Lineups: As normal for San Antonio, but Tanisha Wright was out for Seattle with a right knee contusion. That was a significant loss for them, as she’s been playing well lately attacking the basket and providing their main penetrator from the perimeter. She’s also their first option as a defender on guards, and would’ve taken Danielle Robinson in this game. Noelle Quinn came into the starting lineup, while Sue Bird had the difficult task of covering Robinson for most of the night.
Story of the Game: The opening stages were pretty ugly offensively, with Seattle in particular unable to hit a shot. San Antonio led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter, thanks to Jia Perkins bombing from outside and some unusually effective minutes from backup center Kayla Alexander. Seattle’s ball movement wasn’t that bad, but the Stars were doing a better job defensively of sticking close to shooters, making it much tougher for the Storm than they’d found it in their game against the Stars a week earlier. Seattle cut the gap down to eight at the interval largely thanks to a little transition offense – it’s harder to miss when you break away for a layup without defenders anywhere near you.
Seattle were much better offensively in the second half. San Antonio had been mixing up their defenses throughout the evening, using their ‘wheel’ zone (that’s my name for it – I have no idea what they call it) to complicate Seattle’s offense. That zone starts off as a 3-2, but rotates around with the ball to become a 2-3 when it needs to (hence ‘wheel’). The Storm started doing a better job of cutting into the seams to find space and scoring against it in the second half, with Camille Little leading the way. It was also an impressive offensive outing from Sue Bird, more aggressive in attacking off the dribble than we’ve seen for quite some time. She clearly recognised that without Wright they needed her to step up as a scorer, and produced. There were at least three Bird drives that went right to the rim, which has been more like a month of work than a single evening for Bird in recent times.
But San Antonio kept coming up with answers. Seattle would pull close, and then Robinson would knife to the rim on a drive, or Perkins would drill another shot from deep. Seattle even took the lead in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, only for San Antonio to produce a 10-0 run to take it right back.
So Seattle came again. Shekinna Stricklen produced a pair of huge threes to assist Bird and Little, while Alysha Clark had a backdoor cut for a layup and Bird added a big three of her own in the final minute. Nicole Powell went 1-of-2 at the free throw line to give the Storm a three-point lead with 18 seconds left in regulation. San Antonio set up a play that basically broke down. Becky Hammon tried to get open through a double-screen, but was caught in traffic. She penetrated and kicked to Robinson, who re-penetrated a swung a pass to the corner, where Hammon and Danielle Adams were almost standing on top of each other. Adams caught it, stepped back, and drained the three to tie the game. Exactly how they drew it up, honest. Out of timeouts, Seattle tried to push to answer, but Perkins poked the ball away from Bird and time expired. Overtime.
After a quiet game overall – Seattle had been sending extra help to make sure of that – Adams was big in the extra period. Seattle would make a play, and then she’d answer it at the other end, keeping San Antonio’s noses in front. Two turnovers ended Seattle’s chances – the first when Little was caught up top having used her dribble and gave the ball up under pressure, the second when Bird tried to enter the ball to Little and it slipped agonisingly out of bounds beyond Little’s reach. Robinson made six straight clutch free throws to ice the game.
Key Players: Perkins was huge for San Antonio early on, hitting from outside to keep the scoreboard ticking over when no one else was producing. Robinson didn’t have a great scoring night until right near the end, and Seattle forced her into shooting 5-17, but the Storm had to send a lot of help her way to accomplish that. Whenever someone gets an open look from the perimeter for the Stars, you’ll usually find that an extra defender has been drawn to Danielle Robinson to create that space.
Little and Bird were the offensive threats for Seattle, with Stricklen adding one of her occasional bursts on top. It was so nearly enough. They missed Wright, who would’ve allowed them to single-cover Robinson a little more, and given Bird someone to help out in the backcourt. It’s also disturbing how dramatically Crystal Langhorne has disappeared from the Storm offense, after that outstanding stretch of games a few weeks ago. It’s hard to pinpoint why, because it mostly feels like they’re just not using her – but Brian Agler’s not that dumb. When you’ve got someone who can finish that efficiently in the paint, or at least attract extra defenders to open up everyone else, she has to be an important part of the offense. For the last six games, she’s been almost invisible.
Notes of Interest: Becky Hammon got a technical! Sweet, adorable, butter-wouldn’t-melt Becky was distinctly upset at the lack of a foul call when she was stripped late in the fourth quarter. Cameron Inouye can do that to a person.
Lineups: Carol Ross tried a different roll of the dice to shake up her team (and maybe save her job), benching point guard Lindsey Harding and starting an extra post in Jantel Lavender. That slid Candace Parker over to small forward, in more of a perimeter role. The Shock started the same group as usual, and had Riquna Williams available again off the bench after she’d missed a couple of games with a bruised knee. LA reserve post Nikki Greene was unavailable due to a fractured nose suffered in practice, but is so deep on their bench that she probably wouldn’t have played anyway.
Story of the Game: Even more unusual than the sight of Parker starting at small forward, was a WNBA team coming out in a 2-3 zone as their base defense to begin a game (Cheryl Reeve’s single-possession zone starts in Minnesota don’t count). Tulsa opened the game in their zone, but it didn’t work at all. LA got off to one of their familiar hot starts, which we saw in several games before their recent collapse into general lethargy. They pressure the ball, using their length and traps on ball-screens to attack the opposing team, creating turnovers, and injecting energy into their offense. And as we all know by now, LA are much more effective offensively if they can attack quickly, rather than having to set up in the halfcourt.
Tulsa are also a pretty bad defensive team, which helped LA. Part of the reason the Shock started in zone is that it would’ve been hard for the zone to be any worse than the likely results of starting in man-to-man. LA got behind them repeatedly, found gaps, and between Candace Parker, Alana Beard and Jantel Lavender moved into a quick lead. Of course, there’s nothing that breeds confidence like success, and that early effectiveness fed into their production as the game progressed.
Benching Harding worked in a variety of ways. She hasn’t really been attacking defenses or breaking them down, and LA don’t run anything much in the halfcourt that requires a game-managing point guard, so they weren’t losing a lot by taking her off the floor. What they were gaining – bizarrely, considering they were adding an extra post – was some additional floor spacing. Parker has range, and teams have to respect her out to the three-point line, even if they’d rather she take that shot that get inside. She’s also a strong passer, who can see over the defense from out there and feed her teammates. Lavender, meanwhile, is 6-5 but her favourite shot is the standstill ‘jumper’ from 15 feet. It’s not three-point range, but it still gives them a little extra away from the rim.
Of course, LA were playing against a team which has very little threat at small forward. Roneeka Hodges started there, and the likes of Jen Lacy and Jordan Hooper came off the bench as alternatives. That means Parker can play at the 3, do whatever she wants offensively, and not have to worry too much about being exploited on the defensive end. When they face teams with bigger threats at that spot – Maya Moore, Angel McCoughtry etc. – it becomes a different proposition. Parker will have to focus defensively, the help will have to be there on the second layer of the defense, and they have to communicate. So many of their problems come on switches and rotations that are perfectly workable if only everyone was on the same page. They get in trouble when multiple players on the floor think different things are happening, leaving gaping holes. Talking would really help.
Tulsa scored enough to keep the game competitive until halftime, with transition points off turnovers combining with Glory Johnson’s production to keep them in touch. But the Sparks pulled away for good in the third quarter, with Johnson getting a little too aggressive at times. She always plays with fire, and that can be a useful attribute to energise her team, but sometimes it slightly boils over. She’s constantly getting into little arguments with opponents, or pissing people off, and often picks up unnecessary fouls for taking things a little too far. Her fourth foul while wrestling Harding in the third quarter sent her to the bench, and by the time she came back in the lead was over 20 and the game was over. Energy is great; being somewhat out of control can be a problem.
Key Players: Parker, as usual, was vital for LA and led their scoring. She’s criticised here at times, but only because we can all see how gifted she is and the minor flaws stand out. She’s incredibly hard to stop in transition as well, which is a central part of why LA are most effective when they push the ball. She got help from Lavender and Beard, who both hit shots and ran the floor hard. Harding also had a strong final quarter (albeit when the game was essentially over as a contest), maybe energised a little by her benching.
Johnson was the highlight for Tulsa, without much coming from elsewhere. Skylar Diggins was the most effective of their perimeter weapons, but that wasn’t saying much. The size and length of LA proved far more effective on the night than the speed and quickness of the Shock.
Notes of Interest: Even before almost getting into a scuffle with Harding, Glory Johnson smacked Nneka Ogwumike in the face with an elbow on an attempted finish at the rim. Ogwumike was taken back to the locker room and missed the rest of the game with a bruised nose. The fact that the Sparks had everything under control by that stage probably played a part in that decision.
New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. The Liberty have now lost seven of their last eight, and even in the WNBA where two-thirds of teams make the playoffs, they’re already three games out of the postseason spots. They’re in desperate need of some kind of jump start. They actually did a lot of things right against Chicago on Wednesday, establishing Tina Charles early and then seeing Anna Cruz provide perimeter support to Cappie Pondexter. Their defense let them down, more than anything. It’s not going to get any easier this weekend with a home-and-home against Atlanta, who’ve won five straight and sit atop the East. Erika de Souza has always given Charles a hard time, and that won’t change now she’s in a Liberty uniform rather than a Sun one. New York need to take care of the ball, and make all the effort plays to stick with the Dream. We haven’t seen the Liberty do that for 40 minutes many times this season.
Washington @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Expect Washington to once again try to use Emma Meesseman as a go-to player, if she’s willing to take on that responsibility. Damiris Dantas has had some problems on the defensive end, and she’ll be on Meesseman to start the game, so the Mystics will try to target that matchup. The Lynx need someone beyond their stars to help out offensively, especially if Seimone Augustus is still out to rest her knee. Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen were forced to do too much on their own against Phoenix on Wednesday, and eventually fell short. They’ve always relied on their stars for offense, but within a team concept that moved the ball and took advantage of opposing defenses wherever the holes appeared. It’d be nice to see them get back to a little more of that movement, rather than just trying to ride their superstars.
Indiana @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET. Sadly, injuries are still the main story around this matchup. Delle Donne, Fowles and Catchings are probably the three best players on the combined rosters, and all three are likely to still be out with their respective injuries/illness. Lin Dunn will expect her team to rebound after an undisciplined performance against Connecticut led to a heavy loss on Tuesday, and they’ll need to contain Epiphanny Prince off the dribble as much as possible. That’ll probably be Briann January’s assignment, although they may also use her to unsettle Courtney Vandersloot. With Jessica Breland back Chicago have more of a chance, but the Fever will still force them to rotate their defense and likely create a lot of open looks on the perimeter. The result may well depend on how many of those shots the Fever manage to knock down.
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Tulsa’s road trip continues, with the second half of a back-to-back against one of the hottest teams in the league. It’s also another team with a lot of length on the floor, just like LA, who’ll present many of the same problems that the Shock just failed to handle last night. Tulsa need to move the ball better, and either shift Brittney Griner away from the basket so that they can attack off the dribble, or light it up from the perimeter. With Griner protecting the paint, and the effectiveness of their offense and ball movement lately, Phoenix have to be considered the heavy favourites.