It was an unusually light Sunday schedule for the WNBA this week with just one game on the slate. And considering one of the teams involved had already been eliminated from the playoff hunt, and the other has been heading that way for a while now, fans could be forgiven for ignoring the day entirely. The result was always likely to have more impact on lottery percentages than postseason participation.
However, New York arrived in Tulsa with faint dreams of the playoffs still in their minds. They were 2.5 games behind Indiana with five left to play (six for the Fever). If Indiana have a disastrous run-in, a couple of wins could be enough for the Liberty, but it was likely they’d need at least three and probably four to have a realistic chance. The way New York had been playing lately made that seem distinctly unlikely. Their only win in their previous six games was over Connecticut, and there’d been some heavy defeats mixed in the rest of that run. Cappie Pondexter’s heel injury has taken the edge off her performances – when she wasn’t even playing that well to begin with – and left very little on the perimeter for the Liberty. It left them coming into this game as underdogs with the bookmakers, despite being the only team with anything meaningful to play for – and Tulsa being a lottery team with key injuries.
The Shock started to excite everyone in the middle of the season, once Liz Cambage got healthy and they started to win a few games while revolving around the dangerous young post pairing of Cambage and Glory Johnson. But they were already falling off when Cambage sprained her ankle again to make things worse, and she was still in a boot for this game. Point guard Angel Goodrich – whose promotion into the starting lineup ahead of Skylar Diggins also coincided with the Shock’s upturn in form – was also still out due to illness. Reportedly she’d been coughing up blood and complaining of headaches, but she joined the team on the bench for this game so hopefully she’s on the mend. Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg stuck with the same starting five he’d introduced in their loss to San Antonio on Friday, with Tiffany Jackson-Jones replacing Cambage in the paint, and a diminutive perimeter of Diggins, Riquna Williams and Candice Wiggins.
It doesn’t get talked about much because they always appear to be working hard and they often pressure the ball to create problems in opponents’ backcourts, but Tulsa are a deceptively bad defensive team. They get broken down too easily, they make too many mistakes, and the pressure for turnovers often costs them more points than it creates. Also, while her limited speed and desperation to sit in the paint sometimes limits her, Cambage is a big loss to their defense. She just fills so much damn space in the middle, and makes it hard to score inside. Jackson-Jones was awful defensively in this game (not that she did anything on offense either), allowing New York to gain an early foothold via layups from their posts. Glory Johnson picking up two fouls in barely two minutes of play didn’t help the Shock, either.
But it was still Tulsa who managed to build a first half lead, thanks to offensive production from a pair of guards. Initially, most of the damage was done by Riquna Williams. She can be a frustrating player because she’s constantly looking for her own offense, and she doesn’t shoot the highest percentages from the field (although they’ve been notably better this year, so there’s progress). But she’s an electric scorer at times who can light up a game – and she’s vital on a team like Tulsa who need someone who wants to take charge. They’re too passive at times, and they definitely lack players who can create their own offense. She was flying to the rim on drives, or firing in shots from the perimeter, and was the main element in pushing Tulsa to a nine-point first quarter lead.
Williams was joined in the attack by Candice Wiggins in the second quarter, bombing away from outside. Wiggins has been pretty frustrating herself this season – largely due to the expectations that came with her. As the first free agent acquisition of any real note since this franchise moved to Tulsa (yes, technically it was a trade – essentially it was a free agent signing), Shock fans were hoping she’d emerge from her shell on their team. She’d gone from a driver who drew countless fouls to a backup point guard who did nothing but jack three-pointers in Minnesota. No one was quite sure whether that was because it was the role she’d been asked to play, or if injuries had forced her to simply become that player. Largely speaking in Tulsa, she’s looked like that backup three-point shooter, just starting games instead of coming off the bench. It’s disappointing that they’re not getting more, but the numbers still say she’s been one of the better long-distance shooters in the league yet again. She’s also tossed in a few more drives lately, and while she rarely manages to finish any of them, sometimes opponents are stupid enough to foul her. She didn’t need to drive in the first half of this game. On kick-outs, off pin-down screens, off staggered-screen sets that were designed for her to get open – Wiggins just rained in threes. She was 6-8 from beyond the arc in the first half alone, and led the Shock to an eventual 52-48 lead at halftime. Yeah, they still weren’t getting many stops.
New York’s offense predominantly came from Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton in the paint in the first half, with Cappie Pondexter making a very limited impact. She had a couple of decent assists, and hit a shot or two from deep, but largely drifted through the half without drawing much attention. Maybe she’s providing everything she’s got through the heel injury, and still trying to settle into the ‘lead guard’ role Bill Laimbeer is asking her to play, but like Diana Taurasi in Phoenix – New York need Pondexter to score. They’re going nowhere without that.
The third quarter was a scrappy affair, the ball swinging quickly from end to end while rarely going through the hoop. Alex Montgomery hit a couple of shots to give New York some offense, but the Liberty committed far too many unnecessary, dumb fouls to send Tulsa to the line. The Shock were doing a perfectly good job of missing shots when the Liberty left them alone, but spent a lot of time at the free throw line thanks to silly reach-ins or blocking fouls from New York. Part of this comes from Tulsa’s regression back into their old offensive style now that Cambage isn’t there to target. They either fire up threes, or they throw themselves to the hoop. It’s not particularly complicated or clever, but it can be relatively effective. The Shock led 70-61 to close the third quarter.
Tulsa’s lead hit 13 early in the fourth, before Pondexter actually stepped up and began to lead the Liberty’s comeback effort. It was about damn time, to be honest. She finally beat a couple of defenders off the dribble, had a pullup three from deep, and generally started playing like the star she’s supposed to be. Within minutes New York were right back in the game.
There were several important moments down the stretch. Kara Braxton picked up a technical foul for bitching with under four minutes left in a four-point game – not a good time – but after seeing a semi-intentional flailing arm from Glory Johnson catch Braxton in the face on replay, you could understand why she was upset. The nice spin move and finish through contact for a three-point play that she produced moments later was a much better way to respond. Wiggins actually converted on a couple of drives in the fourth quarter, which was nice to see, especially as her outside bombing had dried up in the second half.
One key sequence came with 45 seconds left, after Diggins bricked a three. Glory Johnson managed to come down with the offensive rebound, which would’ve been huge in a game Tulsa led by five at that point. But in the process of kicking the ball back out to Wiggins, Johnson appeared to catch DeLisha Milton-Jones with an elbow. It looked largely unintentional, and also looked like Milton-Jones made the most of it she possibly could, but the referees bought it and called a flagrant foul. That gave New York two free throws – which Milton-Jones hit – and possession – which Pondexter turned into another three-pointer. From up five with the ball, Tulsa’s lead had disappeared in the space of eight seconds.
The Shock answered with a Riquna Williams drive, where she drew Braxton into sliding over and found Courtney Paris for the finish with a sweet bounce-pass feed. She might call her own number most of the time, but clearly Williams can make a pass when she feels like it. Pondexter answered with a drive for two, but that still left New York trailing by a point with only 22 seconds left on the clock, and they had to start fouling.
Williams made a clutch pair at the line, before a Pondexter pullup for three to tie the game came up well short. Both Diggins and Nicole Powell were 1-of-2 at the line in the waning seconds, but that was enough for the Shock to hold on for a 93-88 victory that puts yet another dent in New York’s playoff chances.
Ultimately, Tulsa won this game at the free throw line. They shot a ridiculous 37 attempts, hitting 30, and that was the difference (New York were 10-13 at the line). Some of it came due to Tulsa’s consistent willingness to drive and create contact. Some was due to simple laziness and stupidity from New York, reaching in far too often when there was no need to give the officials such obvious reasons to blow their whistles. There were also nice performances from Wiggins in the first half and Williams driving the offense forward throughout the game, plus Paris working hard in the paint. With Cambage out (plus Johnson in foul trouble and Jackson-Jones having a miserable night) there were plenty of post minutes on offer, and she made the most of them. Every now and then you see Paris produce a game like this – 4-6 for 10 points and 13 boards, including five on the offensive glass – and think maybe one day she could translate her college dominance to the pros. Then she disappears for ten games or has five where she’s a defensive liability. Maybe a strong finish to this season can give her a springboard into next year.
New York still just aren’t very good. Even with solid offensive production from Pierson, Braxton and Pondexter in the same game – which has been pretty rare lately – they didn’t have enough. It’s rather startling that they’re still in playoff contention, at least as long as you’re a mathematician. With four games left, they still might only need to win two – as long as one of those wins is in their remaining game against Indiana, and the Fever lose all their remaining six. But that’s clutching at very thin straws, and this team show no signs of being able to go anywhere in the postseason even if they somehow found a backdoor route to get there. Pondexter’s flashes in this game just made you wonder what might’ve been if she’d been able to produce more like that all season, or even consistently for a few games in a row. After this loss, the Liberty are even less likely to be sticking around for the postseason – and it’s exactly what their performances deserve.
Monday September 2nd (today):
Los Angeles @ Atlanta, 6pm ET. I took LA -1.5 in yesterday’s column. Details of the uncomplicated reasons why back HERE.