Lineups: As expected on both sides. At time of writing, Kristi Toliver is preparing to tip-off for Slovakia in Wladyslawowo, so obviously she still wasn’t available for the Sparks last night. The ‘professional business overseas’ excuse for her absence that commentators keep regurgitating is getting tiresome, but at least it’s more factually accurate than the ‘professional business in Russia’ the Sparks originally tried to spout.
Story of the Game: Neither side had much success stopping the other in the first half. As always, LA tried to push whenever they could to avoid playing halfcourt offense, but they were fairly successful in slicing through San Antonio’s defense even when forced to set up a play. Their only real difficulties came with turnovers – some offensive fouls, some sloppy passes. When they managed to hold on to the ball, the scoring was highly efficient.
But San Antonio were getting it all back at the other end. Danielle Robinson repeatedly went streaking by Lindsey Harding, leaving the Sparks point guard in her dust. Occasionally it led to baskets for her teammates, but mostly it resulted in layups for Robinson herself. It’s far too simplistic to blame Harding. Robinson’s lightning quick, but everyone on the floor knows that her main threat is the drive, and if she’s forced to shoot jumpers or pull up in the lane, you live with it. LA’s help defense behind Harding just wasn’t there in time, and it’s a fairly common failing with the Sparks. There needs to be a more collective responsibility in their defense.
The Stars also shot 19 free throws in the first half (and made all 19), a sign of reaching and late-arriving defense (and admittedly some bad luck with the officials). As a result of both that and the offensive foul issues, both Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike were in foul trouble and spent much of the first half on the bench. LA shot 58% in the first half and still trailed by five points at the break.
The game was decided in the third quarter, when San Antonio kept scoring but the Sparks could no longer keep up. Robinson had developed so much offensive rhythm and confidence by this point that she was knocking down shots from 15 feet with ease as well as the layups, and her teammates were joining in. Kayla McBride made a living all night by hanging out at the three-point line, watching her teammates force the LA defense to collapse, and then drilling shots when the ball was kicked to her. LA’s rotations weren’t even close to fast enough to challenge her shots and make her miss.
The Sparks tried some zone in the third to change the momentum, but their zone really is a last resort. Becky Hammon immediately nailed a deep open three over the top of it, then hit another one moments later when LA quickly quit on the zone. The Sparks missed a series of layups in the third quarter, which only helped San Antonio build momentum, but the major problem for LA was the ease with which the Stars were scoring points. San Antonio led by 18 at the end of the third.
The fourth quarter was largely garbage time, with LA playing five different kinds of defense simultaneously even before they totally quit and cleared the bench. The Stars and their fans enjoyed it immensely of course, and everyone was delighted when rookie guard Heather Butler made her first field goal as a pro, taking them over 100 points for the night.
Key Players: Robinson was the star for the Stars, finishing the game 10-14 for 24 points and four assists, and leading the way in establishing San Antonio’s control of the game. While it was by no means all Harding’s fault, it took far too long for Carol Ross to try switching to a different defender on Robinson, just to see if someone like Armintie Herrington could slow her down. McBride and Jia Perkins helped carry the scoring load, and Hammon’s pair of threes in the third quarter helped twist the knife.
LA gave in pretty meekly in the second half. Candace Parker was their leading scorer as usual, but without making a particularly significant impact on the game. San Antonio survived without any real issues in the first half playing Shameka Christon across from her at power forward when Sophia Young-Malcolm subbed out. That just shouldn’t be possible if LA had the sense to recognise it and attack the mismatch. Harding seemed to become more aggressive offensively in response to the roasting she was getting from Robinson at the other end, but it was nowhere near enough in the second half.
The Sparks are now officially rock bottom of the Western Conference, without even needing to use tie-breakers. While everyone keeps talking about their lack of perimeter shooting, there’s still far too much talent here for this team to be losing so many games. They had more than enough offense to win this game – the numbers were much better before they quit at the end – but the cohesion wasn’t there defensively. Like their old rivals across the country in New York, more perimeter shooting would be nice, but they need to play with more consistent energy and belief. The heads drop too easily at a sign or two of adversity, and then games slip away. It’s too early to panic, but the Sparks weren’t expecting to be sitting in a lottery position when the season began. Sometime soon, they need to snap out of this funk.
New York @ Connecticut, 1pm ET. One of those quick rematches that this league throws up fairly regularly, New York will be hoping to reproduce their energetic second half performance from Friday night, rather than the dismal first half. Evidence so far this season suggests it could easily be either. Connecticut have shot 22-37 from three-point range in their last three games, which is exceptional but unsustainable. The question is whether it’s a result of improved ball movement and better shots, or just a freak sequence. If it proves to be the latter, then the wins may dry up once they cool off from outside. But there’s no question that the Sun are much improved from the start of the season – in large part due to the play of point guard Alex Bentley. Expect Bill Laimbeer to go to Sugar Rodgers quickly if Bentley starts lighting up Anna Cruz again.
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 1pm ET (live on ESPN2). Phoenix don’t tend to enjoy playing Minnesota. The Lynx are too organised and precise, and tend to exploit the Mercury’s defensive flaws. Phoenix should be able to produce points themselves – these are, by some distance, the two best offensive teams in the WNBA so far this season – but they’ll have trouble slowing the Lynx down. In particular watch for the sequences when Brittney Griner rests, which have often been disastrous defensively for the Mercury this year. Minnesota will be hoping that this is the prime opportunity for Maya Moore to rediscover her shooting touch, which has escaped her in recent games.
Atlanta @ Washington, 4pm ET. Coming off three straight home wins, Atlanta now have to start proving they can take their form on the road. Their speed will give the Mystics some problems, and Washington will need a big performance from Kia Vaughn and/or Stefanie Dolson to keep Erika de Souza under control in the paint. Mike Thibault has been flitting between a variety of perimeter options lately, so it’ll be interesting to see who he favours to cover Angel McCoughtry. Various people will get a shot, but it’s probably a choice between the veteran strength of Monique Currie and youthful energy of Tierra Ruffin-Pratt to start with.
Seattle @ Tulsa, 4.30pm ET. Both these teams are on something of a roll. Tulsa have won three straight, while the Storm have won three of their last four and started opening up their offense a little. Turnovers will be important for two teams that have struggled with them in recent years, as will pace. Tulsa are nowhere near the breakneck speed they used to play at, but Seattle still like to slow everything down to pick teams apart. The Storm are also finishing off a seemingly endless road trip, so fatigue could be a problem for them against a team who’ve been sleeping in their own beds continuously for a couple of weeks.