Lineups: Same again for both teams, with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard continuing to start in the backcourt for Los Angeles. New York had Swin Cash available for the first time after they acquired her in a trade for DeLisha Milton-Jones on Wednesday night.
Story of the Game: While we’ll go into a little more detail, the story of this one for New York wasn’t particularly complicated. The newly rejuvenated Tina Charles showed up for them again – but no one else did. And however good your one player may be, it’s very hard to win a basketball game with only one offensive weapon.
But for three periods, the Liberty gave it a decent shot. In the first quarter, it looked like Charles might get some help. Alex Montgomery hit a couple of shots when the ball was reversed back out to her away from the attention Charles drew, Plenette Pierson and Cash were hitting from mid-range just like Charles herself when LA left them in space, and the team defense was good enough to at least keep them within striking distance.
The Sparks got most of their offensive production from their starting frontcourt, with the offense initially waking up when Candace Parker started to take over in the second quarter. Some fairly pathetic turnovers from the Liberty helped as well, but it was Parker’s ability to grab rebounds or loose balls and immediately turn up-court and create quick offense that spurred LA on and pushed them into a nine-point halftime lead. Then it was Jantel Lavender going shot-for-shot with Charles in the third quarter that carried LA’s offense for a long stretch, either finishing efficiently in the lane or hitting from mid-range with her standard consistency. And she was doing all that with Charles as her primary defender, while Tina was answering at the other end over a variety of opponents, mostly with the spinning jump hook that she often resorts to in order to score before extra defenders arrive.
Behind that offense from Charles, New York managed to pull within two points late in the third quarter, but it had become glaringly obvious that Charles was the only reliable option that New York had left. Cappie Pondexter had been ineffective all night, failing to score a single point on five attempts from the field, and never came back in after subbing out three minutes into the third quarter. The MSG network were utterly useless in providing any information as to exactly why New York’s star guard and leader wasn’t playing, but the achilles problem she’s been fighting through for quite some time seemed the likely culprit. With the Sparks able to collapse even more defenders and attention on Charles than they’d been doing for the rest of the game, New York’s offense collapsed entirely in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t get her the ball, and when they did and multiple defenders forced the ball back out, no one could make a shot for the Liberty – or even seemed to want to take one. The Sparks’ offense also devolved in the fourth quarter, with a lot of one-on-one play and minimal ball movement, but with the Liberty only scoring four points in the entire period, it was still more than enough for LA to coast home.
Key Players: Parker, Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike were once again the most effective parts of LA’s offense, although the guards did manage to hit a few shots here and there to provide some balance. Credit the team defense for playing its part in keeping New York’s non-Charles pieces quiet, and forcing some of the demoralising turnovers that eventually finished off the Liberty. But New York gave up many of those in ways that didn’t have a great deal to do with LA.
Charles finished 10-17 for 20 points and eight boards, carrying New York’s offense for long stretches on her own. You can’t really blame her for continuing to call her own number when she was virtually the only one producing, but failing to attempt a single free throw illustrates the way jumpers and fading hooks produced much of her offense, which doesn’t tend to draw fouls. And maybe another pass or two away from the LA defenders would’ve kept her teammates more involved and more likely to keep helping her out as the game wore on. But that’s probably a vain hope. No one else in a Liberty jersey looked like they were going to score in the second half.
Notes of Interest: Cash looked frisky in her opening moments in a Liberty uniform, which surprisingly came as early as the first quarter. Clearly her familiarity with the sets and plays Laimbeer likes to run from their Detroit days made him more willing to throw her into the fray than he had been with new signings like Shanece McKinney and Charde Houston earlier in the season.
In news of another player we haven’t seen much of this season, Candice Wiggins looks mobile and lively after returning from her knee injury, but her shot looks painfully flat and isn’t even coming close to going in. Hopefully it’ll improve once she gets her legs under her again, because LA really don’t need another perimeter player who can’t shoot, even if she’s a reasonably active defender.
Lineups: Both teams started the groups we’ve seen in their recent games. The news on San Antonio sixth woman Jia Perkins is that her hamstring injury will keep her out at least until the All-Star break, at which point she’ll be reassessed. It looked pretty bad when she pulled up lame against Atlanta, so it’s not really a surprise that it’s proven to be a relatively serious injury. San Antonio have done a good job of surviving without her – winning four of five since she went down – but this was one game where it finally felt like they missed her contributions.
Story of the Game: The first quarter stayed fairly even, with a brief early lead for San Antonio developing when the game strayed into becoming a jump-shooting contest, but Seattle doing enough to quickly pull it back. Then the Storm started to pull away in the second quarter, with Shekinna Stricklen providing the impetus. Stricklen’s a frustrating player, because she’s got all the attributes – size, range, mobility, good speed, a reasonable handle – and occasionally she has breakout games like this. She’ll hit a bunch of threes, leak out on the break for transition finishes, make some hustle plays for rebounds or steals, and get everyone excited for the one hint of youthful potential on Seattle’s roster. And then she’ll disappear into obscurity for three weeks’ worth of games and we’ll all forget she exists again. Performances like she produced in this game on a regular basis would make her an all-star, or at the very least a building block for Seattle’s future. Doing it once every two or three weeks just makes you tantalising and often distinctly disappointing.
But for this particular game, San Antonio couldn’t cover her and looked distinctly lifeless in coming up with an answer in the second and third quarters. The Stars lost any momentum in the second quarter when their bench players came in, and without the likes of Danielle Robinson, Danielle Adams and Jayne Appel on the floor they stopped moving the ball as smoothly as we’d seen in many of their recent games. Already trailing by 12 at halftime, the gap swelled to 19 in the third quarter when no one in a Stars jersey could hit a shot, and that was essentially that. When Shameka Christon and Shenise Johnson hit a few perimeter jumpers early in the fourth there was some brief concern that the Storm might manage to blow a huge lead, but it never really looked likely. San Antonio just didn’t have it in them to fight back.
Key Players: Stricklen’s first half explosion was the vital contribution for Seattle, although they shot 55% as a team and kept the offense flowing when she cooled off. Camille Little and Crystal Langhorne both produced points in the paint and hit from outside, while six different Storm players made at least one three. It was a surprisingly effective night for the Storm, and shockingly comfortable against an opponent who’d been playing much better than them of late. The team defense chasing around the various San Antonio shooters did a decent job of challenging everything and forcing the Stars into misses as well.
No one from San Antonio stood out, which was part of the problem. Usually they have enough weapons that someone – or hopefully two or three someones – will step up and lead the way, but everyone stayed fairly quiet until it barely mattered in the fourth quarter.
Notes of Interest: Jayne Appel’s been looking to score a little more in recent games. Only a tiny bit more, but at least when she’s utterly alone 10 feet from the basket she’s looking to put the ball in the hoop now. It’d be nice if she could become some kind of threat, so that opponents at least have to make some kind of pretense towards guarding her.
Lineups: Chicago moved Sylvia Fowles back into the starting lineup after the bizarre and pointless experiment of bringing her off the bench behind Sasha Goodlett lasted for two games. They continue to try to work things out without star forward Elena Delle Donne and point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Phoenix were unchanged, as you’d expect from a team that had won their last eight in a row. They had an extra body available off the bench, with backup center Ewelina Kobryn back from her ankle injury.
Story of the Game: Considering recent history, this was a shockingly close game, with the Sky managing to limit the hottest team in the league to a significant degree. The defensive matchups from Chicago from the start of the game were surprising, with Jamierra Faulkner on Diana Taurasi, Epiphanny Prince on Penny Taylor, and usual defensive ‘stopper’ Tamera Young covering DeWanna Bonner. Most teams hide their weakest perimeter defender on Bonner, so it was unusual way to line up, but it seemed to have the desired effect. Bonner was actually more aggressive than usual offensively in the first half, but Taylor didn’t manage to exploit her size advantage over Prince, and Taurasi had a relatively quiet evening as a scorer.
The highlight matchup was Fowles against Brittney Griner in the paint, and largely speaking defense won for both of them in the first half. Both teams resisted sending help as much as possible, but the size and physicality of Fowles forced misses from Griner when she tried to score inside, while Griner had a couple of blocks and generally sent back a lot more than Fowles managed to get past her. But it was thoroughly entertaining watching them battle it out, and seeing someone like Fowles be entirely unafraid to take it right at Brittney.
Phoenix struggled all night to find their usual offensive flow. Everything seemed more difficult, from hitting shots outside to finishing in the paint. Obviously Fowles’s interior defense had a lot to do with the latter problem, and Chicago are starting to return to the defensive level they had in previous years with her in the middle. Her teammates have to adapt to how they can play with her behind them, and they’re getting there.
But Chicago didn’t have a lot of offense either. There was only one point between the teams at halftime, and Fowles had a run of successful finishes around the basket early in the second half, but apart from Faulkner producing some points with her speed in transition there wasn’t a lot else. If there had been, they might’ve been able to pull away from the Mercury and prevent what happened as the second half wore on.
Because the Mercury have a lot of weapons, and it’s hard to keep them in check for an entire 40 minutes. Eventually Taurasi will force her way to the free throw line, or Candice Dupree will make one of her mid-range jump shots, or Taylor will fire a three, or Griner will be just too big in the paint – and all of those played their part in helping Phoenix inch ahead. Chicago weren’t helped by a run of fouls called on Fowles in the third quarter, mostly while she battled Griner in the paint, before picking up her fifth in the final seconds of the third on a hard hedge against Taurasi 40 feet from the basket. Fowles knew how dumb it had been the second she did it, and had to sit out the opening five minutes of the fourth as a result.
But the Sky still had a chance in the closing moments. With two minutes left they had the ball, trailing by four points – and then Allie Quigley had an excruciating couple of minutes. She fired a brick on a possession where Fowles never touched the ball despite begging for it inside; a turnover on a lazy pass across the top of the arc that was picked off for a breakaway layup by Dupree; another turnover on an unnecessarily dangerous pass when Prince had forced a transition chance that briefly gave Chicago fresh hope; and then topped it off with another awful pass on an inbounds play that she got away with thanks to an officiating mess. The loss wasn’t her fault by any means, but Quigley made the mistakes that ended the Sky’s chances in the final stages.
Key Players: All five of Phoenix’s starters scored in double-digits without any of them playing particularly well. It was one of those performances that inevitably pulls up the old cliché that “the sign of a great team is being able to win even when you’re not playing at your best”. The Mercury gutted it out, and got that win.
Prince shot 1-14 for Chicago, which was a big problem for them. When you’re down to two stars, and one of them goes cold all night long, it’s hard to survive. The performance of Fowles in the paint against one of her toughest opponents was impressive and promising for her continuing recovery from hip surgery, and Faulkner’s speed and ability to beat defenders off the dribble continues to be fun to watch. She’s still learning how to be a pro point guard – some of her decision-making is suspect at times, which leads to some bad shots and a few turnovers – but for a rookie point guard they found late in the third round, she’s proving to be an absolute steal.
Notes of Interest: Jessica Breland took all of three shots all night, and was benched in favour of playing Tamera Young as an undersized power forward with Quigley as an extra wing down the stretch. Considering how well Breland’s played for most of the season, Pokey Chatman needs to find ways to utilise both Breland and Fowles rather than marginalising one in the effort to force the ball to the other. With Big Syl inside and Breland stretching the floor with her mid-range game, they ought to be able to balance each other nicely. It didn’t happen in this game.
Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Washington @ Tulsa, 8pm ET