Another quadruple-header in the WNBA last night, as the bizarre roller-coaster schedule threw up a heavy evening of basketball. Back to the Bullet Point Breakdown to take a look at them all.
- The Sun were still without the services of Renee Montgomery and Tan White due to injury, while New York once again had just nine healthy bodies with Essence Carson done for the year and Cheryl Ford still yet to make an appearance. In fact, it emerged after the game that the Liberty will be cutting Ford this weekend, after coming to the conclusion that her knees just weren’t going to allow her to play for them. That will allow New York to add another player, but it’s a disappointing end for a player who was expected to at least contribute after returning to the WNBA for the first time since 2009.
- This was a contest that embodied an oft-repeated cliché in my part of the world: it was a game of two halves. The first ‘half’ lasted through the opening 23 minutes of gametime (I know that doesn’t technically make much sense – work with me here). Through those 23 minutes, the Liberty offense was an ugly mess, repeatedly turning the ball over. Cappie Pondexter missed her first seven shots of the game, being essentially shut down by Kalana Greene, as the Liberty shot 28% as a team. Kara Lawson was left open far too often to hit shots for the Sun. And the only thing keeping the Liberty in the game was that they’d managed to keep Tina Charles very quiet.
- After her 30-point explosion on Wednesday night against Indiana, Charles found life a lot more difficult against New York. Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone both offered bigger and taller opposition than she faced against the Fever, and with the Liberty sending plenty of help as well the Sun’s star center never found any rhythm.
- But with Connecticut moving the ball around better than New York, and their role players joining Lawson to knock down some shots and generate offense elsewhere, the Sun had built a 40-32 lead when the game-changing sequence occurred. Charles picked up her third foul while fighting with Bone for position in the paint; then added her fourth seconds later on a soft call as Katie Smith tried to drive along the baseline. Only a few minutes into the second half, Charles went to the bench and stayed there for the rest of the third quarter.
- While Charles hadn’t been scoring, or even gathering rebounds, removing her from the floor gave New York new life. It opened up the lane, allowing Pondexter to actually convert the layups when she barreled into the paint. It led to a host of offensive rebounds and second-chances for the Liberty offense. It led to Connecticut turnovers when Sun guards tried to make passes that Charles might’ve caught, but Mistie Bass couldn’t handle. It even allowed rookie Toni Young to be a little productive as a power forward, because Bass and Kelsey Griffin weren’t going to do much damage against her. Finally the Liberty had some momentum to their offense, while Connecticut had lost their fulcrum, and when Pondexter drilled a long two at the third quarter buzzer – after another series of offensive boards – it gave New York their first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
- Even with Charles returning to the floor, the Liberty had all the momentum heading into the fourth quarter, and quickly broke out to a double-digit lead. Now they were the ones generating steals and getting out on the break, or making the extra pass for role players like Leilani Mitchell to hit threes. The Sun pulled within four points on a couple of occasions in the closing stages – and Pondexter went deathly cold again – but Charles had never remotely warmed up. Everything she tried was either fading away from Braxton and Bone to create separation, or a mid-range jump shot over an outstretched arm – none of which went in. Another couple of Charles misses sealed Connecticut’s fate, and the Liberty moved to 4-0 for the season on their home floor.
- Charles finished 3-17 for just 7 points and 4 rebounds. The size and length of New York’s centers bothered her all night, and ultimately the rest of the Sun squad couldn’t compensate. Both Lawson and Allison Hightower had some nice offensive stretches, and Greene did a useful job on Pondexter for most of the game, but it wasn’t enough. It was something of a fall back to Earth after the high of beating up Indiana on national TV on Wednesday night.
- Yet again, it wasn’t particularly pretty, but the Liberty managed to gut out a victory. It’s becoming their identity, and may well have to be their M.O. through the course of the season. Pondexter moved the ball well and showed a slightly greater inclination to get to the rim than we’ve seen most of the year, but still finished 8-22 from the field. As a unit, the Liberty stepped up and supported her, with Mitchell, Smith and Braxton the primary additional scorers. Even without Carson or Ford, and Pondexter shooting 36% for the season, they’re finding ways to win games.
- This was the first game of the season for Atlanta without power forward Sancho Lyttle, a key part of their team at both ends of the floor. She was in France representing Spain at EuroBasket Women, leaving Le’coe Willingham to move into her spot in the Dream starting lineup. Seattle had this year’s regular 10-player group available.
- The first half of this game somehow ended up pretty even, despite long swings of dominance from either team. Angel McCoughtry seemed to take Lyttle’s absence as a green light to fire up every shot under the sun, which worked nicely when she was knocking down jumpers in the early minutes. When things started swinging against her, she picked up a technical foul for her trademark pouty whining and found herself moved to the bench.
- Especially once Brian Agler called an early timeout to wake up his team – not the first time he’s had to do that this season, and we’ve only been playing three weeks – they started actively attacking Willingham. They understandably saw her as the weak link in the Dream lineup, and ran their offense through Tina Thompson in the paint. They also helped off Willingham repeatedly on the defensive end, trusting that she’d miss the three-pointers that make up the bulk of her limited offense. They were right.
- The Storm also did a solid job of taking care of the ball for much of the first half, keeping Atlanta’s running game in check. That started to break down as we neared halftime, with the Dream defense beginning to take charge, especially once McCoughtry returned to the game with her emotions under slightly better control. After trailing by as many as six only minutes before halftime, a McCoughtry breaking layup at the halftime buzzer – after yet another Seattle turnover – gave Atlanta a 38-35 lead at the break.
- The third quarter was where the game was decided for good. McCoughtry knocking down jump shots makes her a scary prospect to handle – generally the book on her is to force her to take those shots, and let her miss – but late in the second quarter and on into the third, the Dream finally started to involve Erika de Souza in the offense as well. With Lyttle out of the picture for a while, de Souza becomes a vital piece of the puzzle for Atlanta with her bulk and finishing ability inside, and the way she bends an opposing defense simply by touching the ball. She can sometimes be a little wild, but they have to utilise her when they can’t get out and run on every possession.
- Still, Atlanta’s offense wasn’t exceptional in the third. They shot 35% and scored just 17 points. What turned the game was the complete disintegration of the Seattle offense. Credit Atlanta’s increased intensity on the defensive end to some extent, but the Storm looked bereft of ideas, and incapable of making any kind of shot. Even when the Dream defense occasionally broke down, Seattle would blow the layup anyway. They scored two points in the first 9:54 of the period, with only a Temeka Johnson drive in the closing seconds taking them to the heady heights of four.
- To their credit, Seattle hung around and put up a fight in the final period, even dragging themselves within six points at one stage. Then McCoughtry quickly hit a mid-range jumper, before following it up with another bucket from deep and a layup on the break that converted a beautiful outlet pass from de Souza. That iced it.
- The bright side for Seattle was some positive minutes from reserve Alysha Clark in the fourth quarter, and the fight they put up at the end. But the abiding memory from this game will be the disastrous third period. When you don’t have Sue Bird or Lauren Jackson to throw the ball to, offensive slumps can be difficult to drag yourselves out of. The tough season continues for the Storm.
- McCoughtry had one of those days where her jump shot was working, and she’s a nightmare when that’s the case. A nightmare for her opponents, rather than her own team. Apart from the mini-meltdown late in the first quarter, she was the dominant force in this game, finishing 11-20 for 23 points, 9 boards, 7 assists and 5 steals (we’ll forgive the 6 turnovers in this instance). The role players did exactly that – played their roles – and that was enough against this version of the Storm. They’re not quite the same team without Lyttle, but Atlanta can still be dangerous when McCoughtry’s in that kind of mood.
- Liz Cambage and Tiffany Jackson-Jones were both still out for Tulsa, and still in walking boots. Neither is likely to play tomorrow against Phoenix, either. The return of Riquna Williams from her concussion meant Courtney Paris had to be waived from her emergency hardship contract. Minnesota were at full strength.
- A terrible LiveAccess stream made the game awkward to follow at times, but it was clear enough to see Candice Wiggins having by far her best game so far in a Shock jersey. Against her old team, Wiggins looked energised, driving to the rim more frequently and balancing that with an occasional strike from outside. Hopefully she can carry over the aggression and effectiveness from this encounter into games where she doesn’t have insider knowledge of the opponent.
- On the other side of Tulsa’s new backcourt, rookie point guard Skylar Diggins continues to struggle. Even against Lindsay Whalen – known more for her brain and her physicality than her quickness – Diggins looked slow and ineffective. In fact, not for the first time this season, the Tulsa offense looked far more dangerous when Angel Goodrich took over the reins. Tulsa’s ‘other’ rookie point guard is tiny, and her occasional reluctance to shoot can cause problems, but she’s certainly not slow. She gets from A to B about as fast as anyone in the league, as along with Riquna Williams she injects a quick, attacking mentality into the Shock offense. It was their introduction that pulled the Shock back into a game where they’d looked rather overmatched in the opening minutes.
- Minnesota led 39-35 at halftime without looking remotely impressive. As with their previous game against San Antonio, Whalen was having to take on more of the offensive load due to the usual offensive production failing to come from her superstar scorers on the wings. Seimone Augustus in particular was remarkably quiet. Then the third quarter arrived, and so did Mone. She was much more aggressive in looking for her own offense and led a barrage of Lynx jumpers that eased them into a comfortable lead. Without the same firepower, and missing even easy opportunities at the rim, Tulsa began to crumble.
- The Shock dragged themselves within six inside the final three minutes, only for Minnesota to break a full-court press with an easy outlet for Rebekkah Brunson to convert an open layup. She’d been a key finisher for Minnesota all night with the wings struggling a little, so it was only appropriate that she should kill off any hopes of a Shock comeback.
- For the Lynx, this was one of those forgettable midseason games that you find a way to win before just rolling on to the next one. Even with that third-quarter burst, Augustus and Moore were largely quiet, but they shared the scoring load around the squad, dominated the glass, and left with a comfortable victory.
- The bright spots for Tulsa were another strong performance inside from Glory Johnson, what might be the start of something from Wiggins, and a few signs of life from Nicole Powell. But as a group, this largely highlighted that they’ve still got a long way to go to be in the same stratosphere as the Lynx – especially with key post players watching from the sidelines.
- Mixed news for Phoenix before this game. Brittney Griner was back in the lineup, albeit for restricted minutes, after missing their matchup with Indiana last weekend with a left knee sprain. But Candice Dupree was out due to a one-game suspension handed down by the league for making contact with a referee when protesting a call in that game against the Fever. It was minimal contact, but the NBA and WNBA are always very protective of their officials. Also, the ref she bumped was Lamont Simpson, who was wearing ‘ref-cam’ and therefore under a spotlight. Not the smartest choice from the typically placid Dupree. Alexis Hornbuckle also continued to sit out due to her own knee sprain, while Alana Beard and Jenna O’Hea were missing for Los Angeles. Beard returned from a previous injury in their last game, only to go down again with the ankle sprain that kept her out of this one.
- Briana Gilbreath got to keep her starting spot due to the absence of Dupree, and made a couple of nice plays in the early going. She knocked down a three with confidence, then drove and dumped off to Griner under the rim. LA may come to regret cutting Gilbreath in training camp this year and allowing her to find her way back to Phoenix.
- While there’s plenty of the usual minutiae to delve into with regards to this game, the course of the contest primarily came down to one thing – the real Diana Taurasi stood up. Without Beard as an option, LA had Lindsey Harding on her most of the night, but Taurasi was in the kind of mood where the choice of defender made little difference. She was aggressive driving to the rim, creating contact and getting to the free throw line, but often finishing anyway. She was firing away from beyond the arc, knocking down threes as part of the set offense or just in quick-hit transition. She was tossing passes around the floor for her teammates to finish as well. The balls-out, joyful, exciting Taurasi was back in evidence, and with her came the swagger that she’s always brought to the Mercury.
- Not that Phoenix had it all their own way throughout the game. The first half was relatively even, with LA taking – and bricking – far too many jump shots, but repeatedly visiting the free throw line thanks to the Mercury’s heavy-handed brand of defense. Griner didn’t play for long, but too much of the Sparks’ offense seemed to continue playing like she was out there. They were wandering around the perimeter and firing away, without much interest in entering the paint.
- The defense was pretty miserable at both ends of the floor. Phoenix couldn’t keep LA out without hacking, which led to foul trouble for both Krystal Thomas and Lynetta Kizer. Usually that wouldn’t be a big deal, but with Griner on a minutes limit and Dupree suspended, there weren’t many remaining alternatives in the paint. At the other end, LA’s help defense was a step (or two) slow all night long. The Mercury kept running a set play out of the ‘horns’ formation where a guard would cut across a staggered screen at the foul line, take a pass and then head to the rim. Over and over again, LA failed to track the cutter and she had an open lane to the basket as a defender waved her on by. LA led 50-48 at the break.
- There were a few momentary flashpoints in the first half, as things got a little testy. Nneka Ogwumike was called for a flagrant foul when DeWanna Bonner pump-faked her into the air and Ogwumike swiped through Bonner as she came down. It didn’t look in any way intentional, but it came moments after Candace Parker was hit in the face during a double-team by Taurasi and Charde Houston. Then Taurasi picked up her usual technical for whining about a call, and could’ve added a flagrant of her own when she clearly lowered her shoulder and tried to bulldoze through an Ogwumike screen.
- Phoenix took control of the game in the third quarter. Parker had been relatively quiet in the first half, but she disappeared into complete nonentity territory in the third. That left nothing but jump shots for LA, and they were no longer earning the free throws to balance out the misses. The Mercury ran some quick stuff for Griner – including some of the post-for-post screening I was begging for in their early games – and got out on the break a couple of times, plus they had Taurasi lighting up the scoreboard from outside.
- The Mercury’s defense still wasn’t conspicuously organised or classically structured, but they were playing with energy and constantly shifting to help each other out. It was a contrast to the clear gaps and seams at the other end that the Sparks were constantly failing to close.
- LA head coach Carol Ross tried something completely different to open the fourth quarter. Trailing by 10 to open the period and needing to shift the momentum, she brought in several reserves and tried a 1-2-2 zone, with center Jantel Lavender at the ‘1’ spot at the head of it. They got a couple of stops initially when Bonner and Houston missed shots in the lane, before Taurasi and Houston just started raining threes over the top. Three minutes into the period, LA were down by 14 and the crowd were going nuts, and Ross had to call a timeout to break the momentum again. The zone was gone when the game re-started, but LA never got the gap under 10 for the rest of the game.
- This is essentially what Phoenix were meant to be coming into the season. The high-octane, run-and-gun scoring machine they’ve always been, only with a 6’8” phenom added into the middle to make things even scarier. It’s back to being Taurasi’s team again, and even without Dupree, and without much Griner, she led them past LA. Taurasi finished 11-19 for 34 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists. Second-year point guard Sammy Prahalis continues to fall further and further off the end of Corey Gaines’s rotation, but when Taurasi’s playing like this it doesn’t hurt to have the ball in her hands as much as possible. Now they just have to keep building on this when Brittney’s capable of playing more than 15 minutes.
- LA were just really ordinary. If they’d won, the offense would’ve been described as nicely balanced, with all the starters in double-digits, but there was never enough penetration. Griner saw limited time, and Taurasi was even her primary defender for long sequences, but Parker still failed to take any kind of control of the game – or to assert herself down low. Phoenix also trapped Parker when they could, forcing the ball out of her hands, but the ball movement wasn’t good enough to punish the Mercury. And defensively, Ross’s squad continue to show significant holes in a lot of their games. It was supposed to be her strength when she arrived from Atlanta, but there’s still a lot of tightening up left for LA to do at that end of the floor.
EuroBasket Women 2013 got under way today, with an opening day victory for Great Britain that made this writer particularly happy. Epiphanny Prince started for Russia in their loss to Spain, so presumably her ankle injury can’t have been too bad at all.
Indiana made their trip to the White House this week to be recognised for winning the WNBA championship last season. The highlights inevitably came from Fever head coach Lin Dunn, declaring “I’m a democrat” and high-fiving Barack Obama.
Former WNBA superstar Chamique Holdsclaw avoided jail with a plea bargain that sentenced her to three years of probation and a $3,000 fine, for her attack on Jennifer Lacy late last year. Holdsclaw smashed out several windows of the car Lacy was sitting in with a baseball bat, and fired a gun into the backseat, so she can count herself lucky to have avoided jail time.
Saturday June 15th (today):
San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. The Sparks are 9-point favourites, and will be looking to bounce back from the performance against Phoenix, but I think that’s generous considering how they’ve played in the last couple of game. I’ll take San Antonio to cover.
Sunday June 16th (tomorrow):
Indiana @ Washington, 2pm ET
Chicago @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Phoenix @ Tulsa, 4.30pm ET
Seattle @ Connecticut, 5pm ET