New York Liberty 66 @ Indiana Fever 70
Lineups: Both teams opened with the same fives they’d used in previous games. Tamika Catchings is still in street clothes due to her sore back, while the only missing Liberty player is Kamiko Williams, who tore her ACL in the preseason.
Story of the Game: Indiana were the team in front for most of the first half, and led by as many as 11 points in the second quarter. Rookie forward Natasha Howard had another productive outing, delivering several hustle plays and some nice finishes to help the Fever. The Indiana coaches have already talked about how much it helps her if she can hit an early shot and get into the game, so maybe we should’ve known the performance was coming when she hit a rainbow jumper from the free throw line to open the scoring.
Briann January was the other player keying the Fever offense, continuing her early-season hot streak from outside. Her career numbers – and watching most of that career – show that she’s a better shooter from the perimeter than she is at finishing under pressure at the rim, so firing more threes makes sense. Especially considering she’s shooting a ludicrous 71% from beyond the arc so far this year (that might be just a touch unsustainable).
New York had a pretty messy first half, with Cappie Pondexter barely involved. Fortunately Tina Charles decided to show up, and was more aggressive attacking the basket in the paint and going after rebounds. In fact, the Liberty destroyed Indiana on the glass in the opening 20 minutes, which played a significant role in keeping them in the contest. Indiana were one of the few teams this season that largely chose to defend Charles straight up, letting Erlana Larkins do the best she could on her own, rather than sending endless double-teams. Larkins is a strong, physical defender, but that policy gave Charles license to attack rather than kick the ball back out, and let her play herself into the game.
The Liberty finished the second quarter with a 10-2 run, led by Charles, which pulled them within three points at the break, despite a mostly poor opening half.
Outside of the first 30 seconds, when a Marissa Coleman layup extended Indiana’s lead to five, neither side led by more than four points for the entire second half. It was tight and scrappy, neither team finding much rhythm and both cancelling each other out. Indiana did a better job competing on the glass, but their offense slowed to a crawl and they didn’t shoot nearly as well from beyond the arc. Charles wasn’t as productive offensively, and New York didn’t have a lot else. It always looked like coming down to the final few possessions.
After seeming to barely touch the ball for most of the night, Pondexter had no rhythm and unsurprisingly missed various shots when she started trying to take over in the fourth quarter. She had the first shot of the final minute in a tied game, but bricked from 18 feet. Briann January then did the same at the other end, but Karima Christmas – once again playing power forward in crunch time ahead of Howard – came up with a huge offensive board in traffic. She was fouled on the putback, and sank both free throws for a two-point Indiana lead with 28 seconds to play.
The set New York tried to run after a timeout, which wasn’t particularly innovative in the first place, was completely blown up by Indiana’s defense. They twice prevented the ball from getting into Pondexter’s hands, first on the inbounds, then on a wide curl around a staggered screen. When Anna Cruz eventually gave it to her, she was surrounded by all kinds of traffic and starting to run out of time. The shot ended up being a forced leaning three, which never looked like it had much of a chance and bounced off the rim. Coleman grabbed the rebound, hit two free throws after being fouled, and that was the ballgame.
Key Players: As several Liberty fans are starting to point out, they need Pondexter and Charles to show up on the same night, not take it in turns. Some of that is the players themselves, who haven’t been consistent for their various teams over the last couple of years. Some of it is play design and coaching, which has a tendency to sideline the perimeter players while they constantly focus on feeding Charles. They have to find a balance, because the supporting players and structure aren’t good enough to carry this team to many wins without their two stars leading the way. The lack of perimeter shooting which everyone saw before the season started is still a significant problem, and there are an awful lot of players on the Liberty roster who look like decent backups, but no more. It’s a little early to panic, but there are worrying signs.
January was the highlight for Indiana, even though she wasn’t quite as productive in the second half. Her active defense is a constant, and if she can continue to shoot anywhere close to this well from the perimeter she’s a serious threat. The return of Catchings, and hopefully the improving health of Shavonte Zellous, would allow January to play off the ball more, which would make her even more dangerous. Right now the only way they can really do that is by playing her with fellow point guard Sydney Carter, which isn’t ideal.
Zellous didn’t shoot that well, again, but this time played well enough in other areas to stay on the floor. It was her defending Pondexter on those key late possessions, rather than January (who easily could’ve switched over while someone else took Cruz).
Notes of Interest: If it wasn’t clear from everything above, neither of these teams look great. Indiana came away with the win, and still have a star player to return, so they’re significantly happier and have reasons to expect improvement. New York are going to have to work out their problems with what they’ve got.
Atlanta @ Connecticut, 3pm ET. The Sun get another chance to find some cohesion, and start piecing together better performances. Alex Bentley will be facing her old team for the first time, so might be even quicker to pull the trigger from outside; the Ogwumike/Bone frontcourt will surely see some decent minutes after their offensive success against Chicago and due to the need to guard Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza; and otherwise your guess is as good as mine for what we’ll see from Anne Donovan and Connecticut. Celine Dumerc is probably on a plane as I type, so this could be the last chance for the Dream reserves to make their cases to avoid being cut to make room for her. Considering how poor the Sun were defending in transition against Chicago on Saturday, Atlanta will be expecting to feast on fastbreak points in this game.
Los Angeles Sparks @ Washington Mystics, 4pm ET. We don’t know exactly who’ll be lining up for the Sparks, but they’ll fancy their chances against Washington regardless. Kristi Toliver has left to join the Slovak national team, which would presumably open a spot for either Armintie Herrington or Candice Wiggins on the perimeter. But Alana Beard missed their last game with a sprained ankle, and Wiggins has only played once this season due to a swollen knee. So they could be piecing it together as they go along, and we may see more of the big lineup with Candace Parker at small forward – although the team is yet to look comfortable with that alignment. Washington will keep chugging along, hope enough of their 10-deep team show up offensively to carry their scoring, and will try to force LA to beat them from outside in halfcourt sets. With Toliver missing and Beard/Wiggins doubtful, that’s how everyone’s going to set up against LA for the forseeable future.
Minnesota Lynx @ San Antonio Stars, 4.30pm ET. We saw this one just a couple of days ago, with San Antonio hanging on to Minnesota’s coattails by shooting the lights out early on, then getting blown away in the third quarter. Dan Hughes is a good enough coach, with good enough talent, to give the Lynx some problems. But even with the game being played back in Texas, it’d be a surprise if Minnesota’s winning streak came to an end. San Antonio rarely pierce the interior of Minnesota’s defense, and it’s hard to win a jumpshooting contest against the Lynx.
Tulsa Shock @ Seattle Storm, 9pm ET. Even on the road, Tulsa will think they’ve got a shot to earn their first win of the season in this one. They’re quick enough on the perimeter to take advantage of Seattle’s turnover issues, and with the way the Storm collapse inside to protect their interior, there’ll be good looks on offer for Diggins, Sims, Williams et al if they just move the ball (something they largely forgot about on Friday in Phoenix). Glory Johnson and Courtney Paris don’t necessarily need to pile up points in this game, but they need to be involved, to open the game up elsewhere. Sims being healthy enough to play, after sitting out most of the second half in Phoenix, will also be important. At the other end, Seattle will try to take advantage of Tulsa’s own defensive frailties, and if they can execute their offense without coughing the ball up they should have some success. Both these teams are desperate for a win, and it might come down to who manages to channel that desperation, rather than becoming anxious. Or it might be decided by the fact that Tulsa can never close out tight games.
And Tulsa failed to close out another one. Of course Seattle isn’t showing any closer strength either. Last night’s game was far too close and neither team took control. Luck determined the final score more than strategy or execution.