New York Liberty 84 @ Seattle Storm 80 (OT)
Lineups: Sue Bird was a late scratch for Seattle after coming out to try to warm up but being ruled out with a neck strain. Temeka Johnson stepped in to start in her place. Shekinna Stricklen retained her spot at small forward, suggesting that move was about more than just matching Phoenix’s size in the Storm’s previous game. New York opened with the same group as usual.
Story of the Game: Seattle got off to a great start, attacking the basket through Crystal Langhorne and Camille Little in the paint, with New York giving up a string of cheap turnovers and looking a little tired after their exertions the night before in Los Angeles. Defensively, Seattle inevitably leaned plenty of help towards Tina Charles and Cappie Pondexter, with many of Charles’s early efforts coming from outside the paint.
But as the first half wore on, Seattle didn’t manage to roll that start on into a significant advantage. New York got a boost from their reserves, with Plenette Pierson and especially Sugar Rodgers picking up the offensive slack. Rodgers remains a livewire option for the Liberty off the bench, whose quickness and offensive aggression can give them a real shot in the arm on certain nights. This was one of those nights. Seattle’s offense increasingly drifted away from the basket, disappointingly. In fairness to them, they shot well from three-point range with Stricklen leading the way, stretching out New York’s defense and taking the looks that were on offer when the Liberty sagged into the paint. But the Storm had done such an impressive job of shifting New York’s defense early on and using their skilled interior players to get high-percentage shots. It seemed like they went away from that without any real need to. But 45 points in a half is an astronomical amount for the slow-paced, low-scoring Storm, so the combination was working. It was just that they’d given up 41, so they weren’t exactly in total control.
Seattle used Little and Langhorne popping into space and hitting from the perimeter to break ahead again by nine points in the third quarter, but it was a short-lived advantage. Cappie Pondexter had shaken off the cobwebs, benefitting from a couple of second-chance opportunities when Seattle conceded offensive rebounds, and then started to attack more off the dribble. The Storm contained Charles in the second half, with their physical defense inside making her miss or keeping the ball away from her in the first place. But Pondexter compensated, with Rodgers continuing to play a strong sidekick role. Temeka Johnson used her speed to take Anna Cruz apart whenever the Spanish guard was on the floor, so Rodgers increasingly took the backcourt minutes instead.
With all the threes Seattle had jacked up – and almost invariably missed in the second half – the Storm took advantage of the Liberty expecting them to pop outside a couple of times down the stretch, with both Stricklen and Tanisha Wright faking outside and then cutting behind the defense. A Wright free throw on the second play gave the Storm a two-point lead with under a minute left in regulation. New York ran a set designed to feed Charles in the paint, but great denial from Little inside stopped to entry pass and eventually led to a Rodgers turnover. Noelle Quinn missed a jumper on a messy Storm possession that followed, giving the Liberty another chance with 18 seconds left in regulation. A triple-screen for Pondexter saw her curl around to receive the pass, with Wright right on her heels regardless of the picks. But Cappie faded away, and tossed up a fadeaway rainbow that dropped in and tied the game. Little couldn’t convert a fadeaway in the lane for Seattle, before Pondexter and Charles both missed in the final few seconds to send the game to overtime.
Seattle were still settling for a lot of perimeter jumpers in OT, but Little and Wright hit one apiece to give them a three-point lead. The defensive attention being sent at Pondexter and Charles left Alex Montgomery wide open for a pair of threes, and one miss and one make left the game tied. With a minute left in the extra period, just as a mild diversion from the process of trying to win the game, Temeka Johnson rebounded a Pierson miss for her tenth board of the night – completing the fifth triple-double in WNBA regular season history (sixth overall, including the playoffs). But impressive as that was, everyone was still worrying about the result. Wright missed a layup for Seattle on the possession that followed, looking for contact inside and missing the finish as a result. Pondexter did something similar at the other end, using a staggered screen to get in the paint, but blowing the finish. Unfortunately for the Storm, Charles was there to grab the offensive rebound and drop in the putback to put New York in front.
Seattle had a couple of chances to extend the game even further. They tried to go inside to Langhorne, who was blocked off by the defense and kicked the ball to Wright for a short jumper, which missed. After a jump ball was won by Seattle, they went to Langhorne in the paint again, and a right-handed hook came up just short. After a timeout, Pondexter slid behind the Storm defense on the inbounds play for a layup to ice the game.
Key Players: This was a gutsy win for New York on the second-half of a road back-to-back, against a Storm team that played pretty decent basketball for most of the night. Charles in the first half and Pondexter in the second were the primary weapons, with Rodgers as an invaluable extra option. Coming into the last couple of nights, New York were 1-8 on the road this season, so it indicates a team that’s still fighting and still thinks it can make something out of their 2014 season. Heading to Phoenix on Saturday, and then an East Coast road swing after just one game back home, it doesn’t get any easier. But this is a good start.
You could argue the Liberty have had things made easier for them with the absences of Candace Parker and then Sue Bird in their last two games, but Johnson was a more-than-adequate replacement for the Storm. She makes them a little quicker and more aggressive just by virtue of how she plays, and with 13 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, she showed that she can still be a starting point guard in this league when the opportunity presents itself. Langhorne and Little were the two major scorers for the Storm on the night, and it was nice to see them show up for the same game for once – it’s usually been one or the other this season, rarely both. But their shots increasingly came from distance as the game wore on, and Seattle stopped hitting in the second half. Eventually that came back to haunt them.
Notes of Interest: Ironically, Tina Charles was on-court for the WNBA’s first official triple-double since 2005. She had one taken away a couple of years ago after the video was reviewed and her actual statistics dipped well below 10 assists. Johnson’s numbers were legitimate, rather than the product of a friendly home-town scorer.
Phoenix Mercury 93 @ Los Angeles Sparks 73
Lineups: Penny Toler’s baptism of fire as a head coach continued with the arrival of the hottest team in the WNBA, but at least she had her superstar back. Candace Parker had recovered sufficiently from the knee strain that made her miss the game the previous night against New York, and took her regular spot in the lineup back from Armintie Herrington. Phoenix went for 14 straight with the same starting five that brought them the previous 13.
Story of the Game: The scoreboard started to look painfully lopsided very, very quickly in this one. Phoenix just blew LA away in the opening minutes. They went inside to Griner for points that were far too easy deep in the paint; Penny Taylor attacked and scored over or past Parker; DeWanna Bonner had one of her more aggressive and effective quarters of the season, exploiting the smaller defenders LA always use on her, and running the floor hard to finish Phoenix’s transition chances. She even hit a pair of threes once she’d found her rhythm inside. Basically Phoenix were playing with confidence and rhythm that the Sparks could only dream of this season, and the Mercury led by as many as 19 in the opening period.
LA were trying to go to Parker in the paint, and occasionally it worked. It looked like there was an emphasis on trying to get her inside, rather than creating everything from the perimeter, but it was virtually irrelevant. LA couldn’t get any stops, so their offense became insignificant.
Kristi Toliver made a couple of plays in the second quarter that seemed like they were giving LA a foothold in the game, before more ball movement and attacking from the Mercury blew the game open even further, with Diana Taurasi joining in the scoring barrage. Phoenix had 61 at halftime, led by 25, and we had a massacre on our hands.
To the credit of the Sparks, they didn’t quit in the second half. They benefitted from Phoenix relaxing a little too much, and Griner picking up her fourth foul in the first minute of the third quarter, sending the heart of the Mercury defense to the bench. LA even crept within 12 points late in the third on a Candice Wiggins three, after the entire team had produced better defensive energy and Nneka Ogwumike had led them back within range. But with Griner back on the floor, a legitimate comeback to make the game a contest never actually felt like it was going to happen. Phoenix reasserted themselves early in the fourth, and coasted home for the win. LA’s second half performance kept the final score from looking too embarrassing, but this was basically a heavy blowout.
Key Players: The collective play of Phoenix’s starting five continues to overwhelm a lot of opponents. They can score from anywhere, in a variety of different ways, and LA were just the latest to capitulate. Bonner had the highest scoring total, but all five finished in double-figures. Taurasi didn’t even shoot well at all, and the Mercury ran roughshod over LA regardless.
Ogwumike was LA’s best player, with her second half production suggesting that whatever inspirational speech Toler trotted out during the halftime break might’ve reached her. Parker looked to score all night almost every time she touched the ball, being less of a passer than we’ve seen for much of the season. And when LA did try to run sets there were some mystifying choices, with attempts at their regular high-low big-to-big passes that are incredibly difficult to complete against the size and length of Phoenix. You need to come up with something smarter to beat the Mercury these days.
Notes of Interest: Shay Murphy slid into the back of Lindsey Harding’s knee late in the third quarter when trying to come up with a steal. Harding limped off the floor and then back to the locker room, and never returned. The game was over, so there was no need to push her back in, but hopefully it wasn’t too serious.
Tulsa @ Washington, 7pm ET. Quick-hit previews tonight as the games are about to begin as I type. Washington stuffed Tulsa when they met earlier this season, because the Mystics managed to stifle Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims, and then hit a few threes. If they shoot reasonably well again, Washington’s defense should be good enough to hold up against the Shock.
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. Atlanta made hard work of beating the Sky a couple of weeks ago, but Allie Quigley and Tamera Young shot unsustainably well to keep that game alive. With Sylvia Fowles in the middle it takes away some of the things Atlanta like to do, but they’re likely to have too much for Chicago again.
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. Becky Hammon’s first game since announcing her retirement, and Astou Ndour’s first game since signing with the Stars, both of which make the game extra-interesting for San Antonio. For Minnesota, it could well be their first game all season with their entire roster available, with Seimone Augustus expected to return from her knee problem. That makes Minnesota strong favourites for the game, against a San Antonio team that usually can’t quite keep up with Minnesota’s weapons.