Yesterday saw our first Camp Day game of the year – which means an unusually early tip-off time, thousands of screaming kids that make regulars wish thunder sticks had never been invented, and often players who seem like they’ve barely woken up. The New York Liberty were still without Cheryl Ford due to knee pain, while Indiana added yet another injury to their growing casualty list. With Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen all out for some time, Katie Douglas missed this one as well due to a back problem. That left the Fever down to eight healthy bodies, pushing rookie guard Layshia Clarendon into the starting lineup.
The Liberty took advantage of Clarendon replacing Douglas by putting star guard Cappie Pondexter on Clarendon defensively for most of the game – thereby hiding Pondexter on someone who wouldn’t give her too much work to do, and who couldn’t exploit her occasional defensive lapses. The Fever cross-matched, detailing Briann January to harass Pondexter throughout the contest. But the difference between the teams in the early stages didn’t have much to do with anything as complicated as matchups or assignments – it essentially boiled down to shooting. The Liberty couldn’t hit a damn thing from outside however open they might have been, while the Fever were knocking down perimeter jumpers whenever they rotated the ball out to their shooters. With Shavonte Zellous and Tamika Catchings doing all the scoring, Indiana held a 22-8 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
The Fever lead was still in double-digits when matters appeared to get even worse for the Liberty midway through the second quarter. Kara Braxton had already been getting embarrassingly outworked by Erlana Larkins on the glass, and then in the fight for another one inadvertently elbowed teammate Plenette Pierson in the face. Pierson went down and stayed down for a while, eventually being helped off the court by the trainer. She returned later to sit on the bench, but never made it back into the game. With Ford injured and rookie Toni Young essentially unable to play in the post at this level, that left just Braxton and Kelsey Bone as recognised post players available for New York. Veteran jack-of-all-trades Katie Smith – who’s played everything from point guard to power forward in her first three games as a member of the Liberty – was called upon to step in as an emergency ‘post’. Of course, against Indiana, that also brings with it the assignment of guarding Tamika Catchings.
Despite the injury, New York clawed their way back into the game before halftime. Rather than continuing to brick jump shots, they finally attacked the rim a little more, created some better opportunities, and generated a little offense. Essence Carson appears to be enjoying the Bill Laimbeer era in New York, flashing an improved post game down low and renewed aggression to get to the basket. Plus, once she found some rhythm by taking easier shots, her jumper started to work better from outside. The Liberty were back within 36-30 at halftime.
This was not a great game for rookie guards. Clarendon wasn’t much help as a distributor, and her shots from outside looked horrible. She wasn’t just missing; she was missing badly. She wasn’t a great shooter from long-distance in college – generally favouring a mid-range pullup jumper – and while the Fever’s standard spacing often requires her to start from around the three-point arc, she’ll need to look for shots she can make. Anything she fired from a standstill around the perimeter was just ugly. Clarendon had company in the form of Kamiko Williams, who started her second straight game in the backcourt for New York. Williams was simply unable to deal with Indiana’s defense and pressure in the passing lanes, looking completely out of her depth. Laimbeer looked to Leilani Mitchell as the point guard a little more, with extra minutes for Alex Montgomery on the perimeter as well. Everyone has bad nights, but the struggles of Clarendon and Williams (and Young) show just how hard it can be to make the transition to the pros. This is a big step up.
Early in the second half, New York were rather fortunate not to lose another player, although this time health had nothing to do with it (unless mental health counts). Pondexter had struggled throughout the first half in the face of January’s tight, aggressive defense, and tried to drive to create some offense for herself. January was whistled for a foul on the play (which was generous in the first place – she moved her feet and stayed in front of Pondexter throughout the attempted drive), but Pondexter’s frustration led to a two-handed shove to January’s chest that sent her to the ground. Just in recent weeks we’ve seen Nazr Mohammed of the Chicago Bulls ejected and the Miami Heat’s Chris Andersen suspended for a playoff game for very similar actions. The officials in this case merely gave Pondexter a technical foul – not even finding a reason to review the shove on replay – and went on with the game. Cappie was lucky to avoid being tossed.
As tends to happen when there’s any kind of near-altercation, the referees started calling all kinds of touch-foul junk in the third quarter, making the game even scrappier that it had already been. It crawled to the fourth without much change in the Fever’s lead of around 8 points.
Once the move was forced upon Laimbeer by a lack of alternatives, Smith did a nice job on Catchings, who was relatively quiet in the second half. Smith’s a physical defender who’ll take on any assignment you task her with, and even at her advanced age she can make life very difficult for opponents. Indiana were also once again suffering under their limited roster. Zellous picked up her fifth foul in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter while trying to challenge Montgomery on a breakaway layup attempt. With Karima Christmas the only perimeter backup on the bench, and Clarendon already playing more minutes than she’s ready for, the Fever were just hoping to hold on until the finish.
With under two minutes left in regulation, Catchings finally managed to create enough room to take an entry pass inside, but couldn’t finish around pressure from Smith. With Catchings still picking herself off the ground after that attempt, the Liberty rotated the ball well to turn their 5-on-4 into an open three for Pondexter in the corner. She drilled it, giving the Liberty their first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
After a couple of messy possessions, Indiana had the ball with 28 seconds left in regulation, trailing by a point. Catchings spun past Smith and was fouled by Carson trying to come across and help. Catch hit the pair and pushed the Fever back in front. New York ran something similar at the other end, putting the ball in Pondexter’s hands and letting her drive around a screen. That created a defensive switch from January to Clarendon, and the rookie fouled Pondexter. She went 1-of-2 at the line, tying things up, and leaving Indiana one last chance to win it before heading to an extra period. Catchings essentially played decoy, with January trying to create off a Larkins screen, but Montgomery did an impressive job staying in front of the Fever point guard. That forced a tough attempted layup which didn’t even draw iron, and we were headed to overtime.
With the way Indiana had tired down the stretch and their short bench, it always seemed like the Liberty should have the edge in the extra period. They certainly got off to the better start, converting layups and free throws while Indiana missed jumpers. But the Fever got back into it by attacking in transition and driving to the rim. Then with two minutes left in the extra period, Indiana had another problem. Zellous drove again and picked up her sixth foul on a charging call after running into Braxton. It was a bang-bang play, and a slightly tough call on one of the few Fever players who seemed to have some remaining energy.
Alex Montgomery scored the next four points of the game – both buckets arguably Clarendon’s fault, after getting lost within the defense and leaving Montgomery alone to finish – which just about sealed the contest. The Fever didn’t have the energy left to create anything meaningful offensively, and the Liberty sent their young fans home happy with a 75-68 victory.
It was all going so well for Indiana early on. They moved the ball, hit their outside shots, and dominated. But after scoring 22 points in the opening 10 minutes, they only scored 44 more in the next 35. They just didn’t have the bodies. Zellous did what she could offensively, and Catchings toiled despite the pressure of Smith, but there wasn’t a lot else. January had her hands full competing with Pondexter defensively – and did a very impressive job in that role – but that’s always going to wear you down over 40 (or 45) minutes. The Fever went out and signed veteran guard Erin Thorn today via another hardship exception, and that will at least give them an extra body who can play on the perimeter and knock down some shots. This is still a solid team, but right now they can use the help.
Considering they’ve had injury problems themselves, and are still bedding in a new coach, new system and several new players, New York will be delighted to have clawed their way to a 2-1 record so far. It’s not been remotely pretty at times, and Pondexter’s season is yet to take off, but they’re finding a way to win. The ‘lead guard’ role is still a question mark, with Williams and Mitchell both struggling to gain Laimbeer’s trust, but at least Carson has gotten off to a solid start. It’s not exactly all going to plan just yet, but it’s nice to be winning some games while you’re still working things out.
Along with Thorn in Indiana, other teams around the league are also suffering through injuries and making hardship signings. In Connecticut, with Asjha Jones already out for the year and Renee Montgomery’s ankle sprain sidelining her for a few weeks, Tan White has broken a finger (expected to miss three weeks) and there’s still been no comment on Mistie Bass’s status after that x-ray she posted a couple of days ago. No news on an emergency signing for Connecticut just yet – Johannah Leedham is back in Great Britain preparing for EuroBasket Women, so their final perimeter cut in training camp isn’t currently available – but it might not be long.
San Antonio, with Becky Hammon’s broken finger putting her in street clothes next to Sophia Young, have signed wing Julie Wojta to help out.
In Tulsa, Tiffany Jackson-Jones (stress fracture, several weeks to go) and Liz Cambage (sprained ankle, will miss at least this weekend’s games) were both already out and guard Riquna Williams also picked up a knock in practice. Post player Courtney Paris was re-signed to an emergency hardship contract to help fill in.
Even outside the US there was worrying injury news this afternoon, with Chicago’s Epiphanny Prince picking up an ankle injury after landing on an opponent following a jumpshot in her first game for Russia. It looked scary on the video, with Prince in considerable pain and being carried off the floor, but subsequent news from the Russian camp says there are no tears or fractures and suggests it’s just a sprain. So hopefully nothing long term.
Thursday June 6th (tonight):
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
The current line sets Minnesota as 9.5 point favourites, and while I expect Phoenix to work their way out of their funk at some point, it’s hard to argue with the Lynx on performances so far. I’ll take Minnesota to beat that and cover.
Friday June 7th (tomorrow):
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Chicago @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET