Yesterday was a strange day of basketball. We had the underperforming preseason favourites playing without their prized rookie due to injury – and finally winning a game. Then the Western champs of the last two years barely showed up for their first road game, after looking dominant at home. And finally a tight contest that went to overtime and still managed to be painful to watch. All on the day that ESPN debuted their vertigo-inducing Ref-cam. Let’s get to the games.
- The big news before tip-off was that Brittney Griner was out with a sprained left knee, continuing a long line of nationally televised WNBA games where star players were on the sidelines for one reason or another. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines told a story after the first quarter about Griner being examined 25 minutes before tip-off and the doctor saying it “wouldn’t be wise for her to play”, but after so much nonsense and disinformation from the Mercury organisation over the last couple of years, it barely seems worth listening. Inevitably, conspiracy theories immediately began springing up among the fans – including the idea that Gaines is so incompetent at working out how to use Griner, he just decided to sit her. That seems distinctly unlikely, but hey, if watching the team play without her leads to improvement when she returns, maybe it was a stroke of genius.
- Alexis Hornbuckle was out as well with her own ankle sprain, leaving Gaines to push Briana Gilbreath into the starting lineup. That was another level of embarrassment for second-year point guard Samantha Prahalis, who was expected to be the starting point guard (and did indeed start their first two games before being benched). Now Prahalis couldn’t even make the starting group with two more rotation players in street clothes.
- Indiana, of course, had their own considerable injury problems. Katie Douglas’s back had taken her out of this game, alongside Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen. The signing of Erin Thorn added a little extra depth, but they’re struggling for useable bodies at this point.
- The positive angle for Phoenix was that without Griner they could stop worrying about how to integrate her into the team and the offense, and find a way back to their old run-and-gun style. It didn’t really work for most of the first half. Indiana helped them out by missing a swathe of layups, and rookie guard Layshia Clarendon continues to look like she needs more development before being anywhere near ready for the role she’s being asked to play, but the Fever still scrambled their way out to a 38-30 lead late in the first half. The Mercury were whining endlessly to the officials, with Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree both picking up technicals, but the only place they were on top was the glass. Otherwise, they looked like a cross between the poor team of the first three games, and the mess we saw last season.
- But instead of losing their composure, the bitching and moaning about perceived slights from the referees appeared to ignite the Mercury. At least that attitude, especially from Taurasi, shows a level of energy and investment that hasn’t really been in evidence in previous games. They finally looked like they gave a crap. A 7-0 run took them in at halftime down by just a point.
- The Mercury push continued in the third quarter, which they ultimately won 26-12, taking control of the game. They received a lot of help from the officials, who had apparently decided that elbowing opponents in the face was now an acceptable way to draw fouls, but Phoenix were doing their part. Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner were the primary offensive forces, looking for their shots and generally involving themselves in the game far more than we’d seen in the Mercury’s previous games.
- It also has to be said that the course of the second half was heavily influenced by the current state of the Indiana Fever. Without shooters like Douglas, Pohlen and Phillips, their firepower has been significantly diminished, and Shavonte Zellous was the only one who ever found her range for Indiana in this game. Briann January has been a pest defensively, but her offensive game is yet to show up for 2013 (not that it’s ever been particularly exceptional). Tamika Catchings is trying to lead her team, but with limited help she’s looked tired in several of these opening games, and missed a lot of efforts around the rim. And Erlana Larkins is struggling to even create a lane to get a touch of the ball down low. It leaves Indiana without much offense.
- Also, for once – mark this day down in your diaries – I’m going to give some credit to Phoenix’s defense. They dispensed with the ball-screen trapping that they tried in the previous game against Minnesota, reverting to a more standard pick-and-roll defense where the big shades over to hinder penetration, then quickly slides back to her man once her teammate is back in position. And it worked. Ordinary, vanilla defense is all this team needs, if they can get back to producing like a top-end offense – especially when you consider how good a ‘vanilla’ defense could be with Griner at the heart of it. Again, Indiana’s limitations for this game helped, but it’s a start for the Mercury. Keep things simple, and build from there.
- With her confidence shot to pieces, Prahalis looked terrible in the nine minutes of action Gaines allowed her. It’s going to take some time to build her back up, now that he’s helped break her down in the space of a couple of games. I’ve never been Prahalis’s biggest fan – some supporters seemed far too excited about mediocre performances (with poor shooting percentages) on a terrible team last year – but she should still be able to contribute. At the moment, she looks scared and anxious, leading to even more mistakes.
- This victory at least gave Gaines a little more rope – you couldn’t help feeling that his “We need this game!” exhortations on ESPN2’s tape had an unsaid aspect of “… to keep my job!” It wasn’t quite the Mercury of old, but it was at least a step in the right direction. Taurasi was engaged and aggressive, looking for her own offense and mouthing off at every opportunity just like she always has. The 9-19 shooting for 26 points, 5 assists and 4 boards wasn’t as important as just seeing real energy from her. This is still Taurasi’s team, and maybe they needed this game as a reminder.
- Indiana dropped to 1-3 after this loss, and while all the injuries offer an easy excuse, they’ll be getting a little worried. Catchings can’t be expected to carry this heavy a load all season, and even their trademark defense is below its typical levels because so many unfamiliar pieces are playing too big a role. On the bright side, Zellous had another great game and shot the lights out. It looks like the key part she played in the WNBA Finals last year may have taken her confidence to a new level, which could be a big bonus as the season wears on. Now they just need more help from elsewhere.
- Both teams at full strength, with 11 players in uniform. Yay!
- You remember how we’ve been watching an endless stream of jumpers prettily splash through the net in Minnesota’s first two games? Well that same view was on offer in the first half of this game as well – but the shots were coming from the hands of Washington’s Monique Currie. She was smoking hot from outside, finishing putbacks at the rim as well, and generally looking like the Monique Currie that Mystics fans wish they saw more of. She had one season where it all came together, back in 2010, but otherwise her career has been frustratingly inconsistent. If Mike Thibault can draw performances like this out of her on a regular basis, his job becomes much easier.
- At the other end of the floor, Minnesota were finding it much more difficult to develop an offensive rhythm than they had in their opening two games. The Washington perimeter defenders were playing right up on top of Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, forcing them to either take contested shots or put the ball on the floor – trusting that there’d be enough help behind them to make life difficult at the rim. It led to a lot of clanked jump shots from the Lynx, and a disturbing 31% from the field in the first half.
- But even with Currie on fire and the Lynx showing up for this game like they expected the win to be handed to them, Minnesota were hanging around. They’re too organised, and the Mystics are too limited, for this to turn into a blowout. The Washington lead never got beyond 11 in the third quarter, and it always felt like Minnesota had a run left in them.
- The Lynx made that push at the start of the fourth quarter with their ‘small’ lineup, featuring Maya Moore at power forward – something we’d barely seen this season before that stretch. Moore had struggled for much of the game – with her shot, with foul trouble, and with defending Currie – but putting her at the 4 left rookie big Emma Meesseman trying to handle her. That led to a Moore three and a drive right by Meesseman for a layup. Thibault used an early timeout to try to help his team find a way to survive, but minutes later a Rebekkah Brunson layup on the break tied the game up. That brought another Thibault timeout with under 7 minutes remaining.
- The old Mystics would’ve crumbled from there. Their lead had disintegrated, Brunson was playing out her mind grabbing countless rebounds and knocking down her mid-range jumper, and Moore finally seemed to have discovered some rhythm. Even Seimone Augustus, who’d been missing even more consistently than Moore all afternoon, had a floater in the lane for a three-point play during the comeback. But these are not the Mystics of the last couple of years. They kept pushing, and they kept making enough plays to keep their noses in front. A Crystal Langhorne putback (you lose presence on the glass with Moore at power forward), an Ivory Latta layup in traffic, a drive and finish by surprising rookie Tierra Ruffin-Pratt – they just weren’t going away. That play by Ruffin-Pratt not only put the Mystics up by two with 90 seconds left in the game, but miserable defense from Moore – she neither defended the shot nor made enough effort to get out of the way – led to Moore’s sixth foul and a seat on the bench.
- There were still some hints of previous Mystics failings. The shot clock was dwindling on possession after possession, as it often did in the past – they were just finding a way to make a play as it threatened to expire. The final example came from Kia Vaughn, who caught the ball at the free throw line under pressure with nowhere to go, then spun into a turnaround jumper that dropped for a four-point Washington lead with only 22 seconds to play. From there, the Mystics made their free throws, and that was enough to ice it.
- This wasn’t much of a performance from various parts of the Minnesota Lynx. Neither Moore nor Augustus could find their range from outside, and they looked a little short of alternative ideas. It was the first game where the lack of offense coming from the center spot Janel McCarville has taken over started looking like an issue, and where their lack of low-post scoring raised questions. Also, Cheryl Reeve pulled a trick that we’ve seen on several occasions from her before, completely quitting on anyone beyond the top six players in her rotation. Amber Harris had a tough stretch in the first quarter – a travelling violation, a defensive three-seconds violation (which was a poor call), a play where she got lost against Langhorne and then a bricked three. But you have to give young players a chance to rebound from sequences like that, especially in early games when building for the rest of the season is a priority (arguably above winning). Instead, Harris didn’t see a single second of floor time in the final three quarters of the game. Devereaux Peters also barely played in the second half. Some of Reeve’s rotation decisions and benching patterns are ridiculous, from an otherwise very good coach.
- You have to love the fight we’re seeing from the Mystics, even above the wins that they’ve pulled out. Currie and Latta led the scoring (9-12 for 23 points and 8-14 for 24 respectively), but there was a successful balance around the squad and a level of unity we haven’t seen in the last couple of years. They even just about kept the turnovers under control. Only four games in, Mike Thibault’s transformation of this franchise is already well under way.
- The Sparks had Alana Beard available again for this game and back in their starting lineup. Reserve wing Jenna O’Hea was out with a strained calf muscle. Tulsa had the same group as in their win in Seattle the night before, with Liz Cambage, Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Riquna Williams all unavailable.
- After Seattle used top perimeter defender Tanisha Wright on Candice Wiggins the night before, LA did something very similar by putting Lindsey Harding on Wiggins from the start of this game. That left Kristi Toliver, a generally sub-par defender, to handle Skylar Diggins. Considering how Wiggins’s offensive game has diminished over the years, and the horrible percentage she’s shooting so far this season, it’s a pretty stark condemnation of Diggins. These teams apparently see the veteran as the greater offensive threat, and are happy to allow whichever defender they have left cover the rookie.
- This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a pretty basketball game. There were turnovers galore from both sides, as the offenses searched for some kind of rhythm or anyone who could make a shot. Throughout the night, opposition turnovers were the best way both teams found to generate points. And while I’d love to say it was an exhibition of outstanding defense, a lot of it came down to careless ballhandling and sloppy passing. If you skipped this one to get some sleep, I wouldn’t bother catching up with any more than the last few minutes via the archive.
- Probably the most significant moment of the first half was midway through the second quarter, when Alana Beard hit the deck and was slow picking herself up. She didn’t look too bad while walking off the court, and the report at halftime was a sprained left ankle. Anything ankle-related with Beard is always worrying because she’s had so many issues there in the past. She didn’t return, but hopefully it’s not too serious.
- The game had crawled to a 30-28 scoreline late in the first half, when Candace Parker led an LA charge going into the break. She had three boards, three blocks, a pair of jumpers, a layup and a stolen inbounds pass in the space of two minutes – maybe there were at least a few seconds worth watching during the course of this game.
- Nneka Ogwumike picked up her fourth foul on an over-aggressive trap early in the third quarter – sending her to the bench for the rest of the period. Ogwumike’s had a very quiet start to the season, fading into the background behind LA’s other stars. After starring for her team in Poland, many were expecting to see her take a leap forward for LA this year, but it’s not happened yet. Maybe Carol Ross and her assistants need to make more of an effort to actively involve her in the offense. Right now, she’s a glorified role player.
- Tulsa kept fighting and wouldn’t go away, despite playing the second half of a road back-to-back with a shorthanded roster. Courtney Paris was making her presence felt in the paint, using her considerable body to provide some post scoring inside. As an emergency re-signing, Paris clearly wants to make an impression in what might be a limited opportunity. She was effective, and LA did very little to try to attack her on the defensive end – so Gary Kloppenburg was able to leave her on the floor for long stretches. Late in the fourth quarter, veteran Jen Lacy started adding her offense to the mix as well, knocking down some shots from outside. Tulsa were ahead by as many as five points multiple times in the fourth.
- Big three-pointers from Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver gave LA a chance in the final minutes of regulation. Toliver’s bucket pulled them within one with barely a minute remaining, and a three-point brick from Diggins gave the ball back to the Sparks. Parker drove, drew a block call on Diggins, and went 1-of-2 at the line to tie the game with 14 seconds left. The Shock ran the clock down, and a screen led to a Sparks switch and Ebony Hoffman trying to defend Diggins (LA had been switching virtually everything on screens for most of the night). What on Earth Hoffman was doing on the floor for a last-second defensive possession is a separate question only Ross can answer. Diggins drove, and seemed to have beaten Hoffman by enough to slide in for a layup at the buzzer. But instead the rookie pulled up, pump faked, and threw up a far more difficult shot off the glass that didn’t drop. Maybe if she’d had more success in her first few games as a pro, Diggins would have gone for the layup – she definitely would have at Notre Dame.
- So, overtime. It was an oddly dull extra period. The Shock couldn’t create anything offensively, and while LA were hardly lighting up the scoreboard a bunch of free throws and a Harding layup was enough. Lacy was subbed out four seconds into OT, and didn’t return until only 15 seconds remained, while Paris didn’t feature at all. Odd decisions considering Tulsa produced a grand total of three points in the entire five-minute period.
- So LA clawed it out. In some ways, a battling performance to win when you’re not at your best is impressive and useful. Toliver (21 points), Parker (17) and Harding (20) all ultimately shot around 50%, and carried the offense. Plus they dominated the glass. But it was an ugly, ugly game, against a depleted team playing the second half of a road back-to-back. And they coughed up 23 turnovers. Ross still has plenty to work on.
- Kloppenburg knows full well that most of his wins this season, when they come, are going to be ugly. His team fought, hustled, and gave everything they had, and somehow managed to lose their third overtime game of this young season (they’ve only played five games in total). It’s another learning experience, but you really get sick of learning by losing after a while.
Sadly, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed earlier today with news that New York’s Essence Carson tore the ACL in her left knee during Friday’s game in Atlanta and is done for the season. She’d had a promising start to the year so it’s especially disappointing to see her cut down. The Liberty will need the likes of Cappie Pondexter, Plenette Pierson and hopefully Cheryl Ford to step up and fill the gap. With New York already struggling for weapons, it won’t be easy.
Sunday June 9th (today):
Atlanta @ New York, 3pm ET
San Antonio @ Chicago, 6pm ET
I took New York +6.5 in the early game (revealed on Twitter), and I’ll take San Antonio to cover on the road later on despite being 7.5-point underdogs. I trust Dan Hughes to keep his team playing on the road more than I trust Pokey Chatman to figure out what went wrong against the same opponent on Friday night.