So WNBA basketball is back, albeit with an opening game that didn’t exactly set anyone’s heart aflutter. Even before the tip in San Antonio, there were warning signs about this one. With star forward Sophia Young out “until at least August” (according to the broadcasters prior to the game – chances are her ACL tear will remove her for the entire season), the Silver Stars’ other leading light Becky Hammon will be missing for “at least a month” with her broken finger. It was a scary-looking cast she had immobilising that right hand, as well.
Meanwhile on the opposite bench, Indiana had their own problems. Guard Erin Phillips, center Jessica Davenport and wing Jeanette Pohlen are all injured, and it’s going to be several weeks at least until we see any of them. Rookie guard Layshia Clarendon also missed this game to attend her graduation ceremony, but at least she’ll be back for their next contest. So the Fever had more players out, but fortunately for Indiana they’re all role players, rather than vital leaders.
It didn’t take long for our first little piece of history. Referee Sue Blauch took just 29 seconds to call the first ever defensive three-seconds violation in the WNBA, with Tamika Catchings playing her typical free safety defense and getting caught in the lane too long without ‘actively guarding’ anyone. It seemed like a slightly quick whistle to me, but just about reasonable on review.
Much of the first half was sloppy, as both teams tried to remember how to play WNBA basketball. There were defensive miscommunications where teams ended up with unintentional double-teams (and someone else obviously wide open), and plenty of bricks clanking off the rims. San Antonio scored the first 10 points of the game, and held a reasonable lead for the first 15 minutes of the contest, largely because they actually hit some shots. Shameka Christon was hot early from outside, then Danielle Adams came off the bench and joined in – only to remove herself from the action with three quick fouls. The second call was harsh, with Erlana Larkins crumpling under minimal contact, but the third was a dumb reach on an entry pass to Tamika Catchings. Adams doesn’t look in any better shape than the last two seasons, but she’s shown she can be effective for significant stretches even in this condition. She has to play smarter than that.
Indiana couldn’t hit a thing from outside in the first half, but eventually realised that very simple actions or a modicum of driving aggression could get them to the rim. San Antonio’s lead dwindled away and the Silver Stars led only 35-34 at halftime.
Indiana’s 20-4 lead in points in the paint at halftime was a flashing neon warning sign for the Silver Stars, and their chickens really came home to roost in the third quarter. Whether in transition after steals or stops, or running basic pick-and-rolls or backscreens, Indiana were slicing through the paint at will and repeatedly ending up with wide open layups. San Antonio defenders were losing their assignments, or failing to switch, or arriving far too late on help-defense. The post partnership between Adams and rookie Kayla Alexander was particularly horrible (Jayne Appel has her faults, but she was doing better than those two defensively). Obviously it’s just one game, and with the brief nature of WNBA training camps the Silver Stars haven’t had much time to build chemistry. But they’ve got a long way to go on this evidence and Dan Hughes – a coach known for his defensive work more than anything – will not be remotely happy.
The issues at the other end of the floor for San Antonio were exactly what we expected coming into the season. Virtually every possession ends up in a perimeter jump shot of some kind, and it’s very, very hard to survive like that. They’re simply low-percentage shots compared to the efforts the Silver Stars are conceding at the other end. Indiana had ironed out some of their earlier issues on defense by the second half, and San Antonio’s scoring just dried up. The Fever were back to what we expected – quick, aggressive, active defense, capable of switching almost any assignment if they have to but smart enough to avoid switching when it’s unnecessary. With Catchings at the 4 and Larkins at 5 they’re so quick and agile inside, and both of them can contain perimeter players when they’re required to. Even Jessica Breland did a reasonable imitation when she came off the bench. Yes, Indiana are undersized, and some nights that might hurt – but not against teams like San Antonio.
It was only 57-48 Indiana at the end of the third quarter, but this one felt finished long before the final buzzer. The lead hit 20 at its peak and the Fever coasted home for a comfortable 79-64 win to start their season.
The only real negative for the Fever was that they were awful from outside for most of the night, but that happens sometimes. They’ve got enough talented scorers on this team not to have to worry about that after one game. Katie Douglas played nearly 36 minutes and looks fully recovered from her ankle injury, Erlana Larkins had a regular-season career high 12 rebounds, and the team finished with a ridiculous 46-16 advantage in points in the paint. The starters had to play pretty heavy minutes, which might be a common tale in the opening month or two of the season due to the injuries, but overall it was a nice start for the defending champs. Next up, the home opener where they get to raise a pretty new banner to the rafters and collect some jewelry.
Dan Hughes and San Antonio won’t be panicking over one game, but it highlighted some of the worrying aspects of their roster. The interior defense is a problem because even when Appel’s in, there’s no real rim protection (and there’s absolutely none when she’s sitting). The rotations and communication just weren’t there, and without that you’re dead in the water. At the other end, the lack of interior offense was always going to be a problem, especially with Young out. But with Hammon gone as well, those issues are compounded by a lack of penetration from the guards. Danielle Robinson got through on occasion, but sometimes seemed to be pressing too hard in an effort to make up for her missing teammates. At least Shenise Johnson had a nice start to her second WNBA season off the bench, and they’ll need more of that from her. The Silver Stars have a full week to work on their problems in practice before their next game – a visit from the Los Angeles Sparks. They’ll need to be significantly improved.
Final cuts on Thursday threw up one or two small surprises. Connecticut kept speedy guard Natasha Lacy ahead of British wing Johannah Leedham (with Renee Montgomery and Tan White already offering the same things as Lacy in Connecticut, that choice makes little sense to me). Veteran center Ruth Riley was waived in Chicago despite the guaranteed money on her contract (a perfectly reasonable choice based on performance in recent years, but teams generally don’t like paying players not to play). And San Antonio kept rookie guard Davellyn White (who made a decent debut last night), quitting on post project Ziomara Morrison after one season. Of course, teams may still make moves over the coming weeks to tweak the end of their benches.
Saturday May 25th (tonight):
New York @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Tulsa @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
Picks for the inveterate gamblers: The lines are Connecticut -8 and Atlanta -9, which both seem a little generous to me. I’m taking both road teams to cover, which is always walking a thin line between brave and stupid, but there it is.
Sunday May 26th (tomorrow):
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET (pick in tomorrow’s column)