WNBA Today, 09/24/2013 (Part Two): Sparks dreams dashed by Mercury in dramatic decider

 

So Atlanta were in – now it was on to the decider in a series that had provided rather more offense. The Mercury and Sparks had thrown haymakers at each other, both stolen a game on the road, and ended up here. After the season began with everyone talking about the power of the top three teams in the West, it seemed only appropriate that the first-round should be completed by this. One game to decide who’d face the Lynx in the Western Finals, and who’d be left considering their season a significant disappointment.

 

There was a change in the starting lineup for Phoenix, with the visible pain Penny Taylor was in at the end of Game 2 keeping her out of Game 3 entirely. Returning from her knee surgeries has been a problem all season, and if she was missing a deciding playoff game you know she really wasn’t able to move on it at all. Briana Gilbreath came back into the lineup, which changed up some of the defensive assignments. Kristi Toliver now had Gilbreath to hide on, so she didn’t have to spend as much time worrying about covering DeWanna Bonner (not that Bonner had done much to attack that matchup during this series). Lindsey Harding isn’t much bigger than Toliver, but she’s generally a better defender, and she slid over onto Bonner. But it also gave Phoenix an extra perimeter defender that they could rely on, and Gilbreath started the game on Harding. That allowed Diana Taurasi to move over onto Alana Beard, who she could help away from more consistently than Harding. Losing Taylor could never be a positive, but it had the potential to make Phoenix a more effective defensive team.

 

But the most noticeable difference in the opening stages from the previous games was Kristi Toliver’s offense. She came in a dismal 4-22 from the field in the series, bricking endless jumpers in Game 1 before disappearing entirely as Game 2 wore on. But she was firing away again, hit a step-back over Candice Dupree to open her account, then a transition three shortly afterwards. This was a scary prospect for Phoenix, because Toliver being icy cold had been a big help to them so far in this series. With Taurasi and Brittney Griner missing several decent looks in the opening period, it was some surprising success from Bonner and the usual smoothness of Dupree that kept the Mercury even at 19-19 at the end of the opening period.

 

The second-quarter was kind of insane. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that it even provoked me into a little ditty, which went along the lines of “I can’t guard you, You can’t guard me, Let’s all score, together!” LA looked like they were taking control early on, led by Candace Parker. Phoenix have struggled to guard her through much of this series, with Dupree their best option but rarely a particularly successful one. Parker abused her on a series of drives, and helped push the Sparks into an eight-point lead.

 

But then there was the other end of the floor. As it has been for much of the season – and probably should’ve been for even more of the season – the Taurasi-Dupree pick-and-roll became Phoenix’s go-to play. While Dupree couldn’t really guard her, Parker was being even more embarrassingly roasted in the reverse matchup. Her pick-and-roll defense was neither one thing nor the other – she wasn’t staying with the roller to cover the finish, or jumping out on the ballhandler to cut off the pass. She was just sort of watching while Dupree went sailing past (and the rotation to help behind her was pretty awful as well). Dupree also beat her on a couple of straight-up isolation drives and a jumper or two, and just kept piling up points. By halftime she was 10-13 for 20, and the Mercury were shooting 58% for a 42-40 lead.

 

There was a clear contrast in performances that began to crystallise in the third quarter, but still ultimately left us with a very close game. Phoenix were still executing their offense better, and shooting an insanely high percentage. Griner picked up her fourth foul early in the third – after doing very little worth mentioning in the first half – and went to the bench. The primary impact of that was allowing LA head coach Carol Ross to switch Nneka Ogwumike onto Dupree, because she no longer had Griner to cover. That immediately quieted Dupree, and forced the Mercury offense to come from somewhere else – and they got big shots from Bonner, a couple from Taurasi, and backup post Lynetta Kizer stepped up to finish plays. LA weren’t hitting nearly as many shots, and trailed by seven several times in the period, but they were making every hustle play to keep themselves in the contest. Toliver was throwing herself around the floor to hunt down loose balls and rebounds, and still taking a whole host of jump shots. Parker faded out of the action in the third, but LA were still within two points heading to the final quarter.

 

Phoenix’s emotions didn’t always help them over the course of this game, either. Taurasi, Bonner and Dupree all picked up technical fouls, for slamming the ball into the floor in Taurasi’s case, and mouthing off to officials for the others. In such a close game, those free points can hurt. But as the pressure began to tell, no one was hitting shots in the fourth quarter. Both teams looked tight, Taurasi and Toliver were exchanging misses on pullup jumpers, Bonner was firing some bad shots from deep, Parker took a hideous step-back three – it was a question of who could calm down and make a smart, cool decision. After a long stretch without a stoppage, and just two buckets on a gorgeous spinning move from Harding and a strong drive by Bonner (finally recognising that was a better option than another heave from outside), the Mercury led by a point with 1:37 left in regulation.

 

Ross chose to take Beard out in favour of Jenna O’Hea – deciding she preferred the Aussie backup as her primary defender on Taurasi for the final stages. Phoenix filled that fifth spot in their lineup – the Taylor/Gilbreath hole – with rookie guard Jasmine James, who’d played much of the fourth quarter. Even with Griner back on the floor, Ogwumike had stayed on Dupree to keep her quiet. Griner had done so little over the course of the game, they were happier with Parker on her at this point. After an attempt to feed Griner in the post failed, Taurasi drew an extra defender, then fed James who snuck along the baseline and finished at the rim as help flew across. It was a strong play from a kid who wasn’t even in the league a couple of months ago and was now playing under some of the heaviest pressure the women’s game has to offer. Mercury by three.

 

The Sparks possession that followed was basically a mess. They didn’t look like they knew what they wanted to run, and no one seemed to want to take the shot. Ogwumike eventually tossed up a jumper, and they were fortunate that the offensive board fell to Parker. After the re-set, a horrid, looping re-entry pass from Toliver to Parker somehow got to her under the rim, and eventually Harding was tripped by Dupree as she attempted to close out. Harding went to the line, and made two clutch free throws. It’s easy to remember a time when we made fun of her for being a dead cert to miss at least one of those – it’s not true any more. Sparks cut their deficit to a point, 36 seconds left on the clock.

 

Phoenix tried to run one of their base plays – a motion set that rolls into yet another Taurasi-Dupree pick-and-roll. But O’Hea and Ogwumike made the pass difficult, and for one of the few times all night LA – in the shape of Parker, no less – rotated quickly enough to cut Dupree off before she made it to the rim. The ball went back out to Taurasi, LA double-teamed it out of her hands, and Bonner was left to shoot a three from the corner. It bounced off the iron, and Ogwumike out-jumped Dupree for the board. Timeout LA, still down by a point, 10.3 seconds left.

 

The ensuing play Carol Ross came up with was really, really pretty. A series of screens spread Phoenix’s defense around the floor, and left Parker to receive the inbounds pass from Harding at the elbow. Harding ran straight towards Parker, who faked the return hand-off, before spinning into space for an easy drive through an open lane for a layup. The only negative about the play was that it took so little time. LA had the lead back, but they’d left 7 seconds on the clock.

 

Phoenix couldn’t get the ball in at their first attempt, so had to burn an extra timeout. It was their last one, putting increased pressure on them to execute second-time around. And oh how they executed. Bonner’s inbounds pass went to Griner on the low block, where she’d been given just a little too much space by Parker. The rookie – who’d had a thoroughly forgettable game to that point – spun towards the baseline and drilled a turnaround jumper to take the lead. It was a huge, clutch shot, and the first big moment of Griner’s pro career if you don’t count dunks and interviews. But just like LA’s previous bucket, it happened very quickly. The Sparks still had 4.9 seconds to answer.

 

But it didn’t happen. Frankly, there’s lots of blame to go around for LA’s final possession of 2013. The design by Ross looked messy, with a similar series of free throw line screens spreading players around the floor, but without leaving Parker in place to take the pass in the middle of the court. Instead, she was heading towards the corner when Harding passed her the ball. Harding probably never should’ve given it to her. While it was understandable to want their superstar to be the one left with a chance to win the game, Parker was always going to be catching it in a tough spot, and Bonner was already on top of her to join Dupree in a double-team. The pass should’ve gone to Toliver instead, popping out at the top of the arc. And then there’s Parker herself. She was in a difficult situation, trapped by two long-armed defenders, the baseline and the sideline. Harding cut and was wide open under the basket, but it would’ve been very tricky to get her the ball. The kick probably should’ve gone to Toliver up top, but Parker turned that down, and was left with an off-balance, side-arm heave that never had a prayer. It was batted away as time expired, and Phoenix had held on for a 78-77 win in an instant classic.

 

Phoenix were understandably overjoyed at the final buzzer, and they have every right to be after finding a way to make it through this series. This is not the old Mercury team that could only beat you if they ran you into the ground and kept firing up shots to outscore their opponent. They showed real grit and determination in the second half to keep coming at LA, hold them at bay, and eventually make the big plays at the finish to snatch the win. She still took several poor shots, but this was also the first game in the postseason when Bonner really showed up and made some key plays, including actually hitting a few of those shots from way outside. After Dupree cooled off in the second half and Taurasi continued to misfire, someone had to step up. They got some strong play from Kizer and James in supporting roles as well, and of course Griner’s big moment at the end. Now it’s on to the Lynx, who’ve beaten Phoenix 12 times in a row – but never faced the Russ Pennell edition. They’ll be underdogs, but they weren’t favourites for this series either. Maybe everyone’s preseason darlings are better off when they’re allowed to be something of a surprise.

 

It’s an excruciating way to go out for LA, and far from the first time that Parker’s championship dreams have been crushed by a last-second shot. They easily could have won this series, but they also could’ve played much, much better in the deciding game. In some ways, they were a little lucky to still be so close in the final stages. Toliver took an extraordinary number of jump shots, and while she was more successful than she had been in the previous games, 9-23 is still a result that the opposing defense will happily settle for. Parker wasn’t dominant in the way she had been in prior games, the defense broke down far too easily in the first half, and they didn’t get the role player performances that the Mercury produced. But one more shot, or one more defensive stand, and they’d be heading to Minnesota. It’s another case of a strong regular season, but a disappointing playoffs for LA. Yet again, they’re left with ‘maybe next year’.

 

 

Notes

The Tulsa Shock’s Riquna Williams was named the Sixth Woman of the Year as expected, narrowly beating out Minnesota’s Monica Wright. That’s the last of the awards until they get around to the All-WNBA team (and Finals MVP, of course).

 

There will be Eastern and Western Conference Finals previews going up here on Wednesday, so make sure to check back for those.

 

 

WNBA Conference Finals Schedule

 

Thursday September 26th

Indiana @ Atlanta, 7pm ET

Phoenix @ Minnesota, 9pm ET

 

—–

Sunday September 29th

Atlanta @ Indiana, 3pm ET

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 5pm ET

 

—–

Tuesday October 1st

Phoenix @ Minnesota, TBD (if necessary)

Indiana @ Atlanta, TBD (if necessary)

 

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