WNBA Today, 07/06/2012: Lynx lit up by LA; and San Antonio win a game of two halves

Yesterday’s pair of WNBA games got off to an amusing start with the news that Andrea Riley had only been unemployed for a matter of days, with LA picking her up after Phoenix cut her loose. Apparently, that 18% shooting for the Mercury (dropping her WNBA career percentage fractionally below the 30% line) had impressed someone in Los Angeles.

But enough about the scrubs; let’s talk about the basketball. The early game was in LA, where the league-leading Minnesota Lynx were the visitors. The Sparks had lost three in a row, by a combined 50 points (and one of those was even against Tulsa), but after a week off they were looking to improve in front of all their screaming young fans. The Lynx weren’t exactly coming in on a high either, after falling to their second defeat of the season in San Antonio on Sunday. Now they had a chance to respond against their other closest rival in the West.

The expected lineups started the game, and Adair, Anosike and Hoffman were still unavailable for their respective teams. The opening minutes of the contest favoured Minnesota, with the Sparks settling for jump shots and the Lynx’s balance finding points from all around their team. But the warning signs of what was to come were already developing. Kristi Toliver was hot from outside from the very start, and Candace Parker looked interested. Whether on length-of-the-court drives, shots in the half-court, or even actual post ups in the paint – Parker’s offense was in the building. So the Lynx led 19-11, but the advantage was short-lived. An insanely deep three from Toliver to close out the first quarter – already her third make in three attempts from beyond the arc – gave LA a 24-21 lead. Parker and Toliver had combined for 22 of the Sparks’ points.

When she’s in rhythm, Toliver’s one of the best pure shooters in the game. And Lindsay Whalen won’t be mistaken for the best defender in the world any time soon. But it was disappointing for the Lynx that Toliver was so wide open for several of her outside shots. It’s not like this is new – she’s lit up plenty of teams before, and the Lynx suffered a deluge of three-pointers in their previous game against San Antonio. On occasion the defense just got lost, or Toliver pulled up from so deep that you could hardly blame them for not being right in her face. But some of her open shots were caused by the exact same issue that left so many Silver Stars open on Sunday. A post comes out to set a ball screen for Toliver, the guard gets picked off, the other defender doesn’t show high enough on the shooter, and she simply takes the open shot. It’s pretty much the first thing you were ever taught when someone told you what a screen was. A teammate gets in the way of your defender – now look how open you are! Go score! The Lynx needed to do more to cut her off, and live with the consequences elsewhere on the floor.

The offensive effectiveness of Parker and Toliver carried right on into the second quarter, and it was only Minnesota’s own scoring ability that was keeping them in the game. Seimone Augustus was nearly as hot as Toliver, and her perimeter shooting combined with some transition points kept them in it. By halftime, Parker and Toliver had 30 between them (Toliver was now 5-5 from three-point range) and LA were up 49-43.

The problem for the Lynx is that Toliver in particular is a player that thrives on confidence and momentum. It applies to Parker and some of the other Sparks as well, albeit not to quite the same extent. LA had their tails up after their free-flowing, high-scoring first half, and came right at the Lynx in the third quarter. Minnesota tried to come out with a slightly different approach defensively, pressing and trapping up high, but it didn’t work (and the Lynx looked uncomfortable trying to alter their defensive style). With their key scorers rolling, LA were in control, and another wide open Toliver three gave them a 65-52 lead. That pushed Cheryl Reeve into an exasperated timeout with barely five minutes gone in the second half.

The rest of the game seemed like an exercise in Reeve trying to find anything that would work. LA were in such a rhythm that they were running offensive plays quickly in semi-transition without even thinking about them, hitting shots or getting to the rim with ease. Reeve tried a lineup of four bench players plus Maya Moore, hoping her kids could inject some speed and energy. Then she tried Moore at power forward, the lineup that looked like it might become necessary the last time they faced the Sparks. Nothing was working, and LA’s lead hit 20 points early in the fourth quarter.

It looked like the kids would all be going home happy, telling tales of a big home win, before LA almost contrived to let it slip in the final minutes. Whether through utter desperation or because she’d practically given up, Reeve went to the end of her bench for guard Erin Thorn early in the fourth quarter. A lineup of Thorn, Candice Wiggins, Augustus, Moore and a post started gunning away, and a relaxed Sparks team had become lazy and sloppy too soon. It’s not like they’d cleared the bench, either – Parker and Toliver both played virtually the entire fourth quarter. A 15-2 run for the Lynx, topped off by a Moore three from Toliver-range, cut the score to 84-78 with 2:31 left on the clock. It seemed like the miracle recovery might be on.

Then came a big call from the officials – which wasn’t seen by anyone outside the arena thanks to some dismal direction of the TV broadcast. Nneka Ogwumike missed in the paint for LA, grabbed her own rebound, then had her second effort summarily blocked by Taj McWilliams-Franklin. While LA were about to make the inbounds pass, Moore was called for a dead-ball foul on Parker. It was Moore’s sixth foul, removing her from the contest, and it took the steam out of Minnesota’s comeback.

There was still plenty of effort to keep it interesting from the Lynx. They were close enough to warrant fouling down the stretch, and LA were dumb enough to repeatedly foul Minnesota shooters even after they missed the threes that could’ve made it really interesting. But as it turned out, LA’s lead had been just too big for them to blow – the Sparks held on to win 96-90.

This game was a return to the early days of the season for LA. With Toliver making her shots, everything about her brightens up on the court and she focuses more, making fewer errors in other aspects of her game. Remember, while it seems like an age ago, it was only LA’s last game when she was benched to start the second half in favour of Coco Miller (who has since been cut). Maybe the message got through, and we’ll see more of this Kristi for the rest of the season. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to play your best and keep your head in the game when the shots are falling. It’ll be interesting to see whether she can do it on a night when she’s less successful from outside.

Toliver finished 8-13 from the floor (6-6 from three-point range, tying a WNBA record for perfection from outside), for 29 points and 6 assists. Parker was 8-13 as well, for 28 points and 13 boards. This team still has flaws – one game where shots were going in and they had a huge advantage at the free-throw line doesn’t wipe that away. But after some ugly recent results, this could be the fillip they needed to close out the first half of the season strongly.

The other side of the coin is that there’s no need for Lynx fans to panic. Two losses in a row isn’t pleasant when you’ve grown so accustomed to winning, but it happens. They shot a little better in this game, showed the fight to get back in it in the fourth quarter and still pulled down 16 offensive boards. They’re still in good shape. The worrying element is how both San Antonio and LA lit them up from outside. The Silver Stars were 13-25 from three-point range, and LA finished 8-16. Sometimes teams just get hot, and there’s no need to overhaul a defense that’s been working so well for the best part of two years. But they need to be able to adapt it if there are signs of teams heating up like this in the early stages. Trapping, hedging, switching or double-teaming all bring their own risks, but a wide open 18-footer from someone like Ogwumike is preferable to Toliver firing yet another open three. It’s pick your poison, but sometimes you have to make a different choice.

—–

We have a very common cliché over here in the UK, used mainly in soccer (although it’s bled over into other sports). “It was a game of two halves” is clearly a statement of the blindingly obvious (as long as you’re not playing ice hockey), but it’s thrown out whenever there’s a massive change in the game midway through. Last night’s other WNBA game provided a perfect example.

The Indiana Fever have had an inconsistent year so far, mixing big wins with desperate losses from one game to the next. Their visitors yesterday were San Antonio, who arrived on the back of a four-game winning streak that included two comfortable defeats of LA and shooting their way past the Lynx. This game kicked off a four-game Eastern road swing for San Antonio, and the opponents only get easier. If they could start well in Indiana, there’s a chance that they could hit the Olympic break on a huge upswing.

Both teams opened the game with their standard lineups, and it was Indiana who got out to the strong start. Defensively, the Fever were doing a far better job of staying tight on San Antonio’s perimeter shooters than we’ve seen from teams like Minnesota, Phoenix and LA recently. They ‘ice’ on the sidelines to push offensive players towards the baseline, and they’re perfectly willing to switch on screens if it’s necessary to stay in front of an opponent with the ball. It meant the barrage of outside shots that had been a mainstay of San Antonio’s offense in recent wins wasn’t there in the first half.

Meanwhile, Indiana were raining in shots at the other end. The Fever had a grand total of two points in the paint in the entire first half, and that was on a Tamika Catchings driving layup with barely two minutes left in the half. Everything else was draw-and-kick, or off-ball screens and skip passes, usually for threes. And when they were open, they weren’t missing. Recent San Antonio opponents tuning in for this one must’ve felt a frisson of pleasure at seeing the Silver Stars forced to swallow a taste of their own medicine. Briann January was the main scorer (4-6 from outside), but five different Fever players made threes in the first half as the team went 9-13 from deep in the opening 20 minutes. Without even being able to create many decent looks from the perimeter – they only took five threes in the first half – San Antonio couldn’t keep up. The Silver Stars’ switch to a 2-3 zone defense unsettled the Fever and pulled them back into the game early in the second quarter, but the barrage of threes pushed Indiana right back out again. The Fever led by as much as 18 points, and were eventually up 43-28 at the break.

Oh to be a fly on the wall in the San Antonio locker room at halftime. Whatever head coach Dan Hughes said or did, he might want to patent it. This was a completely different game in the second half (“game of two halves”, remember?). The Silver Stars emerged after the break with more energy, and crucially more speed. Everything about them just seemed to be flowing faster from one end of the floor to the other. Danielle Robinson, who’s quietly had a solid second year in the WNBA, was on the ball and pushing at every opportunity. She’s lightning quick, and her aggression had the Fever back on their heels. It created early offense, and transition points that hadn’t been any part of the game in the first half. Indiana were shellshocked, their offense fell apart in the face of San Antonio’s onslaught at the other end, and their lead was wiped out by the end of the third quarter.

In many ways, San Antonio were turning Indiana’s own game back against them in the second half. They spent the vast majority of the half with a lineup of Robinson, Becky Hammon, Jia Perkins, Sophia Young and Danielle Adams on the floor. That’s a seriously small team – the same small group that began the season as their starting lineup but which they’ve transitioned away from. It puts quickness and an array of scoring weapons on the floor, and when they’re flowing it’s a nightmare to deal with. With Indiana center Tammy Sutton-Brown a complete non-factor offensively and on the glass, and backup Jessica Davenport little better when she was given a chance, the Fever weren’t gaining anything from their side of the mismatches. Their ‘small’ lineup was being beaten up by an even smaller one.

Also,and I’ve harped on this before, both Catchings and Katie Douglas were sat on the bench for a key two-minute stretch early in the fourth quarter. I still don’t understand why, on a team with two star players, it’s so hard to rest them at different times. Those two should never be off the floor together for the Fever, outside of injury or a late 20-point gap. The Silver Stars took the lead in the opening moments of the fourth, and with all the momentum in San Antonio’s favour, Indiana got desperate for the remainder of the game. They didn’t have the movement or variety from earlier in the contest, running side pick-and-rolls for Douglas over and over again whether they worked or not. Meanwhile, San Antonio couldn’t stop scoring, whoever was taking the shots. Their ball movement and teamwork found shots for everyone early in the period; then Hammon took over with a couple of her trademark crafty drives into the paint; then Perkins started knocking down everything from the perimeter. A game that Indiana had led by 18 points in the second quarter had spun around and was essentially over midway through the fourth. San Antonio coasted home to an 88-72 victory.

For Indiana, this was a little embarrassing. They dominated in the first half, and while San Antonio came out with fire in their bellies after the break, the Fever played a major part in their own downfall. They weren’t moving the ball to open shooters anywhere near as well, or sliding and helping as efficiently defensively. They took their foot off the pedal, and it proved fatal. Catchings finished the game 7-14 for 17 points and 15 boards, but she was the only Indiana player doing anything on the glass (no one else had more than three). Rebounding has to be a team effort when you play a smaller lineup, and against an awful rebounding team in San Antonio the Fever lost that interior battle. Douglas was 6-21 for 19 points and started to force shots more and more as the game went on. It was another game where Indiana eventually looked like the ‘two-players-and-who-else?’ team that we’ve seen in prior years, not the balanced outfit that started this season.

From a San Antonio perspective, what an explosion in the second half. And for once it wasn’t all about perimeter shooting. They had 26 points in the paint in the second half (of 60 total), and they used their penetration and aggression to build the rhythm that then had them making outside shots. It was nice to see a shake up in their approach when nothing had been working in the first half. Not all teams will capitulate like the Fever did – and San Antonio won’t always shoot 26-36 (72%) as they did in this second half – but it’s an impressive club to have in their bag. Yet again, they looked dangerous once they worked out the kinks. This team seems to be finding themselves as the season progresses, and if they can keep building towards the postseason no one’s going to want to face them in the playoffs.

 

Notes

As mentioned above, Andrea Riley was signed in LA after Phoenix cut her. Other players given seven-day contracts following the mid-season cut-off point were Katelan Redmon (New York), Lynetta Kizer (Phoenix) and Jessica Moore (Atlanta). Moore is replacing herself on the Dream, after being cut just before the mid-point of the season. It allows Atlanta to save their remaining cap space to potentially go in a different direction later in the year.

The Dream needed Moore back, because Sancho Lyttle finally left to help Spain in their EuroBasket Women 2013 qualifiers (and played 29 minutes in an upset home loss to Sweden on Wednesday). With the current state of Spain’s group, they’ll likely want her for their remaining games, so Atlanta will probably be without Lyttle until after the Olympics. Currently in the middle of a six-game roadtrip that’s about to head out West, it could be an ugly finish to the first half of the year for the Dream.

Still playing, but not for much longer, is Tully Bevilaqua, who announced that this will be her last WNBA season. The much-loved, sparky backup point guard got a nice send-off from the Indiana fans last night. She’ll be fondly remembered for her never-say-die attitude and all the floor burns she picked up diving after balls for teams in Cleveland, Portland, Seattle, Indiana and San Antonio.

 

Upcoming Games

Today (Friday July 6th):

San Antonio @ Washington, 7pm ET

Connecticut @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

New York @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET

—–

Tomorrow (Saturday July 7th):

Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET

Connecticut @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

Atlanta @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

Seattle @ Los Angeles, 10pm ET

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