We had a pair of early tip-offs in the WNBA yesterday, as thousands of kids descended on arenas in Chicago and Phoenix for their yearly Camp Day games. Sometimes players struggle to wake themselves up time to perform in these games, but it’s always nice if they end up as watchable contests – we have to encourage the next generation of WNBA fans to keep coming back.
The first game was in the Windy City, where the Washington Mystics were the visitors. For once, both teams had healthy rosters, with Tamera Young returning from the ankle injury that kept her out of the Sky’s last game to give Pokey Chatman a full bench to utilise. The Mystics reached two significant marks with recent wins – Mike Thibault went past Van Chancellor on the all-time WNBA coaching wins list, and the franchise equalled the highest win-total from the Trudi Lacey era. With 22 games still to go. Now they can just concentrate on continued improvement.
While much of the talk last season around the Sky surrounded Epiphanny Prince’s breakout year, and most of the discussion this year has been about rookie starlet Elena Delle Donne, one important player used this game to remind everyone that Chicago already had a superstar before either of those two arrived – Sylvia Fowles. Big Syl was aggressive and active from the very start, running the floor hard, fighting for position in the paint, and leaping after every rebound. While she’s put up pretty solid, consistent numbers this season, too many times she’s been performing relatively quietly while rarely touching the ball in Chatman’s largely predictable offense. This was the Fowles we always want to see, a dominant presence at both ends of the floor who demands the ball inside, or just goes and gets it on the offensive glass. All this despite playing through a bone bruise on her foot and still recovering from a recent ankle sprain. Maybe she needs to be slightly injured even more often, if this is the result.
Washington still hung around in contention for much of the first half. Epiphanny Prince was having trouble staying in front of fellow Rutgers alum Matee Ajavon, which allowed Ajavon to either get to the rim or head to the free throw line. Ivory Latta was shooting pretty well from outside as well. But late in the first half Washington were becoming frustrated at calls going against them, as Michelle Snow and Kia Vaughn were piling up fouls in their battles with Fowles in the paint. Then Delle Donne started involving herself more in the Sky offense, doing a good job of finding teammates when Washington sent two or three defenders at her to contain her drives. It’s something that Delle Donne still needs to improve on as a pro. Her college team was so reliant on her to score, and to keep shooting even through double or triple-teams, that it’s a new mind-set to appreciate that finding an open teammate is often the right play. With the likes of Swin Cash and Tamera Young finishing plays Delle Donne created for them, Chicago held a 50-38 advantage at halftime.
For a while in the third quarter, it looked like Chicago might pull away and make the game comfortable. Fowles was still a nightmare inside, and Washington weren’t creating much offensively besides jump shots, which is a tough way to stay in games. But when Fowles went to the bench midway through the third period – with the Sky up by 14 – the Mystics found a little life. They went big with Vaughn, Crystal Langhorne and Emma Meesseman all on the floor together, which gave the Sky some matchup problems. They consistently try to hide Delle Donne on the defensive end, which left her flitting between options like Michelle Snow and Meesseman through the course of this game. It led to several Snow buckets early in the second half when Washington attacked Delle Donne with pick-and-pops, and it left Swin Cash having to defend Langhorne with Fowles on the bench. Cash is a solid, smart defender, but she doesn’t really have the bulk to handle Langhorne on the low block. So by the time Fowles came back in, Washington were within 8 and once again had a foothold in the game.
With Fowles back on the floor in the fourth, Chicago still looked a little confused about how to handle the Mystics’ big lineup. Meesseman seemed like the obvious place to hide Delle Donne, but not wanting to put Cash on a center left her still trying to handle Langhorne – even with Fowles out there as an alternative. Langhorne was loving that matchup and continued to score, while the extra size and length it gave Washington defensively was slowing down Chicago’s offense. The gap came down to three points, before Prince and Courtney Vandersloot managed to hit a couple of jumpers to stop the bleeding.
Ajavon got herself tossed midway through the fourth quarter after whining her way to her second technical of the afternoon – there was a double-technical called earlier on her and Young after a tiny little scuffle – but the Mystics just inserted rookie guard Tayler Hill and kept fighting. They simply refused to go away. A deep Latta three with a minute left pulled them within a single point for the first time since the opening quarter. Then Vandersloot missed a runner – on a Sky possession where criminally none of their ‘Big Three’ touched the ball – and Delle Donne fouled Monique Currie in the fight for the rebound, sending her to the other end of the floor for free throws. Currie went 1-of-2 at the line, and somehow the game was tied.
But there was still time for the Sky to send all those Chicago kids home happy. Prince came around a Fowles screen, took a pass, and hit a 20-foot jumper to put Chicago right back in front. Washington ran a very similar play for Latta – only for the ball to go right through her hands and out of bounds. After Prince ran down the clock and spun into traffic before tossing up an airball, the Mystics had 10.7 seconds left, trailing by two. Again the pass went to Latta, who had a good look from 15 feet but barely caught iron, and Currie missed badly under pressure after grabbing the offensive board. Washington managed to foul Delle Donne to stop the clock, but she coolly sank both free throws to ice the game, sealing an 89-85 win for Chicago.
The Sky made awfully hard work of what could’ve been a more comfortable victory, but they pulled it out in the end. Fowles was a beast all afternoon, finishing 12-17 for 26 points and 18 rebounds (10 of them on the offensive glass). Delle Donne and Prince both struggled to hit shots in the second half as Washington did a better job of putting them under pressure, but Chicago had just enough to get over the line. That’s one of the major benefits of having three legitimate stars on your team – when one or two aren’t at their best, you still have superior talent left to lean on.
Despite the loss, it was another impressive effort from the Mystics to stay with it and give themselves a chance to steal the win. There were plenty of times during the course of this game where they could’ve let it slip away and just settled for defeat, but they’re not letting that happen this year. The one-two punch of Latta and Langhorne led the scoring, but it was a balanced effort from a hard-working team. In the end, Chicago just had that little bit more in their locker.
And in Arizona…
The second game of the day involved a little pre-game disappointment for all the camp kids in Phoenix, as Brittney Griner was ruled out due to the sprained left knee she’s been working through for much of the season. She tweaked it again during practice, and the Mercury understandably took the cautious approach of sitting her out. With fellow post Lynetta Kizer also ruled out due to injury, Phoenix were looking a little thin on the front line for their matchup with the San Antonio Silver Stars.
Of course, they weren’t going to find much sympathy coming from the San Antonio side of the floor. Having been without Sophia Young all season due to an ACL tear in her right knee, Becky Hammon returned from her broken finger to play all of 12 minutes last weekend – before tearing the ACL in her left knee. After one game coming off the bench in the role Dan Hughes would’ve envisioned for her before the season, Jia Perkins was back in the starting lineup to replace Hammon – and she’ll probably be there for the rest of the year.
Offensively, everything went pretty nicely for Phoenix early on – as is usually the case. The Diana Taurasi/Candice Dupree pick-and-roll which has become a core part of their offense was running smoothly, and Danielle Robinson went under too many screens early in the game – giving Taurasi far too much room to fire away from three-point range. But as the first half wore on, things became a little more difficult. Robinson fought over the screens better, or San Antonio switched when they had to, and Phoenix started turning the ball over. They got some useful minutes from Penny Taylor – still working her way back from her own ACL tear – reminding everyone what a superior finisher she is at the basket, but as a team they cooled off from the hot early pace.
And of course, the Mercury’s major problems came at the other end of the floor. It seems virtually redundant to say it at this point, but the defense was a mess. Unlike the Silver Stars, who generally know when they need to switch or communicate well enough to inform each other of that need, Phoenix seemed consistently confused as to whether they were hedging, switching, trapping or just standing around praying someone would defend for them. San Antonio shot 55% in the first half, with Jayne Appel providing an unusual amount of offense because she was so open that even she decided she had to score. The Silver Stars typically live or die by the jump shot and produce minimal scoring at the rim – but had 20 points in the paint by halftime.
Little changed in the second half. Usually the Mercury dominate offensively, even if their defense leaves a lot to be desired. But with DeWanna Bonner having another desperately quiet game, and Krystal Thomas and Briana Gilbreath complete passengers offensively, Taurasi and Dupree were the only real threats in the starting five. Realising this, San Antonio increasingly brought multiple defenders towards Taurasi to make her a passer, as other teams have been doing more and more in recent games. While the efficiency remained relatively high through most of the game, it took some of the pace and momentum out of Phoenix’s attack. They never took over the game to the extent that we sometimes see, and never seemed to have the contest under control.
For San Antonio, shorn of their two leading players from recent years, the noticeable element was balance. They were finding scoring from all around their roster, with DeLisha Milton-Jones attacking Dupree’s weak defense (still waiting for my ‘The Matador’ nickname to catch on), or Shenise Johnson knocking down jumpers, or Danielle Robinson slicing to the rim. They didn’t have the star power of the Mercury, but for once it was the Silver Stars who looked like they had threats all around the floor, while Phoenix had to look in specific directions.
The game wasn’t decided until the final four minutes. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines had been forced to bring Taylor back off his bench, despite trying to limit her minutes, because he was getting so little production from Thomas, Gilbreath or Bonner. But after Taylor tied the game at 74 on a driving layup, the Silver Stars took over. It was Danielle Adams who did most of the damage, planting herself down low and scoring with ridiculous ease. Thomas’s lack of impact meant Gaines had gone to Dupree/Bonner as his post pairing, and they looked desperately lightweight against the bulk and strength of Adams. Thomas was quickly thrown back in to defend, only to be called for a foul and send Appel to the line. She hit both of those for an eight-point San Antonio lead, and moments later the game was essentially finished when Taurasi exited on a completely unnecessary offensive foul. She tried to run right through Milton-Jones for no particular reason other than her own frustration, picking up her fourth foul of the quarter and sixth of the night. Without her, Phoenix’s chances of making a late comeback went from slim to none, and San Antonio held on for a surprise 88-80 win on the road.
While Griner’s absence obviously didn’t help, it’s hardly the first time that the flaws in the Mercury defense have been laid glaringly bare – and at times this year they’ve looked equally disorganised even with Griner in the middle. With Taurasi running the offense virtually solo and some combination of Dupree, Bonner and Thomas inside, Phoenix managed a dubious combination of both lacking ballhandling and lacking interior presence. They’re always going to be a scary prospect to handle with their offensive weapons, but they’re still going to be prone to nights like this when the defense is this porous. It’s been this way for years.
All of that said, credit to San Antonio for clawing out another unexpected victory. They’d lost seven of their previous eight games, and just found out their leader was done for the entire season – so this was a nice way to respond. They even came up with 44 points in the paint, which is a virtual miracle for this team, even against Phoenix. As with teams like Seattle and Connecticut, it’s going to take team efforts like this to overcome the gaps left by the loss of key players, and it’s impressive when they pull it off. It’s just hard to replicate for every game.
Thursday July 11th (today):
Minnesota @ Indiana, 12pm ET. I took Minnesota -4.5 on the road (announced via pre-game tweet), expecting them to be a bit too much for Indiana. Again, once in a while I get these on the nose.
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 9pm ET. Also announced on Twitter, I took LA -7.5 on a similar logic as the earlier game. At time of writing, it’s unknown how accurate that one might be.
Friday July 12th (tomorrow):
Chicago @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Washington @ San Antonio, 8pm ET