While most of the focus seemed to be on who would be named as All-Star reserves (more on that in the Notes section below), there was also a basketball game going on in the WNBA last night. New York travelled to Indiana having lost eight of their previous ten games, including several heavy defeats. They were in desperate need of a win to reinvigorate their season. It was especially important considering their opponents were the Fever, who’d slipped past the Liberty into the Eastern Conference’s fourth playoff spot by winning six of their last seven. New York needed to make sure they stuck around in the mix with Indiana, Washington and even Atlanta if the Dream’s losing streak persists – otherwise thoughts really will turn to next year’s lottery.
The Liberty had an extra player available, after signing former Mercury guard Samantha Prahalis (although she never made it onto the court). Indiana also had a point guard back, as Erin Phillips was available again after taking a game off to rest her knee. Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups they’ve used in recent games.
From the very start, New York looked to go down low, and attack via their size advantage in the post. It was Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton to begin with, then Kelsey Bone joining the party once Braxton’s foul trouble and general wildness sent her to the bench. The impressive element for New York was that they were forcing the ball inside without turning the ball over. Turnovers have been a bugaboo for New York all year, and they were facing the team that led the WNBA in forcing them. But the ball was generally reaching the Liberty posts without being tipped or stolen, and they were attacking the Fever defense for consistent points without giving the ball away. Pierson in particular made several nice interior passes when extra defenders came to help, dropping the ball off for easy finishes for her teammates. It looks so pretty when those tight, intricate passes actually work. So often this season New York’s attempts have ended up hitting an arm or a leg and ending up in the hands of the other team.
Unusually for New York, they were making too many errors at the other end of the floor to build a lead. Indiana couldn’t hit many shots, but they were finding points in transition by beating New York down the floor, or getting cheap points when the Liberty lost concentration on simple things like inbound plays. The Liberty even had Cappie Pondexter hitting long jumpers for once – she’s missed a huge number of long twos this season, but three of them dropped in the first half. It’d still be nice if she’d take half a step back and turn them into threes, but once they go in it’s a good shot.
Lin Dunn shifted her rotation a little in the second quarter. Tamika Catchings usually gets a decent period of rest after coming out late in the first period, but she came back in early in the second as New York seemed to be taking control. Indiana’s offense had lost what little flow they originally possessed with her resting. With Catchings back in and drawing fouls on drives that Pierson couldn’t contain, Indiana made a push in the final five minutes of the first half. The Liberty’s interior attack faded as they seemed to forget what had worked earlier, and Indiana closed the half on a 15-2 run for a 42-33 lead. Even with no one besides Briann January making perimeter shots, it seemed like the expected course of the game had been reestablished. Indiana drew a lot of contact, shot a host of free throws, and took over the game. They even managed to get Catchings her typical amount of rest, by pulling her off the floor a few minutes before the break. Nice work by Dunn.
Indiana’s lead grew to as many as 16 in the third quarter, and it really did feel like the game would probably drift off into another disappointing defeat for New York. They were still forcing the ball inside, but the Fever were managing to put a body on the Liberty post players without fouling them, and making them miss. But New York didn’t quit. Bone and Alex Montgomery injected some energy into the Liberty, while Indiana’s thin roster started to hurt them. In Dunn’s own words during ESPN2’s interview with her between the third and fourth quarters, “Sometimes when subs come in they look like subs.” The gap was down to a manageable five points by the end of the third quarter.
New York kept coming in the fourth quarter, with Pierson the main antagonist. She wasn’t sliding around the Fever players like she had earlier in the game – you get the feeling that her knee injury leads to her wearing down somewhat during games – but she was still managing to finish by going over them instead. But every time the Liberty pulled within three points, Briann January seemed to have an answer. She’s had a difficult season with the weapons around her being reduced by injuries, but for whatever reason last night she rediscovered her offense. In the fourth quarter alone, she hit a three on a kick-out, a leaner in the lane, and a pullup jumper from mid-range off the pick-and-roll – all to push Indiana’s lead back out after the gap had been reduced to three. Maybe she needs ESPN at all her games.
The problem for Indiana was that January still had very little support on the offensive end. Catchings, Shavonte Zellous and Karima Christmas barely hit a jumper all night, and the free throws created by drives had finally dried up. With two minutes left in the game, Pondexter came around a screen and pulled up to drain a three over Catchings – giving New York their first lead since the second quarter. From there we saw an awful lot of free throws, broken by one highlight. Indiana dropped into a 2-3 zone for virtually the first time all night to try to confuse the New York defense, and Pondexter’s immediate reaction was simply to pull up from ridiculously deep and nail another three. It’s the sort of shot-making she’s known for, but which we’ve seen scant few examples of this season.
With just 40 seconds left and Pondexter’s big shot giving New York a five-point lead, that seemed like the dagger. When January missed a tough layup in traffic, it definitely seemed over. Only for Catchings to drill a pair of threes, the second on a lovely screen-the-screen-the-screener play drawn up by Dunn to break her open. It largely just prolonged the inevitable, because New York refused to miss enough free throws to make things interesting, but it added some excitement to the closing seconds. The Liberty clung on for a much-needed 77-72 victory.
Indiana won’t be happy to have let this one slip away, especially on their own floor. The lack of shooting is something they know full well can happen with their team, especially with Katie Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen still pulling pretty outfits from their closets for games rather than donning Fever uniforms. But they gave up 36 points in the paint, and only created 13 turnovers from a team that’s been giving the ball away like it’s going out of style. They’d expect their defense to keep New York out better than that, and take the ball away from them more frequently. They seemed to have taken charge with their defense in the third quarter, but they let New York back in. This also takes New York to 2-1 in the season series between the teams (with two still to play), which could prove important if this is the first sign of the Liberty pulling themselves together.
New York will be hoping desperately that that’s the case. This is their first win over anyone other than Seattle since mid-June. The interior attack through Pierson and Bone worked like it’s supposed to, Pondexter hit shots when she needed to, and Montgomery continues to earn minutes on the wing with her physicality and all-out effort (even though it’d be really nice if she could shoot better). They’ve got a winnable game on the road in San Antonio before the All-Star game, which could really help them build momentum from this victory if they can keep this up. It needs to be more than a flash in the pan if their season is going to start moving upwards again.
The All-Star reserves, voted for by the league’s coaches, were announced during the second quarter of the game last night. There were no real surprises, and in fact 21 of the 22 players who’ll be in Connecticut this weekend were also on the rosters I picked in my piece yesterday. The one difference was Washington’s Crystal Langhorne being selected by the coaches ahead of Atlanta center Erika de Souza, which is a perfectly defensible decision. Langhorne was right on the brink of my team as well.
Brittney Griner didn’t play today, and Elena Delle Donne left her game with concussion-like symptoms, so there may be some extra All-Stars on the way. WNBA President Laurel Richie would select any replacements, but at time of writing none have been officially announced.
Wednesday July 24th (today):
Chicago @ Washington, 11.30am ET (already completed). I took the Sky -4.5 based on them generally being better than the Mystics, regardless of venue. That didn’t go quite to plan.
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 1pm ET (already completed). I took Minnesota -15, despite the enormous line caused by the absence of Taurasi, Taylor and Griner from the Mercury lineup. My fear making that pick was that the Lynx would relax and win comfortably without covering. Fears that proved founded.
Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7pm ET. I took Atlanta -10, despite that also being a huge line, especially considering Atlanta were looking pretty ropey on their recent road trip. But the Sun have been so poor recently, and de Souza has given Tina Charles problems in the past, so I couldn’t bring myself to take the Sun to even cover.
Thursday July 25th (tomorrow):
New York @ San Antonio, 12.30pm ET
Indiana @ Tulsa, 12.30pm ET
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 3.30pm ET