Two oddly similar games in the WNBA last night. There were a grand total of zero lead changes in either game, but both drifted along for much of the evening while threatening to become competitive, without ever quite managing it. It was a meandering night of basketball, that never quite took off.
The first game to tip off was in Connecticut, where the Sun played host to the Phoenix Mercury. Connecticut continue to work without Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery and Tan White, leaving Iziane Castro Marques to start once again at shooting guard. With Asjha Jones taking the year off, the frontcourt was supposed to be the Sun’s big problem this year – as it turns out, they’ve had just as much trouble with their guards. Phoenix had the same starting lineup that’s been successful recently, and came in having won six of their last seven games. They also had a nice surprise for everyone available off the bench.
The early minutes suggested Tina Charles was energised for her first professional clash with Brittney Griner, as we saw more direct attacking in the post from Charles than has been evident in her play this season. She was going right at the rookie, trying to prove that there were already some pretty talented centers in the WNBA before the mega-hyped youngster arrived. Early on, Charles also had the benefit of Phoenix leaving Griner isolated to defend Charles straight-up, rather than the endless double and triple-teams that have been sent her way this season. However, even Corey Gaines and the Mercury aren’t that dumb defensively, and the double-teams quickly started to arrive.
Phoenix’s offense was unsurprisingly led by Diana Taurasi, continuing to illustrate her awesome scoring ability and her willingness to create, which helped Candice Dupree join the scoring. One no-look feed that led Dupree in for an easy layup was particularly pretty.
Then, mid-way through the first quarter, a sight for sore eyes. Mercury forward Penny Taylor made her first appearance on a basketball court for well over a year, after blowing out her knee while playing in Europe. Every fan of women’s basketball will be delighted to see such a skilled player back on the floor, even (begrudgingly) the coaches who’ll now have to handle an even more talented Mercury squad. Considering she hadn’t played for 15 months or so, Taylor looked pretty good. Phoenix ran an immediate flex-cut for her to get a touch inside, and while she didn’t convert that chance she was quickly on the scoreboard after driving by Kelly Faris to draw a foul. Welcome back, Penny.
The game itself ground to a halt in the second quarter, as both teams failed miserably to produce points. A constant stream of bricks bounced off the iron at both ends as the energy completely dissipated from the game. Phoenix led 38-32 at halftime despite shooting 35% in the first half – Connecticut were at 27%.
It got much, much worse in the second half. Not in terms of point production, which technically improved, but the entertainment value dropped through the floor. The officials started blowing up for every possible foul, and neither team adjusted in the slightest, so we were treated to an endless parade of stoppages and free throws. It was mind-numbing. After shooting a total of 22 free throws in eight games this season – a figure that illustrated how passively she’d been playing – Tina Charles tied the WNBA record for free-throw attempts in a single game with 24. Griner and backup Krystal Thomas were in enough foul trouble that Lynetta Kizer even got some minutes, and she immediately started racking up fouls as well.
Ultimately, it made little difference. When she could get shots off before being double-teamed or fouled, Charles was missing repeatedly, and there was no help coming from anywhere else. With three scoring guards injured, and a weakness at forward we all knew about before the season began, Connecticut just don’t have the weapons. Between free throws and the finishing of Taurasi, Dupree and DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix had more than enough to hold on. Their lead was never below 10 after they pushed it to double-digits early in the third quarter, and they held on pretty comfortably for an 89-70 victory.
It was a game where Phoenix got the job done, without being allowed to show off much of their typically free-flowing offense. As the 44-18 advantage in points in the paint illustrated, when the referees kept their whistles quiet long enough to let a play develop, the Mercury were piercing Connecticut’s defense fairly effectively. And beyond all else, they got Taylor back into the action. She only played 13 minutes, and they’ll ease her back in slowly, but it’s another boost to a team that was already back in the flow even without her.
Charles finished with a bizarre stat-line: 3-18 from the floor, but 19-24 from the free throw line to take her to 25 points and 13 rebounds on the night. There were still too many long jumpers and fadeaways – neither of which are dropping with any consistency at all – but at least she was drawing fouls. That hasn’t happened much this year. Allison Hightower was 5-16 for 13 points as the only other Sun player in double-digits, and this team is in desperate need of an offensive injection. They’re going nowhere right now.
From Fouls to Fowles
The second game last night was a highly anticipated clash between the Chicago Sky and Los Angeles Sparks, pitting rookie forward Elena Delle Donne against Candace Parker for the first time. Parker might be the most similar player we’ve seen to Delle Donne’s skill set, so it was always going to be interesting to see them on the same floor. This also promised to be a test for both teams. Chicago had compiled a strong 6-3 record, but offered up several recent performances that suggested their offense still needed work. LA had dominated some games at home and looked outstanding in a couple of blowouts, but were yet to win a single road game and were beaten handily by Minnesota the previous night.
The key to those big LA wins was their trapping, high-energy defense, which created turnovers and chances to push in transition. They tried that once or twice against Chicago, but it produces real problems for the Sparks when it doesn’t work. Obviously, if you try to trap a ballhandler with a double-team, you’re playing 3-on-4 defense elsewhere on the floor. So if the offensive player successfully moves the ball out of the trap, you have to rotate and help to cover the gaps. LA’s help defense is still distinctly poor. Candace Parker is an easy example to use – she can defend an individual straight up fairly successfully if that’s all that’s asked of her, but she’s constantly late, or lazy, or flat-out invisible when she needs to slide over to fill a hole that’s opened up in the team defense. And Parker’s just a lightning rod for that criticism because she’s an athletic superstar you hope could do better – the whole Sparks squad is pretty bad at it. So Chicago were finding far too many good looks in the early minutes, and LA weren’t creating the fastbreak chances they thrive upon.
Those poor rotations also lead to free throws for the opposing team, because when you arrive late you tend to reach in or draw blocking fouls as the opposing player tries to score. Chicago were doing an unusually efficient job of looking for Sylvia Fowles in the paint, and she was either finishing or heading to the line. She was also contributing on the offensive boards, gaining extra energy from being involved in the offense, leading to easy putback chances. Then, late in the first half, disaster struck for the Sky. Fowles went up looking for another offensive rebound, and came down on Candace Parker’s foot. Fowles twisted her right ankle nastily, and had to hop back to the locker rooms to be examined and x-rayed. Ultimately she re-emerged in the second half, but only with the aid of crutches and an air-cast immobilising her right foot. For the Sky’s sake, hopefully it won’t be a long-term problem.
LA’s offense isn’t nearly as smooth when they’re forced to play in the halfcourt rather than push and create quick looks, but between some nice finishing from Parker and some bench help from Jantel Lavender and A’dia Mathies, the Sparks were only down 47-41 at the half. Chicago were left with some awkward matchups thanks to Fowles’s injury. Backup post Michelle Campbell started the second half, but it was Swin Cash who was tasked with handling Parker for the remainder of the game. Cash gives up some size to Parker, but she did an impressive job of battling the Sparks’ star. Nneka Ogwumike’s minutes were limited by foul trouble all night, but it was the introduction of Lavender that created the real matchup issues for the Sky anyway. Delle Donne struggled on the few possessions where she tried to handle Lavender down low, which left Pokey Chatman messing around with big lineups and finding somewhere to put Delle Donne defensively. The rookie took her turns on Parker when necessary, and didn’t get embarrassed, while also playing her part in the team effort on the glass. Chicago sometimes seem to leave Fowles alone to handle the rebounding, but with her on the sidelines they outfought LA in the second half with a collective approach that got the job done.
Not for the first time this season, Chicago’s lead started to fade away in the stretch from late in the third quarter through the early minutes of the fourth. It’s the period where Chatman tries to find some rest for her stars, and with Delle Donne, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot all spending some time on the bench, an 11-point lead came down to two. From there, Chatman went big, with backup center Carolyn Swords alongside Delle Donne and Cash in the frontcourt. It gave them more of a presence inside, and LA started settling for perimeter jumpshots again. Behind the offense of Delle Donne and the surprisingly effective Vandersloot, Chicago restored their advantage and held on to the final buzzer. They had some problems handling the full-court pressure that LA used to try to get back in it, and the Sparks started fouling very early to extend the game (and the tedium), but it was ultimately a fairly comfortable finish to a 94-82 Sky win.
While LA never performed to their best, it was an impressive performance from Chicago. They did a better job of using Fowles in the first half, and manufactured enough offense from various avenues to complete the task in the second half. Their defense is so straightforward that it sometimes gets overlooked, but it’s consistently strong. No gimmicks, limited switching – they work hard, contain off picks while fighting around to recover, and help when necessary. It’s just solid. Offensively they produced the unlikely sight of a zero in the turnover column in the first half (there was one team turnover, via a shot clock violation) – which is a considerable achievement considering their turnover problems over the years. Vandersloot did an impressive job staying in front of Lindsey Harding throughout the game, limiting Harding’s offensive production, while running the team at the other end. There were a few shaky moments towards the end of the game, but Vandersloot seems to be settling into her role a little better this season. Chatman hasn’t even been benching her for the slightest error this year.
LA’s road woes continue, and it’s not hard to see the problems. The help defense isn’t quick or reactive enough, leaving gaps behind when they try to trap, and their frequent switching is being exploited by opponents who’ve now come to expect it. At the other end teams are clogging the lane, and when Harding and Toliver shoot a combined 2-16 it’s hard to break that. Parker settled for a few too many long jumpers over the course of the game as well. This is still a dangerous squad on their night, and they’re clearly a playoff team in the West, but they’ve got plenty of things to work on over the rest of the regular season.
Sunday June 30th (today):
San Antonio @ Atlanta, 3pm ET. The line for this one is at Atlanta -12.5, and the news that DeLisha Milton-Jones (shin splints) and Shenise Johnson (sprained knee) have joined San Antonio’s injury list only strengthens the Dream’s position. I hate taking double-digit favourites, but it’s hard to expect what’s left of the Silver Stars to cover anything. So I’ll give up the points and take Atlanta.
Tulsa @ Washington, 4pm ET. Mystics -4.5 is the line, and it feels like a toss-up. I’ll take Washington to break their losing streak and win by more than that.
Seattle @ Indiana, 6pm ET. Indiana -5.5 shows too much belief in the Fever for me, despite Catchings’s return. I’ll take Seattle to cover.