Last night saw four more WNBA teams resume action after the All-Star break, although the shine was taken off the opening game before it began. Indiana travelled to Connecticut without star forward Tamika Catchings due to personal reasons – she’s fine, and expected to play in their next game, but “family cicumstances prohibited travel for this game”, whatever that means. Guard Erin Phillips also stayed home due to continuing issues with the knee that was operated on in the preseason. Wing Jeanette Pohlen is reportedly nearing a return, but she and Katie Douglas are still out for now as well, so the Fever were back down to eight bodies. With Kara Lawson still out for the Sun due to her bruised knee, Connecticut weren’t at full strength either.
This was an awful, ugly game for most of the evening. If the WNBA had a D-League, this is what it might look like (and a few of these players might be there sooner rather than later as well). The positive in the early minutes for Connecticut was that Tina Charles was inside, getting putbacks and finish attempts near the rim. That’s where you want to see her, not firing endless fadeaway jumpers. But the rest of the Sun still couldn’t make a shot to save their lives, which inevitably leads to Charles forcing up more and more difficult shots as games wear on. She’s trying to carry the team, and taking some bad shots in an effort to score before double and triple-teams force her to move the ball. She’s not playing well – 40% from the field for a center, along with minimal trips to the free throw line, is horrible – but it’s a difficult situation for anybody.
Elsewhere in the frontcourt, Jessica Breland and Kelsey Griffin were making each other look good. Griffin’s a hustle backup pushed into a starting role that she isn’t good enough for, but she’ll at least grab a rebound or two and offer some energy. Breland isn’t remotely close to Catchings as a defender – an unfair comparison for anyone, but Breland in particular loses concentration or gets exposed on the defensive end too frequently. However, on the offensive end, Breland was perfectly capable of feasting on the weak collection of power forwards Connecticut have to offer this season.
Neither team led by more than five points in the first half until the final couple of minutes, when a Shavonte Zellous pullup jumper was followed by Karima Christmas driving right past a statuesque Renee Montgomery for a layup (Charles was weak and late on the help defense as well). Then Briann January hit a three, and Zellous pulled up to hit a triple of her own just before the halftime buzzer. From nowhere, the understrength Fever had pushed out to a 34-25 lead at the break.
Most of the third quarter was just as bad for Connecticut. Frankly, if you can’t beat a Fever team without Catchings, Douglas, Phillips and others, it might be time to consider a new profession. But Indiana extended their lead to 16 late in the third quarter on consecutive breakaway layups from Christmas and Zellous – both in situations where the Fever players simply seemed to put more effort in to get to the ball first and push it to the other end. It looked like the game was going to tail off into another embarrassing loss for the Sun in a season full of them.
However, Sun coach Anne Donovan finally ran into a lineup that clicked. Starters Charles and Allison Hightower were joined on the floor by Tan White, Kelly Faris (who didn’t play a single second during the opening 28 minutes of the game) and Mistie Bass. They closed out the third quarter with Bass running the floor hard for a transition layup, and White nailing a three from the corner. Then opened the fourth with Bass dropping in a short hook, Hightower driving past January for a layup, White hitting a pullup, Faris driving past Breland with ease for her own layup, and Charles closing off Breland for an easy finish inside. That drew the second Fever timeout in quick succession, as a 15-0 Connecticut run had pulled them within a point.
There were several key elements to the Sun push. Undoubtedly Indiana fatigue played a role, with their short bench and tight rotation inevitably wearing them down. But there was more to it than that. Bass gives a bigger option than Griffin alongside Charles, and she’s much more aggressive offensively in looking to score herself. Bass is also big enough to defend opposing centers – or at least give it a try (she’s far from the greatest defender the world has ever seen) – which in this case allowed Charles to shift over and defend Breland. Instantly, you forgot Breland was even on the floor, as her offensive impact completely disappeared. White’s a hit-or-miss scorer, but she’ll have nights like this occasionally, and her enthusiastic perimeter defense helped as well. Between her, Faris and Hightower they actually had a perimeter with some mobility and work ethic on the floor. Finally, it’s not a coincidence that there was only one mention of Charles in that recap of their streak, and it came right at the end. When the Sun aren’t completely focussed around her, but they’re working in transition, finding points from other sources, they’re a vastly better team. Obviously you want to make heavy use of your reigning MVP, but she can’t be your entire offense.
The Fever didn’t just go away, although the small Connecticut crowd was now firmly back in the game. Breland broke the run of Sun points with a backdoor finish on an inbounds play, and Zellous stepped up with a couple of jumpers. It wasn’t until another little Bass hook dropped in with under a minute to play that Connecticut took their first lead since the second quarter. But with Catchings, Douglas and Phillips at home, Indiana’s tiring offense found it increasingly difficult to put cohesive offense together. A high-low pass from Erlana Larkins was off-target and became a turnover, ultimately resulting in two Hightower free throws when she was fouled after grabbing the loose ball. Then January blew a straightforward layup – not a surprise, seeing as she’s an atrocious 16-47 from inside 5ft this season – and it was virtually all over. More fouls and free throws followed, but the Sun held on for a 70-64 win.
Indiana will be disappointed to let a 16-point lead with less than 12 minutes remaining slip away, but when you show up that undermanned a defeat can’t be a big surprise. Most of the information gleaned from the game was the same as much of their season – Breland looked like she might have some promise, Zellous and Christmas stepped up to provide some necessary offense, while January and Larkins were disappointing yet again. They’ll look to kick-start again when Catchings returns.
For Connecticut, obviously the comeback to win the game was a nice fillip, but it’s a thin gloss over continuing cracks. Against what amounts to half of the Fever team at best, they never should’ve been trailing by 16 in the first place. Charles’s quotes after the game pushed all the blame onto her teammates for failing to replicate practice performance in games, rather than accepting collective responsibility. Donovan’s clearly not done much of a job making this group more than the sum of its parts (or even equal to the sum). A win’s a win, and they’ll take them any way they come, but there’s still a very long way to go if the Sun are going to salvage anything from this season.
Moving to the West…
The late game was in Seattle, where the injury news was positive rather than negative. Brittney Griner was back in the starting lineup for Phoenix, returning from the knee sprain that’s been causing her problems for most of the season to varying degrees. Penny Taylor is going to miss most of the remainder of the regular season, but at least they had their prized rookie back. Diana Taurasi also returned after serving her one-game suspension for accumulated technical fouls in their last game before the break. The Storm were down to nine, after backup center Nakia Sanford bizarrely signed her second seven-day contract and then went home to Atlanta anyway. Clearly, her time with Seattle is done, and they’ll sign someone else to fill that spot. It’s no great loss.
One intriguing aspect coming into this game was how Phoenix would handle their defense with Griner returning. After continuing their yearly tradition of being abominable defensively for most of the year – whether Griner was on the floor or not – the Mercury had troubled both Los Angeles and Minnesota with their 1-2-2 ‘X’ zone. But that structure requires rotation and movement, and even the base two players near the rim have to be able to stretch out to the perimeter when necessary. In other words, it’s not a perfect fit for Griner, who you want patrolling the paint. So would they revert to man-to-man, or try to fit Griner into the new system?
As it turned out, they stuck with the zone on the majority of possessions, putting Griner at the base where you’d expect her. She looked lost a couple of times, but her humongous size and raw athleticism allowed her to recover and clog the paint anyway. She did well enough, although there was some scrambling involved.
The Mercury’s offense kept them afloat and in front for much of the first half. Even without Griner or Taurasi making much of an impact, they were finding points in quick offense against a Storm team that were a little lax in transition, with some smooth finishing from Candice Dupree and Charde Houston’s midrange jumper dropping in.
Seattle came into the game in the closing minutes of the first half. After Phoenix left Tina Thompson open for a trail three, Taurasi was called for a flagrant foul on a spin move for an elbow towards the head of Alysha Clark. It was downgraded to an ordinary personal foul on review, but it helped wake the crowd up, and Tianna Hawkins punished the Mercury with a three on the ensuing possession anyway. Hawkins had a strong first half in general, showing both her willingness to run the floor for finishes and the range on her jump shot. As a team, Seattle were starting to pull the Mercury zone apart, and had a Phoenix lead that had been as high as 13 points down to three at 44-41 at halftime.
The third quarter was all Seattle, as Brian Agler and the Storm continued to illustrate how to rip the Mercury zone to bits. Constant movement and cutting was confusing the defenders, pulling them out of position and leaving shooters wide open for Seattle. For example, one cut they ran repeatedly all night, was from the high extended elbow (beyond the three-point line) diagonally down to the opposite low block. That simple cut pulled two defenders across, because they’re not sure who they’re supposed to follow or when they should pass the player on to the next defender in the zone – leaving a shooter alone in the opposite corner. Combined with quick ball movement, moving it from one side to the other, they shifted the zone out of balance far better than LA or Minnesota had in previous games against it. The Storm actually making some threes helped as well – if they’d had another of their cold nights from outside the story might’ve been different – but Seattle took control in the third quarter. Phoenix went back to man-to-man for much of the fourth quarter because their zone had been so comprehensively torn to shreds.
The game became a little testy in the third quarter, with Taurasi going down on her haunches after being caught in the stomach by Camille Little and – according to Storm reporter Jayda Evans on Twitter – saying “I’m going to f— them up” while she gingerly walked to the sidelines. Then Griner and Tanisha Wright got a little angry with each other, Wright taking exception to some hacking from Griner and throwing a little elbow in the Mercury center’s direction. In the fourth quarter, with the Mercury still well within range of making a comeback, Taurasi’s frustration got the better of her. A couple of solid (and arguably slightly illegal) screens from Little upset her again, and Taurasi responded with two ridiculously unnecessary fouls. There was a wild smack down onto Little from behind after a rebound, and then a shoulder barge/hip check as Little went past her to finish in the lane. Taurasi had essentially stopped playing basketball. She was just trying to get her hits in (and even that wasn’t working). She picked up another foul – her sixth – moments later on a soft call for a small push on Wright, but she could hardly complain after the dumb plays that had preceded that. Those three fouls came in the space of 35 seconds of game time, with only three minutes remaining in a six-point game. Often, Taurasi uses her emotions and frustration to fuel her into attacking and leading from the front. On this occasion, she let it take her out of the game, and hurt her team.
Griner came out and sat next to Taurasi on the bench for the final three minutes of the game. Presumably she’d hit her minutes limit while recovering from her injury, but if so that was poor management from Mercury head coach Corey Gaines. You want her available for the closing stages. Phoenix still had chances to make it interesting – a Briana Gilbreath three could’ve made it a one-possession game with 90 seconds left, only to bounce out – but when a Little offensive rebound was followed by a Wright jumper in the lane, the Storm had the game won. 88-79 was the final result, as Seattle beat Phoenix for the second time in two tries this season, and moved within half a game of the Mercury for third place in the Western Conference.
Phoenix are still going to be fine, in terms of making the playoffs and being a threat to beat nearly anyone on any given night. Even in this game, with Griner playing less than 18 minutes and Taurasi having an off night, they had scoring production from the likes of Dupree, Houston and DeWanna Bonner. Their schedule also gets significantly easier in the second half of the year. But there’s still so much work to be done. Seattle just showed everyone how to cut through their zone and pull defenders wildly out of position, which every other team will now watch on tape. So the one way they’d found of papering over their cracks on defense may well be cracking itself. They’ve added the single most dominant defensive force to come out of the NCAAs in eons, and they’re still horrible on the defensive end. As Griner gets healthier and plays more minutes, the defense should improve a little just by virtue of having her on the floor. But we saw in the first half of the season that the flaws were still distinctly apparent even when she was playing.
This was a really impressive, enjoyable performance from the Storm, once they got going. It took a while, but eventually they gave everyone a lesson in how to break down the Mercury zone with ball movement and cutting, and stepping up to make some damn shots. It was a team effort, with seven different players scoring at least nine points, but Wright (14 points, 7 assists), Temeka Johnson (16 points, 7 assists) and Tina Thompson (16 points, 7 rebounds) led the way. It was also especially pleasing for Storm fans to see rookie forward Hawkins explode for 13 points and 6 boards on 6-7 from the field. This season was meant to be about developing youth for Seattle as much as anything, and whether winning or losing, seeing Hawkins earn more minutes over the second half of the year would be a significant positive.
As mentioned above, Nakia Sanford is gone in Seattle, so they’ll need to fill that spot with someone else. To this point, no announcement has been made of a replacement.
LA’s Candace Parker and Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles were named Players of the Month in their respective conferences. Parker’s performances tailed off towards the end of the month but she piled up enough stats beforehand to take the West award, while Fowles missed a couple of games due to injury but was dominant enough when she did play to take it in the East.
Friday August 2nd (today):
Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. The Shock are getting 9 points on their own floor, and that’s enough for me to take them. LA weren’t impressive at all heading into the break, and we’ll see whether strong All-Star performances from Toliver and Parker translate into improved play when the games matter.
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Lynx -14 is a heck of a lot of points. It’s another of those lines that the underdog might cover simply because the favourite relaxes into a comfortable win below the spread. So I’ll take San Antonio to keep it closer than 14 and cover. But with trepidation.
Washington @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET. Sky -7.5 is the line, and I’ll take Chicago, even without knowing for sure whether Elena Delle Donne is going to play after her concussion. Washington will look to bounce back from the mauling they took in the paint against New York, but facing Sylvia Fowles isn’t an easy way to recover.
Saturday August 3rd (tomorrow):
Connecticut @ New York, 6pm ET
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Atlanta @ Phoenix, 10pm ET