A triple-header last night, as the WNBA tried to grab the attention of basketball fans who’ll be without NBA options for the next few months. On to the Bullet Point Breakdown to take a look at the action.
- Things aren’t getting any easier for San Antonio on the injury front. Starting center Jayne Appel was still out due to the concussion that led to her missing their last game (where the team capitulated in Los Angeles without her). Becky Hammon and Sophia Young remain in street clothes (although Hammon reportedly may return to practice next week). They’d already added Chante Black as extra post cover – or at least an extra body for practice – while Appel is out. So Danielle Adams got the start again at center, and Dan Hughes made another change by choice, promoting Shenise Johnson into the starting lineup over Shameka Christon. Johnson’s play this season has warranted a starting spot, but she’d been playing well off the bench. Maybe Hughes just wanted to try to inject some new life into his team after the horrible loss to the Sparks. Seattle had their usual 10 players available.
- Hughes has done an impressive job drawing good performances from what’s left of his roster this season, but I don’t quite understand his thinking with the defensive assignments at the start of this game. As has been the case most of the season, Jia Perkins was defending the opposing point guard. That’s fine – Perkins is a decent defender, bigger than Danielle Robinson (ignore the officially listed heights), and can use that size to disrupt her opponent. But Robinson was slid all the way over to Noelle Quinn, who’s spent most of this season (and much of her WNBA career) standing around doing virtually nothing. When Quinn was replaced by Alysha Clark – even less of a threat – Robinson stayed on Clark. It was almost like they were trying to hide Robinson defensively, despite her well-earned reputation and a quick and pesky defensive player. Maybe the thinking is that with Hammon sidelined Robinson needs to conserve her energy for offense, but they weren’t running much for her at that end early in the game either. I don’t get it.
- San Antonio came out of the gates slowly, with the carry over from the Sparks game seemingly a similar level of disinterest, rather than a determination to respond. Their effort to feed Adams in the post had led to an offensive foul, and Hughes eventually drew a technical for bitching about it a bit too long – possibly in a conscious effort to wake up his players. The technical free throw made it 15-4 Seattle, only for San Antonio to run off a 12-4 run to get themselves back in the game. Maybe it worked.
- There wasn’t great cohesion to the Silver Stars’ play, but as the first half went on they scraped together enough offense to hang around. Christon came into the game and showed no signs of pouting about being benched, doing exactly the same thing she’d been doing as a starter – bombing away from outside. Her threes and Perkins deciding she liked attacking Clark’s defense helped provide some points for San Antonio.
- Seattle have shown a nice level of balance in their recent run of form. They’ve found production from a variety of areas, whether it’s Temeka Johnson and Tanisha Wright penetrating off the dribble, Camille Little and Tina Thompson in the paint (and Thompson in particular adding some bombs from outside), or Shekinna Stricklen attacking off the bench. The ball movement was good again, and all five starters had at least 6 points by halftime, when the Storm led 39-37.
- One element that’s been a little disappointing about Seattle’s start to the season is the lack of minutes for rookie forward Tianna Hawkins. This year’s #6 overall pick played less than two minutes in this game, and apart from their blowout loss to LA she hasn’t played more than seven minutes in any game so far. Obviously she’s raw, and Brian Agler is trying hard to win games, but Hughes was finding minutes for rookie center Kayla Alexander even when his team was healthier. And she’s been awful. It’d be nice to see Hawkins get a slightly bigger taste of the action.
- Christon started the second half ahead of Johnson. So in some ways, the lineup change didn’t last long.
- The most unusual aspect of the second half was how efficient and successful the offenses were – in a matchup between two head coaches who focus on defense as much as possible. Seattle continued to execute well, with Camille Little enjoying her matchup with Adams down low and Temeka Johnson continuing to settle into her role on the Storm. San Antonio found some success by pushing the ball to look for early offense, and knocking down some jumpers. Seattle are sometimes so determined to block off lanes to the hoop that the jump shots they give up are really open. And San Antonio have enough players who can make those shots.
- The Silver Stars also got Robinson more involved in the offense in the second half – to the extent that it made you wonder why they don’t run high pick-and-rolls for her with the remaining players spreading the floor more often. She comes off the pick and is a good enough passer to find the roller or an open shooter, and her speed makes her a scary threat to get to the rim. But they rarely seem to go to that option until the late stages of games. Robinson was also especially effective last night because when Seattle defenders went under screens against her – which is the way every team in the league guards her – she was taking and hitting the wide-open mid-range jump shot that she’s left with. We’ve seen this point guard evolution in San Antonio before – it was the same story with a young Tony Parker. Robinson needs to be able to take that shot with confidence and punish teams for giving it to her.
- The second half was tight most of the way through, before the effectiveness of Tina Thompson inside and out enabled Seattle to break out to a small lead. Her remarkable success from insanely deep three-point range – the Storm literally set back-screens for her at the three-point line so she can set up at least five feet behind it – is really advantageous. Opposing post players naturally fade back into the paint when they’re running back down the floor looking for someone to guard, and they do the same thing when they’re switching and trying to get back on a big. Then they suddenly realise Thompson’s standing 27 feet from the hoop with no one anywhere near her. It also gives her more chance to drive, despite having lost a step or two in her advancing years, because defenders have to close out on her so hard to challenge the bombs. A Thompson three, then two-of-three from the line when she was fouled on another attempt from deep, gave Seattle an 82-75 lead with 3:25 remaining.
- San Antonio had one last push in them, led by Robinson. Their offense in the final minutes was basically a bunch of variations on pick-and-rolls for her, which led to either jumpers or layups. The key moment came with 28 seconds left, San Antonio down 88-84 and Seattle inbounding. The Silver Stars chose to pressure rather than foul immediately and it worked, as a bunch of tips and pokes at the ball led to it dropping into Christon’s hands. She was in the process of taking off upcourt when Temeka Johnson clearly impeded her process, sending her to the ground and the ball out of bounds. Bafflingly, referee Janetta Graham saw no foul and simply pointed for possession to Seattle. It took place right in front of her. San Antonio were understandably confused and upset, and it was frankly amazing that Hughes avoided picking up his second technical and an ejection. You couldn’t have blamed him if he had. From there, Seattle made their free throws, and held on for the win.
- San Antonio only really found offensive production from three players in this game – the Robinson/Perkins backcourt, and Christon bombing away from outside. But it would’ve been enough on a lot of nights. Their pick-and-roll rotations defensively were a little too slow, and with key players missing others are having to play different roles (or bigger roles than they should be playing). But in the end, at least there was a response in effort to the collapse against LA. And if one or two more calls had gone their way, the result might’ve been different.
- For Seattle this is a third win in a row, including two on the road – more than they looked capable of in a couple of their early games. All the starters were in double-digits, with even Quinn showing a sign of life or two, and the Little/Thompson pairing continue to do impressive work as the post tandem. While the 10-woman roster looks remarkably healthy, there’s always the shadow of knowing they’re without Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, so it’s especially nice to see Agler and his squad showing what can be achieved despite key injuries. A couple of weeks ago, San Antonio were illustrating that for us; now the Storm have taken on the mantle.
- Injury news for this one was that Alexis Hornbuckle was back in uniform after missing several games due to an ankle injury. The Phoenix commentators also claimed that Penny Taylor might make a return during their upcoming roadtrip, but everything with the Mercury is in the realms of “we’ll believe it when we see it” at this stage.
- The most obvious difference between these teams from the opening tip was just how much bigger Phoenix were all over the floor. Their current starting lineup with Diana Taurasi as the ‘lead guard’ and Briana Gilbreath joining DeWanna Bonner on the wing makes them huge all over the floor, before you even get to 6’8” Brittney Griner at center. The Mystics were using small forward Monique Currie to try to limit Taurasi with her size and physicality, which left guards Ivory Latta and Tayler Hill to try to cover Gilbreath and Bonner. Defensively, the size and length helps cover for the Mercury’s deficiencies in other areas, because it’s simply difficult to move the ball and penetrate when there are such big bodies and long limbs in the way. That was a large part of the reason Washington were doing little offensively besides fire jump shots in the early going.
- Bonner was successful when she went inside and used her significant size advantage to attack her defender, but mostly kept jacking away from outside. Her shot selection can still be pretty terrible, even on a team that encourages quick shots whenever you’re remotely open.
- Washington got back into the game in the first half when Latta started hitting some jump shots, and Matee Ajavon came into the game to give them someone who was never going to be afraid to drive to the rim. Undrafted rookie Tierra Ruffin-Pratt also entered and made several nice plays, yet again outperforming #4 overall pick Tayler Hill. They also got to play against some of the Mercury’s reserves, which introduced smaller players they could handle more easily. But when Phoenix’s big perimeter was reunited late in the half, and Taurasi was gunning away from outside, the Mercury pulled away again, to lead 49-38 at the break.
- Much of the second half followed a similar pattern. Washington were still doing the vast majority of their work from the perimeter offensively, led by Latta. Crystal Langhorne was a complete non-factor all night, never able to make much of an impact against the all-round length of Phoenix. But the Mercury defense still hasn’t quite adjusted to the knowledge that with Griner behind them, opponents generally don’t want to drive. You can close out hard on shooters, and play up against them when they try to face up. Instead, Washington shooters often had too much room, and continued to hit enough to keep the Mystics hanging around.
- But with Taurasi and Dupree converting enough shots, and the Mercury doing a decent job of looking for Griner in the low post, it looked like Phoenix would probably ease home for a relatively comfortable win. And then everything went a little nuts. There was a tussle for the ball when Washington’s Michelle Snow and Phoenix’s Krystal Thomas both refused to let go of a rebound. Then everyone started bitching about every possible call even more than they had the rest of the night. Ruffin-Pratt reportedly re-situated her own dislocated shoulder (off-screen) after it was pulled out during the fight for a rebound. There were a bunch of technicals, and basically lots of people on the fringe of losing their composure. Washington dealt with it better, both in terms of keeping themselves under control and in driving to draw the touch-fouls that officials always call when games get a little antsy. And suddenly it was close again.
- But Washington could never quite make that one final big play that would’ve turned the contest back in their favour. They came within two points with 3:21 remaining on a pair of Emma Meesseman free throws – Mike Thibault had let the unit which got his team back in it keep playing, and that included Meesseman staying on the floor ahead of Langhorne at power forward. But when Charde Houston missed a jumper the tipped rebound fell back to the Mercury, and Dupree drove past Meesseman for a layup to push the lead back to four. That was as close as Washington would get, and Phoenix held on in the final minutes.
- It was another battling performance from the Mystics, and yet again Latta was their star, with Ajavon and Currie the only two who really helped out on the scoreboard. It looked like they might be significantly overmatched in the opening minutes, so credit Thibault’s squad for keeping it a contest right to the finish. Some nights the opponent is just a bit too good.
- And even though they had a few dodgy moments, that’s exactly what Phoenix were in this game – a bit too good. Taurasi and Griner led the way offensively, in the inside-out/outside-in attack that everyone was petrified of before the season even began. The defense still has flaws, and the mental strength of this team sometimes seems to waver, but the offense is well on its way to scaring the hell out of the rest of the league.
- For only the third time this season, Los Angeles had their first-choice starting unit available to open a game. After sitting out their last contest due to a nasty hit to the face, point guard Lindsey Harding returned and replaced Marissa Coleman, with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard sliding back over to make room. Minnesota had everyone available as well.
- It’s hard to even analyse this game in much depth, because it turned into such a massacre incredibly quickly. Playing their second road game in three nights, and tipping off at an unusually late 11pm ET, is no excuse for the level of performance Minnesota produced. But it might be part of the reason. They looked sluggish from the start, and caved under Sparks pressure. They coughed up cheap turnovers, failed to produce much in the way of good looks at the basket, and generally didn’t produce anything worth talking about offensively. The defense in the halfcourt was okay at times, but with LA building energy and momentum from their defense and transition, it didn’t matter. The Sparks were quickly in complete control.
- While the Lynx were poor, plenty of credit has to be given to LA for their aggression, activity and intensity right from the opening tip. Harding was attacking both off the dribble and with her jumper, while Nneka Ogwumike was leaping around and finishing inside. The whole team was swarming and pouncing on defense, forcing mistakes, and keeping the score rolling in their favour throughout the first half. Kristi Toliver also joined in with her first real virtuoso scoring barrage of the season (although she has shot well in recent games – this was just the first one that felt like a real Toliver roll). Everything was dropping in for her, and she was once again putting the work in on the defensive end as well. LA led by a ridiculous 50-24 at halftime.
- The second-half was essentially a mammoth session of garbage time. Cheryl Reeve had already used all 11 players at her disposal in the first half in an effort to discover anything that might work, but she gave her starters the chance to turn things around from the start of the third quarter. That lasted all of 98 seconds, when she dragged all five starters back to the bench and sent in the reserves. The game was already over.
- The potential positive from the huge amount of meaningless basketball LA have played in their last two games – besides the morale boost from two dominating victories – is the play of center Jantel Lavender. She finished 6-8 for 14 points and 5 boards against San Antonio last weekend, then 7-12 for 16 points and 8 rebounds last night. At the very least it should benefit her confidence. But she’s been doing the vast majority of her work against reserves in games that were already finished as a contest. Now she needs to produce in meaningful minutes against opponents who are still thinking about the game rather than the quickest route out of the building (and Carol Ross needs to give her the chances to show whether she can).
- It was great stuff from LA. They’ve won their last two games by a combined 64 points, and they’ve won their two games this season with an intact starting unit by a combined 61. It’s an indication of what they’re capable of when everyone’s focussed and playing with energy. Now we just have to see it over a sustained period of time, not a couple of games here and there with little slumps inbetween. At their best, clearly this team can threaten anyone.
- Minnesota should be pretty embarrassed by this performance, and the extended look at the reserves won’t have been much use. They’ll put it behind them and hopefully come out with much better energy back on their own floor on Sunday night. The one long-term concern is whether the early minutes were an indication that Janel McCarville is going to have trouble handling anyone on this Sparks team. Taj McWilliams-Franklin sometimes had difficulty against the Sparks, because Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike form such an athletic, high-flying frontcourt when they’re both involved and invested. And McCarville doesn’t have the defensive smarts of McWilliams-Franklin. Maybe it’s a one-off, and she’ll do better next time when the entire Lynx squad should be more prepared to play. But maybe we’ll have to see more of Amber Harris at center, or Maya Moore sliding over to power forward, when the Lynx face the Sparks again.
The Indiana Fever announced that center Jessica Davenport, who hasn’t played all season due to a stress fracture in her left tibia, will undergo surgery and be out for the rest of the year. It’s yet another blow to the injury-riddled Fever, who are also missing Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips and Jeanette Pohlen, with none of them expected to return for several more weeks. The Fever brought Jasmine Hassell back as another emergency hardship signing – the 14th player on their current roster due to the pile up of injuries.
The Tulsa Shock confirmed that center Courtney Paris would be re-signed to fill the roster spot opened up by trading away Kayla Pedersen. She should be in uniform for tonight’s game against Seattle.
Saturday June 22nd (today):
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET. The Fever are getting 3.5 points on their own floor, and even with how ordinary Chicago looked on Thursday, that’s not enough for me. I’ll take the Sky on the road.
Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Line is Shock -4.5, which seems high until you remember that Seattle played last night in San Antonio. With how they’ve played lately, I’m still taking the Storm to cover that on the road.
Sunday June 23rd (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ New York, 3pm ET
Atlanta @ Connecticut, 3pm ET
Tulsa @ Minnesota, 7pm ET
Washington @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET