Two games in the WNBA last night, and in their own way both were important to the lower reaches of the playoff race. Over in the East, one game would go a long way to deciding whether we’d have a real battle for the final spot, or if the four playoff teams would be virtually done and dusted. In the West, the winner would still be in with a shot, while the loser would be officially eliminated from playoff contention.
The first game saw New York host Indiana, with the Liberty sitting 1.5 games behind their visitors before tip-off. A win for New York would pull them within half a game, and secure the season-series over the Fever to take the tie-breaker. A loss, and they’d be 2.5 back with only five games left on their schedule. They’ve struggled in recent games, and Minnesota embarrassed them on their own floor on Tuesday night, but if they were going to raise themselves for any game this year, now was the time.
Unfortunately for Liberty fans, the first quarter was just as embarrassing as the game against the Lynx. New York were absolutely pathetic in the opening stages. Where Indiana were forcing their way deep into the heart of New York’s defense, finishing or drawing fouls for free throws, the Liberty were just repeatedly turning the ball over. Some of it was an inability to handle the typical pressure that the Fever put on ballhandlers and passing lanes. But much of it was just basic, dumb mistakes, and terrible passes from the Liberty. Bill Laimbeer took a timeout with his team down 8-0, then another one at 14-0 after successive steals had led to breakaway layups for the Fever. It was a dismal start for the home team, especially considering how important the game was.
New York finally got on the board with one of those Cappie Pondexter shots I’ve railed against all season – where she shoots a two from barely inches over the three-point arc – but at least it was a bucket. With Indiana hitting from outside when the ball was kicked out, the Liberty defense remained ineffective, but at least they slowed the turnover rate and managed to get into the game. Indiana led 27-14 at the end of the first quarter, and it felt like New York were lucky to get out of it while still that close.
New York spent the rest of the half – arguably the rest of the game – digging themselves out of that early hole. Indiana went cold from outside in the second quarter, which helped. So did a pair of threes from Katie Smith and Leilani Mitchell finding their way through the hoop as the shot clock dwindled – the first on a high-arcing rainbow, the second banking in off the glass. Maybe the basketball gods wanted the Liberty to have a chance. Alex Montgomery knocked down a few shots as well, as New York’s role players stepped up to help in the absence of anything coming from Pondexter or their posts. At halftime, they trailed only 38-33.
Once their hot start cooled off, part of the problem for Indiana throughout this game was that so much of their offense came through Tamika Catchings and Shavonte Zellous. It’s okay to have stars and leaders, but they were getting very little from anywhere else, which has been an issue at times for them all year. Zellous has stepped in to fill Katie Douglas’s shoes, but they haven’t gotten the same production from Briann January or Erlana Larkins that helped carry them to a title last year. Erin Phillips was back for this game after missing a couple due to tweaking her knee again, but she’s been inconsistent since returning from injury as well.
The effort from New York was better in the second half, as was their determination to stick to their regular gameplan. First Plenette Pierson managed to provide a couple of buckets inside, and then rookie post Kelsey Bone found some rhythm. She hadn’t been able to get anything to fall in the first half, but her aggressive post moves were resulting in baskets and free throws in the third quarter. She tied the game up for the first time since 0-0 with a three-point play late in the third, then gave New York their first lead of the night with another finish inside. Indiana were still cold from outside, reliant on Catchings drives to create points, or Zellous making something happen. When one or the other rested, their chances of scoring dropped even further.
But Catchings came back into the game to open the fourth after grabbing some rest, and immediately reenergised Indiana’s performance. She nailed a couple of big threes to take back the lead, while inspiring the return of more active defense from the Fever. They opened the final period with a 10-0 run to regain control.
Indiana started double-teaming much more consistently down low in the final period, forcing the ball back out as often as possible and daring New York to beat them from outside. It rarely backfired, because New York rarely hit anything. Kara Braxton managed to finish a couple of plays inside when she could get the ball up before the defense swamped her, but they weren’t punishing Indiana from the perimeter. At the other end, when Catchings and Larkins went at the defense and attacked the rim, they scored or drew fouls. When Indiana allowed themselves to settle for jumpers, they missed. Fortunately for New York, they did that often enough to keep the Liberty in the game.
Pondexter couldn’t hit anything, jumper or drive. She missed a layup with 90 seconds left that would’ve tied the game, only for Catchings to toss up a brick at the other end. Then Pondexter danced around in front of Briann January for 20 seconds or so, before firing up a fadeaway jumper that never had a prayer. Pondexter might be the Liberty’s superstar, but she’s ailing and she’d hit nothing all night long. It was ludicrous for the game to be drifting away from them on that kind of attempt after they’d had success through their posts in the second half.
Indiana found a bucket at the other end, with Zellous driving past Katie Smith for a tough left-handed finish. It’s the kind of layup Cappie would’ve blown, or turned into a 15ft fadeaway without ever approaching the rim. It gave Indiana a four-point lead with 27 seconds left. Out of a subsequent timeout, New York barely glanced into the paint before Pondexter jacked a three from the corner. The resounding thud as that shot planted itself between the angle of rim and backboard just about summed up New York’s season. Bone won the resulting jump ball at midcourt, and Mitchell had time to miss another triple, but that was game over. Christmas had a layup at the buzzer that was only important to gamblers, after the Liberty didn’t even bother to foul. Indiana had held on for a 73-67 victory.
At least the Liberty put up a fight, I suppose. They’ve quit in too many games this season, and gone down with a whimper, but they dug themselves out of a hole in this one. They just didn’t have the ability – or possibly the smarts – to complete the job. Bone, Pierson and Braxton were a combined 9-17 in the second half, for 25 points. That long two to open New York’s scoring in the first quarter was the only shot Pondexter hit from the field all night long. And yet the posts saw depressingly little of the ball down the stretch. New York really don’t deserve to be in the playoffs anyway with the way they’ve played for much of the season, and especially how they’ve performed in the last few weeks. Now they’ve left themselves needing some kind of miracle to make it there.
Indiana, on the other hand, could still end up being awkward for somebody in the postseason. They obviously have lots of experience and know what it takes to win big playoff games, and in Catchings and Zellous they’ve got a 1-2 punch that can be very dangerous. But they’re going to need some help on the offensive end. In this game they got very little, apart from a late burst from Larkins, and had just enough to get over the line against a poor team. Against the better squads, someone like January or Phillips will need to step up, or Katie Douglas is going to have to come riding in on her white horse and get up to speed very, very quickly. They’ve got a fantastic record against Chicago over past years, and that’s who they’d play in the first round if the playoffs started today. But even as reigning champs, they’d go in as distinct underdogs.
End of the road for somebody in Tulsa…
The other game last night saw San Antonio take a trip out to Tulsa, and it was essentially ‘win or go home’. Both were already desperate long-shots by this point to chase down Seattle or Phoenix for the #4 seed, but if Tulsa lost they would be mathematically eliminated. San Antonio would’ve still had a theoretical chance to catch the Mercury, but that would’ve been clutching at the thinnest of straws. Both had to win to retain faint hopes of postseason basketball.
The Shock had problems before tip-off. Center Liz Cambage, the focus of much of their best basketball this season once she recovered from her last ankle injury, was out after spraining her ankle again against Los Angeles. Point guard Angel Goodrich, who’d been keeping Skylar Diggins out of the starting lineup since midseason, was also out due to illness. So Diggins came in at the point, and Tiffany Jackson-Jones filled the gap in the post. Head coach Gary Kloppenburg also made an extra switch to the starting group, putting regular sixth-woman Riquna Williams in from the start. Considering how little Nicole Powell has been producing from that spot in recent weeks, it was an understandable move. San Antonio were still without starting point guard Danielle Robinson due to her knee sprain, so Davellyn Whyte started for them once again.
The first quarter was ultimately fairly even. Tulsa had the quicker start, with Glory Johnson providing her usual yeoman’s work on the glass and finishing inside, while Whyte had some problems handling the ball under the pressure of Tulsa’s defense. But San Antonio came quickly back into it, as Jia Perkins started making shots and the Silver Stars got out in transition. Plus Diggins and Candice Wiggins still couldn’t finish a damn thing in the paint, which put a crimp in the Shock offense.
San Antonio started to pull away in the second quarter, as Tulsa’s defense repeatedly broke down. They were leaving open lanes inside, and failing to move on a string to cover from the weak side. When one Shock defender came over to help or double-team, no one was following to fill the resulting gap, leaving cutters wide open for San Antonio. Much of the push also came down to simple shot-making. Shameka Christon nailed a couple of her standard deep threes, before Perkins and Cathrine Kraayeveld joined in the barrage from outside. Tulsa’s offense had some directness from Williams whenever she was in the game, but that was about it. Otherwise they were largely just taking and missing a lot of perimeter shots. San Antonio led 42-28 at the interval.
Tulsa tried to make more things happen with their defense in the second half. They were pressuring the ball hard, sending extra defenders to trap or double-team in the hope of forcing turnovers. Occasionally it worked, but San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes went to Perkins and Shenise Johnson as his backcourt for much of the second half – removing rookie guard Whyte from the fray – and they were generally good enough to handle the pressure. And of course, when you can move the ball away from traps and double-teams, someone somewhere is wide open. The Silver Stars didn’t make that many shots in the second half, but they got plenty of good looks. They made enough to hold on to a lead of around 10 for most of the half.
Much of Tulsa’s play in the second half brought back memories of their style from previous seasons, especially last year. Remember when their offense was basically giving the ball to Williams, Temeka Johnson and Ivory Latta, and hoping one of those itty-bitty guards could make something happen? Well some of the faces had changed, but it was back to that again. Diggins actually managed to finish a couple of drives to the rim, which was at least some kind of progress. She’s blown most of those this season. Of course, all of them saw her going left – if she actually starts making those consistently, teams will just push her right and see if she has any idea what to do in that direction – but it’s still a positive step. Williams made a few as well, and Candice Wiggins popped in a three to help out. With Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris on the glass they always had a chance of finding a putback, but that was about the only way the post players were seeing the ball.
It wasn’t enough for Tulsa. They don’t really have the perimeter scorers to survive playing like that. The closest they came in the second half was with 31 seconds left, when Wiggins hit a pair at the line to cut their deficit to five points. But by then it was too late. They had to start fouling to extend the game, San Antonio made their free throws, and the Silver Stars held on for a 74-65 win. Another trip to the lottery for the Shock was secure.
Obviously, Cambage is a huge loss for this team. They’ve started to work out how to revolve their game around the interior scoring of her and Johnson, so removing their pivot from the attack made things very difficult. Ultimately they outscored San Antonio in the paint, because their perimeter players attacked fairly frequently in the second half and they went to work on the offensive boards, but their perimeter shooting wasn’t good enough. Neither was the defense, which like last year looked exciting and aggressive, but left gaps behind for their opponents to exploit. If they can get healthy and stay healthy, there’s the beginnings of a good team here. Kloppenburg will probably get another year, and he probably deserves it, although some of the persistent problems with this team don’t seem to have changed much over the course of the season. They need a top-class perimeter player to add to their talented young posts. Maybe yet another lottery pick can help.
San Antonio, meanwhile, live to fight another day. It’s not going to be remotely easy – they’ll probably need to win twice in Phoenix, to start with – but at least they’re still alive. Jia Perkins and Shenise Johnson were solid in this game, keeping the turnover count under control and producing enough offense to keep the team ticking over. They didn’t get that much scoring from their posts, but Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams at least battled with Glory Johnson, Paris and Jackson-Jones. They also got another nice little cameo from rookie center Kayla Alexander, who continues to learn on the job. That’s what’s happening for Dan Hughes and his squad this season. The kids are playing, developing as much as possible, and they’re trying to scratch out as many wins as they can along the way. The longer they can keep their remote playoff hopes alive, giving themselves something tangible to play for, the better.
The Seattle Storm announced that should they be confirmed as a playoff team – one Seattle win, or a San Antonio loss, is all they need – then they won’t actually be able to host a game in the first round. Key Arena is booked, showing how little faith they had that the Storm would actually reach the postseason this year. So any Storm home game in the first round will move to the Tacoma Dome. Hopefully they’ll be back at the Key in the next round, should Seattle pull off an upset. It’s a shame that one of the best home-court advantages will be lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
Saturday August 31st (today):
Los Angeles @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. I would, in theory, be tempted by San Antonio. The Sparks haven’t been great in their last few games, and this one means at least as much to the Silver Stars (arguably more). But San Antonio are on the second half of a back-to-back, flying in from Tulsa. So I’ll take LA -7.5, even on the road.
Seattle @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. The line is Minnesota -11.5, and while that’s a lot of points it’s not enough to put me off. The Lynx have been the better team by a significant margin this year, and they’re still playing for the #1 seed. I’ll give up the points and hope Minnesota don’t relax below the spread.
Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET. Sky -7.5 isn’t even close to enough to dissuade me from taking Chicago. In fact, I’m surprised it’s that low with Tiffany Hayes (knee) and Armintie Herrington (concussion) both missing Atlanta’s last game. I’ll take the Sky to cover without hesitation.
Connecticut @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Well I’ve been daring Vegas to come up with a line high enough to push me away from taking anyone to cover anything against the Sun. Phoenix -11 was certainly high enough to make me pause. The Mercury haven’t been totally convincing under Russ Pennell. But they’ve had a full week of practice with him since their last game, and the Sun are still the Sun. Plus my ‘anyone against Connecticut’ plan has been going well so far. I’ll take the Mercury. Yikes, that’s all four favourites.
Sunday September 1st (tomorrow):
New York @ Tulsa, 4.30 pm ET