WNBA Today, 07/26/2013: Storm and Fever head into break with important road wins; listless Liberty back to losing

 

Yes, this article is going up rather late. Especially considering all three WNBA matchups yesterday were day games. For that I apologise. The problem was that I skipped the New York-San Antonio game yesterday in favour of watching Indiana-Tulsa, which left me catching up with the Liberty and Silver Stars today via archive. And I kept having to pause the game to find more interesting things to do, so that my will to live didn’t slip entirely away. Thank goodness there were two rather more interesting games yesterday to take us into the All-Star break.

 

Indiana Fever 71 @ Tulsa Shock 60

  • Tulsa’s three-game winning streak and the recent performances of their Glory Johnson/Liz Cambage frontcourt had hopes rising for the Shock heading into this one. Indiana had a disappointing home loss to New York on Tuesday night, but have been steadily improving since their painful, injury-riddled start to the season. Both teams continued with the same starting lineups they’d been using in recent games (so Skylar Diggins continued to come off the bench behind Angel Goodrich at the point for Tulsa).

 

  • The Fever struggled on Tuesday night against Plenette Pierson and New York’s post attack, which led to obvious concerns about how they’d handle Johnson and Cambage. Indiana are undersized inside with Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins as their posts, but they usually make up with it through energy, effort and teamwork. It was always more likely that Tuesday would be an aberration rather than the beginning of a trend. They did fine against Tulsa’s young bigs. The expected double-teams dropped down on Cambage whenever she touched the ball inside, forcing the ball back out or leading to tips and strips when she tried to make moves through multiple defenders. The Shock had some early success cutting into the paint from the weak side when Indiana tried to double-team, leading to layups rather than perimeter shots, but it didn’t last long. The effectiveness of Indiana’s defense doesn’t just come from closing in on opponents with traps and double-teams – it’s how quick they are to rotate and recover if the ball makes it out. The opportunities dried up for Tulsa.

 

  • At the other end of the floor, Indiana were missing too many layups, which is nothing new. These are the two worst-shooting teams from inside 5-feet in the entire WNBA, and the Fever are the only team in the league below 50% from that range (Tulsa are just barely above 50%). But Catchings and Karima Christmas made a few jumpers, Shavonte Zellous got into the paint and consistently looked to score over the smaller defenders who were trying to guard her, and the Fever were consistently aggressive in transition off turnovers. It felt like they should’ve been up by more than 38-34 at halftime.

 

  • After a poor first half, Nicole Powell was replaced by Roneeka Hodges to start the third quarter. Powell never took the floor in the second half, so there may have been an injury of some kind affecting her.

 

  • Indiana held a narrow lead throughout the third quarter. It never hit double-digits, but it was also rarely below six or seven points. The Fever were being troubled by Cambage’s size inside, and having to find ways to navigate around her, but they were making every hustle play and winning every 50/50 battle. Tiffany Jackson-Jones and Diggins made a couple of plays in the period, including a halfcourt three at the buzzer from Diggins, but the Shock as a whole were scrabbling to stay in the game.

 

  • Tulsa came within three points early in the fourth quarter, but a surge from Indiana quickly pushed the gap back out to nine and that was the game. The Shock had never found enough ways to score during the course of the game once Indiana’s team-defense kept Cambage and Johnson quiet, while Catchings and Zellous combined for enough offense to carry Indiana to the win.

 

  • This was a little bit of a return to Earth for the Shock after the excitement of recent games. It’s not always going to be easy to find their posts in position to score, and unless Riquna Williams explodes their perimeter attack is still pretty minimal. And it was yet another day where Diggins and Wiggins couldn’t make a layup in traffic if their lives depended on it (there’ve been a lot of those days this season). On the bright side, the recent wins have restored some hope. It’s those they have to build off, rather than this defeat.

 

  • Indiana produced the response they needed after the loss to the Liberty, and this result leaves them just half a game behind Washington for third spot in the East. Despite the horrible start to the year, they’re solidly back in the playoff hunt, and looking up rather than worrying about what’s going on below them. Catchings and Zellous, their two 2013 All-Stars, were again the primary offensive weapons in this victory, with important contributions from Erlana Larkins defensively and Karima Christmas making some important shots. If they continue getting healthier, this team can still be dangerous over the remainder of the season.

 

New York Liberty 53 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 65

  • The hope for New York coming into this one was that they could use their win over Indiana on Tuesday night as a springboard to reverse the course of their season. But San Antonio had won just three of their previous fourteen games, and the Liberty three of their last eleven. We should’ve known what was coming.

 

  • DeLisha Milton-Jones was still out with her right knee problem, so Shenise Johnson and Danielle Adams continued to start at the forward spots for San Antonio.

 

  • This really was a dire game. I honestly tried to make notes on moments of interest, but they were few and far between. After hitting some big shots to beat Indiana, Cappie Pondexter was back to her ‘lead guard’ meanderings. She seemed to take that role to mean either a) bring the ball up, pass it off, then stand off to the side and watch the rest of the possession take place. Or b) never give it up at all, and fire up a shot. There are other options as the primary ballhandler, but those were the only ones she seemed interested in.

 

  • At least, when we could see the game they were the options. A truly horrible jumbotron-based broadcast, focussing on the mascot, the crowd and endless replays, meant half the game was virtually a radio broadcast.

 

  • The balance of the game came down to San Antonio winning the battle in the post. That sounds a little ridiculous considering they scored 14 points in the paint all afternoon, but Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams outbattled Plenette Pierson, Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone throughout the game. Where the Liberty posts found ways to convert their opportunities into points against Indiana a couple of nights earlier, the Silver Star bigs bodied them up and forced them into countless misses. It eventually led to a 31-22 halftime lead for San Antonio.

 

  • There was a moment of excitement just before the halftime break, when Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer understandably went nuts about a shot clock violation called on his team. Pierson’s effort from under the rim clearly careened back off the iron a couple of seconds before the buzzer sounded, but apparently none of the officials noticed. Laimbeer continued to complain throughout the next possession, eventually talking his way into a technical. When he kept expressing his displeasure – my limited lip-reading skills discerned what looked like repeated uses of a word that rhymes with “wool-knit” – the second technical and ejection followed. Rumours that he was tired of watching such a terrible game and just wanted to leave early may have been entirely made up.

 

  • Nothing much changed in the second half (although it was interesting that Taj McWilliams-Franklin appeared to take over the head coaching role for New York, rather than Barb Farris). Pondexter remained quiet, despite San Antonio doing nothing particularly special to keep her that way. Danielle Robinson is a useful perimeter defender, and they were hedging hard on Cappie off screens, but they do that against most people. Pierson couldn’t hit anything, so New York never had anything resembling a sustained run of points. San Antonio ran a few back screens for Shameka Christon, tossed the ball down to Adams once in a while, and created enough buckets to sustain their lead. The gap was never much more than 10 points throughout the second half, and yet there was never any sign of a Liberty comeback.

 

  • This was pretty pathetic from New York. On the road against a team even more damaged by injury than they’ve been this season, with the chance to build some momentum going into the break, and they came up with a lethargic, aimless performance. They’re still well within range of challenging for a playoff spot, but performances like this – from the team as a whole, and Pondexter in particular – make a battle with Connecticut for lottery balls look more likely.

 

  • San Antonio scratched their way to another win. It wasn’t pretty, but they’ll take it. Adams finished 5-18 from the floor, but she felt much more effective than that, and the added responsibility she’s being asked to take on may be good for her. She’s giving them a target in the paint and peppering in perimeter jumpers to stretch the defense and drag out post defenders who don’t want to chase her. Point guard Danielle Robinson, the only Silver Star heading to the All-Star game this year, slid to the rim several times to finish as well (often past Pondexter, who completely quit playing defense in the second half). It was an awful game, but the young Silver Star fans in attendance presumably left happy.

 

  • It was also Dan Hughes’s 200th win as a head coach in the WNBA, the third coach to reach that milestone. He went past 200 losses in the WNBA a few weeks ago, but that passed without much fanfare.

 

Seattle Storm 73 @ Los Angeles Sparks 66

  • And finally, our last proper basketball game for a week saw Seattle looking for speedy revenge in Los Angeles. The Storm have had some heavy defeats this season, but their previous game against LA on Saturday night was one they should’ve won. A late Alana Beard jumper and a standout performance from Nneka Ogwumike stole a one-point win for the Sparks. LA had produced some dubious performances recently, reminding everyone of their inconsistency over recent years, so they were looking to reestablish their dominance at Staples Center. They’d been overpowering on their own floor prior to a defeat to Phoenix a week earlier, so now they had a chance to begin another winning streak.

 

  • However, LA weren’t impressive at all in the first half. They played with very little energy, settled for a lot of jumpers against a Seattle defense that wants their opponents to take those shots, and got destroyed on the glass by a Storm team that opened the day 11th in the WNBA in rebounding. LA’s defensive rotations were also pathetically slow, leaving Tina Thompson wide open on pick-and-pops for the deep threes she adores. She’d already hit three of them after barely five minutes had elapsed, and the Storm led by double-digits. Seattle had become well-known for their desperately slow starts earlier this season, but this time it was LA who hadn’t woken up in time for tip-off.

 

  • After a remarkable 14-1 imbalance on the boards after the opening period, LA still trailed in that category 23-7 at halftime, as they were horribly outworked on their own floor. Seattle were shooting unusually well for them – which always left the possibility of a comeback in the second half when they regressed to the mean – but LA were going to have to pick up their work rate considerably to make it a contest. They trailed 41-27 at the break.

 

  • LA did indeed provide more of a challenge in the second half, and the game became a very physical battle that the officials had trouble controlling. The Sparks made more of an effort to get the ball inside to Candace Parker, which led to more bumping and barging, along with plenty of LA free throws. Alana Beard and Temeka Johnson took the physicality a little too far when a Beard elbow to the stomach led to a shove from Johnson. As tends to be the way with these things, the referees saw the retribution after missing the initial offense, and it was Johnson who drew the technical.

 

  • The Storm’s offense stalled in the third quarter – as it’s prone to – which allowed LA to work back into the game. Seattle pick-and-rolls were still resulting in LA switches and complete mismatches in the paint, but they were less successful in exploiting them in the second half as LA made some actual effort to play help defense. Not much, but at least a little. The Sparks were back within a point late in the third.

 

  • Seattle’s lead crept back out in the fourth quarter without them doing anything special. LA drifted back into firing long jumpers, the Storm made a couple of shots, and suddenly they were back up by double-digits and looking like they might have enough to hold on.

 

  • Again, LA made a push by actually attacking the basket. Lindsey Harding kept pushing in transition and driving rather than pulling up, they looked to feed Parker inside whenever they could, and the officials were completely lost on what to call by this point – so occasionally they drew a few whistles as well. It was practically random chance by this stage which piece of contact they’d happen to call. LA were within three with under two minutes remaining when Ogwumike missed a finish in traffic, Parker missed the tip, then missed a hook on a further putback attempt. Thompson came down with that rebound and took heavy contact from Ogwumike, sending Thompson to the other end for free throws. On Seattle’s next possession, the Sparks actually managed not to switch on a screen for once, and Camille Little pulled out a beautiful step-through move to go around Parker for the score. That gave Seattle a seven-point lead with under a minute to play, and they were home.

 

  • The Sparks are maddening, but this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every time we get sucked in to thinking they’ve turned the corner, they remind us that the only consistent thing about them is their inconsistency. They’re going to win plenty of games because of their raw talent level, they’re going to look very impressive on some nights, and pretty pathetic on a few others. And the success of their season is going to come down to which version happens to show up for the playoffs.

 

  • This was a big win for Seattle, considering they’d lost four of their previous five (with the only win coming against a severely understrength Atlanta). The Storm have a consistent pattern as well – just when you start to count them out, they find a way to claw out a few wins. Tina Thompson lit up her old team for 23 points on 8-13 from the field in her final visit to Tinsel Town as a player – barring a playoff encounter. Wright and Little played important roles as well. This team isn’t going to quit, however many times you start thinking they might.

 

Notes

The Chicago Sky quietly announced – in a press release that barely any press bothered to report on, and the Sky didn’t put on their website, Twitter feed or Facebook page – that they have more injury problems besides just Elena Delle Donne’s concussion. Backup point guard Sharnee Zoll (or Zoll-Norman – the league can’t make up their mind what they want to call her) has a broken thumb and is expected to miss four weeks. Backup center Carolyn Swords is going to have surgery on an MCL injury tomorrow. It’s the Swords injury that’s the bigger issue for a variety of reasons. Zoll hasn’t been anything remotely special this season, and they have alternative options who can fill in as backups for Courtney Vandersloot. But they don’t have a lot of reliable reserve bigs, with Michelle Campbell largely proving this season why she’s a 29-year old WNBA rookie, plus Delle Donne has her concussion and Sylvia Fowles has had foot and ankle problems already this season. Also, it’s a Grade 3 MCL issue for Swords, which is on the serious end of the scale, and surgery is rare for MCL problems unless absolutely necessary. She could be out for a while. So don’t be surprised if Chicago are trawling the free agent market for anything resembling a serviceable post to sign via a hardship exception in upcoming days. They need the cover.

 

With Tina Thompson already named to replace Brittney Griner on the West squad at tomorrow’s All-Star Game, Atlanta’s Erika de Souza was named to replace Delle Donne on the East roster today. Considering I picked Erika to be on my original 11, obviously I had no problem with the selection. After making a bit of a reach to invite Thompson as a replacement, some felt Katie Smith might’ve been an option as the fill-in on the East squad, so two greats of the women’s game could be given a fond farewell. But based on performance this season, Smith would’ve been a significantly bigger leap than Thompson, so either the league felt that they couldn’t do it, or she quietly said no.

 

Replacing Griner and Delle Done in the starting lineups will be Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson and Connecticut’s Tina Charles. The former is a reasonable choice, although maybe influenced slightly by Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve being in charge of the West team this weekend. Charles is an obvious concession to the home crowd, who’ll have one of their favourites to cheer on from the tip-off. Charles has no business starting in the All-Star Game this season.

 

Finally, another major retirement from an international star, as Czech point guard Hana Horakova decided to call it quits. She never bothered with the WNBA, but she’s another of the European stars who probably could have if she wanted to. US audiences will remember her best from the 2010 World Championships, where she helped upset Australia and lead the Czech Republic to the silver medal.

 

Upcoming Games

 

Saturday July 27th (tomorrow):

West @ East, 3.30pm ET. Yes, I found a line. It’s West -3.5, and I like them to cover that. I have no real logic, except that the West had far more worthwhile contenders when I was trying to pick the teams. In truth, it’s a crapshoot.

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