Feature image photos: Ethan Miller/Getty Images // Matthew Stockman/ALLS
Heather: Natalie, hello! Another WNBA week has come to a close, inching us closer to the All-Star game! But before we get there, there’s so much regular action to get into. We were talking during that super intense Wings v. Fever game last night, which the Fever ended up losing by just a few points, and you mentioned you’d like to start there this week. Because what in the world is going on in Indiana?
Natalie: Heather! Always great to be back with you and talk about another week of WNBA action…except maybe in this case because I really don’t know what’s going on with the Indiana Fever? They showed so much promise early in the season…like, even if they were losing, it felt like they were on a trajectory of heading for better things…and now they’ve just fallen off completely. There seems to be some tension in the locker room — some players in their feelings about the success of Aliyah Boston (don’t @ me, Dijonai!) — and it’s not clear to me that Christie Sides has control of things. There have been moments recently where Sides just looks out of her depth…helpless almost…and she’s not able to get this team unified.
What have been your thoughts?
Heather: I am just as bamboozled as you are! I keep coming back to something you said early on this season, which is that losing so many close games, over and over and over, was going to wear the team down. Not just the Fever! Any team that keeps dropping two-point games, four-point games, night after night, week after week. It’s going to take its toll. You know, when you’re winning, it’s easy for everyone to get along, for everyone to buy into coaching decisions, for everyone to feel mostly okay with their role. Right, because you’re winning!
And while the Fever are still winning more than people expected, I think, they’re dropping a LOT of heartbreakers — and that’s when the cracks start to show. To your point, there’s been some gossip that NaLyssa Smith hasn’t been too happy with all the Aliyah Boston hype. Her mom got caught liking some tweets shading both Boston and Dawn Staley a couple of weeks ago. Her girlfriend, DiJonai Carrington (don’t @ Natalie, DiJonai!) kinda got involved on Twitter. Then, in a — to me, at least — shocking trade, the Fever gave up Queen Egbo for Amanda Zahui B, which is something I still don’t understand. So it seems like SOMETHING is going on in that locker room. And you’re right about Christie Sides, who is blinking even less than usual lately!
What do you think can stop this slide?
Natalie: So, before I answer that question, I want to take a moment to say: I think I can speak for us both when I say that we both love the game of basketball. We have our favorites and our…um…least favorites but we can still sit here and offer our critiques because we love the game more than we love any player, team or coach. You love the Liberty but you’re going to hold them accountable when they screw up…and, yes, I may not like Diana Taurasi but I have enough respect for her offensive game that she’s been on my fantasy team for the last two years. We’re basketball fans above all else.
Natalie: I say that because the people discounting the Aliyah Boston hype are convinced that people are just South Carolina stans…like we’re going to ride for Boston, no matter what, because she’s a Dawn Staley product…and while I acknowledge that there is some of that, especially on WNBA twitter, that’s not where we’re coming from. If she screws up, I’m gonna call her out on it but I don’t think she has…and so I’m going to contribute to the hype. Boston gets All Star votes from me because she’s doing things that we’ve never seen a rookie do. Stats don’t lie.
And I don’t know what’s going on in that locker room — who’s saying what or who’s contributing to the unease — but, in late game situations, you’ve seen the Fever seemingly purposefully keep the ball out of Boston’s hands. It’s ridiculous! And it’s getting to Boston mentally, too…because yesterday when she should’ve taken the last shot against Dallas, she passes it out to Lexie Hull on the wing for three. It’s shaking her confidence and it’s really sad to see because she’s a potential hall of fame talent.
Heather: Yep, there it is! That’s exactly it! My wife has been saying that Boston is not getting the ball in those situations, and at first, I was like, “Nah, that’s got to just be a coincidence” — but it does not seem that way anymore. It seems deliberate. There’s no world where Aliyah Boston should be passing the ball out of the paint. Not now, not ever. And there’s especially no world where she should be doing that at the end of a close game. I had an absolute fit when she passed that ball to Lexie last night! Not only was she in the paint, she was open, and she was getting calls! She’s an All-Star starter, she’s breaking records out here, and she didn’t feel like it was her place to take that shot that could have pushed the Fever past a team that beat the Aces this week!
What do I think the Fever have to do? Well, I know on paper, the Queen Egbo trade doesn’t make much sense but the Fever tweeted this out about Amanda Zahui B. yesterday:
— Indiana Fever (@IndianaFever) July 9, 2023
And I was like, “okay, this makes sense now.”
Heather: I hadn’t seen that quote — but THAT makes sense!
Natalie: I think Sides has to step up. This is a make or break moment for her as a coach and she has to do something…and if she’s not going to do something, Lin Dunn needs to find a new coach. If there are players whose conduct is detrimental to the team, she has to sit them. If I’m her, I’m calling Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper, and Sheryl Swoopes in to talk to the team about navigating difficult team dynamics….for a long time, the rumors were that the players on the Houston Comets didn’t like each other but when they stepped on the court, they created the WNBA’s first dynasty. Let that be a guide for navigating this situation and get back to competing.
Heather: That’s such good advice. And I think any of those three would be more than happy to get in there and work with them in that capacity. One thing about the veterans of the W is that they want to see these players succeed and shine — most of them are even happy to have these players breaking their own records, because it means the game is continuing to grow. Plus, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley are still very, very close, and Swoopes has made no secret about how hard she’s rooting for Boston. I keep thinking how badly I wish Aliyah had someone like A’ja Wilson was to Jackie Young last season, when she told her, “Just shoot it. What’s the worst that’s gonna happen? Who cares? Shoot it. We get paid to shoot.” You know?
Speaking of the Aces, let’s transition to talking about them: the WNBA’s juggernauts were stopped by the Dallas Wings. The two teams played a hotly contested series last week and the Wings came away with one victory….and, honestly, but for a coughing fit (?) that left Satou Sabally unable to play that second half, the Wings might have gotten both wins. What’d you think about those games? Do you see a chink in the Aces’ armor?
Heather: Okay I am so excited to talk about this! You know how last week, I said that the Liberty are a terrible match for the Aces, even though they’re the “super teams”? Well, I think the Wings are the PERFECT match for the Aces. My hot take of the year is that Stewie and Sabrina got nothing on Arike and Satou. I think Arike remains the most un-guardable player in the league and Satou can do it ALL.
I also think that where the Liberty blow at defense, the Wings specialize in it. Coach Latricia Trammell came in saying that her two things were fixing the locker room and completely reshaping the defense. And she’s done that! In fact, she’s done that symbiotically! I have never seen a coach say she’s going to build chemistry with team defense, but LT did, and she’s come through on that promise. There’s no team in the league playing help defense like the Wings, no team hustling on transition defense like the Wings, no team where players aren’t side-eyeing each other every time there’s a mismatch or miscommunication on a screen. Natasha Howard won DPOY in 2019 and people always forget that. There’s a reason Howard’s playing better than ever, and why she keeps saying she feels so at home in Dallas. She even bought her first house! You’re never gonna STOP the Aces, but you’ve got to find ways to contain them, and the Wings did that.
I think the Wings are so special, and if they can stay healthy and keep it together, I think they’re going to be SO FUN in the playoffs. How did you feel watching that game?
Natalie: I remain convinced that no one in the W’s played consistently well enough to think that they can beat the Aces over the course of a series…but I do think the Wings exposed a small chink in the Aces’ armor. When you look at the games that they’ve lost — to Connecticut and Dallas — it’s because of defense…tough, physical defense. It just puts them back on their heels and they struggle.
Kudos to LT because this was as flawless of an execution of a gameplan as I’ve seen…and to have it come against the Aces is just the icing on the cake. Everyone’s doing their part on that Wings team. I mean, obviously, Arike continues to do Arike things on the offensive side of the court but she’s gotten so much better defensively and I’m thrilled to see her growth. I think Teaira McCowan remains the underappreciated hero of that Dallas team, though. The physicality she brings to the game is just unmatched (Alyssa Thomas notwithstanding) and the Aces don’t have an answer for her.
Heather: I would also like to give kudos to the Nike + Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Dunky Dunk Lows LT wore on Dallas Sneakerhead night.
Natalie: Those were dope.
Heather: And obviously I hardcore agree on Teaira McCowan. Kalani Brown played amazing when Teaira was injured and, later, playing in the Asia Cup, but there is just something about McCowan that cannot be replicated. It’s not just her size, either. You know, I can look and say she has the most excellent footwork, that she’s on every single board, that she’s strong as anything, but there’s something so unspoken about the way she knows exactly when to be in the lane and when to get out of the way, when to roll of a screen and when to hold it, she’s such a complement to Satou and Arike. Very much like Howard, she just FITS on this team.
I think the Wings have a whole lot to be excited about.
Natalie: I think so too.
I will say, though: Kelsey Plum was out for the first game of this series and back for the second…and I thought, “well, the Wings stayed close in the first game but there’s no way they beat the Aces at full strength”…but they did it. Kudos to them for defying my expectations! Of course, then KP took her frustration from that series out on the Lynx and dropped 40 on 14-of-18 shooting. Unreal.
Heather: Has there ever been a WNBA team where literally every starter is a cheat code, the way it is with the Aces? Whoever has a chip on their shoulder that night, or got the best rest, or is just feeling lucky. Any given night!
Natalie: It’s true!
I was a bit more surprised that the collective chip over the NBA 2k cover didn’t lead to more aggressive play against the Wings, TBH. But we still got some moments of brilliance from the Point Gawd, Chelsea Gray.
Heather: Chelsea Gray is one of the smoothest players to ever do it. I feel like the Aces games, I don’t even blink most of the time because I’m so afraid I’ll miss her doing something absolutely spectacular. I also think, to kind of piggyback off of what we were talking about with the Fever, that the Aces have the luxury of constantly having fun, being clowns, endless jokes and laughter, even when things do have the potential to get tense in the locker room — like Hammon’s suspension, the ongoing Hamby conversation, the NBA 2K snub — because they’re never NOT winning.
I never saw a player jump out of their shoe like that! And I never saw God reach down and protect an ACL like that.
Heather: Speaking of heavenly moments, we got a BG dunk this week!
Natalie: We did!
And it was awesome because it wasn’t a breakaway dunk — like Sylvia Fowles in the All-Star game last year — it was just BG throwing it down in the run of play.
Heather: Yes! It caught me off-guard! She pivoted like she was going to fade away, and then just threw it down! My cats hated it, I have to admit, because I did scream.
Natalie: Sorry Dobby!
Heather: Hahaha! One other big development is that A’ja and Stewie drafted their All-Star teams. Any surprises for you? And who’s got the better roster?
Natalie: So, I don’t think there were any big surprises: I thought A’ja would pick her teammates and then her fellow Gamecock alums and that’s what she ended up doing. Stewie was more loyal to her Liberty teammates than you were!
Heather: Hahaha! She sure was! It’s both weird and totally “of course!” that 3/5 of both teams are just the starting line-ups for the Liberty and the Aces. It’s going to be fun!
Natalie: But it’s Team Wilson all the way, right?
🌟 THE STAGE IS SET 🌟
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 8, 2023
Heather: Oh no doubt.
Natalie: The Aces starters plus Arike and Aliyah? Then you’ve got the Connecticut power couple coming off the bench Like, it doesn’t even seem fair.
Heather: It honestly gives me chills just thinking about it. Imagine a team so good that Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are coming in to let you rest!
Natalie: You think Elena Delle Donne is going to play?
Heather: I guess it depends on what happened to her ankle last night when she rolled it AGAIN. Just another thing to blame on Diana Taurasi.
Natalie: I felt awful for her in that moment…mostly because she’s been through so much that she deserves to go through one season without having to worry about her body not performing at its peak. But also? She sent this cute tweet after the All-Star selections about being picked last…and A’ja responded back that she was only picked last because they didn’t know if she was playing.
— Elena Delle Donne (@De11eDonne) July 8, 2023
Heather: Hahaha! Okay that’s super cute!
Natalie: And now she might be back to not playing again? It sucks.
Heather: I do feel absolutely awful for her. Honestly the kind of mental toughness it takes to keep coming back and keep coming back and keep coming back like she’s done — and after it seemed like she was at the top of her game again — it’s superhuman. I think EDD seems like a genuinely kind and fun person, her teammates seem to love her, she came out at such a brave time, I just wish her body would give her a damn break! And, honestly, the Mystics, as a whole, deserve a break. They had 3/5 starters on the bench the other night! EDD, Natasha Cloud, and Shakira Austin.
Natalie: Yeah, I think Los Angeles has been hit by the injury bug the hardest — just in terms of the sheer numbers — but it’s the Mystics who have lost big, key parts of their offense. As a fan, it’s been painful…and as someone who has Shakira Austin on her fantasy team, it’s been frustrating.
Heather: Shakira was playing at the top of her game! Do we know how long she’s going to be out?
Natalie: They said three weeks so maybe she’s back after the All-Star break? *fingers crossed*
In all seriousness, though, it’s just frustrating because she was having such a great season and now it’s hampered by this injury….and then, I think, there’s such a learning curve to coming back from an injury: learning to trust your body again, competing in this really physical league. I just hope it doesn’t stymie her progress beyond these three weeks.
Heather: Me too. It has been a joy watching her play at such a high level this season. Sometimes rookies who shine their first year have a big drop-off, but she’s just gotten better and better, and has been playing with so much confidence. I am rooting so hard for her, even though she’ll be back just in time for you to kick my butt again at Fantasy Basketball.
Natalie: To close out this week: the women’s basketball community lost a legend this week with the passing of former Mystics PG Nikki McCray-Penson. McCray was a standout at Tennessee before coming to the league and making a name for themselves with the Mystics, Fever, Mercury and San Antonio Silver Stars (now, the Aces). They also won Olympic gold twice: first as part of the greatest women’s basketball team ever assembled, the 96 Olympic team and then again in 2000. After playing professionally, McCray became another branch off the Pat Summit coaching tree, coaching at Western Kentucky, South Carolina, Old Dominion, Mississippi State and Rutgers. She was part of that national championship team for South Carolina in 2017. McCray was someone who won on every level and greatly impacted the game. She was only 51.
I know you must have some great memories of McCray, given your love of the Lady Vols. Care to share any with our readers?
Heather: My heart absolutely broke reading that news, and I’m so grateful to you for bringing it up and sharing about her brilliant career. I actually have a wonderful story about an experience I had with Nikki McCray all the way back in 1995.
So everyone knows I’m a lifelong University of Tennessee Lady Vols fan. I played basketball in high school and college (a very, very small college), and was lucky enough to attend Lady Vols basketball camp at UT two times when I was in high school. (Holly Warlick picked me up at the airport one time in Pat Summitt’s SUV!) I was a painfully shy kid and teenager, and a closeted lesbian, and just a generally weird nerd, so it was hard for me to fit in new places or make friends.
My first year at Lady Vols camp was the summer before Nikki McCray’s senior season. There was obviously no professional women’s league at that time, but everyone kind of knew that the plan was for Nikki McCray to join Team USA after she graduated and then tour with them around the country to build hype for the 1996 Summer Olympics and, hopefully, the launch of the WNBA. The only bigger name in women’s basketball was Rebecca Lobo, and the only bigger athlete on the UT campus was Peyton Manning. Nikki McCray was a HUGE deal. Every single girl at that camp wanted to meet her, talk to her, get her autograph, get her advice, just sit near her. I was never, in a bazillion years, going to approach her. She was way too cool and famous and I was way too timid and homegrown. A gangly, awkward country girl.
By some miracle, she was the player who was in charge of the floor I was on in the dorm where the 16-year-olds were staying. I knew then — and looking back, I can see it even more clearly — how much was on her shoulders, and how exhausted she must have been. She was training with the team in the morning, working the camp all day, conditioning with the team in the evenings, and then doing the dorm checks on us. AND YET, every single night, she still gathered us together in a little group and sat us on the floor in a circle and pep talked us. If she saw us do something cool during the day, she’d call it out in front of everyone. Great crossover, good hustle, nice layup. And she gave us all kinds of advice too. Pat Summitt’s Definite Dozen, but also personal lessons she’d learned over the years. I don’t know exactly how to describe what it felt like, sitting there and basking in her warm smile and soft voice, except to say that I’d spent my whole life feeling like my skin didn’t even fit right, and in those moments, I was absolutely full of peace and the confidence that I was right where I was supposed to be. Which was maybe the first time in my life I felt that outside of actually playing basketball.
One night, I had tucked myself into a little study cubby on the hall. I was kinda crying quietly because — well, I was just a sad kid, but also basketball was my life, and I went from being a big fish in the small pond of my hometown to being at Lady Vol basketball camp. I went from being a star to being just pretty okay. I was lonely and suddenly scared that I wasn’t going to get a basketball scholarship, and there was no way my family could afford to send me to college. I was spiraling out. It was too much for a 16-year-old to be dealing with. Anyway, Nikki McCray walked by and saw me in that cubby and she pulled me out, she hugged me, she poked my chest right where my heart is, and she said, “Basketball won’t be forever, what’s in here is what counts.” And I have never forgotten that kindness or that wisdom. It shifted something inside me and changed my whole life for the better. I was just some little kid from Flowery Branch, Georgia. She was NIKKI MCCRAY. And she took that time to change the shape of my world, just out of the goodness of her heart, with no one watching. She was a Hall of Fame athlete and an even more amazing woman, and I feel so unbelievably lucky to have not only witnessed her career, but to have also been personally touched by her grace.
Natalie: Oh goodness. My heart was not ready for that story.
Heather: Thank you for letting me share that!
Natalie: I’m sorry for your loss, H. For all of our loss. McCray seemed like someone who genuinely touched so many people’s lives for the better.
Didn’t you say last week that you’d been digging back into old videos of the Vols’ heyday? Any McCray memories from the court?
Heather: Actually, my most standout memory of her playing is from Team USA, the gold medal game in 1996! She had said that her dream was to score 75 points, total, on that team — and in the final game, she had 73 with time running out. She was on a fast break and she passed it off to Teresa Edwards, a point guard from the University of Georgia, and it barely hit T’s hands before she flipped it right back to McCray for the layup that got her to 75. I was watching at home, sitting on the floor with my nose right up to the TV, just screeching with joy! It was clear they were gonna win, that that 100-game touring season had paid off and there was going to be a pro league, and McCray had won gold and hit her own personal record. She always had such a smile, but she was shining like the sun that day!
Natalie: I love that memory, Heather. Carmen’s off this week and since Heather and I subsist on fashion diets of t-shirts, joggers, and basketball shorts, we’ll save the fashion for next week’s chat (WNBA All-Star always provides HIGH quality fashion). In lieu of that, I’ll just share a reminder — in memory of Nikki McCray-Penson — to pay attention to your breast health. Do self-exams. Get annual mammograms when recommended. Support the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Take care of yourselves, this game needs us all.
— Around The Rim (@AroundTheRim) July 10, 2023
Heather: That’s beautiful, Natalie. Thank you. You are one of my favorite people this game has brought into my life, and that is saying something!
Natalie: That’s a better place to stake our friendship on than Pretty Little Liars so I’ll take it, Heather!
Same time next week?
Heather: I wouldn’t miss it!