Lineups: Kelsey Griffin was out for Connecticut with what was listed as a left ankle problem in the box score, although on a Washington broadcast we received no details on the injury. So after a couple of games coming off the bench, Kelsey Bone moved back into the starting lineup almost by default. As an extra option to help fill the hole left by Griffin, Ebony Hoffman was available in a Sun uniform for the first time after recently being signed to replace Kelley Cain. Washington started what’s become their regular starting five, and had Kara Lawson available again off the bench after missing a couple of games due to a back problem.
Story of the Game: Monique Currie was hot early for the Mystics, and between her and Ivory Latta the basic element of hitting some outside shots made Washington’s offense run a lot more smoothly. Unfortunately, they lost Currie for a while after she was chopped on a drive and had to receive treatment. She came back, but had to play the remainder of the game with heavy strapping around the thumb on her shooting hand.
Neither side managed to maintain control of the game for very long in the first half. Connecticut were trying to push the ball whenever they could, as usual, and a run of offensive boards late in the half for Bone and Chiney Ogwumike pulled them even on the scoreboard. Turnovers became an issue for Washington as the half wore on, but they shot well enough to mitigate it and the game was tied at 38-38 at the interval.
The third quarter was more of the same – offensive boards for Connecticut giving them easy second-chances inside, but with Washington clawing their way to enough points to always keep the game close, and the score still tied heading to the fourth. Then in the final period, one team finally managed to separate themselves. Latta led the way for the Mystics, hitting a couple of shots but also injecting the energy, passion and enthusiasm that the game had lacked for most of the afternoon. Then the post combination of Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson took over the scoring load, with Meesseman’s vision and passing helping find Dolson inside to finish plays and produce the points. Washington scored 10 straight in the middle of the fourth in the space of less than two minutes, turning a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead, and that essentially decided the game. Connecticut couldn’t find any way to answer, the gap crept to double-digits, and the contest was over.
Key Players: Currie had one of those strong games that she pulls out of the bag every now and then, which are nice to see, but also frustrating because they make you wish they occurred more consistently. In fairness to her, she’s had several effective performances recently, and bounced back from an early-season slump where she couldn’t buy a basket. Latta finished 9-14 from the field, including 5-7 from beyond the arc, playing a key role for the Mystics as well. She might’ve made the All-Star team (via a ludicrous replacement choice), but she hasn’t played like one for most of the year. They need at least one of Latta, Lawson or Bria Hartley to be making shots on any given night to win games. Meesseman and Dolson came through late, even if Washington got killed on the offensive glass for most of the game.
Connecticut are a bad road team. There’s just no getting around that, with their record away from the Mohegan Sun dropping to 3-10 this season, and they’ve fallen down the standings ever since their schedule evened up and forced them to play away from home more. Ogwumike and Bone gave them a chance inside in this one, and Alex Bentley made some shots from the perimeter, but they couldn’t finish the game out in the fourth quarter. Which isn’t much of a surprise, considering how often that’s happened in previous games this year.
Notes of Interest: In a tightly compacted Eastern Conference, this win could be important for the Mystics beyond the single victory. It was their third over the Sun this season in three encounters, with two more left to be played, so they’ve already sewn up the tie-breaker over Connecticut should they be tied at the end of the season. With five teams fighting for three postseason spots in the East, picking up wins over any of those rivals is going to be especially important down the stretch.
Lineups: The big news around the Sparks all week had been Carol Ross’s firing as head coach, and coaching novice Penny Toler adding that job to her general manager responsibilities. But the headline item before tip-off in Toler’s coaching debut was that superstar Candace Parker was a late scratch due to a left knee strain. The conspiracy theorist in the back of my head forces me to mention that it’s a hell of a coincidence that Parker’s first missed game of the year would come in the first game after a coaching change. But she was on the sidelines cheering the team on, so maybe she really did just tweak her knee. Even ignoring the new leadership, it’s a horrible time for an injury to their star, considering this started a run of five games in seven days for LA (including two against league leaders Phoenix). Hopefully she’ll recover quickly. Armintie Herrington came into the starting lineup as Parker’s replacement, with the other four starters remaining the same as in recent games under Ross.
New York had their regular starting five in place. Speedy guard Natasha Lacy made her debut in a Liberty uniform after recently being signed to a seven-day contract.
Story of the Game: There weren’t many conspicuous differences to how Los Angeles played under Toler, which is hardly a surprise considering she’s only been in charge for a couple of days. Also Gary Kloppenburg, an assistant who’s been there all season, seemed to be doing a lot of the actual coaching. Toler mostly appears to be there to act as a glorified cheerleader, and provide the typical ra-ra speeches.
It was also difficult to decipher what might’ve been coaching changes, and what was caused simply by the absence of Parker. She’s such a central cog to everything LA do that removing her from the equation changes a lot. The Sparks were trying to push the ball at every opportunity as usual, and were effective in the first half when they went to Nneka Ogwumike or Jantel Lavender inside, but they also tossed up far too many mid-range jump shots, and missed a lot of them. Then several sloppy, unnecessary turnovers became a problem as the half wore on.
But New York weren’t exactly taking LA apart. Tina Charles was virtually their only reliable offensive weapon, and even she was doing much of her work on jumpers or fadeaways, or chasing down scraps off the boards. Cappie Pondexter was virtually anonymous in the first half, no one else stepped up to score, so LA held a narrow lead at halftime.
The one advantage for LA that resulted from Parker’s injury was that Herrington was on the floor from the start to take on the responsibility of guarding Pondexter. But in the second half, Cappie woke up a little and started to make the Liberty a two-woman show, rather than leaving Charles to do all the work on her own. Pondexter was using high screens to shed Herrington, and then attacking off the dribble past the remainder of LA’s defense. It worked several times. Meanwhile LA struggled to score for much of the third quarter, with Ogwumike and Lavender missing too many layups inside. Kristi Toliver – who appeared to have an even greener light to fire at will under Toler than she had from Ross – helped keep them afloat, but was also suffering from a little foul trouble.
The game was still tight in the fourth, and had become a war of attrition. Both teams were just trying to gut it out and hold on, with little flow to the action. Pondexter came up gimpy on another drive around a high pick early in the period, and subbed out, but was quickly back into the fray. In the final couple of minutes, she hit a pair of huge pullup jumpers over the LA defense. Charles added an offensive rebound and putback, then an elbow jumper of her own with barely a minute left for a four-point Liberty lead.
LA still had chances in the final seconds. They were settling for jumpers against New York’s collapsing defense, and failing to hit many, with Lavender blocked by Charles when she grabbed an offensive board for a rare chance in the paint. But Ogwumike hit a baseline jumper with 14 seconds left, and Plenette Pierson missed a pair at the line to open the door for LA. Out of timeouts, the Sparks pushed the ball and Toliver had a good look at a three for the lead. In previous years it might’ve dropped, but the way things have gone for LA this season it inevitably drifted long and bounced off the rim. Lavender could’ve sent the game to overtime with the putback that followed, but she missed as well and LA had lost another close game – just like they’d done for much of the year under Carol Ross.
Key Players: Charles was the central figure for New York, finishing the game 12-22 for 31 points and 15 rebounds. A lot of her touches came in the mid-post or high-post areas, which resulted in shots from further out than New York might’ve wanted. But obviously she hit several of them, and it made the decisions to double-team or rotate more awkward for LA. If she catches it deep, near the rim, everyone’s coming down to stop her; if she’s a little further out, the decision becomes more complicated. Considering the lack of help she received from her teammates during the game, more defenders probably should’ve swarmed to her more often for LA. Pondexter made big shots down the stretch, even if she struggled at times earlier on. She’s gutting through games, and sometimes it’s visibly difficult, but they wouldn’t have won this without what she managed to offer.
LA were led by Ogwumike and Lavender, but they were much less effective in the second half. Toliver hit a few shots from outside to help out, and had a couple of nifty drives, but they obviously missed Parker enormously. New York are one of the better defensive teams in the WNBA, and they dragged the Sparks into their kind of game, and eventually inched out the win. It still feels like LA’s participation in the playoffs is largely dependent on the ineptitude of Seattle and Tulsa continuing to prop them up, rather than their own potential improvement. There weren’t many signs of the team being energised by the new leader and stepping up their play to impress her – or to help her keep her job.
New York @ Seattle, 10pm ET. Back-to-backs can’t be a lot of fun for players like Pondexter (fighting through pain) and Charles (carrying a very heavy load). The Storm had the displeasure of being beaten by Phoenix on Tuesday, but at least they’ve been sleeping in their own beds and had 24 extra hours of rest while they waited for the Liberty to arrive. With Tanisha Wright tracking Pondexter, and every other Storm player on the floor swamping Charles, someone else in a Liberty jersey is probably going to have to make some shots to beat the Storm. Seattle actually produced some useful offense against the Mercury a couple of nights ago, so if they can bring that out again they might have a decent chance.
Phoenix @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. Just what you want on the second half of a back-to-back after a dispiriting loss to begin your coaching career – a visit from the best team in the league on a 13-game winning streak. If Parker’s out again, LA might struggle to still be in this at halftime. Phoenix are playing with such confidence, and moving the ball so sweetly, that their offense is likely to pick the Sparks apart, especially if LA are tired and playing without their star. With Brittney Griner waiting in the paint for Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, expect to see lots of mid-range shots from the LA posts, and expect LA to need something like 30 points from Kristi Toliver to stand a chance.