WNBA Today, 06/12/2013: Lynx made to work hard for victory over Silver Stars

 

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/10/2013: Revenge a dish best served warm for Liberty and Sky

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/09/2013: Merc off the mark, Mystics pull an upset, and more OT misery for Shock

 

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/08/2013: Pleasant homecoming for Thibault as injuries continue to take their toll around the WNBA

 

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.

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WNBA Today, 06/07/2013: Moribund Mercury mauled by merciless Minnesota

 

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 06/06/2013: Liberty fight off what’s left of the Fever

 

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.

 

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WNBAlien Feature: Trading Tina Thompson

 

Last week saw one of the legends of the WNBA, the sole remaining player from 1997’s inaugural season, announce that this would be her final year. Tributes and glowing assessments of Tina Thompson’s career rightfully flooded in, but because I’m an unsentimental soul my first thought was “does this make it more or less likely that she’ll be traded?” On reflection, it seems like the retirement announcement probably doesn’t make much difference – there was always a strong chance that this was her last season anyway, so any move for her would’ve been primarily about what she could offer in 2013. But it does seem like an appropriate time to look at whether Seattle might find a new home for Tina before the trade deadline on August 15th.

 

Before we look at where she might fit, a few elements that make the possibility worth examining:

a) The Seattle Storm aren’t winning a championship this year. Thompson herself made some noises in preseason about whether Seattle was where she still wanted to be. She signed on for two years, expecting to make championship runs alongside Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. She ended up on a squad that suffered through all kinds of injury issues in 2012, and now is missing both Bird and Jackson for the entire 2013 season. While there was a hard-fought win over the ballyhooed Phoenix Mercury on Sunday night, this is a rebuilding year for the Storm without their two superstars. If they make the playoffs it’ll be a surprise to many, and developing their young players is really a bigger priority than wins. That makes a trade potentially appealing to both the Storm and Thompson herself. The franchise could get some kind of return for a player who’s about to retire, plus the karma boost of giving her a last shot at “one for the thumb”; Thompson gets to make that final run at a title with a team closer to the prize.

 

b) Thompson might not want to go. Despite those preseason comments, she’s starting in her 17th WNBA season, by all accounts Seattle is a nice place to live, and she seems to have a nice rapport with her teammates and the fans. The return on a trade for her also probably isn’t going to be huge for Seattle – a draft pick, likely second-round unless someone is incredibly desperate, or maybe a fringe player who isn’t fitting in somewhere else – so it seems unlikely they’ll be forcing her out the door unless she wants to leave.

 

c) But one last shot at a ring would have to be tempting. Thompson was a central part of the Los Angeles Sparks team that lost in three games in the Western Conference Finals in 2009, but she hasn’t been to the WNBA Finals since the Houston Comets’ streak of four titles from 1997 to 2000. Sitting on someone’s bench playing 5 minutes a night in garbage time probably wouldn’t appeal to her much, but if there’s a more significant role available off a thin bench or even starting due she’d surely be interested. It’s not like she’d have to be there for very long.

 

Of course, trades don’t happen very often in the WNBA, and meaningful ones are even more rare. With only 12 teams there aren’t many options to trade with, and there are even fewer when you’re only looking at teams with some kind of chance to win a championship this season. That crosses off Washington and Tulsa immediately, leaving just nine teams to consider. In increasing order of likelihood:

 

Distinctly unlikely: Indiana, New York, San Antonio

With all their early-season injuries, Indiana could almost work, and the 3/4 combo-forward who defends in the low-post that Thompson has become would fit in the Fever’s system. But they’ve got a settled core of players, and they’re the one theoretical option who’d have some issues fitting Thompson’s salary under the cap. So I can’t see it.

 

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