Yesterday saw two contrasting games in the WNBA. An early inter-conference game in front of thousands of kids, where the result seemed like virtually a foregone conclusion; and a late game on national TV between two Western Conference rivals that was nip and tuck until the final seconds. Both had their moments, but it’s safe to say that ESPN2 will be happy with their choice.
Indiana made the trip to Atlanta with yet another injury to add to their ridiculous list. Rookie guard Layshia Clarendon tweaked her ankle again at the tail end of their loss to Chicago on Saturday, so she joined Tamika Catchings (back), Katie Douglas (back), Erin Phillips (knee), Jessica Davenport (tibia) and Jeanette Pohlen (ACL) on the sidelines. A team that now has 14 players on their roster thanks to all the exceptions they’ve been granted was down to 8 healthy bodies once again. Atlanta were still without Sancho Lyttle due to her commitments at EuroBasket Women, but after temporarily suspending Lyttle and signing Ruth Riley to fill the hole, they had 11 players available.
The Fever made a change to their starting lineup, after backup center Sasha Goodlett had been unimpressive enough on Saturday to be benched after one start. Jessica Breland moved into the spot. Elsewhere everything was as expected.
Yet again, Angel McCoughtry was the dominant personality in the first quarter. Either she’d heard the comments of people who didn’t appreciate her 33-shot display against Connecticut on Sunday, or her coach had asked her to be a little more unselfish, because she came out looking to pass. She was penetrating and trying to kick out to teammates, rather than constantly flinging up shots. However, some of the passes were horrible and blind, leading to turnovers rather than open looks. And when those plays dissolved, or if she drove and didn’t get the call from the officials she wanted, Angel stood around pouting and whining in traditional McCoughtry style. Barely four minutes into the game, Indiana already led 10-4 and Atlanta had spent multiple defensive possessions playing 4-on-5 while McCoughtry chose bitching over working back in transition. Dream head coach Fred Williams sat her ass down on the bench.
It was 20-12 Fever by the time Williams put McCoughtry back in, late in the first quarter. Karima Christmas and Shavonte Zellous had done a nice job of attacking off the dribble to create points for Indiana, while the Fever’s constant double-teams whenever Erika de Souza touched the ball down low were forcing kick-outs to Dream shooters who couldn’t hit. Of course, Angel’s still Angel – love her one minute, hate her the next. She had an assist and a long jumper before the first quarter was even over to ignite the Dream comeback.
It was the start of a 17-0 run for Atlanta, largely accomplished while McCoughtry was on the floor as the power forward with four bench players. It added speed and aggression to Atlanta’s attack, and with Breland utterly incapable of exploiting McCoughtry’s post defense the Dream benefitted from having an extra shooter on the floor. Rookie guard Courtney Clements got a longer opportunity than she’s received most of the season and showed off her shooting touch, while McCoughtry piled up steals by jumping passing lanes and digging down on post players. Indiana were lucky to pull together enough points to be within 36-30 at halftime.
As Indiana’s limited rotation continued to wear down under the Atlanta onslaught, the Dream began to pull away in the third quarter. The Fever just couldn’t keep up, and it told in the turnover and free throw columns. Too many poor or forced passes from Indiana led to giveaways, and too many Fever defenders who couldn’t quite arrive quickly enough ended up hacking rather than defending. It had been a bitty game from the start with a lot of whistles, which is always a bigger problem for the team that’s undermanned, but fatigue and diminishing belief were just as significant. Lin Dunn tried a 1-2-2 zone late in the third quarter just to shake things up, but by that time her team trailed by 15 and the game was all over bar the shouting. Atlanta coasted through the fourth quarter and eased home for a comfortable 76-60 win.
It’s a little harsh on Shavonte Zellous, who’s done what she can this season, and Karima Christmas had another nice game with her hustle and energy – but the group the Fever are putting on the floor right now is almost a WNBA D-League team. If such a league existed. Take any basketball team you like, in any league in the world, and remove six rotation players, including the team’s two key leaders and a third starter – they’ll probably be terrible. If Catchings and Douglas can come back remotely soon, they might squeak out some wins before further reinforcements arrive. But this bunch are going to be heavy underdogs against basically any WNBA team who show up.
Once McCoughtry stopped acting like a whiny five-year old, Atlanta were the better team by a mile and Angel was their leading light. Instead of 33 shots she took just 10, producing 16 points, 4 assists, and a career-high 7 steals. The rest of the scoring was spread all across the roster, with everyone chipping in. It produced a much more pleasing spectacle, and ultimately a much easier win than in Sunday’s squeaker against the Sun. Let’s hope we see more Dream games like this, rather than the stream of me-first basketball from Sunday.
Quick, hit mute, Carolyn Peck’s on!
The late game saw the Phoenix Mercury take a trip to Texas to face the San Antonio Silver Stars, this time with Brittney Griner in uniform. Last time ESPN sent their cameras to a Mercury game, Griner’s knee kept her on the sidelines. She’s not quite all the way back yet, but they’re progressively increasing her minutes, and she’s getting plenty of chances to show off her skills.
Both teams stuck with the same starting lineup that they’d used in their previous games, which for San Antonio meant Danielle Adams at center again. Regular starting pivot Jayne Appel continues to sit in street clothes due to a concussion, right next to Becky Hammon and Sophia Young. On the bright side, Hammon is reportedly hoping to return in about 10 days, which would give San Antonio a boost.
The battle between Griner and Adams was the most intriguing matchup from the early minutes. Adams has some experience trying to defend Griner from their college days at Texas A&M and Baylor, and she did a solid Appel-impression in the early stages – stay strong, stand straight-up, and make it tough for the opposing post to score around you. At the other end, Adams’s range gave Phoenix some difficulty all night, when they failed to pick her up around the three-point line. Griner often fades back into the paint looking to play help defense, losing track of her individual assignment and leaving players like Adams open. The rookie phenom’s a scary prospect if you try to enter the paint and score past her, but she does need to be aware that some bigs in the pros can hit from outside. Preventing any chance of a layup is good, but conceding wide open threes as a result is a bit of a drawback.
San Antonio pulled out to a small lead late in the first quarter, behind the speed and penetration of Danielle Robinson. Phoenix have a lot of length on the perimeter, but they don’t really have anyone who can handle Robinson’s quickness, and at times that showed. But between Griner starting to find some rhythm on her finishes inside and Diana Taurasi starting to heat up around the perimeter, Phoenix were quickly back on top in the second quarter. Griner even blew a dunk, only to show the wherewithal to grab the rebound and quickly drop the short jumper back in. San Antonio were settling for an endless stream of jump shots, which happens with them at the best of times, but the presence of Griner was obviously making it even less likely that they’d venture into the paint. With Jia Perkins and Shenise Johnson both particularly cold, the Mercury pulled away to a 43-33 halftime advantage. For San Antonio, the one highlight of a second quarter they lost 25-7 was when Shameka Christon came across from the blind side to reject a Griner turnaround.
However, as much as Phoenix had dominated the second quarter, San Antonio came out of the locker room and dominated the third. Perkins rediscovered her jump shot while Robinson continued to attack off the dribble, and the offense for Phoenix dried up. As always, especially against the Mercury, it was all interconnected. When the Silver Stars were bricking all those jumpers, long rebounds resulted and the Mercury could attack quickly in transition. Even if you end up dropping the ball down to Griner on the block, pushing the ball quickly down the floor can often find her in better position down low. But once San Antonio started making some shots, Mercury possessions were beginning with inbound passes from under their own basket, and San Antonio had time to set their defense. By the end of the third, the Silver Stars had wiped out Phoenix’s advantage and taken a 56-53 lead.
San Antonio were still narrowly ahead when Griner returned with 7:30 left in the game. At that stage, she had 12 points on 6-14 shooting – a solid but unspectacular return that the opposing team would happily live with. The problem is that, as San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes has told us many times, Danielle Adams isn’t really in shape to play more than 20-25 minutes a night – especially when she’s battling Griner throughout those minutes. And while Hughes has used rookie center Kayla Alexander this season, he really doesn’t trust her yet. So we saw Griner leading the Phoenix charge by first shooting over Adams, then spinning past her and heading to the free throw line when Adams hacked her from behind. Then Griner added in a layup when Taurasi drove and dumped off past a static Adams. With 4:29 left in a five-point game, Hughes went super-small, benching Adams and playing DeLisha Milton-Jones at center, with Christon sliding over to power forward. These are the options left when Appel and Young are on the sidelines and the one remaining post you trust has the stamina of a regular smoker.
To be fair to the Silver Stars, their tiny lineup did a solid job keeping the game alive. They were conceding points, but the additional speed and perimeter shooting was getting them back at the other end. Adams returned, and then was quickly re-benched after a silly perimeter foul on Taurasi. More Griner layups ensued, but San Antonio gave themselves a prayer in the final moments. A transition three from Perkins cut a seven-point deficit to just four with 39 seconds remaining. They chose not to foul, and a Charde Houston miss resulted in a long rebound that broke Shenise Johnson the other way – only for her badly miss a wide-open left-handed layup. The ball didn’t even hit iron, just caroming off the glass and back into Taurasi’s hands. That was the ballgame, with a pair of Taurasi free throws completing an 83-77 Mercury victory.
It was a pretty solid, balanced performance from San Antonio, considering the missing players and the cold shooting of Perkins and Johnson for much of the night. Robinson was a little hit-or-miss with her mid-range pullup as well, but finished 7-14 for 15 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists. They’re still a fun team to watch, and they put in the work – they’re just a little short on options, especially down low.
And the Mercury finally have a weapon in the paint to attack that weakness. Griner finished the game 11-19 for 26 points, 7 boards and 5 blocks – including 5-5 from the floor for 14 in the final period. The truly scary thing is how much room Griner still has for improvement. She ran one lovely pick-and-roll with Taurasi that produced an easy layup at the rim, but she’s clearly still learning how to run that basic play effectively on a consistent basis. She’s not a great rebounder, because she’s always looking to block shots rather than establish rebounding position. She gets lost in space at times defensively. And yet, she patrols the paint and comes up with some of the most comprehensive blocks you’re ever likely to see. She extended out to Adams a couple of times at the three-point line, and blocked a shot or two that it looked like she could never get close to. She’s got such lovely footwork inside and such impressive touch that sometimes defenders just quit. She’s getting there, and her teammates are starting to learn how to use her.
Meanwhile, Taurasi flirted with a triple-double, finishing 5-12 for 18 points, 9 boards and 8 assists. DeWanna Bonner continues to shoot horrendously from outside, but fortunately is looking to drive more and use her length at the rim for higher-percentage looks. They’re even getting decent complementary minutes from the likes of Charde Houston and Briana Gilbreath – Houston has somehow become a much better passer since joining the shoot-first Mercury. Yeah, it’s a mystery to me too. That ugly 0-3 start is becoming a distant memory for this Mercury squad.
Griner was ‘drafted’ by the Harlem Globetrotters, and politely said “thanks, but no thanks”. A publicity stunt that deserves little attention.
Wednesday June 26th (today – already completed):
New York @ Chicago, 12.30pm. I took New York +9 (more evidence that I don’t try to change these picks after the fact). Coverage of this game will be arriving at WNBAlien shortly).
Thursday June 27th (tomorrow):
Phoenix @ Washington, 7pm ET. Washington +4.5 is the early line, and I’ll take the Mercury to continue their road winning streak by more than that. Even with just one day’s rest.