Lineups: The same fives these teams used in their last games came out for the tip-off. Alysha Clark continues to open at small forward for Seattle, presumably to give them energy and hustle from the start, because the likes of Noelle Quinn and Shekinna Stricklen are still more likely to be in that spot in crunch time. Seattle’s bench was a little thinner than before, due to Jenna O’Hea’s broken toe, which is expected to keep her out for 4-6 weeks.
Story of the Game: Neither side led by more than four points in the opening period, as they felt each other out and tried to get something going. The very first possession from New York featured a high-low pass from Plenette Pierson to Tina Charles with deep position in the paint, signalling their intent for much of the rest of the game.
Seattle opened up by missing a series of mid-range jumpers, with posts Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little popping into plenty of space, but failing to knock anything down. Then Sue Bird began to take over the Storm offense. The entire first half was peppered with outside bombs from Bird, using screens to shake Anna Cruz, and then filling it up from the resulting opportunities. She had 17 points at halftime.
But until late in the half, Bird didn’t get a lot of help offensively, and New York had been the team in front. The Seattle defense struggled to recover at times after their frequent collapsing on Charles, and the Liberty hit enough shots to maintain a lead until Bird just got ridiculously hot. She wrapped up the first half with another deep jumper in Cruz’s face, giving the Storm a three-point lead at the interval.
The Liberty clearly spent the break talking about Bird and how to cool her off, although we’d already seen the signs of them adapting in the first half. When she came off any pick the big was showing hard on her now, essentially turning it into a trap, and forcing someone else to beat them. Of course, Bird’s the consummate point guard and at times that merely led to great looks off the pick-and-roll or slip screens, when Bird fed the ball to the screener rather than shooting herself. But in general it worked for New York – along with Bird simply cooling off – and Seattle’s offense was significantly less effective in the second half.
But New York weren’t exactly steamrollering the Storm at the other end. The physical defense of Little and Langhorne was forcing misses from Charles, along with basic errors from the Liberty center that didn’t have much to do with the defenders. She missed a lot of straightforward opportunities in the second half. Essence Carson’s jumper has looked pretty good in the early stages of the season, but without being put to a huge amount of use. And Cappie Pondexter was invisible for huge stretches of this game. Tanisha Wright is always one of the tougher defenders on Pondexter, but the Liberty can’t afford for Pondexter to fade out of games entirely, whoever she’s facing.
Bill Laimbeer took a risk late in the third quarter, as Carson, then Pondexter, then Charles, were all subbed out. The remaining players unsurprisingly struggled to score, and Seattle were back in front by five points at the end of the third, despite their own offensive struggles. The pretty obvious lesson for Bill is that his two-and-a-half stars can never be on the bench simultaneously – unless it’s garbage time and someone’s up by 20.
For most of a scrappy fourth quarter it looked like Seattle were going to cling on for the win. A Langhorne finish off a lovely pick-and-roll with Bird gave them an eight-point lead with three minutes left in the game. Then we really started to hear from the one wildcard that significantly affected this game. Sugar Rodgers was acquired for basically nothing from Minnesota in the offseason, after doing very little with the Lynx in her rookie year. She came into this game more because Bird was lighting up Cruz so consistently than for her offense, but that proved to be a saving grace for New York. She drilled a three, grabbed an offensive board in traffic and dropped in the putback, and then nailed another triple to tie the game with a minute left to play.
Most of Seattle’s late possessions were run for Bird, but while she was still finding decent looks, the shots weren’t dropping any more. Little was blocked inside before Bird missed a three, then Pondexter made one of her few positive contributions of the night by curling down and hitting a fadeaway baseline jumper for the lead with 24 seconds left in the game. However many times she misses, one thing Cappie will never be afraid to do is take the big shot.
A pullup jumper for two from Bird rimmed out at the other end, and after an interminable video review the ball was New York’s. Pierson hit a pair of free throws that essentially ended the game.
Key Players: New York’s plan for this season was really meant to be two superstars with the hope for enough support around them to win games. This time it was the supporting acts that helped prop up the performances of Charles and Pondexter. Cappie had the big bucket at the end, and Charles made some plays over the course of the night, but in general their lead guard was quiet while their key post shot 6-19. Rodgers stepped up to ignite the offense in the final minutes, while helping with the improved defensive effort on Bird in the second half. Cruz isn’t a bad defender, but she’s long and fairly smart rather than quick. Rodgers gave them someone nippier who could stay closer to her.
Plenette Pierson also made a few nice plays during the course of the game, and although it’s a noisy stat at best, her +/- of +29 (vs backup DeLisha Milton-Jones’s -21) is pretty conspicuous. Her mobility still isn’t great, but she’s a smart player who knows where she needs to be and what her job is, and doesn’t necessarily need to be the quickest in the world to get that job done. As long as she plays her way into better shape – rather than wearing down – over the course of the season, it’ll be an important gain for the Liberty.
Bird carried the Storm until she couldn’t, and then they didn’t have enough else. Little and Langhorne put up a fight in the paint with Charles, and were effective defensively and on the glass (only a few rebounds went to Charles simply because she was three inches taller than anyone else on the floor). But even if their team defense can slow teams down as much as they did to New York in this game, it still remains questionable whether they can score enough points at the other end. It’s looking pretty doubtful at the moment.
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. No one answered my open question when I posed it on Twitter yesterday, but the second-best offense in the WNBA so far this season, based on points per possession, is Tulsa. Of course, they’ve only played two games (and lost both of them), so that means virtually nothing. But it’s still kind of interesting. One of those two games was against tonight’s opponents San Antonio, who needed standout performances from Danielle Robinson and Jia Perkins to clinch the win. They’ve got Becky Hammon back this time, to add an extra weapon, but they’ll be hoping to do a better job defending the paint than they did last time out against the Shock. The gave up too much space inside, and too many fouls when attempting to recover, which kept the Shock alive in that game.
We’re also waiting to see whether Fred Williams continues to start Riquna Williams, 2013’s Sixth Woman of the Year, who’s done nothing in two games as a starter this season. Promoting Odyssey Sims and bringing Williams off the bench seems so obvious at this point that it’s surely a case of when it happens, rather than if. Unless Williams starts again tonight and explodes, of course, which she’s always capable of doing.