Young elevated for the jump ball and simply spiked it down court. Robinson – probably the fastest player in the WNBA – was naturally the first to run it down, and slid in for a layup and the lead with barely a minute remaining. They’ve done that before, but what a time to pull it out of the hat.
Taking a play from San Antonio’s book, LA then ran a simple high pick-and-roll with Toliver and Parker. Toliver drove away from the screen, drew contact and a whistle, then hit both free throws to take back the lead.
The following play was probably the single-most crucial one in the closing minutes, and unfortunately the officials played a central role. A pick-and-roll between Robinson and Young led to a kick to Adams in the corner, who drove and found Young under the rim. She tried to score, but couldn’t convert under pressure from Parker. On another night – or maybe in another city – Young would’ve drawn a call on that play. The ref then called the slightest of touch-fouls seconds later when Young tried to pressure Parker, sending LA all the way to the other end of the floor for more free throws. They weren’t clear officiating errors, but either call could easily have gone a different way.
After Parker hit both shots for an 87-84 lead, San Antonio still had 35 seconds to pull something out. They ran a lovely play where Hammon quickly curled up from the baseline around a staggered screen that easily caught her defender in traffic, leaving her open for a three to tie the game. It went in and out, and that was just about it. Parker made more free throws to twice establish a five-point gap, and LA clung on for a vital 93-86 win.
After the general tedium of the opening game, this was a heck of a shootout. It broke one way and then the other, and easily could’ve tilted in either direction in the final moments. Which is about what we expected from these two teams. There were plenty of positive signs for San Antonio, despite the heartbreaking loss. Hammon was alive and aggressive, finishing 8-15 for 19 points and 6 assists; Robinson as quick as ever and tough for Toliver to cope with, ending 5-10 for 16 points, 4 assists and 5 boards; and Adams was the bench offense they needed, shooting 6-11 for 17 points and 5 boards. They moved the ball well, sliced through the LA defense for 48 points in the paint, and generally gave LA everything they could handle. It just wasn’t quite enough once the Sparks found some momentum, Parker woke up again, and O’Hea gave them some backup. The mere prospect of seeing three full games like this makes you hopeful they can extend the series on Saturday afternoon.
The Sparks made hard work of it, but eventually pure talent more than anything else dragged them through. They only had 10 assists as a team all night (on 32 baskets) which gives you an idea of how much individual creation was involved in their offense. But between the shooting of Beard (8-13 for 18 points) and Toliver (8-16 for 29), and the finishing of Parker (9-18 for 25 points and 9 boards) they pulled it off. Exploiting the Hammon matchup always looks like a good idea, but sometimes it pulls them out of their attacking mindset as they focus too much on feeding the player she’s trying to defend. LA’s offense really started to work best in the later stages when O’Hea was in the game for Milton-Jones, offering up someone Hammon could cover but releasing the others. And while she had a pretty quiet night offensively, Ogwumike deserves credit for the job she did on Sophia Young, who made little impact on the game until the final minutes.
We can expect some adjustments in Game 2, especially from San Antonio. Hammon may start on Milton-Jones, and the 2-3 zone may see extra time. But these teams already knew what each other had to offer. Chances are we’re just going to see another offensive ballgame where they try to outscore each other, only in a different city.
For anyone living under a WNBA rock in recent days, the draft lottery was carried out on Wednesday night. It left the WNBA’s worst team dropping all the way to 4th for the second consecutive year, and with the players coming out of college in 2013 that seriously hurts the Washington Mystics. The Phoenix Mercury were handed the prize of the #1 overall pick, rewarding their strategy this season with Baylor phenom Brittney Griner; the Chicago Sky are at #2 and will likely choose between Delaware’s 6’5” wing Elena Delle Donne or Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins, leaving the Tulsa Shock to take whichever of those two remains. Washington can pick the best of the rest.
Several WNBA awards were also handed out last night, with the highlight of Tina Charles being named the league’s Most Valuable Player. That was well deserved, as was Kara Lawson’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award. Kristi Toliver being named 2012’s Most Improved Player is at least defensible (although she might not have been my choice), but Renee Montgomery winning the Sixth Woman of the Year was pretty ridiculous. She stunk for much of the season, either pouting at being benched or struggling to adapt to the role. There were a host of better alternatives which will be discussed, along with the other categories, in a full Awards piece here whenever I find time to write it.
More awards came out today before this article was published, naming Tamika Catchings Defensive Player of the Year (perfectly reasonable). The All-Defensive Teams were announced at the same time, with Briann January, Alana Beard, Catchings, Sancho Lyttle and Sylvia Fowles on the first team. Danielle Robinson, Armintie Price, Sophia Young, Candace Parker and Tina Charles made up the second team. I can’t for the life of me fathom how the league’s coaches – who presumably watch quite a lot of WNBA basketball – have Parker on either team. Racking up blocks doesn’t make you an elite defender. I’d probably argue over Young as well, who’s too small to defend her position against several teams, but my disgust on that one is far lower.
The WNBA also announced that Connecticut will host the All-Star Game (again) in 2013.
Friday September 28th (today):
Atlanta @ Indiana, Game 1, 7pm ET
Seattle @ Minnesota, Game 1, 9pm ET
Saturday September 29th (tomorrow):
Los Angeles @ San Antonio, Game 2 (LA lead 1-0), 3pm ET
Connecticut @ New York, Game 2 (Conn lead 1-0), 7pm ET