WNBA Today, 09/30/2012: Sweeping into the Conference Finals

After holding serve in the opening games, two higher seeds had the chance to close out last night and maximise their rest before the Conference Finals. But with the 1-1-1 format the WNBA now uses, both would be trying to finish things on the road. The lower seeds were just trying to keep their seasons alive.

The action started in San Antonio, although thanks to a Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert at the AT&T Center, the Silver Stars and Sparks were playing next door at the Freeman Coliseum. Game 1 was tight and could’ve gone either way in the final minutes, so San Antonio would’ve been confident that they could extend the series against a team they beat three times in the regular season.

Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups, although Becky Hammon began the game defending DeLisha Milton-Jones rather than Alana Beard. Despite Milton-Jones having an even bigger size advantage, that had proven a much safer matchup for San Antonio in Game 1. It worked out fine, and Milton-Jones had a fairly quiet afternoon.

However, San Antonio still struggled to stop Los Angeles from scoring throughout the first half. LA were pushing the ball down the floor, looking for quick offense, and Candace Parker wasted no time in attacking Jayne Appel in the low post. They kept driving right around the edges of the San Antonio defense, and the help wasn’t there quickly enough to cut anything off. LA were already up 17-8 midway through the opening quarter, when Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes made his standard move to bring Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins off the bench.

While Adams and Perkins offered extra offensive options for San Antonio, they didn’t make much difference to the direction of the game. LA were still knocking down shots with ease, and finding too much space against the Silver Stars defense. San Antonio tried switching to zone, but LA were playing smartly enough to find the holes, or they had Kristi Toliver to just shoot over it. They even played heavy minutes with bench players Jenna O’Hea, Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman on the floor, and two regular starters were enough to help carry that group along.

On the positive side for San Antonio, the real Sophia Young had shown up to play. After a quiet Game 1, Young was aggressive in looking for her own offense and was providing the bulk of San Antonio’s scoring. In fact, their offense was working reasonably well, with Danielle Robinson’s speed and Adams’s bullying presence inside helping Young out. They just couldn’t get enough stops. When they made a small run late in the first half, frustrating Toliver into a couple of turnovers and forcing misses from the LA reserves, then topping it off with a Hammon drive and spinning finish, it still didn’t end well. The Sparks inbounded the ball with barely five seconds remaining, almost turned it over, only for Parker to track the ball down and put up a heave from mid-court that swished in at the buzzer. 51-40 LA at the break, and LA’s superiority felt like more than 11 points.

Both teams had some foul trouble concerns at halftime, with Nneka Ogwumike and Jayne Appel on three fouls apiece. Within 90 seconds of the third quarter, both had picked up their fourth. Ogwumike went to the bench, with LA coach Carol Ross having found some confidence in Lavender after she’d produced in the first half. Hughes left Appel out there, and she added her fifth foul on a dubious illegal screen call moments later. Most of the screens she’d been setting all day to try to break open San Antonio’s shooters were at least moderately illegal, but the one they actually called was bought by Milton-Jones grabbing on to Appel and swinging her around. A veteran move that produced the desired result.

So Adams came back in at center, and San Antonio’s chances of halting the onslaught from LA dropped even further. Still led by Young, their offense was doing okay, but they couldn’t find any way to stop the Sparks. LA had a nice balance between Toliver, Beard, Parker and Milton-Jones, were producing the vast majority of their points on high-percentage finishes at the rim after breaking down the defense with ease, and were receiving every call they could wish for from the officials just to put the cherry on top. Their lead hit 22 in the third quarter, and it looked like a very long way back for San Antonio.

Jia Perkins gave the Silver Stars a lifeline late in the third, with a couple of drives that got her to the line and a steal. Combined with yet another bucket for Young, that had the gap down to 16 at 82-66 to close the third. Then Hughes decided to try one last roll of the dice. With Appel’s foul trouble and Adams’s lack of foot speed, he hadn’t been able to find an answer at center all day (he’s had no confidence in deeper backup options Tangela Smith and Ziomara Morrison all season, so they weren’t even a consideration). The solution he decided to try was forgoing a center entirely. He sent out Young and Shameka Christon as his frontcourt, with Robinson, Hammon and Perkins on the perimeter. If they were going down, they were going down firing.

Lo and behold, it actually started to work. Obviously, LA should’ve been pounding this San Antonio lineup in the paint, but instead the Sparks started rushing and giving up far too many turnovers. San Antonio were playing for their lives, pressuring the ball and then scrambling around defensively to double-team or poke balls away. And LA panicked. Adding to the Sparks’ worries, the tiny San Antonio lineup had started gunning away, and a barrage of threes began to drop. Perkins, Christon, Hammon and Christon again all hit from deep in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, and the score was down to 88-82 with over 6 minutes still to play. The crowd had woken up too, just to give San Antonio an extra boost.

The number of times the Silver Stars had got their hands in and disrupted drives or poked away steals – all without drawing whistles – was becoming ridiculous, and when Parker lost yet another one to Young before being called for an immediate foul, she pouted on the floor like a little child. As a result, Ross dragged her star to the bench with barely 5 minutes left in a 6-point game. The Sparks had been dragged into playing San Antonio’s game, going small with Ogwumike at center, Milton-Jones at power forward and O’Hea at the 3, but the Silver Stars’ push continued. Perkins and Hammon both drove into the paint while LA were bricking jumpers, then Christon drew a foul – and her free throws tied the game at 90 with 3 minutes left. From the depths of a 22-point deficit, San Antonio were back on even terms.

Parker came back in, as Ross went to her tried and trusted starting five to close out the game. LA immediately went to Parker on the low block – something they should’ve been running throughout the fourth quarter – only for her to airball a hook over Young. But Ogwumike was right there for the offensive board and putback. San Antonio were starting to force shots a little, and perhaps tiring after running the same undersized lineup for the entire fourth quarter. The defense still had some success in the final minutes, forcing Toliver into yet another turnover and easily breaking up the Milton-Jones-to-Ogwumike alley-oop play that LA have run repeatedly in recent weeks. But the first resulted in a Hammon breakaway that she couldn’t finish under pressure from Beard, and the second in a Danielle Robinson jumper that literally bounced five times on the rim (I counted) before deciding not to go in. LA were left with a 94-92 advantage and the ball with 42 seconds remaining.

Understandably, Hughes stuck with the group that had dragged his team back into the game. But LA had finally woken up. The ball went to Parker down low, she faced up Young, then backed her down and hit a left-handed hook over her in the lane. Huge bucket. At the other end, Hammon penetrated, kicked to Robinson, who rotated to an open Christon for three – who shot long. Parker was fouled on the rebound, knocked down the free throws, and that iced it. LA advance with a hard-fought 101-94 victory; San Antonio take the plaudits for a worthy effort, but go home to pack for their offseason gigs.

It was yet another very entertaining encounter between these teams, and it told us a lot about both sides. San Antonio have worked hard to disguise their problems in the paint this season, and the combination of Appel’s defense and bits-and-pieces game with Adams’s offensive skills has often been enough. But eventually they had to go to a gimmick option to fight back into this game when neither of those standard options were working. Young had an outstanding offensive game in attempting to carry her team, finishing 10-17 for 28 points, 6 boards and 4 steals, but she didn’t get much help until the bombs started falling in the fourth quarter. This is a very exciting team to watch, and their unselfishness is just what you want to see as a fan or a coach, but as currently constituted you still wonder if they’re capable of taking the next step. The defense couldn’t cope with LA for most of this game, and that theme could continue if they don’t find a little more help inside.

LA spent three quarters showing why they’re a legitimate threat to go all the way, and the last 10 minutes illustrating their frailties. Their offense sliced and diced San Antonio inside and out for the first 30 minutes, and then it all fell apart in the blink of an eye. Many still point at the lack of a ‘traditional’ point guard, but most of the time the Toliver/Beard backcourt does an excellent job. Beard’s defense will be giving Hammon nightmares for days to come, and their offensive threat is still incredibly dangerous. But you can make them panic with pressure, and that tends to transfer throughout the team. They start whining about calls rather than tightening up defensively, and firing up quick shots rather than thinking about the offense they should be running. The talent was enough to carry them past San Antonio, and Beard/Toliver/Parker were a combined 27-45 for 72 points in this game, led by Parker’s individual 32. They’re scary when they’re rolling. But Minnesota and Seattle will watch this tape and be smiling at the fourth more than they’re scared by the first three periods. LA will need to stay composed throughout to have a chance in the Western Conference Finals.

—–

Game 1 of the Connecticut-New York series had been rather less appealing to the eye than either of the LA-San Antonio games, but neither of the Eastern teams would care about aesthetics if they could snag Game 2. Once again, the lineups were the same, with Asjha Jones back from her achilles injury for Connecticut, and New York’s Essence Carson playing despite what’s now being called a strained hip (suffered in their final regular season game).

The Liberty got off to a fantastic start. In fact, the first quarter was some of the best basketball they’ve played all year. Center Kara Braxton made plays in the opening minutes, following a short jumper with a steal and a step-through finish. Then Cappie Pondexter actually started driving to the rim, rather than continuing to settle for the string of jumpers she threw up in Game 1. She wasn’t even discouraged when she missed and failed to draw a call on the first attempt, driving again moments later for both a bucket and the foul. New York were ahead 12-0 after barely 4 minutes.

The only negative for New York in those opening minutes was that Pondexter made an instinctive, silly mistake, reaching in on Jones after the Sun forward had grabbed an offensive rebound and was looking to finish the putback. That drew Pondexter’s second foul before 5 minutes had even elapsed, and sent her to the bench. However, even that seemed to work out okay for New York. They played the final minutes of the first quarter without Pondexter or Carson on the floor, something rarely seen this season. But rather than look desperately lost without their typical creators, the remaining players did their jobs, moved the ball, and finished. There was decent motion within the offense, and some nice post-to-post passing. This was what Liberty head coach John Whisenant had been looking for all year.

At the other end of the floor, Connecticut were awful to start with, giving up sloppy and unnecessary turnovers. They eventually snapped out of it through Tina Charles in the paint, providing the offense inside that the Sun had missed even in their Game 1 win. New York were collapsing on her and making things difficult in the paint, but an offensive rebound for a putback, then a drive from the free throw line, allowed her to create her own points. New York still led 22-11 to close the first quarter.

The Liberty just couldn’t keep it going for the rest of the half. Perhaps worrying about her foul trouble, perhaps just reverting to type, Pondexter started firing from outside rather than driving. The ball movement also began to dry up. Of course, Connecticut had something to do with the change in momentum. They’d finally realised that New York weren’t just going to hand them a place in the next round, and a 14-0 run took them from 27-11 down to 27-25. Much of it came down to simple effort and work rate. They started to dominate the glass and make the necessary hustle plays, with Charles and Kara Lawson the key figures. New York offered up a nice little response in the closing minutes of the half, knocking down several jumpers, but that still left them with just a 33-27 lead at halftime. After how they’d dominated the early minutes, the Liberty should’ve been up by more than that.

The third quarter was all about Asjha Jones. Still not fully healthy after her achilles injury, you could hardly tell while she was tearing New York apart in the third period. Jumpers, bank shots, the occasional drive to keep the defense honest – Plenette Pierson (clearly not 100% healthy herself) couldn’t do a thing to stop her. The Liberty offense had started the second half well, looking inside for Braxton again and then attacking the rim through Pondexter and Essence Carson, but they were increasingly relying on jump shots as the period continued. With Jones cooling off, the game devolved into a scrappy slugfest as it crawled towards the fourth quarter with New York clinging to a 52-50 lead.

The early stages of the fourth were nip and tuck. Charles opened the period with a couple of ugly misses, but some typically impressive ball movement and unselfishness from the Sun provided her with more chances, and she started converting again. Then Pondexter came back, had a drive for more free throws, a three and a steal. Pierson followed up by backing Jones into the lane, faking her out of her shoes, and then converting a hook while Jones was backpedaling and clutching her heel (Sun head coach Mike Thibault must have had his heart in his mouth that the achilles injury was hurting Jones again, but she seemed to be okay). That gave New York a 62-61 lead with 4:22 left, their first lead since the opening moments of the fourth quarter.

But Connecticut have been showing an outstanding ability to stay cool in clutch situations and close out tight games all season long. Thibault called a timeout, and drew up a play that had Lawson curling up from the baseline around a Charles screen to break open for three. Nicole Powell only made it around the screen in time to foul Lawson while she drilled the shot, turning it into a 4-point play. If it hadn’t been for the hip injury, Carson might’ve been tasked with guarding Lawson in this series, but Powell had done a decent job keeping her quiet. Before that shot, Lawson was 6-17 in the series – but she’s always ready to step up a take the big shot for her team.

New York’s offensive flow had dropped off dramatically. It was back to the stationary, isolation-centered offense, leading to a series of jump shots. And Connecticut outshot them. Powell missed, Carson missed, Pondexter missed. Meanwhile, Connecticut’s ball movement remained, Jones hit another jumper, then set the screen for Lawson to shake Powell again and drill another three. In less than 2 minutes, the Sun had turned a 1-point deficit into an 8-point lead. They knocked the stuffing out of the Liberty in that brief run, and ultimately the Liberty’s scoring for the season finished with that earlier Pierson hook. Connecticut scored the final 14 points of the game and advanced with a 75-62 win.

It was all looking so rosy for New York early on, but in the end all the old issues caught up with them. The strength they had on the boards in Game 1 disappeared entirely, with Connecticut dominating the rebound count 44-28. That presumably played a factor in Braxton only playing 14 minutes in the game, because she actually had one of her more effective offensive nights when John Whisenant let her play. Pondexter finished the game 8-22 for 20 points, 4 boards and 4 assists. Her shot chart was much better than in Game 1, showing she actually tried to get to the rim in this game, but it faded as the night wore on. With Pierson quiet, Braxton often on the bench and Carson misfiring (at least in part due to her injury), the firepower wasn’t there. In retrospect, the Liberty as a franchise would probably rather have missed the playoffs and taken that #2 pick in the draft that Chicago picked up in last week’s lottery. Instead, most of this group will probably be back again next year to try to improve on this disjointed season.

The Sun won their first playoff series since 2006, which must’ve banished some demons. The only current Sun player on that squad six years ago was Asjha Jones, and she was coming off the bench behind Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Margo Dydek. They managed it in a similar fashion to how they’ve picked up wins all season long. They play as a team, play smart, keep fighting, and always look for that extra pass. They’ve also got an All-Star frontcourt back together on the floor. Charles played nearly 39 minutes, and finished the game 10-19 for 25 points and 14 boards. She wasn’t going to lose the battle down low twice in a row to the likes of Braxton and Kia Vaughn. Jones stepped up when they needed her out of the halftime break, producing one of those offensive runs they’d been missing over the last month. Mistie Mims is a solid backup, but Jones simply has more pure basketball talent. She ended the game 8-12 for 20 points, 8 boards and 4 assists, and Thibault kept her floor time under 28 minutes. The Eastern Conference Finals don’t start until Friday, and the extra couple of days of rest can only help her.

 

Upcoming Games

Tuesday October 2nd:

Atlanta @ Indiana, Game 3 (series tied at 1-1), 7pm ET

Seattle @ Minnesota, Game 3 (series tied at 1-1), 9pm ET

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 09/30/2012: Sweeping into the Conference Finals

  1. Damian says:

    New York needs another coach and more a supporting cast around Cappie to make the Liberty a title contender.

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