After nearly a week with nothing to sustain us but All-Star festivities, real WNBA action got back underway last night with New York taking a trip to Washington. The vagaries of the WNBA schedule meant this was the first of four encounters for the conference rivals, and with the Liberty trying to chase down the Mystics (or Indiana) for a playoff spot it’s likely to be an important series. Win at least three of the four, and New York would probably be right in amongst the hunt for the postseason (plus they’d hold the valuable tie-breaker); lose at least three, and the second half of the Liberty season would likely be as disappointing as the first.
The health of both sides was the same as it’s been for most of the year – Washington have a full eleven, New York have been at ten since Essence Carson tore her ACL. Mike Thibault continued with his veteran starting unit, but Bill Laimbeer made another switch for New York. He’s chopped and changed his lineup this year in search of a successful rotation, and this time it was rookie guard Kamiko Williams’s turn to start. She replaced forward Toni Young to start the game, but it wasn’t a return to the structure from the start of the year, when Williams was essentially the starting point guard. She played off the ball, with Cappie Pondexter continuing in her ‘lead guard’ role, and Katie Smith doing most of the additional ballhandling. Williams was essentially a role-playing wing, out there to play some defense and keep the ball moving, and not much else. Alex Montgomery’s increasingly been earning minutes in that role recently, but presumably Laimbeer wanted to keep her as part of his rotation coming off the bench. It’s one of the few things that’s been working for the Liberty lately.
However, it was New York that started this game the stronger. Or at least, it was Good Kara Braxton that exploded out of the blocks. She scored New York’s first five buckets of the game – without a miss – all on finishes right at the rim. It was a reminder of the Liberty’s success against Indiana in the ESPN2 game eight days earlier. They were finding their posts with deep position in the paint, creating easy chances right at point-blank range. Meanwhile, Washington were a clear contrast, settling for perimeter jumpers and failing to hit any. Their only response to Braxton’s barrage came on an offensive rebound and putback for Crystal Langhorne, when a Michelle Snow jumper missed so badly the ball dropped in Langhorne’s hands.
Thibault finally cried for a timeout with his team trailing 12-2 after barely four minutes of action, although Snow had already been dragged out of the game in the hope that Kia Vaughn could do a better job of handling Braxton. Out of that break, the Mystics finally got into their game by once again rediscovering their aggression. It’s been a key component of their improvement this season, but they still seem to forget it at times. Drive, create contact, then draw fouls or create better looks – simple. Monique Currie went first, and threw in a ridiculous runner, but it was Matee Ajavon who had the most success. Braxton taking a rest, and New York coughing up some of their trademark turnovers, also helped Washington into the contest.
The Liberty still led 21-16 at the close of the first quarter, and it was ‘Kia & the Kids’ who pulled the Mystics the rest of the way back. Yet again, Washington’s bench lineup of four rookies and Vaughn at center were significantly more successful than their starting unit. While the bench players obviously get the benefit of often facing reserves from the opposing team, this can only go on for so long before you start wondering if the right players are starting. Plus/minus stats this season support players like Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman, while making Langhorne and Currie look bad. It’s not a huge sample size yet, and Thibault may be reluctant to shake things up too much when his reserves work so well together as a unit, but it’s definitely starting to raise questions.
Washington had come all the way back to lead 28-25 midway through the second quarter when Thibault restored his starting group. New York’s offense had ground to a halt, while the likes of Meesseman and Nadirah McKenith added some juice to the Mystics’ scoring. But with Snow having a miserable night with bad jump shots and weak interior defense, and Cappie Pondexter actually making a couple of shots, New York were back up 35-33 by halftime.
Both teams’ stars were struggling to score points. Pondexter was 3-13 at halftime, although at least she was penetrating rather than constantly firing bricks from outside. There was an equal-opportunity balance to her misses. Langhorne was just 1-4, and equally ineffective. Whenever they dumped the ball down to her in the paint, she was spinning and turning but going nowhere, constantly finding herself still right in the chest of her defender at the end of a supposed post move. Maybe the back spasms that were affecting her before the All-Star break were still an issue, or maybe Plenette Pierson’s defense was just that good, but Langhorne wasn’t creating anything like a good look. The basic structure and movement was a contrast at either end. Where Washington’s rare forays into the paint came on those individual post-ups or one-on-one drives – leading to a grand total of two assists at halftime – New York were moving and cutting, receiving the ball inside with options or a little room to manoeuver. Or running pick-and-rolls where the roller got the ball back and could finish. The Liberty already had 26 points in the paint at halftime.
Washington’s regular starters began the second half, but five straight buckets for Braxton and Pierson – all in the lane – brought Vaughn quickly off the bench again. To be fair to Langhorne and Snow, Braxton was living a charmed life by this point. She was a perfect 9-9 from the field, numbers she’d usually be lucky to put up in an empty gym, but the defense wasn’t good enough. Time and time again the rotation from Washington didn’t arrive quickly enough to make shots in the lane difficult – just in time to be in the picture while a Liberty post finished off the play.
Still, Washington didn’t go away. Between Ajavon and the bench, they made enough shots to hang around throughout the third quarter, and were only down 59-58 heading to the fourth. It was impressive in a perverse kind of way. Liberty rookie center Kelsey Bone had picked up where Braxton left off with finishes in the paint, yet somehow the Mystics were still right in the game despite giving up 46 points in the paint in the first 30 minutes of the game.
Big center Quanitra Hollingsworth, who’s been the odd-woman out in Washington since arriving late for the season after representing Turkey at EuroBasket Women, started the fourth quarter for the Mystics. It was a clear effort from Thibault to keep Snow off the floor for the rest of the night after she’d been repeatedly exposed inside. Hollingsworth tossed in a nice turnaround to start the period, but then gave up successive layups to Bone. Basically, whoever Thibault turned to in the paint was having an equally torrid time defensively.
Oddly enough, in a game they’d dominated inside, it was making a few jumpers that finally pulled the Liberty into a meaningful lead. Pondexter hit a fadeaway pullup; Latta gave Leilani Mitchell too much room to illustrate her primary skill – shooting threes; Pierson hit a long jumper with the Washington defense sagging desperately deep to protect the paint; and then Pondexter drilled an impossible-to-guard pullup three. Suddenly, New York were up by 10.
While it never turned into a full-blown blowout, that was about it for the game. Even with some of their more effective bench players on the floor, Washington couldn’t piece together enough workable offense to get back into the contest, or create enough stops. They were close enough to foul and extend the game in the closing minutes, but never to present a real threat. New York held on fairly comfortably for an 88-78 victory.
For New York, it’s a very nice start to the second half. Just like that Indiana game last week, it was an example of how their constant attempts to work the ball down low are supposed to work. Braxton eventually broke her remarkable streak with a miss in the middle of the third quarter, and after starting the game 10-10 finished it 11-14 for 22 points and 8 boards. Obviously you can’t expect that every night, but they also got 16 from Pierson and 15 from Bone, with 56 points in the paint as a team. That’s a huge number, and if they can actually produce it consistently, rather than one game out of every four or five, they might have something. Pondexter still shot poorly, finishing 6-20 from the field, but 9 assists versus just one turnover suggests she might be finding some of the balance required in the ‘lead guard’ spot. But we’ve seen these false dawns from New York before. Let’s see them keep it up for more than one night.
Thibault and Washington will be disappointed in the performance more than the result. They gave up far too much room inside, rotated too slowly to cover on pick-and-rolls and cuts, and generally struggled defensively all night. On the offensive end, too many jump shots were thrown up in hope of positive results, rather than moving the ball or working for better looks. We’ve seen much better than this from the Mystics this year, so they’ve raised the standards for what we’ve come to expect. It’s not going to get any easier with games against Chicago and Los Angeles over the weekend, but Thibault will still be looking for a response. And if the starters aren’t getting it done, those bench players are ready and waiting for greater responsibility and increased minutes.
While the Chicago Sky have kept it desperately quiet, it appears that backup center Carolyn Swords is done for the season with an MCL tear. Her Turkish team have already signed a replacement, so clearly they’re not expecting her to recover for quite some time. With backup point guard Sharnee Zoll also out due to a broken thumb, the Sky will be eligible for a hardship exception, and will likely need to find post help from somewhere. Michelle Campbell as your sole backup big is not a situation you want to persist for long.
Thursday August 1st (today);
Indiana @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Sun +1.5 is the line, and I’ll happily take the Fever. Kara Lawson is expected to stay on the sidelines due to her bruised knee, and there are few reasons to believe Connecticut will improve from their dismal first half. Indiana have been the better team for the last month by some distance, and home court doesn’t make a big enough difference.
Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET. The Storm are getting 3.5 points on their own floor, probably in part because Brittney Griner is reportedly expected to play some part for the Mercury. Diana Taurasi will obviously also return after her one-game suspension. But Griner will probably play limited minutes at best, and the Mercury have been pretty flimsy of late (plus Brian Agler’s had a week to prepare for their zone). I’ll take the Storm and the points.
Friday August 2nd (tomorrow):
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Washington @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET