WNBA Today, 07/12/2013: Quality more important than venue in road victories for Lynx and Sparks

 

Heading into yesterday’s WNBA games, home teams were 51-24 overall in 2013, for a remarkably high .680 winning percentage. There’ve also been a whole host of blowouts this season, the vast majority going in favour of the home side. But there’s also been a pretty noticeable gap between the upper echelon of teams and the remainder of the league. Sometimes, venue doesn’t end up mattering much when there’s a distinct difference in class.

 

Yesterday’s early game was in Indiana, with another franchise offering their Camp Day game for the local kids. It was a re-match of last year’s WNBA Finals, the first meeting between the Fever and the Minnesota Lynx since Indiana fought their way to a surprising but well-deserved championship. The Fever finished off that series despite injuries to Katie Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen, who were both in street clothes yet again for yesterday’s game. Backup center Jessica Davenport is done for the year, and fellow reserve post Jessica Breland was also out for this game due to a sprained ankle. But there was some good news for Indiana, as feisty guard Erin Phillips was in uniform for the first time this season after recovering from the meniscus tear she suffered in the preseason. Minnesota had just one player out, but missing Seimone Augustus (ankle sprain) is always a significant loss.

 

To my amusement (there’s probably no one else that cares), Cheryl Reeve persisted with her gimmick of playing one possession of zone defense to open the game, before reverting to man-to-man for 98% of the remaining action. Once that was out of the way, Indiana had some positive moments in the early going, thanks to hitting a few threes. Shavonte Zellous and Karima Christmas were the hot shooters but it was always a pattern that seemed unlikely to be sustained. Even with Augustus sidelined, getting into a shooting contest with Minnesota is rarely going to end well for anyone other than the Lynx – and their jumpers were already falling nicely at the other end. Led by Monica Wright, who’s relishing the extra responsibility placed on her with Augustus out, Minnesota began to pull away in the first quarter once Indiana’s shooting returned to its typical levels.

 

The Lynx lost all their momentum when Reeve went to her bench. With Wright promoted into the starting lineup there are even fewer options off the pine that Reeve has any faith in, and it’s performances like this that illustrate why. Of course, some of it is chicken and egg – if she gave the backups more opportunity to play, learn and grow, they might reward her with better performances – but the rope has always been short for her backups.

 

It took a while for the Lynx starters to stem the tide once they came back in, with Indiana putting together a 13-0 run that gave them a 28-25 lead in the second quarter, but from there it was all Minnesota for the rest of the first half. Lindsay Whalen led the way, with Maya Moore finding a little rhythm that had escaped her for much of the half, and the Lynx transition game kicked into gear again. The Whalen/Moore/Wright combination was working just as well as the established trio has for last couple of years, and the Lynx led 38-30 at halftime.

 

The Fever refused to go away in the second half. They proved that they could defend this Lynx team as well as anybody in the Finals last year, and they once again did a solid job of keeping Minnesota away from the rim for much of the game. After being outrebounded 20-9 in the first half, Indiana also responded in that area and did a far better job on the glass for the rest of the afternoon. Moore was kept quiet for most of the game with defenders forcing her into tough jumpers that wouldn’t fall. It left the bulk of the scoring to Whalen and Wright.

 

It was one of those games where the underdog kept hanging around, and hanging around, but could never quite score that one big bucket to lift the crowd and take hold of the game. They came within a point of Minnesota on a couple of occasions in the third quarter and had three separate shots at taking the lead, but Tamika Catchings made a mess of a 3-on-1 fastbreak and bricked a jumper, before Briann January had her own ugly miss from outside. Instantly Minnesota responded with a Rebekkah Brunson jumper and breakaway layups for Moore and Wright which reestablished their lead.

 

The fourth quarter was a similar story. Decent defense from the Fever, and enough offensive production to keep the game interesting, but always held at bay by the Lynx. It was Whalen who did most of the work for the Lynx in that final period, hitting tough jumper after tough jumper to keep Minnesota’s nose in front. There was never a single moment that won the game for the Lynx – just a series of shots that consistently kept them on top. Up by five inside the final minute, it was appropriate that the ball was in Whalen’s hands when a silly foul from Catchings sent her to the free throw line – Indiana needed pressure at that point, not fouls – and Whalen sank both to ice a hard-fought 69-62 victory for the Lynx.

 

While Wright’s been the one stealing headlines due to her performances as Augustus’s stand-in (and her recent engagement), Whalen has stepped up her game as well. It’s one of her key attributes as a point guard – she’ll run the team and get everyone involved, and she’ll happily take five shots all night if it’s the best way to win a game, but she knows when her team needs her to be more aggressive offensively. Whalen finished the game 10-23 for 23 points, but she was 5-9 for 12 in the fourth quarter when she played the starring role in holding off the Fever. The Lynx were down to a six-woman rotation in the second half, thanks to it being one of those Reeve-quits-on-her-bench days, but they still had that little bit too much firepower for the Fever.

 

Despite the loss, bringing an end to Indiana’s three-game win streak, you can still feel a little life returning to the Fever. Catchings had a rough game offensively with the Lynx focussing their attentions on her, but the return of Phillips gives them another reliable ballhandler who can play hard and keep the pace of the game high (and limits the minutes of unconvincing rookie Layshia Clarendon). They’re still clawing for everything they can get while they wait for players to return, but they’re starting to at least vaguely resemble the team that toppled the Lynx last year. It’s just that they’re still a player or two short from being able to match up with the top teams at this stage.

 

No really, shut up Carolyn

 

The late game saw the Los Angeles Sparks head out on the road, anxious to prove that they can produce decent basketball away from Staples Center. 8-0 at home but 0-4 anywhere else heading into their visit to Tulsa, this was where they had to start showing they were simply a good team, rather than just a good home team. They couldn’t have asked for a much easier place to begin that transition than Tulsa, against a Shock team who’d looked pretty dismal on their recent winless road trip. On the bright side for Tulsa, they had Tiffany Jackson-Jones available for the first time since 2011 after recovering from her stress fracture (and missing last season due to pregnancy), giving them 11 healthy bodies for the first time all year.

 

Gary Kloppenburg started with Liz Cambage on the bench again, waiting to introduce his young 6’8” center against some of LA’s backups. By the time she made an appearance midway through the first quarter, LA were already up 16-8, largely behind the shooting of Kristi Toliver. She’s a mercurial talent, but we’re all well aware by now that when Kristi’s got it going, she’ll knock down shots all night long. She opened the game with a backdoor cut for an easy layup – open because Candice Wiggins was so petrified of leaving her open to shoot outside – then hit a three in transition, a floater in the lane, and another three from deep in the corner. The Shock had no answer.

 

Cambage’s opening sequence of minutes wasn’t promising either, with two quick offensive fouls sending her straight back to the bench. As she illustrated later in the game, she’s got a nice touch inside and can use her extraordinary size to her advantage at times, but she’s gangly and awkward and sometimes wanders aimlessly into trouble. Like Brittney Griner, and even players like Shaquille O’Neal back in his NBA days, she’s also very difficult to referee. She obviously can’t lead with her elbow on post moves – that’s illegal however big you are – but that raw size means she takes a lot of punishment (and dishes plenty out) which goes uncalled.

 

Jackson-Jones started the second quarter for Tulsa, which was a nice sight for Shock fans, but the game was already starting to slip away from the home team. They were committing sloppy, unnecessary turnovers, allowing LA to push the ball in transition, and leaving too many open lanes for the Sparks to finish inside. After Toliver had dominated the opening period, Candace Parker was the star of the second, finishing plays inside and happily knocking down jumpers when the defense sagged away from her. She didn’t particularly enjoy trying to handle Cambage defensively when they ended up on the floor together, but she joyfully attacked the big Aussie when LA had the ball. It was all LA.

 

One positive sequence for Tulsa came late in the second period when Skylar Diggins hit a three from the top of the arc, came up with a steal at the other end, and turned that into a pullup jumper for two more in transition. The Diggins/Wiggins backcourt has struggled desperately to produce points this season so it was nice to see her take and hit those shots with some confidence – albeit, LA gave her acres of room to shoot, because they understandably had absolutely no respect for her ability to knock them down. In general, although Diggins shot better from outside in this game than she has for most of the year, both she and Candice Wiggins continue to fail miserably at converting layups in traffic. Even the prospect of traffic, or someone hinting at challenging the shot, leads to balls flying back off the glass or iron. It’s something that both will have to work on, because you can’t just rely on perimeter shots and hoping you get fouled on drives. You have to be able to convert.

 

Tulsa trailed 50-35 at halftime, and while prospects of a comeback already looked bleak they dropped to virtually nonexistent with news that Glory Johnson would miss the second half. A relatively innocuous-looking collision with Nneka Ogwumike led to what appeared to be some kind of whiplash injury, which left Johnson on the bench with an ice pack on her neck. The Shock’s best player by some distance this season, and the only one they have capable of handling the athleticism of Parker and Ogwumike, losing Johnson was the death knell for Tulsa’s chances in this game. Diggins and Nicole Powell hit a few shots, and Jackson-Jones got some minutes under her belt, but the second half was a virtual fait accompli. LA completed their first road win of the season in relaxed fashion, finishing 94-78 victors.

 

Tulsa have been pretty poor for the last few weeks. A tricky road trip didn’t help, but they’re struggling to piece together solid offense that goes beyond dumping to Cambage and hoping she can do something, or firing up three-pointers and praying they drop. They’re still a work in progress, and no one with any sense was expecting miracles this year, but now they have everyone back we need to see some progress. Hopefully Johnson’s neck issue won’t be a lasting problem, because she’s the last person they can afford to lose.

 

LA will be delighted to finally win a game on the road, especially in such comfortable fashion, but they know as well as anyone that this can’t be considered a ‘statement game’. You don’t make statements by beating poor teams, whatever the venue. This is a nice first step. Parker (14-20 for 30 points) and Toliver (10-14 for 25) were outstanding, and the defense was good enough, but this was just a ‘handle your business’ game. You’re supposed to win these. Let’s see them beat a couple of good teams on the road (when the ESPN cameras aren’t there to inspire them) and we can start the fawning. It’s a bit early yet.

 

Notes

A couple of teams made roster moves today. Seattle waived rookie post Cierra Bravard, which is hardly a surprise considering she’s barely been used and has looked a little out of her depth on her rare appearances. Her replacement is old Storm favourite Ashley Robinson, a veteran center known more for her work in the community than her production on the floor (although some people like her defense). She’ll give them an extra emergency post option, but really shouldn’t play all that much.

 

With Becky Hammon and Sophia Young out for the season, San Antonio used a hardship exception to add forward Cathrine Kraayeveld to their roster. Definitively reduced to nine for the year, presumably they wanted a more proven additional option than the likes of Julie Wojta and Chante Black, who’d been used by San Antonio as emergency cover earlier in the season. Kraayeveld’s been around for a long time in this league, will offer some hustle and some interior defense, and knock down an occasional three. Dan Hughes likes to go deep into his bench, so he’s probably better off with a known quantity down there rather than yet another youngster. They already have a project post in rookie center Kayla Alexander.

 

Upcoming Games

 

Friday July 12th (today):

Chicago @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. I took the Sun +4 in the hope that the challenge of Fowles could raise Tina Charles’s performance, and the return of Kara Lawson could help. Not looking good at time of writing.

 

Washington @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. San Antonio -3 was my pick, based on the Silver Stars still being a decent team without Hammon and Young, especially on their own floor.

 

—–

Saturday July 13th (tomorrow):

Indiana @ New York, 6pm ET

Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

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