Yesterday saw two WNBA games, between pairs of teams in very different situations. Our early game featured two franchises whose highest potential reach this season is likely the fourth playoff spot in the Western Conference – although both might admit in their more honest moments that they’d be better off in the lottery. The late game involved opponents with much higher aspirations in 2013, both hoping for a deep postseason run. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise which game turned out to be distinctly more entertaining.
First let’s get the early mess out of the way. It was Seattle’s Camp Day, with thousands of kids packing into Key Arena ready to scream their heads off. Brian Agler stuck with the starting lineup he went with in their win against shorthanded Atlanta on Sunday night, which meant Shekinna Stricklen’s second start on the wing. For Tulsa there were changes. Regular starting point guard Skylar Diggins was out after tweaking her ankle in their previous game (and apparently took the opportunity to take a trip back to Notre Dame, rather than rehabbing in Tulsa), which pushed Angel Goodrich into the starting lineup instead. Glory Johnson had recovered sufficiently to return after her neck problem, and Gary Kloppenburg decided to try the Liz & Glory frontcourt that he’d largely been avoiding, pairing Johnson with center Liz Cambage from the start. Tiffany Jackson-Jones, recently returned from her stress fracture, wasn’t announced as injured but went from starting their last game to spending all day on the bench. That was strange, unless there was a physical issue that caused the decision.
Tulsa had won only three games all season coming into this matchup, but two of those wins had come over the Storm – a desperate mess of a first half helped illustrate why. Cambage absolutely murdered Seattle in the opening minutes, and it set the tone for the rest of the half. She drove past Camille Little from the elbow for a running finish on the first possession of the game, then proceeded to back down Little or Tina Thompson and finish with ease at the rim on multiple occasions. Seattle’s starting frontcourt is undersized in terms of pure height, but usually they do a decent job of masking that with positioning and strength – Cambage was just too big, and the double-teams far too slow to arrive, leading to yet another dreadful start for Seattle.
Other teams around the league have managed to neutralise Cambage with quick double-teams forcing her into mistakes, or ball pressure forcing the Shock into errors when they try to pass the ball to her. Apart from the occasional problem that Cambage created for herself by driving wildly into the lane without looking where she was going – which invariably leads to offensive fouls – the Storm did a poor job of making entry passes difficult, and an equally terrible job of stopping her inside. When they eventually started sending lots of help down to her later in the first half, she moved the ball out successfully and the Shock were left with wide open looks from outside which even they managed to knock down at a reasonable rate.
Besides the Cambage dominance, the main feature of the first half was turnovers. Lots and lots of turnovers. Seattle’s offense was going nowhere, looking sleepy and aimless. When they remembered they were supposed to they tried to attack Cambage on pick-and-rolls, but not with any level of conviction. She still has problems at times on defense, always instinctively wanting to fade back into the paint and clog the lane, regardless of where her man or the ball are. Little and Tianna Hawkins took advantage of that occasionally by hitting shots in space when Cambage hadn’t tracked them out to the perimeter, but in general Seattle failed to punish her. They just drove into traffic without much sense of direction, or threw the ball away. Tulsa actually had even more turnovers themselves, on sloppy passes or offensive fouls, but the combination of Cambage being too big and Riquna Williams too quick overcame that for the Shock. By halftime, Tulsa led 45-26.
Agler started Noelle Quinn and Alysha Clark on the wing for the second half, who’d both had slightly more success than Tanisha Wright and Stricklen in the opening 20 minutes. It didn’t make a lot of difference to Seattle’s static, tedious offense, but when Thompson hit a couple of her trademark deep threes midway through the third quarter they were somehow back within 10. Then a terrible pass from Quinn in transition handed a layup to Goodrich, an awful forced shot from Quinn led to a Williams three in transition, and the Shock were back up by 15. From there it was never a game again, and the fourth quarter just got increasingly embarrassing for the Storm in front of their young audience. The eventually succumbed 86-59, after an awful lot of meaningless garbage time.
Tulsa appear to have the Indian sign over Seattle this season. In three games against the Storm, Tulsa are +58 overall; in 14 games against the rest of the league, they’re -146. That’s ridiculous, however awkward the matchup may be for Seattle. They’ve had some pretty dismal performances lately, repeatedly starting games badly and then having to try to dig themselves out of the hole. This time, apart from that tiny ray of hope in the third quarter, the chasm just kept expanding. Turnovers, minimal ball rotation, disappointing post defense, slow perimeter defense – it was a horrible day at the office for the Storm. There’s a common soccer chant you hear in my country that repeats the refrain “Can we play you every week?” Tulsa would quite literally like to put that into practice against Seattle.
This is how the Shock would like to play on a regular basis. They established themselves down low early on, but Cambage actually finished the game just 5-7 for 13 points and 8 boards. It’s not like she carried the offense all afternoon. Instead, it led to good shots around the floor, as they moved the ball and got into the paint, ultimately shooting far better from outside than they have in most of their recent games. Some of that may have been a fluke, some of it confidence borne of knowing they can beat this team, but some of it comes from playing smarter and moving the ball better. Williams was the perimeter star, finishing 9-15 for 26 points, and Seattle simply can’t handle her speed – but Wiggins and Goodrich hit shots as well. Glory Johnson also managed to find enough touches within the rhythm of the game not to disappear under the emphasis on getting Cambage the ball. Now all they have to do is show that they’re capable of performances like this against anyone other than the Storm.
Oh, and while it would be unfair to say this team is better without Diggins, they certainly didn’t miss her much. Which rather highlights the struggles #3 of the ‘Three to See’ has had in her rookie season.
Later, in the City of Angels…
The late game took us to Los Angeles, where the Sparks had a game against the Atlanta Dream right alongside the ESPYs at the arena next door. It would’ve been nice to see two of the league’s top first-half teams take each other on at full strength, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. LA were in one piece, but Sancho Lyttle’s fractured foot means Atlanta will be without their starting power forward for at least the next six weeks. They were already missing Tiffany Hayes after knee surgery. On the bright side, they did have star wing Angel McCoughtry back after missing one game with a sore achilles, which gave the Dream a fighting chance. We’d already seen that they could win games without Lyttle when she was off with Spain at EuroBasket Women, and Le’coe Willingham took her place just as she had during that absence. They also made an unforced change at point guard, where rookie Alex Bentley came in for Jasmine Thomas. Bentley’s been the slightly more effective and versatile offensive threat, so that may have been a side-effect of the Lyttle injury – with less offense coming from the frontcourt, Bentley’s scoring was needed more to back up McCoughtry.
This entire game managed to be messy yet exciting. A frenetic tussle where both teams wanted to push the ball and attack, but had difficulty putting points on the board. You could also visibly see the similarities between the way they’d been built. Carol Ross was in Atlanta as an assistant coach alongside Fred Williams before taking over in LA, and a lot of her design elements remain with the Dream. While personnel obviously makes a significant difference in how the two teams play, the active defense trying to force an opponent to beat you from outside was in evidence from both sides, as were the constant attempts to inject speed into the offense and create cheap points before the defense was set. If this ends up being our WNBA Finals matchup in October, it might be messy at times, but you’ll barely have time to catch your breath.
LA had problems for much of the first half because Atlanta’s transition defense is actually pretty good, which cut out many of the easy baskets they’ve been piling up against other teams around the league. In the halfcourt, Atlanta were quick and active defensively, forcing the Sparks into tough shots in traffic. This wasn’t like playing against the Shock.
At the other end, too many Sparks guards were being beaten off the dribble, with Bentley, McCoughtry and Armintie Herrington finding their way to the rim. Atlanta led by as many as nine in the first quarter. But fortunately for LA, Erika de Souza was making her presence felt in the paint but failing to convert far too many layups. It let the Sparks off the hook, and they worked their way back into the game. McCoughtry, as ever, was a central figure. Alana Beard had her most successful offensive half of the season, and it was no coincidence that McCoughtry was the one supposedly defending her for virtually the entire half. The highlight package of Beard’s buckets was amusing, because in every one of them you could make out McCoughtry in the background, watching it happen. She was either still wandering back from the other end of the floor after complaining about a call she didn’t get, or calling for help after overplaying for a steal and watching Beard go right past her. McCoughtry’s half was summed up when she hit a tough turnaround jumper to tie the game with barely eight seconds left on the clock – then Kristi Toliver nailed a three right over her to put LA back in front before the buzzer. It would’ve been more poetic if Beard had nailed the shot and McCoughtry had been 15 feet away at the time, but it was close enough.
The third quarter featured eight lead changes as the teams continued to scrap out a tight game. Candace Parker was anonymous for much of the evening, but the Sparks were getting enough combined production from elsewhere to keep them in it. Erika managed to make a couple of layups in the third to help the Dream, who continued to be successful in the paint and on the offensive glass, but were limited by their lack of perimeter shooting. It’s been a problem for them for years, and it’s still cropped up on occasion this season. Lyttle’s apparent preference for providing most of her offense from at least 15 feet away from the rim is often frustrating for a 6’4” post player, but it does help stretch opposing defenses. Le’coe Willingham standing around the three-point line and occasionally jacking up a three doesn’t have quite the same impact.
A bizarre lineup featuring Courtney Clements and Ruth Riley on the floor simultaneously for the Dream to start the fourth quarter was quickly corrected by Fred Williams, but it was LA’s bench which provided an important boost. Jenna O’Hea, Ebony Hoffman and A’dia Mathies were all on the floor when the Sparks managed to push their way out to a 67-56 lead with seven minutes left in the game. It was generated by defense and hustle more than execution or finesse, and the run was topped off by a four-point play from O’Hea, nailing a three to beat the shot-clock as McCoughtry hit her on the head from behind. For the second game in a row, O’Hea produced in important late minutes, while defending the opposing star (it was Diana Taurasi in their last game, McCoughtry in this one). After leading LA in the first half, Beard didn’t even play that many minutes in the second – and it was down to O’Hea’s performance demanding she stay on the floor instead.
The Dream still weren’t done. Overwhelming dominance on the offensive glass and a lot of steals for Atlanta, plus several trips to the free throw line for LA, led to an extraordinary stat over the final 5:30 of the game – LA took two shots from the field in that entire period; Atlanta took 19. Parker made a couple of terrible decisions in the closing stages that led to turnovers, and McCoughtry made a ridiculous triple with two seconds left that gave Atlanta a prayer by pulling them within two points, but Harding and Toliver ultimately made enough free throws down the stretch for LA to cling on for a 77-73 victory.
Despite featuring some poor turnovers and weak shooting sequences from both sides, this game was a lot of fun. There was a pace and energy to it that illustrated both teams are still excited about the WNBA season, and know they’re still playing for a potential title down the line. If Atlanta could’ve made a few more shots, inside or out, they had every chance to win this game. McCoughtry and de Souza finished a combined 16-44 from the floor, and ultimately that wasn’t quite good enough. But if they can keep up this level of energy and desire they should easily win enough games to stay in the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference even without Lyttle. You don’t have to play against teams as talented as LA every night.
The Sparks just about clambered over the line, but it wasn’t easy. Parker disappeared and finished as the only LA starter scoring in single-digits. Lindsey Harding spent a little too much time settling for pullup jumpers rather than attacking the rim. Nneka Ogwumike and Parker struggled against the size and bulk of Erika on the glass. But they’ve got more options off the bench this year, and Ross eventually found a successful group to ignite a key run, and they managed to close it out. Sometimes protecting your home court isn’t pretty, but the pretty people were all dressed up and across the street for the awards ceremony. The Sparks were more than happy with effective and a little ugly, moving within half a game of Minnesota at the top of the West.
We’re about to hit the mid-point of the 2013 WNBA season, which is when all contracts become guaranteed for this year. Every season that means we see multiple players waived at the deadline, so that teams aren’t locked into paying their salaries for the full year. New York cut backup post Avery Warley, giving them flexibility to do whatever they want with the 11th spot on their roster. It might be as simple as re-signing Warley to seven-day contracts, or they might look at other options to help pull them out of their current malaise.
Phoenix waived Jessica Adair, who they claimed off waivers in the preseason (why they waited until now to cut her, and waived instead of suspending her, I have no idea), but the more notable move was the release of Samantha Prahalis. After benching her for a whole host of recent games it wasn’t really a surprise, but considering Prahalis was an All-Rookie team member last year, and came into the season as their starting point guard, it’s a remarkably fast fall from grace. Being waived also suggests that there was no interest from around the league in even throwing a second or third-round draft pick Phoenix’s way to acquire her. While she’s lightweight defensively and needs to improve her shooting, she has some talent and will likely get more chances in the WNBA – it’s just hard to see where right now. Most teams have a backup point guard in place and don’t really need Prahalis, so it’ll be interesting to see if anyone claims her or takes a look on a seven-day deal. At the very least, I’m sure she’ll be in someone’s camp next year. For the Mercury, it opens up a roster spot that they can finally do something with. If Brittney Griner and Lynetta Kizer are going to continue having injury issues they could pick up an extra big for cover – Warley, for example, was in Phoenix last year – but they also need another ballhandler. Diana Taurasi may be their ‘lead guard’, but Alexis Hornbuckle, Charde Houston, Briana Gilbreath and DeWanna Bonner really don’t offer her much help. Someone else to take on the point guard role Prahalis was meant to fill – even if it’s only for 10 minutes a night to spell Taurasi – would be a useful addition.
In a late addition to the waived players before the deadline, Seattle cut Nakia Sanford. Obviously they felt the recent addition of Ashley Robinson was enough to boost their size inside, so wanted some flexibility with their 11th spot.
The All-Star starters were announced tonight during halftime of the ESPN2 broadcast (more on that coming in future columns). Reserves, chosen by the league’s coaches, will be announced during the ESPN2 game on Tuesday next week.
Thursday July 18th (today):
Chicago @ New York, 11am ET (already completed). I took Chicago -6 (announced on Twitter) because of how bad New York have been lately, before even knowing Sylvia Fowles would miss the game due to her ankle. Pick turned out okay anyway.
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET. I took LA -12, even on a back-to-back, because Phoenix have been just that ordinary lately without Griner. That one didn’t turn out so well.
Friday July 19th (tomorrow):
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Connecticut @ Tulsa, 8pm ET