WNBA Today, 06/30/2013: Mercury beat Sun amid flood of fouls; Sky hold off Sparks despite loss of Fowles

 

Two oddly similar games in the WNBA last night. There were a grand total of zero lead changes in either game, but both drifted along for much of the evening while threatening to become competitive, without ever quite managing it. It was a meandering night of basketball, that never quite took off.

 

The first game to tip off was in Connecticut, where the Sun played host to the Phoenix Mercury. Connecticut continue to work without Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery and Tan White, leaving Iziane Castro Marques to start once again at shooting guard. With Asjha Jones taking the year off, the frontcourt was supposed to be the Sun’s big problem this year – as it turns out, they’ve had just as much trouble with their guards. Phoenix had the same starting lineup that’s been successful recently, and came in having won six of their last seven games. They also had a nice surprise for everyone available off the bench.

 

The early minutes suggested Tina Charles was energised for her first professional clash with Brittney Griner, as we saw more direct attacking in the post from Charles than has been evident in her play this season. She was going right at the rookie, trying to prove that there were already some pretty talented centers in the WNBA before the mega-hyped youngster arrived. Early on, Charles also had the benefit of Phoenix leaving Griner isolated to defend Charles straight-up, rather than the endless double and triple-teams that have been sent her way this season. However, even Corey Gaines and the Mercury aren’t that dumb defensively, and the double-teams quickly started to arrive.

 

Phoenix’s offense was unsurprisingly led by Diana Taurasi, continuing to illustrate her awesome scoring ability and her willingness to create, which helped Candice Dupree join the scoring. One no-look feed that led Dupree in for an easy layup was particularly pretty.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/29/2013: A busted streak, two blowouts and a brick-fest for Friday night

 

Four games in the WNBA last night, but it wasn’t exactly a feast for the basketball fan. A couple of blowouts, a losing streak broken more by will than skill, and a messy slugfest to close out the evening. But there were still plenty of moments of interest. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.

 

Tulsa Shock 69 @ Indiana Fever 80

  • Indiana came into this contest looking to break a seven-game losing streak, and their chances were given a significant boost before tip-off with the news that Tamika Catchings was ready to play. Their leader and star player had missed two games due to lower back pain, but she was in the starting lineup for this one. Tulsa had the same starting five they’ve been working with lately, with a bonus of their own available off the bench. Big center Liz Cambage was in uniform and available for the first time since the end of May.

 

  • The game opened with Tulsa jacking endless threes – mostly bricks – while Indiana blew a series of layups. Neither was a surprise. Tulsa have taken far more threes than any other team in the league this season; Indiana are the only team in the WNBA shooting under 50% from inside 5-feet (the league average from that range is 56%).

 

  • While injuries have been the major factor in the Fever’s horrible start to the season, they also haven’t been helped by the introduction of the defensive three-seconds rule. As much as any team in the league, Indiana’s defense expects players to float towards help positions and bring double-teams whenever the ball goes down low. They aren’t committing a significant number of violations – it’s just that you can sometimes see the hesitation that the new rule has implanted in their minds. Playing ‘on a string’ defense where everyone shifts into the right position has become more difficult – or at the very least, distinctly different – with the new rule. And the Fever are still adapting.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/28/2013: Offense, offense everywhere in Mercury squeaker over Mystics

 

The opening days of the 2013 Phoenix Mercury season were a trip into WNBA Bizarro Land. Who were this passionless group, trying to play halfcourt basketball at a pedestrian pace? After three losses and an admittance from head coach Corey Gaines that he’d been an idiot – plus a minor injury to their rookie phenom that might’ve been a blessing in disguise – the Mercury have been rediscovering their identity ever since. With the return to high-paced, offense-focussed basketball they’ve found a lot more success, led by the renewed energy of superstar Diana Taurasi, who isn’t quite ready to hand this team over to Brittney Griner just yet. Last night’s sole WNBA game was the epitome of Mercury basketball – high energy, a scoreline that reached triple-digits, and some of the most pathetic and discombobulated defense you’re ever likely to see on a WNBA floor.

 

Of course, there was another team involved as well. The Washington Mystics came in at 4-4 after an unexpectedly bright start to the season, dampened a little by a three-game losing streak on their recent road trip. In the short time he’s been in charge, new head coach Mike Thibault has already generated an entirely different atmosphere around this franchise. It feels like they’re already moving in the right direction, even though the core group still features several players that were present under the previous regime. Thibault’s Connecticut Sun teams were 5-1 against Gaines’s Mercury over the last three years, so he clearly knows how to exploit Phoenix’s weaknesses, and the Mystics had already given them a scare last week when these teams faced off back in Arizona. They weren’t going to be afraid of the Mercury’s star names or the hype they’ve generated this year.

 

As in their last game against Los Angeles, Thibault went with veterans Michelle Snow and Matee Ajavon in the starting lineup, presenting Phoenix with a slightly different look from the one they faced the previous week. The backcourt of Ivory Latta and Tayler Hill looked really small against the Mercury, who currently start games with 6’0” Diana Taurasi as their shortest player. Ajavon is technically listed at two inches shorter than Hill, but her constant attacking mentality put someone on the floor from the start who would go at the Mercury. It made them seem less dwarfed by Phoenix’s starting lineup.

 

The first real moment of intrigue in the game was less than three minutes in, when Taurasi was called for her fifth technical foul of the season. She was fouled by Ajavon while trying to get around a pick, and then caught Ajavon in the face/neck area while trying to brush her off with her off-arm. On its individual merits, it was a desperately soft call. But it’s something Taurasi does constantly whenever a defender is making any kind of contact with her, and she virtually never gets called for it. So maybe it was a little bit of karmic retribution that for once the action drew a penalty. Remember, a player’s 7th technical foul in a season (and 9th, 11th, 13th etc.) leads to a one-game suspension, so she’s already getting close. Although we have no idea how many of the five so far have subsequently been rescinded by the league.

 

So let’s talk about the Mercury’s defense. They have some problems on an individual level – Candice Dupree was abused by Crystal Langhorne for most of the night, Griner still isn’t entirely comfortable defending the pick-and-roll, and DeWanna Bonner seems to be getting picked off incredibly easily this season. But it’s the team-level elements that continue to be dismaying. They seem to change what they’re doing on a game-to-game basis, and once one tack proves to be a disaster, they switch everything up in the middle of the game and confuse themselves even further. They started this game with a noticeable aversion to switching on the defensive end, which defeats much of the purpose of having such a big lineup on the floor. One of the major advantages of a group like that should be that you can switch whenever necessary without creating particularly dangerous mismatches. But Washington kept running a play where a wing – usually Monique Currie with Bonner trying to chase her – would curl along the baseline around a staggered screen from both Mystics bigs. Bonner would get horribly caught on the picks, and no one else would bother to move out onto Currie, who’d be left wide open from 15 feet to shoot, drive, or pick her nose for five minutes while waiting for a defender to arrive. Later in the game, the Mercury started trying to trap the ballhandler on pick-and-rolls, which didn’t remotely work either because they’re not very good at it, and left the roller wide open because their rotations couldn’t cover the gaps left behind. It was terrible.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/27/2013: Sky recover from dismal start to defeat limited Liberty

 

Just one WNBA game yesterday and it was another early one, as thousands of kids packed into Chicago’s Allstate Arena for the visit of the New York Liberty. The Sky lineup was the one we’ve come to expect, but Bill Laimbeer made some changes for the Liberty. Leilani Mitchell replaced Kamiko Williams at point guard, which was hardly a surprise considering Mitchell had been progressively swallowing more of the minutes at that spot anyway. But there was also a change at center, where recent signing Avery Warley came into the lineup ahead of Kara Braxton. Given that Braxton was in uniform, and started the second half after playing zero minutes in the first – and considering Braxton’s distinctly chequered history – it felt like it might’ve been an unofficial suspension. But New York did suffer another injury during the first half, and an article today claimed Braxton’s fighting back pain, so maybe they were hoping to rest her and then felt they had no choice but to use her later on.

 

Warley did a solid job of using her physicality to make life uncomfortable for Sylvia Fowles in the opening minutes – in fact, Warley managed to score on Fowles before the Chicago center could return the favour – while Katie Smith was tasked with handling Elena Delle Done. The Sky as a whole got off to a truly atrocious start. It was like the early tip-off had caught them by surprise, and their minds were still tucked up in bed. After some early intent to find Fowles in the paint, they were doing little offensively besides firing bricks from outside, but the real disasters came on the defensive end. They were dreadful in transition, either allowing the Liberty to simply beat them down the floor for layups, or failing to recognise when New York pushing the ball had resulted in mismatches. Twice, point guard Courtney Vandersloot was left covering posts on the low block, because she was the only one back in time to pick up defensively. And despite her obvious disadvantage, none of her teammates recognised the problem and dropped down to help her with a double-team. It was pathetic, and Sky coach Pokey Chatman had already called two timeouts before the game was seven minutes old. Trailing by 13 points late in the first quarter, she went to five bench players looking to wake her team up. The starters were back in before the end of the first, but Chicago finished the period down 30-15.

 

The Sky were already starting to make some inroads into New York’s lead when another scary moment occurred for the Liberty, early in the second quarter. Plenette Pierson tried to turn to make a move in the paint, and her right leg – already featuring a big brace on the knee – just went out from under her. She stayed down for a while before being helped to the bench, and never returned to the game. After already losing Essence Carson and Cheryl Ford due to knee problems this season – an ACL tear for Carson, chronic issues for Ford – it was the last thing New York wanted to see. Losing essentially the only power forward on their roster wasn’t going to help their chances in this specific game, either.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/26/2013: Dream coast home, while Taurasi-Griner tandem too much for Silver Stars

 

Yesterday saw two contrasting games in the WNBA. An early inter-conference game in front of thousands of kids, where the result seemed like virtually a foregone conclusion; and a late game on national TV between two Western Conference rivals that was nip and tuck until the final seconds. Both had their moments, but it’s safe to say that ESPN2 will be happy with their choice.

 

Indiana made the trip to Atlanta with yet another injury to add to their ridiculous list. Rookie guard Layshia Clarendon tweaked her ankle again at the tail end of their loss to Chicago on Saturday, so she joined Tamika Catchings (back), Katie Douglas (back), Erin Phillips (knee), Jessica Davenport (tibia) and Jeanette Pohlen (ACL) on the sidelines. A team that now has 14 players on their roster thanks to all the exceptions they’ve been granted was down to 8 healthy bodies once again. Atlanta were still without Sancho Lyttle due to her commitments at EuroBasket Women, but after temporarily suspending Lyttle and signing Ruth Riley to fill the hole, they had 11 players available.

 

The Fever made a change to their starting lineup, after backup center Sasha Goodlett had been unimpressive enough on Saturday to be benched after one start. Jessica Breland moved into the spot. Elsewhere everything was as expected.

 

Yet again, Angel McCoughtry was the dominant personality in the first quarter. Either she’d heard the comments of people who didn’t appreciate her 33-shot display against Connecticut on Sunday, or her coach had asked her to be a little more unselfish, because she came out looking to pass. She was penetrating and trying to kick out to teammates, rather than constantly flinging up shots. However, some of the passes were horrible and blind, leading to turnovers rather than open looks. And when those plays dissolved, or if she drove and didn’t get the call from the officials she wanted, Angel stood around pouting and whining in traditional McCoughtry style. Barely four minutes into the game, Indiana already led 10-4 and Atlanta had spent multiple defensive possessions playing 4-on-5 while McCoughtry chose bitching over working back in transition. Dream head coach Fred Williams sat her ass down on the bench.

 

It was 20-12 Fever by the time Williams put McCoughtry back in, late in the first quarter. Karima Christmas and Shavonte Zellous had done a nice job of attacking off the dribble to create points for Indiana, while the Fever’s constant double-teams whenever Erika de Souza touched the ball down low were forcing kick-outs to Dream shooters who couldn’t hit. Of course, Angel’s still Angel – love her one minute, hate her the next. She had an assist and a long jumper before the first quarter was even over to ignite the Dream comeback.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/24/2013: Nailbiters early, relative comfort late on quad-game Sunday

 

Four games yesterday in the WNBA, with a couple of nailbiters to liven up your Sunday afternoon, and then more relaxing fare to ease you off to bed. Isn’t it nice how the action sometimes fits to our needs? The Bullet Point Breakdowns cover it all for you below.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 78 @ New York Liberty 77

  • After a quiet game in her first start of the season last time out, Shenise Johnson was moved back to the bench by San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes, with Shameka Christon reassuming the starting role. Once again, Danielle Adams started at center in the absence of Jayne Appel due to concussion. Becky Hammon was in the arena, but still in street clothes. New York’s first game in nine days saw the same starting group again, although Cappie Pondexter was wearing ‘Wicks’ on the back of her jersey to recognise former Liberty favourite Sue. It was a nice touch as part of the Liberty’s Pride celebrations, and Wicks was honoured at halftime.

 

  • San Antonio got out to a hot start, behind a constant barrage of jump shots. I lament their lack of interior scoring at times, but when they get rolling they can kill you from outside. New York looked like they’d unofficially extended their eight-day layoff to nine, and trailed 17-4 after less than four minutes of basketball.

 

  • The rest of the first half was about New York battling their way back into the game. The Silver Stars couldn’t stay that hot from outside, and when New York managed to avoid turning the ball over they were finding ways to produce. Plenette Pierson finished inside, Avery Warley made her debut as a member of the Liberty and quickly produced hustle rebounds and putbacks, Kelsey Bone showed off some nice passing vision out of the post, and by halftime they were only down 34-32. Despite a hideous 12 turnovers.

 

  • San Antonio play quick, aggressive defense, and they’re excellent at getting their hands into passing lanes, but this was far from the first time New York had suffered from turnover issues this season. They’re trying to force passes into gaps that aren’t there, especially with their constant efforts to run plays through their bigs either down low or at the elbow. Defenses know where they want to go, and balls get poked away. Cappie Pondexter, besides her shooting woes (36% from the field, 28% from three-point range), is also second in the league in turnovers. They ask her to do a lot so a high number is understandable, but we’ve seen too many drives into traffic with nowhere to go, or instances where she leaves her feet before desperately searching for someone to kick the ball to. The positive angle is that they’ve been winning games, despite a turnover rate higher than any WNBA team has managed since the league switched to a 24-second shot clock in 2006. If they can get the problem under control, who knows how good they might be. Head coach Bill Laimbeer’s comments after this game sounded like he’s reaching the end of his rope with rookie guard Kamiko Williams, so we may see someone new being given a chance to help out the backcourt soon.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/23/2013: Health and energy continue to play key roles as Sky and Shock defeat Fever and Storm

 

Two games in the WNBA last night, with the storylines once again dominated by injuries and fatigue. The opener was in Indiana, where hopes of the Fever breaking their five-game losing streak took yet another blow with news that Tamika Catchings was out with a lower back strain. She’ll miss at least one more game after this one, and joined Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips, Jeanette Pohlen and Jessica Davenport on the sidelines. So that’s their two best players, another starter, and two rotation reserves out of action. Whether Catch’s back just finally buckled under the strain of trying to carry this shorthanded Indiana squad through the last month, or this is the first sign that Indiana might be settling for a ‘lost season’ and a high draft pick, is open to discussion.

 

The Fever moved backup center Sasha Goodlett into the starting lineup to replace Catchings, with Erlana Larkins sliding over to power forward. Their opponents, the Chicago Sky, were in the enviable position of having 11 players fit and available. Although with the way they played in Tulsa on Thursday, the Sky were looking for a response as well.

 

It wasn’t a pretty first half by any means. Chicago had a familiar problem – sloppy turnovers – while the remains of Indiana worked pretty hard but struggled to score. The one minor advantage caused by Catchings’s absence was that Larkins slid over a spot, meaning she was being defended by Swin Cash rather than Sylvia Fowles (the Sky, as ever, were hiding Elena Delle Donne as much as possible on defense, which in this case meant she took Karima Christmas). Indiana tried to attack Cash through Larkins, but found minimal success. Without stars around them, complementary starters like Larkins and Briann January have really struggled this season. They haven’t had the same space or easy opportunities, and their production has taken a nosedive as a result.

 

Chicago were having plenty of their own problems. Yet again, Fowles was seeing very little of the ball, and even let out a frustrated little yelp at one stage in the first half when she was called for a three-seconds violation, after two teammates failed to enter the ball to her in the paint. Even Delle Donne and Epiphanny Prince were largely peripheral to the action in the first half, restricted to occasional efforts from outside. That led to a narrow 37-35 Indiana lead at halftime, and when the Fever emerged from the locker room with far more energy and intent, a 6-0 start pushed their lead to eight. The Sky were playing like they expected the victory to fall into their laps, rather than going out and earning it.

 

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