Insider Preview: Storm vs. New York
Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com
The WNBA's Olympic Break gave struggling teams a chance to hit reset on their seasons and try again with the benefit of a second training camp. No team has taken more advantage than the New York Liberty, which stumbled into the break with a 6-12 team that seemed to portend a lottery finish. Not so fast. The Liberty has been a different team since play resumed last week, winning three of their first four games to vault past the Chicago Sky and into the fourth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Despite last night's loss at L.A., New York has a half-game lead over the reeling Sky, which has lost nine games in a row.
"Since the break we've been playing better because we got everyone healthy and we've been able to practice with healthy people," Head Coach John Whisenant told reporters after Thursday's win at Phoenix. "And we've been making shots. Coaching is a lot easier when we make shots."
Because the Liberty did not have any representatives in the Olympics, the team had the luxury of practicing with a full roster over the break. (Tulsa and Washington were the other teams with 11-player rosters, though the Shock will eventually integrate Liz Cambage after her return from Australia.)
Star Cappie Pondexter was arguably the top American talent who stayed home from London, and the break seems to have served her especially well. Through Thursday, Pondexter had averaged 23.4 points in New York's five games since the break, making 12 three-pointers in 28 attempts. Strong finishes are nothing new for Pondexter, who turned up her game down the stretch in 2010, making a push for MVP honors that ultimately fell short and leading the Liberty to the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference.
New York is too far back to make that kind of run, but the Liberty could realistically finish as high as third in the Eastern Conference. Currently, Atlanta is 2.5 games ahead of New York.
Besides Pondexter, New York has also gotten strong shooting from point guard Leilani Mitchell (12-23, 52.1 percent) and small forward Nicole Powell (7-20, 35 percent), the latter of whom struggled badly before the break. As a team, the Liberty had made an impressive 43.8 percent of its three attempts before slumping Saturday.
Three-point shooting opens up the floor for Pondexter's drives and the Liberty's post players, who are healthy after battling injuries before the break. Starting center Kia Vaughn missed three games due to a concussion and forward Plenette Pierson sat out eight games with a left knee strain. Pierson has looked back to 100 percent since the break, averaging 15.8 points per game on 49.0 percent shooting.
Add it up and New York's Offensive Rating improved by an incredible 13.4 points per 100 possessions in the first four games since the Olympic Break. The Liberty had also gotten better at the defensive end, allowing 6.6 fewer points per 100 possessions. New York's defensive slide during the first half of the season was hard to explain because the team brought back the same personnel from last year's squad that ranked third in the league in defense. So the Liberty may have been due for a turnaround at some point no matter what.
One of New York's best defensive performances came in a 77-59 home win over the Storm on June 30. The Storm managed just 23 points in the first half and never got back in the game. As compared to then, the Storm should have more options offensively this time around. Lauren Jackson figures to be closer to her usual self with a game behind her, and the Storm could get forward Tina Thompson and center Ann Wauters back in the lineup to add depth in the frontcourt. Both players practiced Saturday and are considered game-time decisions tonight. Back in June, rookie Shekinna Stricklen was struggling. Now she's playing some of her best basketball. Stricklen has averaged 10.5 points per game since the Olympic Break.
|Essence Carson often looms large against the Storm. Last season, Carson was involved in the final play of both games between the two teams. She had the game-saving block at New York and was stripped by Sue Bird as time ran out in Seattle. Earlier this season, Carson scored a game-high 22 points. With Tanisha Wright busy checking Pondexter, the Storm will call on Katie Smith to deal with the athletic Carson. Fortunately, Carson has not been a key part of the Liberty's second-half surge. She's made just five of her 16 three-point attempts (31.3 percent).|
The Storm's five-game winning streak came to an end Saturday at the Prudential Center with a 77-59 loss to New York. Turnovers - 25 of them in all, the most the team has had since Opening Night - proved costly for the Storm throughout. In the first half, the Storm also shot just 21.9 percent from the field. Good defense kept the Storm within striking distance, but as the Seattle offense picked up, so too did the Liberty's. The teams traded points in the third quarter before New York pulled away late, finishing the game with a 10-2 run.
No Storm player was able to find a consistent rhythm on offense. Thompson and Ann Wauters led the team with 10 points apiece, the lowest total for a leading scorer this season. Wauters was the only Storm starter to make half her shots. The Storm particularly struggled from downtown, making four of 22 attempts to tie a season low for accuracy (18.2 percent). Carson scored a season-high 22 points for the Liberty, and Pondexter added 20.
Storm - Forward Tina Thompson (sprained left knee) is probable. Center Ann Wauters (strained left Achilles) is questionable.
New York - None.Comments blog comments powered by Disqus