WNBA Today, 06/02/2013: Sparks stifled in San Antonio, while Lynx lift off

 

Two games in the WNBA last night, with the Western champs of the last two years finally joining the fray, and two familiar Western foes clashing for the first time in 2013. The latter saw the Los Angeles Sparks travelling to San Antonio to face the Silver Stars. LA got off to a great start last week with a dominating win over Seattle, but a groin problem for Alana Beard left them a little shorthanded last night (at least it wasn’t the ankle that troubled her during the offseason). Marissa Coleman started in her place. San Antonio stuck with the opening lineup from their ugly loss to Indiana, continuing to battle on without leaders Becky Hammon and Sophia Young.

 

The defensive assignments from the start of the game saw LA with the natural matchups (point guard on point guard, shooting guard on shooting guard etc.) but San Antonio cross-matching at the guards, putting Danielle Robinson on Kristi Toliver. It’s something they’ve done before to try to corral Toliver, and it’s actually a little easier with Hammon out. Jia Perkins is bigger, and a slightly smarter defender, who can at least do a job against point guards like Lindsey Harding. If Hammon was out there she’d either have tried to do her best on Harding, or they’d have complicated things further by attempting to hide her on Coleman.

 

And there was a noticeable improvement in San Antonio’s defense throughout this game compared to their opener in Indiana. The help and swarming recovery was much better, leaving fewer of those open driving lanes that the Fever repeatedly exploited. That said, part of it came down to LA’s offense, which wasn’t nearly as smooth in the halfcourt as they were against Seattle. The jumpers didn’t fall as easily early on, so the rhythm was never quite the same, leaving LA constantly playing catchup.

 

It was a fast-paced game, with both teams looking to run when they had the opportunity. Robinson continues to mature as a point guard who can run an offense, but she’s still at her best when using her exceptional speed to fly out on the break or knife to the rim. Shenise Johnson also had an excellent game off the San Antonio bench, making some of that ‘noise’ I asked for last week. This is what they need from her every night, and if they get it she’ll be in the running for both Most Improved and Sixth Woman of the Year. She’s an active and annoying defender, and offensively she’s capable of a little bit of everything. Dan Hughes must still be delighted that she fell to him at #5 in last year’s draft.

 

Candace Parker was a huge presence in this game – perhaps a little too huge. In a game where Toliver never found a way to become involved, and Nneka Ogwumike was constantly on the fringes as well, the Sparks needed Parker to be a central part of the offense. But when she’s constantly bringing the ball up the floor herself, and often looking for her own shot instead of moving the ball, she plays a part in those teammates failing to enter the action. She’s not a selfish player in general – she’s a very willing passer when it becomes the obvious option – but the Sparks can become Candace and the Parkerettes a little too easily. And they’re not as threatening as a team when that happens.

 

On the bright side for LA, they’ve found some useful minutes from their bench in these early games. Ebony Hoffman has moved ahead of Jantel Lavender as the first reserve post, and looks in good enough shape to contribute for arguably the first time since she arrived in LA. Farhiya Abdi, the young Swedish rookie, is also offering some solid wing minutes. They helped the Sparks stay within 45-42 at halftime.

 

LA started the second half badly, and fell behind by 15, only for Parker and Harding to make a few shots and swiftly pull them back into it. San Antonio continued to hold a small lead for the rest of the way, as the Sparks battled to hold on. While LA’s offensive balance can be an issue at times, most nights they’ll simply have enough pure talent to score on teams. Defensively is another issue. This game brought back memories of issues they’ve struggled with in the past. They switch far too easily at times, although sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s Carol Ross’s scheme or individual player decisions. Parker in particular has to realise that even if she’s capable of handling a guard like Johnson or Perkins, that doesn’t mean that the teammate she’s switching with can defend someone like Danielle Adams. And when you switch that freely, the help defense has to be quick and aggressive to aid teammates who have been left overmatched. LA’s help isn’t good enough – and hasn’t been for years – to compensate. San Antonio aren’t a great halfcourt offensive team by any means, especially without Hammon and Young, but they were finding too many easy points.

 

LA were still in with a chance in the final moments. There was a sequence that illustrated some of the dichotomy within Parker’s game in the final 90 seconds. She played strong one-on-one defense against Adams in the post – Parker’s good at that, when you don’t make her move or think – then brought the ball up herself. She was desperately lucky not to turn the ball over, as her dangerous pass was tipped straight to a teammate, then took a return feed for a nice finish at the rim. Then she made a thoroughly stupid play on the inbounds, fouling Robinson 90 feet from the hoop for no reason at all. Parker’s an exceptional talent – I wouldn’t harp on her anywhere near as much if she wasn’t – but sometimes she tries too hard to dominate and sometimes the mental errors hurt.

 

San Antonio missed a lot of free throws, which kept giving LA opportunities. With 21 seconds left the Sparks were down 81-78 with the ball, but when Toliver forced a three that missed badly their chances ran out. Robinson made a pair at the line, and the Silver Stars finally closed out an 83-78 victory.

 

Hughes will be much happier with this performance, primarily because the defense showed up. They were closing off the lane and forcing LA into more difficult shots than they’d given up to Indiana last week. Offensively, there was a better pace to their game, Adams gave them a little presence inside, and Johnson was a key contributor from the bench (8-13 for 19 points). They haven’t fixed everything – LA didn’t attack their seams quite as efficiently as the Fever did in that previous game, which helped – but they’re moving in the right direction.

 

Statistically, LA got a great game from Parker. 11-22 for 27 points, 20 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks looks fantastic, but they need more balance. The only scoring help she got was from Harding (9-17 for 18) and a little from Hoffman. The rest of the team needs to be more involved consistently throughout games, which is something that Parker, Harding and Carol Ross all have to work on. The sets have to feed into other players, and the ball has to keep moving. They can’t expect all their penetration to come in transition, and they can’t expect every jump shot to fall in, even on a team this talented. But they’ve got plenty of time to work on things.

 

Meanwhile in Minnesota

 

After what felt like a long wait, the Minnesota Lynx finally got their season started last night with a home game against Connecticut. While the end of the Lynx bench features a bunch of fresh rookies, the starting lineup had just one change from the group we’ve grown so accustomed to over the last couple of years. With Taj McWilliams-Franklin now on the sidelines in New York, Janel McCarville has returned to the Minnesota area to fill her spot in the post. Much of the interest in the early Lynx games will center around how she fits in. Coming off a loss the previous night in Chicago, the Connecticut Sun were down a player, with Renee Montgomery suffering an ankle sprain in that game against the Sky. She’s listed as day-to-day, but with just a 24-hour turnaround, she was never going to make it for this one.

 

A couple of early defensive possessions for Minnesota were slightly messy. McCarville doesn’t yet have the chemistry with her teammates or the familiarity with the system that McWilliams-Franklin had, so she looked a little unsure of where she was supposed to be at times. But they coped. Offensively, the Lynx were up and running like they’d never been away. Maya Moore’s jumper was flowing beautifully, and a sequence of offensive rebounds offered multiple chances even when they missed. McCarville’s vision and passing came to the fore several times, showing what she can offer at that end that Taj didn’t. The Lynx built a double-digit lead after barely 8 minutes of action.

 

The Sun came back into the game late in the opening quarter when Minnesota went to their bench. With various reserves in the game, the Lynx didn’t have quite the same rhythm, allowing Connecticut to create opportunities that weren’t there against the starting unit. However, it didn’t take long for the Lynx to reestablish their double-figure advantage in the second-quarter, and they led by at least 13 points for the rest of the night. It was a dominating way to open their season, and the eventual 90-74 scoreline didn’t flatter them.

 

There were several interesting things to note from the Lynx performance. Monica Wright was the first guard off the bench, with rookie point guard Lindsey Moore not even entering the game until garbage time at the very end. So apparently, Cheryl Reeve will be going without a natural point guard when Lindsay Whalen needs a rest, allowing the likes of Wright, Moore and Seimone Augustus to handle the ball and initiate the offense. It’s something those three can certainly do, but they’ll be hoping Moore develops into a reliable backup who can fill that role – preferably sometime this season. Also off the bench, it was a promising start to 2013 for Amber Harris. After two years of thoroughly underwhelming cameo appearances, Harris looked aggressive, did a serviceable job against Tina Charles, and made a couple of nice moves to the hoop. With McWilliams-Franklin and Jessica Adair gone, it’s time for Harris and Devereaux Peters to step up as the backup this team will need in the post, so the Lynx will have been pleased to see this start from Harris. Now she needs to keep it rolling through multiple games.

 

The Sun struggled to keep up with Minnesota for most of the night, especially their frightening transition game and the pure scoring abilities of Moore and Augustus. Charles and Kara Lawson tried to take on the offensive load but ended up pressing a little too much at times, and their offense never found any kind of flow. They were the only Sun players to score more than 7 points on the night, once again leaving you wondering if this team has enough weapons to score consistently against WNBA opposition. Although it’s fair to say that a road back-to-back, while losing your sixth-woman to injury in the first game, is hardly the way you want to arrive for a contest in Minnesota.

 

When Moore and Augustus are in full flow, as they were last night, it’s a glorious sight. When one slowed down, the other started raining in shots, and the points just kept piling up. Moore finished 11-19 for 26, with Augustus 9-13 for 20. Others chipped in where necessary, but they were the obvious stars. They’ll have nights when the jump shots don’t fall quite as smoothly, but with scorers like that on the roster it makes everything easier. McCarville didn’t take a single shot or score a point on her debut, but still made a useful start to her Lynx career. The passing was there along with the fight against post players like Charles, and it already looks like her personality fits in with her new teammates. There’ll be much tougher nights for the Lynx as the season rolls along, but this was the perfect way to start.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Sunday June 2nd (today):

Atlanta @ Washington, 4pm ET

Tulsa @ Chicago, 6pm ET

Phoenix @ Seattle, 9pm ET

 

I feel like such a homer, but once again, I’m taking the home team to cover all three spreads. Washington are getting 5.5 points, Chicago are 16 point favourites, and Seattle 10.5 point underdogs. The Storm and Mystics are getting help for good reason on their own floors, but I see them both having a decent chance in their home openers. 16 points is a huge spread for the other game, but Tulsa will likely be without Liz Cambage after her ankle turn on Friday, so it’s still not high enough for me.

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