A quad-game night in the WNBA on Friday, which means we’re keeping things bare bones and going straight to the Bullet Point Breakdown.
- The story for this game was supposed to be Mike Thibault’s return to Connecticut, the franchise he led for nearly a decade. That was overshadowed slightly by the Sun’s injury woes. Already struggling to plug the gap left by Asjha Jones skipping the season, Renee Montgomery (ankle sprain) and Tan White (broken finger) are now expected to miss several weeks. Making things worse, star guard Kara Lawson also missed this game with a sore back. That pushed Natasha Lacy – their 11th woman a couple of games ago – into the starting lineup.
- The viewers had plenty of problems with this one as well. It was the first game this season to suffer under ‘technical difficulties’ on WNBA’s LiveAccess, and there are still only 15 minutes of game time available via the archive (frustratingly the first 15 minutes of the second half – so the closing stages are cut off). So there aren’t going to be a lot of details in this review.
- After what looks from the numbers to be a pretty ugly first half (the Sun led 30-29 at the break), Connecticut managed to claw out a lead that reached 10 points midway through the third quarter. They were still up by 9 in the middle of the fourth when Thibault called a timeout. He’d been trying the post combination of rookie Emma Meesseman and star forward Crystal Langhorne, which led to some difficulties in checking Tina Charles. Meesseman tried her best, and the Mystics sent plenty of help, but it illustrated some of the reasons why Thibault’s been reluctant to use that pairing in previous games. Veteran center Michelle Snow came back into the game at that timeout, and the Mystics ran off a 15-2 streak in the final 6:20 of the game – Charles didn’t take a single shot in that entire stretch.
- I’d try to tell you what Washington did to shut Charles down but, y’know – can’t see it. Ivory Latta was a key part of the comeback, hitting from long range, and undrafted rookie Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was out there for all of it as well. It seems like the Mystics might’ve found a contributor in the young North Carolina grad, who plays with no fear and has knocked down some shots in her opportunities so far.
- It had been a long time since Washington beat Connecticut – they’d lost the last 10 meetings between these teams – so it was a nice win for the Mystics, even against a shorthanded opponent. They’re still far from the finished article, and they’re still getting very, very little from 2013 4th overall pick Tayler Hill, but there’s progress being made.
- Connecticut are obviously struggling without key players. It’s also resulting in some scary numbers from the one star player they had left last night. Tina Charles is trying so hard to carry this team with minimal help that she’s pressing at times and trying to do a little too much. She’s now 36-96 through four games (38%), which isn’t what you want from your MVP center who shot 50% from the field last season. Teams know they can collapse on her and send endless amounts of help, which is leading to tough shots – but she knows she has to be the central part of the offense, so she keeps taking those tough shots. It’s a difficult balance to find, and one that’s not going to get any easier until there’s more help around her. She probably needs to show a little more faith in her teammates, but when that includes the likes of Natasha Lacy (1-14 last night) and Kalana Greene (1-6) you can understand why Charles keeps firing away.
- No big injury news before this game – Cheryl Ford was still out, Plenette Pierson was ready to go despite her smack to the head on Wednesday – but sadly that changed later on in the contest.
- Armintie Herrington got her starting spot back from Tiffany Hayes for Atlanta, after coming off the bench last time out following an illness.
- Cappie Pondexter’s defense has really become pretty embarrassing. The Liberty already try to hide her on the least threatening perimeter player the opposition has – generally Jasmine Thomas in this game, with occasional switches to Herrington – but she repeatedly gets lost or just waves at opponents as they go by. I’ve compared her to both Kobe Bryant and James Harden so far this season, but at least those two were virtually carrying their teams’ offenses this year in the NBA – Cappie hasn’t even been doing that. She needs to step it up.
- I haven’t been particularly enamoured with Angel McCoughtry’s defense this season either – she gambles constantly, and often breaks off from her assignment just because it’s easier to double-team – but you can’t really complain about selfishness offensively so far this year. McCoughtry had 7 assists in just the first quarter of this game, and only one of them was even a mildly generous decision by the official scorer (I checked the tape). She was making the rotation passes and entry passes to Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza within the offense, and willingly dumping the ball off when she drove to the hoop and help defense left teammates open to finish. Her jumpshot is still just as scattershot as ever, but Angel’s making other positive plays offensively in the early stages of this season.
- Atlanta in general look like a pretty cohesive team so far. Their system hasn’t changed much for years, but they’re moving the ball well offensively and creating good looks – Fred Williams has even convinced Lyttle to take 15-foot jumpers rather than jack up ugly threes, and it’s resulted in a glorious 62% from the floor through four games for Sancho.
- At the other end of the floor, some players just aren’t prepared to face Atlanta. They’re so long and athletic at so many positions, and they play passing lanes with a hunger that you don’t see from many teams. It makes it hard to complete passes that you just expect to make with ease and barely concentrate on. New York had significant turnover problems in this game – partly due to their own carelessness, but also caused by Atlanta’s insistent pressure.
- Perhaps the most significant moment of the game – especially as it applies to the season, rather than just this contest – came midway through the second quarter. New York were out on the break, and as Essence Carson tried to step through to finish under the hoop her left knee went out from under her. It didn’t look quite like the typical ‘buckling’ that immediately makes you think ACL tear, but the collapse, the agony and the screaming left everyone fearing the worst. She was obviously done for the night, and we’re still waiting to hear an official diagnosis.
- With Pondexter underperforming, Carson has been one of the bright spots for New York in their early games, and without her everything became more difficult for New York in the second half. Rookie guard Kamiko Williams hit a couple of shots, and wing Alex Montgomery continues to be a solid role player off the bench, but the Dream pulled away in the third quarter. New York didn’t have enough cohesion at either end of the floor, or enough scoring weapons, to hang on to Atlanta’s coattails.
- The Liberty still don’t really know what to do at the primary ballhandling spot. They’re trying to manage by committee, with Pondexter, Williams, Leilani Mitchell, Katie Smith and even Montgomery helping out. But it’s going to be even more difficult if Carson’s about to miss considerable time, and whatever set you want to run is trickier if it takes 15 seconds to even bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense. They also want to run much of their offense through their bigs in the high post, but with Ford sidelined and Toni Young a project who’s barely playing, they don’t have a lot of options there either. Bill Laimbeer still has plenty of work to do.
- Atlanta only shot 41% from the field in this game, which is the only aspect that will mildly concern Fred Williams. If teams can actually take care of the ball against them, at some point the perimeter players may have to hit some shots. But while their defense is generating 14 steals, and they’re still moving the ball unselfishly, Williams won’t be too worried. 4-0 is a very nice start for a team many people were expecting to take a step back before the season began.
- Chicago always knew that this was going to be their first game without scoring guard Epiphanny Prince, although that absence became significantly more worrying when she hurt her ankle in her first appearance for Russia. She reportedly returned to Chicago to get that ankle checked, but no news yet on how that examination went or a diagnosis. Tamera Young took her spot in the starting lineup.
- As usual, the presence of Elena Delle Donne made the defensive matchups interesting in Chicago’s first game against a new opponent this season. The Sky opened with her on Shameka Christon, who doesn’t do much offensively besides jacking up three-pointers these days, so all Delle Donne had to do was follow her around the occasional screen. But there was all kinds of cross-matching going on in the early stages. San Antonio wanted Jia Perkins defending Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot, with Danielle Robinson on Young; Chicago wanted those pairs the other way round. San Antonio were defending Delle Donne with DeLisha Milton Jones, leaving Christon to take Swin Cash – the opposite of the other end. The only players matched up at both ends of the floor were centers Sylvia Fowles and Jayne Appel.
- Even with Delle Donne’s addition to their roster, the loss of Prince left Chicago looking disappointingly similar to the Sky of previous years for much of this game. We saw frequently stagnant offensive sets, difficulty entering the ball to a swamped Sylvia Fowles, and some poor perimeter shooting failing to punish the opposing defense for collapsing on Big Syl. Delle Donne created most of her offense by attacking off the dribble from the perimeter – a sensible plan that makes it more difficult to send help against her and utilises her speed and ballhandling against slower opponents. But San Antonio did a solid job keeping the talented rookie from hurting them too badly.
- At the other end of the floor, Danielle Robinson is evolving into an absolute menace. She’s always been scarily quick – and the likes of Vandersloot, Sharnee Zoll and Allie Quigley couldn’t remotely stick with her – but her vision, passing and general control of her team has improved by leaps and bounds. With the lack of footspeed in Chicago’s backcourt, and the limited offensive weapons in San Antonio’s arsenal with Hammon and Young out, I’d actually have liked to see them clear out more for Robinson in this game. But she was being distinctly effective anyway.
- San Antonio led 44-36 at halftime. They were showing very little respect for Chicago’s shooters, doubling Fowles virtually whenever she touched the ball and sending plenty of help to clog the lane whenever necessary. With the Sky 1-7 from three-point range in the first half, that gameplan was working nicely.
- The Silver Stars blew the game open in the third quarter. Robinson led the way, but everyone was getting out in transition and Jia Perkins in particular found her shot, resulting in a lead that hit 17 at its height. Chicago’s heads looked like they were dropping as they were beaten down the floor multiple times, and couldn’t work their offense to find makable shots.
- Credit the Sky for at least keeping things mildly interesting down the stretch. Allie Quigley reminded everyone that she’s on this roster primarily because she can shoot, knocking down a couple of threes, and Chicago’s ball movement improved to the extent that they briefly threatened a comeback. Then Robinson and Appel came back into the game, and everything stabilised for San Antonio. Their lead never dropped below seven points, and they held on to hand Chicago their first defeat of the season.
- The Sky won’t overreact to one loss – even they would usually shoot better than 3-17 from beyond the arc, regardless of the defense – but a little more thought needs to go into the sets and the focus of the offense. Delle Donne ultimately took 15 shots, but it felt like she was absent from the offense for long stretches. She makes opposing defenses tilt towards her just by being involved, and especially with Prince missing they have to use her consistently. Even as an entry passer to Fowles, her height is a help, plus teams won’t want to double-team off her. The last thing this franchise wants to see is an offense that looks like the pre-Delle Donne Sky.
- The job Dan Hughes is doing with San Antonio is really impressive, as is the basic improvement since their ugly opening night loss to Indiana. The defensive rotations have tightened up dramatically, and they’ve forced their last two opponents (LA and Chicago, teams who were looking good before facing the Silver Stars) into shots they don’t particularly want to take. Offensively, they’re moving well and rotating the ball, creating points through the weapons they have left (primarily Perkins, Robinson, and Danielle Adams). Considering the number of teams around the league struggling badly due to missing players, the last two San Antonio performances have been outstanding. An absence is just an opportunity for someone else, so you make do with what you’ve got and find a way to win. The Silver Stars are exemplifying that.
- Tulsa were still without Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Liz Cambage due to injury, but after adding Riquna Williams to their casualty list they’d at least been granted an exception to add Courtney Paris to the roster. Seattle were at full strength in a manner of speaking – Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson obviously continue to miss out.
- More LiveAccess issues cut out much of the first half of this one, but we were given time to see the opening minutes. Seattle clearly weren’t remotely scared of Skylar Diggins and her reputation, because Tanisha Wright was tasked with defending Candice Wiggins, leaving Temeka Johnson to handle Diggins. Wright routinely defends the most significant perimeter threat on the other team, so apparently the Storm felt that was Wiggins. Neither member of the new Tulsa backcourt has been able to hit shots in their opening games, so maybe it didn’t make much difference.
- Kayla Pedersen got off to a useful start, with a pretty jump hook over Tina Thompson and a few confident jumpers. Pedersen’s had such a rough time the last couple of years, it’d be nice to see her rediscover her game. The lack of interior size or effective penetrators on the Storm meant that the minimal rim protection the Shock have with Cambage missing was less of an issue than usual.
- The 10 minutes of action that were viewable in the first half showed a Tulsa team that was creating open jump shots off the pick-and-roll when both defenders were worried about the drive, then knocking down the shots. Seattle were lifeless, and couldn’t hit anything from outside. Tulsa led 34-29 at the break.
- The Storm opened the second half with more energy, and evened up the contest. Wright had a three-point play in transition, Camille Little a nice turnaround, Noelle Quinn threw a no-look bounce-pass for Shekinna Stricklen to finish on the break – they were getting a little from everywhere.
- However, that brief impetus faded, and in the late stages of the third quarter on into the fourth, Tulsa started to pull away again. The Shock were on top on the glass – Courtney Paris coming in and using her body to provide her typical physical effect on the boards – and Seattle still couldn’t hit a damn thing from outside. They finished the night a hideous 0-17 from beyond the arc, despite many good looks – the third game in franchise history without a single make from long-range. Meanwhile Tulsa clung on for their first victory of the season.
- After the heartening win over Phoenix, this is sadly a bit more like what we expected from the Storm this season. They’re going to struggle to create points at times, and while they’ll usually play solid team defense they don’t have a lot of size to threaten inside either. Veteran Tina Thompson was the only consistent scorer in this game (7-13 for 17 points) and it just wasn’t enough. You generally have to be able to hit at least an occasional outside shot to win games.
- Tulsa will be relieved to get off the mark, even if it wasn’t pretty. The Diggins/Wiggins backcourt is still struggling to make an impact, but Wiggins hit a few triples in this one that might help build her confidence a little. The leading light, not for the first time, was Glory Johnson. The second-year forward really is mobile for someone her size, and she’s gaining in confidence with her mid-range shot. The absence of a true center like Cambage next to her makes defense more difficult, because Johnson’s the one left guarding true centers (not a problem against Seattle), but it does give Johnson more room to attack offensively. She finished 6-11 for 17 points and 9 boards in this one, offering another reminder to Brian Agler and Seattle that they could’ve had her in the draft last year. Shekinna Stricklen’s had a decent start to her pro career, but there’s no way Tulsa would even consider swapping Johnson for Stricklen.
Saturday June 8th (today):
Phoenix @ Indiana, 3.30pm ET (already complete). I took Indiana, who were 3-point favourites by tip. Which just proves I’m not changing it after the fact.
Minnesota @ Washington, 7pm ET. The line is Minnesota -11.5, which is slightly mind-boggling on the road against a team that have started the season reasonably well. And I’m taking the Lynx anyway.
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. LA are 18-point favourites. Which is just too high for me, even against the Cambage-less Shock on a back-to-back.
Sunday June 9th (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ New York, 3pm ET
San Antonio @ Chicago, 6pm ET