WNBA Today, 07/03/2013: Sun, Mercury and Sparks all defend their home court, while Sky crumble without Syl

 

With no games on July 3rd or 5th (but bizarrely one on the 4th itself), the WNBA packed four games into the schedule last night. So to cover it all, it’s a midweek WNBAlien Bullet Point Breakdown.

 

Tulsa Shock 69 @ Connecticut Sun 88

  • Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg moved Liz Cambage back to the bench to start this game, with Jen Lacy taking her starting spot back from the big Aussie. Maybe he wanted to keep Cambage out of early foul trouble, or just didn’t like the matchup between her and Tina Charles. Fortunately, Glory Johnson was healthy to play after an awkward twist to her knee in their previous game, and making sure she was part of the action may also have played into the decision to bring Cambage off the bench. Johnson rather disappeared from their offense when the focus was on Cambage in their last game. Connecticut had the same list of injuries as in recent outings – Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery and Tan White all sidelined – so Iziane Castro Marques started at shooting guard once again.

 

  • We got a taste of vintage Izi in the opening quarter, with some crazy-looking floaters that found their way in, and “no, no, no… yes!” shots from outside. She didn’t do much after the first quarter besides play deplorable defense and turn the ball over, but the Sun have been so desperate for perimeter offense lately that they’ll have been happy to see her come alive – however briefly.

 

  • Once Cambage did enter the action you could clearly see why Kloppenburg had been wary of using her against the Sun. On defense Tulsa kept her as far away from Charles as possible, afraid of what even this year’s version of the Sun center would do to her. When the Shock had the ball, Connecticut dropped down to double-team every time she touched it, and it was reminiscent of Bad Kara Braxton. The double-teams weren’t just pressuring Cambage into giving up the ball, but were forcing errors and creating turnovers. Even when the double-team wasn’t imminent, she became so conscious of the possibility that she was rushing into offensive moves and missing. She’s got lots of talent and obvious physical gifts, but there’s still some way to go for Cambage at this level.

 

  • Not that her teammates offered much help all night. Riquna Williams was essentially the only Shock player who was successful offensively. Either slashing to the rim or firing away from outside, she kept them alive in the first half. When you don’t have anyone else hitting shots, and aren’t managing to create anything within your sets – which has been the case for Tulsa for a while now – Williams can be the perfect antidote when she’s on. You just give her the ball and watch what happens.

 

  • The Sun were only up 43-34 at halftime due to the heroics of Williams and a few too many turnovers, but they were comfortable through most of the second half and killed the game off early in the fourth quarter. After Charles’s battle with Brittney Griner at the weekend – a game where Charles still shot horribly, but at least looked mentally invested – the Sun’s star post handily won her matchup with Glory Johnson in the paint. Both finished with double-doubles, and Johnson even had 7 offensive boards, but during the contest it always felt like Charles was totally in charge. She also produced her second game all year shooting at least 50% from the field, which is a step in the right direction.

 

  • The Sun also got some production from their role players, which made a nice change. Allison Hightower (who’s actually had several useful games, and continues to be one of the most underappreciated players in the league) and Kalana Greene chipped in offensively, while emergency backup point guard Sydney Carter had the best game of her WNBA career. There was also a small measure of revenge for Kayla Pedersen, playing her first game against the Shock since being traded from Tulsa to Connecticut. She had some solid minutes, and even started the second half ahead of Kelsey Griffin. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see that switch from the start of games sometime soon.

 

  • But if we’re honest, the primary factor in Connecticut breaking a four-game losing streak (and winning just their second game in nine) was the level of the opponent. The Shock’s outside shooting continues to deteriorate, and the Diggins/Wiggins backcourt still has no offensive punch at all. Four overtime losses gave everyone a reason to cry “they’re not as bad as their record!” a little while ago – they’re 3-11 now, and the way they’re playing that’s about what they’re worth.

 

 

Seattle Storm 69 @ Chicago Sky 60

  • Yet again, the ESPN2 cameras came to a WNBA game and found superstars on the sidelines. Even back when they scheduled this one they knew Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson would be missing, but Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles was also out due to the ankle sprain she suffered against Los Angeles on Saturday. The Sky hope to have her back for their visit to New York on Sunday, but for this one Carolyn Swords moved into the starting lineup. Seattle came in for the second game of an Eastern road swing, after a disappointing loss to Indiana on Sunday.

 

  • Yet again, Seattle got off to a horrible start. It feels like Brian Agler’s been forced into an awful lot of early timeouts this season, just to wake his team up and encourage them to join the party. They trailed 13-7 by the time he broke into this one after five minutes of play, and the huddle didn’t produce any immediate results. They didn’t score another point in the first quarter, and finished the opening 10 minutes down 21-7.

 

  • The Storm were doing fine on the Sky stars – Elena Delle Donne and Epiphanny Prince scored just two points each in the first quarter – but the role players were killing Seattle. There was too much space in their defense, and Chicago were finding holes to finish inside when the Storm over-rotated. It looked like the absence of Fowles was barely going to matter.

 

  • Little did anyone know at that point that the rest of the game was going to be very, very different. Probably slightly embarrassed by their performance in the opening quarter, the Storm raised their defensive intensity dramatically in the second period, and the momentum of the game swung in completely the opposite direction. Offensively they attacked the heart of the defense off the dribble, and began to illustrate the big hole that Fowles’s injury leaves in the middle of the Sky defense. Players like Swords and Michelle Campbell couldn’t hope to contain Camille Little, who was particularly aggressive, and Shekinna Stricklen provided a nice boost from the bench as well. By halftime, Seattle hadn’t just wiped out a deficit that reached 15 early in the second quarter – they led 34-31.

 

  • While the game stayed close for much of the third quarter, Seattle pulled away towards the end of the period and were rarely troubled in the fourth. Defensively, they switched even more than usual during much of this game, but credit Tanisha Wright for her work on Prince and a whole variety of people for stopping Delle Donne, from Little to Stricklen to Noelle Quinn. It was a team effort, and another indication of how smart and well coached this team is. They were always conscious of where the primary threats were and focussed their defensive attention on them as much as possible, while also closing out as best they could on Chicago’s perimeter shots. The rest of the work was done by the typically static Sky offense and the absence of their interior force.

 

  • Fowles’s injury will be a handy excuse, but this was an ugly collapse from the Sky. They shot 23% from the field over the final three quarters. The offense lost any semblance of rhythm and Seattle were allowed to dominate the pace of the game. They’ll hope that Big Syl makes a quick recovery, and that they can wipe this game from their memories just as swiftly.

 

 

New York Liberty 87 @ Phoenix Mercury 94

  • Both teams came out with the same starting lineups they used in their most recent games, which created some interesting matchups right from the start of this one. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines has put together a giant starting five, with Diana Taurasi as the lead guard and the length of Briana Gilbreath and DeWanna Bonner on the wings. Meanwhile, New York have found themselves forced to go with Leilani Mitchell alongside Cappie Pondexter in the backcourt in order to produce any effective offense whatsoever. And both Mitchell and Pondexter would struggle to meet the requirements to get on some rides at Disneyland. With Katie Smith designated to track Taurasi all evening, Mitchell was left to cover Gilbreath with Pondexter on Bonner. The Mercury aren’t the sort of team who are going to slow the game down and pound you with a size mismatch, but it still makes life more difficult when you’re giving up several inches at virtually every spot on the floor.

 

  • It was a pretty even first half. New York had some of their usual problems with cheap turnovers, which you just can’t do against Phoenix because they’ll run the ball right back down your throat. But the Liberty kept Griner quiet by doubling down on her repeatedly, rookie guard Kamiko Williams gave them some solid minutes for the first time in a while, and Smith did a decent job limiting Taurasi’s offensive production. The main element that led to Phoenix’s 46-41 halftime lead was Bonner shooting 4-5 from three-point range, after struggling badly from outside so far this season. The main reason she shot that well was because she took good shots from out there, on kick-outs or rotation that found her wide open. She’s been forcing up too many efforts while under pressure or being tightly contested, and she’s not a good enough shooter to hit those. Only take the open ones – and with Taurasi, Griner, Dupree and Taylor around, that’ll still amount to plenty of opportunities – and you’ll shoot a far better percentage.

 

  • There was a hilarious moment – as long as you’re not a Liberty fan – in the middle of the second quarter. Taurasi didn’t have an angle to enter the ball to Griner in the post past Kara Braxton, so she looked up top instead and threw a small cross-court ball-fake. Despite the ball never leaving Taurasi’s hands, Braxton turned her head, and then her entire body, and then took a couple of steps away from Brittney freaking Griner on the low block. The same player New York were double-teaming every time she touched the ball within 10 feet of the basket. Taurasi simply tossed the ball in to Griner – probably barely managing to make the pass before she pissed herself laughing – and Griner had a desperately easy finish. Braxton turned around just in time to foul Griner as she completed the layup. Oh, Kara.

 

  • After coming off the bench in the first half, Plenette Pierson started the second half for New York. She didn’t look back to full speed after re-injuring her right knee recently, but she’s always been the kind of player who’ll give you everything she’s got – however much that might be. And when you’re a power forward in the Eastern Conference, you only get two chances to face Candice Dupree’s defense each season – it’d be a shame to miss them.

 

  • The game started to get away from New York a little in the third quarter. There were some turnover issues again, and they were giving too many points up in transition that weren’t even off steals or long rebounds. You have to work damn hard to keep an energised Mercury offense in check for 40 minutes, and it didn’t seem like the Liberty were quite up to the task.

 

  • New York did threaten to make a comeback in the fourth quarter, with Pondexter stepping up her aggression offensively and creating buckets for others or getting to the line. But they couldn’t stop Griner any more without fouling her, and one of Brittney’s many positives is that she’s a post who can hit free throws. You can’t just hack her to remove her threat. In fact, the whole Mercury team shoot free throws so well that it’s painfully difficult to make a late charge against them because they’ll punish you from the line. Despite injecting a little pace into their own offense, and having some renewed success as a result, the Liberty never got any closer than 9 points until the final minute, and by then it was too late.

 

  • The Liberty did everything they could, but between Taurasi, Griner, Dupree and Bonner, the Mercury had too many offensive weapons in the end. Smith did the best job anyone’s done in the last month of limiting Taurasi’s scoring, forcing her into a 5-14 effort from the field, but 10 assists and zero turnovers illustrated Taurasi’s impact beyond mere point production. It’s very, very hard to stop a team that can score from anywhere on the floor, and are led by a legitimate MVP candidate. It’s even harder when you’re afraid to play your starting point guard (and best three-point shooter) because she’s 7 inches shorter than anyone on the opposing team.

 

 

Minnesota Lynx 66 @ Los Angeles Sparks 96

  • These Western powers had faced each other twice already in the last couple of weeks, and each game had finished in a blow out win for the home side. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised by how this one turned out.

 

  • If you go back to my coverage of the last Lynx-Sparks game, when Minnesota won by 24 points on their own floor, I said that “on another night, maybe the Sparks would’ve lit them up from outside”. Well, welcome to another night. Both Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver were dropping bombs on the Lynx from outside in the opening quarter, as Minnesota’s defense sagged into the paint to protect against penetration, and offered up wide open looks around the arc.

 

  • However, even with Maya Moore struggling to make any impact on the game, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen were scoring effectively enough to keep Minnesota in the game for much of the first half. They were down by just 8 with three minutes to go until the break, when LA busted the game wide open. The Sparks were pushing the ball hard in transition and avoiding those stagnant halfcourt sets that Minnesota trapped them in last week. They were also attacking the rim and finding lanes to the hoop that Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve will have been horrified to witness. The refs were calling the game particularly tight on the inside, which had left Janel McCarville, Devereaux Peters and Monica Wright all on three fouls before that final stretch of the first half. It left Amber Harris as virtually the only option left to play center, and it didn’t go well. LA’s final six buckets of the first half came from a combined eight feet, as layup after layup ran up the score. Despite shooting 52% in the first half, the Lynx ultimately trailed 60-39 at the break.

 

  • If it wasn’t already over at that point, the Sparks quickly cemented their result with a 10-4 push to open the third quarter. From there, everyone was pretty much waiting for the end to arrive, whatever the interminable prattle of Tracy Warren tried to make you believe.

 

  • This has been a bizarre series of games. Good teams aren’t supposed to get blown out, even by other good teams, and it’s certainly not supposed to happen three times in a row in the same matchup. Reeve and LA’s Carol Ross just smiled at each other during the post-game handshake, looking like they couldn’t quite believe that this had happened yet again. It’s the defense that’ll worry Reeve – the Lynx offense was perfectly decent while the game was still a contest in the first half. They have to be able to adapt to different types of officiating, and they have to be able to maintain the tempo of games against teams like LA that are so reliant on keeping the pace high. It also still feels like Minnesota are trying to fill the gap left by Taj McWilliams-Franklin. They’re 7-3, so obviously plenty of things are still working, but McCarville’s contributions continue to be pretty minimal, while Harris and Peters are frustratingly inconsistent. It was always going to take some time to work out how they were going to fill that hole, and they haven’t come up with an entirely satisfactory answer just yet.

 

  • LA will obviously be delighted with another blowout win, and maintain their oddly perfect record – 6-0 at home, 0-4 on the road. The energy was there again, with Nneka Ogwumike flying around in the paint, Toliver raining in jumpers and Parker dominating offensively for stretches of the first half. Once again, it was the scary version of the Sparks, and they didn’t even need to be that great defensively because they were scoring so smoothly. Yet again, it’s consistency that we still need to see from this squad. Can they keep this going, and can they take it on the road? Only time will tell.

 

Notes

The first All-Star voting returns were released, with Chicago’s rookie sensation Elena Delle Donne leading the pack. Obviously there’s still time for things to change, but the public aren’t doing too badly this year. Inevitably, the wildly popular Skylar Diggins is artificially high, but Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus are currently keeping her out of a starting spot in the West’s backcourt.

 

San Antonio waived both Julie Wojta and Chante Black today, which presumably means Becky Hammon (broken finger) and Jayne Appel (concussion) are ready to make a return. With Shenise Johnson and DeLisha Milton-Jones also listed as ‘day-to-day’ after missing the loss in Atlanta on Sunday, there could be a whole host of returning options available to Dan Hughes for their game in LA on Saturday afternoon.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Thursday July 4th (tomorrow):

New York @ Los Angeles, 3.30pm ET. Sparks -12 is the line, with the bookies backing LA’s strength on their own floor to come through again. As with the 12.5 points they got in Phoenix, it feels like too much help for the Liberty to me. So I’ll take New York to at least keep it closer than that.

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