Memorial Day was a big holiday for the WNBA this year. While the season may have begun for the diehards on Friday night, Monday was the launchpad for the vaunted ‘Three to See’ on national television. ESPN2 rolled out the red carpet for Skylar Diggins in Tulsa’s home opener, followed by the professional debuts for Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne. It didn’t all go quite according to the anticipated script, but there was some entertaining basketball along the way. Oh, and a couple of dunks. We mustn’t forget the dunks.
First up, Diggins’s Shock hosted the Washington Mystics, making their first appearance of the 2013 season. That meant the 4th overall pick from this year’s draft was involved as well as the top three, with Tayler Hill immediately slotting into the starting lineup for Mike Thibault’s Mystics. Matee Ajavon was late arriving to training camp due to overseas commitments, which may have played into the decision to start Hill, but it also allows them to use Ajavon in a similar sixth woman role to the one Renee Montgomery performed for Thibault in Connecticut. Offseason acquisition Kia Vaughn got the start at center ahead of veteran Michelle Snow.
The Shock were down another player, after already starting the season shorthanded. Nicole Powell and Tiffany Jackson-Jones were already out with injuries since the preseason, and Candice Wiggins joined them in street clothes after tweaking her ankle in Saturday’s loss to Atlanta. Point guard Angel Goodrich slid into an all-rookie starting backcourt alongside Diggins. On the bright side, giant center Liz Cambage was ruled healthy enough to start the game, replacing Kayla Pedersen in the lineup.
The first play of the game was a heartening sight for Shock fans, with a high-low hook up between Glory Johnson and Cambage. If all goes to plan, that could be Tulsa’s starting frontcourt for the next decade. The quicker they can start building chemistry and learning to read each other, the better.
There was clearly a focus on getting the ball in to Cambage down low from the Shock early on – which makes a lot of sense when you’ve just added a 6-8 behemoth with decent touch to your post attack. It worked pretty well when they found her in good position, and she simply gives them something very different to attack defenses with. It’s no longer just small guards trying to break people down and make something happen. It’s still a work in progress though. Cambage isn’t fully fit, and the offense sometimes gets bogged down while they’re desperately looking for her and not even considering anything else. She also sometimes seems to drift out of games if she isn’t actively involved in the play going on. So much of defense, especially for centers, is being in the right place to help, so concentration is key and something she’ll need to improve. The officials are still working out how referee her as well. She’s gangly and a bit awkward, and when she turns into defenders her elbows tend to be at head height of her opponent. Her fault and an offensive foul, or simply tough luck on the defender? It’ll probably vary from night to night.
It was a pretty even first half, with both teams looking better offensively when they got something going quickly, rather than having to probe the defense and try to carve an opening. The Mystics looked more composed and organised than they have in a couple of years, which was a surprise to no one considering the change in leadership. They aren’t the most talented team in the league, and they aren’t going to make the right play ever time down the floor, but they finally look like they know what they’re supposed to be doing. It was a refreshing change. Tulsa had several breakdowns defensively, but with Cambage inside and Roneeka Hodges lighting it up from the perimeter they kept the scoreboard ticking over. 47-46 Washington at halftime.
A stilted, whistle-ridden third quarter saw Washington go to the free throw line 15 times. The Mystics benefitted from a generous call or two, but it also illustrated that they were driving into the lane and creating contact, pushing the officials into making calls. Tulsa’s defense hasn’t looked anywhere close to the finished article in their opening two games, and that leads to the fouls. Help isn’t there in time, so players end up reaching to prevent buckets, and end up hacking the opponent. Fortunately for the Shock they were keeping pace by finding some buckets in transition, aided by the fact that Washington weren’t producing many points besides the free throws.
With Latta and Ajavon leading the way for Washington, and Hodges continuing to rain down bombs for Tulsa, this one went right to the wire. Trailing by a point with 45 seconds left in regulation, Tulsa tried to run that high-low with Johnson and Cambage again. For at least the third time in the game, Johnson jumped while trying to make the entry pass, which is rarely a good idea (it forces you to do something with the ball while you’re in midair, even if you know it’s become a bad choice). The pass was blocked by Crystal Langhorne, and then Tulsa compounded the mistake by fouling immediately when they should’ve simply switched to playing defense. Fortunately, Ajavon went 1 of 2 at the line to give them another chance. Another messy possession saw tiny point guard Goodrich trying to make a high-arcing lob pass to Cambage, which was tipped out of bounds. Surely your big-name rookie point guard – who’s got at least 5 inches on Goodrich – should be the one trying to make that crucial pass? A Hodges miss from outside led to a wild scramble for the ball and a generous foul call that sent Johnson to the line. She made the pair to tie the game with 23 seconds left in regulation.
Washington ran the clock down and sent Monique Currie on a baseline curl around a staggered screen. Her 15 foot jumper bounced out, and Tulsa failed to call timeout when Cambage grabbed the rebound, so the clock expired and sent us to overtime.
The OT period was pretty ugly (and ESPN were undoubtedly rather annoyed at missing the start of the Griner/Delle Donne era to show it). Tulsa, particularly Cambage and Diggins, looked exhausted. They couldn’t find any way to score, and even layup attempts were struggling to reach the rim. However, Washington only scored three points themselves in the opening 4:44 of overtime, so despite the big fat zero Tulsa had managed they were still in it. However, another poor entry pass by Goodrich which Cambage had little chance of catching led to a crucial turnover, Latta made some free throws, and that was all she wrote. A 95-90 win for the Mystics meant Washington had equalled their road win total from last season after just one game.
The Shock are doing okay; they just have a fair bit of work to do. Diggins is still learning which moves to make on a team with very different personnel from what she’s used to, and against a different level of competition. The front line has a lot of potential inside, but they’ve barely scratched the surface at this point. And on a team which still isn’t the most talented in the world, missing three of their probable top seven leaves them distinctly thin. But these are definitely better losses than many of the ones they suffered in previous years – if a loss can ever be considered ‘good’.
Washington have a long way to go as well, but it’s always nice to make your progress while winning some games. Ivory Latta had a starring debut against her former team, playing nearly 42 minutes and finishing with 27 points. The Langhorne/Vaughn pairing inside showed some useful signs. Ajavon looked comfortable as the scorer off the bench (and as the de facto backup point guard, seeing as Thibault didn’t use rookie Nadirah McKenith at all). Tayler Hill had a quiet start to her WNBA career, but this team as a whole looks like they can fight out some wins. Which is a lot more than we saw a year ago.
Meanwhile, in the desert…
By the time television viewers on ESPN2 were switched to Phoenix for the Mercury’s opening game against the Chicago Sky, things were already going downhill for the home team. Brittney Griner was on the bench after picking up three fouls in barely seven minutes of action, Elena Delle Donne was in the process of sinking her 5th shot in 6 attempts, and the Sky were up 36-18. If you’re a Mercury fan, maybe you were better off spending those opening minutes watching the other game.
For those who never saw it, Griner’s first basket as a pro was an athletic tip-in of a Diana Taurasi three-point miss. Griner’s fouls saw her virtually land on Sylvia Fowles when she bought a pump-fake; suffer a soft call while fighting for position as Fowles posted up; and then take a silly swipe at Courtney Vandersloot as the Sky point guard slid around her to attempt a layup. Just like Cambage in Tulsa, the referees will take some time to learn how to officiate Griner, but she’ll also have to adapt to the pro game. These players are stronger and quicker than the ones she’s used to facing, so there’s a different level to what she can get away with. Plus it’s just one game – foul trouble can happen to anyone.
A lot of what we saw from Phoenix wasn’t new. Bad defense from the Mercury is just a given at this point, and having Griner in the middle will fix a lot, but not everything. Phoenix started out the game switching constantly, allowing practically any mismatch the Sky desired. Not that Chicago really needed them. The real negative effect of the switching was often just the laziness that seemed to transfer from it. There’s a sense of just passing the buck to the next defender when there’s no effort asked at all to fight around or over a screen. Epiphanny Prince made the most of that and happily knocked down shots, usually over the half-hearted defense of Taurasi.
Prince’s partner in crime was Delle Donne, who was illustrating why so many of us were so excited about what she could bring to the WNBA. She can score in so many different ways, and it’s just hard to combat her arsenal of skills. Phoenix had Candice Dupree on her as the primary defender, which didn’t make a lot of sense from the start (DeWanna Bonner is a better defender than Dupree by some distance, and seemed a more natural choice). But with all the switching, Chicago could virtually choose who they wanted in the matchups anyway. Delle Donne hit mid-range jumpers, little turnarounds after backing down smaller defenders, and even threw in a transition three for good measure. The first half ended when Prince went by Taurasi and Krystal Thomas with consummate ease, drew Bonner into the paint as a third defender, then kicked to a wide open Delle Donne behind the arc. She nailed the three at the buzzer with a grin already spreading across her face. In college, she didn’t get to play with people who could make defenses collapse like that and find her wide open looks. Sometime the pro game can be a lot of fun. That shot gave Chicago a 56-32 lead at halftime.
Phoenix curtailed their defensive switching rather dramatically in the second half, and it produced a better defensive effort. With Fowles picking up her fourth foul early in the third quarter, and Delle Donne rather drifting out of the offense, the Mercury eventually narrowed the lead to just 12 late in the third. Only for the Sky starters to return from the bench, Prince to nail a couple of triples, and the lead to blow up to over 20 again before the end of the period. Taurasi even had time to take a wild swipe at Vandersloot while theoretically attempting to block a breakaway layup, and pick up a flagrant foul (which I felt was absolutely the correct call, although some viewers disagreed).
The fourth quarter was garbage time, albeit probably the most rewatched garbage time in WNBA history. Griner threw down her first WNBA dunk on a pick-and-roll with Charde Houston with 8 minutes left – a nice, easy one-handed finish. Then with barely two minutes left in the game, an errant pass set her up for a big two-handed jam and a moment or two hanging on the rim. In fact, the Chicago bench was looking for the technical foul, but I’m not even sure if hanging on the rim is legislated against in the WNBA rulebook. Before Griner, there’d have been no need for the clause. Both dunks cut the Mercury deficit to 22 points, so they were hardly cause for great celebration, but you can still understand the appeal. It’s not something you see in the women’s game, and she’s the first in the modern game for whom it’s actually a high-percentage shot. That’s what makes it worthwhile, and what makes the first of her dunks in this game almost the more impressive and relevant. The second was more dramatic, the more obvious entry for a highlight reel, but the first was simply within the movement and rhythm of the action. She did it because it was the most effective way to score. For the few remaining women’s basketball fans who dislike the dunk because it’s become associated with high-flying male athletes as opposed to the ‘pure’ women’s game, that’s the counter argument – you’re trying to score, and a Griner dunk gives you a remarkably high-percentage chance to do so. It’s not just about getting on SportsCenter.
The 102-80 defeat was a pretty painful way to start the season for the Mercury, but maybe a necessary reminder that hype won’t win you games on the floor. Diana Taurasi was remarkably quiet, and the Mercury defense still looks awful. Good defenses have set rules (albeit with flexibility for different opponents and situations), that every player is drilled in repeatedly and expected to follow. For Phoenix, the defenders often seem to be scrambling to do something that seems like it might be a good idea, rather than knowing where they should be going and getting there as quickly as possible. The offense will work itself out, especially when (hopefully not if) Penny Taylor returns; but even with Griner involved the defense still needs plenty of work. Talking of Taylor, apparently she’s ‘87%’ ready to play, according to what head coach Corey Gaines told Rebecca Lobo. I don’t know about you, but at this point I barely believe a word I hear from the Mercury organisation in regards to injuries – I’d be just as surprised (or unsurprised) to see Taylor start the Mercury’s next game, or have surgery again by the end of the week after a setback in her rehab. Hopefully, we’ll see her on the court soon.
This was just the kind of start the Chicago Sky were looking for to open their season. Delle Donne struggled a little in the second half (maybe Pokey Chatman needs to find her a little more rest during games while she’s learning the pro game), but we got plenty of evidence of how dangerous the combination of Prince (9-15 for 26 points) and Delle Donne (9-21 for 22) can be. They didn’t even need much from Fowles, who was in foul trouble right along with Griner and played less than 22 minutes. The Sky even kept their turnovers under control, a constant source of problems last season. They’ll face far tougher defenses, but with offensive weapons like this, the Sky won’t be afraid of anyone.
Tulsa have a new assistant coach, with Kathy McConnell-Miller leaving to become the associate head-coach at the University of Pittsburgh next to her sister Susie McConnell-Serio. Former WNBA player Stacey Lovelace will be filling the hole.
Friday May 31st:
Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Tulsa @ New York, 7.30pm ET
Connecticut @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET