Day 2 of the WNBA Playoffs.
by Clay Kallam
After watching Atlanta try to give away a game by shooting free throws like a junior high team, and Seattle out-thug Los Angeles, day two of the WNBA Playoffs will begin with a little déjà vu when defense-minded Indiana tries to slow down New York.
The Fever have always been known as a team that is most comfortable winning 62-59, and now that it’s playoff time, expect Indiana to bump, grind and pretty much physically assault all comers. It won’t be great TV, but it will be effective basketball.
The second game, though, will have a much different character. The Phoenix Mercury have never played much defense, but this might be their worst defensive team ever. Of course, when you average 93.9 ppg (in 40 minutes, mind you, not 48 as in the NBA), there are ways to win without bothering to slow the opposition down.
Indiana (21-13, third) vs. New York (22-12, second), Thursday, 7 p.m., NBA TV: At the start of the season, Indiana was considered a clear favorite to win the East – and given a solid shot at winning its first WNBA title. New York? Not so much.
Now, though, Cappie Pondexter leads the surging Liberty, who not only look like the class of the East, but right now, the best team in the league. Though it starts with Pondexter, a serious MVP candidate despite her missing devotion to defense, ageless post Taj McWilliams-Franklin has been a steady contributor at both ends of the floor despite her lack of size. Add in the improved almost to the point of non-recognition Leilani Mitchell, Tulsa theft Plenette Pierson and rookie Kalana Greene, and coach Anne Donovan has had plenty to work with.
Lately, Nicole Powell has relocated her jump shot, which opens things up for Pondexter and McWilliams-Franklin, and though Janel McCarville hasn’t played as well as she has in the past, she’s been at least adequate.
On the other side, Indiana also brings its superstar, Tamika Catchings, whose case for MVP is stronger than Pondexter’s. Catchings doesn’t quite score as much but despite being a forward, her A/TO is only marginally worse than Pondexter’s – and her defense is off-the-charts better, plus she rebounds more.
But Catchings’ frontcourt partners, especially power forward Ebony Hoffman, have not been stellar, and though Katie Douglas remains an elite wing, the point guard combo of veteran Tully Bevilaqua and youngster Briann January has not been as good as expected.
And even Indiana’s gift from Nolan Richardson, Shavonte Zellous, has not done as much as her New York counterpart, which leads to the easy conclusion that the Liberty should roll through to the Eastern Conference finals. They might, of course, but don’t think it will be easy. There’s this part of the game called defense, and there’s a reason people claim that the Playoffs are less about offense than the regular season.
Because I have to pick, I’m going with New York in three – but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Indiana locks down the Liberty, and grinds out a couple ugly wins. My favorite scenario: Game 3, Indiana up 1, with 15 seconds left. New York gives the ball to Cappie, the best late-game scorer in women’s basketball, and Indiana has Catchings, the best defender in women’s basketball, try to stop her.
San Antonio (14-20, third) vs. Phoenix (15-19, second), Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN2: The powers-that-be got this one right, because if nothing else, Phoenix is great TV – and the team the league wants on ESPN2. First, the Mercury score a ton of points and play no defense, meaning the other team puts up big numbers as well. Second, the combustible Diana Taurasi could go off at any moment, scoring 40 or elbowing an innocent bystander or swearing at a ref.
Of course, the downside is that Phoenix really isn’t that good this year, as the 15-19 record attests. Sure, Taurasi is great (22.6 ppg) and Penny Taylor might even be better (15.9 ppg, 50.9 percent shooting, 44.2 percent from beyond the arc, 5.0 apg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 spg). Candice Dupree never misses, it seems (66.4 percent) and DeWanna Bonner should be Sixth Man of the Year. Kara Braxton, yet another entrant in the Tulsa exodus, adds height and bulk, and Temeka Johnson is an undersized but reasonably effective point guard.
The hidden weakness, though, is turnovers. The Paul Westhead, uptempo system, is designed to get off shots quickly to minimize turnovers, but the Mercury haven’t been able to avoid giving the ball up. Couple that with weak rebounding and poor defense and you have, well, a 15-19 team.
San Antonio, of course, was even worse (14-20), and though the Silver Stars played with some pride to get into the Playoffs, the loss of Chamique Holdsclaw to an Achilles’ tear pretty much did in their hopes of beating Phoenix. Now, it all rides on aging Becky Hammon and smooth Sophia Young, with occasional help from Michelle Snow, and that’s simply not enough.
The Phoenix run-and-gun style will wear down the thin Silver Stars, who must get outstanding series from both Roneeka Hodges and Edwige Lawson-Wade to have any chance. The return of Ruth Riley helps a little, but as long as Sandy Brondello has to play Helen Darling (30.0 percent shooting) 11.8 mpg, San Antonio is just not talented enough.
This could go three, but a Phoenix sweep is certainly possible – and in fact, likely.