Sunday was not an entertaining day of WNBA basketball. It was filled with sloppy play, teams who barely showed up, and other teams winning almost by default. And then it exploded into a frenzy of craziness right at the end. So this column’s going to follow the same path. We’ll cover all the tedium first, and build to the big finish. I won’t hate you if you skip to the end.
- As mentioned in my pick for this game in the last column, I couldn’t understand why so much money seemed to be flooding in on San Antonio. Seattle’s Temeka Johnson had looked ready to return before the end of their previous game despite taking a hit to the head (and was indeed fit to start this one). Meanwhile, opposing point guard Danielle Robinson missed San Antonio’s last game with a sprained right knee (and ultimately missed this one as well). Seattle have been the better team during the season, and have even produced a little consistency lately, beating Indiana, Los Angeles and Phoenix in their last three games. San Antonio have been fighting, but pretty poor all year. Even on the road, Seattle seemed like they ought to be favourites. Of course, maybe my picks are offered free of charge for a reason.
- Seattle were atrocious in the first half of this game (they were pretty bad throughout, but let’s look the opening 20 minutes first). After tearing LA and Phoenix apart for long stretches of recent games, they looked completely bemused by San Antonio’s defense, and utterly incapable of creating anything decent against it. The shot clock ran down without the offense going anywhere, they forced up bad shots under pressure because they couldn’t find anything else, and then the turnovers started piling up. It’s a typical reaction when you can’t break a defense down – especially for the Storm, but really for any team. You start forcing passes into tiny holes or even holes that never existed in the first place, and they become cheap, easy takeaways for the opponent. It was a return to the Storm from much of last season, where constantly handing over possession consistently killed their offense. Although, as long as the turnover went out of bounds or bounced around for a while so Seattle could get back and set their defense, it didn’t make much difference. They weren’t hitting anything when they held on to the ball long enough to shoot anyway.
- San Antonio weren’t exactly a smooth-running machine themselves. The defense was obviously doing the job, shutting down Seattle, but the offense was pretty mediocre. They beat the Storm in transition a couple of times by running harder down the floor, and Jia Perkins made a few shots, but that was about it. They pulled ahead largely because Seattle couldn’t score. The Silver Stars did get a few nice plays from Shenise Johnson, who had to play some point guard with Robinson out and Davellyn Whyte picking up some early fouls. It probably won’t hurt Johnson to spend some extra time with the ball in her hands, making decisions and making plays. She needs the work, and she needs the responsibility to force her to step up. It might be just her second year in the league, but she’s supposed to become a big piece of the puzzle for this franchise going forward – not just a decent complementary player. San Antonio led 34-24 at halftime.
- This was a very physical game. Fans have understandably grown sick of hearing that from broadcasters and journalists alike, because it seems to be thrown out about virtually every WNBA game that’s played. But the players seemed to be shoving each other around even more than usual in this one, and the officials weren’t doing much about it. Except on occasional moments when they tried, of course, upsetting everyone even more due to the inconsistency. For most of the afternoon, San Antonio did a better job of handling the way the game was being played and called. Seattle were going inside and then growing annoyed and confused at calls that didn’t come when they were bodied up. San Antonio either played through it, or shot from outside anyway and therefore had fewer issues.
- The Storm did eventually make a run. San Antonio hadn’t shot particularly well from outside throughout, so they hadn’t killed the game off while they were on top. Seattle finally started adapting to the officiating, and just playing extra-aggressive on the defensive end because they knew they’d probably get away with it. Then Noelle Quinn and Shekinna Stricklen made a couple of shots, and suddenly late in the third quarter a lead that had reached 15 was down to 4.
- But San Antonio responded, and Seattle didn’t quite have enough in the fourth quarter. The Storm pulled within five on multiple occasions, but Shenise Johnson made plays on drives, short jumpers and on the glass to help San Antonio cling on to their lead. Ultimately, Seattle had played too poorly for too long. A sequence with under three minutes left summed it up. Down by seven, the Storm forced a steal and Tanisha Wright had a breakaway layup where she could’ve cut the gap back to five again. She blew the attempt, trying to create contact on the drive for a call rather than concentrating on the finish. Shenise Johnson grabbed the board, and was immediately fouled by Temeka Johnson as she turned to go upcourt. That fouled Temeka out of the game, and a lead that could’ve been cut to five (or four, if Wright had finished and drawn the call) was nine once Shenise hit the free throws. Ball game over.
- This was a desperately disappointing game from Seattle, purely because of how well they’ve played in a few recent games. But their margin of error is always thin offensively. They don’t have superstar scorers they can toss the ball to and watch go to work. They need to execute, they need to move the ball, and they can’t panic if a couple of possessions go badly or the calls go against them for a few minutes. They were awful for so long in this game that by the time they started playing it was just too late. The loss cuts their lead over San Antonio in the standings to three games, and makes tonight’s rematch particularly important. If the Silver Stars win the gap obviously comes down to two, and San Antonio also win the season-series 3-1 to seal the tie-breaker. Tulsa still have distant hopes of making a run as well. That playoff spot Seattle have been sitting in virtually all season isn’t secure yet, especially if they play like this again.
- The main positive for San Antonio is that they won a game without even having to shoot well. Typically, if they’ve come out on top this season, it’s because they’ve been accurate from outside. But Danielle Adams and Jia Perkins finished a combined 11-34 from the field, the team shot barely 40% as a whole, and they won anyway. Whyte did okay as Robinson’s fill-in, although surely Seattle will put increased pressure on her ballhandling tonight in the rematch (assuming Robinson is still out). Then it’ll be on Shenise Johnson to step up in multiple areas again and try to extend her fourth quarter performance from this game.
- Connecticut had added an extra body for this game, re-signing point guard Sydney Carter with a hardship exception spot opened up due to the injuries to Allison Hightower and Kelly Faris. Kara Lawson participated in warm-ups. but her knee still wasn’t ready to allow her to play. New York had 10 available as usual, with rookie Kamiko Williams regaining her starting spot from veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones. That likely had something to do with there not being an Elena Delle Donne on the floor needing to be guarded, as there was in New York’s last game.
- It might be a little harsh to say that the Sun have quit on the 2013 season. They’ve been so poor for most of the year anyway that it’s hard to tell the difference between ‘quit’ and just standard-issue ‘bad’. But they spent most of this game being pretty freaking awful, and looking largely disinterested. The help defense when required was weak, although that’s been something they’ve struggled with all season. When a perimeter player is beaten off the dribble, too often there’s been very little cover behind her. Even worse in this game was the ‘help-the-helper’ defense. When one defender double-teams, or has to come over to help, their closest teammate typically has to rotate over to cover the gap left behind. Then everyone else has to keep shifting until the defense can re-set, or the original double-teamer can find a new player to defend. Obviously, this takes cohesion and concentration, but above all it takes effort. Connecticut were sometimes managing to make that first help rotation, but very rarely managing to make the second. So if New York rotated the ball a couple of times away from trouble, they found wide open looks. It played a big part in the Liberty shooting 51% from the field in the first half, despite just 18 points in the paint. They were that open.
- Not that New York actually pulled away by much in the first half. They survived happily while Cappie Pondexter was resting on the bench, but Kalana Greene and Kelsey Griffin made a few plays, Tina Charles hit some of those turnarounds and fadeaways that have littered her play this year, and Connecticut hung around. The Liberty led 42-35 at halftime.
- New York never led by more than 12 in the second half, but apart from nine seconds early in the fourth quarter, they also never led by less than 5. It was a meandering, drifting half of basketball where the Liberty never looked good enough to turn it into a blowout, but the Sun never looked particularly likely to make a comeback charge. Pondexter spent most of the game on the perimeter, driving only when the Connecticut defense offered her such a wide open lane that she couldn’t resist. Presumably her heel is still an issue, although it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen games like that from her this season. Charles was worse, tossing up countless jumpers and rarely bothering to venture anywhere near the paint on offense.
- The highlight was the contest at power forward, where Plenette Pierson and Kelsey Griffin spent most of the game – particularly the second half – scoring on each other. Griffin showed off part of her game that was always supposed to make her more effective, stretching the defense with her outside shooting. We’ve seen precious little of it during her WNBA career – which has now spanned four years – but she was 3-3 from beyond the arc in the second half, two of them coming when Pierson simply didn’t want to track her out that far. Griffin also brought her typical hustle and energy to the game, which stood out in stark relief compared to many of her teammates. But Pierson’s a bit too big and strong for her, and got most of those points back at the other end. With a little more help from her teammates, that proved to be enough for the Liberty to pull out the win.
- New York are still thinking about the playoffs, and rightfully so. They’re only a game behind Indiana, and only 1.5 back from Washington, and neither of those rivals have exactly been tearing up the league. But before this game, the Liberty were 5-12 in July and August. That’s the kind of form that sends you backwards in the standings, however mediocre your opposition is. Beating Connecticut means very little at this point in 2013. New York have got four of their next five games at home, but all against current playoff teams. It’s going to take better performances than they’ve been producing lately to win at least a couple of those and give themselves a chance down the stretch. They visit the Fever and Mystics on the final weekend of the season, and all they’ll want at this stage is for those two games to still mean something.
- Even Sun head coach Anne Donovan admitted after the game that if her team keeps playing like this they won’t win another game for the rest of the season. That’s a pretty strong possibility just based on how they’ve played all year, never mind this individual game. Injuries and absences have hurt, but now it’s about pride. Lottery percentages mean they might technically be better off losing every remaining game, but the players certainly shouldn’t be thinking like that. There are people paying to watch you perform, so show up and give whatever you have left. Most of their roster looks like they’ve already left the 2013 season behind.
- Here’s a rarity for 2013 – two WNBA teams facing each other in late-August with 11 healthy players on both sides. Neither even has anyone sitting out the season or cut due to injury over the course of the year. What a pleasant change.
- Los Angeles were awful in their previous game against Seattle, falling meekly to a 20-point loss, so head coach Carol Ross was hoping for an immediate response in this one. She didn’t get it. LA were dreadful once again in the first half. Slow and stagnant on offense, there was very little movement within their sets and they just looked sleepy. Sloppy too, with poor turnovers and a real lack of crispness to their passing. They were lucky to be barely behind for most of the half.
- But Tulsa weren’t great either. They had some success on the offensive glass early on, but it wasn’t like they were actually hitting shots or taking advantage of LA’s torpidity. The Shock were significantly more effective when Liz Cambage was on the floor, but she wasn’t actually doing much scoring. In fact she didn’t take a single shot from the floor in the first half. But she drew so much attention from the Sparks that it opened up holes elsewhere. They wouldn’t help off her when other players were driving, leaving open lanes. And at the other end of the floor, her bulk discouraged LA from entering the paint, or made them miss once they got there. Plus LA made very little effort to shift her around or draw her away from the rim. So Tulsa shot 32% from the field in the first half, and led 30-27 anyway. Cambage was +13 while she was on the floor.
- In the third quarter, Tulsa finally took advantage of LA’s dismal performance. They went inside to Cambage repeatedly early on, getting her to the line when all LA could do to stop her was foul. Parker had some success in frustrating her by fronting to prevent the entry pass, but then Tulsa looked elsewhere. It became a team effort, as everyone from Glory Johnson to Candice Wiggins to Jen Lacy started chipping in buckets. Eight different Shock players scored in the third quarter, while LA’s offense remained painfully static and the likes of Lindsey Harding and Kristi Toliver couldn’t hit a jumper to save their lives. Lacy’s triple in the waning seconds of the period – wide open, of course – gave Tulsa a 58-39 lead. It felt like just what LA deserved.
- Now while there was a pivotal moment in the fourth quarter that most have pointed to as the turning point in this game, it’s only fair that we give LA credit where it’s due. With Cambage on the bench to open the fourth – she’d looked gassed late in the third, so she needed the break – LA finally came out with some real energy. Led by Candace Parker, both attacking off the dribble to score herself and tossing passes around when she drew extra attention, the 19-point gap was down to 12 after less than two minutes of the period had elapsed. Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg understandably called for a timeout and quickly tossed Cambage back into the fray.
- Nneka Ogwumike had a transition layup to keep the momentum rolling for the Sparks, but Cambage then had three blocks in quick succession to illustrate her importance in the middle of Tulsa’s defense. Unfortunately for her and the Shock, just after the third block on an attempted reverse by Ogwumike, Cambage stepped on teammate Glory Johnson’s foot and crumpled to the ground. She’s had ankle problems already this season, and this was another one. She was eventually helped back to the bench, and spent the rest of the game sat there with her shoe off and an ice wrap around her left foot. She was +22 for the game.
- While the comeback had arguably already begun, Cambage’s injury was obviously a huge boost for LA. Parker and Ogwumike continued to attack the paint at will, not remotely scared of Johnson and Tiffany Jackson-Jones, the Shock post pairing in Cambage’s absence. After spending much of the game on the bench due to foul trouble, Ogwumike was also released from the primary foul-drawing threat on the Shock team (Parker had been guarding Cambage most of the night, but Ogwumike could still get in trouble trying to help). Even just as a mental release, seeing the big Aussie on the bench gave LA encouragement to keep attacking and believe they could come back.
- With Tulsa’s offense grinding to a halt under the momentum of LA’s attack, Riquna Williams came back into the game with less than three minutes remaining to give the Shock someone who would go right at the Sparks. She sliced through the defense for a layup on Tulsa’s first possession with her back on the floor, but then bought a pump fake from Harding and bailed her out by landing on her for a shooting foul, just as the shot clock was about to expire. Harding had scarcely hit a shot all night, but she made both free throws to tie the game with a minute left in regulation. It was the first time LA had been level since early in the second quarter.
- Tulsa have been truly terrible at closing out tight games for a long time now. It’s often the case with young teams, but at this point they’ve had plenty of practice. It’s becoming a habit rather than a coincidence. So most people watching had little faith in their ability to pull out the win. They began that final minute true to form, with a hideous possession that started too slowly and finished with a shot clock violation. Then Parker got an essentially illegal screen from Toliver (uncalled) and drove to the hoop for an easy layup and the first LA lead in what felt like hours. Tulsa responded by putting Skylar Diggins in the game, and looking like they wanted to run that same high pick-and-roll they’ve tried before in crunch time (with very poor results). This time, Diggins drove before the screen even arrived, going left as everyone knew she would. Toliver bailed her out with a dumb reach-in foul, when Diggins more than likely would have missed on her own. Diggins made both foul shots.
- LA had 26 seconds left to break the tie. They ran the clock down, and Parker popped out to receive a pass. Crucially she fumbled the ball, which forced her into a tough mid-range jumper rather than a full drive to the hoop. It bounced off the rim into the hands of Candice Wiggins. There were at least two full seconds on the clock, but Kloppenburg only half-heartedly (and quietly) signalled for a timeout. It’s something else we’ve seen from them before in the past – the failure to call crucial late timeouts to give themselves a chance to advance the ball and win. Kloppenburg should be jumping up and down screaming for the timeout in those situations. The players should be drilled in calling them, too. Instead, Wiggins tossed a pass out to Diggins, who jacked up from 50 feet and hit nothing. A wasted opportunity, and we were headed to overtime.
- Diggins and Williams spent most of Tulsa’s possessions in overtime pounding the ball for far too long up top. The ball wasn’t moving, and the offense was going nowhere. Why Diggins was out there ahead of Angel Goodrich, you’d have to ask Klopp. The only thing Diggins had done all night was that drive for the free throws late in regulation. She did have a nice runner with a couple of minutes left in OT, only to give it back by being destroyed off the dribble by Harding at the other end. Awful turnovers followed from Wiggins and Diggins, both driving into dead-ends before throwing the ball away, leading to LA layups.
- Both of those Sparks buckets came from Ogwumike. The first was an impressive alley-oop finish after she trapped a smaller defender on her back. The second was on the run as she charged down the floor to complete a break, and provided the most memorable moment of the night. The crowd went nuts, and so did Ogwumike’s teammates, with Parker hugging her hard into the basket support, and then Alana Beard coming flying in to pile on top of both of them. Somewhere in all of that – probably when Beard jumped in – Parker’s head slammed into Ogwumike just above her eye. It left Parker with a growing bump around one eye, and Ogwumike with blood pouring down her face. It looked like the Staples Center had been hosting a prize-fight, not a WNBA game. They eventually managed to patch Ogwumike up, and she even made the bonus free throw (for being fouled by a Shock player on the layup, not in sympathy for being attacked by her teammates). It’ll likely be one of the enduring images of the 2013 season.
- But the game wasn’t over. Tulsa had another terrible turnover, but Parker only went 1-of-2 at the free throw line, leaving LA up by 5 with 20 seconds left. Beard played abysmal defense on the ensuing possession, running away from Williams as she pulled up at the three-point line, giving her a wide open look at the exact shot she wanted. She drilled it. Tulsa fouled again, and this time Beard went 1-of-2, leaving it a one-possession game with 10 seconds left. Again LA made a defensive error on the play that followed, although it wasn’t quite as egregious. Jenna O’Hea reached for the steal rather than holding position behind Candice Wiggins, who instantly turned and fired a three that somehow dropped in and tied the game. LA had time for another play, but Toliver pulled up from 25 feet and came up short. On to a second extra period.
- Everyone was tiring now, but Parker and Ogwumike were still running the show for the Sparks. Since the fourth quarter – and the injury to Cambage – they’d been too much for the Shock frontcourt. But Tulsa still had Riquna Williams, and she hit another deep three, before driving past Ogwumike and spinning in a finish with 9 seconds left in OT2 to tie the game up yet again. The prospect of triple-overtime was looming.
- But the ball went in to Parker on the baseline, and she drove ludicrously easily past Jackson-Jones for yet another layup. Jackson-Jones bitched to the official immediately afterwards, presumably because she’d attempted to foul Parker and wanted the call, but she’d barely touched her. It might’ve been easier to foul if Jackson-Jones had even remotely tried to move her feet and play defense. The help was also late arriving from across the lane – brains move more slowly after 50 minutes of play, as well as feet. Tulsa still had 5.7 seconds to answer, and nearly managed it again. Williams inbounded and received the ball right back, getting a great look at a three for the win. It was more terrible defense from Beard, usually LA’s best perimeter defender. But the ball went in and out, hitting both sides of the rim before bouncing away, and somehow the Sparks had won. Finally.
- Maybe this result can be a springboard for the Sparks. They were awful for 30 minutes, but it’s easy to wipe that from your memory after the emotions of the comeback and the eventual victory. The performances against Seattle and most of this one against Tulsa have been very poor after such a strong run for a couple of weeks beforehand. Eventually, Parker and Ogwumike woke up, and dominated the game like we know they can. Of course, we’ll never know if any of that would’ve happened if Cambage had stayed on the floor.
- Tulsa’s slim chances of pushing for a playoff spot are slipping away. They close the season with two games against Seattle, but it’s looking increasingly less likely that those games will matter to Tulsa for anything more than pride. There were positive elements from this game – they were heavily on top when Cambage was on the floor, Williams made some big plays, Wiggins had a strong second half – but in the end they came up short. It takes them to 0-5 in overtime this season. Another year of agonising growing pains, but maybe they’ll come out stronger for it. Or maybe that one extra lottery pick will finally take them over the top.
Indiana waived backup post Sasha Goodlett, allowing them to re-sign Jasmine Hassell for the rest of the season instead. Goodlett’s been pretty much useless this season, so it’s not a big surprise. Hassell was no great shakes while she was in Indiana either, but she is at least more mobile than Goodlett, making her a more direct swap for posts like Erlana Larkins and Jessica Breland. Still no signs of Katie Douglas making a return, unfortunately.
Tuesday August 27th (today):
Minnesota @ New York, 7pm ET. Liberty +8.5 is a lot of points to give to a home team, especially considering Minnesota’s interior defense hasn’t been great lately, and that’s where New York want to attack. But the Lynx are just too much better than the Liberty. I’ll take Minnesota to cover.
Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. Bizarrely enough, after San Antonio beat Seattle in this matchup on Sunday, all the money’s come in on the other side this time. The line at time of writing is San Antonio +1.5. I’ll take Seattle, because they can’t be as bad as they were for most of the previous game, and Brian Agler should’ve come up with some different ways to attack San Antonio’s defense. Although he and Dan Hughes have been battling for so long now, it’s hard to imagine there are many surprises left.
Connecticut @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. LA -13 is the line. Huge number of points. Don’t care because Connecticut are just that bad. Give me LA. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Wednesday August 28th (tomorrow):
Washington @ Atlanta, 7pm ET