WNBA Today, 08/30/2013: Storm can taste playoffs, as Sun succumb yet again

 

Just one game in the WNBA last night, and with the Connecticut Sun as the visiting team the result never seemed to be in much doubt. The Sun are still without Allison Hightower and Kelly Faris due to injury, and Kara Lawson for family reasons. That’s on top of Asjha Jones and Danielle McCray, who’ve both missed the entire season. It’s too generous to Connecticut’s players and coaching staff to put all their problems this season down to those absences – especially when so many teams around the league have been fighting through similar issues – but obviously it’s made things much more difficult. However you distribute the blame, the Sun have been dreadful for the vast majority of the season.

 

Last night’s hosts the Seattle Storm have had their own key losses to deal with. Superstars Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird were ruled out for the entire year before the season began, forcing Brian Agler to piece together a roster from what he had left and what he could attract on the free agent market. Most prognosticators were not high on their chances of success before the season began – to say the least. But the Storm have come together as a team, worked hard for each other, and scratched and clawed their way to victories. Exactly like they’ve done under Agler in previous years whenever they’ve been missing key players. Last night’s game gave them a chance to push above .500 for the first time since the opening weeks of the season, and move within touching distance of confirming their spot in the playoffs.

 

The Storm have had their inconsistencies this season. Without elite stars to rely on, when their offense starts to break down, it can get ugly. Even in the important pair of games they’d just completed against struggling San Antonio, the Storm were awful in the first encounter and nearly managed to throw away the second. But at times recently they’ve flowed, and looked like they were growing more comfortable within their own offense. It’s led to an 8-4 record over their last 12 games. That’s the kind of form that’s more than enough to make them heavy favourites over Connecticut, and the first quarter went exactly as you’d expect. Seattle were effective in a variety of ways. Both Tina Thompson and Camille Little attacked inside, showing absolutely no respect for Kelsey Griffin’s defense (or the weak efforts that Tina Charles has been passing off as interior help defense this season). Meanwhile Shekinna Stricklen hit a trio of open three-pointers within the first six minutes of the game. By my estimation, the Sun starting perimeter of Renee Montgomery, Tan White and Kalana Greene were each responsible for one of those triples. So at least everyone was equally culpable for failing to cover their assignments. Seattle led by as many as 12 in the first quarter.

 

Offensively, Connecticut spent most of the first half barely moving the ball, and simply firing up jump shots that rarely looked like dropping in. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, if Seattle hadn’t given up so many cheap turnovers, they’d have been in even greater control of the game than they already were. The Storm lead was as high as 19 points in the middle of the second quarter, and they eventually led 40-23 at halftime. It had all been depressingly predictable, but the Storm could hardly be expected to care about that.

 

Connecticut’s center, star, and supposed leader Tina Charles shot 4-10 in the first half, largely on the same parade of turnarounds, fadeaways, and 18ft jumpers that she’s been throwing up all season. She didn’t grab a single rebound. It’s been a dismal season for Charles. She’s settled for those mid-range shots all year, rather than bulling her way into the trenches and fighting for higher-percentage looks. Of course, the constant double-teams that have come her way with Asjha Jones missing and then other injuries piling on top have made life more difficult for her. But it’s still been very poor even once you take that into account – both from Charles herself, and from head coach Anne Donovan’s schemes failing to force her into better positions. Plus/minus is a stat that carries plenty of noise and flaws within it, but it shows the Sun as being significantly worse with Charles on the floor this season, compared to when she’s on the bench. At both ends of the floor, they’ve been markedly worse. That’s a depressing stat to see for last year’s MVP. The fact that she’s an elite center shooting barely 40% from the field is equally condemning. That’s ridiculous.

 

In fairness to the Sun, they kept hanging around in this game. It was similar to their trip to Los Angeles on Tuesday night – they stayed just about within range to keep the home fans a tiny bit nervous. The fans needed something to keep themselves awake in the third quarter, as a constant stream of fouls and free throws dragged the game down to a snail’s pace. Seattle had done a decent job throughout of drawing fouls inside by attacking the defense. They didn’t necessarily need to score points in the paint if they ended up at the line instead. Connecticut largely ignored that fact in the first half, but woke up to it in the second and became a little more aggressive in driving for contact. Seattle also made some unnecessary errors, fouling jump shooters and giving up more unforced turnovers, to allow the Sun to hang around. A driving Tan White finish to close the third quarter cut the gap to single-digits for the first time since the opening period.

 

But that was also the only time Seattle’s lead was below 10 for the rest of the night. They opened the fourth quarter with an immediate 5-0 run led by Temeka Johnson, Camille Little and Tina Thompson. Connecticut went back to firing away from outside for most of the fourth, and the comeback effort – what little signs of it ever existed – drifted away into the ether. Seattle eased home for a 78-65 victory that was never really in much doubt.

 

For Connecticut this was nothing new. They missed a lot of perimeter jump shots, with White and Charles the primary culprits, but someone has to take them when the offense isn’t going anywhere. Their defense continues to break down whenever help and rotation comes into play. It wasn’t good at all. At least they were a little better in the second half, and Charles even managed to grab four whole rebounds. They’ve got six games left, and they’re hoping they pass as quickly as possible.

 

That’s how many thought Seattle would be feeling by this stage of the season. Instead, they’re 15-14 with a ‘magic number’ of 1ish. It’s 1ish because a magic number usually means the required total of wins by the team in front and losses by the team behind. Seattle have two teams theoretically capable of catching them, so that’s not exactly the case here. They need either one win to secure the spot themselves, or a loss by each of San Antonio and Tulsa to eliminate the chasers from contention. It’s a tough run-in for the Storm, with three straight coming up against league-leading Minnesota, and then a home-and-home with Tulsa to round out the regular season (and they’ve already lost badly to the Shock three times this year). But it’s hard to see either of the teams behind Seattle putting together a winning streak to threaten the Storm. The more likely remaining questions surround whether Phoenix or Seattle will take the #3 seed, and who their opponents will be after LA and Minnesota finish squabbling over the #1. Agler and the Storm are within inches of the postseason, and they absolutely deserve it.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Friday August 30th (today):

Indiana @ New York, 7.30pm ET. This is a big game, especially for the Liberty. If they want to sneak into the playoffs, this is where it begins. And Indiana have had their struggles recently, especially on their travels. But New York have been very poor in recent weeks, and I trust the Fever to step up when necessary far more than I trust the Liberty. So I’ll take Indiana -4.5, even on the road.

 

San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. The line is Tulsa -5.5, which is understandable considering San Antonio’s results in the second half of the season. But even when healthy, I don’t think Tulsa are that much better, and Liz Cambage’s status is uncertain after her ankle sprain late in their last game. So give me San Antonio and the points.

 

—–

Saturday August 31st (tomorrow):

Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Seattle @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET

Connecticut @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

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