Just one game in the WNBA yesterday, and given that most basketball fans were a little distracted by some other event down in Miami, that was probably a good thing. The LiveAccess ratings probably weren’t great last night.
The Seattle Storm came into this one off the back of a solid road win in Connecticut, but their guests aren’t the pushovers they’ve been in recent years. Five games into the season Mike Thibault had his Washington Mystics at 4-1, heady heights they could only dream about during the Trudi Lacey era. Both teams were as healthy as they’re going to get this season: the Mystics at full strength, while Seattle had ten available and Sue Bird on the Key Arena sidelines.
It’s fair to say that the first half wasn’t particularly gripping. Anyone who checked in during halftime of Heat-Spurs won’t have hesitated to go back to the NBA game when it resumed. Seattle did a nice job slicing into the Washington defense – as they had against Connecticut – which then led to some open threes when the Mystics overcompensated to protect the paint. Both Tina Thompson and Camille Little have the skill-set where they can score in the post, but if you lose track of them outside they can also knock down shots from beyond the arc. That duality hurt the Mystics in this game. Temeka Johnson was also shredding the Washington defense, with first rookie Tayler Hill and then veteran Matee Ajavon both struggling to contain her. She’s a little different from Sue Bird – she likes to push at every opportunity, and she’s often more me-first than Bird – but she’s settling in pretty nicely with Seattle as the temporary replacement for an icon.
So Seattle broke out to a 20-10 start in the first quarter, but the lead didn’t last long. The Storm generally do an outstanding job of protecting the paint and forcing teams to beat them from 15-feet and out, but the Mystics started hitting some of those shots. Crystal Langhorne decided that if they were going to give her the open jumper she was going to take it, and the other Washington posts joined in. Ivory Latta was being kept quiet by Tanisha Wright, but the Mystics had enough from elsewhere to work back into the game.
One moment of amusement arrived in the first half with the sight of Thompson battling with Emma Meesseman in the post. At barely 20, Meesseman is the youngest player in the league, while Thompson is quite literally old enough to be her mother and on the brink of retirement. Thompson largely came out on top – the rookie has never faced Tina before, and wasn’t quite ready for those deep threes – but there was one nice drive from the Belgian where she went by Thompson for a little runner in the lane. The generational passing of the WNBA torch, ladies and gentlemen.
Seattle’s offensive movement and accuracy from three-point range allowed them to hold a 47-40 advantage at halftime, and they maintained that lead for much of the second half. Thompson was the primary offensive weapon, having something of a throwback game for the Storm. She’s already starting to suggest that she wasn’t fully throughout healthy last season, and that now her body’s in working order there’s still some gas in the tank. She may have announced that this will be her final season, but she’s not going to fade away quietly. She can still score.
A combination of Langhorne jumpers and an awful lot of free throws kept Washington in the game, and then Brian Agler and Mike Thibault started getting tricky. Seattle had been creating open shots all night on pick-and-pops, multiple screens to create mismatches, or even by posting up players like Tanisha Wright and Shekinna Stricklen on smaller defenders to force double-teams. When Temeka Johnson took a brief rest with six minutes left in regulation, Seattle were big on the perimeter – Wright at the point, with Noelle Quinn and Stricklen on the wing. Tired of mismatches, Thibault went huge in response. Meesseman joined Langhorne and Michelle Snow on the floor, three posts who would never normally see the floor as a trio. Plus the Mystics were already big in the backcourt, with Latta benched due to her ineffectiveness against Wright, leaving Ajavon and Monique Currie as the guards. It worked for Thibault. From 76-66 behind with under six minutes remaining, the Mystics reeled off a 10-0 run that tied the game for the first time since the second quarter. The extra size around the floor made Seattle’s ball rotation more difficult, and made switching easier for the Mystics. Also Ajavon was having easily her best game of the season, and it was her layup that tied the game with two minutes left in regulation.
After another Thompson bucket and a pair of Currie free throws left the game tied again, Thibault made a small concession to standard practice and inserted Tierra Ruffin-Pratt for Meesseman for the final minute. Seattle had an ugly possession that ended in a three-point heave from Wright which wasn’t close; the Mystics turned it over when Langhorne couldn’t handle an Ajavon pass on the pick-and-roll under pressure from Wright; and then a nice set from Seattle found Wright off a down-screen for an open elbow-jumper – but she missed. We were headed for yet another overtime game.
Thibault opened the extra period with the same lineup on the floor, meaning Latta was still kicking her heels on the bench. Maybe that was a mistake. By the time she returned midway through OT, Johnson had gone past Ajavon for a layup and Thompson had drained yet another three to give the Storm a five-point lead. Then Johnson went right by Latta for another layup, illustrating part of the reason she’d been on the bench in the first place. The Storm fans who’d forsaken Game 6 of the NBA Finals were sent home happy, as their team held on for a 96-86 victory. It was even comfortable enough for Thompson and Wright to take a curtain call when they were subbed out just before the finish.
While Thompson was the star turn – becoming the oldest player in WNBA history to score 30 or more in a game – it’s the team ethic and cohesion that’s been so impressive in the last couple of Seattle wins. They don’t have their superstars this year, so they need balance from around their roster, and they’re getting contributions from Wright, Johnson, Little and Thompson, plus cameos from Stricklen and even Alysha Clark off the bench. They’re working their butts off defensively, as ever, and the motion within the offense is creating some good looks. There’s some interesting action – using Stricklen in the post is an intriguing idea if she can develop that side of her game, because she’s almost always going to have a size advantage on her defender, and they run a lot through the low post for a team that’s technically undersized in the paint – but a lot of it’s pretty simple. Keep moving and working for each other, take care of the ball, and someone will probably be open at some point. When you knock down your shots as well as they have in the last two games, you’ve got a good shot at winning. Agler was never going to let his team throw in the towel this season.
Washington didn’t play badly either, and obviously in an overtime game a tiny swing could easily have tilted it the other way. Thibault will have been happy to see Ajavon find a little offense in what’s been a pretty barren season so far, and his posts were hitting jumpers for fun. Seattle’s a tough place to visit, even when the crowd’s thinned a little by the other viewing options available if they stayed home.
Further tests on the Indiana Fever’s Katie Douglas has revealed that the bulging disc in her back will require another 3-4 weeks on the sidelines. That’s obviously not what the desperately short-handed Fever wanted to hear. Rookie guard Layshia Clarendon should be back shortly, probably for their next game, but all the other missing players are some distance from returning.
Atlanta signed veteran center Ruth Riley to fill the roster spot opened up by suspending Sancho Lyttle while she’s at EuroBasket Women in France. Why it didn’t happen until Lyttle had already missed two games, you’d have to ask the Dream. Riley has looked essentially finished for a couple of years now, but rookie Anne Marie Armstrong has also looked desperately raw in her brief appearances so far. So they may well keep Riley and cut Armstrong instead when Lyttle returns. Or cut both of them and sign anyone else they can find to hold down the end of the bench.
Epiphanny Prince is back with the Chicago Sky, and therefore presumably will take part in their game tomorrow afternoon in Tulsa.
Wednesday June 19th (today):
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. This is an interesting clash considering how Phoenix have bounced back in recent games while the Lynx have looked a little off-colour since an impressive start. The line is Phoenix +3.5, and I’ll take the Lynx to beat the Mercury and the spread. The prospect of visiting this year’s preseason darlings should be enough to wake up the slumbering Lynx, and Augustus and Moore don’t need to go anywhere near Brittney Griner to light the Mercury up.
Thursday June 20th (tomorrow):
Chicago @ Tulsa, 12.30pm ET