It felt like there was a hell of a lot of WNBA basketball played last night. We’ve had four-game evenings before, but with an early-evening start and late-night finish, and with all the swings and roundabouts that the games took us through, there was a lot to see and talk about. So this time I’m making no promises about keeping things short. Skim-reading is acceptable if you don’t have several hours to dedicate to careful perusal of WNBAlien.
Once again, it’s the Bullet Point Breakdown to try to keep everything moving.
- Chicago decided to try starting small again, as Pokey Chatman grows increasingly tired of watching Ruth Riley do very little out on the floor. She was replaced in the lineup by Serbian forward Sonja Petrovic. The last time the Sky tried it, they got humiliated on the glass by Phoenix, but with Indiana’s small lineup it was an understandable switch.
- The Fever started their usual five, but were short a player due to Erin Phillips’s concussion. That left Jeanette Pohlen and Katie Douglas sliding over to cover the point guard duties whenever Briann January needed a rest.
- The problem with going small against Indiana, is that they can switch practically at will on defense. They want Tammy Sutton-Brown on Sylvia Fowles, but after that pretty much anyone can guard anyone. It makes defense easier.
- The Sky were trying to trap high on ball-screens, but the Fever simply moved the ball out of the trap, rotated an extra pass or two, and were left with wide open shots when the ball movement beat the defensive rotation.
- Indiana also drove aggressively in the opening minutes when the opportunities were available, and were quickly in the penalty. So while they missed a lot of the open shots, the parade of free throws made up for it, and Indiana led 25-15 after a quarter.
- Largely thanks to the perimeter shooting of backups Le’coe Willingham and Shay Murphy, Chicago fought back in the second quarter. Indiana still couldn’t hit a damn thing, which also helped.
- Indiana continue to bring a double-team from the baseline side essentially every time the ball is entered into the low post. And it consistently works. The offensive player feels her defender on her high shoulder, starts to spin into what she thinks is space on the low side, and turns right into the second defender coming across. It happens repeatedly. One time, Sylvia Fowles read it perfectly, and threw the cross-court pass to the player that the tactic leaves wide open on the weak side – and Murphy knocked down the three. But the Fever will live with that happening occasionally. The next time Chicago tried it, Tamika Catchings read the pass and picked it off.
- Talking of passes being picked off, it’s amazing how many turnovers the Sky continue to commit. They’ve practically converted turning the ball over into an art form. Constant, repeated errors on entry passes kill their possessions and hand the ball over cheaply. If they could only start passing to each other instead of the crowd or the opponents, this would be a vastly better team.
- After leading by just 4 at halftime, Indiana took over in the third quarter. First it was those same open shots that had been available early in the game, only with the Fever actually sinking a few of them. Then it was back to the endless free throws, as the Sky struggled to stop them via any route besides hacking. Indiana led 64-51 heading to the fourth.
- Now back to my bête noire with Lin Dunn’s coaching this season. With 8:16 left in the game, Indiana were up 66-55. Catchings was resting on the bench, and Fowles had already found room for two layups in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. And Dunn took Katie Douglas out of the game. I do not understand why it’s impossible to rest Catchings and Douglas at different times. At least one of them should always be on the floor for this team. Indiana’s implosion began right at that second when Dunn took Douglas out.
- Four straight Fever turnovers – Catchings came back midway through, but only joined in the ugliness – helped Chicago storm back into the game. The sides had completely switched roles. Chicago were playing with pace and confidence, scoring most of their points within inches of the rim. Indiana were coughing the ball up painfully cheaply, and firing up nothing but long-range bricks when they held on long enough to shoot.
- Pohlen hit a big three from the corner that kept Indiana in the game in the final minutes, and then – unfortunately for her – all eyes turned to Courtney Vandersloot. The young point guard made three crucial errors in the closing stages of regulation. She went to the rim early in a possession because she had a wide open lane, but blew the layup when January came across to challenge. Moments later, Sloot rammed her shoulder into January and drew an obvious offensive foul and turnover. Then she stepped out of bounds while trying to go around January and dribble up the floor. Considering the history, it was amazing that Chatman left her out there.
- It was largely a question of who could screw up worse in the final seconds. Catchings overthrew an entry pass to an open Jessica Davenport, sailing the ball out of bounds instead. Chicago ran a dreadful possession that stalled when they couldn’t find Fowles, leading to an ugly force from Murphy that missed. The long rebound sent the Fever out on the break, and Vandersloot fouled January hard to prevent the easy layup. At any other stage in the game, it would’ve been a flagrant foul, but when it would’ve been so crucial the officials didn’t have the guts to call it. January went one-of-two at the line to tie the game at 76 with 22 seconds left.
- Chicago’s final possession of regulation was an utter shambles. They barely got the ball inbounds, and then struggled to get it to Ticha Penicheiro (Vandersloot had fouled out when she flattened January). Penicheiro waited far too long to do anything, Fowles wasn’t open, and Swin Cash couldn’t even get a shot off before the buzzer once Ticha dumped the ball to her. A complete mess (and you can probably spread the blame between the players and the coach who drew it up).
- Indiana played significantly better in overtime – Davenport outplayed Fowles with a couple of nice finishes inside, and January was far too quick for Penicheiro to deal with – but the Sky randomly started making midrange shots to hang around. When Douglas went one-of-two at the line, Chicago had the ball back with 16 seconds left, trailing 88-86. A chance at redemption.
- Utter shambles, mark two. Inevitably, everything was focussed around trying to feed it to Fowles on the low-block, but obviously Indiana knew that as well (and equally obviously, Chicago are still dreadful at feeding the post). The angle was blocked, and Penicheiro turned the ball over incredibly cheaply while drifting around the perimeter wondering what else to do. There were still six seconds left, but the Sky responded slowly and couldn’t catch anyone to foul before the clock expired. Indiana somehow held on.
- Well I suppose in the final analysis you can credit Indiana’s defense. They ‘forced’ 27 Sky turnovers, and ‘stopped’ two end-of-game possessions. But that wasn’t pretty. The Fever imploded down the stretch again, and this is becoming an unfortunate habit. They also missed an unbelievable number of open shots and layups earlier in the game that could’ve left them even more comfortable in the fourth quarter. Although Catchings will be in London, everyone else on this roster should be sticking around through the Olympic break. Right now, they look like a team that could use the practice time just to work on their heads. Although some shooting drills wouldn’t go amiss, either.
- Fowles finished the game 11-13 for 24 points and 16 boards. She’s ridiculously efficient, whenever they can actually get her the ball. Her dominance on the glass also allowed Chicago to win the rebounding battle, despite the small lineups (Riley and backup center Carolyn Swords barely played). But without Epiphanny Prince, and with their continued inability to develop sets and plays that enable them to feed Fowles consistently, their offense is constantly a mess. The 27 turnovers were testament to that, and only Murphy and Willingham getting hot from outside kept this game so close for so long. Prince’s return after the break isn’t going to fix all this team’s problems.
- This was a battle between the teams atop their respective conferences, but both sides came in with some issues. The Lynx had lost two in a row, and been lit up from the perimeter in both games. Connecticut had played the night before in Tulsa, and a comfortable win over the league’s also-rans wouldn’t have wiped away the memory of recent losses to Seattle and Indiana. Plus, of course, there was the extra spice that this could be a preview of the WNBA Finals we’ll see at the end of the year.
- The teams had their standard starters, but Minnesota had lost another player from their bench. A broken bone in Devereaux Peters’ hand forced her onto the sidelines next to fellow post Jessica Adair.
- Connecticut broke out to an early lead, with Tina Charles and Asjha Jones looking to score inside and the Lynx completely unable to make any shots. Rebekkah Brunson in particular was struggling to sink anything.
- With Amber Harris the only healthy backup post left for the Lynx, Maya Moore was pressed into service at power forward early and often. At times it was a struggle defensively – Jones took advantage of her initially, and sometimes Moore just didn’t seem to know where she was supposed to be. But it did give Minnesota some extra speed on the floor, and when the Sun brought backup Mistie Mims into the game it was Moore who had the advantage with her quickness and agility. It could also be useful for the Lynx later in the year if Moore can learn the position now – even if they have to suffer through some growing pains.
- With Seimone Augustus imposing herself and making some shots, the Lynx came back into the game in the second quarter. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Kara Lawson was matching her practically shot for shot. Lawson’s having an outstanding season so far, especially shooting the ball, and whichever defender the Lynx used on her she barely missed. Connecticut led 41-38 at halftime.
- The Sun blew the game open in the third quarter, and it didn’t take long. Lawson hit two open threes, with Augustus drifting too far away from her to help elsewhere defensively. Like Toliver in LA, Hammon in San Antonio, Taurasi in Phoenix when she’s healthy, Augustus herself – there are some players you just don’t help away from. You stay home, and let your teammates deal with the rest. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve didn’t enjoy it either, and benched Augustus less than two minutes into the second half.
- It got worse for the Lynx in the third quarter. Connecticut were outshooting and outworking them, and Reeve was constantly messing with her lineup looking for something that might work. It became apparent that not only does having Moore at power forward give Jones the confidence to attack, it also makes her high-low connection with Charles easier, because Moore is simply smaller than most players at that spot.
- Minnesota seemed to spend most of the third quarter bitching about the refs, usually about calls that were clear fouls, regardless of the complaints. Sometimes the advice “shut up and play” is distinctly appropriate. Connecticut were up 70-54 by the end of the third.
- Desperate and running out of ideas, Reeve went to deep backup Erin Thorn to start the fourth quarter. It might be time to start doing that earlier. While initially Connecticut pushed their advantage as high as 20 points, when the Lynx went to a lineup of Thorn, Candice Wiggins, Augustus, Moore and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, things started to click. And if that sounds familiar, it’s not just a weird sense of déjà vu – the exact same thing happened in Minnesota’s last game, when they nearly recovered from a huge fourth-quarter deficit against LA. Moore was at the 4, and Lindsay Whalen on the bench, for that comeback as well.
- Minnesota switching to their 2-3 zone had a big impact as well, with Connecticut looking like they knew what they were supposed to do to break it, but not managing to execute. Instead, they kept firing up ugly perimeter bricks that weren’t going in.
- Meanwhile, Minnesota had started bombing away from three, and hitting (another repeat from the LA game). Wiggins, Moore, and even McWilliams-Franklin all hit from outside, and with 1:43 to play, they trailed just 78-75.
- Once again, a tough decision from the officials hurt the comeback. A combination of McWilliams-Franklin and Augustus blocked Allison Hightower’s driving layup attempt, only for a whistle to call it a foul. Hightower only hit one of the free throws, but it still took a little wind out of Minnesota’s sails.
- Another Moore attempt for three went in-and-out, and then when McWilliams-Franklin stuck her hip out on a screen (Jones did a solid acting job to sell the contact), ending Minnesota’s next possession before it began. That was about all she wrote, and once again the Lynx had dug too big of a hole for them to be able to dig themselves out.
- It’s undoubtedly a scary time for Minnesota fans. Not so long ago we were talking about how long they could stay unbeaten, and whether anyone in the West could test them. Now they’ve lost three straight, and they’re only 1.5 games clear at the top of the conference. While some of their offensive issues have simply been down to missing shots, it’s worrying that their ball movement doesn’t seem to be creating the same shots at the rim that they used to. Players like Moore, Augustus and even Brunson will bounce back with their shooting, but they still need to get back to moving the ball for as many easy opportunities as possible.
- Reeve is probably more worried about the defense. Losing Adair and then Peters hasn’t helped (and Brunson hobbled off with a left calf injury in this game that may well have deepened their problems), but Minnesota’s issues began before they started getting short on posts. It looks like they need some quirks to their established defensive system, just to give teams a different look or to change things up when Plan A isn’t working. They also need to practice the shifts enough to become comfortable with them. Unfortunately, that’s going to be difficult to accomplish over the break with three players in London and half the remainder recovering from injuries.
- The Sun will be very happy with the win, despite the late collapse. The second half of a road back-to-back, they came into the champs’ building and turned them over. Lawson continues to carry the perimeter scoring, while everything else revolves around Jones and Charles. Both had double-doubles again, and Jones seems to have snapped out of the brief slump she was in earlier this season. Charles is a force in the paint, and this was another game where the opponent simply couldn’t deal with her (9-18 for 19 points and 15 boards). They’ve had occasional lapses, but this has been one of the more consistently impressive teams over the first half of the season.
- However, Renee Montgomery hasn’t often been a part of it. If Lawson’s shooting accuracy drops off, you wonder whether the other Sun perimeter players could manage to compensate, especially with Montgomery struggling to make shots.
- Bad news for Seattle before this one even tipped off, with Sue Bird ruled out by a hip flexor injury. That moved rookie Shekinna Stricklen into the starting lineup, with Tanisha Wright sliding over to play the point. Center Ann Wauters was still out with a strained achilles, and backup center Ewelina Kobryn had been a doubt due to an injured hamstring but played. Already starting with 10 players due to Lauren Jackson swallowing a roster spot, Seattle were down to 8 and not looking good before the game even started.
- Los Angeles started with their expected lineup, and they were making everything in the early stages. Even on the rare occasions that they did miss, the likes of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker were cleaning the offensive boards for extra opportunities. Kristi Toliver, who has a history of lighting up Seattle, was making everything even without Bird on the floor to torment.
- Parker was scoring at will as well.
- Seattle managed to cling on to LA’s coattails through the first half. They fought, they played physically, they drove or forced the ball inside so they could get to the free throw line, and they clawed for enough points to at least remain in contention. It also helped that Toliver picked up her third foul early in the second quarter and spent the rest of the half on the bench.
- Seattle also received a decent scoring burst from Kobryn (although the consecutive turnovers and technical foul for slamming the ball down in the first quarter hadn’t been so nice). LA got nothing from their reserves, and led only 41-33 at the break despite being the dominant force for most of the opening 20 minutes.
- Toliver took a remarkable eight seconds to pick up her fourth foul at the start of the second half. With her lack of alternatives, LA coach Carol Ross left her in the game and trusted her to play with them. The Sparks also switched to a 2-3 zone defense, in part to protect Toliver from picking up any more dumb fouls.
- With Seattle completely incapable of making a shot – layups, jumpers, threes: it made no difference – LA’s dominance finally translated into a blowout on the scoreboard in the third quarter. They played with more speed and more aggression, and found some easy points in transition.
- Also, maybe the refs had checked the boxscore at halftime, because after a 14-4 advantage for the Storm in free throw attempts in the first half, they couldn’t buy a call in the third quarter. Now it was LA getting all the whistles, and the 9-point halftime lead was 20 by the end of the third.
- There wasn’t much basketball worth talking about in the fourth quarter. With another game today against Phoenix, if Brian Agler could’ve cleared his bench he would have – there just weren’t enough healthy bodies to send in.
- Sadly, the one notable moment of the fourth quarter was yet another injury, with Ogwumike inadvertently rolling into Tina Thompson and forcing her left leg to twist at an unnatural angle. ESPN’s microphones picked up the squeal of anguish with painful clarity. Thompson hopped off the floor with others supporting her, and it didn’t look good. The good news is that they’re now calling it a strained knee, not an ACL tear (although the former has been known to become the latter after further scans). Don’t expect her to play again until after the break, and even that might be optimistic.
- LA barely came out of that zone once they switched to it, and coasted home to victory. They’ve got another game today as well, so they’ll have been happy for the relaxed minutes.
- For over a half, the Storm put up a decent fight against a team that was hitting everything. Sometimes you simply don’t have the bodies, and it’s just not your night. The injuries will be their primary concern at this point, more than the loss. Although you’d like to see your starting backcourt of Wright and Katie Smith combine for more than 7 shots against LA’s typically pretty terrible perimeter defense.
- For the second game in a row, the Sparks returned to their early-season form. More speed, and better focus and finishing from key players like Parker and Toliver. The defense was good enough against a severely undermanned Seattle team. Suddenly, LA don’t want the break to arrive. Once she stopped fouling everybody, Toliver just kept hitting shots, finishing the game 9-14 for 23 points. The girl loves playing against the Storm. The only negative for LA was that they won this game relying very heavily on their starters. At some point it’d be nice to work out a way to get more from their bench (the eventual return to health of Nicky Anosike and Ebony Hoffman would at least give them more options).
- On the bright side of the injury report, Candice Dupree was back in uniform and available for Phoenix (although she didn’t play after the halftime interval, so there may have been a setback). On the negative side, Angel McCoughtry missed this game for Atlanta due to the sore knee that she’s been carrying for a while (it was an ‘MCL sprain’ the last time it caused her to miss games). The Dream may also have been resting her for the game in LA today, with the expectation of being able to beat Phoenix without her.
- Tiffany Hayes started for McCoughtry, Phoenix opened up with the same group they’ve used now for several games.
- It was a pretty tedious and aimless first half. Atlanta had a brief early lead but couldn’t hold it, and the game drifted to a 34-33 Mercury lead at the break. Neither team was shooting remotely well, with Phoenix particularly awful. Their 11 offensive rebounds had compensated.
- The action began properly with a bizarre third quarter. For a few minutes, Phoenix took over, hit everything in sight, and Atlanta fell apart. Even Alexis Hornbuckle was knocking down threes, and a 16-2 Mercury run gave them a 56-39 lead.
- Then for no apparent reason beyond Cathrine Kraayeveld finding her range and Phoenix’s luck changing, everything swung around and the Dream took charge. A 16-0 run to close the third quarter while the Mercury capitulated cut the score to 56-55. Somehow, the teams had tied the period 22-22, just with massive runs at either end.
- Atlanta carried their momentum into the fourth quarter, behind the perimeter shooting of Kraayeveld and Sancho Lyttle, and transition drives from Hayes. But the Dream aren’t the greatest at holding on to leads even when McCoughtry’s available, and with her on the sidelines they found a way to let the Mercury back in.
- Up three with under 30 seconds to play, the Dream fed Aneika Henry in the paint and she was immediately stripped. The Mercury pushed to the other end with Hornbuckle, who fed Prahalis on the wing, who had the awareness to rotate the ball back to DeWanna Bonner rather than fire herself. Bonner nailed the rainbow three, and we were tied with 16 seconds left.
- The Dream ran a side pick and roll with Lyttle and Ketia Swanier on the final possession, which went virtually nowhere until Hornbuckle took Phoenix’s foul-to-give with 5 seconds left. Then Lyttle tried to make a high post move for a jumper over Krystal Thomas, and got called for a travel. With only 1.2 seconds to work with, Phoenix couldn’t get a shot off at the other end, and we had another overtime game.
- With everyone tiring – and all of them well aware that they had another game starting in about 21 hours – the teams matched each other shot for shot in the first overtime period. Lyttle had a chance to make the winning basket, but an ugly force over Bonner wasn’t close, and for some reason Phoenix declined to call timeout when they grabbed the rebound. With only four seconds left, all they got was a running Bonner effort from deep that never had a chance. On to the second overtime.
- Phoenix finally ran out of steam in the second extra period, and with Lyttle still making her midrange jumpers Atlanta pulled away. Lyttle, Hayes, Henry and Kraayeveld played every single minute from late in the third quarter to the end of the game, and eventually they managed to pull out the win. And don’t forget, Lyttle had only just flown back from Europe, where she played for Spain in a EuroBasket Women qualifier earlier this week.
- This was largely speaking a pretty ugly game, enlivened only by the crazy third quarter and how tight it stayed down the stretch. Anyone who bought a ticket before the season started expecting to see McCoughtry, Taurasi, Taylor and Dupree will have been sorely disappointed. But it still counts 1 in the win column for the Dream, so they’ll take it. Henry, Lyttle and Hayes played insanely heavy minutes (well over 40 each, nearly 49 in Henry’s case), so who knows how well they’ll manage to survive in today’s game against the Sparks. Lyttle led the scoring, mostly from the perimeter, with 31 points on 12-27 from the floor. Hayes had her best offensive game as a pro, finishing 8-13 for 23.
- Phoenix keep on trying with this squad, and they’re still doing the best they can. Charde Houston couldn’t hit anything all day, and Prahalis and Bonner weren’t exactly lighting it up either, or they probably would’ve won this one. 25 offensive boards, as part of a 63-39 advantage on the glass, gave them endless opportunities. But when you can’t make shots it’s hard to win basketball games. On the bright side, if you support the idea that the Mercury are tanking, a hard-working effort that ends in a narrow loss is close to the perfect game.
As you’ll have noticed from the Mercury-Dream game, Sancho Lyttle made it all the way back from Spain in time to play for Atlanta. And put in a hell of a performance considering the distance she’s travelled in the last week.
Today (Sunday July 8th):
San Antonio @ New York, 4pm ET
Washington @ Tulsa, 4pm ET
Atlanta @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Seattle, 9pm ET
Tomorrow (Monday July 9th):