Pretty typical trio of WNBA games this Saturday – another blowout in Los Angeles, another serious-looking injury, another disappointing night for Connecticut and Tina Charles, and a game that was virtually unwatchable until the final couple of minutes. Sometimes, we end up with exactly what we should’ve expected – the interesting part is how we got there. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a look.
- It was all change for San Antonio at the start of this one, but in a good way. Four new starters began the game, with Becky Hammon, Jayne Appel, Shenise Johnson and DeLisha Milton-Jones all returning from injury. Johnson and DMJ had only missed the loss in Atlanta, but Appel had been sorely missed for five games since suffering a concussion in practice. Hammon, the team’s leader for years now, was making her first appearance all year after breaking a finger in preseason. Shameka Christon was out after hurting an ankle in their last game against Atlanta, but four in, one out seemed like a positive exchange.
- The Sparks have been dominant at home this season, but San Antonio kept pace with them through the first 15 minutes of action. There were far too many turnovers at both ends of the floor, with LA in particular giving the ball away too cheaply and allowing San Antonio to run back at them. All the returning players looked in pretty good shape for the Silver Stars, with Hammon sliding into the backcourt alongside Danielle Robinson like she’d never left. Appel was maybe a little rusty, but she gave them the physical presence inside and on the glass that had clearly been missing in recent games. San Antonio also created space and mismatches with their movement and off-ball screening, leading to the switches that LA’s defense always falls back on. When Kristi Toliver ends up trying to guard Danielle Adams under the basket, something’s gone wrong.
- Then disaster struck for San Antonio. Driving along the baseline, Hammon’s left leg buckled and went out from under her. There’s been no official diagnosis yet, but she had to be carried from the floor and everyone fears the dreaded ACL tear – something Hammon’s suffered before, although it was the other knee and a decade ago. We can only hope for the best when she undergoes further examination back in San Antonio.
- The Silver Stars didn’t noticeably fall apart due to Hammon’s injury. Obviously, they’re used to playing without her at this point, and she hadn’t even done that much during her 12 minutes on the floor. But a Milton-Jones jumper put them ahead 24-21 seconds after Hammon was carried off, before LA ran off an 18-5 push before halftime that eventually became 26-5 when you included the start of the third quarter. More than anything else, the death of San Antonio’s offense led to the Sparks’ steak, with perimeter jumpers bouncing off and turnovers allowing LA to push. The Silver Stars also struggled all afternoon to handle the athleticism and activity of Nneka Ogwumike, who was involved in the LA offense from early in the game and kept her momentum rolling through the entire contest. While Appel could at least put a body on Candace Parker inside, without Sophia Young the Silver Stars didn’t really have an answer for Ogwumike.
- So the Sparks broke out to a 39-29 advantage at halftime, and their quick start to the third quarter virtually killed off the game. San Antonio made one push that dragged a 22-point deficit down to 11, but Parker stepped up to halt the comeback. She knocked down a jumper, came up with a block and got herself to the line, then kept her activity going until the end of the third quarter – by which stage the gap was back to 20. The fourth quarter was yet another long passage of garbage time at the end of a Sparks home game.
- This wasn’t quite the same as the other recent huge Sparks wins. They didn’t blow their opponent off the floor in the first half with a flurry of jumpers or a stream of fastbreaks. This was a more considered, progressive dominance, and the 54 points in the paint they finished with will have pleased head coach Carol Ross. That figure illustrates the way they got into the heart of San Antonio’s defense – not just in transition, but often within halfcourt sets as well – and created points at the rim. Those sort of buckets are much more likely to be consistently successful than relying on the kind of ridiculous outside shooting they produced against New York in their previous win. Now, having bolstered their confidence and their record at home, they have to try to take these performances on the road. They get to ease into it in Tulsa on Thursday, before heading to Phoenix at the weekend. There’s no real reason why their level of play should fall off dramatically away from Staples Center, but they’re 0-4 so far on the road this season. It’s time to prove they can still perform in other arenas.
- This was San Antonio’s seventh loss in eight games, and it could prove much worse if Hammon’s injury turns out to be serious. Milton-Jones had one of her best games of the season against her old team, but there wasn’t much from the rest of the squad. You write off a Dan Hughes team at your peril, but it’s not been pretty lately, and they’re heading to Phoenix on Wednesday. Good luck, Dan.
- The injury news was familiar heading into this one, with Lawson, Montgomery and White all out for Connecticut. Indiana had the same absences as in recent games as well, but with a modicum of good news apparently on the way. Erin Thorn, one of their many hardship signings this season, had been released. That was because combo-guard Erin Phillips is apparently on the brink of a return, although she was still in street clothes for this one. They’re hoping she might be available for the game against Minnesota on Thursday.
- The Fever were successful in the first half of this game even with so many key players still watching from the sidelines. They were doubling hard on Tina Charles whenever she touched the ball, forcing her to either pass the ball out or rush to make a move before the extra defender arrived. However, Indiana’s real success began when Charles went to the bench. The Sun had clawed to a 10-10 tie when she sat with a few minutes left in the first quarter, and by the time she returned to start the second it was 23-12 Fever. Without her, Connecticut had no focus for their offense, leading to a series of poor turnovers. Then at the other end of the floor, Mistie Bass and Kayla Pedersen were no kind of replacement in terms of filling the paint and protecting the rim.
- Even when Charles returned, Indiana just kept rolling. She’d faded back into her passive persona from much of the season, with Tamika Catchings leading the Indiana offense into more success than they’d had for most of the year. Catchings hit from outside, or drove straight down the lane, and even Briann January was making shots, after a season riddled with bricks. Indiana led 41-23 at halftime, and it was an accurate representation of the balance of play.
- Sun coach Anne Donovan must’ve come up with some inspiring words during the interval – or possibly she just screamed in Charles’s face for 15 minutes that she needed to wake the hell up and play like an MVP. The third quarter was all Connecticut, as they came out looking to feed Charles down low and remained the aggressor throughout the period. There was much better movement off the ball when Indiana doubled Charles, with Sun players cutting into the space left behind, rather than standing around watching Tina get trapped. Whether she was moving to take passes from Charles, or utilising the extra space to grab rebounds, Kelsey Griffin was having her most effective game of the year due to all the attention being paid to Charles. By the end of the third, an Indiana lead that reached as high as 21 had been whittled down to just 6, at 53-47.
- Then a moment of madness decided the game. Shavonte Zellous drove the baseline, and Charles reached over her to try to block the shot. There wasn’t much contact, but the official felt Charles caught Zellous on the head and whistled for a foul. Charles was incredulous, and picked up a technical foul for complaining. That wasn’t great, in a five-point game when you’ve already had to fight back from a long way down. But it got a lot worse, as Charles kept talking and – in the words of Fever PR man Kevin Messenger – said something that wasn’t “vacuum” but looked a lot like it. Use your imagination. That drew a second tech, and the ejection that goes with it, so Tina just kept walking all the way back to the locker room.
- Without Charles, the comeback effort was essentially dead in the water. An Allison Hightower three pulled the Sun within five points again with four minutes left, but a 10-0 Fever run followed and killed off the game. As in the earlier streak, the focus of Connecticut’s offense was gone, and Indiana could play much tighter defense on every other opponent. Even more noticeably, Griffin and Mistie Bass were poor replacements on the defensive end, and Indiana had much more room in the lane to get to the basket. The game basically ended the moment Charles was tossed.
- They made hard work of it, and who knows what would’ve happened without the ejection, but this was ultimately Indiana’s third win in a row after a depressing seven-game losing streak. Catchings got a week’s rest due to back pain, and she’s come back and looked better, no longer looking like she’s carrying quite the same weight on her shoulders. They’re still not what they were in 2012 at either end of the floor, but this is what we always said they needed to do – scrape enough wins to survive through the injuries, then pick things up when the missing pieces start to filter back in. These are the ugly wins they need to stay in touch.
- A difficult season for Charles to this point just received its highlight moment. It was another frustrating night where both she as an individual and the team as a whole struggled to cope with the heavy defensive pressure, but they’d started to figure it out and turn the game around – only to blow it all up for no good reason. One step forward, two steps back – the story of their season. As with Indiana, the Sun will be hoping that there’ll be an uptick in their performance once players start returning – plus there’s still the vague hope of Sandrine Gruda and/or Alba Torrens arriving at some stage – but it looks a long way off at the moment. And they certainly won’t get anywhere if Charles lets her frustration get the better of her.
- The only notable squad or injury news for this game was the appearance of Quanitra Hollingsworth on the end of Washington’s roster. The Mystics didn’t announce it until after the game, but veteran post Jessica Moore was waived to make room for Hollingsworth, who’s been with the Turkish national team for the last month. She could help deepen their post corps once she learns Mike Thibault’s system, although Crystal Langhorne, Michelle Snow, Kia Vaughn and Emma Meesseman have already been doing a pretty solid job. She’ll have to fight to earn minutes. Moore will join the Mystics front office staff once she clears waivers, and undoubtedly knew this was a short-term gig when she signed.
- This was an ugly, ugly basketball game for most of the night. Seattle were back to the bad old days of almost constant turnovers in the first half, with 12 in the first quarter alone (they had a total of 17 at halftime). Some of the credit had to go to Washington for their level of defensive pressure and the way they kept sneaking their hands into passing lanes, but there were a lot of basic ballhandling errors, unnecessary offensive fouls, and passes into the third row. Washington’s offense was hardly setting the world alight either, and yet they led 35-21 at halftime.
- Somehow, it still didn’t feel like the game was finished. Seattle have made a habit of starting games appallingly badly this season, only to find a way to hang around and work their way back into them. Both teams were still struggling to create offense in the third quarter, although Thibault has clearly drilled into his squad that if you drive and create contact in this league, the officials will reward you with free throws. The Mystics are far more aggressive off the dribble this season, and they’ve become one of the best teams in the league at getting to the line. That was their primary source of points. Seattle finally made inroads when Tina Thompson and Alysha Clark hit threes in the waning moments of the third quarter, and Clark followed up with another just after the fourth began. Suddenly, a 14-point gap was down to 5.
- Apart from that little sequence, second-year wing Shekinna Stricklen was the only consistent offensive threat for Seattle all evening. She’s had a few good games lately after a relatively lackluster start to the season, and the Storm certainly needed her in order to stick around in this one. Her long jumpers and threes gave Seattle a chance going into the final moments.
- With 21 seconds left, trailing 60-58, Seattle inbounded underneath their opponents’ basket. It was almost a five-second violation, before Camille Little cut to the rim and took the pass before being fouled. Unfortunately for Little and the Storm, she missed the first free-throw, made the second, and Seattle were forced to foul. After Ivory Latta made a pair, the Storm had 19 seconds to make up three points. Ultimately, they had three shots at it – an ugly heave from Thompson which hit nothing but glass, only to be tipped out of bounds off a Washington player; a fractionally less ugly Thompson force which caught a little iron; and finally a Stricklen airball under pressure after she’d tracked down Thompson’s miss. Ballgame over, Washington cling on.
- For Thibault, this was the win that took him past Van Chancellor to the top of the all-time WNBA wins rankings. It wasn’t a pretty way to get there, but they all count. He’s got this team playing hard from top to bottom, particularly epitomised on this occasion by Michelle Snow, who’s always been a frustrating talent. She finished with 8 points and 13 rebounds, throwing herself around the floor in an effort to pull out the win. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be pretty, you just have to get over the line.
- For Seattle, Stricklen produced some decent offense. Otherwise? Burn the tape.
Sunday July 7th (today – already completed):
Chicago @ New York, 3pm ET. I took New York +2, which didn’t work out well.
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 7pm ET. I took Minnesota -7.5, which went rather better. Coverage of both games coming tomorrow.