As you can probably tell from the length of time it took for this coverage to appear, detailing the WNBA All-Star Game wasn’t high on my list of priorities. The ins and outs of who makes it to the game or who goes overlooked is generally far more interesting than the game itself, which is a meaningless exhibition, usually filled with terrible basketball. This year at least, it did turn out to be reasonably entertaining. And if you’re going to cover 204 regular season games, a few minutes taking a look at the showpiece midseason event seems only right. So let’s take a look at a few of the highlights.
- Indiana Fever and Eastern Conference All-Stars head coach Lin Dunn said during her pregame speech that she’d been all over social media hyping the game, including Myspace – leaving many viewers and several of her own players cracking up with laughter. Listening to Lin Dunn is always worthwhile, one way or another.
- Shavonte Zellous created the first vaguely entertaining interview WNBA president Laurel Richie has provided in as long as I can remember. Richie’s usually as mind-numbing in interviews as her predecessor Donna Orender, but Zellous jumping into the back of the shot and shimmying to music only she could hear offered a welcome distraction. It was nice to see some new faces at All-Star, and the likes of Zellous and Latta clearly enjoyed the hell out of the experience.
- Also amusing was how much several players lived up to their performances – or lack thereof – from the first half of the season. Tina Charles and Cappie Pondexter tossed up a whole lot of bricks; Pondexter had a couple of nice assists, but also sent several passes into the crowd, maintaining the turnover binge she’s been a central part of in New York; and Rebekkah Brunson charged after every loose ball and rebound like her life depended on it – apparently she only has one gear.
- It was 49-43 to the East at halftime, with Chicago’s Epiphanny Prince probably the sweetest shooter on show to that point. The four Minnesota Lynx on the West squad provided 32 of their team’s 43 points in the first half.
Yes, this article is going up rather late. Especially considering all three WNBA matchups yesterday were day games. For that I apologise. The problem was that I skipped the New York-San Antonio game yesterday in favour of watching Indiana-Tulsa, which left me catching up with the Liberty and Silver Stars today via archive. And I kept having to pause the game to find more interesting things to do, so that my will to live didn’t slip entirely away. Thank goodness there were two rather more interesting games yesterday to take us into the All-Star break.
Indiana Fever 71 @ Tulsa Shock 60
- Tulsa’s three-game winning streak and the recent performances of their Glory Johnson/Liz Cambage frontcourt had hopes rising for the Shock heading into this one. Indiana had a disappointing home loss to New York on Tuesday night, but have been steadily improving since their painful, injury-riddled start to the season. Both teams continued with the same starting lineups they’d been using in recent games (so Skylar Diggins continued to come off the bench behind Angel Goodrich at the point for Tulsa).
- The Fever struggled on Tuesday night against Plenette Pierson and New York’s post attack, which led to obvious concerns about how they’d handle Johnson and Cambage. Indiana are undersized inside with Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins as their posts, but they usually make up with it through energy, effort and teamwork. It was always more likely that Tuesday would be an aberration rather than the beginning of a trend. They did fine against Tulsa’s young bigs. The expected double-teams dropped down on Cambage whenever she touched the ball inside, forcing the ball back out or leading to tips and strips when she tried to make moves through multiple defenders. The Shock had some early success cutting into the paint from the weak side when Indiana tried to double-team, leading to layups rather than perimeter shots, but it didn’t last long. The effectiveness of Indiana’s defense doesn’t just come from closing in on opponents with traps and double-teams – it’s how quick they are to rotate and recover if the ball makes it out. The opportunities dried up for Tulsa.
- At the other end of the floor, Indiana were missing too many layups, which is nothing new. These are the two worst-shooting teams from inside 5-feet in the entire WNBA, and the Fever are the only team in the league below 50% from that range (Tulsa are just barely above 50%). But Catchings and Karima Christmas made a few jumpers, Shavonte Zellous got into the paint and consistently looked to score over the smaller defenders who were trying to guard her, and the Fever were consistently aggressive in transition off turnovers. It felt like they should’ve been up by more than 38-34 at halftime.
- After a poor first half, Nicole Powell was replaced by Roneeka Hodges to start the third quarter. Powell never took the floor in the second half, so there may have been an injury of some kind affecting her.
- Indiana held a narrow lead throughout the third quarter. It never hit double-digits, but it was also rarely below six or seven points. The Fever were being troubled by Cambage’s size inside, and having to find ways to navigate around her, but they were making every hustle play and winning every 50/50 battle. Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Diggins made a couple of plays in the period, including a halfcourt three at the buzzer from Diggins, but the Shock as a whole were scrabbling to stay in the game.
Scattered through the afternoon and evening, yesterday saw three games in the WNBA, as we definitively hit the midway point of the regular season (102 games down, 102 to go). It wasn’t perhaps the most auspicious collection of games to reach that milestone, but there were one or two moments worth talking about. Let’s go to the Bullet Point Breakdowns.
Chicago Sky 78 @ Washington Mystics 82
- Both teams began the game with their established starting lineups, although Mystics power forward Crystal Langhorne was reportedly a game-time decision due to back spasms.
- Chicago pulled out to a big early lead in this game, largely by virtue of simply shooting much better than Washington. Despite Elena Delle Donne missing several jumpers, the Sky as a whole were much more successful in hitting shots. Sometimes it’s that simple. The Mystics were also bailing them out far too frequently with cheap fouls, helping Chicago build their lead. The advantage was as big as 21 points midway through the second quarter.
- Washington got back into it in the same way they’ve been successful for most of the season – they became the aggressors. A step up in intensity on defense, and a more concerted attack mentality on offense from players like Langhorne, Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon quickly cut into the lead. After shooting three free throws in the opening 14 minutes of the game, Washington shot nine in the remaining 6 minutes before the break. The gap was down to nine at 44-35.
My appearance on the Dishin’ & Swishin’ podcast is now live HERE. Yes, that really is my accent. We talked All-Star ahead of Saturday’s game, discussing who deserved to be there, whether the fans and coaches had chosen correctly, and other aspects of the first half of the season. If the audio merely whets your appetite, you can read more about my All-Star choices in the feature that went up earlier this week here.
Normal, text-based WNBA coverage will continue later tonight.
While most of the focus seemed to be on who would be named as All-Star reserves (more on that in the Notes section below), there was also a basketball game going on in the WNBA last night. New York travelled to Indiana having lost eight of their previous ten games, including several heavy defeats. They were in desperate need of a win to reinvigorate their season. It was especially important considering their opponents were the Fever, who’d slipped past the Liberty into the Eastern Conference’s fourth playoff spot by winning six of their last seven. New York needed to make sure they stuck around in the mix with Indiana, Washington and even Atlanta if the Dream’s losing streak persists – otherwise thoughts really will turn to next year’s lottery.
The Liberty had an extra player available, after signing former Mercury guard Samantha Prahalis (although she never made it onto the court). Indiana also had a point guard back, as Erin Phillips was available again after taking a game off to rest her knee. Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups they’ve used in recent games.
From the very start, New York looked to go down low, and attack via their size advantage in the post. It was Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton to begin with, then Kelsey Bone joining the party once Braxton’s foul trouble and general wildness sent her to the bench. The impressive element for New York was that they were forcing the ball inside without turning the ball over. Turnovers have been a bugaboo for New York all year, and they were facing the team that led the WNBA in forcing them. But the ball was generally reaching the Liberty posts without being tipped or stolen, and they were attacking the Fever defense for consistent points without giving the ball away. Pierson in particular made several nice interior passes when extra defenders came to help, dropping the ball off for easy finishes for her teammates. It looks so pretty when those tight, intricate passes actually work. So often this season New York’s attempts have ended up hitting an arm or a leg and ending up in the hands of the other team.
Unusually for New York, they were making too many errors at the other end of the floor to build a lead. Indiana couldn’t hit many shots, but they were finding points in transition by beating New York down the floor, or getting cheap points when the Liberty lost concentration on simple things like inbound plays. The Liberty even had Cappie Pondexter hitting long jumpers for once – she’s missed a huge number of long twos this season, but three of them dropped in the first half. It’d still be nice if she’d take half a step back and turn them into threes, but once they go in it’s a good shot.
The WNBA community did a pretty solid job of selecting the All-Star starters this year. Not perfect (we’ll get into that in a minute), but we’ve seen some bizarre names voted in by the fans in previous years (Jayne Appel and Anna DeForge spring to mind). There was no one in that category this time around. But you know what? One of the benefits of deciding your own hypothetical All-Star rosters is that you can blithely ignore the voting public anyway. So before the results of the coaches’ votes for the reserves are released tonight, let’s decide who deserves to be heading to Connecticut for the big game on Saturday afternoon.
The fans had to vote for two guards and three frontcourt players, then the coaches had to provide two guards, three frontcourt, and one wildcard extra. So we’re looking to fill all of those, and because I like to ease into these things, we’re starting with the Eastern Conference. It’s easier in the East, because there simply aren’t that many players worth considering. Perusing the backcourt players available, our options are severely limited. Herrington, Bentley, Thomas and Hayes all seem like reaches from Atlanta, so there are zero candidates from the team that led the East for most of the first half of the season. Injuries or poor performance has knocked out Douglas, January and Phillips from last year’s conference champs. And even the hosts for the All-Star game have played so poorly this year that you can argue over whether they have deserving candidates.
So by my count we have seven vaguely viable possibilities. Epiphanny Prince and maybe Courtney Vandersloot in Chicago; Shavonte Zellous in Indiana; Ivory Latta in Washington; Cappie Pondexter in New York; and Kara Lawson or Allison Hightower in Connecticut. Lawson’s typically the Sun’s best perimeter player, but she’s missed 40% of their games through injury so far this season. It’s hard to overlook that without supreme performance when available, and she’s been good but not great. Latta and Prince both started the season strongly but have tailed off a little as it’s progressed (Prince also missed a few games through a combination of an ankle sprain and representing Russia at EuroBasket Women). Hightower’s improvement has been impressive, but she’s still the best of a bunch in Connecticut that have been awful as a whole. Pondexter continues to rank highly in raw scoring averages, but her percentages and efficiency have been terrible, she started the year playing no defense whatsoever, and she’s the central part of a team setting a record-breaking turnover pace.
So it’s not a great list. Pondexter’s an interesting case. She’s clearly been voted in more because of her superstar status and reputation than her performance this season. But she is still a star and carrying a heavy load on a team that expects her to generate a large percentage of their offense. To me it comes down to five – Prince, Zellous, Latta, Pondexter and Hightower – and it’s a matter of how you want to order them. And now that I’m trying to do this, maybe the East isn’t so easy after all.
Yesterday was the third consecutive day of WNBA triple-headers, but it was a slightly more intriguing slate than the previous offerings. We had a rematch from Friday night, with two Eastern playoff contenders still trying to prove themselves in different ways. Tulsa were hoping to indicate that their recent upturn in form was more than just a fluke, facing an Atlanta team trying to arrest a recent slide. And finally, two of the three Western powers faced off, with a win streak and a new defense in the mix. This was a nice way to finish off the weekend.
Indiana Fever 65 @ Washington Mystics 52
- Here we had our two potential Eastern playoff teams. With Connecticut looking terrible and New York floundering, most bets would probably be on both these teams making the postseason, but it’s far from a certainty at this stage. Washington lost narrowly to this Fever team on Friday, but the Mystics have been a significantly better team on their own floor this season. Indiana came into this game having won five of their previous six, and are in the process of turning around their season.
- Washington were as healthy as ever, but slightly worryingly Indiana guard Erin Phillips sat this one out. She missed the Fever’s first 11 games of the season with a meniscus tear in her knee, but had returned to play in their last three. Apparently she was kept out of this one as a precautionary measure due to some recent knee pain. Hopefully she just needed a little rest, because her return has been an important boost for Indiana.
- If we wanted to be nice and generous about the opening stages of this game, we could call it a defensive battle. More accurately we could say that neither team could make a shot to save their lives. Everyone missed every kind of shot you could imagine, and Washington led 9-8 after the opening quarter. One shot was made in the opening 21 attempts of the game.
- Washington got some solid interior defense from backup post Emma Meesseman after Crystal Langhorne picked up early fouls and had to sit. That was nice to see, because the main area that was concerning about Meesseman coming to the WNBA was whether she could handle the physicality of this league. She always looked a little lightweight to me in Europe. Indiana are one of the smaller interior teams in the league, but they’re as physical as anyone. She stood up to the fight.
- Indiana started to pull away in the second quarter by virtue of actually hitting some shots. Not many, but Tamika Catchings and Karima Christmas made enough to make an impact, considering Washington still couldn’t score. Lin Dunn and her staff have done a nice job of re-shaping Indiana’s defense to keep it as effective as ever under the new defensive three-seconds rule. They had some problems earlier in the year, caused as much by all the injuries as anything else, but they’re back up to their previous heights now. The low-post double-teams that they used to bring with a weak-side defender along the baseline have essentially disappeared – because that second defender used to loiter in the paint so she could arrive quickly, and the new rule makes that tough to get away with. Their double-teams are now coming from the more traditional high defender on the strong side, but the activity, recovery and teamwork of their defense continues to make it very successful. Washington’s Crystal Langhorne had absolutely no impact on this game due to the double-teams and defensive pressure.