Three games of basketball last night in the WNBA, and largely speaking all three were relatively close throughout. Just because that was often down to neither team playing well enough to take charge of the game, doesn’t take away from the excitement of a tight contest, right?
- Yes, the basketball (and scheduling) gods decided we had to watch both these struggling teams twice on consecutive nights. The Sun put up a stinker in Tulsa on Friday, while San Antonio were dominated on their own floor by Minnesota. No one was betting on a classic.
- Both teams were down a player from the previous evening, with DeLisha Milton-Jones out for San Antonio due to a knee problem we saw her pick up against the Lynx, and Kara Lawson missing again for Connecticut due to her own reported sore knee. Shenise Johnson stepped back into the starting lineup for the Silver Stars, while the useless Iziane Castro Marques was finally demoted by Anne Donovan for the Sun. Tan White moved into their starting lineup in her second game back after recovering from a broken finger.
- San Antonio felt like the better team for most of the first half. Their ball movement, chemistry, and basic willingness to work for each other was significantly better than Connecticut’s. Danielle Adams was their primary offensive weapon, happily setting up on the low block and hitting short jumpers over people like Kelsey Griffin. But there were other threats around the floor as well, and Jayne Appel working on the glass, which gave the Silver Stars some balance.
- Connecticut, of course, have had no balance all year. It’s usually Tina Charles and not much else, and often it feels like we’re not even seeing the full extent of Tina. She finished the first half of this game with a dominant-looking stat line of 7-15 for 16 points and 6 rebounds, but it still felt like she was on auto-pilot. She’s so good and so gifted that she can produce like this even when she doesn’t appear fully engaged in the contest. I suggested on Twitter that ‘Going Through the Motions’ was the anthem for her 2013 season (yes, from the Buffy musical episode), and I stand by that. A half-interested Tina Charles is just still this good.
- The Sun kept things tight thanks to a reminder of what they might’ve had off their bench all season if they’d been healthy. Renee Montgomery came in and offered up her typical repertoire of drives and bombs, bringing Connecticut back from a nine-point deficit to be tied at 35-35 at halftime. She still looks to score first, second and third, and it’s often not particularly efficient, but she can offer a spark that we’ve rarely seen from Connecticut this year.
- When two bad teams are playing the second games of back-to-backs, the second half in particular is likely to be ugly – and this was no exception. Connecticut scored four points in the entire third quarter as Charles faded out of the game and everyone other Sun player fired up nothing but bricks. Led by Jia Perkins, San Antonio managed to knock down some jumpers and pull out into a lead.
- The Silver Stars led by double-digits for the bulk of the fourth quarter, and Connecticut never showed any signs of a comeback. Their night was summed up when Adams literally beat Griffin for speed off the dribble and converted a layup (while Charles watched her blankly from the supposed help position on the weak side). Adams has decent feet and is quicker than you’d think, but she’d be a stronger contender in eating contests than sprinting contests. Just not good enough from Connecticut.
- Credit to San Antonio for gutting out a win after losing seven of their previous eight games. Perkins, Adams and Danielle Robinson were the keys on offense, while Appel went to work on the boards and the whole team battled Charles. They won’t have many easier opponents this season than a tired Connecticut Sun flying in on a road back-to-back, but they’ll take every win they can get.
- The Sun are going from bad to worse. Outside of Charles, the team shot 13-52 in this game (25%) despite the amount of double-teams sent to stop their star center. As a whole, they shot below 30% from the field for the second consecutive night – against two of the worst defensive teams in the WNBA. The ball movement isn’t great, there’s not a lot of energy or enthusiasm in evidence, and they flat-out don’t have enough people who can shoot. While the loss of Asjha Jones for the year and the injuries to Lawson, Montgomery and White have hurt, the main thing this team is illustrating this season is how good a job Mike Thibault did with them in previous years. With Jones the only notable change, virtually the same squad went 25-9 last year and were one win away from the WNBA Finals. Anne Donovan was supposed to take them the next step, and all they seem to be doing is falling backwards.
- The Liberty came into this game having lost seven of their previous nine, and three of those seven defeats were to Chicago. After a 20-point blowout loss to the Sky back in Jersey just two days earlier, the Liberty had a quick chance to redeem themselves – but recent performance definitely suggested they were a long shot. The news that Sylvia Fowles was healthy enough to return to the lineup for the Sky made New York’s task even more difficult.
- New York stuck with the same starting lineup that was destroyed in the opening quarter of Thursday’s disaster, but they began the game much better. Well, Cappie Pondexter dropped the ball out of bounds on the opening possession, but in general they started better. Plenette Pierson took on the challenge of guarding Elena Delle Donne, and with the Liberty defense also sending plenty of help, they kept her quiet. Fowles was doing the best she could, and looked reasonably healthy on the floor, but was immediately removing her right shoe and applying a heat pad to her ankle every time she sat down.
- Offensively, a key difference for New York from virtually every game this season was that Pondexter’s jumper was falling. Their star has shot so poorly on mid and long-range twos this season that it’s put a serious dent in their offense – especially considering how much she enjoys throwing them up, whether they’re going in or not. With a little support from Pierson attacking Swin Cash, and rookie Toni Young starting to flash some offensive talent, the Liberty led 42-39 at halftime.
- Keeping the Sky in it was Tamera Young, a backup wing usually brought in for her defense more than her scoring ability. When opposing defenses tilt heavily towards the stars, role players have to step up and utilise the space they’re left in. This time it was Young’s turn, and she was finishing at the rim, knocking down mid-range jumpers, and generally carrying the Sky offense for much of the first half.
- Chicago seemingly started to pull away in the third quarter, as supporting players like Cash and Courtney Vandersloot also stepped up to hit shots while New York concentrated on stopping the Sky’s stars. But there was more fight in the Liberty in this game than we’d seen for a while, and they closed the third quarter strong, generating steals and cutting a 10-point gap to 4.
- But it wasn’t to be for New York. It seemed like they didn’t quite have the energy to battle it out with Chicago for a full 40 minutes, and Pondexter’s shots stopped dropping in the second half (she threw up some ugly prayers in the fourth quarter in particular). There was a notable sequence with around seven minutes remaining where a series of offensive rebounds eventually led to a Fowles putback; then Pondexter was called for an offensive foul while trying to draw contact on Vandersloot; and then Cash drilled a three when the entire defense sagged inside to cover Delle Donne. The Sky had just a little too much in the closing stages.
- Sky coach Pokey Chatman also shortened her rotation in the second half – there were none of her trademark bench-heavy lineups – probably in part because Chicago don’t play again until Wednesday, and then have over a week off around the All-Star Game. After years where Chicago would have let-down games and drop contests like this, she didn’t want to allow the win to slip away.
- For New York, the positive was that this was better. This time Pierson seemed to take it as a personal challenge to go up against the heralded rookie, and Delle Donne was held to single-digit scoring for the first time this season. Pierson also helped out Pondexter with the scoring load, and the team as a whole kept their turnovers under control for once (although there were still several unnecessary giveaways). Unfortunately, the offense still looks short of ideas and movement, overly reliant on Pondexter – and she looks reluctant to give up the ball in case she’ll never get it back. They still have a long way to go.
- This was one of those gutsy, clawing victories that Chicago rarely pulled out in previous seasons. None of the stars produced particularly well offensively, but team effort and defensive work rate got them over the line. With Atlanta dropping a few games, they’re top of the Eastern Conference now and looking forward to the rest of the season with excitement rather than trepidation. My only question would be why they felt the need to play a clearly half-fit Fowles in a game like this when they beat the same team without her two days earlier. If she needs rest, let her have it. This team is finally good enough to survive for a while without her.
- Both teams started this game with the lineups we expected, and their regular squads available. Which feels distinctly unusual this season.
- For the first time in what felt like eons, Seattle came out and actually performed in the opening quarter. Somehow, Brian Agler had finally managed to wake his team up before the tip-off, rather than somewhere in the middle of the second period (or occasionally after the final buzzer). They began the game with some purpose and energy, Shekinna Stricklen finally providing what Agler moved her into the starting lineup for, getting out on the break and finishing at the rim. The Key Arena crowd actually had something to shout about.
- Defensively, Seattle were pulling their typical trick of clogging the paint and blocking off the rim, and LA responded by settling for jumpers. Endless, endless jumpers. And they weren’t hitting many of them. Candace Parker was firing blanks from outside, Lindsey Harding was cold, and Kristi Toliver invisible. The only Spark who really showed up in the first half was Nneka Ogwumike, using her raw athleticism on the offensive glass and to finish inside. As ever, LA tried to push at every opportunity, and managed to create a few points off turnovers. Otherwise they were toothless.
- It all stemmed from LA’s work – or lack thereof – at the defensive end. They looked lost. It was their third game in four days, and fourth in a week, so maybe fatigue played a key role – but this wasn’t the team I gave credit to for improving their work on help defense a few games ago. High pick-and-rolls, slip-screens, simple hard cuts – Seattle were finding wide open lanes to the basket and piling up points in the paint. I’m pretty sure LA tried a little 2-3 zone at one point, but they were enough of a mess that it was hard to tell. Eventually they switched to trapping the ballhandler on high screens in an attempt to prevent the pass to open cutters, but that often broke down as well because Seattle were smart and quick enough to rotate the ball out of the traps.
- The only problem for Seattle was that it didn’t feel like they were capitalising on their dominance quite enough (and I swear that’s in my notes, not just based on what happened later). They were on top for the vast majority of the first half, most of LA’s key players had barely arrived, and yet the Storm only led 39-31 at the break.
- While LA started the second half looking just as confused and disorganised defensively – a backdoor cut for an easy Temeka Johnson layup, a post move from Camille Little beating Parker all ends up – the Sparks slid back into the game as the third quarter progressed. Sparks head coach Carol Ross finally responded to what was obvious to everybody – that Parker wasn’t worth her place on the floor with the ineffective, lackadaisical way she was playing – and benched her. The Ebony Hoffman/Nneka Ogwumike pairing in the frontcourt did markedly better, with Ogwumike converting three Hoffman passes into layups in the space of three minutes. A nine-point Storm lead disappeared in the blink of an eye with their offense back to its familiar struggles and LA’s new lineup performing far better.
- In fact, from the 8:32 mark in the third quarter, when Tina Thompson made an open layup – one of the final times LA tried the all-out double-team trap on a ballhandler – to the 7:46 mark of the fourth when Thompson finished in transition, Seattle didn’t score a single field goal. They were kept alive by free throws – LA committed some pathetically unnecessary fouls late in the third – and the fact that the Sparks offense disintegrated whenever Parker came back in. After scoring four points as a team in over five minutes of basketball across the end of the third and start of the fourth, it was Parker who sat back down when Ogwumike returned. Hoffman stayed on the floor.
- Both teams looked tired down the stretch, with jumpers coming up short and the transition game disappearing. LA were back to switching almost everything defensively, which led to mismatches like Toliver on Little (poor little Kristi constantly ended up on Camille as the night wore on, undoubtedly by the Storm’s design). That at least created a few points for Seattle, but we were always headed for a close finish.
- Somewhat surprisingly, Ross gave Parker one final chance, bringing her back into the game for Hoffman with three minutes remaining. She went 1-of-2 at the free throw line with a minute left after getting fouled on a runner that never had any chance of going in. That cut the Storm lead to 1, but it was extended back to 3 when Temeka Johnson went round a screen and right by Parker for a layup moments later. Lindsey Harding responded with a drive and finish of her own to pull it back to a point with 30 seconds left.
- Out of a timeout, Tanisha Wright drove the baseline and found Stricklen in the corner wide open for three. Considering Seattle had a lead, they probably would’ve liked to run more time off the clock, and maybe Stricklen wouldn’t be your first choice to take that shot, but it was a good look. Unfortunately for the Storm, she missed, and LA had 22 seconds to win it.
- The ensuing Sparks play was busted multiple times. It’s hard to even work out exactly what the intended play was. The inbounds pass went to Parker, who faced up Little, but didn’t seem to want any part of taking the shot and quickly passed out. A Harding drive was then cut off in the paint, and she kicked it back out to Alana Beard, who took one dribble into a pullup jumper at the free throw line and hit it. There’s no way on Earth that Beard was the first option on that play – she was probably fifth – but that’s the advantage of having such a loaded roster. Even your supporting players can make shots like that.
- Seattle still had 10 seconds to steal the game back. Johnson got LA to switch on a screen, and drove on Ogwumike, but didn’t have the same kind of success she’d had moments earlier against Parker. Nneka backed up enough to avoid the foul, reached in and cleanly blocked the ball as Johnson tried to force up a shot in traffic. After review, Seattle had one last chance with 0.6 seconds left. A Wright pass found Thompson under the basket – Parker was clinging to her but somehow allowed the pass to get there – only for Ogwumike to come across and block the effort Thompson put up at the buzzer. Ballgame over, LA cling on.
- Despite the loss, there were positives for Seattle from this one. They played with energy, especially in the first half, found seams in LA’s defense that forced the Sparks into a variety of changes that smacked of desperation, and kept most of the Sparks’s stars quiet all evening. Eventually LA had just a little too much top-tier talent.
- That was it for LA. They didn’t play well at all, Parker was poor for the third time in three games, and they looked like they’d forgotten how to defend for much of the first half. But they’ve got enough talent that even when several players underperform, there are other options to turn to. Ogwumike carried them for much of the night, Hoffman stepped up off the bench, and Beard made the big shot at the finish. Sometimes that’s all you need, and playing badly while winning leaves a much sweeter taste in the mouth than playing well and losing.
Samantha Prahalis, Avery Warley, Nakia Sanford, Jessica Adair and Sydney Carter all cleared waivers without being claimed by anyone (which, among other things, shows why no one traded anything for Prahalis – no one even wanted her for free). All of them now become unrestricted free agents. Sanford, for one, is expected to re-sign on a seven-day contract with Seattle, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Warley did the same in New York. Now Montgomery and White are back in Connecticut, Carter might also be re-signed there if they decide to jettison Castro Marques.
Sunday July 21st (today):
Indiana @ Washington 4pm ET. Mystics -4.5 is the line, after Indiana won this matchup back on their own floor by 7 on Friday night. I’ll take the Fever to cover, but it’s likely to be close again.
Atlanta @ Tulsa, 4.30pm ET. The Shock are getting 5 points on their own floor, they’ve won two in a row, and the Dream are finishing off a four-game road trip where they’ve lost their starting power forward and they’re 0-3 so far. But I’m still taking Atlanta. One more and maybe I’ll start believing, Tulsa.
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 6pm ET. Phoenix +6, likely still without Griner, and I’ll happily take Minnesota to beat a team they’ve already stuffed three times this season. But it is going to be interesting to see the Lynx go up against the zone Phoenix debuted against LA on Thursday.