Once again, yesterday saw a pair of WNBA games on the schedule, with the action tipping off in Connecticut where the Chicago Sky were the visitors. It’s games like this where the Sky have to continue proving that they’re a legitimately improved team from previous years. They’d won five of their last six, and they were visiting a struggling, understrength team – it’s a contest they should have gone into confident of success, but the kind of game they’ve blown in previous years. Even sitting pretty in second place in the East, there are still plenty of scars from all the years of failure. They’re still working to consign those memories to history and become a real power in this league.
Historically, Connecticut have been one of those powers. But with Mike Thibault gone, Asjha Jones taking the year off, and a variety of injuries in their backcourt it’s been a rough season so far for the Sun. The positive for this game was that they had one of those guards back, with Kara Lawson in uniform after missing their last four games with a bruised knee. Iziane Castro Marques was still starting at off-guard, but Lawson was ready to play from the bench.
By the time Lawson made her first appearance – after barely three minutes of action – the Sun were already trailing 12-0. It was an ugly, ugly start for Connecticut. As has become the pattern for them, if Tina Charles touches the ball anywhere near the rim, double and triple-teams instantly surround her. If she successfully kicks the ball out to a teammate, they invariably clank a shot off the iron. And more often than not, Charles becomes frustrated with that process down low, so she drifts further and further away from the basket to receive the ball. For a post, she’s a pretty good jumpshooter, but they’re lower percentage shots and result in very few drawn fouls. It’s been an ineffective way to try to win games this season.
The Sun finally got off the mark through an Allison Hightower driving layup, and Charles finally produced some points by running the floor hard and finishing in transition. It looked like the night might become significantly easier for Connecticut when Sky center Sylvia Fowles limped to the sidelines after turning her right ankle again. But fortunately for Chicago, Fowles came back out from the locker room and rejoined the game early in the second quarter, looking as spry as ever. The Sun weren’t going to be that lucky.
The Sun offense looked noticeably better with Lawson on the floor. She gives them another competent ballhandler, especially in the pick-and-roll, who can find the right player (i.e. she knows her job is to get the ball to Charles as often as humanly possible). There was some rust on her jumpshot, but Connecticut clearly benefitted from having her back (especially considering how useless Castro Marques has been for the majority of her run with this team – part of the benefit from having Lawson around was simply keeping Izi on the bench). But the Sun defense was poor whoever was out there. Even when Pokey Chatman went to her horrible bench lineup – despite having three superstars, she has a frustrating tendency to sit all three simultaneously – the Sky kept scoring with relative ease. The Sun looked slow and disinterested on defense, with Fowles finding deep position in the paint far too often, Delle Donne chipping in by attacking Kelsey Griffin, and even Swin Cash finding room to score while others drew defensive attention. Chicago led 50-35 at halftime – the exact same scoreline LA had led Tulsa by the previous night, in a dominating Sparks win.
The Sun’s defensive issues are going to take work, but are fixable. The offense desperately needs players other than Charles to step up. The recovery of Lawson and imminent return of Renee Montgomery will help, but even that may well not be enough. There have to be other threats around the floor who can punish defenses for constantly swarming Charles, and Connecticut just haven’t had those this season. Allison Hightower is almost trying too hard at this point, taking shots she wouldn’t normally force up, because she knows someone has to produce alongside Tina. They’re desperately lacking in threats.
Charles had 17 of Connecticut’s 35 at halftime while shooting 8-11 from the floor, albeit on rather too many jump shots that limited her visits to the free throw line. She did the best she could to keep carrying them in the second half. The Sun had another poor start until Lawson replaced Castro Marques, but they did produce a 10-2 run to close the third quarter that pulled them within 11 points. It was a push fueled by Charles actually depositing herself on the low block and making moves inside, even if those moves often spun her away from the rim.
However, Connecticut’s first eight possessions of the fourth quarter resulted in two turnovers, and six jumpshots from at least 12 feet out. Credit Chicago’s defense to a certain extent for closing off the paint, but it definitely felt like the Sun went away from what had been working – and once again they made no inroads even with Fowles and Delle Done resting. When Delle Donne returned and scored seven straight points by painfully exposing Mistie Bass’s inability to defend her, the game was definitively over. The 83-70 final scoreline didn’t quite reflect how big the gap had been between the teams for most of the night.
It was same old, same old for Connecticut for most of this game. Charles had one of her most efficient offensive nights all season, finishing 13-20 for 29 points, but only shot five free throws, grabbed six rebounds, and had no help. The only other Sun player in double-digits was Bass, who did most of her work in garbage time at the end of the fourth quarter. They don’t have enough at the power forward position to take pressure off Charles, with Griffin, Bass and Kayla Pedersen all backup-level talents, and the backcourt scoring is still going to be relatively limited even once they get healthy. Barring a surprise arrival from Sandrine Gruda, it’s increasingly difficult to see where a turnaround could come from for the Sun in 2013.
The Sky took care of business. Charles may have piled up the individual stats, but Fowles was active when she was healthy and on the floor; Delle Donne forced her way to the free throw line well and made shots in the fourth to finish the game off; and Cash took advantage of favourable matchups. Epiphanny Prince had another quiet game, and those have been a little too common lately, but she’s still contributing. Also important to recognise this season, point guard Courtney Vandersloot is getting the job done. Obviously, her role is made easier by adding a talent like Delle Donne to the threats alongside her, and you’d like Vandersloot’s shooting to improve and force opponents to respect her shot more, but she’s handling the team better. No longer are the Sky struggling with turnovers game after game, and Vandersloot’s maturation has been a significant part of that. Barring a complete catastrophe, it’s becoming hard to see this team missing the playoffs, the promised land that has always evaded this franchise. If they stay healthy, the targets may become much higher than simply reaching the postseason.
Turning to Texas
The second game last night was in San Antonio, where they faced the Washington Mystics. Rather than preparing for this game, star Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon spent Thursday in surgery, the first step in repairing and recovering from the ACL tear she suffered last week. San Antonio had signed forward Cathrine Kraayeveld to take their numbers back up to 10, but she was no replacement for Becky.
The Silver Stars did have the confidence boost of a surprise victory in Phoenix a couple of nights earlier, but it was immediately obvious that the Mystics were going to be a very different proposition. The Mercury made countless mistakes on the pick-and-roll, and gave San Antonio far too much space to get to the rim. Washington were closing off the paint, and forcing the Silver Stars to beat them from outside. Mike Thibault has his team well organised and playing hard, making the most of their roster even if they’re not the most talented team in the WNBA.
One key change that Thibault has made to this team is encouraging them to drive at every opportunity. It’s been the central element in transforming a team that was 11th in the WNBA in free throw attempts last season into the current league leaders in that category. You drive, you create contact, you get calls, you shoot free throws. It’s blindingly simple, but it’s been effective for Washington this season. Some of it is due to personnel, and the addition of Ivory Latta has obviously helped, but much of it comes down to approach. The direct attack played a key role in the first half of this game, with Washington shooting 17 free throws to San Antonio’s 8. The Silver Stars created enough points in transition to keep pace in the first quarter, but as those dried up the Mystics pulled away to a 49-36 halftime lead. Washington’s 24-12 advantage on the glass was important as well.
San Antonio made a push in the third quarter, with their defensive energy and shot-making ability getting them back into the game. They made every hustle play in the period, forced a host of turnovers, and back-to-back threes from Jia Perkins, followed by another triple from Danielle Adams, finally made it a real contest again. They trailed by just two at the end of the third, and a Kraayeveld three to open the final period gave them a 62-61 lead.
However, one of the most impressive things Thibault has accomplished in his short time in Washington is building a squad that goes 10 players deep. Some teams have rarely had 10 healthy bodies this year, and other coaches (Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota or Brian Agler in Seattle, for example) would never dream of using five reserves simultaneously in meaningful minutes. Some (Chatman in Chicago) need to train themselves to resist the idea. But Thibault’s bench unit, which now features four rookies, has been effective for him this year. With the starters having let their lead slip away, Thibault went to that five-reserve lineup late in the third and stuck with them into the fourth quarter – and it worked. The energy and finishing ability of the likes of Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Emma Meesseman, Nadirah McKenith and Kia Vaughn reestablished the lead, and Thibault understandably left most of them out there to try to cling on to it.
San Antonio’s offensive production rather ground to a halt in the fourth quarter. It’s one of the key problems when you live and die by the jump shot – unless you have multiple truly elite scorers, the whole ‘dying’ part tends to become a little too common. After pulling within 71-68 midway through the period on a DeLisha Milton-Jones layup, they could not get off that 68 mark for what felt like an eternity. Jumper after jumper bounced off the rim, as Washington scraped out enough points to seal the game. The Silver Stars didn’t score again until only 30 seconds remained, by which time it was far too late. The Mystics held on for an 83-73 victory on the road.
Same old story for San Antonio. Impressive for stretches and fun to watch when they’re in full flow, the offense just dries up a little too easily (and frequently) and their rebounding is often as poor as ever. They’ll keep fighting, and they’ll surprise some teams when taken too lightly, but it’s going to be a difficult year with Hammon and Young watching from the sidelines.
Washington’s top scorer was Crystal Langhorne with just 14, as a remarkably balanced effort eventually got them over the line. 10 players played at least 10 minutes, which you don’t see very often outside of blowouts with long periods of garbage time for the reserves. It must be nice for Thibault to know that if his veteran starters aren’t performing, he has legitimate alternatives to turn to on the bench. Meesseman and Ruffin-Pratt were both strong contributors again, and point guard McKenith is playing her way into solid backup minutes for Latta after spending the early weeks of the season stuck to the pine. This win took Washington back to .500, and sole possession of third place in the Eastern Conference. It’s more than they could’ve dreamed of after the pain of the last couple of years.
Mercury center Brittney Griner is scheduled to be on Conan on Monday night on TBS. Not often you see a WNBA player invited to a show like that.
Saturday July 13th (today):
Indiana @ New York, 6pm ET. New York -2.5 is the line, and I tend to agree with the bookies that this one is close to a toss-up. I’ll take Indiana, because it took a throwback performance from Plenette Pierson for the Liberty to beat Seattle last week, and I’m not sure they can win again without that.
Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Tulsa +9.5 is a lot of points for a team to be getting at home – and yet still not enough for me. There’s too much of a gap in quality between the teams, so I’ll take the Lynx to win and cover.
Sunday July 14th (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ Connecticut, 5pm ET
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 6pm ET
Atlanta @ Seattle, 9pm ET