I don’t pretend to understand the whims of the WNBA schedulers, but for whatever reason they left blank dates either side the 4th of July, while finding time for a game in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon. On the bright side, it was a pretty entertaining game with plenty to talk about, so let’s get to it.
The LA Sparks came into this matchup with New York at 6-0 on their own floor. More than that, despite having played Western Conference champions Minnesota twice already at Staples Center, the Sparks had a ridiculous average margin of victory of 24 points across those six games. So it probably wasn’t the place New York would’ve picked to complete a week-long, four-game road trip, especially considering they were 1-4 on the road before this encounter.
LA were healthy and unsurprisingly stuck with their usual starting five, considering they blew the Lynx out again on Tuesday night. Bill Laimbeer maintained the same starting five from the Liberty’s last outing as well, although Avery Warley didn’t last long before Plenette Pierson took back her regular spot at power forward.
After Phoenix’s giant lineup gave New York – and Leilani Mitchell in particular – matchup difficulties in their previous game, Los Angeles presented rather different problems. Kristi Toliver is one of the few off-guards in the WNBA that doesn’t have a significant size or strength advantage over Mitchell, so the Liberty gave her the job of chasing Toliver around while Cappie Pondexter took on Lindsey Harding. It would be unfair to blame what followed on Mitchell, but it’s fair to say that the plan didn’t work. Elsewhere, Kara Braxton started the game on Candace Parker, which led to Parker scoring six points in the opening 92 seconds of the game. Yeah, Candace was pretty confident she could attack Kara.
Parker managed those six quick points despite airballing a three on the opening possession of the game – one of only nine misses from LA in the entire first half. It was insane. The Sparks have had some huge wins at home already this year, but even in those they were rarely this hot. It wasn’t defensive dominance leading to an endless stream of easy transition buckets, or New York’s painful problem with turnovers handing LA chances – they just hit everything. Toliver led the way, having one of those days where she’s virtually unguardable. At times, the Liberty gave her a little too much room. When you’re covering her in the corner, and someone else drives the lane, you just can’t fade inside to help. Even when you’re on the strong side, and your instincts are screaming that you’re supposed to stop penetration, you just have to let your teammates handle it and stay home. Both Mitchell and Kamiko Williams forgot that rule, which left Toliver available for kick-outs and open threes which she happily knocked down. But plenty of her buckets just came on quick-fire pullups that she drained despite decent coverage, and there was one pretty scooping drive through traffic just to keep the defense honest.
And it wasn’t just Toliver. LA scored 60 points in the first half, shooting a ludicrous 74% from the field, but only had 16 points in the paint. That’s ridiculous. There weren’t even that many threes (4-9) or free throws (6-7). The Sparks simply shot an unreal 21-25 from two-point range in the first half, the vast majority coming from mid-range, either out on the wing or just beyond the free-throw line. Parker, Harding, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and Jantel Lavender all joined in the barrage alongside Toliver. The offense and ball movement was creating good looks, but you’d rarely expect to hit that high a percentage in an empty gym. Never mind under the lights at Staples Center in the heat of a WNBA game.
New York weren’t playing that poorly, despite the scoreline increasingly turning against them. They scored 24 points in the first quarter, a near-miracle for them compared to most performances this season, which was rather overshadowed by LA’s 32. Cappie Pondexter came out aggressive after apparently being given a talking-to by Laimbeer during the week. Asking her “when are you going to show up for a change?” made his position pretty clear. She attacked the rim early, took threes rather than long twos when she fired from outside (finally), and continued doing a nice job running pick and rolls with her various post players. Rookie post Kelsey Bone also came in and had one of her best performances so far as a pro, both finishing inside and showing off a little range. As a team, the Liberty dominated the offensive boards, piling up ten of them in the first half (although the measly two second-chance points they resulted in was disappointing). But it hardly seemed to matter. After leading Minnesota 60-39 at halftime two nights earlier, LA somehow bettered that, going in at the break 60-37 up on New York.
The second half wasn’t quite so pretty for the Sparks. Toliver kept raining in shots in the third quarter, ultimately hitting 11 of her first 12 attempts in the game, but they couldn’t stay quite so ridiculously hot forever. They relaxed a little too much in the second half, while Pondexter and Laimbeer kept their team playing for the full 40 minutes, however fruitless the endeavour always seemed likely to be. In fact, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve might show her team the tape of this game as an illustration of how not to quit when you’re down big at halftime.
LA’s lack of penetration through New York’s defense – apart from when they occasionally managed to get out on the break – and their minimal defensive and rebounding efforts, eventually allowed the game to verge on becoming a contest again. A Pondexter floater in the lane with three minutes left cut the deficit to single-digits for the first time in what felt like hours – before a long two from Beard immediately pushed it back above 10 again. It was an appropriate way for any hint of a comeback to be quashed. Mitchell’s three with the final shot of the game created a final score of 97-89 that didn’t reflect just how outstanding LA’s shooting had been for the vast majority of the afternoon.
Apparently, there’s something about playing at Staples. Whether it’s the home crowd, or the sight lines, or the hot dogs, or whatever, the Sparks have been overwhelming at home so far this year. A vintage Kristi Toliver game was the highlight of this one, finishing 12-17 for 29 points, with considerable support from all the other starters and Lavender off the bench. The defense wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was good enough for a team that was shooting the lights out. They have one more game in this home stand, and San Antonio won’t be looking forward to facing this bunch on Saturday afternoon, even if it does mark Becky Hammon’s return from injury. Then eight of LA’s next eleven games are on the road – and we’ll finally get an extended look at whether they can keep this level up on their travels.
Despite the loss, and the fact that their opponent shot 65% from the field, there are plenty of positives for New York to take from this game. Teams just won’t shoot that well from outside the paint on most nights. Pondexter looked re-energised, finishing the game 13-25 for 34 points, 6 assists and 5 steals, providing the kind of star presence that this offense needs from her. Kelsey Bone was an outstanding 10-13 for 20 points and 8 boards. As a team, they kept their turnovers under control for once (although it is a little sad that 15 counts as ‘under control’). Plus they now get to go home and play four straight back in Jersey, where they’re 4-1 this season. Just like the Sparks, for the Liberty this year there’s been no place like home.
The Atlanta Dream cut Anne Marie Armstrong today to make room for Sancho Lyttle’s return. It’s an understandable move considering Armstrong hasn’t looked much like a WNBA player in the brief glimpses we’ve had of her this season. Instead, they’ll presumably be keeping recent addition Ruth Riley around for a while – although she’ll likely see just as little floor time as Armstrong.
Saturday July 6th (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 5pm ET. Sparks -14 is the line, reflecting LA’s domination at home. With Appel and Hammon set to make a return, and ‘maybes’ floating around Shenise Johnson and DeLisha Milton-Jones, I’ll take the Silver Stars to keep it close enough to cover. It was the right pick with New York, even if it didn’t look like it for most of the night.
Seattle @ Washington, 7pm ET. Mystics -6 is too high for me, against a Seattle team that’s shown it’ll usually compete – even if they don’t always win – on the road. It’s the middle of a road trip for them, but at least they’ve been off for a few days.
Connecticut @ Indiana, 7pm ET. Fever -4.5 in another matchup of last year’s Eastern Conference finalists; this year’s cellar-dwellars. Despite a modicum of friskiness from Tina Charles lately, I still have slightly more faith in Indiana with Catchings back in the fold. So I’ll take the Fever.