Sunday saw a triple-header of WNBA action, so it’s off to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to cover it all:
- Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups they’d used in their last games. For San Antonio that meant second-year wing Shenise Johnson retaining her small forward spot ahead of Shameka Christon; for Connecticut, Iziane Castro Marques continued to start with Kara Lawson still coming off the bench in her second game since returning from injury. Castro Marques has been desperately ineffective since joining the Sun, whether starting or as a reserve, which in truth is only a continuation of how poor she was in Atlanta and Washington the last two years. At some point, WNBA teams will eventually stop signing her. At the very least, her minutes will continue to disappear for Connecticut with Lawson back and Renee Montgomery reportedly approaching a return as well.
- The first half was remarkably streaky, eventually ending up in virtual stalemate. Both these teams are deeply flawed. San Antonio, lacking stars Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, don’t have the same level of scoring threat that they’ve possessed in previous seasons. They’ve also been one of the worst rebounding teams in the league for years, and nothing’s changed on that front. Connecticut still have the same gaping hole at power forward that they started the season with, the injuries have hurt the backcourt, and Tina Charles has lacked offensive support all year. It all balanced out and ended up even.
- Charles settled for too many jumpers in the first half, just like she has all season, despite San Antonio sending far fewer double-teams at her than she’s seen from most opponents this year. Most teams have seen the lack of firepower around Charles and swarmed her, forcing any other Sun player to try to beat them. The Silver Stars sent help occasionally, but largely trusted Jayne Appel to do the best job she could while everyone else stayed home.
- At the other end of the floor, San Antonio missed a procession of layups, whether under pressure or not. As a team that doesn’t usually take many shots near the rim, maybe they were too close. After trailing by as many as 11 points earlier in the first half, once they stepped back and started firing jumpers, Jia Perkins and Danielle Robinson shot San Antonio back into the game. The Silver Stars trailed just 34-32 at halftime.
- While the injuries to vital players have obviously hurt San Antonio this year, one thing it has done is put more responsibility on the shoulders of Shenise Johnson, which can only be good for their future. She’s a player that’s hard to define, because she’s at least pretty good at almost everything. She can handle the ball (they even have her playing a little point guard when Robinson needs a rest and Dan Hughes doesn’t want to rely on rookie Davellyn Whyte). She’s a good rebounder for her size and for a wing. She’s a useful outside shooter (41% both last season and this year from three-point range). She can penetrate off the dribble as well, although she does sometimes have problems finishing at the rim. She’s actually always reminded me a little of someone now sitting on the San Antonio sidelines, Vicky Johnson, who did a bit of everything from a similar spot for the Liberty and Silver Stars in her distinguished WNBA career. The only question with Shenise Johnson is whether she’s always going to be a deluxe role player, or if she can continue to do all these different things – just more. That will dictate whether she’ll be a WNBA player fans really like and constantly refer to as ‘underappreciated’, or if she can become a true star.
- The second half of this game maintained the streakiness. After trailing slightly for much of the third quarter, another series of outside bombs fired San Antonio in front. Perkins, Christon and Danielle Adams all rained in jump shots as San Antonio shot their way to an eight-point lead with eight minutes left in the game. Much of their offense is actually designed to create these shots. They set back-screens to break their shooters open for long jumpers, preferable threes, and fire away. When they get hot, it can rack up points in a hurry.
- However, Connecticut weren’t done. In a remarkably entertaining fourth quarter that didn’t fit in with much of what had preceded it, the game was flying from end to end as the teams tried to outscore each other. A couple of steals for breaking layups, a couple of jumpers falling in for the Sun, San Antonio missing layups again, and we were destined for a tight finish.
- As they’ve required all season, a couple of role players stepped up for Connecticut. While they’ve benefitted greatly from the return of Kara Lawson, whose ballhandling and shooting improves their perimeter attack enormously, it was Allison Hightower and Mistie Bass who were key in their late run. Hightower was a contender for the Most Improved Player award last year, and all she’s done this year is take another step up when so few players on the roster have offered Charles any support. She hit several key jumpers and runners late in this game for the Sun. Bass offered an option at power forward with legitimate size and some willingness to attack offensively, which was a nice switch from Kelsey Griffin. San Antonio had gone to an Appel/Adams frontcourt and immediately attacked Griffin in the paint, because Charles can’t cover both of them. Bass quickly replaced Griffin, and that problem went away for the Sun.
- San Antonio pulled within two points with 34 seconds left on two DeLisha Milton-Jones free throws. Connecticut ran some time off, Hightower penetrated, and found Kalana Greene for an open baseline jump shot, which she missed. Either Lawson or Charles probably should’ve touched the ball on that possession, but you can’t complain too much when you end up with a wide open 15-footer that would’ve virtually sealed the game. It left San Antonio 9 seconds to either tie or win.
- The play was pretty much what you’d expect – a high pick-and-roll for Danielle Robinson and Danielle Adams, hoping Robinson could use her speed to get to the rim. Unfortunately for San Antonio, one of Hightower’s other useful attributes is being a very solid perimeter defender. The floor-spacing could’ve been better to give Robinson more room, but essentially Hightower contained her and blocked off the drive on her own. Rather than take the pull up jumper herself, Robinson made an awkward pass to Perkins, who was almost on top of her, and Perkins missed a tough fadeaway from 18 feet. Rebound Connecticut, clock runs out, Sun win.
- There’s not a great deal to say about this game in summary. Two of the poorer teams in the WNBA came together and eventually produced a pretty watchable contest, which was nice. The positive angle for Connecticut was that they played stretches of energetic defense which created transition points to bolster their generally rather anaemic halfcourt offense. Maybe Lawson and Montgomery can combine to help Hightower enough on the perimeter to back up Charles, and the Sun’s season can finally gain some momentum. But you probably shouldn’t bet on it.
- The second game of the day offered what should’ve been one of the more intriguing and mouth-watering clashes of the season so far. The Western Conference had started to develop into the top-three/bottom-three groupings we all expected before the season began. This saw two of those top teams face each other, and with Los Angeles still trying to prove that they can perform on the road, it should’ve been the first real test for them on their travels this month, after a cake-walk in Tulsa. But rookie center Brittney Griner was still out due to her reaggravated left knee sprain, and the Mercury were awful without her against San Antonio on Wednesday, losing at home to the Silver Stars. It took the edge off the anticipation for this contest.
- Despite the same injuries – Griner’s left knee, and Lynetta Kizer’s right knee – Mercury head coach Corey Gaines made a change to his starting lineup. Instead of trying to fill Griner’s spot with backup center Krystal Thomas (who isn’t any kind of Griner replacement outside of her dreams), wing Charde Houston came in as the extra starter. That slid DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree over as the frontcourt pairing who’d have to handle Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. On the bright side, the Mercury’s interior defense couldn’t get much worse than it had been against San Antonio.
- Diana Taurasi lasted all of three minutes on the floor before picking up two fouls and going right back to the bench. The first foul was when she was caught on Ogwumike down low and just hooked the Sparks forward without even making any pretense at defending her; the second on an offensive foul trying to go around a screen. Aggression and feistiness has always been part of Taurasi’s game (along with defense that floats from nonexistent to assault and battery), but she picks up too many of these unnecessary fouls. The Mercury are so overwhelmingly reliant on her that it’s a problem, because they need her on the floor as much as possible.
- Phoenix’s transition defense is flat-out embarrassing at times. LA can be scary in transition with their athletes and finishers, but run the damn floor and make an effort to hold them up at least. When several players haven’t even crossed halfcourt as the opponent is scoring, it’s a worrying sign.
- LA’s defense, on the other hand, is noticeably improved. It’s an illustration that there are a variety of different ways to defend, but if you’re smart, attentive and active, several different options can be equally effective. Many teams in the WNBA switch quite a lot defensively, but most of them make an effort to avoid it if it’s going to create a clear mismatch, and try to switch back as soon as possible to more natural matchups. LA still switch constantly. Often even when they don’t really have to. Sometimes it catches them out, because someone like Lindsey Harding or Kristi Toliver will be left trying to handle an opposing big, who’ll simply overpower them or score right over them. But lately the difference with the Sparks is that the help is much better. If there’s a mismatch, someone arrives to double team so the ball is forced back out and they can re-set. If a post hedges on a pick-and-roll, the help defender that so often failed to even recognise a problem in the past is arriving to cover the roll in the paint. There are still breakdowns – and Candace Parker is often still in the middle of those when they happen – but they’ve been much better lately. It’s probably the main element that’s made it start to look like a potential top-two at the Western summit with Minnesota, rather than a three-way battle including this Mercury squad.
- However, Phoenix kept hanging around in this game. Parker was scoring with far too much ease in the paint and on breaks, and she combined with Ogwumike to dominate the glass, but Taurasi’s return at the start of the second quarter kept the Mercury offense alive. She was scoring on drives and jumpers, bitching constantly about everything as usual, and generally keeping Phoenix afloat. Also, Toliver couldn’t find her range from outside, which limited the LA scoring, and restricted them to a 43-37 halftime advantage. For the level of dominance it felt like the Sparks had held during the first half, it was a minimal lead.
- The third quarter was pretty similar. LA seemingly in control and holding a lead of around 10 points throughout, but Taurasi’s ridiculous scoring ability (with occasional contributions from Bonner and Penny Taylor) keeping the Mercury hanging around.
- For once Taurasi drew someone else into a technical foul rather than being called for one herself. Late in the third quarter, she caught Lindsey Harding in the face during a scramble for a loose ball, and Harding was horrified to be called for a loose ball foul on the play. Her screaming fit drew the tech on top. Taurasi remained on five technicals for the season, where she’s been for quite some time now. She’s maybe been keeping herself a little more under control with the prospect of a suspension for the seventh tech, but the refs also probably noticed how quickly she was piling them up. The League doesn’t want its stars getting suspended, so they’ve probably been giving her a slightly longer leash than earlier in the season.
- The game died as a contest early in the fourth quarter when LA’s lead pushed out to around 15 and Taurasi went cold. They hadn’t been able to contain Parker all night, with Bonner and Dupree taking turns at being equally ineffective. Harding joined in by coasting to the rim on several occasions, and when Parker wasn’t killing them inside, Ogwumike took a turn instead. The Sparks also received an important contribution from one of their forgotten bench players, with Aussie wing Jenna O’Hea entering the game late in the third quarter and earning her spot on the floor right through to the finish. She reminded everyone that she can hit from outside, and will give as good as she gets in the defensive battle – which in this case often meant entering the usual brawl with Taurasi. Carol Ross has a lot of options on her bench, but O’Hea can be a useful one if she gets a chance.
- This was a pretty predictable result once Griner was ruled out. The Mercury have enough holes defensively when she’s available, never mind when she’s sidelined. While Parker/Ogwumike attacking Dupree/Bonner highlighted their lack of post presence without their giant rookie, the Mercury’s lack of perimeter ballhandling is also starting to become rather glaring. It’s Taurasi and not much else, with Bonner, Houston, Briana Gilbreath and Alexis Hornbuckle doing what they can to help out. The increasing fitness of Penny Taylor will help as well, but with Samantha Prahalis firmly entrenched in Gaines’s doghouse – she’s played a total of six minutes in their last eight games, and all six were in a 32-point blowout loss against Minnesota – they don’t have any real ballhandlers besides Taurasi. The Prahalis spot on this roster is becoming an issue. If Gaines is never going to use her, and no one’s interested in a trade, do they have the balls to cut last year’s 6th overall pick for nothing? There must be someone out there who could bring the ball up and initiate the offense, while hopefully making an occasional outside shot.
- LA have done the job on the road for two games now, even if wins over miserable Tulsa and Griner-less Phoenix aren’t the most impressive achievements. They’ve got the star power in the starting lineup to carry the offense even if one or two of them are having an off-night, enough bench options that someone should be able to help in any given game, and a defense that looks like it’s finally working things out. You can only beat the opponents that are in front of you, and they’ve been managing that with relative ease lately. Can’t ask much more than that.
- Atlanta were heavy favourites for this game initially, having beaten Seattle all five times they’d faced each other since the WNBA Finals of 2010, and performed far better so far this season. But news before tip-off suggested it was going to be much more difficult for the Dream than initially anticipated. We already knew backup wing Tiffany Hayes was out after surgery on a torn meniscus, but joining her in missing the game were Sancho Lyttle (left foot) and Angel McCoughtry (strained achilles). McCoughtry travelled with the team and was a late scratch, so hopefully she won’t be out for long. Unfortunately news emerged today that Lyttle had fractured her left foot during the game against Minnesota on Tuesday, and had surgery to repair it today. She’s expected to return in 6-8 weeks, which means only 1-3 weeks before the playoffs begin (assuming there are no setbacks and she hits that schedule). They won every game while Lyttle was with Spain at EuroBasket Women, and making the playoffs should still be relatively straightforward as long as McCoughtry’s back soon, but it’s a significant loss. Lyttle was their secondary scoring threat after McCoughtry, and she’s a key part of their interior defense. They’ll miss her.
- For this game, Le’coe Willingham replaced Lyttle as she had during Sancho’s previous absence. Rookie guard Alex Bentley moved into the lineup for McCoughtry. Brian Agler also made a change to Seattle’s lineup, with Shekinna Stricklen replacing Noelle Quinn at small forward. The Storm have been so horrendous to begin games in the last couple of weeks that making a change made sense, and Quinn’s frequent anonymity during games made her the obvious choice to demote.
- With McCoughtry and Lyttle out, big center Erika de Souza was the focus of much of Atlanta’s offense. She planted herself on the right block and scored several times in the early minutes with little spins and hooks. She can punish you inside if you give her the time to finish, or allow her to pick up offensive boards. Seattle weren’t quite as appalling in the first quarter as in other recent games, but Erika still carried the Dream to a 20-12 advantage after the opening period.
- The Storm gradually worked their way into the game through Camille Little inside and Tanisha Wright from the perimeter, plus some hustle play from backup forward Alysha Clark. They also received a quick boost in the first appearance of center Ashley Robinson since re-signing with the Storm this week. Robinson’s size gave Erika something to think about in the paint, and she even produced a nice bounce-pass for a cutting Wright, and a finish at the rim. The negative is that Agler used Robinson ahead of rookie forward Tianna Hawkins. Maybe that was just because they needed pure size to counter Erika, but it’s also a long-term theme with Agler that he prefers veterans. It’s Hawkins who’s expected to be part of this franchise’s future, and who needs the playing time to develop – even if she makes mistakes that cost you in the present. Hopefully there won’t be too many more ‘DNP – Coach’s Decisions’ in Hawkins’s future.
- After trailing 37-32 at halftime, Seattle started to send double-teams much more quickly whenever Erika touched the ball in the post. They swarmed her, and with Bentley’s array of acrobatic shots the only real scoring support for Atlanta beyond their starting center, the Storm continued to inch back into the game.
- There was an incredibly dumb foul to close the third quarter. Seattle’s Temeka Johnson turned the ball over on what should’ve been the final possession of the period, but Willingham gave it right back to the Storm. Stricklen had just enough time to heave the ball towards the rim from halfcourt, and Armintie Herrington reached in and fouled her as she tossed it up. Stricklen hit 2-of-3 from the line to pull the Storm within 50-47 at the end of the period, but the real penalty came in waking Stricklen up. She’d done virtually nothing to impact the game since starting, but had a three-point play early in the fourth quarter that tied the game for the first time since 0-0, a putback in the paint, then backed down Jasmine Thomas for a quick-hit bucket in semi-transition to give the Storm their first lead of the night.
- That was the beginning of a run that decided the game. Atlanta looked like they were tiring, with injuries and Fred Williams’s tight rotation forcing all the starters into heavy minutes. They also looked like they’d run out of ideas once Seattle collapsed on Erika. Little knocked down a three – a shot that had been available all night because Erika didn’t want to follow her out that far, but which Seattle had rarely looked for – then drove right by Erika for two more. The Wright drove right to the rim, scored past Erika herself, and suddenly Seattle were up 65-54 after a 13-0 run. Atlanta were done for.
- Eventually, the Dream were just too shorthanded to survive in this one. It’s going to be interesting to see where they go from here. When Lyttle was at EuroBasket Women, they coped with a combination of Willingham filling in at power forward, and small lineups featuring McCoughtry sliding over to the 4. But that becomes more difficult with Hayes sidelined by her knee surgery, because she was generally the extra wing that allowed McCoughtry to move over. Even assuming McCoughtry is back very soon, they’ll either have to use Thomas and Bentley together in the backcourt more often, utilise conscience-less gunner Courtney Clements, or work out how to fit Erika and Aneika Henry into the frontcourt as a pair. Williams seems reluctant to try that duo together, continuing to use Henry solely as Erika’s backup even last night when they had so few options. It seems like they ought to be able to play together at least as effectively as Erika and Willingham. The bottom line is that Atlanta should be okay, assuming McCoughtry’s problem is minor. But it’s definitely going to be more difficult.
- Seattle continue to claw their way to enough wins to look like the most likely contender for the fourth playoff spot in the Western Conference. Whether that’s actually something the franchise and its fans would want – rather than some lottery ping-pong balls – is a separate question. Agler and his players aren’t going to give games away, and nor would we expect them to. This team has always found a way to win games when they’re not really supposed to, and that hasn’t changed in 2013.
For those who skipped the start of the Seattle-Atlanta coverage: The Dream’s Sancho Lyttle has a broken foot, and is out for 6-8 weeks.
Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker were named Players of the Week in their respective conferences. Both fair choices, although Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen also had a strong argument in the West.
Tuesday July 16th (tomorrow):
San Antonio @ Washington, 7pm ET. One of these weird almost-home-and-home series that the schedule throws up occasionally. The Silver Stars had a game inbetween against somebody else, but these teams played each other just three days ago, with Washington winning by 10 on the road. The Mystics are 7-point favourites, which seems fair against what’s left of the Silver Stars, but I still don’t trust Washington enough to give up that many points – against anyone. I’ll take San Antonio to cover.