One game took center stage on its own last night in the WNBA, and unfortunately it was one of those nights where we probably could’ve used an extra matchup to boost the entertainment. San Antonio have been continuing to battle all season, but they’re in the lower reaches of the Western Conference for a reason. Without Becky Hammon and Sophia Young they’ve put up a fight, but they’re going to need an unlikely-looking push to sneak into the playoff spots before the end of the season. The Silver Stars were visiting Indiana, who needed a result themselves. After an ugly start to the season as they struggled to cope with injuries, they’d stepped it up as the year wore on and some of their walking wounded returned. But they’d lost three in a row on a west coast road trip, all pretty convincingly, and they’ve got four more road games coming right up. They had to win this one to break the run of losses and give themselves something to build off as they left on their travels again.
The good news for the Fever was that Shavonte Zellous was back after missing four games due to plantar fasciitis. Indiana had missed her offense while she was out, leaving them lacking in scoring weapons. She slid straight back into the starting lineup in place of Erin Phillips.
Both teams made a decent start offensively, getting in behind the respective defenses, but it was Indiana who started to pull away late in the first quarter. Much of their success came via the pick-and-roll, or off-shoots from the effects of pick-and-rolls. It was the kind of attack I was surprised we didn’t see more of from Phoenix when they lost to the Silver Stars on Saturday. Typically, San Antonio hedge so hard on the ballhandler that if she can move the ball on – either to the roller, or to another teammate to make a continuation pass – then the entire Silver Star defense has to rotate. It’s hard to do that fast enough to avoid giving up a wide open look somewhere. You hope you can recover quickly enough to re-set the defense, or maybe only give up an open mid-range shot instead of a layup, but that’s not easy. Indiana found the gaps in San Antonio’s defense and moved into the lead.
It got worse for San Antonio as the first half wore on because they weren’t hitting shots. More than anyone in the league, the Silver Stars rely on perimeter shooting to produce their points, and with virtually any team that’s unreliable. It’s just a low-percentage way to score. Early on they found some holes in Indiana’s defense, posted up Danielle Adams a couple of times, or sent Danielle Robinson through the defense on cuts. But they went away from that and just kept firing bricks instead. Their defense also dropped off when Dan Hughes gave some minutes to rookie forward Chelsea Poppens, a recent addition after the franchise parted ways with DeLisha Milton-Jones. Poppens wasn’t in sync with anyone, so the defensive rotations and movement got worse. Indiana led 41-25 at halftime.
In the waning seconds before the halftime buzzer, Danielle Robinson’s left foot slid out from under her as she tried to change direction, and she unintentionally did the splits and went to the ground. She was still there when Jeanette Pohlen hit a three at the other end of the floor to finish off the first-half scoring. Robinson’s continued development, this season without Hammon as a stabilising force next to her, has been one of San Antonio’s bright spots this season. Unfortunately, she needed treatment, and was still in the locker room when the second half began. She eventually emerged to join her teammates on the bench, and we were told it was a ‘right knee’ injury of some sort. Hopefully she just banged it into the ground, rather than damaging any ligaments in the movement. We don’t need any more injuries this year.
San Antonio made several runs in the second half. The first came early on, with Robinson’s replacement Davellyn Whyte hitting a couple of threes to drag the deficit down to seven points. In fact, they got the gap down to seven on five separate occasions in the second half, but could never get any closer. Indiana always had a response, whether it was Tamika Catchings driving right into the defense for a layup or free throws; Shavonte Zellous creating something off the dribble; or one of the supporting players like Phillips or Layshia Clarendon knocking down a three on a kick-out. San Antonio could never sustain a run long enough to really make it a contest, and Indiana eventually eased away to a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter. The Fever ultimately closed out an 80-63 victory.
Zellous provided an important boost for Indiana, finishing with 20 points on 7-13 shooting to lead the scoring. She’s stepped up as Catchings’s primary sidekick this year with Katie Douglas missing almost the whole season, and they’d desperately missed her production in recent games. She’s an intelligent player, too. Her jump shot was way off in the early going, not just missing but barely hitting the rim. So she started driving, creating better looks much closer to the basket or drawing contact for free throws. It seems blindingly obvious, but it’s amazing how many players just keep firing away from outside when their shot hasn’t come close all night. It took the pressure off players like Phillips, Clarendon and Briann January as well, who’ve struggled at times with the extra scoring responsibility placed on them in recent games. They’re all much better when they can knock down occasional shots in space, rather than be forced to create things on their own.
On the injury front, Karima Christmas barely played in the second half but looked fine when leaving the floor. That may have just been a choice to give her some rest while the opportunity presented itself. Phillips crumpled to the ground late in the game after leaping for a rebound. It looked like it might’ve been more knee pain in the leg that’s struggled to fully recover from meniscus surgery earlier in the year. But she only limped a little through the high-five line at the end of the game without support or crutches, so it probably wasn’t too bad. A post game tweet saying she was a little sore but OK gave reason for optimism as well.
For San Antonio it was a pretty typical 2013 game. Some decent moments, occasionally shooting their way back into it, but ultimately not enough to really threaten their opponent. Danielle Adams led their scoring, but they’ll mostly be worried about Danielle Robinson, and hoping her injury isn’t serious. Shenise Johnson had another utterly invisible game on the wing, which was disappointing. She’s had too many of those this season, in a year when the opportunities have been there for her to step up in San Antonio.
The WNBA reportedly fined New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer for his comments about Maya Moore after their game against Minnesota on Sunday. Upset about how long Moore was left in the game by Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, Laimbeer accused Minnesota of trying to get her the Player of the Week award again and said Moore “should get hurt for that”. It was a ridiculous statement, and deserved punishment. Some even felt he should’ve been suspended for at least a game, and I doubt many would’ve complained if that had been the case. At least the League didn’t just ignore it entirely. Can’t help wondering if they waited until today to act so that it wouldn’t be a story on Tuesday night’s ESPN2 broadcast, though. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s brought up on Saturday night’s national TV game, or if it’s been swept under the rug by then. Minnesota play New York again next Tuesday, and you can bet that there’ll be a veteran officiating crew on hand and they’ll be under strict instructions to jump on anything remotely untoward immediately. Hopefully this is the last we hear about this story (unless Laimbeer comes out to try to explain himself or to issue an apology).
Kara Lawson has explained in a couple of interviews in recent days that her absence from the Connecticut Sun was due to a serious illness to her father, quelling speculation around the reasons she’d left the team. She’s back with them now after his condition improved slightly, but after no athletic work for weeks – and the bruised right knee she was already struggling with when she left – it’s uncertain how ready she is to play basketball.
Thursday August 22nd (today):
Minnesota @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. The line is Connecticut +9, which is a lot of points to give a team on their own floor. Minnesota have even lost four of their last five and looked a little fragile lately. But it’s the Sun. With Lawson barely back (maybe not playing at all), Hightower and Faris out (signposting that they’re pretty much closing down their season), and Tina Charles likely in the same auto-pilot mode she’s been in all year. So I’ll take the Lynx. You can probably put me down to take Team X against Connecticut for the rest of the season, unless Vegas start getting completely out of hand with the lines.
Friday August 23rd (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET
San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
New York @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Seattle @ Phoenix, 10pm ET