WNBA Today, 06/24/2013: Nailbiters early, relative comfort late on quad-game Sunday

 

Four games yesterday in the WNBA, with a couple of nailbiters to liven up your Sunday afternoon, and then more relaxing fare to ease you off to bed. Isn’t it nice how the action sometimes fits to our needs? The Bullet Point Breakdowns cover it all for you below.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 78 @ New York Liberty 77

  • After a quiet game in her first start of the season last time out, Shenise Johnson was moved back to the bench by San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes, with Shameka Christon reassuming the starting role. Once again, Danielle Adams started at center in the absence of Jayne Appel due to concussion. Becky Hammon was in the arena, but still in street clothes. New York’s first game in nine days saw the same starting group again, although Cappie Pondexter was wearing ‘Wicks’ on the back of her jersey to recognise former Liberty favourite Sue. It was a nice touch as part of the Liberty’s Pride celebrations, and Wicks was honoured at halftime.

 

  • San Antonio got out to a hot start, behind a constant barrage of jump shots. I lament their lack of interior scoring at times, but when they get rolling they can kill you from outside. New York looked like they’d unofficially extended their eight-day layoff to nine, and trailed 17-4 after less than four minutes of basketball.

 

  • The rest of the first half was about New York battling their way back into the game. The Silver Stars couldn’t stay that hot from outside, and when New York managed to avoid turning the ball over they were finding ways to produce. Plenette Pierson finished inside, Avery Warley made her debut as a member of the Liberty and quickly produced hustle rebounds and putbacks, Kelsey Bone showed off some nice passing vision out of the post, and by halftime they were only down 34-32. Despite a hideous 12 turnovers.

 

  • San Antonio play quick, aggressive defense, and they’re excellent at getting their hands into passing lanes, but this was far from the first time New York had suffered from turnover issues this season. They’re trying to force passes into gaps that aren’t there, especially with their constant efforts to run plays through their bigs either down low or at the elbow. Defenses know where they want to go, and balls get poked away. Cappie Pondexter, besides her shooting woes (36% from the field, 28% from three-point range), is also second in the league in turnovers. They ask her to do a lot so a high number is understandable, but we’ve seen too many drives into traffic with nowhere to go, or instances where she leaves her feet before desperately searching for someone to kick the ball to. The positive angle is that they’ve been winning games, despite a turnover rate higher than any WNBA team has managed since the league switched to a 24-second shot clock in 2006. If they can get the problem under control, who knows how good they might be. Head coach Bill Laimbeer’s comments after this game sounded like he’s reaching the end of his rope with rookie guard Kamiko Williams, so we may see someone new being given a chance to help out the backcourt soon.

 

  • After another poor start for New York after the break – Williams and center Kara Braxton found themselves swiftly benched – most of the second-half was tight. The speed of Danielle Robinson gave New York problems all night, both trying to stop her penetration and with Pondexter trying escape her defense, but the Liberty kept clinging to San Antonio’s coattails. A Pierson pair at the line gave them a one-point lead with barely a minute left in regulation, and after the teams exchanged turnovers and bricks, an offensive board led to Adams being fouled under the rim. She made 1-of-2 to tie the game with 23 seconds left. New York ran Pondexter around a staggered screen and San Antonio’s switching left her with Danielle Adams in front of her, but Pondexter settled for a three that Adams partially blocked. Overtime.

 

  • It proved to be one of the more action-packed, helter-skelter extra periods we’ve seen in a while. There was one extended stoppage to check whether Katie Smith had her toe on the line for a three-point bucket, but other than that it just kept rolling. Neither Hughes nor Laimbeer ever called a timeout. Both teams were pushing the pace, with San Antonio in particular running right back at the Liberty and finding easy opportunities in transition. Pondexter made a couple of plays, and Smith’s triple gave New York a three-point advantage with barely two minutes left, but the Silver Stars kept answering. Jia Perkins was getting to the rim, with Robinson and Shenise Johnson running right along with her.

 

  • After a series of turnovers – five minutes of end-to-end basketball with little respite tends to lead to those – the crucial score came from Johnson. Under heavy pressure, she managed to force up a jumper over Smith that found its way into the basket for a one-point lead with 36 seconds left. New York, unsurprisingly, tried to answer through Pondexter. She got into the lane and kicked to Smith in the corner for another attempted three, which missed. A Pierson offensive rebound gave Cappie another chance, only for the defense of Adams and Robinson on a pick-and-roll to force her into an ugly miss. Yet another offensive rebound gave the Liberty one last chance, but Smith’s three was blocked by Perkins. Time expired, and the Silver Stars had squeaked the win on the road.

 

  • New York didn’t really deserve to win this game, although you have to give them credit for coming within inches of victory. Diminutive point guard Leilani Mitchell is continuing to earn Laimbeer’s trust with her energy and hustle plays around the floor, but she can’t do much to stop the turnovers when they’re coming from all over the court. The Liberty finished with 23 giveaways, leading to 29 San Antonio points, and ultimately it killed them. The amazing element was that they came so close to stealing the win.

 

  • After a couple of performances where the absences of Sophia Young, Hammon and Appel really started to take their toll, San Antonio produced an impressive effort in this game. 15 steals and 17 offensive rebounds illustrate the collective energy that they played with all afternoon, and it was just about enough to come away with the win. They’re still a limited team offensively with so many important pieces missing, but they found a way to sneak home through pace, drive and a little bit of luck.

 

 

Atlanta Dream 78 @ Connecticut Sun 77

  • Connecticut were without Kara Lawson once again, this time due to a bruised knee, forcing her to join fellow Sun guards Renee Montgomery and Tan White on the sidelines. Iziane Castro Marques was promoted into the starting lineup to face one of her former teams, while Kayla Pedersen was in uniform for the first time for Connecticut after being acquired from Tulsa in a trade. Atlanta were still without Sancho Lyttle due to her commitments with Spain at EuroBasket Women, and were also missing Ruth Riley, recently signed to fill Lyttle’s roster spot. Le’coe Willingham once again started in Lyttle’s absence.

 

  • In a lot ways, this game was all about Angel McCoughtry. Some of Atlanta’s ball movement earlier in the season was impressive, shifting the ball quickly around the floor until someone had a good look. McCoughtry even had some high-assist games herself. But she decided that she didn’t just have a green light in this game – this time the light was flashing in bright fluorescent neon and screaming “Shoot!” with every blink. This went beyond being a ballstopper.

 

  • Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad idea for Angel to take a lot of shots. Especially with Lyttle away, she’s clearly Atlanta’s primary option offensively. But you can still move the ball while McCoughtry remains the focus. There are other people on this team who can at least hit a layup.

 

  • For the first 33 minutes of the game, it made very little difference. Tina Charles was invisible apart from a brief stretch in the second quarter, and Connecticut were just about hanging around within range of making a comeback, without looking like they posed much threat to actually make it. Through three quarters, McCoughtry had taken 21 shots while the entire Dream squad had just five assists in total, but they were up 64-51 anyway, with Angel obviously leading the way. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective, so who cared?

 

  • But with 6:17 left in regulation, Castro Marques drilled a three that seemed to ignite something in the Sun. The crowd had done little all night besides throw the occasional boo in the direction of McCoughtry, but suddenly they were back in it as their team made a push. They were producing some points in transition, Kelsey Griffin was grabbing a few rebounds for the first time all afternoon, and Atlanta’s lead began to disappear. Offensively, the all-Angel attack was haunting them, as McCoughtry continued to drive into traffic and toss up miss after miss after miss. No one else on the squad was in any rhythm after barely being involved most of the night, but it scarcely mattered. Once the ball reached McCoughtry on the perimeter, it was going up. After Allison Hightower hit a three to cut the deficit to two points with under two minutes left, McCoughtry deigned to try a pass for once – and was so out of practice that it flew beyond the reach of Erika de Souza and went straight out of bounds.

 

  • After trailing by 14 with under seven minutes to play, an 18-3 run was completed with 58 seconds left when Griffin was fouled on a putback finish. She completed the three-point play to give Connecticut their first lead since the opening minutes of the game. But out of a timeout, guess what? Yes, McCoughtry, straight to the rim for two points, and Atlanta back in front.

 

  • After Charles and Hightower both missed, and McCoughtry tossed up yet another brick, the Sun had the ball back with 10 seconds left, trailing by just a point. Castro Marques looked to attack quickly, but Ann Donovan eventually called for a timeout with two seconds left on the clock. Not the greatest time management in the world. Hightower pushed up a three at the buzzer, but it rimmed out and the comeback had come up just short.

 

  • The Dream box score looks like one of those games back when Kobe Bryant was starting alongside four scrubs for the Lakers, between the Shaq and Gasol years. She finished 14-33, tying the WNBA record for shot attempts (although no one else has ever beaten 31 without at least one overtime). Her 34 points dwarfed the rest of the team, none of whom had more than nine. She’d point to the scoreboard, and ask who won the game – and admittedly they want her to lead the offense. Many of their sets revolve around getting her the ball in position to attack. But we can only hope that Atlanta return to a more balanced offense when Lyttle is back in the fold in about a week. They’re a better team when they’re more than just Angel and her McCoughtryteers.

 

  • It was nothing new from Connecticut. Charles finished with reasonable looking numbers of 9-20 for 19 points and 12 rebounds (although the 7 turnovers are ugly), but she amassed them while making remarkably little impact on the game (and earning just one free throw attempt). Surprising production from Griffin (6-9 for 16 points) and Kalana Greene (6-11 for 14) isn’t something you can expect on a regular basis. They way they stuck to the task and kept fighting to the end was admirable, but the losses keep piling up. Like their fellow strugglers in Indiana, it’s been a precipitous fall for the Sun this season after their success last year.

 

 

Tulsa Shock 79 @ Minnesota Lynx 88

  • The lineups were as expected, and the injury report was familiar – 11 available for the Lynx; Cambage and Jackson-Jones in street clothes for the Shock. Tulsa came in off a two-game winning streak, but also after having faced Seattle just 24 hours earlier. Minnesota were looking for a reaction to their dismal performance in Los Angeles on Friday night, where the Sparks took them apart.

 

  • There was a much better start for Seimone Augustus than we’ve seen in several recent Lynx games, with her jumper flowing nicely from the opening seconds. Minnesota also got out on the break a couple of times, creating offense from their defense, something we’ve seen precious little of recently. The Lynx were shooting an exceptionally high percentage from the floor, but behind their usual barrage of threes and the endless activity of Glory Johnson in the paint Tulsa kept hanging around.

 

  • Back-to-back games against Seattle and Minnesota weren’t the easiest way for Courtney Paris to return to the league after being re-signed to fill the spot opened up by moving Kayla Pedersen. Two smart, veteran teams, with coaches who’d clearly prepared their players to attack Paris as soon as she came onto the floor. She makes plays, and she had an impact on this game as a finisher inside – plus she sets some fearsome screens – but her fitness and mobility is still an issue. Teams feel that they can exploit her via the pick-and-roll, either by going right past her or kicking out and anticipating her rotations being too slow to recover. Usually they’re right. It’s still a constant juggling act trying to gain more from having her on the floor than you lose.

 

  • A late 7-0 run, led by the driving of Lindsay Whalen and Monica Wright, then topped off by a Maya Moore three from the corner, allowed Minnesota to go in at the half up 49-40. And that was pretty much where the lead stayed for the entire second half. The Lynx never turned it into a blowout, but they constantly kept the Shock at arm’s length, making plays whenever they needed to in order to maintain their advantage. Tulsa got some good looks around the perimeter – like Seattle, Minnesota’s defense is built around preventing penetration, so the open shots are always most likely to be found around the arc. But the Shock never managed to hit enough of them to become dangerous, and Minnesota eased home.

 

  • It was a comfortable night’s work for the Lynx, always under control, with the perimeter trio of Whalen, Augustus and Moore combining to shoot 20-31 for 63 points. They picked the Shock apart, and back on their own floor they never had any problems. It acts as a starter for a home-and-home with the Sparks that starts on Friday night, which should be a much more appetising entrée.

 

  • Tulsa were never quite in this one after that Lynx run to end the first half, which is nothing to be ashamed of in the second half of a back-to-back in Minnesota. Skylar Diggins is looking increasingly comfortable running their offense, which is a promising sign, even if she still can’t hit a shot to save her life. And while Devereaux Peters earned some extended minutes, it was yet another encounter with Tulsa where the Lynx brain trust were reminded that they could’ve had Glory Johnson instead. Only one of that pair is hearing her name mentioned as an All-Star, and it’s certainly not Devereaux.

 

 

Washington Mystics 69 @ Los Angeles Sparks 79

  • After winning their last two games by a combined 64 points, morale in Los Angeles must’ve been high heading into this one. Their favoured starting five were once again healthy and available to open the game. Washington coach Mike Thibault made some changes, switching Michelle Snow in for Kia Vaughn at center, and finally biting the bullet at shooting guard. Rookie Tayler Hill, the #4 overall pick in this year’s draft, had started every previous game and consistently failed to make an impact. Veteran gunslinger Matee Ajavon took her place.

 

  • We didn’t see quite the same swarming defensive impact from LA in the early going that had highlighted their recent blowout wins, but they pulled out to an early lead anyway. Kristi Toliver’s jumper was falling and Lindsey Harding was attacking the basket for LA, while Washington missed a bunch of jumpers, allowing the Sparks to stretch their advantage.

 

  • The Mystics bench helped them find a foothold in the game, with Hill finding her range and knocking down some shots from outside. Maybe coming off the pine agrees with her. But the energy of Nneka Ogwumike, who looks refreshed since LA kicked into a higher gear in these recent performances, helped the Sparks extend their lead again. LA were looking to run at every opportunity, and far too often a Washington miss led directly to an easy chance at the other end of the floor. The Mystics’ transition defense was deplorable at times – and at others, LA were just too good. At halftime, the Sparks had a 21-0 advantage in fastbreak points, and a 47-37 lead overall.

 

  • Candace Parker topped off that first half with two layups and a block in the final minute, and it’s been nice to see her as a part of the unit in their recent games. She hasn’t felt the need to dominate, and has just made plays when necessary as part of the collective. It’s been refreshing to see, and it must take some of the pressure off her shoulders to let her teammates take on more of the load. She doesn’t need to be point guard and center all at the same time on this team, or take 25 shots. She can let the game come to her.

 

  • LA opened the second half with an energetic 10-0 run to extend their lead to 20, and it looked like we were headed for another Sparks blowout. Thibault had seen enough, and pulled his entire starting lineup off the floor only three minutes into the third quarter. If they weren’t going to put the effort in to compete with LA, he’d find a few players who would.

 

  • Whether the Sparks relaxed, or the Washington backups stepped up – probably a little of both – the Mystics slowly eased back into the game. Hill and fellow rookie Emma Meesseman made some plays, and eventually Thibault sent stars Crystal Langhorne and Ivory Latta back out to join in. Latta had been quiet all night, but Langhorne had been pretty effective in the first half, and she played alongside Meesseman in a dual-power forward lineup for much of the second half. The blitzing defense that LA had shown hints of unleashing in their run to start the second half had faded away and allowed Washington back in.

 

  • But ultimately the gap proved too big to bridge. The Mystics pulled within 8 points on six separate occasions in the fourth quarter, but could never get any closer to really put LA under pressure. The Sparks held on.

 

  • Thibault will have been pleased to see the fight produced by his second unit, in a game that easily could’ve devolved into an ugly blowout. Instead they made it a contest, Hill had her first game of any consequence as a pro, and for a minute or two they gave the Sparks a fright. It’s the third loss in a row for Washington and drops them back to .500, which may bring expectations back to a more realistic level for this squad. It was always meant to be a rebuilding year as they began to turn things around, and that’s still what’s happening. On the bright side, the roadtrip’s over and they get to go home; on a slightly less enticing note, they’ve got a back-to-back with Phoenix and Atlanta starting Thursday night.

 

  • It wasn’t quite the Los Angeles Sparks in full flow that we saw in their two previous appearances, but they were still pretty strong, and they got the job done. Harding’s been aggressive in looking for her own offense lately, while Toliver and Ogwumike have been more involved in the offense, but it’s the defensive pressure that leads to easy points and dominant sequences. With Harding added to the attack, they’re petrifying in transition if they can just create enough opportunities to utilise it. Also, the aggressive, swarming defense hides the holes in their more basic halfcourt structure, because they drop into it less frequently. Starting on Friday, two games against Minnesota and one in Chicago over the space of five days will be a testing examination of their new level of intensity.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Tuesday June 25th (tomorrow):

Indiana @ Atlanta, Noon ET. Atlanta -12 is the line, and despite my general feeling that any double-digit line favours the underdog in this league, I just can’t do it. The Fever are too depleted. I’ll take the Dream to cover.

 

Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. Silver Stars +3.5 on their own floor. Likely still without Appel, you wonder how they’re going to handle Griner, even with Dan Hughes pulling tricks out of his hat. I’ll take the Mercury on the road.

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