Four more teams got their WNBA seasons started last night, and just because I feel like it, we’re going to go Bullet Point Breakdown on both of them. Away we go.
- Day two of the season, and I’m already tired of writing about injuries. The Sun were obviously without Asjha Jones, skipping the entire season to rest various ailments. New York were without both Plenette Pierson and Cheryl Ford due to knee pain (which is especially worrisome with Ford, considering her history with knee issues and the ever-present concerns about her surviving a WNBA season). The Liberty are hoping both will be ready for their home opener against Tulsa on Friday.
- Third-year forward Kelsey Griffin slid into Jones’s starting spot for the Sun, while the rest of their lineup was the same one Mike Thibault used for most of last season. Ann Donovan, sensibly, isn’t going to try to change too much about a team that went 25-9 last year. New York opened with rookie forward Toni Young next to Kara Braxton in the post, and Leilani Mitchell at point guard alongside Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson on the perimeter. For now, the Pondexter-as-‘lead guard’ concept is on hold.
- For the record, backup Sun post Mistie Mims is now Mistie Bass again. NBA writers and broadcasters have it really easy on the name-changes compared to those of us on the women’s side.
- Toni Young spent most of this game indicating that she has a long way to go as a pro player. There was one offensive board and putback in the second half where she skied for the ball and illustrated her pure athleticism. Otherwise she looked pretty lost.
- Kelsey Bone, on the other hand, had a heck of a debut. The #5 overall pick in this year’s draft was matched up with 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles during most of her minutes and gave Charles everything she could handle at both ends of the floor. Bone stood up to her defensively, made a couple of nice buckets, and generally just looked ready for this level. There was one particularly pretty step-through move past Charles late in the first half – especially impressive for a player who hasn’t even played in Europe yet (or under John Whisenant, who loved to teach that).
- The game was fairly tight in the first half. New York’s lack of healthy depth in the post was highlighted when Katie Smith came into the game after less than three minutes (Young picked up two quick fouls) and was asked to play power forward. Despite that, Charles was being limited and the Liberty had the game under control until a trio of quick-fire Kara Lawson threes midway through the second quarter. Mitchell and Kamiko Williams both went under screens to let her hit the first two, then Williams was too slow to close out in transition. Can’t give that girl an inch, rook. New York held a slender 42-40 halftime lead.
- Pondexter had 16 points in the first half, but opened the second by dribbling off her foot to ignite a Connecticut break, then airballing a layup. It signalled the start of a much less successful second half for New York’s star.
- Kara Braxton actually had a decent game, but it really feels like the WNBA season’s truly underway when I’m saying “what the hell was that, Kara?” to my computer screen. I got a couple of opportunities in the second half.
- Connecticut started to take control of the game with a run midway through the third quarter. It was tied at 50 when Kalana Greene hit a three over a lazy Pondexter ‘close out’ (she barely raised her arm), then Griffin had a spectacular block of an attempted Bone layup, before Pondexter wandered away from Lawson in transition to allow the Sun guard to nail yet another triple. Ugly sequence for the Liberty.
- The Sun also started to take over on the glass in the third quarter, as New York’s understrength front line began to tell.
- Wanted to address a line from colour analyst Kara Wolters last night about the new defensive three-seconds rule. She said “you can’t double-team”. Yes you can. You just have to actually commit to it, at least for a moment. What you can’t do is hang around too long in the paint trying to have your cake and eat it – half sticking with your man, half in help position. Everyone’s still getting used to this rule – players, officials, and broadcasters.
- The Liberty kept hanging around, but another pair of threes for Connecticut just about killed the game off midway through the fourth quarter. Renee Montgomery reminded us that she actually can create for others by semi-penetrating and finding Allison Hightower in the corner for the first; then Charles made a nice cross-court skip pass for Montgomery to hit from the same spot. The lead was in double-digits for the first time all night, and the home crowd could leave happy.
- It was by no means a terrible performance to tip-off the Liberty season. Pondexter made some nice plays offensively without looking like she was quite in rhythm yet (and Laimbeer’s surely not going to let her play half-assed defense like that all year). The rookies were good, bad and indifferent (Bone, Young and Williams, respectively). And they were in contention most of the way. Big Bad Bill will feel like there’s plenty to build on from here.
- Connecticut will obviously go home the happier, and there were some positive signs. Lawson was in midseason form already, stroking it from outside and playing with speed and confidence. Maybe she really can play as well as she did last year for another 34 games. Kelsey Griffin made a solid debut as the expected regular starter at the 4, albeit against a team which only had one true big on the floor most of the night. She made a couple of nice plays on help defense, and hit a few shots from distance. It’s a lot more than Griffin’s produced in the vast majority of her appearances over the last three years. Tina Charles was really the only player with something of an off night, and that still resulted in 19 points and 13 boards.
- Donovan relied on her starters rather more than Thibault usually did last year. It’ll be interesting to see if that was just how this game played out, or if this is the intended pattern. Hard to imagine Renee Montgomery will be too happy with barely 10 minutes of action per night.
- Once again, the injury report. Tulsa had Tiffany Jackson-Jones missing with a stress fracture in her right tibia (an SI article claims she’s expected to miss the first three weeks of the season), and Nicole Powell out with a left ankle problem (she’s apparently been practicing, so might return rather sooner). Liz Cambage is also only ready for limited minutes after arriving in the US from Australia just a few days ago. Atlanta, gloriously, had everyone dressed and available to play (Yelena Leuchanka, suspended and still in Belarus, doesn’t count).
- So Tulsa opened the game with Kayla Pedersen next to Glory Johnson in the frontcourt, and Roneeka Hodges on the wing in the spot expected to be filled by Powell. The backcourt was the anticipated Diggins/Wiggins marketing dream. Atlanta had their usual four starters from previous years, with Jasmine Thomas filling the point guard spot.
- Anyone know what Candice Wiggins was thinking about with that hair? Hope it was for charity.
- Cambage looked useful offensively, especially for someone still shaking off jet lag. Unfortunately, she picked up three quick fouls and sat back down after little action in the first half. The third foul was particularly dumb, clattering Tiffany Hayes on a layup.
- Atlanta looked pretty good early, with the combo of Thomas and rookie Alex Bentley doing a perfectly serviceable job at the point. That’s really all this squad needs from their point guard. You don’t have to be exceptional, just don’t take too much away.
- The Dream were in control after the first quarter, turning turnovers into points in their trademark fashion, and slicing through the Shock defense to the basket. There’s still very little rim protection for the Shock with Jackson-Jones out and Cambage spending lots of time sitting. That reduces them to basically the same undersized interior that didn’t work last year.
- Then Riquna Williams happened. The diminutive guard exploded for 16 points in the second quarter alone, on an array of drives and three-point shots. She’s greedy, but it’s a lot of fun when she’s hot. With Atlanta’s transition game tailing off and Angel McCoughtry tossing up some bricks, Tulsa came right back into the game and after trailing by as many as 16 were down just 48-44 at the break.
- Wiggins had a pretty quiet first half (bar the hair). After playing mostly point guard the last couple of years in Minnesota, she was at the 2 or even the 3 for the Shock throughout the first half (the Angel Goodrich/Williams/Wiggins perimeter Gary Kloppenburg tried out is tiny). It left Wiggins rather removed from the action, and unlike Williams she didn’t seem to want to actively impose herself on the game. She looked fine physically until the last play of the half, when she collided with a teammate while Skylar Diggins hit a floater in the lane. That’s presumably where Wiggins sustained the ankle sprain which saw her on the sidelines wrapped in ice for the entire second half.
- Diggins was doing okay in her debut. She settled for jump shots a little too often, but with Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza waiting for me I’d probably do that as well. Defensively she allowed herself to get picked off too easily and too comprehensively. When you run into a screen, even if it brings you to a halt, you can’t just quit and expect your teammates to handle it. Diggins will need to fight through or around them better, but that’ll come with more exposure to pro-level talent.
- Tulsa’s defensive rotations in general weren’t particularly crisp in this early stage of the season. Too many open lanes, and too many simple handoffs or screens leading to easy opportunities for Atlanta. Glory Johnson was already a physical, combative defender as a rookie, but she was over-helping at times last night. Assuming you’re not switching assignments with your teammate, the big has to recover back to her own man after helping corral the ballhandler on a screen. More than once Johnson left it too long to go back, leaving her man far too open.
- It didn’t take long for the Dream to push their lead back to double-digits in the third quarter, and while the Shock prevented the game from ever getting out of hand, they were never really back in it. Cambage played a lot of minutes in the second half, and showed off her offensive arsenal nicely. She’s going to be a big piece of the puzzle for this team when Kloppenburg gets some time to work with her. The Shock fell into a little bit of Fowles-syndrome at times – looking like the Chicago Sky from previous years, standing around hoping a lane will present itself to dump the ball in to their center. But the Shock should improve at finding more innovative ways to feed Cambage.
- In general, the Dream just looked like the more WNBA-ready squad in the second half. Apart from the point guards, this group has logged a lot of time together, and they know what it takes to win in the WNBA. Tulsa are still figuring it out. Lyttle and Hayes were both a big part of their success on this particular night – Hayes getting out in transition and slicing to the rim, Lyttle finding ways to finish in the halfcourt. Even more encouraging for Atlanta, they completed a comfortable win without McCoughtry having a great night at all. More balance and less reliance on Angel is always going to make this a more dangerous team.
- The Shock looked like they’ve still got some way to go, but the missing pieces didn’t help (Jackson-Jones, Powell, half of Wiggins, half of Cambage). Too many turnovers illustrates the chemistry that still needs working on, and the easy shots they gave up highlighted the gaps in the defense. But nobody said this team was the finished article just yet.
- By the way, there was a defensive three-seconds call on Armintie Herrington (not Price! See, another damn name change) in the third quarter that was just nonsense. She was barely even in the paint for two seconds. Let’s err on the side of not calling it, eh refs?
Saturday May 26th (tonight):
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET
Pick: LA started as 13 point favourites and the line’s just kept going out (that means people are betting on LA to win by even more than that, for those of you who don’t gamble). It’s LA -15.5 at time of writing, and I’ll take Seattle to cover. That’s too high for me.
Sunday May 27th (tomorrow)
Washington @ Tulsa, 3pm ET (live on ESPN2)
Chicago @ Phoenix, 5pm ET (live on ESPN2)
Picks will come in tomorrow’s column, or via my Twitter account if the article’s not up prior to the games.