WNBA Today, 07/21/2013: Sky and Silver Stars hold on at home; Ogwumike carries Sparks to a steal in Seattle

 

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?

 

Connecticut Sun 52 @ San Antonio Silver Stars 60

  • 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.

 

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WNBA Today, 07/20/2013: Fever and Shock struggle to narrow wins; Lynx dominate again

 

A triple-game night in the WNBA yesterday, featuring two games that were predictably tight, and one that was a predictable blowout. Sometimes, in a general sense, it’s not hard to see what’s coming. But the devil’s in the details, so let’s go to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a closer look.

 

Washington Mystics 70 @ Indiana Fever 77

  • The same lineups we’ve come to expect from these teams lately began the game. The only new health note was that backup forward Jessica Breland was available again for the Fever.

 

  • Neither team led by more than five points in a first half that never quite took off. Indiana kept Crystal Langhorne very quiet, but were hurt by some poor transition defense and some effective driving from Matee Ajavon and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. The Fever shot extremely poorly – one of those days where they desperately needed Katie Douglas and/or Jeanette Pohlen to be healthy so they could knock down an outside shot or two – but compensated with unusual success on the offensive glass and their usual series of steals. Indiana led 32-31 at halftime.

 

  • The Fever began the second half without much energy, and Washington took advantage. The Mystics scored the first 10 points of the third quarter and dominated much of the period. Indiana’s defense has remained solid despite their injuries this season, but all the ins and outs have left them without quite the same level of chemistry and communication they’ve had in previous years. Two wide open Kia Vaughn layups in the third quarter highlighted that, along with Breland’s rustiness after her injury. Also, Washington simply hit more shots from the perimeter than the Fever. After an 0-5 first half, Shavonte Zellous had finally discovered her shooting tough for Indiana, but she wasn’t getting much support. Between Ajavon, Vaughn, Michelle Snow and Ivory Latta, the Mystics were finding ways to build a lead.

 

  • The final moments of the third were difficult for Indiana, and it looked like they might be letting the game slip away. Zellous went down holding her right leg, raising fears that they might have suffered yet another injury to a key player. Then Catchings picked up a technical foul after complaining vociferously about the lack of a call when Ruffin-Pratt shoved her out of bounds during the fight for a rebound. Then Lin Dunn added another tech on top for bitching about that. Latta had just made three free throws after Larkins ran through her on an outside shot, and sank two more freebies for the technicals. Indiana were a little lucky to be as close as 62-55 at the end of the third.

 

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WNBA Today, 07/19/2013: Liberty malaise continues against Sky; LA’s home perfection pierced by Phoenix

 

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 07/18/2013: Sparks deal defeat to Dream, while Shock swamp Storm again

 

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.

 

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WNBA Today, 07/17/2013: Youthful bench boosts Mystics past Silver Stars

 

Just one WNBA game last night, and it was between two teams that have a lot in common. Washington and San Antonio both have well-respected, experienced WNBA coaches in Mike Thibault and Dan Hughes. They’re two of the few WNBA teams that go deep into their bench, using 9 or 10 players every night, regardless of the scoreline. Both squads have worked extremely hard for everything they’ve gotten this season, fighting for wins despite not necessarily having the most talented options in the league. But then there are the key differences. Like many teams this year, San Antonio have been hit hard by injuries, with stars Sophia Young and Becky Hammon ruled out for the entire season. It’s left them shorthanded, and trying to survive as best they can. Washington are that rare WNBA squad that’s been virtually intact from opening day, and remained that way. Thibault talked about not having true superstars on his roster at the start of the season – and maybe it’s true that Ivory Latta and Crystal Langhorne don’t quite reach the level of Hammon and Young – but with depth, health and markedly improved team performance, they’ve had significantly greater success than San Antonio this year.

 

Having beaten the Silver Stars back in Texas just last week, the Mystics came into this game as favourites. Sitting at 7-7, Washington also had the chance to go above .500 this far into a season for the first time since 2010 – when they finished top of the Eastern Conference. Both teams were effective early, with the first eight shots of the game all dropping, but it was Washington who then made a push. Generating the majority of their offense from the pick-and-roll, they were making the right play, finding the open player, and knocking down shots. Simple, but effective.

 

There was also an early influence from something I’ve talked about before with the Mystics – their willingness to drive and create contact. San Antonio do a lot of their offensive work from range, leaving their point production to ebb and flow depending on whether they can hit jump shots. Washington take plenty of mid-range jumpers as well, but they don’t just drive when there’s an open lane. They drive with the intention of getting fouled, and scoring too if the opportunity presents itself.

 

San Antonio shot their way back into the game in the first quarter, also generating points on a couple of nice backdoor cuts and through Danielle Adams on the low block as the first half progressed. But Washington reestablished their lead through another aspect of this team that’s becoming almost their trademark – the consistent effectiveness of their bench. Thibault isn’t quite bringing them in via hockey-style line changes, but it’s not far off. Frequently it’s five-player bench lineups that are making an impact for the Mystics. Nadirah McKenith, Tayler Hill, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Emma Meesseman and Kia Vaughn have formed a unit that doesn’t need to be supported by any starters, and increasingly leave Thibault wondering whether his starters deserve to return. In this game they provided solid defense to keep San Antonio firing away from outside, the increasingly confident McKenith joined Ruffin-Pratt in attacking the basket off the dribble (although both have shown they’ve got some range as well), and Meesseman was her usual steady self while knocking down her mid-range jumper. The group’s success is even more impressive considering Vaughn is the only one of the five who isn’t a rookie – these kids had no idea what the WNBA was about until a couple of months ago. They’re playing with no fear, and often leaving the Mystics better situated in games than they were when the starters sat down. The only problem Thibault has is finding minutes for everyone who deserves them.

 

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WNBA Today, 07/15/2013: Injury bug continues to play key role as Silver Stars, Mercury and Dream all fall

 

Sunday saw a triple-header of WNBA action, so it’s off to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to cover it all:

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 84 @ Connecticut Sun 86

  • Both teams stuck with the same starting lineups they’d used in their last games. For San Antonio that meant second-year wing Shenise Johnson retaining her small forward spot ahead of Shameka Christon; for Connecticut, Iziane Castro Marques continued to start with Kara Lawson still coming off the bench in her second game since returning from injury. Castro Marques has been desperately ineffective since joining the Sun, whether starting or as a reserve, which in truth is only a continuation of how poor she was in Atlanta and Washington the last two years. At some point, WNBA teams will eventually stop signing her. At the very least, her minutes will continue to disappear for Connecticut with Lawson back and Renee Montgomery reportedly approaching a return as well.

 

  • The first half was remarkably streaky, eventually ending up in virtual stalemate. Both these teams are deeply flawed. San Antonio, lacking stars Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, don’t have the same level of scoring threat that they’ve possessed in previous seasons. They’ve also been one of the worst rebounding teams in the league for years, and nothing’s changed on that front. Connecticut still have the same gaping hole at power forward that they started the season with, the injuries have hurt the backcourt, and Tina Charles has lacked offensive support all year. It all balanced out and ended up even.

 

  • Charles settled for too many jumpers in the first half, just like she has all season, despite San Antonio sending far fewer double-teams at her than she’s seen from most opponents this year. Most teams have seen the lack of firepower around Charles and swarmed her, forcing any other Sun player to try to beat them. The Silver Stars sent help occasionally, but largely trusted Jayne Appel to do the best job she could while everyone else stayed home.

 

  • At the other end of the floor, San Antonio missed a procession of layups, whether under pressure or not. As a team that doesn’t usually take many shots near the rim, maybe they were too close. After trailing by as many as 11 points earlier in the first half, once they stepped back and started firing jumpers, Jia Perkins and Danielle Robinson shot San Antonio back into the game. The Silver Stars trailed just 34-32 at halftime.

 

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WNBA Today, 07/14/2013: More road wins as Fever and Lynx run over disappointing Liberty and Shock

 

Another double-header of WNBA action last night, one game in the East, one in the West. In the Eastern Conference, we had two teams who’ve struggled through stuttering seasons, and currently find themselves tussling in the lower reaches of the playoff battle. Over in the West, it was top versus bottom, as the leaders took on a team that already looks like it’s heading for another year in the lottery. Funnily enough, both games ended up being equally one-sided.

 

The opener saw the New York Liberty hosting long-time Eastern rivals the Indiana Fever. Both teams have dealt with key injuries this season, and the Liberty won’t be getting Essence Carson or Cheryl Ford back any time this year. Indiana are at least starting to become a little healthier, with the return of Erin Phillips boosting their guard corps – although Jessica Breland’s ankle sprain dropped their numbers back to nine virtually simultaneously. Lately it’s felt like these teams are on very different trajectories. The Fever had won three of four coming into this game, with the return of Tamika Catchings after a back problem inspiring some improvement. The Liberty had lost five of their last seven, and almost managed to blow their previous game against Seattle despite leading by 17 in the first quarter. New York were 1.5 games up on Indiana in the standings, but Liberty fans were probably more worried about their current state heading into this clash.

 

The first half was tight throughout, with neither team leading by more than three points at any stage. Both sides had opened the game with the same starting lineups that they used in their previous outings, but Kara Braxton picked up two fouls within 43 seconds, leading to an early entry for Alex Montgomery (and obviously a switch to a smaller lineup for New York). Montgomery attacked the glass, and when Plenette Pierson came into the game she dominated Fever backup Jasmine Hassell on the low block, carrying the Liberty offense. But with Erlana Larkins having one of her more effective offensive games of the year, and New York’s miserable turnover issues continuing to plague them, Indiana kept pace.

 

In the backcourt, both teams had some differences from recent games. As he mentioned explicitly in the recorded pre-game interview, Bill Laimbeer is sick of playing two small guards together, and is trying to transition Cappie Pondexter over to the ‘lead guard’ spot he envisioned for her before the season began. Pondexter had a pretty poor first half in that role, and Katie Smith ended up trying to initiate the offense half the time anyway. The next level of avoiding the ‘two small guards’ issue came when Kamiko Williams entered the game ahead of Leilani Mitchell off the bench. Williams has had a rollercoaster rookie year with more troughs than peaks, and Mitchell’s ability to at least vaguely run an offense – and make a few perimeter shots – had forced Laimbeer into using her ahead of the rookie. But Williams has a few inches on Mitchell, and if Laimbeer is determined to avoid a small backcourt, Mitchell can only play when Pondexter rests. This idea may not last long – in fact, Laimbeer turned to Mitchell before Williams in the second half.

 

On the other side of the floor, Indiana must be delighted to have Phillips back. She makes life easier for everybody just by putting another true ballhandler on the floor, plus someone who can both penetrate and knock down a few outside shots. Point guard Briann January, who’s had a miserable year with so many important pieces on the sidelines, is a key beneficiary. She doesn’t have to handle the load at the point alone, and she can often hang out at the three-point line and wait for someone else to create a shot for her. It also takes pressure off Catchings and Shavonte Zellous, who had to take on more ballhandling responsibilities in Phillips’s absence. It was noticeable in the final two minutes of the first half, after Catchings picked up her third foul and had to sit, that Indiana didn’t fall apart like they might’ve done before without their leader. Phillips was there to help run the offense and keep things under control. A quick run of points from Zellous gave Indiana a 37-34 halftime lead.

 

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