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.

 

Continue reading

Advertisement

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.

 

Continue reading

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.

 

Continue reading

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.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/13/2013: Sky overcome one-woman team in Connecticut, while Mystics’ depth holds off San Antonio

 

Once again, yesterday saw a pair of WNBA games on the schedule, with the action tipping off in Connecticut where the Chicago Sky were the visitors. It’s games like this where the Sky have to continue proving that they’re a legitimately improved team from previous years. They’d won five of their last six, and they were visiting a struggling, understrength team – it’s a contest they should have gone into confident of success, but the kind of game they’ve blown in previous years. Even sitting pretty in second place in the East, there are still plenty of scars from all the years of failure. They’re still working to consign those memories to history and become a real power in this league.

 

Historically, Connecticut have been one of those powers. But with Mike Thibault gone, Asjha Jones taking the year off, and a variety of injuries in their backcourt it’s been a rough season so far for the Sun. The positive for this game was that they had one of those guards back, with Kara Lawson in uniform after missing their last four games with a bruised knee. Iziane Castro Marques was still starting at off-guard, but Lawson was ready to play from the bench.

 

By the time Lawson made her first appearance – after barely three minutes of action – the Sun were already trailing 12-0. It was an ugly, ugly start for Connecticut. As has become the pattern for them, if Tina Charles touches the ball anywhere near the rim, double and triple-teams instantly surround her. If she successfully kicks the ball out to a teammate, they invariably clank a shot off the iron. And more often than not, Charles becomes frustrated with that process down low, so she drifts further and further away from the basket to receive the ball. For a post, she’s a pretty good jumpshooter, but they’re lower percentage shots and result in very few drawn fouls. It’s been an ineffective way to try to win games this season.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/12/2013: Quality more important than venue in road victories for Lynx and Sparks

 

Heading into yesterday’s WNBA games, home teams were 51-24 overall in 2013, for a remarkably high .680 winning percentage. There’ve also been a whole host of blowouts this season, the vast majority going in favour of the home side. But there’s also been a pretty noticeable gap between the upper echelon of teams and the remainder of the league. Sometimes, venue doesn’t end up mattering much when there’s a distinct difference in class.

 

Yesterday’s early game was in Indiana, with another franchise offering their Camp Day game for the local kids. It was a re-match of last year’s WNBA Finals, the first meeting between the Fever and the Minnesota Lynx since Indiana fought their way to a surprising but well-deserved championship. The Fever finished off that series despite injuries to Katie Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen, who were both in street clothes yet again for yesterday’s game. Backup center Jessica Davenport is done for the year, and fellow reserve post Jessica Breland was also out for this game due to a sprained ankle. But there was some good news for Indiana, as feisty guard Erin Phillips was in uniform for the first time this season after recovering from the meniscus tear she suffered in the preseason. Minnesota had just one player out, but missing Seimone Augustus (ankle sprain) is always a significant loss.

 

To my amusement (there’s probably no one else that cares), Cheryl Reeve persisted with her gimmick of playing one possession of zone defense to open the game, before reverting to man-to-man for 98% of the remaining action. Once that was out of the way, Indiana had some positive moments in the early going, thanks to hitting a few threes. Shavonte Zellous and Karima Christmas were the hot shooters but it was always a pattern that seemed unlikely to be sustained. Even with Augustus sidelined, getting into a shooting contest with Minnesota is rarely going to end well for anyone other than the Lynx – and their jumpers were already falling nicely at the other end. Led by Monica Wright, who’s relishing the extra responsibility placed on her with Augustus out, Minnesota began to pull away in the first quarter once Indiana’s shooting returned to its typical levels.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/11/2013: Flying Fowles lifts Sky past Mystics; sloppy Mercury upset by Silver Stars

 

We had a pair of early tip-offs in the WNBA yesterday, as thousands of kids descended on arenas in Chicago and Phoenix for their yearly Camp Day games. Sometimes players struggle to wake themselves up time to perform in these games, but it’s always nice if they end up as watchable contests – we have to encourage the next generation of WNBA fans to keep coming back.

 

The first game was in the Windy City, where the Washington Mystics were the visitors. For once, both teams had healthy rosters, with Tamera Young returning from the ankle injury that kept her out of the Sky’s last game to give Pokey Chatman a full bench to utilise. The Mystics reached two significant marks with recent wins – Mike Thibault went past Van Chancellor on the all-time WNBA coaching wins list, and the franchise equalled the highest win-total from the Trudi Lacey era. With 22 games still to go. Now they can just concentrate on continued improvement.

 

While much of the talk last season around the Sky surrounded Epiphanny Prince’s breakout year, and most of the discussion this year has been about rookie starlet Elena Delle Donne, one important player used this game to remind everyone that Chicago already had a superstar before either of those two arrived – Sylvia Fowles. Big Syl was aggressive and active from the very start, running the floor hard, fighting for position in the paint, and leaping after every rebound. While she’s put up pretty solid, consistent numbers this season, too many times she’s been performing relatively quietly while rarely touching the ball in Chatman’s largely predictable offense. This was the Fowles we always want to see, a dominant presence at both ends of the floor who demands the ball inside, or just goes and gets it on the offensive glass. All this despite playing through a bone bruise on her foot and still recovering from a recent ankle sprain. Maybe she needs to be slightly injured even more often, if this is the result.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/10/2013: Lynx dominate Dream in night’s big game, while Liberty hold off sleepy Storm

 

Regular readers of these columns will probably have noticed that games tend to be covered in chronological order. If one game tipped off at 7pm and another at 9pm, details on the earlier game generally come first. However, when two of the WNBA’s mediocre teams bore everyone to tears for a couple of hours, before the two conference leaders face off on national television, exceptions can – and will – be made. So let’s start things off in Minnesota.

 

The vagaries of the WNBA schedule had given the Atlanta Dream eight days off between games prior to last night’s matchup with the Lynx. On the bright side, it had given them time to bring Sancho Lyttle back into the fold after her successful EuroBasket Women campaign with Spain, and she slid straight back into her starting power forward spot. However, when you’re 10-1 and rolling, the last thing you want is a midseason vacation. They’d also lost a rotation player during the gap, with backup guard Tiffany Hayes undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus in her left knee. She’s expected to miss 3-4 weeks, according to the Dream.

 

Minnesota were missing an even more important piece of their puzzle, with star wing Seimone Augustus sidelined by the sprained left ankle she suffered in their game against Phoenix on Sunday. Regular sixth-woman Monica Wright slid into the open starting spot.

 

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve used one of her favourite pet gimmicks to open the game – a single possession of 2-3 zone defense, before playing man-to-man for virtually the entire remaining 39 minutes and 45 seconds – and then it was off to the races. It was a high-paced, energetic opening period, but despite that being Atlanta’s favoured style, it was the Lynx in control. Wright’s promotion into the starting lineup allowed Minnesota to use her as the primary defender on Angel McCoughtry, and from the very start Wright gave McCoughtry fits. She’s a quick, active defender, capable of constantly staying in front of players like McCoughtry to make it difficult to convert on drives or hit from outside. She’s also noticeably smart defensively, invariably in the right place at the right time. On top of that, Wright was doing an impressive job on offense, ghosting right by McCoughtry on her way to the rim for multiple layups. Atlanta’s help-defense was a step slow – Lyttle perhaps taking some time to fit back into the Dream system – but the initial defender also isn’t supposed to be beaten that easily off the dribble.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/08/2013: Sky and Lynx expose frailties of Liberty and Mercury in dominant wins

 

Only two games yesterday in the WNBA – which is pretty light for a Sunday this season – and on top of that, both turned out to be very one-sided. This was not a day for nail-biting drama in the WNBA.

 

Our first game was in New Jersey, at the Prudential Center that the New York Liberty are calling home for the third straight year (back to Madison Square Garden next season, assuming everything goes to plan). Considering they’ve been far more successful on their own floor this season, it should’ve been a welcome return for the Liberty after a four-game road trip. However, their visitors were the Chicago Sky, who finally seem to have amassed enough talent that even they can’t avoid winning basketball games. They also had center Sylvia Fowles back in the lineup after missing just one game due to her sprained ankle.

 

The first 15 minutes of the game were relatively even, with Katie Smith once again tasked with guarding Elena Delle Donne and doing the best job she could. Neither team was shooting particularly well, but Cappie Pondexter was finding her way to the rim often enough to keep the Liberty in it. Then the Sky discovered a very simple way to create points. Whether it was Courtney Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince or Delle Donne, someone would penetrate slightly into the New York defense from the top of the key. They didn’t need to get to the rim, or even beat their defender – it just needed to be enough to attract attention from the strong side defender guarding the Sky player on the wing. As soon as that defender took a step inside to help prevent the penetration, the easy kick-out pass went to the shooter who’d been left in extra space, and that player knocked down the shot. Remarkably simple, and it worked several times in the space of a few minutes for Chicago. It’s essentially the basis of beating any reasonably solid defense – you make them bend, and then exploit whatever space they’ve left behind. It turned a three-point game into a 41-32 halftime lead.

 

The same semi-penetration and kick move worked for Chicago in the third quarter, and so did a lot of other things as the Sky turned the game into a rout. Even when it was simple one-on-one basketball through Prince or Delle Donne, offense was coming much more easily for Chicago, while New York were having to work incredibly hard for anything they got. Pondexter has looked better in the last couple of games, but she’s scoring much more efficiently on catch-and-shoot opportunities than dribbling into shots herself – and the team doesn’t have enough alternative weapons to create chances for her. Playing her off the ball a little more would be nice, but it feels like the Liberty would probably turn the ball over before she could run around a couple of screens and break open to receive a pass. The offense is still too ponderous and predictable, still too prone to trying to make the perfect pass through invisible gaps, and it allowed the Sky to pull away to a comfortable lead.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/07/2013: Sparks blowout, Charles blow-up, and Thiabult breaks a record

 

Pretty typical trio of WNBA games this Saturday – another blowout in Los Angeles, another serious-looking injury, another disappointing night for Connecticut and Tina Charles, and a game that was virtually unwatchable until the final couple of minutes. Sometimes, we end up with exactly what we should’ve expected – the interesting part is how we got there. On to the Bullet Point Breakdowns to take a look.

 

San Antonio Silver Stars 66 @ Los Angeles Sparks 93

  • It was all change for San Antonio at the start of this one, but in a good way. Four new starters began the game, with Becky Hammon, Jayne Appel, Shenise Johnson and DeLisha Milton-Jones all returning from injury. Johnson and DMJ had only missed the loss in Atlanta, but Appel had been sorely missed for five games since suffering a concussion in practice. Hammon, the team’s leader for years now, was making her first appearance all year after breaking a finger in preseason. Shameka Christon was out after hurting an ankle in their last game against Atlanta, but four in, one out seemed like a positive exchange.

 

  • The Sparks have been dominant at home this season, but San Antonio kept pace with them through the first 15 minutes of action. There were far too many turnovers at both ends of the floor, with LA in particular giving the ball away too cheaply and allowing San Antonio to run back at them. All the returning players looked in pretty good shape for the Silver Stars, with Hammon sliding into the backcourt alongside Danielle Robinson like she’d never left. Appel was maybe a little rusty, but she gave them the physical presence inside and on the glass that had clearly been missing in recent games. San Antonio also created space and mismatches with their movement and off-ball screening, leading to the switches that LA’s defense always falls back on. When Kristi Toliver ends up trying to guard Danielle Adams under the basket, something’s gone wrong.

 

  • Then disaster struck for San Antonio. Driving along the baseline, Hammon’s left leg buckled and went out from under her. There’s been no official diagnosis yet, but she had to be carried from the floor and everyone fears the dreaded ACL tear – something Hammon’s suffered before, although it was the other knee and a decade ago. We can only hope for the best when she undergoes further examination back in San Antonio.

 

  • The Silver Stars didn’t noticeably fall apart due to Hammon’s injury. Obviously, they’re used to playing without her at this point, and she hadn’t even done that much during her 12 minutes on the floor. But a Milton-Jones jumper put them ahead 24-21 seconds after Hammon was carried off, before LA ran off an 18-5 push before halftime that eventually became 26-5 when you included the start of the third quarter. More than anything else, the death of San Antonio’s offense led to the Sparks’ steak, with perimeter jumpers bouncing off and turnovers allowing LA to push. The Silver Stars also struggled all afternoon to handle the athleticism and activity of Nneka Ogwumike, who was involved in the LA offense from early in the game and kept her momentum rolling through the entire contest. While Appel could at least put a body on Candace Parker inside, without Sophia Young the Silver Stars didn’t really have an answer for Ogwumike.

 

Continue reading