Just one WNBA game last night, and it was between two teams that have a lot in common. Washington and San Antonio both have well-respected, experienced WNBA coaches in Mike Thibault and Dan Hughes. They’re two of the few WNBA teams that go deep into their bench, using 9 or 10 players every night, regardless of the scoreline. Both squads have worked extremely hard for everything they’ve gotten this season, fighting for wins despite not necessarily having the most talented options in the league. But then there are the key differences. Like many teams this year, San Antonio have been hit hard by injuries, with stars Sophia Young and Becky Hammon ruled out for the entire season. It’s left them shorthanded, and trying to survive as best they can. Washington are that rare WNBA squad that’s been virtually intact from opening day, and remained that way. Thibault talked about not having true superstars on his roster at the start of the season – and maybe it’s true that Ivory Latta and Crystal Langhorne don’t quite reach the level of Hammon and Young – but with depth, health and markedly improved team performance, they’ve had significantly greater success than San Antonio this year.
Having beaten the Silver Stars back in Texas just last week, the Mystics came into this game as favourites. Sitting at 7-7, Washington also had the chance to go above .500 this far into a season for the first time since 2010 – when they finished top of the Eastern Conference. Both teams were effective early, with the first eight shots of the game all dropping, but it was Washington who then made a push. Generating the majority of their offense from the pick-and-roll, they were making the right play, finding the open player, and knocking down shots. Simple, but effective.
There was also an early influence from something I’ve talked about before with the Mystics – their willingness to drive and create contact. San Antonio do a lot of their offensive work from range, leaving their point production to ebb and flow depending on whether they can hit jump shots. Washington take plenty of mid-range jumpers as well, but they don’t just drive when there’s an open lane. They drive with the intention of getting fouled, and scoring too if the opportunity presents itself.
San Antonio shot their way back into the game in the first quarter, also generating points on a couple of nice backdoor cuts and through Danielle Adams on the low block as the first half progressed. But Washington reestablished their lead through another aspect of this team that’s becoming almost their trademark – the consistent effectiveness of their bench. Thibault isn’t quite bringing them in via hockey-style line changes, but it’s not far off. Frequently it’s five-player bench lineups that are making an impact for the Mystics. Nadirah McKenith, Tayler Hill, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Emma Meesseman and Kia Vaughn have formed a unit that doesn’t need to be supported by any starters, and increasingly leave Thibault wondering whether his starters deserve to return. In this game they provided solid defense to keep San Antonio firing away from outside, the increasingly confident McKenith joined Ruffin-Pratt in attacking the basket off the dribble (although both have shown they’ve got some range as well), and Meesseman was her usual steady self while knocking down her mid-range jumper. The group’s success is even more impressive considering Vaughn is the only one of the five who isn’t a rookie – these kids had no idea what the WNBA was about until a couple of months ago. They’re playing with no fear, and often leaving the Mystics better situated in games than they were when the starters sat down. The only problem Thibault has is finding minutes for everyone who deserves them.
Washington’s lead had trickled down to 22-20 when that bench mob was united on the floor late in the opening quarter – by the time the starters were being reintroduced midway through the second period it was 35-24 and the Mystics were back in control. However, San Antonio weren’t ready to give up the fight, and by halftime they’d clawed their way back within five at 41-36. Both teams were remarkably balanced in the first half, with no player on either side taking more than six shots or scoring more than eight points. The push from their reserves had allowed Washington to build their lead, but Adams had given San Antonio their own bench production to keep them in touch.
The third quarter was where this game was decided, although once again the real surge didn’t arrive until Washington’s bench started to get involved. Washington led 51-47 when Ruffin-Pratt and Vaughn came in, and McKenith replaced Latta moments later after the starting point guard took a smack in the face and had to have her lip glued back together on the sidelines. That was caused by a flailing arm from Danielle Robinson as she tried to fend Latta off, Robinson’s second turnover in the space of 15 seconds, and it set the tone for a messy third quarter from San Antonio. Turnovers galore stalled their offense, as passes went out of bounds or straight to the Mystics, balls were dribbled off feet, and unnecessary offensive fouls were committed. Washington’s quick and aggressive squad took full advantage, scoring 11 points off 6 turnovers in the final six minutes of the period. All five of Washington’s bench crew scored in the sequence, providing 13 of the Mystics’ points in a 17-4 run that put them up 68-51. Transition layups, perimeter jumpers, free throws – it all added up, and suddenly the game was virtually over.
Late in the third and on into the fourth quarter, you finally got the sense that the current situations of these two teams was playing a role in their performances. San Antonio had played hard all night, and you can expect Hughes to keep his team battling all season, but they didn’t have the same level of belief and intent as the Mystics. Just by looking at them, you could almost see which team was right in the middle of the postseason hunt in their conference, and which was already starting to slide out of the playoff picture. There was greater inherent energy in the Washington squad, while the fight slipped away from San Antonio. The fourth quarter was played out almost entirely by reserves, with Quanitra Hollingsworth seeing her first minutes in a Mystics uniform. She was expected to provide some extra bulk and size in the paint for Washington when she arrived after representing Turkey at EuroBasket Women, but the success of the players who’ve been there since training camp has kept her on the pine. She did what we know she can do – banged around down low, grabbed a few boards, and dropped in an occasional layup – showing Thibault he might have yet another useful option available in reserve. Washington coasted home for an 86-64 victory.
San Antonio didn’t play badly for most of the night. They kept hanging around, Adams was effective in the paint, and the likes of Jia Perkins, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Shenise Johnson were hitting enough shots to keep them involved. They even produced a significant number of points in the paint against a team that’s usually pretty decent at keeping teams away from the rim. That ugly stretch in the third quarter just took the game away from the Silver Stars. It’s going to be a consistent problem this season. They’re a solid group, with several good players and a smart coach, but they’re lacking the stars who take pressure off everyone else. It makes everything constantly a tougher struggle than it otherwise would be. They’ll have their moments, but there are going to be a lot of games like this where they just don’t quite have enough. Dreams of 2014, with Hammon, Young and a high draft pick added to the mix, may have to be the primary element that sustains their fans.
Meanwhile, the remaining Mystics diehards are having more fun than they’ve had since 2010. Latta’s production has actually dropped off a little since her hot start to the year, and they’re not as reliant on Langhorne as they used to be, but it’s exciting to see so many other pieces stepping up to support them and carry the load. Monique Currie, Michelle Snow and Matee Ajavon have had some useful games now that a strong and steady voice is leading the ballclub, but it’s the young bench that offers so much hope for the franchise’s future. 4th overall pick Tayler Hill has actually been a disappointment, although she’s improved a little since being shifted to the bench. The other rookies have more than made up for it, with undrafted Ruffin-Pratt giving them aggression, physicality and versatility from the wing; McKenith some quickness and increasingly confident scoring production as a backup point guard; and Belgian post Meesseman looking like the archetypal ‘stretch four’ with her size and range (at just 20 years old). The five regular bench players (they need a group name. “Kia & the Kids” isn’t good enough – please feel free to offer better options) all finished with double-digit +/- ratings in this game, with Vaughn and Ruffin-Pratt both at +25 in limited minutes. It’s a repeating pattern lately, and gives Thibault all kinds of options. Now at 8-7, this team has come a long way – no one’s inking them in on their schedule as an easy victory any more.
The Connecticut Sun waived hardship signing Sydney Carter yesterday, something they had to do by rule when either Renee Montgomery or Tan White were healthy enough to play. Reportedly, both Montgomery and White may be in uniform for their next game against Tulsa on Friday night. Carter made the most of her chance and had some useful outings for the Sun. At the very least, she’ll be in someone’s camp next year with a shot at a WNBA job – she may well find another chance somewhere around the league during this season. In fact, she’d probably be of more use to the Sun right now than Iziane Castro Marques, but we’ll have to wait and see if Anne Donovan looks to bring Carter back again.
Former Minnesota, Connecticut and Seattle player Svetlana Abrosimova announced her retirement this week. Often a fan favourite, she won a ring with the Storm, an NCAA title while at the University of Connecticut, and plenty more in European club basketball and with the Russian national team. She’s now standing for the presidency of the Russian Basketball Federation.
Fellow Russian guard Ilona Korstin announced her retirement on the same day. She had a very brief stint in the WNBA with Phoenix.
Wednesday July 17th (today):
Tulsa @ Seattle, 3pm ET. Seattle -6 is the line, and at this point I trust the Storm significantly more than the Shock. I’ll take Seattle to win and cover.
Atlanta @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. LA -10 is a lot of points against the team leading the East, but with Lyttle out, McCoughtry unconfirmed and the Sparks’ dominance on their own floor, I can’t take the Dream. Even to keep it close. Give me LA to win by double-digits.
Thursday July 18th (tomorrow):
Chicago @ New York, 11am ET
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET