The Daily W, 23/07/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 108 @ Minnesota Lynx 112 (2OT)

 

Lineups: Atlanta started the post-All-Star part of their schedule with the same starting five that helped them to easily the best record in the East so far this season. They had a difference on the sidelines, where Karleen Thompson was in charge for the first time during Michael Cooper’s absence for treatment for tongue cancer. Minnesota welcomed back power forward Rebekkah Brunson for the first time this year after recovering from offseason knee surgery. She went straight into the starting lineup in place of Damiris Dantas. Seimone Augustus was still out with left knee bursitis, but may well return for Friday’s game against San Antonio.

 

Story of the Game: The rematch of last year’s WNBA Finals produced a barn-burner to get the season’s ‘second half’ underway (unfortunately while a far less entertaining game was playing out on ESPN2 at the same time). Brunson’s impact was immediately obvious for the Lynx, with their rebounding improving just by virtue of having her on the floor. From the opening moments she was grabbing balls off the glass with authority, fitting in like she’d never been gone.

But the star was Maya Moore, a trend that would persist for much of the night. The Lynx ran pin-down screens, and staggered screens, and back-screens, and generally just set picks all over the floor all night long, for Moore to curl up and around and fire up her ridiculously smooth jumper and hit repeatedly. This wasn’t a night where we saw much of her on drives, or attempted post-ups. It was old-school Lynx, with perimeter shots from one of the best shooters the women’s game has ever seen their first option.

But in another element that we’d see recur throughout the game, Atlanta always found ways to respond. They were hyper-aggressive in attacking with pace in transition, picking up far more points just moments after Minnesota baskets than Cheryl Reeve could’ve possibly been happy with. Angel McCoughtry was attacking off the dribble and firing away at every chance she got, while Shoni Schimmel gave the Dream a three-point threat and was happy to rain them down after her success at the All-Star Game over the weekend. Minnesota were collapsing their defense inside at every opportunity, looking to protect the rim, preventing layups and offensive rebounds as their first priority on defense. But Sancho Lyttle was doing some Brunson-y things for the Dream, with some second-chance points and mid-range jumpers, and Atlanta were still within four at halftime. Moore already had 23.

The Lynx appeared to take over the game late in the third quarter, inevitably with Moore leading the way again. Lindsay Whalen was an excellent sidekick, and happy to keep feeding the ball Maya’s way when not driving for her own occasional scores, but it was another run of jumpers from Moore that gave Minnesota a nine-point lead at the end of the third. When McCoughtry picked up her fifth foul in the opening moments of the fourth on a Moore cut, and the Lynx extended their lead to 14 in the minutes that followed, Minnesota seemed relatively comfortable.

Only for the Dream to come again. Lyttle was huge for Atlanta down the stretch, in a role that made it surprising she hadn’t been more successful earlier in the game. Minnesota’s concentration on collapsing inside had nullified center Erika de Souza all night, but Lyttle loves to pop into that mid-range zone 15-18 feet from the basket, which is often left open when everyone revolves around and sags into the paint. So Lyttle hit a bunch of jumpers from that area, Minnesota missed a few shots while McCoughtry chased Moore and Atlanta finally forced someone else to try to beat them, and the lead quickly dwindled. The Dream tied it with a Tiffany Hayes free throw with under two minutes to play, and should’ve taken the lead – but Hayes and Lyttle missed three straight efforts at the line.

Janel McCarville gave the Lynx the lead again briefly on a nice bank shot, before Hayes charged to the other end and contrived a finish in traffic to tie it again. After McCoughtry and Monica Wright exchanged misses, the Lynx had 27 seconds to win it. The ball inevitably went to Moore, but Atlanta knew just as well as everyone else in the building that the Lynx wanted her taking the shot. She tried to dribble through a triple-team, lost the ball, and Schimmel took off upcourt the other way. She put up a little hook that was just off, de Souza couldn’t finish the putback, and the buzzer sent us to overtime.

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The Daily W, 07/21/2014

 

While the All-Star festivities were taking place in Phoenix over the weekend, the Los Angeles Sparks were making moves that might affect actual meaningful games in the WNBA. They relieved head coach Carol Ross of her duties on Sunday night, replacing her with long-time Sparks general manager Penny Toler until the end of the season.

As has been mentioned here several times this season, Ross’s job was inevitably going to come under threat as a team that was supposed to contend for a championship sat under .500 and barely clinging to a playoff spot. The Sparks have been a disjointed team all season, inconsistent at both ends of the floor, and the head coach is invariably the person who has to pay. Ross floated between different lineups and systems this year, searching for something that would click and have the Sparks playing closer to their potential, but never managed to find it. Injuries and absences didn’t help, primarily Candice Wiggins (knee) and Kristi Toliver (missing several games due to joining the Slovak national team), the two guards on the roster with remotely consistent three-point range. But either the team had tuned her out, or Ross had run out of ideas – either way, it’s a little surprising that the decision took this long.

Toler taking over is a shocking move. She has absolutely no coaching experience, having gone directly from playing the game to the LA front office. Assistant coach Gail Goestenkors resigned in apparent solidarity with Ross, but Gary Kloppenburg is sticking around to help out while Steve Smith returns after previous stints as an assistant with the Sparks several years ago (not the NBA player with the Hawks and several other teams, by the way – different Steve Smith). Without being inside the franchise, it’s hard to know what the process was here. Maybe Goestenkors and/or Kloppenburg were offered the top chair, and didn’t want to touch it with the state the team are currently in. Maybe the relatively new Sparks owners told Toler to go down to the bench and sort out her own mess, refusing to pay a second head coach on top of whatever Ross is still getting. Maybe Toler’s just a complete egomaniac who feels like the roster she assembled should’ve been playing much better, so she’s pushed Ross out of the way in anticipation of being able to do better herself. Regardless of the process, putting the team in the hands of a complete coaching novice – assisted by one of the people who helped create the current situation and guy even Sparks lifers would struggle to remember – seems a hell of a hail mary. When Phoenix dumped Corey Gaines in midseason last year, and didn’t want to hand the reins over to an existing assistant, they at least went out and found an experienced coach to take over for the rest of the year. They didn’t just send someone down from the office, hand her a whistle, and tell her to get on with it.

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The Daily W, 07/18/2014

 

San Antonio Stars 90 @ Tulsa Shock 95

 

Lineups: As expected for both teams. Jia Perkins, Riquna Williams and Tiffany Jackson-Jones may all make appearances soon after the All-Star break, but exactly when is still up in the air.

 

Story of the Game: There was a lot of comically awful defense played in this game. Both teams did a dismal job of protecting the paint and preventing easy opportunities for their opponents. Tulsa started off with a run of layups for Courtney Paris inside, and then Danielle Robinson had trouble containing Skylar Diggins off the dribble – and got no help from any rotating teammates behind her. Meanwhile, Tulsa have been terrible at protecting the rim all season, and this game was no different, with various Stars scorers taking turns at slicing in for layups. Although funnily enough it was a string of threes for San Antonio from Danielle Adams, Kayla McBride and Shenise Johnson that allowed them to take a seven-point lead at halftime. Sometimes when you’re getting ripped apart inside, everyone overcompensates towards the middle and you start leaving shooters wide open.

But while San Antonio’s defense wasn’t great in the first half, it was absolutely disastrous in the second, with a miserable third quarter performance handing all the initiative to Tulsa. The Shock had the sense to attack the basket, resulting in either layups or free throws (or both), and San Antonio capitulated. No one on the perimeter could stay in front of their man, no one inside could rotate to help, and their transition defense was awful as well. And as often happens, when you start to fall apart at one end of the floor it transmits into your play at the other. San Antonio started settling for nothing but jumpers, missing most of them, and the offense ground to a halt. They lost the third quarter 25-8 and the game seemed to be slipping away.

While their scoring picked up, the Stars couldn’t get the stops to build a comeback in the third quarter, so eventually we saw a tactic that would’ve been seen in more Shock games this year if they’d had more leads – Hack-a-Paris. Dan Hughes called for his team to intentionally foul Courtney Paris, who’s shooting under 50% from the foul line this season, in a last-ditch effort to get back in the game in the final three minutes. While she went 3-of-6 on the intentionally gifted free throws – which is just about acceptable in those situations – San Antonio suddenly started nailing threes at the other end and clawed back within two points in the closing minutes. Tulsa actually produced a couple of good possessions of perimeter defense late in the game – running San Antonio off the three-point line by switching smoothly – and then a couple of misses from Adams and McBride finally ended any chances of San Antonio pulling off the comeback.

 

Key Players: The regular four scorers of Diggins, Sims, Paris and Johnson were Tulsa’s leaders yet again, and the Shock did an impressive job of exploiting San Antonio’s defense in the second half to take over the game. Even when one team is playing atrocious defense, the other side have to be playing well enough to take advantage. Tulsa also shot a ridiculous 32-39 from the foul line, illustrating how consistently they got inside and attacked the defense.

San Antonio actually shot an even higher percentage from the field than Tulsa, and went 11-21 from three-point range, but the porous defense killed them off. Usually Hughes has his teams well-drilled and organised to prevent such consistent breakdowns, but they’ve been a pretty poor defensive team for much of the season. This was the nadir.

 

Notes of Interest: For the third time this season, WNBA officials screwed up an ‘away from the play’ call in the final minute of a game. In that situation, if a defensive foul is committed away from the ball, it’s supposed to result in one free throw for the offensive team (taken by anyone on the floor) and they retain possession. Instead, yet again, the referees considered it a standard foul and sent Jen Lacy to the free throw line for two shots when she was fouled miles away from the ball with 33 seconds to play. It’s a pretty simple rule – and it’s in the rule book specifically to prevent things like ‘Hack-a-Paris’ extending into the closing moments of a game. You’d think they’d have been ready for it after the exact same mistake was made twice earlier this season when Brittney Griner was fouled late in Mercury games. Apparently not.

 

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Chicago Sky 64 @ Indiana Fever 82

 

Lineups: Same again for Chicago, with the same problematic injury list. Indiana had point guard Briann January back from her knee problem after missing just one game, and she slid straight back into the starting lineup ahead of Layshia Clarendon.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter stayed close, with the more fluid and attractive offense coming from Indiana, but Sylvia Fowles bullying her way to points inside and Allie Quigley hitting from outside to keep Chicago even. Rookie Fever forward Natasha Howard had a nice run of points while Tamika Catchings was resting, but Howard’s defense doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and she had no hope at all against Fowles and Jessica Breland in the paint.

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The Daily W, 07/17/2014

 

Atlanta Dream 75 @ New York Liberty 77

 

Lineups: Both teams started the same fives they’ve been using for a while, so Cappie Pondexter was healthy enough to play after missing most of the second half in the Liberty’s last game. According to the New York commentators, it was a groin problem that took her out then, possibly caused by overcompensating for the achilles issues she’s been fighting for much of the season. Natasha Lacy was available for New York for the first time after she replaced Chucky Jeffery on a seven-day deal earlier in the week (although she didn’t play). Swin Cash was facing the Dream for the first time since they traded her after barely half a season in Atlanta. DeLisha Milton-Jones – swapped for Cash – is out for the rest of the season after rupturing an achilles tendon.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was close, and the only time either side led by more than four points was when Anna Cruz hit the final shot of the half to give New York a five-point lead at the break. Perhaps energised by all the screaming kids packed into Madison Square Garden for the early tip-off, the Liberty played with a lot of energy and drive, matching Atlanta in the areas where the Dream often dominate teams. New York had just as much pace to their game, were far more successful on the offensive glass, and for once their supporting players stepped up. Tina Charles made a couple of nice plays, but was largely kept quiet by Atlanta’s length and the double-teams they sent down towards her. Pondexter showed a willingness to attack the basket, but couldn’t convert anything when she got there (and limped back to the bench at one stage in the first quarter). But Sugar Rodgers made shots and attacked the basket; Plenette Pierson was effective off the bench; Avery Warley-Talbert crashed the glass; Anna Cruz hit a few jumpers; and the combination of Alex Montgomery and Swin Cash made life difficult for Angel McCoughtry. For once the team effort around the superstars was carrying the Liberty.

Having Erika de Souza in foul trouble for much of the first half created problems for Atlanta, as did some horrible ball-stopping from McCoughtry at times, but they pieced together enough offense to stay right with New York in the opening 20 minutes. They opened the second half without McCoughtry absent for some unknown reason – she didn’t appear from the locker room until three minutes of the third quarter had already elapsed – and then New York proceeded to dominate most of the third period. Their energy and aggression was outworking the Dream. Pondexter drew de Souza’s fourth foul early in the period, sending her back to the bench, and making it easier for Charles to attack the rim rather than settle for her mid-range jumper. Rodgers continued to make plays, Atlanta couldn’t buy a bucket, and New York led by double-digits.

But basketball is a fickle game. Behind a couple of friendly calls from the officials, some missed Liberty jumpers and a little transition speed, Atlanta scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to tie up the game – and then we had a real fight on our hands. In a game where she finished with nine assists – so she was moving the ball to the right places at times – McCoughtry forced some horrible jump shots to kill several possessions down the stretch for Atlanta. But with Charles and Pondexter both fairly ineffective, New York couldn’t pull away.

Cruz hit a tough pullup jumper with 90 seconds left, on a play that looked like it was designed for Charles until she gave it up. Then Pondexter did a nice job containing Tiffany Hayes on a drive, but the offensive rebound was kicked back out and Jasmine Thomas nailed a three to tie the game again. Cash and Hayes had poor passes at either end for cheap turnovers before Pondexter went around staggered screens at the top of the arc and bricked a jumper with 12 seconds left. With the game tied, Atlanta didn’t call timeout, instead allowing McCoughtry to attack immediately. Montgomery tracked her down the lane, got a hand on top of the ball, and drew a jump ball rather than giving up a foul. McCoughtry tapped the ensuing toss too hard, and the ball went straight out of bounds, leaving New York five seconds to win it.

And however many shots she may have missed already, Pondexter is always going to want the game-decider in her hands. She inbounded to Pierson, took the handoff straight back, and banked in a jumper from 17 feet. Whether it was actually meant to hit the glass first, or she just got a little lucky, it didn’t really matter. With only 0.4 seconds left, Atlanta tried a lob pass to the basket for Hayes, but it was easily cut out and New York had their win.

 

Key Players: To the delight of Liberty fans everywhere, they had lots of key players for once. This is kind of the secondary option of how it’s supposed to work with the two superstars – some days they won’t hit, but they’ll still draw so much attention from the defense that the rest of the team can take advantage. Pondexter and Charles were a combined 10-36 from the field, but their teammates were 21-40, with Cruz, Rodgers and Pierson leading the way, while Cash and Montgomery played important defensive roles. It was a strong team effort, and could be a big win for the Liberty’s season. Of course, there’ve been so many false dawns for this team this year, so it could just be one good performance that’ll be quickly forgotten. New York play six of their next seven games on the road, where they’re 1-8 so far this year. Even in the East, if they go something like 1-6 over that stretch, their season may well be toast.

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The Daily W, 07/16/2014

 

Connecticut Sun 86 @ Seattle Storm 63

 

Lineups: The Storm’s starters were as they’ve been for a while, whenever everyone’s been healthy. Reserve wing Shekinna Stricklen was out after her nasty fall and resulting neck injury against Minnesota on Sunday. The Sun made a switch, benching center Kelsey Bone after several ineffective recent performances. Kelsey Griffin moved into the starting lineup.

 

Story of the Game: The game was fairly even in the first quarter, with Seattle using pick-and-rolls and slip-screens to find their way into the heart of Connecticut’s defense relatively easily. But that early stretch would prove to be one of the few periods where the Storm scored with any regularity over the course of the game. Once they started to make their first wave of substitutions, everything started to fall apart at both ends of the floor. The offense stopped flowing without Sue Bird at the point, and Nicole Powell remains a patchwork cover option at best at power forward.

Although, Connecticut largely started to creep into the lead thanks to a guard who was hitting shots. Seattle missed an endless stream of jumpers, especially in the second quarter, while Alex Bentley was lighting it up for Connecticut. Given an inch of space coming off ball-screens, she was pulling up to fire, and hitting nothing but net. The two shots she missed in the first half were both forced up in an effort to beat the shot-clock; the other six all went in.

Already up by nine at halftime, Connecticut took even further control of the game in the third quarter, dominating the offensive boards for second chance points, with Bentley and her backup Renee Montgomery continuing to pile up points from the perimeter. The Sun’s defensive rotations were unusually effective inside, leaving Seattle to settle for more jumpers and miss most of them. Maybe the tip-off was too early for the Storm, even in front of their own young crowd. It was a sleepy, tired performance from them for much of the game, and they rarely looked like making a comeback in the second half.

 

Key Players: Bentley’s hot streak in the first half set everything in motion for the Sun – if she doesn’t hit those shots then their confidence doesn’t build early on, and maybe the course of the game turns out to be rather different. But as a team, the Sun were 53% from the field and heavily out-shot the Storm throughout the contest. Much of Bentley’s backup on the scoreboard came from Bone and Chiney Ogwumike, who were also key in Connecticut’s dominance on the glass. Seattle got outworked in virtually every area.

There was little credit for any Storm player to come out of the game. This was the beginning of their run of nine home games in their final 11 outings this season, which was meant to give them the necessary burst to make a playoff push. It was a thoroughly inauspicious start.

 

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Los Angeles Sparks 86 @ Indiana Fever 78

 

Lineups: Los Angeles continue to roll with their triple-post starting lineup, alongside Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver in the backcourt. Indiana point guard Briann January was out with a hyperextended right knee suffered in their game against Atlanta in Saturday, pushing Layshia Clarendon into the starting lineup. Marissa Coleman kept her spot at small forward, in her first game against LA since leaving them as a free agent in the offseason.

 

Story of the Game: The first quarter, and indeed most of the first half, belonged to Indiana. Tamika Catchings didn’t even have to do much, with all the supporting players stepping up and producing. There weren’t many tears shed when Coleman walked away from the Sparks for nothing in the offseason, but apparently she was excited to remind them what she was capable of (albeit disappointingly infrequently). Candace Parker played some pretty insipid defense on her early in the game, but Coleman took full advantage to drill a couple of threes and then start firing in step-back jumpers from all over the floor. Indiana were also the team pushing in transition and creating cheap points for themselves early on – LA’s favourite trick being turned against them.

After being benched for a long stretch of the first quarter after barely involving herself in the game and playing with little energy, Parker was back out to start the second period and gave LA some life. She single-handedly drew the fouls that pushed Indiana into the penalty very quickly in the period, and her all-court offense at least gave the Sparks some kind of foothold in the game. But Indiana were doing a good job of both attacking the glass and getting back in transition – two tasks which can run counter to each other and prove difficult to combine – which allowed them to maintain their lead and be up by 10 at halftime. The lack of second-layer help in LA’s defense, and the rebounds they were giving up to the much smaller Fever, were pretty embarrassing for the Sparks – although if you’re surprised by disappointing sequences of play from LA at this point in 2014, you haven’t been paying attention.

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The Daily W, 07/15/2014

 

Los Angeles Sparks 90 @ Connecticut Sun 64

 

Lineups: As in recent games for both teams. Allison Hightower and Danielle McCray are still working their way back from their respective injuries for Connecticut so were still unavailable.

 

Story of the Game: All the talk around this game surrounded the Ogwumike sisters, facing each other for the first time in the WNBA. Both did indeed seem to have that extra spark of energy, and stretches of the first half felt like an energetic night in the Ogwumike back yard. Both were attacking the basket, both were finishing – often past or over each other – and both led their respective teams in scoring in the first half. LA also had Kristi Toliver looking for her own shot early and hitting a few, and were getting into the heart of Connecticut’s defense far too easily on simple middle-of-the-floor pick-and-rolls. But with some success on the offensive boards – even against the size of LA’s frontcourt – and just as many transition points as the Sparks, the Sun didn’t let the lead get too big in the first half and stayed in contention.

Until we hit the third quarter. Connecticut made a horribly slow start to the second half, with turnovers and missed Kelsey Bone layups scattering their offense. Meanwhile LA continued to pound the ball inside, finally using Candace Parker on the low block a little more, with Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender also taking advantage and transition speed adding cheap points on top. The resulting 17-4 run that opened the third quarter basically decided the game, and Connecticut were never in the contest from there on.

 

Key Players: Offensively, Parker had one of her quietest games of the season, only taking six shots. But the Sparks didn’t need any more from her. Ogwumike and Lavender were productive inside, the team as a whole hit enough jumpers and played good enough collective defense, and that eventually ran Connecticut out of the building. The Sun have now lost seven of their last eight, and haven’t been playing well for a while, but LA still had to show up and take advantage. For once, they did just that.

Chiney Ogwumike had a strong first half, but that was about it for any positive elements from the Sun. They fell apart in the third quarter, with their defense leaving big gaps through the middle and the offense stagnating against LA’s length. Their three primary guards – Alex Bentley, Katie Douglas and Renee Montgomery – combined to shoot 7-31, which didn’t leave them with much chance of staying in the game.

 

Notes of Interest: No one paid much attention to Sandrine Gruda until she threw an elbow into Briana Gilbreath-Butler’s gut late in the first quarter. Gruda used to be a Connecticut player, then decided she didn’t want to bother showing up to play for the Sun, then forced a trade to LA in the offseason. But with a four-year gap since she’d been seen in a Sun jersey, few people in the crowd seemed to remember – until she gave them something to boo about.

 

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Seattle Storm 60 @ Minnesota Lynx 77

 

Lineups: Seattle had what’s become their regular lineup in place, while Minnesota continued to play without Seimone Augustus or Rebekkah Brunson. It’s hoped that both could return soon after the All-Star break.

 

Story of the Game: The first half was reminiscent of the tight, low-scoring affairs we’ve gotten used to Seattle dragging the Lynx into. On the rare occasions that either team got the ball into the paint, both struggled to finish amongst all the defenders that collapsed on top of them to contest. That left both teams shooting a lot of jumpers, with Minnesota having to rely on a lot of those mid-range shots from their bigs that became so important in their previous clashes with Seattle this season. The Storm hit a few shots early on, and benefitted from a hot streak for Camille Little in the middle of the second period where she was successful inside and out, but spent most of the half bricking their own jumpers.

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WNBAlien/Hoop365 Special: Who Should be Going to WNBA All-Star 2014?

 

The usual analysis of Sunday’s games and previews of Tuesday’s will be up sometime Tuesday afternoon, but until then something a little different. The usual WNBAlien detail, depth and disdain, but over at Hoop365 this time, as I take a look at who should be going to Phoenix for the WNBA All-Star Game this weekend.

Just follow this link to take a look: http://www.hoop365.com/nba/western-conference/2014-wnba-all-star-game-who-should-play/