After the single relaxing blowout on Saturday, the WNBA threw another quad-game slate at us on Sunday, with matchups staggered throughout afternoon. Once more, it’s a Bullet Point Breakdown to take a look at the key moments and topics raised by all four.
Indiana Fever 60 @ Washington Mystics 64
- It never rains but it pours. With Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen all still sidelined for Indiana, rookie guard Layshia Clarendon joined them due to an ankle injury suffered late in their previous game. Karima Christmas moved into the starting lineup, and the Fever were down to eight healthy bodies again, with emergency addition Erin Thorn the only perimeter backup. Washington had everyone available.
- It wasn’t a pretty first half. Both teams shot mid-30% from the field – which isn’t good in anybody’s book – and both fouled far too often on jumpshooters. Ivory Latta hit a couple from deep, while Crystal Langhorne amazingly didn’t take a single shot in the opening 20 minutes.
- Indiana are still fighting, despite being understrength. Their smaller players were repeatedly hitting the deck as they dropped down on switches and fought with far bigger Mystics posts. Christmas isn’t a particularly skilled offensive player, but she’ll make little glue plays and come up with hustle stats that you don’t get from everyone. But they’re so thin, and the offensive weapons just aren’t there. It’s a little sad, after the fabulous playoff run just eight months ago.
- The Fever double-teams were hassling Langhorne whenever the ball found her down low, but there was a clear effort from the Mystics to get her involved offensively in the second half. In her early years it would’ve been easier to keep her quiet, but these days she can step outside and hit a mid-range jumper or drive from the elbow. That at least got her into the game in the second half.
It’s fair to say that last night’s sole WNBA game was not a classic. In fact, when one team quits barely halfway through, it doesn’t exactly encourage people like myself to spend much time writing about it. But if you’re going to cover an entire season, even games like this fall under the umbrella. So here goes. Just don’t expect me to like it.
After an ugly second half in Phoenix the night before, the Los Angeles Sparks flew home looking to bounce back. It was a soulless, rather lazy performance against the Mercury, so Carol Ross clearly wanted a response from her squad. They had to make do without point guard Lindsey Harding, who took a smack to the face late in the third quarter in Phoenix, and was held out of this game as a result (after many viewings of the replay, I’m still not sure if Lynetta Kizer hit Harding from in front, or if Diana Taurasi’s wild swipe caught her from behind). It turned out to be a straight swap in the backcourt, as Alana Beard returned after missing a couple of games due to an ankle injury.
San Antonio had yet more injury problems. After working without Sophia Young and Becky Hammon in every game so far (Young’s done for the year, Hammon is still weeks away from returning from her broken finger), now they had another starter on the sidelines. After a clash of heads in practice, center Jayne Appel was out, replaced in the starting lineup by Danielle Adams. A post rotation that already looked dangerously limited was now becoming even thinner. If you can say that about a frontcourt involving Adams.
There were problems for San Antonio from the start, but they managed to keep the game mildly competitive through the first half. It was immediately apparent how open the lane was with Adams in the middle rather than Appel. The regular Silver Stars pivot takes a lot of criticism for the things she doesn’t do – score, or even make anyone pay attention to her on the offensive end – but they missed the things she does do. Like fill the paint, and play some interior defense. Adams doesn’t mind dropping into the trenches offensively or fighting on the boards, and she’s a more agile one-on-one defender than you’d expect, but the help defense drops off dramatically when she replaces Appel. There was just so much more space inside for LA, which led to easy lanes to the bucket, and gaps for Nneka Ogwumike to exploit for offensive boards and cuts to the hoop. When Adams sat down, leaving rookie center Kayla Alexander at center and sometimes Shameka Christon at power forward, things only got worse. Dan Hughes has pulled off some alchemy getting his team to compete this season, but there’s only so much he can do.
Another quadruple-header in the WNBA last night, as the bizarre roller-coaster schedule threw up a heavy evening of basketball. Back to the Bullet Point Breakdown to take a look at them all.
Connecticut Sun 68 @ New York Liberty 78
- The Sun were still without the services of Renee Montgomery and Tan White due to injury, while New York once again had just nine healthy bodies with Essence Carson done for the year and Cheryl Ford still yet to make an appearance. In fact, it emerged after the game that the Liberty will be cutting Ford this weekend, after coming to the conclusion that her knees just weren’t going to allow her to play for them. That will allow New York to add another player, but it’s a disappointing end for a player who was expected to at least contribute after returning to the WNBA for the first time since 2009.
- This was a contest that embodied an oft-repeated cliché in my part of the world: it was a game of two halves. The first ‘half’ lasted through the opening 23 minutes of gametime (I know that doesn’t technically make much sense – work with me here). Through those 23 minutes, the Liberty offense was an ugly mess, repeatedly turning the ball over. Cappie Pondexter missed her first seven shots of the game, being essentially shut down by Kalana Greene, as the Liberty shot 28% as a team. Kara Lawson was left open far too often to hit shots for the Sun. And the only thing keeping the Liberty in the game was that they’d managed to keep Tina Charles very quiet.
- After her 30-point explosion on Wednesday night against Indiana, Charles found life a lot more difficult against New York. Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone both offered bigger and taller opposition than she faced against the Fever, and with the Liberty sending plenty of help as well the Sun’s star center never found any rhythm.
- But with Connecticut moving the ball around better than New York, and their role players joining Lawson to knock down some shots and generate offense elsewhere, the Sun had built a 40-32 lead when the game-changing sequence occurred. Charles picked up her third foul while fighting with Bone for position in the paint; then added her fourth seconds later on a soft call as Katie Smith tried to drive along the baseline. Only a few minutes into the second half, Charles went to the bench and stayed there for the rest of the third quarter.
Last night’s game was not quite what ESPN2 were expecting when they put this matchup on their schedule. Connecticut were meant to be the team that lost just nine games in the regular season last year. Indiana were supposed to be the squad that fought through the 2012 playoffs to earn a championship. Instead, this rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finalists saw a clash between two 1-3 teams, both beset by injuries and still trying to get their 2013 campaigns on the right track. Rather than fighting it out at the top of the East, as these two were throughout last season, this was a battle to stay out of the basement.
The Sun started the season knowing winning would be a little more difficult, due to the absence of Asjha Jones. Then in recent weeks they’ve also lost Renee Montgomery and Tan White to injury, and Kara Lawson missed their last game as well. Fortunately for Connecticut, Lawson’s back had recovered enough to allow her to face the Fever. They also had Iziane Castro Marques and Sydney Carter available for the first time, after roster moves during the week.
For Indiana it’s becoming a repetitive story. Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen are all out and aren’t expected to return for a while yet. And unlike Lawson, Katie Douglas’s back continued to keep her on the sidelines. So that’s four of the Fever’s top-eight rotation players, including Tamika Catchings’s primary sidekick – it’s not hard to see why Indiana have been struggling.
Despite that, there were a couple of positive early moments for the Fever. Their two opening buckets of the game came via drive-and-kick penetration, leading to Briann January draining a pair of threes. January has really struggled so far this season, limited by the lack of weapons for her to find around the floor. With so many important players out you hope remaining pieces – like January – can step up their game and produce more to compensate. She’s been as solid as ever defensively, but offensively that hasn’t really happened. And unfortunately for the Fever, those early threes turned out to be her only points last night. So much for the positive start.
Last night saw just one WNBA matchup on the schedule, and once again the Minnesota Lynx took to the floor just an hour before an NBA Finals game tipped off. Unlike last week, this one was still a contest at halftime and forced fans to make a choice – or continually flip backwards and forth from one to the other. Archived video can also be your friend.
For once there were no real injury details to delve into before the tip – Becky Hammon and Sophia Young are still missing for San Antonio, but at this point that’s old news. The starting fives were as expected.
The opening possession of the game had an amusing quirk, as Minnesota dropped into a zone defense for no particular reason. It wasn’t something we saw again for the rest of the night. Dan Hughes and Cheryl Reeve know each other so well (Reeve was a Hughes assistant back in his Cleveland Rockers days) that it almost felt like Cheryl was just throwing it in for comedy effect. The very first move in the chess match between the coaches was openly declaring “yeah, I know, we’re probably not going to surprise each other without being completely ridiculous”.
San Antonio continued their pattern from this season of using Jia Perkins on the opposing point guard defensively, sliding Danielle Robinson over to take the shooting guard. In Minnesota’s case, that immediately creates what looks like a physical mismatch. Seimone Augustus is significantly bigger both in terms of height and sheer bulk, but Robinson has become adept at using her speed and agility to stay with bigger players and make life very difficult for them. That’s presumably why Hughes continues to use her on wing players, when the more natural physical matchups would leave her on point guards.
Through an odd quirk of the WNBA schedule, Sunday saw two matchups that offered quick opportunities to avenge losses. After losing on the road on Friday night, both the New York Liberty and Chicago Sky were back home 48 hours later facing the same opponents again. It might be a dish best served cold, but sometimes it can be nice to get your own back while the feelings are still warm in the memory.
The Liberty had a little extra motivation, but a more limited roster than they started with on Friday. Essence Carson went down during that game, and by the time the rematch tipped off she’d been officially diagnosed with a torn ACL that ends her season. Still without Cheryl Ford due to her persistent knee issues, New York were down to nine players for this one. Veteran Katie Smith moved into the starting lineup for Carson. Atlanta were unchanged.
Both of these teams have star wing players who’ve been struggling to hit shots in their early games this season. Angel McCoughtry’s been successful in other areas, and her team’s been winning, but she came into this game shooting 37% from the field; Cappie Pondexter was just a tick lower at 36%. Both of them spent the vast majority of this game tossing up bricks that dropped those percentages even lower. It led to some ugly basketball at times, because neither of them is going to stop shooting. McCoughtry in particular tried her best to get to the rim – something she always needs to accomplish to be effective – but struggled to get there. Katie Smith and Alex Montgomery shared the defensive assignment, and with lots of help from their teammates they managed to keep her away from the basket. McCoughtry looked more and more frustrated as the game went on, expecting calls from the officials when she created contact and not drawing anywhere near as many as she would’ve liked.
Yesterday was a strange day of basketball. We had the underperforming preseason favourites playing without their prized rookie due to injury – and finally winning a game. Then the Western champs of the last two years barely showed up for their first road game, after looking dominant at home. And finally a tight contest that went to overtime and still managed to be painful to watch. All on the day that ESPN debuted their vertigo-inducing Ref-cam. Let’s get to the games.
Phoenix Mercury 82 @ Indiana Fever 67
- The big news before tip-off was that Brittney Griner was out with a sprained left knee, continuing a long line of nationally televised WNBA games where star players were on the sidelines for one reason or another. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines told a story after the first quarter about Griner being examined 25 minutes before tip-off and the doctor saying it “wouldn’t be wise for her to play”, but after so much nonsense and disinformation from the Mercury organisation over the last couple of years, it barely seems worth listening. Inevitably, conspiracy theories immediately began springing up among the fans – including the idea that Gaines is so incompetent at working out how to use Griner, he just decided to sit her. That seems distinctly unlikely, but hey, if watching the team play without her leads to improvement when she returns, maybe it was a stroke of genius.
- Alexis Hornbuckle was out as well with her own ankle sprain, leaving Gaines to push Briana Gilbreath into the starting lineup. That was another level of embarrassment for second-year point guard Samantha Prahalis, who was expected to be the starting point guard (and did indeed start their first two games before being benched). Now Prahalis couldn’t even make the starting group with two more rotation players in street clothes.
- Indiana, of course, had their own considerable injury problems. Katie Douglas’s back had taken her out of this game, alongside Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen. The signing of Erin Thorn added a little extra depth, but they’re struggling for useable bodies at this point.
- The positive angle for Phoenix was that without Griner they could stop worrying about how to integrate her into the team and the offense, and find a way back to their old run-and-gun style. It didn’t really work for most of the first half. Indiana helped them out by missing a swathe of layups, and rookie guard Layshia Clarendon continues to look like she needs more development before being anywhere near ready for the role she’s being asked to play, but the Fever still scrambled their way out to a 38-30 lead late in the first half. The Mercury were whining endlessly to the officials, with Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree both picking up technicals, but the only place they were on top was the glass. Otherwise, they looked like a cross between the poor team of the first three games, and the mess we saw last season.
- But instead of losing their composure, the bitching and moaning about perceived slights from the referees appeared to ignite the Mercury. At least that attitude, especially from Taurasi, shows a level of energy and investment that hasn’t really been in evidence in previous games. They finally looked like they gave a crap. A 7-0 run took them in at halftime down by just a point.
A quad-game night in the WNBA on Friday, which means we’re keeping things bare bones and going straight to the Bullet Point Breakdown.
Washington Mystics 66 @ Connecticut Sun 62
- The story for this game was supposed to be Mike Thibault’s return to Connecticut, the franchise he led for nearly a decade. That was overshadowed slightly by the Sun’s injury woes. Already struggling to plug the gap left by Asjha Jones skipping the season, Renee Montgomery (ankle sprain) and Tan White (broken finger) are now expected to miss several weeks. Making things worse, star guard Kara Lawson also missed this game with a sore back. That pushed Natasha Lacy – their 11th woman a couple of games ago – into the starting lineup.
- The viewers had plenty of problems with this one as well. It was the first game this season to suffer under ‘technical difficulties’ on WNBA’s LiveAccess, and there are still only 15 minutes of game time available via the archive (frustratingly the first 15 minutes of the second half – so the closing stages are cut off). So there aren’t going to be a lot of details in this review.
- After what looks from the numbers to be a pretty ugly first half (the Sun led 30-29 at the break), Connecticut managed to claw out a lead that reached 10 points midway through the third quarter. They were still up by 9 in the middle of the fourth when Thibault called a timeout. He’d been trying the post combination of rookie Emma Meesseman and star forward Crystal Langhorne, which led to some difficulties in checking Tina Charles. Meesseman tried her best, and the Mystics sent plenty of help, but it illustrated some of the reasons why Thibault’s been reluctant to use that pairing in previous games. Veteran center Michelle Snow came back into the game at that timeout, and the Mystics ran off a 15-2 streak in the final 6:20 of the game – Charles didn’t take a single shot in that entire stretch.
Only one game in the WNBA last night. The solitary contest started just an hour before Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipped off, which seemed like an unfortunate bit of scheduling, but our game in Minnesota was over as a contest in plenty of time for fans to switch focus. Which tells you everything you need to know about how uncompetitive this game turned out to be.
We haven’t seen much of the Lynx so far this season. They’d played just one game in the opening 13 days, although that glimpse resulted in a dominating win over Connecticut. Their visitors, the Phoenix Mercury, had dropped both their games so far and looked pretty awful in the process. A visit to Minnesota is rarely the best way to reverse a losing slide in the WNBA.
The Lynx lined up for the opening tip as expected, with Janel McCarville joining the remaining four regulars, but there was a change for Phoenix. Second-year point guard Samantha Prahalis, who’s had a rocky start to the season (although that’s true of most of the Mercury roster), was benched in favour of wing Charde Houston. That slid Diana Taurasi over to the point guard spot, somewhere she can play but not her most comfortable position. She’s such a key part of their scoring punch that you don’t really want Taurasi bringing the ball up the floor and trying to initiate the offense on every possession. It’s also a switch that can’t help Prahalis’s confidence. The move by Mercury head coach Corey Gaines was essentially singling her out, when the whole team had performed poorly in their opening games.
It’s possible that the change in opening lineup was connected with the change in defensive approach that the Mercury tried in this game. They were attempting to trap on ball-screens – a move where both defensive players try to challenge the ballhandler aggressively when she goes around a pick. It’s not something Phoenix have done much of in the past, and certainly not something they were doing a few days earlier in Seattle. Using Houston instead of Prahalis put a longer player on the floor, who theoretically would have more chance to disrupt the ballhandler and block passing lanes on those traps. But obviously, aggressive double-teaming like that leaves a 4-on-3 behind the trap if the offensive player can pass off to a teammate, and in particular it leaves the original screener wide open unless help rotates over quickly. The Mercury have been a terrible defensive team for years, and they especially struggle to ‘help the helper’, i.e. making the secondary rotation to cover open gaps. Plus they were trying this new strategy against one of the smartest and most unselfish teams in the league. Unsurprisingly, the Mercury got torn apart, as passes beat the traps and Minnesota exploited the space.
Yesterday saw our first Camp Day game of the year – which means an unusually early tip-off time, thousands of screaming kids that make regulars wish thunder sticks had never been invented, and often players who seem like they’ve barely woken up. The New York Liberty were still without Cheryl Ford due to knee pain, while Indiana added yet another injury to their growing casualty list. With Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen all out for some time, Katie Douglas missed this one as well due to a back problem. That left the Fever down to eight healthy bodies, pushing rookie guard Layshia Clarendon into the starting lineup.
The Liberty took advantage of Clarendon replacing Douglas by putting star guard Cappie Pondexter on Clarendon defensively for most of the game – thereby hiding Pondexter on someone who wouldn’t give her too much work to do, and who couldn’t exploit her occasional defensive lapses. The Fever cross-matched, detailing Briann January to harass Pondexter throughout the contest. But the difference between the teams in the early stages didn’t have much to do with anything as complicated as matchups or assignments – it essentially boiled down to shooting. The Liberty couldn’t hit a damn thing from outside however open they might have been, while the Fever were knocking down perimeter jumpers whenever they rotated the ball out to their shooters. With Shavonte Zellous and Tamika Catchings doing all the scoring, Indiana held a 22-8 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
The Fever lead was still in double-digits when matters appeared to get even worse for the Liberty midway through the second quarter. Kara Braxton had already been getting embarrassingly outworked by Erlana Larkins on the glass, and then in the fight for another one inadvertently elbowed teammate Plenette Pierson in the face. Pierson went down and stayed down for a while, eventually being helped off the court by the trainer. She returned later to sit on the bench, but never made it back into the game. With Ford injured and rookie Toni Young essentially unable to play in the post at this level, that left just Braxton and Kelsey Bone as recognised post players available for New York. Veteran jack-of-all-trades Katie Smith – who’s played everything from point guard to power forward in her first three games as a member of the Liberty – was called upon to step in as an emergency ‘post’. Of course, against Indiana, that also brings with it the assignment of guarding Tamika Catchings.