Another double-header of WNBA action last night, one game in the East, one in the West. In the Eastern Conference, we had two teams who’ve struggled through stuttering seasons, and currently find themselves tussling in the lower reaches of the playoff battle. Over in the West, it was top versus bottom, as the leaders took on a team that already looks like it’s heading for another year in the lottery. Funnily enough, both games ended up being equally one-sided.
The opener saw the New York Liberty hosting long-time Eastern rivals the Indiana Fever. Both teams have dealt with key injuries this season, and the Liberty won’t be getting Essence Carson or Cheryl Ford back any time this year. Indiana are at least starting to become a little healthier, with the return of Erin Phillips boosting their guard corps – although Jessica Breland’s ankle sprain dropped their numbers back to nine virtually simultaneously. Lately it’s felt like these teams are on very different trajectories. The Fever had won three of four coming into this game, with the return of Tamika Catchings after a back problem inspiring some improvement. The Liberty had lost five of their last seven, and almost managed to blow their previous game against Seattle despite leading by 17 in the first quarter. New York were 1.5 games up on Indiana in the standings, but Liberty fans were probably more worried about their current state heading into this clash.
The first half was tight throughout, with neither team leading by more than three points at any stage. Both sides had opened the game with the same starting lineups that they used in their previous outings, but Kara Braxton picked up two fouls within 43 seconds, leading to an early entry for Alex Montgomery (and obviously a switch to a smaller lineup for New York). Montgomery attacked the glass, and when Plenette Pierson came into the game she dominated Fever backup Jasmine Hassell on the low block, carrying the Liberty offense. But with Erlana Larkins having one of her more effective offensive games of the year, and New York’s miserable turnover issues continuing to plague them, Indiana kept pace.
In the backcourt, both teams had some differences from recent games. As he mentioned explicitly in the recorded pre-game interview, Bill Laimbeer is sick of playing two small guards together, and is trying to transition Cappie Pondexter over to the ‘lead guard’ spot he envisioned for her before the season began. Pondexter had a pretty poor first half in that role, and Katie Smith ended up trying to initiate the offense half the time anyway. The next level of avoiding the ‘two small guards’ issue came when Kamiko Williams entered the game ahead of Leilani Mitchell off the bench. Williams has had a rollercoaster rookie year with more troughs than peaks, and Mitchell’s ability to at least vaguely run an offense – and make a few perimeter shots – had forced Laimbeer into using her ahead of the rookie. But Williams has a few inches on Mitchell, and if Laimbeer is determined to avoid a small backcourt, Mitchell can only play when Pondexter rests. This idea may not last long – in fact, Laimbeer turned to Mitchell before Williams in the second half.
On the other side of the floor, Indiana must be delighted to have Phillips back. She makes life easier for everybody just by putting another true ballhandler on the floor, plus someone who can both penetrate and knock down a few outside shots. Point guard Briann January, who’s had a miserable year with so many important pieces on the sidelines, is a key beneficiary. She doesn’t have to handle the load at the point alone, and she can often hang out at the three-point line and wait for someone else to create a shot for her. It also takes pressure off Catchings and Shavonte Zellous, who had to take on more ballhandling responsibilities in Phillips’s absence. It was noticeable in the final two minutes of the first half, after Catchings picked up her third foul and had to sit, that Indiana didn’t fall apart like they might’ve done before without their leader. Phillips was there to help run the offense and keep things under control. A quick run of points from Zellous gave Indiana a 37-34 halftime lead.
However, the third quarter was the crucial passage of this game – and it was an abomination for the New York Liberty. Indiana began the period by attacking through their bigs, with both Larkins and Catchings proving too quick for whichever option New York used to try to defend them (Braxton couldn’t handle Larkins; Smith, Pierson and Toni Young all struggled with Catchings). Then the Fever started destroying the Liberty from outside, penetrating and kicking to wide open shooters, making the extra pass when necessary, and knocking down open shots. At the other end, New York simply kept turning the ball over, with a jacked up jump shot occasionally breaking the monotony of repeated giveaways. It was an embarrassing 10 minutes for the Liberty, as a tight game quickly became a hideous blowout, Indiana dominating the third period 31-6.
To lose a quarter that badly, lots of different things have to go wrong simultaneously – Indiana started winning the rebounding battle after being beaten up there in the first half, and they were unusually hot outside, along with everything else – but some of these issues have been virtual constants for New York in 2013. They continue to lead the league in turnovers, and it’s not even close. At 18.7 per game, they’re virtually three full turnovers clear of any other team in the league, heading for a WNBA record since the introduction of the shot clock. This isn’t something they’ve done in other recent seasons, and it’s not just the inexperienced players on the roster turning the ball over, which suggests it’s at least partially created by the system Laimbeer is trying to run – then exacerbated by a loss of confidence. They constantly try to force the ball into small gaps in attempts to feed their bigs, and defenses repeatedly poke those balls away or deflect them onto different paths. They’re predictable, and it constantly costs them possessions. It’s something that ought to be fixable just by taking better care, reversing the ball more when the pass isn’t available, and spreading the floor better to reduce the defensive traffic. But it’s been a continual problem throughout the Liberty’s opening 14 games. The fourth quarter last night was merely a procession to the finish line after the disastrous third, with Indiana coasting to a 74-53 victory.
Some of New York’s issues are simply personnel. Losing Carson and Ford put a serious dent in their talent-level, and now they’re trying to cope with what they have left. Pierson had a strong first half, but tired badly in the second and couldn’t handle the speed and mobility of Indiana’s posts, especially with the knee issue that continues to limit her. Pondexter was back to firing up long jump shots, rarely driving and often not even moving the ball. They look like they’ve lost their balance, and whatever confidence they may have possessed is draining out of them. They’re 6-8 now, and they’ve looked like a .500 team for most of the season, but they’re definitely slipping backwards at the moment. Laimbeer has to make some changes to try to arrest the slide.
With their fourth win in five games, Indiana are starting to resemble their old selves. They’re still going to have trouble at times due to their lack of size, and the perimeter shooting could still use Katie Douglas, but they had more than enough to take care of the Liberty. As much as anything, they just look like they’ve rediscovered their chemistry in recent games. It’s particularly important for Indiana because their active defense relies so heavily on communication, rotation and recovery, and the constant injuries kept tearing that apart earlier in the year. They’re not back in a playoff spot quite yet, but this win pulled them within half a game of New York, and evened the season series with the Liberty. The way these teams look right now, the Fever seem far more likely to be in a playoff position when it matters at the end of the regular season.
Over in Oklahoma…
Our second game yesterday was expected to be a blowout from before the tip, rather than just becoming one as the game progressed. The Minnesota Lynx came in at 10-3, having beaten Phoenix, Atlanta and Indiana in their last three games – so a visit to Tulsa held no fear for them. The Shock had been awful lately, like New York seemingly heading in the wrong direction after a start to the season that held some promise. Also, while the Lynx had already shown that they could handle the absence of Seimone Augustus with her ankle sprain, the Shock were without Glory Johnson for the first time this year. The neck injury Johnson sustained again LA on Thursday night made her a ‘gametime decision’ according to an interview with Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg – which hopefully means it’s not too serious – but she was in street clothes for this one. Her energy and activity as both an interior finisher and rebounder have been the major highlight for Tulsa this season, and she’s the only Shock player with any realistic claim to be at the upcoming All-Star Game (although Skylar Diggins may make it in based on fan adoration, rather than performance). This game was already a tough proposition for Tulsa – without their best player, it looked dangerously close to impossible.
The Shock started the game with an entirely new frontcourt, bringing Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Liz Cambage in for Johnson and Jennifer Lacy. That suggests to me that Kloppenburg isn’t yet convinced by the fit of a Johnson/Cambage frontcourt, because he could’ve simply replaced Johnson with Jackson-Jones as something approximating a like-for-like switch. Instead he took the opportunity to promote Cambage again. Finding a way to maximise the potential of Johnson/Cambage as a pairing needs to be one of the priorities for this franchise once Glory returns, because they’re two of the key building blocks for Tulsa’s future. It can’t be avoided long-term, barring a trade.
It didn’t take long for Minnesota to take control. The Shock were trying to feed Cambage in the paint, but big, physical posts are the kind Janel McCarville is actually most effective defending. She’s not that tall, but McCarville is much more comfortable banging against true size than she is dealing with speed and agility in space. She did a solid job against Cambage, and even once she went to the bench after tweaking an ankle, Devereaux Peters and Rebekkah Brunson handled the big Aussie without too much trouble. Brunson also nailed a series of open mid-range jumpers, created by Lindsay Whalen exploiting Cambage’s general inability to cover space and movement of mobile opponents.
The Lynx were also taking the Shock apart with their transition game – something Minnesota are very good at utilising to create points, and Tulsa are terrible at stopping. The Lynx were repeatedly pushing the ball off turnovers, rebounds or even made baskets, and getting to the rim before Tulsa’s defense was set. So much of that purely comes down to effort, and running the floor hard. It didn’t look like the Lynx were even out of second gear, but they were still schooling the Shock with relative ease.
Tulsa’s offense doesn’t have a lot of complexity to it, which is part of why they often look so much better with Riquna Williams on the floor – she doesn’t need complexity, she just wants the ball. A series of bombs from outside by the quicksilver guard, followed by a couple of finishes in the paint from Cambage, pulled Tulsa within 6 points midway through the second quarter. At least the crowd had something to get excited about. However, Minnesota responded quickly through Brunson and Maya Moore, with open mid-range jumpers and transition layups continuing to pile up points. The Lynx were back up by 14 at halftime, leading 51-37 – they shot a ridiculous 67% from the field in the first half.
The second half was essentially more of the same. The Lynx never looked like they were going all-out, and the way her team relaxed probably won’t have pleased head coach Cheryl Reeve, but their lead never seemed to be under any real threat. With under five minutes left in the game, and Minnesota coughing up too many cheap turnovers, Tulsa shot themselves back within 12 points – but they never looked likely to close the remaining gap. The Lynx held on for a comfortable 86-75 win, and the most meaningful incident in the closing minutes was when Shock point guard Skylar Diggins turned her right ankle and had to be carried back to the bench (something blithely ignored by the incompetent home commentator). Hopefully it’s just a sprain rather than something more serious because even if Diggins has had her struggles as a rookie, they won’t want an injury to slow her development any further.
This was one of those encounters where everyone seemed virtually certain of the result before the start, which led to a game without a great deal of energy or excitement. Led by Whalen, Moore and Brunson, Minnesota performed just well enough to take care of business and move on with the win (which when you’re as good as the Lynx means shooting 56% from the floor). Another day at the office for Minnesota, and not much more.
While the absence of Glory Johnson gave them a new excuse, it was another depressing game for the Shock. Cambage had her moments, but also had plenty where she was frustrated, pouting, whirling into an offensive foul or carelessly throwing the ball away. Riquna Williams and Nicole Powell gave them some bursts of scoring, but once again the ineffectiveness and general passivity of the Skylar Diggins/Candice Wiggins backcourt made those injections necessary. They’re getting so little from that starting pairing as offensive threats, and it’s the same almost every night. Another long season for Shock fans continues.
Sunday July 14th (today):
San Antonio @ Connecticut, 5pm ET. Sun -7 is the line, and even with Lawson back for Connecticut, and Hammon and Young on the sidelines for San Antonio, that’s too many points for me. I’ll take the Silver Stars to cover, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won.
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 6pm ET. Phoenix are getting 4.5 points on their own floor, due to a combination of their poor performance last time out against San Antonio, the likely continued absence of Brittney Griner, and LA’s recent win streak. LA winning in Tulsa doesn’t remotely convince me they’ve overcome their road woes, but Phoenix were dismal on Wednesday. I’ll take the Sparks and give up the points.
Atlanta @ Seattle, 9pm ET. Seattle +7 is the line, which is a lot of points to give them in Key Arena, even this season. But the Dream will be looking to respond after their blowout loss to Minnesota, and the Storm frequently struggle against Atlanta’s speed. I’ll take my third road team of the day.