Saturday, August 24, 2019

In depth with MVP candidate Natasha Howard

Natasha Howard made her first All-Star game appearance last month. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard made her first All-Star game appearance last month. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard made her first All-Star game appearance last month. Storm photos.

Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard is in the running for the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player award this season, after claiming the Most Improved player award last year. In 2019 she was the player of the month for June, and she has been the player of the week three times.

The former Florida State standout from Ohio was drafted by the Indiana Fever in 2014, where she played for two seasons before being traded to the Minnesota Lynx, where she also played two years. Howard helped Minnesota win a WNBA Championship in 2017 as a reserve. In coming to Seattle last season she became a starter, a double-digit scorer and almost tripled her rebounding average in helping the team win a WNBA title. Howard became the first player in league history to win back-to-back championships with two different teams.

This year she averages 18.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2 assists and 1.7 blocks per game – career-highs in all categories. She became the franchise’s single-season steals leader last weekend, as her 62 eclipsed the previous record by Sue Bird and Sonja Henning. She has also made a career-high 25 three-point shots this season, after making 21 in her first five years in the league. Howard was named a WNBA All-Star for the first time this year.

The Storm lost All-Stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird to injury in preseason, and various others, including starting guard Jewell Loyd, have been out multiple games with injury. Howard has helped Seattle surpass expectations and guide them to a 15-13 record and a probable playoff spot as the regular season winds down.

Howard, who turns 28 on Sept. 2, has continued to have a banner year despite dealing with a mid-season divorce. In the second week of July, Howard’s wife Jacqueline began posting a series of statements on Twitter alleging that Howard had physically abused her. Howard and her attorney, Lorraine Rimson, filed a petition for divorce Monday, July 15. Howard denied the abuse allegations.

Rimson said Jacqueline Howard has complied with restraining orders placed that same day that prevented her from posting on social media and being in the arena where Howard was playing. Additionally, the order prevents both parties from spending $588,000 worth of funds that Jacqueline Howard transferred to her own account without Howard’s knowledge, according to Rimson.

Jacqueline Howard has since disappeared, and thus hasn’t been served with divorce papers, Rimson said. A court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 9.

“At that time, Natasha, though counsel, will be asking the court to require the funds to be returned and placed in a blocked account,” Rimson said in a statement. “We believe that the court will grant our request. Then, from our perspective, the only remaining issue is the determination of a ‘fair and equitable’ division of these funds.”

“We have not been able to note this motion earlier because we have not been able to find Jacqueline for service. While we still do not know where she is, it is our hope that her current attorney will assist in that process. Such assistance is common practice.”

Howard has been reunited with friend Shavonte Zellous, with whom she played in Indiana, as the Storm signed her in free agency over the winter. Howard’s sense of humor comes out with friends, and was apparent in this face-to-face interview.

Natasha Howard makes a running shot. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard makes a running shot. Neil Enns/Storm photos.

So how did you get from Toledo to Florida State?

With Florida State, the main thing that stood out to me was their academics. They were top five in the country, so that’s why I went there. I didn’t really care about basketball; I just wanted to get my education. And I wanted to be somewhere different – somewhere warm. I’d never been to Florida so I just took the opportunity to go to Florida State, and I had an amazing time there my four years being there. Coach Sue – me and her still keep in contact – and me and coach Brooke. Coach White, he just came to DC to watch us play with Zellous, because he’s the coach at Pitt now. So I still have that Seminole family.

How old were you when you started playing?

I was 10. My uncle Greg Howard taught me.

Was it love at first dribble?

No. To be honest, I didn’t really want to play basketball; I wanted to be a kid at the age of 10. He just told me to to start dribbling and I’ll give you a dollar. So I said OK!

He saw some talent in you.

Yeah, he did.

Were you always tall?

I didn’t hit my growth spurt until sixth grade. My uncle thought I was going to be a guard, but my mom is 6-foot and my dad is 6-7.

When did you know basketball was for you?

Probably when I hit the sixth grade. I started playing with boys in elementary, me and my best friend. In fifth and sixth grade they finally had a girls team, so I took advantage of it, and I started loving it. And I started loving it even more in middle school. I thought oh, this could probably take me somewhere. A free education, possibly. My uncle was guiding me until I got to high school and then my other coaches jumped in and critiqued my game a little bit more.

What was your favorite part about it, and what did you need to work on more?

At the time, my ball handling. I was taller than everybody, so I had to (deal with) being a 5-11, 6-foot guard in middle school, and coming into high school. Because when I got to high school everybody was kind of bigger than me. I was still growing at the time.

Seminole coach Sue Semrau always said you were selfless, as did other coaches you’ve played for. I kept seeing that coaches would tell you to jump in and get involved more because you’re almost too selfless. Where did those tendencies come from?

That’s just been me. I’ve just been a team player, a coachable player. I think it’s just – my dad played basketball, so I don’t know if I got it from him or my other family members.

But that’s just your first instinct?

Yeah, it’s my first instinct – teamwork. When you have that, everything gets going. I’ve never wanted to be that “give me the ball, give me the ball” type of player. That’s when teams start dividing. I knew I was going to become a good player by the people in my corner, in my circle. I can’t win a game by myself. My coaches were always telling me, “you have to get the ball in your hands,” and I was like, “I understand that.” My Florida State coaches were: “you’re too selfless! We need you to score!” And I was like, “I know, I know, but……if four people are on me, that means three people are open.”

Natasha Howard jumps to defend the basket. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard jumps to defend the basket. Neil Enns/Storm photos.

At what point did you begin to take more ownership and start stepping up? Granted, you were playing behind some other great players on your last two teams. But do you have more of a chance to shine with the Storm?

Those years I was with Indiana and Minnesota, I really tried to learn from those veterans: Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson. Lindsay Whalen. Just watching their actions and how they lead their teams with their voice and also with their game as well. Sylvia Fowles isn’t really a talker either. But learning from them and putting myself in their shoes when it comes to playing, and being that leader on the floor.

What is something you learned from each of them that’s helped you go forward?

Tamika Catchings: just be patient and your time will come. I’ve been patient, and my time has come. And with Tamika, just being poised and having that passion when I get on the floor. Whatever minutes I have, just take advantage of it. She taught me that.

With Syl, she said I remind her of her, a baby version of her. I take that to the heart a lot. And just the passion that Syl has in the paint, too. And I’m kind of like, being that type of player in the paint.

With Brunson, she’s a rebound machine, so I kind of take her game a lot too because she’s really good at rebounding. I have three people boxing me out and she’ll always have three or four people boxing her out, but she’ll still get the rebound. So I’d try to understand “how did she do that?”

And now people say that about you.

Yeah.

You’ve got a diverse skill set. It’s struck me that the way you lay in those soft shots is kind of like your personality: you don’t come hard, necessarily, but you make your point. Is that anything conscious or is that just you?

That’s just me, because they always say, post players don’t have touches in the paint. Yes we do. We do have touches in the paint. I just read my defender, and if I need to go hard in the paint, that’s what I do. But if I know a defender will take a charge, I just go with my little soft floater or bang it off the backboard.

I was told you’re into music right now. Tell me a little about that.

I’m not doing music, but I’m making beats. I have the DJ turntable, so during my off-time if I’m not playing video games, I get my iPad and I start making beats. Sometimes I just have music in my head, or if I’m driving I’ll think of something. I like music because some of my family are singers and rappers.

So this isn’t new to you.

Yeah, kinda, but not really.

Is it anything you might want to do later?

Yeah, maybe when I get done.

Obviously you’ve got a lot of basketball ahead of you, but I know you’re thinking ahead.

Yeah. I would like to do (beats).

What other pursuits occupy your off time?

(Long pause) Nothing really. Just making beats and playing video games.

This Storm team seems to have a lot of good chemistry and a lot of love between teammates. Do you feel pretty comfortable with this group of people?

Absolutely. This group has been together for a long time. Me coming in, being my second year, I feel like I’ve been on the team for the same amount of time as the other players.

We’re doing good; we’re doing really really good so far, the way we’ve been playing. (For) having two, three people out, we’re doing really good. There’s still a lot of people that’s still like “is the Storm going to make it to the playoffs?” “is the Storm doing to do this, is the Storm going to do that?”

It doesn’t matter that we don’t have the pieces that we normally have. We’re still going to get to the playoffs. I have faith in this team. I would bet my last buck on this team.

Does the playoff race add any pressure to your mentality?

No, not at all. I’d go to war with these women. We fight day in and day out.

What are you working on with your game to take it to the next level?

Just being more patient when I’m double-teamed, triple-teamed. Just being patient and knowing when the defense is coming and knowing when it’s not coming. And just working on my three-point shot, because I’ve been struggling with that a little bit. So I’m working on that and continuing to do what I do best, which is running the floor and playing good defense.

You’re also on the quiet side and don’t necessarily feel the need to talk all the time.

No, because I’m an introvert. I just watch everything and I stay in my own lane. And when something goes bad I’m like yeah, it’s none of my business. I just stay in my own lane.

You don’t feel the need to pop off on issues or anything.

No.

Sometimes introverts can be pretty shy, but it seems like you’ve always been pretty openly out. How have you always been so comfortable being yourself?

I’ve been comfortable with myself since my sophomore year in high school.

Natasha Howard on the orange carpet at the 2019 WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard on the orange carpet at the 2019 WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas. Storm photos.

That’s a long time. The world is much more accepting now, but it seems like you were ahead of the game. How did that happen?

My mom. My mom said she knew it from jump. She told me, “I knew you were gay. You’re my child.” I’ve been out since my sophomore year in high school.

That’s amazing, because there’s a lot of discrimination out there.

There is – there really really is. It’s so crazy what other people do to homosexual people. It would be crazy if we did some of those things to heterosexual people. We don’t do stuff to you guys, but you want to beat us down, wanna fight us, wanna do crazy stuff to us, wanna throw stuff at us. And for what? We’re human just like you all.

Sparks clinch playoff spot in win over Fever

Chiney Ogwumike is guarded by Stephanie Mavunga. Maria Noble photo.
Chiney Ogwumike is guarded by Stephanie Mavunga. Maria Noble photo.
Chiney Ogwumike is guarded by Stephanie Mavunga. Maria Noble photo.

Los Angeles – The Los Angeles Sparks overcame a slow start to rout the Indiana Fever Thursday, 98-65, and clinch a spot in the WNBA playoffs.

Nneka Ogwumike led six Sparks players in double figures with 17 points, on a 50 percent shooting night for the team. The win was the tenth at home for Los Angeles – a mark they hadn’t hit since 2012. And along with other game results on the night, the win also helped propel the Chicago Sky into the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Los Angeles forward Candace Parker said regrouping after the first period was key to their strong finish.

“We were able to really maintain our focus,” Parker said. “I think a lot of it is just making sure that we are playing every position, doesn’t matter the score. But we definitely have to correct our starts. I think the starters have to do a better job of coming out and not getting down as early as we did even in the last four or five games, it’s been like that.”

The game marked the return of guard Riquna Williams, who had been suspended for 10 games after a domestic violence incident prior to the season. She started and scored 10 points. It was the first time this season that the Sparks have had all 12 players available for a match up.

“It’s a great thing to for the first time to be able to look down the bench and know that everyone’s available, and regardless of the situation you can call someone’s name and they can go into the game,” coach Derek Fisher said. “It’s a gift for us to have the roster we have and all the things we’ve gone through so far that’s prepared us now.”

The Fever dropped to 9-19 on the season, as they battle with three other teams for a playoff spot. Kelsey Mitchell had 14 points and Candice Dupree, 10. Mitchell said the team’s energy slipped after the first quarter.

“We have to stay focused and we have to do that in the game for 40 minutes,” she said. “As of late, we haven’t been doing that. So it’s harder with a veteran team like [the Sparks]. It just makes it more difficult and we have to stick to principles.”

Ogwumike is now at 3,999 career points. The Sparks, who now sit in fourth place, host the second-place Connecticut Sun Sunday.

Sun-Aces showdown will be a defining game for both teams

Kelsey Plum and the Aces will battle Jasmine Thomas and the Sun for playoff positioning Friday night. Chris Poss photo.
Kelsey Plum and the Aces will battle Jasmine Thomas and the Sun for playoff positioning Friday night. Chris Poss photo.
Kelsey Plum and the Aces will battle Jasmine Thomas and the Sun for playoff positioning Friday night. Chris Poss photo.

The Connecticut Sun clinched a playoff spot over the weekend, but they’re not satisfied.

Since the 2018 season ended, the team’s goal has been to avoid the one-game playoff rounds of the tournament which has been unkind to them the last two years, as only the top two teams in the standings get the no-single-elimination bonus with a two-round bye.

“I mean that’s always our first goal going into the season is to make playoffs,” point guard Jasmine Thomas said. “So that’s one thing we got taken care of and now we just get to play out for a position.”

“You know, we want to be in that first or second spot for sure.”

A healthy Washington Mystics team has a lock on first. They are 11-1 in since mid-July, and face a relatively easy schedule over these last two weeks of the regular season that includes only three winning teams in their remaining seven games, with two of them at home. The road game is against a Chicago Sky team they have beaten twice already.

So it is likely that Connecticut is playing for second. One major advantage in that quest is their home court dominance, a best-in-league 13-1. But they will need all of that home court magic Friday, as they face the third-place Las Vegas Aces, who stand just a half game behind them for second place.

A win, and the Sun win the season series against Las Vegas, as they already have over Washington. It would also give them a 2.5 game lead over the Aces in the standings. The cushion will be crucial, as Connecticut will still face Los Angeles and Seattle on the road, where the Sun is just 6-7 on the season. Just one of the road victories was over a team with a current record over .500, although that team was Las Vegas.

Tomorrow’s home court showdown is the biggest test of Connecticut’s resolve to stay in second (or possibly steal first).

“It’s the rubber match, obviously, so it’s the tiebreaker,” coach Curt Miller told the Hartford Courant. “It’s a really big game. It’ll be a great crowd, Friday night crowd, and it’ll be a very physical game, that’s for sure.”

The Sun, after a grueling five games in ten days, got some rest this week – an important factor for a team whose bench has been less than stellar. The starters should be able to play extended minutes. The team also brings high confidence into the contest, as they  showed remarkable toughness in a gritty one point victory last week over Seattle, in which they invoked stifling defense to come from seven points down in the last 1:47 for a 79-78 victory.

They followed that on Sunday with a great shooting night (47 percent) over Dallas.

The Aces on the other hand, will be playing their third game this week, which included travelling to Chicago, back to Las Vegas, and now to Connecticut. Their week also included a sloppy overtime win at Phoenix on Tuesday, in which the starters averaged over 35 minutes each. Fatigue could be a factor.

Both over the last five games and on the year, the Aces’ offensive statistics are better by small margins across most categories: points, field goal and three point percentage, rebounds, and free throws. Connecticut turns the ball over less often, and have a distinct steals advantage.

The keys to the game:

Sun:

Thomas has been stellar over the last month, holding her team together, and averaging double-digit scoring. She has a knack for scoring in spots when the team needs her most.

Center Jonquel Jones needs a massive game against dominant Las Vegas posts Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson. Most important, she needs some help on defense to keep her out of foul trouble.

Defense has been winning games for the Sun, with none moreso than the victory over Seattle. They need to play that defense for 40 minutes, which has been problematic throughout the season.

Courtney Williams needs to start hitting shots. The only Connecticut player who can regularly create her own shot, Williams has been rushing things lately, and her accuracy has fallen. Without her ability to scramble defenses, the Sun offense will have a much harder time.

Aces:

The Aces are all about the frontcourt., Cambage is a versatile player who can dominate the low post, then step out and shoot threes.

Wilson, back from an ankle injury that caused her to miss five games, scored nine points in overtime on Wednesday, and is rounding back into All-Star form. A strong game for her could turn the tide.

Jackie Young needs to be effective on offense. The rookie has struggled to score, and is shooting just .319 on the year. As point guard, her ability to protect the ball against the Sun defense will be crucial.

X-Factor: the benches

The Connecticut bench has been disappointing since Layshia Clarendon’s season-ending ankle injury in June, contributing little, and generally surrendering leads. Over the last five games, however, wing Bria Holmes has averaged 10.4 points in 17.8 minutes and hit nine threes. Her long wingspan and quickness are a tough assignment for any of the Las Vegas guards.

The same could be said for the Aces’ bench: little production, and difficulty holding a lead. Dearica Hamby is a double-figure scorer but a streaky shooter, who has been less than stellar of late. She has the height, but not the speed to cover Holmes, as she is more of a four than a three. As such, she has been more a sub for Wilson than for one of the guards.

The winner also wins the season series, which is the key tie-breaker for season standings. A Sun win gives them breathing room, while the Aces, coming from behind, would remain tied in the loss column with Connecticut.

Dantas realizing childhood dream alongside teammate Fowles

Damiris Dantas readies to shoot a free throw. Photo by Abe Booker III/Stratman Photography.
Damiris Dantas readies to shoot a free throw. Photo by Abe Booker III/Stratman Photography.
Damiris Dantas readies to shoot a free throw. Photo by Abe Booker III/Stratman Photography.

When Sylvia Fowles began making a name for herself in the WNBA a decade ago, Damiris Dantas witnessed it on television in her native Brazil.

Dantas, then in high school, dreamed of playing like the 6-5 center. Now, she plays with her.

“I started playing basketball (because of) Syl,” the Minnesota Lynx forward said. “I started to play volleyball in Brazil first. After seeing Big Mommy, I say, ‘I’m going to play basketball.’”

Fowles, 33, has embraced the relationship the two have forged in their first season as teammates, as Dantas signed with Minnesota as a restricted free agent last winter.

“It’s like big sister-little sister,” Fowles said of the 26-year-old. “She’s very eager to please, she doesn’t want to do any wrong. That’s something that I can appreciate. … She would always say she watched me growing up, and it’s been an honor for me to play alongside her. It’s mad love and respect.”

The merging of the two is steeped in irony. Dantas played for the Lynx in 2014, and the following season they traded her to Atlanta as part of a three-way deal that netted them none other than Fowles, who had sought to leave the Chicago Sky.

“I’m happy and I’m honored to know that she really wanted to be my teammate,” Fowles said. “I wanted to play with her, too, actually, but it didn’t work out that way once I got here in ‘15. I kind of messed that up.”

Sylvia Fowles has a word with Damiris Dantas at a game earlier this month. Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images.
Sylvia Fowles has a word with Damiris Dantas at a game earlier this month. Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images.

Now, with Fowles as her running mate, Dantas is having a banner year in 2019. She’s averaging a career-high 8.3 points per game, pulls down 4.3 rebounds a night, and shoots 38.9 percent from behind the 3-point line.

Dantas has started in all 19 games she’s played this season, serving as an integral piece of the rotation and showing a knack for big plays in the clutch. She’s dealt with a calf injury that sidelined her for eight games, but when Dantas is in the lineup, Fowles said Minnesota hits a new level.

“Damiris makes or breaks the team,” Fowles said. “We have a lot of pieces in place, and without Damiris… we kind of struggle a little bit. So a healthy Damiris is a winning Lynx team.”

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve recognizes the importance of Dantas on the court, too.

“When you can space the floor with the 4, it gives other teams fits,” she said. “Especially because you’re worried about Syl.”

Dantas isn’t a big talker on the court, but Fowles noted they use hand gestures and eye signals to communicate with one another without words. It’s part of the growing chemistry between the pair.

“When you think about it, we do kind of resemble each other. We step up to challenges and we work hard,” Fowles said. “… And it’s fun, of course. I’m just happy to see her grow. She’s grown so much in a short span of time, and I’m happy she’s my teammate.”

Dantas has come a long way since first meeting her idol.

“The first time, I was scared,” Dantas said. “I was nervous, my hands (were) sweaty. But she helps me every time on the floor and (off) the floor.”

Minnesota is fighting for elbow room in the league standings, currently sitting eighth with a 13-14 record. As the playoff race intensifies, with just seven games remaining, the franchise will be leaning on both bigs to help push them into the postseason.

Dantas hopes this can be one of several seasons she and Fowles play together, as they help rebuild the Lynx.

“It’s my dream,” Dantas said. “I’m so happy to play with her.”

Minnesota is in Los Angeles tonight to take on the Sparks at 7:30 p.m. PT.

Storm bounce back with home win over Minnesota

Jordin Canada goes up against Sylvia Fowles. She finished with a team-high 14 points in Seattle's win over the Minnesota Lynx. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jordin Canada goes up against Sylvia Fowles. She finished with a team-high 14 points in Seattle's win over the Minnesota Lynx. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jordin Canada goes up against Sylvia Fowles. She finished with a team-high 14 points in Seattle’s win over the Minnesota Lynx. Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

With just three weeks to go in the regular season, time is running out for teams in the WNBA to secure their postseason position.

Entering Sunday, just three games separated the No. 4 and No. 8 seed; the difference between a bye and home playoff game, or heading on the road in a loser-out first round matchup.

Seattle inched closer to clinching at least a top-six spot in the standings (and home game) by night’s end, with a 82-74 win over Minnesota at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Six Storm players finished in double figures — led by 14 points from Jordin Canada and 13 each from Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd — to offset Odyssey Sims’ season-high 30.

Following a heartbreaking loss on Friday in Connecticut, where the Storm saw a seven-point lead vanish in the final 90 seconds, head coach Dan Hughes said there are two ways he’s seen teams respond.

“I’ve been around enough to know that sometimes teams respond to [losses like that] like the way we did tonight and sometimes they kind of feel sorry for themselves,” he said. “I’m just really glad they responded.”

Seattle (15-13) started the game on a 11-0 run — aided by five Minnesota (13-14) turnovers in the first five minutes — and led by seven after 10 minutes. The team pushed the edge to nine at the break, thanks to 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range and 11 points off the bench from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

The lead ballooned to as many as 15 in the third, before a 10-0 Minnesota run in the final three minutes of the quarter cut the gap to four heading to the fourth. That was thanks in no small part to Sims, who kept the team within striking distance and then sparked the run by scoring the first 18 of Minnesota’s 24 third-quarter points.

“That’s just my competitive edge,” she said. “I hate to lose so whatever I can do to help my team get back in the game. I just came out ready to play.”

But that’s as close as the Lynx got.

While Hughes typically waits to reinsert his starting five for the game’s closing minutes, he opted to start the quarter with Loyd, Clark, Russell, and Howard back on the court, leaving only Canada on the bench.

I just wanted that presence back on the floor,” he said. 

The move paid off, with Seattle extending its lead back to double digits down the stretch.

With the win, Seattle holds the No. 6 seed with six games to play, and pulled within a game and a half of No. 4 seed Los Angeles, while the Lynx dropped behind Phoenix into eighth place in the standings. Despite the result, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve acknowledged it may have provided a good learning experience.

“A hard game on the road in the playoffs — this is what that looks like,” she said. “From that standpoint, if we can get there, we’ll have a sense of what that feels like because we’re likely to be on the road.”

Minnesota wraps its quick two-game road swing on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, while Seattle continues its four-game homestand next Sunday against Indiana.

Dribbles

  • Attendance: 9,000 (sellout)
  • Natasha Howard became the Storm’s single-season record-holder for steals, picking up her 62nd of the year in the first quarter.
  • Crystal Langhorne joined Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson, and Camille Little as the fourth player in Storm franchise history to record 1,000 rebounds with the team.
  • With the victory, Seattle clinched the season series against Minnesota 3-1. The Storm dropped the first game in Minneapolis 72-61 on May 29, before winning 84-77 in Seattle on June 4, 90-79 on the road on July 17, and on Sunday.
  • Before the game, head coach Dan Hughes, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and Jewell Loyd received their 2018 FIBA World Cup Championship Rings after leading Team USA to a perfect 6-0 record.
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