There was a distinct sense of déjà vu about much of Thursday’s WNBA slate. Just like Wednesday, we had one early game, one late. Just like Wednesday, the early game ended in a hideous blowout win for the road team. Just like Wednesday, the late game was in LA, with the Sparks trying to defend their perfect record on their home floor. Unfortunately for LA, the repetition only went so far.
We began out in Jersey, where the Liberty were hosting their second (of three) Camp Day games this season. I guess that’s one way to boost attendance. The big injury news for this game was that Sky center Sylvia Fowles was out (and not even with the team) due apparently to that same right ankle that she’d sprained earlier this month. She did tweak it in their recent game against Connecticut, but came back out of the locker room and returned to that game, so everyone had assumed she was okay. Maybe the Sky simply figured there was no need for her in this game so she could stay home and rest. Backup center Carolyn Swords was the natural fill-in to start in her place.
For New York, Plenette Pierson was back in the starting lineup ahead of Kelsey Bone, with Bill Laimbeer searching for some way to energise his team. It’s been ugly for the Liberty lately, losing six of their previous eight games, topped off by the embarrassing 31-6 third quarter against Indiana on Saturday night. Their season’s been heading in the wrong direction for a while.
Unfortunately for Liberty fans, the first quarter of this game simply brought back memories of that dismal period against the Fever. It was a mess – the same kind of mess we’ve been seeing on a pretty regular basis from New York lately. Down 9-0 in under two minutes before Laimbeer called his first timeout, it was 27-7 when he tried again after seven minutes of play, and the Liberty trailed by as many as 25 before the opening period was over.
That opening 10 minutes saw the now very familiar parade of New York turnovers, as they tried to make passes through traffic that made them virtually impossible. They keep trying to force the ball to their post players, and balls are constantly poked away by opposing defenses, often without much need for movement or effort. Even on plays that aren’t technically turnovers, New York passes are constantly tipped or deflected, and after they eventually manage to corral the ball they’re left with rushed and desperate offensive possessions just to get something up before the shot clock expires. Kara Braxton took too many elbow jumpers – there’s a reason they’re giving you that shot, Kara – there was a painful lack of ball movement, and the confidence has clearly drained out of this team after recent performances. The only positive was that Cappie Pondexter was attacking the basket off the dribble, something she’s done rather too infrequently this season, but it wasn’t remotely effective. Courtney Vandersloot – whose defense has taken a leap forward this season, and who never would’ve been trusted to defend Pondexter in previous years – did a good job of staying in front of Cappie without fouling. Then either Vandersloot or her teammates would reach in and deflect the ball or just let her miss or cough the ball up amongst the traffic. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s teammates were standing around wondering if they’d ever become part of the offense.
Defensively, New York gave up far too many open lanes to the hoop, and they looked so disorganised that it was hard to decipher who they’d even intended to guard each of Chicago’s threats. Katie Smith had been the player designated to cover Elena Delle Donne in New York’s previous games against Chicago, but that was virtually impossible with the lineup the Liberty started the game with. It would’ve meant Toni Young or Plenette Pierson trying to cover Epiphanny Prince, which definitely seemed like a bad idea. So it was often Pierson on Delle Donne, and the Sky rookie phenom happily attacked and scored over Pierson, or simply rained down jumpers from outside. The Sky shot abnormally well from outside in the first period, which made everything look even worse for New York, but that’s what happens when you start so poorly and give your opponents an immediate confidence boost. You didn’t even notice that Chicago were lacking the All-Star center that usually fills the paint and acts as the core of their defense.
Trailing 34-11 after one quarter, the Liberty did at least arrest the slide. Chicago went cold from outside in the second period, which allowed New York to pull within 41-25 at halftime. While the Liberty’s defensive effort had improved, it still felt more like Chicago had relaxed and eased off the pedal than New York had actually figured anything out. Their offense was still far too disorganised and error-strewn to give any indication of an impending comeback.
And that was proven accurate. The Sky lead was over 20 for the vast majority of the second half, with Delle Donne showing off her ridiculous array of offensive skills and even making an impact defensively – although New York gave her some help there. She’s far from a great defensive player, and the Sky will continue to hide her all season while Fowles and Swin Cash take on the more dangerous threats in the paint, but she’s got good hand-eye coordination and she’s long. She’s a 6’5” athlete who can score over anybody on offense – it shouldn’t be a big leap to realise she’s at least going to be a bit of an issue if you aimlessly try to toss the ball over her when she’s defending. She finished this game with 4 blocks, largely accumulated when Liberty players shot the ball straight into her hand. She was hardly coming out of nowhere to pick up rejections from the weak side. But then, it was that kind of day for New York. The Sky won the game 75-55, and it wasn’t really that close.
Laimbeer’s squad are a bit of a shambles right now. Over the four-game home stand this loss concluded they finished a combined -61, after blowout losses to Chicago (twice) and Indiana, and a narrow win over almost-equally-terrible-lately Seattle. Pondexter isn’t settling into the ‘lead guard’ role Laimbeer wants her to play, we’re seeing more and more of Bad Kara Braxton instead of the halfway-useful Good Kara that began the season, and Pierson is doing what she can with maybe one-and-a-half legs. The potential of Kelsey Bone and Toni Young offers hope for the future (especially Bone), but they’re increasingly going backwards in 2013. Back to the drawing board yet again for Big Bad Bill.
Outside of the first quarter, Chicago didn’t actually play that well – but the damage was already done. The real positive for them was the indication that they can take care of business even without Fowles in the lineup. Beating the better teams in the league would still be a tough task without her, but they finally look capable of handling games against the large number of ordinary or weak WNBA teams with their star center on the sidelines. So they don’t have to rush her back, and don’t have to constantly ride her in every game. Prince is only shooting 39% from the field since returning from her stint with Russia (and the ankle sprain she suffered at the same time), which is a little concerning, but they’ve had enough to win games anyway. Certainly far too much for the likes of New York.
Later in Los Angeles
The evening took us to Los Angeles, for the second half of back-to-back home games for the Sparks, this time with the Phoenix Mercury as visitors. LA were 9-0 at Staples Center coming into the game, but it wasn’t smooth sailing the previous night against Atlanta and playing twice in 24 hours is always tough, even when both are in your own arena. The task should’ve been made easier for LA due to Brittney Griner remaining on the sidelines for Phoenix, who’d struggled in recent games without her and lost three in a row – including one to LA themselves on Sunday night back in Arizona.
Mercury head coach Corey Gaines tried yet another alternative for filling the open spot in his lineup created by the absence of Griner, this time bringing Penny Taylor in to start the game. An All-World talent when she’s healthy, Taylor’s still working her way back from a torn ACL and on restricted minutes, but both Charde Houston and Krystal Thomas had been weak fill-ins as starters – time to give Penny a shot.
The opening three minutes of the game went as many were probably expecting, considering the recent performances of these teams. DeWanna Bonner bricked some terrible shots, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike dominated the glass, and Kristi Toliver rained in wide open threes again the Mercury’s invisible defense, leading to a 10-0 LA lead and a quick Gaines timeout. The early signs of another Sparks blowout win at Staples were in evidence already.
However, when Phoenix started scoring – a Candice Dupree drive past Ogwumike got them off the mark – we finally got a look at their new wrinkle. A 3-2 (or 1-2-2, if you prefer) zone that the Mercury are calling their ‘X’ defense. It’s similar to their old ‘Rover’ without being quite so unorthodox and desperate, and it was really the first time this season we’ve seen a WNBA team play extended periods of zone. Even last year everyone played man-to-man a majority of the time, but virtually every team had a base 2-3 zone they could drop into if they felt it necessary. This season they’ve all been scared away from it by the new defensive three-second rule, worrying that the defender in the middle of that back 3 would be sat in the paint on her own for too long, or could be dragged out of position too easily. The 3-2/1-2-2 obviously isn’t quite so susceptible to that – although Diana Taurasi, usually playing the ‘1’, flirted with standing in the paint guarding no one at times. LA didn’t look prepared to handle this unusual look, and it disrupted their rhythm significantly. They started settling for long jumpers, trying to shoot over the zone, and even when they found decent looks they weren’t dropping. It gave the Mercury a foothold in the game.
It all flowed together at the other end of the floor as well. While LA were bricking jumpers, Taurasi was attacking the rim and creating contact on drives. When LA missed or turned the ball over while passing aimlessly in front of the zone, Phoenix could inject some speed into their offense and push back the other way. The Sparks also started trying almost too hard to push themselves when they got the ball, anxious to attack Phoenix before the Mercury could even drop into the zone that was causing them issues – which led to the Sparks losing some of their typical efficiency in transition. A Taylor three from the corner after Taurasi found her on the break gave Phoenix their first lead of the game midway through the second quarter.
With LA frustrated at how the game had turned against them – and knowing full well that Taurasi can be enticed into making the game as much about the physical and vocal battle as the basketball – it all got a little chippy in the closing stages of the first half. Alana Beard had her arm on Taurasi as she came down the floor, and Taurasi actively shoved it off, committing an offensive foul. Then she added a technical foul on top for complaining a little too much about the call. That’s Taurasi’s sixth of the season – assuming none have been quietly rescinded – meaning her next one will result in a one-game suspension. A couple of minutes later, Beard and Taurasi tangled again, after Taurasi grabbed a defensive rebound and Beard slid in from her blind side to tie her up and force a jump ball. Taurasi angrily threw Beard off, tossing her to the ground, and then both did that ridiculous macho thing where they stand really close to each other without actually pushing, shoving or headbutting. It would’ve resulted in automatic offsetting technicals on the pair of them in most situations, but the referees knew better than anyone that Taurasi already had one tech on the night – so the double-tech would’ve led to her ejection. So they let it pass, and the game continued. Probably fortunately for everyone, the halftime interval arrived shortly afterwards with Phoenix up 46-38
LA were really no better in attacking the Mercury zone after the break – which was a little embarrassing, considering Carol Ross had 15 minutes to tell them what to do. There was minimal cutting or driving into the seams, and not enough ball movement or inside-out play to unbalance the zone, so everything continued as it had in the first half. Ross’s answer after an early timeout less than two minutes into the third quarter was to insert Jenna O’Hea and Ebony Hoffman, two players who do most of their scoring by shooting from outside. So Ross still seemed to be expecting her team to stretch the zone out by shooting over it. There are better ways to beat zones than constantly firing over the top.
Taurasi continued to be the driving force for Phoenix on the offensive end, albeit without actually hitting many shots from the field in the second half. Instead, she was a constant menace in terms of creating contact and drawing fouls, piling up points from the free throw line. She also had Bonner and Dupree making a few shots. When she waits for good looks, Bonner can still convert – it’s the awful forced efforts she jacks up that rarely drop in. The Sparks made a couple of small pushes in the third quarter when Taurasi went to the bench for quick breathers, highlighting how much Phoenix need her ballhandling, creation and basic control on the floor.
For the second night in a row, Candace Parker had been very quiet for much of the game. The zone had dissuaded her from getting into the paint, and her jumper hadn’t been falling from outside, so she faded out of the play. However, the Sparks opened the fourth quarter by looking to get her inside, and it led to a series of fouls as Phoenix tried to stop her. That forced the Mercury into the penalty after barely three minutes of the final period, and suddenly LA had a way back into the game. Free throws and the occasional bomb from deep – finally doing a little better at working the ball inside and then shifting it back out for good shots against an unbalanced defense – pulled the Sparks within a point midway through the fourth quarter.
However, Phoenix responded. Gaines had smartly saved up some of Taylor’s prescribed minutes, and she gave them an extra scoring option and smart weapon on the floor for the closing stages. She isn’t at full speed yet, but she’s still tough to stop. The Mercury pushed their lead back out, and LA could never quite discover enough rhythm to their offense to wrestle back control. Phoenix held on for a well-deserved 90-84 victory on the floor of one of their key Western Conference rivals. LA’s perfect home record was no more.
This was a classic Taurasi game. She finished 8-17 from the floor and 15-17 from the foul line, while smiling and snarling her way through the entire contest, and giving out just as many pushes and shoves as she took from the LA defense. 32 points, 7 boards and 6 assists led the Mercury to a performance that showed they can still perform even with Griner on the sidelines. The zone was a nice move from Gaines, and it’ll be interesting to see how their use of it continues during the season. There isn’t a natural spot for Griner in a 1-2-2, so it may well be intended for use only when she’s injured or resting, plus teams may attack it significantly better now that they know it’s coming. But the Mercury did a far better job of executing the ‘X’ than they had with their man-to-man for much of the season. Their next two games are both against Minnesota, who’ll obviously provide a stern test.
It was a disappointing game for LA simply because they’ve taken teams like this apart on their home floor for much of the season. They looked befuddled for much of the night against the zone, and allowed that confusion to translate to the rest of their performance, including their defense. Plus they simply shot poorly even when they did create good looks. They don’t play Phoenix again until the final day of the regular season, when both teams may well be resting players if their playoff seeding has been finalised – but these sides may well face each other in the heat of the postseason. Ross and her team will hope to be better prepared for what’s coming, and perform to a significantly better standard, if that should occur.
The All-Star Game starters were announced during the ESPN2 game last night, with Elena Delle Donne becoming the first ever WNBA rookie to lead the voting totals. She’ll start in the Eastern frontcourt with Tamika Catchings and Angel McCoughtry, while Cappie Pondexter and Epiphanny Prince are in the backcourt. Over in the West, Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus are the guards, with Maya Moore, Candace Parker and Brittney Griner in the frontcourt. The league’s coaches now vote for the reserves (two guards, three frontcourt players, one wildcard), who’ll be announced during the ESPN2 game next Tuesday. Well done to the fans for not voting anyone entirely ridiculous into the game as a starter. There are certainly some debatable choices – I’ll be writing more about that in coming days – but no one who compares to certain comical choices in previous seasons.
Friday July 19th (today):
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET. Indiana -5 is the line, and the Fever have been improved enough lately for me to take them to beat that. Washington will make them work for it, though.
Minnesota @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. Silver Stars getting 9.5 points on their own floor, and still not enough for me. I’ll take the Lynx to cover that even on the road.
Connecticut @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Yes, Tulsa beat Seattle – again – but they’ve still struggled to beat anyone else. I’ll take the Sun to win – the line’s says it’s a pick-em (neither team is favoured).
Saturday July 20th (tomorrow);
Connecticut @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
New York @ Chicago, 8pm ET
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 10pm ET