WNBA Today, 06/23/2013: Health and energy continue to play key roles as Sky and Shock defeat Fever and Storm

 

Two games in the WNBA last night, with the storylines once again dominated by injuries and fatigue. The opener was in Indiana, where hopes of the Fever breaking their five-game losing streak took yet another blow with news that Tamika Catchings was out with a lower back strain. She’ll miss at least one more game after this one, and joined Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips, Jeanette Pohlen and Jessica Davenport on the sidelines. So that’s their two best players, another starter, and two rotation reserves out of action. Whether Catch’s back just finally buckled under the strain of trying to carry this shorthanded Indiana squad through the last month, or this is the first sign that Indiana might be settling for a ‘lost season’ and a high draft pick, is open to discussion.

 

The Fever moved backup center Sasha Goodlett into the starting lineup to replace Catchings, with Erlana Larkins sliding over to power forward. Their opponents, the Chicago Sky, were in the enviable position of having 11 players fit and available. Although with the way they played in Tulsa on Thursday, the Sky were looking for a response as well.

 

It wasn’t a pretty first half by any means. Chicago had a familiar problem – sloppy turnovers – while the remains of Indiana worked pretty hard but struggled to score. The one minor advantage caused by Catchings’s absence was that Larkins slid over a spot, meaning she was being defended by Swin Cash rather than Sylvia Fowles (the Sky, as ever, were hiding Elena Delle Donne as much as possible on defense, which in this case meant she took Karima Christmas). Indiana tried to attack Cash through Larkins, but found minimal success. Without stars around them, complementary starters like Larkins and Briann January have really struggled this season. They haven’t had the same space or easy opportunities, and their production has taken a nosedive as a result.

 

Chicago were having plenty of their own problems. Yet again, Fowles was seeing very little of the ball, and even let out a frustrated little yelp at one stage in the first half when she was called for a three-seconds violation, after two teammates failed to enter the ball to her in the paint. Even Delle Donne and Epiphanny Prince were largely peripheral to the action in the first half, restricted to occasional efforts from outside. That led to a narrow 37-35 Indiana lead at halftime, and when the Fever emerged from the locker room with far more energy and intent, a 6-0 start pushed their lead to eight. The Sky were playing like they expected the victory to fall into their laps, rather than going out and earning it.

 

Finally, after a Pokey Chatman timeout halted that early Fever run in the third quarter, the Sky started looking to Fowles in the paint. She scored on three consecutive finishes from inside three feet to drag the game close again. Chatman even managed to restrain herself from the no-Fowles, no-Prince, no-Delle Donne lineup that she’s bizarrely utilised at the end of third quarters in other games. Only a Shavonte Zellous triple from deep in the corner kept Indiana’s nose in front at the end of the third, 51-49.

 

The Fever managed to inch their way out to a 54-49 advantage via some defensive effort and horrendous Chicago offense – the Sky opened the fourth with consecutive 24-second violations, after static possessions went absolutely nowhere. Chicago broke that run through Delle Donne. First she just attacked, and got herself to the free throw line; then they ran what might’ve been a clear-out for her, or might’ve just been horrific offensive spacing – either way, she beat her man and scored in the lane. It gave the Sky a little momentum, and Prince kept it rolling by knocking down a couple of perimeter jumpers. Then the stuffing was knocked out of the Fever just a little bit more when rookie guard Layshia Clarendon turned her ankle again, and had to be helped off the floor. Fatigue was starting to settle in, and one more injury just added to the sense that the world was against them. In all honesty, the Sky’s offensive execution wasn’t that much better down the stretch – for example, they largely ignored Fowles, and Delle Donne never saw another isolation opportunity – but they started hitting shots as Prince took charge. And with Indiana tiring and forcing up ugly attempts from outside, that was enough for Chicago. Ultimately it was a 15-2 run for the Sky in the middle of the fourth quarter, which led to their 71-61 victory.

 

Indiana just ran out of steam. Zellous did what she could from outside, but finished as the only double-digit scorer for the Fever. A couple of bright moments from backup forward Jessica Breland couldn’t cover for yet more disappointing performances from Clarendon, January and Larkins, or for the five important pieces sitting on the bench in street clothes. This team isn’t going anywhere right now, and it’s a rather sad decline for a franchise that raised its first championship banner a few short weeks ago. But that’s what multiple key injuries can do to a basketball team.

 

Chicago got the win, but it was hardly inspiring. Prince’s shooting got them over the line in the final quarter, along with facing a shorthanded and dispirited opponent. The defense is still pretty effective, but for the third year in a row under Chatman the offense often looks static and ugly, and fails to make particularly good use of their star players. It seems like it really shouldn’t be that hard to run high-isolations for Delle Donne, or make use of Indiana’s switching defense to attack mismatches all over the floor. Or to run Prince off a few picks to get her good looks. Or to create better lanes and passing angles to find Fowles down low. The basic talent of their stars is keeping this team afloat, but the lingering impression is that they should already be distinctly better than this.

 

Over in Oklahoma…

 

After playing the previous night in San Antonio, the Seattle Storm flew on to Tulsa for the second half of their back-to-back. A three-game winning streak should’ve left morale high, but you always worry about energy when playing two games in 24 hours, especially when both are on the road. Tulsa were back at nine players available after re-signing Courtney Paris to replace the traded Kayla Pedersen, and there was promising news that center Liz Cambage would be returning to practice next week. She could be ready for the road trip that starts on Friday in Indiana.

 

Seattle came out looking like they were feeling the previous game and the travel in their legs. Skylar Diggins went right by Tanisha Wright for a layup – and Diggins has been struggling to go by anyone in the WNBA, never mind someone with Wright’s defensive reputation – while Tina Thompson came up very short with two straight jumpers. Meanwhile Nicole Powell was leading the Shock’s attack and looking more excited about the game than we’d seen in a long time. Maybe the switch to Tulsa and the starting spot she’s now earned are going to rekindle her enthusiasm a little. The Shock had developed a 12-2 lead before four minutes had even elapsed.

 

Seattle eventually eased into the game, with Brian Agler going deeper into his bench than usual in response to the back-to-back contests. Rookie forward Tianna Hawkins came in and showed off some nice hands and the ability to finish inside. Maybe she’ll have earned herself more minutes in future games even when her teammates aren’t quite so tired. Alysha Clark saw extended action as well, and you can just about see why Agler has kept her around. She’s limited offensively, because she doesn’t have that much of a perimeter game and she’s too small for the post at WNBA level, but she’s capable of defending guards and switching down to posts without being completely embarrassed. And she works hard. It’s difficult to see her ever making a meaningful impact on the WNBA, but she might have a shot at sticking around on the end of a rotation.

 

While Roneeka Hodges and Riquna Williams came into the game for Tulsa to join Powell in the perimeter attack, Seattle’s offense continued to struggle. Eight turnovers in the first quarter alone illustrated how many errors, mental and physical, they were making. But they’re still a very smart team, and well-coached, regardless of fatigue. When Courtney Paris entered the game she was instantly involved in repeated pick-and-rolls, as Seattle looked to attack her and exploit defensive weaknesses. Glory Johnson had a tough time in the first half as well, with the smarts of Thompson and Camille Little keeping her under control, even if her energy continued to lead to success on the glass. The outside shooting of the Shock still led to a 41-30 advantage at the break.

 

Tulsa blew the game open for good in the third quarter. Candice Wiggins joined the bombing from beyond the arc, while Glory Johnson started having more joy in cutting to the hoop for finishes at the rim and free throws when Seattle rotations were a little late. While Tulsa deserve credit for their performance – and their success against Seattle isn’t isolated to this game, considering they also beat them earlier this season – that felt like the key element of this contest. Everything the Storm did was just a little short. They weren’t fighting around screens quite as quickly as usual, weren’t battling for rebounds with quite the same energy, and even layups were repeatedly failing to reach high enough to have a chance to drop. Tulsa’s lead went over 20 in the third quarter, and the fourth was a mere formality. The Shock waltzed home for a comfortable 92-70 win.

 

This was the Storm’s only back-to-back of the season, so it seems doubtful that Brian Agler will be too concerned. He’s got a veteran squad, so it’s not a surprise that quick turnarounds would have a bigger impact on this team than others around the league. The 18 turnovers won’t have made him happy, but at least there were only 10 after the ugly first quarter. The other bright spot was Hawkins, who finished the game 7-9 for 17 points and four boards. She even tossed in a three to illustrate some range along with her finishing in the paint. From the start of this season Seattle’s priority was the development of young players like Hawkins, so even this heavy defeat can be seen as a useful exercise.

 

The Shock earned a victory that didn’t even require them to close out a tight game (something they’ve struggled with mightily). They also took a 2-0 advantage in the season series against the Storm, which could be important in the lower reaches of the Western Conference playoff picture come the end of the season. They were hugely reliant on perimeter gunners like Hodges and Powell knocking down shots, but those are generally the good looks you get against Seattle, and Tulsa have the shooters to hit them. When Cambage and Tiffany Jackson-Jones return, it’s going to be an interesting task for head coach Gary Kloppenburg to try to balance the speed and quick-fire shooting that has led their offense lately, and the new threats inside. But it’s a problem he’ll very much be looking forward to.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Sunday June 23rd (today):

San Antonio @ New York, 3pm ET. Liberty -6 is the line, and we haven’t seen enough from the Silver Stars lately for me to expect them to cover that on the road, especially against a rested team who are yet to lose on their own floor.

 

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 3pm ET. The Sun are only getting 4 points in this one, which is nowhere near enough. I’ll take Atlanta to keep rolling.

 

Tulsa @ Minnesota, 7pm ET. Lynx -15 is a line that shows Vegas expects a reaction from Minnesota after the blowout loss in LA – and reflects Tulsa coming in on a back-to-back. But it’s just too many points for me. I’ll take Tulsa to cover.

 

Washington @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET. Another huge line, at LA -13. The Sparks have been excellent lately, but Washington are yet to have a blowout in either direction this season. I’ll take them to at least keep it closer than 13.

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