We’re starting to hit that point in the season. Where everyone knows which teams are good, and which teams are on the brink of giving up on the year as a dead loss. So last night’s three WNBA games saw two very predictable results that maintained the status quo, and just one tight, interesting contest. We’ll be starting with that one, obviously.
- This was another of those double-features the WNBA has introduced this season, where teams play twice in the same city within barely 48 hours. So everyone had fresh memories of the dreadful game on Sunday where Seattle barely showed up and got what they deserved. After the Storm lost that game, this one became very important. It tied the season-series between the teams at 2-2, and pulled San Antonio within three games of the Storm in the standings. Another win for San Antonio would both narrow the gap to two, and secure the head-to-head tie-breaker over Seattle. The squads were identical, both sides starting the same units as point guard Danielle Robinson continues to miss out for San Antonio with her strained knee.
- Robinson’s replacement Davellyn Whyte was firing and hitting from outside early on. That’s the one advantage Whyte gives you over D-Rob – she’s not afraid to fire away from deep, and occasionally she’ll get hot. Robinson rarely lets fly from further than 18-feet.
- As has often been the case this year, Seattle started slowly. Brian Agler called his usual early timeout – it’s virtually a tradition at this point – and they pulled themselves out of it with the help of Tina Thompson. From there, the entire first half stayed very tight. Thompson was the leading light for Seattle, hitting little hooks and fadeaways inside or popping out beyond the arc for her trademark deep threes. It gave the Storm a presence and a primary option that they never really found on Sunday in the previous game, and their energy on the glass was important as well.
- Between Whyte, Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams, San Antonio were hitting enough shots to keep pace. Even with a 19-7 deficit on the boards, they had the game tied at 31-31 at halftime.
- The second half was a different experience. The game became more frantic and helter-skelter at times, with one key move from San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes having a big effect on the game. In an effort to handle Thompson and track her movement better, the Silver Stars began to treat her as a small forward. Instead of trying to guard her with Danielle Adams, who had to chase Thompson around screens and try to follow her out when she popped beyond the arc, they gave Shenise Johnson and Shameka Christon the assignment. That left Adams on either Shekinna Stricklen or Noelle Quinn. Obviously it was a risk to some extent. Adams is relatively light on her feet, but she’s not used to guarding perimeter players. And Thompson is still capable of posting up, so Hughes was trusting Johnson and Christon to be able to handle that. To a large extent it worked for San Antonio, as Thompson definitely cooled off in the second half.
- But that one move opened everything up. Adams wasn’t entirely comfortable in her unfamiliar defensive spot, and while the usual small forwards could chase Thompson, they weren’t used to playing help defense like typical posts. At times it gave Seattle more room to work, and confused San Antonio themselves as much as it upset Seattle’s rhythm.
- We also saw some 3-2 matchup zone from San Antonio in the second half, which had a similar effect. Spaces opened up, but mistakes were made as both teams weren’t quite sure how to handle what was going on.
- One of the early impacts of trying to guard Thompson with Shenise Johnson was Thompson slamming into Johnson as she cut across the lane trying to post up. The veteran forward caught Johnson high with her arm, around the jaw and neck area, and was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul. For some reason, the officials allowed Johnson to go to the bench for treatment while Perkins shot the free throws for her. According to my understanding of the rules (and anything I can find in the rule book), that shouldn’t be allowed if Johnson wants to return to the game at any point. You have to shoot your own free throws if you want to come back in later on. That’s why we see half-fit players throw up free throws before leaving the game for more extended treatment after taking a nasty hit. But Johnson came back in a few minutes later. Refereeing screw-up, as far as I can tell.
- Anyway, the second half was distinctly back-and-forth, rather than the constant close struggle of the first. Seattle had four buckets in quick succession, led by Tanisha Wright, to build a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter. San Antonio wiped that out by scoring the next eight points in the game as the Storm got mixed up against their zone. Then Seattle pulled away again in the fourth, as they became more comfortable against San Antonio’s shifting defenses. The Storm hit a shot or two over the top, and both Thompson and Camille Little continued to attack inside.
- With under three minutes left and the Storm clinging to a four-point advantage there was a big sequence for both teams. San Antonio found Jayne Appel open in the lane – she was aggressive all night as the roller on the pick-and-roll, although it didn’t result in that many points. Appel made a pretty touch-pass out to Whyte, wide open in the corner. She missed the three, and then Appel’s attempted putback after an offensive rebound just barely slid off the rim. That rebound resulted in a jump ball, which Seattle corralled, and Wright turned into a layup past Appel at the other end. A lead that could easily have been down to a single point was suddenly up at six, and the Storm seemed in control.
- In fact, this game looked over a couple of times. Temeka Johnson broke down Whyte and Appel on a drive to push the Storm’s lead back to five points with 39 seconds left. Then Whyte made a rookie mistake trying to force a backdoor pass which was picked off by Wright, forcing San Antonio to start fouling to stop the clock. With 23 seconds left, Little went 1-of-2 at the line to take Seattle’s lead to six again.
- But there was drama left to come. Little fouled Shenise Johnson on her missed free throw, allowing Johnson to go 1-of-2 at the line herself without taking any time off the clock. Thompson extended the gap to seven with a pair at the line. At the second attempt, Johnson hit a seemingly meaningless triple to cut the deficit to four points with just seven seconds remaining. But then San Antonio stole the inbounds pass at midcourt, Johnson made a smart drop-off pass to Perkins, who drilled another three to make it a one-point game with 1.7 seconds on the clock. Out of timeouts, Seattle tried to inbound the ball quickly, but Perkins jumped in and stole that pass as well, then flung up a shot while drifting over the end-line out of bounds. The airball was snared by Thompson, as whistles blew from every direction. Unfortunately, the clock had failed to re-start after the ball came in following Perkins’s three. So the officials went to the monitors, eventually decided that the 1.7 would’ve expired during Perkins’s steal-and-prayer, and the game was over. It was an unsatisfactory way to finish, considering the preceding excitement on the floor, but Seattle were happy to take it.
- This was a much, much better game than Sunday’s matchup between the same two teams. Both sides were better offensively, we had more of the chess match elements between Hughes and Agler, but once again San Antonio didn’t shoot well from outside. Whyte was 0-7 from beyond the arc after her early makes, and most of her teammates weren’t much better. They did a better job than usual of driving and forcing the officials to make calls in the second half, and the grandstand finish was exciting, but they came up short. In some ways, that’s the story of their season. Lots of effort, some solid gameplanning, but not quite enough stars to make the big shots. With Robinson out on top of Hammon and Young, that’s a lot of star power missing. Four games back from the Storm, and with Seattle now holding the tie-breaker, San Antonio’s slim chances of sneaking into the playoffs are fading away.
- In some ways, this game summed up Seattle’s season as well. After playing terribly against the same opponent two days earlier, they came back in, stepped up their game, and gutted out another win. They’ve been doing this all season. Just when you might consider writing them off, they find a way to keep winning enough games to keep themselves afloat. Thompson was the star, finishing 9-17 for 27 points and 13 boards, although she was noticeably quieter once Hughes shifted his defense in the second half. She’s had a few games where she’s faded into the background – it’s hard to raise yourself for 34 straight games with all those miles on the clock – but it’s been a very impressive farewell year from the legend. She’ll be getting plenty of calls in the offseason just to make sure she was 100% on that retirement idea. The Storm are nearly there. Their ‘magic number’ (of combined Storm wins and Silver Star losses, or Storm wins and Tulsa losses) is just two. In fact, sitting only half a game behind Phoenix in the standings, they have every chance of pushing forwards for the third seed. It’s been a heck of a job by Agler and his roster.
- Both teams had their full complement of players, not counting Essence Carson who’s been missed by New York for most of the season. Cappie Pondexter continues to play through a bruised heel for the Liberty. Kamiko Williams kept her starting spot on the wing ahead of DeLisha Milton-Jones.
- Defensively, New York did okay in the opening stages. Minnesota were settling for a lot of jump shots, and many of them were rimming out. But the Liberty couldn’t buy a bucket. They blew several layups, with Pondexter a prime culprit. She was also way off with her jumper, presumably struggling to get her usual lift due to the injury. So New York shot a painful 3-21 in the opening period and yet still only trailed 18-9.
- Unsurprisingly, New York’s defensive success didn’t last very long. Pondexter found her range a little in the second quarter to help the offense, but Minnesota attacked the rim better and scored 20 of their 21 second quarter points in the paint. Lindsay Whalen made Pondexter look silly on a couple of drives off handoffs, and the Lynx as a whole just started to slice and dice New York to bits. This was basically what most people had expected when the best team in the league ran into a beaten up squad who look likely to end up in the lottery. There was far more energy and eagerness coming from the Lynx, just an evident desire to be out there on the floor. Of course, that’s much easier to come by when you’re playing well and winning games. New York seemed to lose heart even while it was still almost a contest.
- The especially scary thing for the Liberty was that Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore were a combined 2-13 for just five points in the first half – and yet Minnesota led 39-21 at the break anyway. With their two primary weapons producing virtually nothing on the scoreboard, the Lynx were blowing them out regardless. Ouch.
- New York did at least dredge up the energy and desire to make a comeback of sorts in the third quarter. Pondexter made a couple of plays, the Lynx offense got a little sloppy, and the gap came down to 11. Then Moore hit a fadeaway after a series of offensive boards for Minnesota, Cappie missed a couple, Kara Braxton had a few very Kara Braxton-y moments, and the lead was back to 17. Game over.
- While the talent gap between these teams is obvious, throughout the game you could see Minnesota doing all the little things you need to do to win games. Every time someone got beaten, a weak side Lynx defender was right there to fill the gap. Every time that happened at the other end of the floor, it resulted in a layup. Minnesota are just a much smarter, better-drilled team at this point, and playing with much more enthusiasm for the fight. Plus they have better players, which definitely helps.
- The only remaining intrigue surrounded when the coaches would clear their benches, after Bill Laimbeer’s infamous “she should get hurt for that” line when he felt Maya Moore stayed in too long when these teams last met. Moore came out with over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, which was a smart move by Cheryl Reeve. Making sure she stayed safe and healthy was far more important than making any kind of point to Laimbeer that he could shove his opinions on her team where the sun doesn’t shine. Whalen, Augustus and Janel McCarville were in a little longer, but at least the main target of Laimbeer’s ire was removed from the line of fire.
- Another day at the office for Minnesota. This is the way they were winning games before that brief run of losses (and minor injuries) disrupted their flow. In complete comfort and control. Neither Augustus nor Moore ever really did find their shot, but it didn’t remotely matter. The Lynx were just far, far too good for the Liberty.
- Even after this fairly pitiful capitulation, New York are still only 1.5 games outside the playoff spots in the East. They also have two games left against Indiana, and one with Washington – the teams they’re chasing. The postseason is still a theoretical possibility. But they’ve been so poor lately. Their last two games don’t tell us much – Connecticut are too bad, and Minnesota are too good. But New York weren’t playing well against anyone else before these games. It’s going to take an unlikely-looking upswing in form – starting with Friday’s game against the Fever – for New York to force their way into the playoffs.
- After one glaring West-East mismatch earlier in the evening, we had another to finish off yesterday’s slate. After a dismal performance in a loss to Seattle, then three-quarters of a dismal performance against Tulsa (before a crazy comeback and double-overtime win), Los Angeles had the perfect opportunity to raise their spirits again by beating up on the league’s worst team. Kara Lawson was once again away from the Sun to be with her ill father, so they had the same shortened roster they’ve been playing with lately. It was hard to see them having any chance of victory.
- LA came out with noticeably better energy than they had in their previous couple of games. Maybe it was the confidence from playing a team they knew should be easily taken care of, or maybe the excitement against Tulsa woke them up, but it was clearly visible. They were pushing in transition, attacking the basket even in the halfcourt, and generally looked more up for the game. Connecticut couldn’t handle them, and trailed by as many as 17 points in the first quarter.
- The Sun improved a little in the second quarter when they went to their bench. Getting Tina Charles off the floor was rarely a bad idea in this game. They got better energy and work rate from their less talented posts. Iziane Castro Marques was also having her best game since joining Connecticut, and gave them a bit of a lift, but LA were still in control. Parker finished the first half by bringing the ball out in transition and throwing a no-look bounce pass on the break to Nneka Ogwumike for the finish. It finished off a first half where LA shot 64% from the field and led 49-35.
- Charles didn’t even guard Candace Parker all night long, except on the occasional possession where she was forced to pick her up in transition. Parker tore Connecticut’s defense to pieces for most of the game, and Charles wasn’t having much success keeping Ogwumike off the boards anyway, but for whatever reason Anne Donovan refused to try using Charles to defend LA’s best player. It didn’t make much sense to me, and if she had enough desire left to want to lead this team it would’ve been nice to see Charles go into a huddle and demand the assignment on Parker. But I doubt she did that.
- LA didn’t do a good job of killing the game off. Carol Ross probably would’ve liked to have rested some of her starters after the amount of minutes they played and energy they expended on Sunday night, but Connecticut kept hanging around. Castro Marques was having a classic throwback Izi-game, and the energy and effort of Mistie Bass had a big impact as well. The Sun were within eight points at the end of the third quarter, and came within five when Castro Marques nailed a three with under seven minutes left in the game. But Ross called timeout, Parker came back in, and between her and Ogwumike the Sparks pulled away again. The neverending stream of misses from Charles helped as well. Donovan didn’t have the guts to just bench her.
- LA probably should’ve made this much easier than it eventually turned out to be. Parker and Ogwumike dominated for long stretches, and Lindsey Harding shot well early on, but they let Connecticut back into the game when it shouldn’t have happened. Still, it’s a win, and that’s all that really matters. It’s easy to lose focus when you’re this much better than your opponent. They head out on a four-game road trip now, and the two games left on the schedule that stand out are the pair of clashes with Minnesota. Those games may decide the #1 seed in the West, and could well provide a preview of the Western Conference Finals.
Wednesday August 28th (today);
Washington @ Atlanta, 7pm ET (already completed). I took Washington +7 on the road (announced via tweet), because Atlanta re-signed Anne Marie Armstrong earlier in the day. That was a sign that at least one of Armintie Herrington and Tiffany Hayes were going to be out for Atlanta, and it turned out to be both of them. Turned out to be a solid pick, too. Details on the game coming tomorrow, of course.
Thursday August 29th (tomorrow):
Connecticut @ Seattle, 10pm ET