WNBA Today, 09/11/2013: Playoff contenders finalised as Mystics make it in; Mercury and Lynx wins cement West seeding

 

While they largely confirmed things that had become inevitable, the combination of last night’s three WNBA results cemented several elements of the upcoming playoffs. We now know exactly what’s coming in the Western Conference, and there’s only one unknown holding up the East. We might see a lot of players grabbing some rest over the next few days.

 

Washington Mystics 69 @ Indiana Fever 67

  • Washington came into this game still needing a win to confirm their playoff participation. Undoubtedly Mike Thibault and his squad were as aware as anyone that New York were incredibly unlikely to run the table and make them require that win, but earning your way into the postseason with a victory would feel much sweeter than waiting for the Liberty to lose. Sitting just one game ahead of the Mystics prior to this game, Indiana could claim at least the #3 seed with a win, but would drop into a tie with Washington if they lost. Their outstanding record against Chicago makes you wonder if they might not prefer the #4, but playing well and winning games heading into the playoffs was clearly worth more to them than trying to finagle the matchups. Otherwise Tamika Catchings would’ve taken the night off, and Erin Phillips wouldn’t have returned so quickly from her eye injury. They were still without Katie Douglas, however, despite reports that she was virtually ready to return.

 

  • There’s one important element to the Douglas situation that seems to have gone largely overlooked. Remember way back at the start of the season when Indiana were allowed to keep 12 players due to injuries, without ever seeming to establish who the ‘exception’ 12th was? Well at some point, it became clear that the 12th player was Jessica Breland. Unfortunately, the Fever appear to have painted themselves into a corner. Breland has become their only viable backup post behind Catchings and Erlana Larkins, with Jessica Davenport injured and Jasmine Hassell barely ever used. But their roster’s healthy enough now that when (and if) Douglas returns, Breland would have to be immediately released because the ‘hardship exception’ would no longer apply. So while Douglas has been their second-best player for several years, having her back for the postseason would mean going into the postseason with only Hassell to spell Catchings and Larkins (or Karima Christmas sliding over in an incredibly small lineup, in a role she hasn’t played all season). It’s an unfortunate Catch 22. Chicago avoided something similar by waiving Avery Warley 10 days ago, giving them time to cut someone else and re-sign her for the playoffs. Maybe Indiana should’ve done the same, but it’s too late now (there’s a 10-day waiting period between cutting someone and being able to re-sign them, and there are now fewer than 10 days left in the season). Keeping Breland may have become more important to Indiana than adding a likely half-fit Douglas to the playoff roster.

 

  • But back to last night’s game. Washington started well, looking for Kia Vaughn inside to use her height advantage on the Indiana posts, and penetrating far too often for Indiana head coach Lin Dunn’s liking. The Mystics get themselves into trouble sometimes by settling for jump shots, especially when there’s minimal ball movement before they just fire away. This was better than we’d seen in several recent performances.

 

  • As the first half progressed, Indiana came back into the game through Karima Christmas and Briann January, along with Washington’s offense cooling off a little. Christmas has been one of the positives for Indiana this year, developing herself into a useful complementary player who’ll make hustle plays, defend, and hit a few threes. January’s not had a great season at all, and she missed some layups in this game that reminded everyone of one of her noticeable failings, but she hit some shots from outside and completed a drive or two to help out the Fever offense. By halftime Indiana were 5-12 from beyond the arc, and trailed only 40-37.

 

  • It was a tight second half, with neither team able to sustain enough offense to pull away. Washington started to have some problems with Indiana’s defensive pressure, as the Fever came up with better defensive energy in the second half. The Mystics were being forced into some bad shots, which let Indiana back into the game. But with Shavonte Zellous struggling to hit shots – and then looking a little hesitant as a result – Indiana couldn’t keep their run going. There was an awful lot of dribbling from both teams, as shot clocks ran down and the offenses didn’t really go anywhere.

 

  • Talking of endless dribbling, it’s going to be interesting to see if Dunn sticks with Layshia Clarendon as her backup point guard for significant minutes in the playoffs – when the games really matter. Dunn’s clearly been trying to groom Clarendon into the role over the season, but the ball tends to stick in her hands for too long, and she’s as poor a finisher at the rim as January. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Phillips get most of those point guard minutes in the postseason, or to see them simply let Catchings run the offense when January rests, while the guards play off the ball on the wings.

 

  • The other element that helped Washington out in the second half was that their bench produced, rather than leading to a breakdown in the offense as they had in the first half. Michelle Snow and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt both made a couple of plays, and the big shots came from rookie guard Tayler Hill. She hasn’t stepped up in many games this year, largely being a disappointment after being taken with the #4 overall pick in April, but she had three triples in the second half that helped keep the Mystics offense afloat.

 

  • Both teams struggled to make shots in the final minutes to close out the game. January converted a layup with under three minutes left to make it a one-point game, but then Hill and Catchings (twice) missed jumpers. Crystal Langhorne needed Catchings to trip in order to make a layup that took Washington’s lead to three. January missed from outside, then from inside, before Monique Currie missed as well. Both teams were switching on high picks, allowing mismatches to be created, but neither could actually take advantage of what they were left with.

 

  • Catchings cut the gap back to a point with 8 seconds left, when Washington virtually conceded the drive to prevent Indiana tying the game. Hill made a pair of foul shots to push the gap back to three. January airballed another attempt from deep, only for Zellous to grab it out of the air and lay in the putback, but with just 1.2s left on the clock. Hill went 1-of-2 at the line, giving Indiana one final chance with only 0.8s remaining. They advanced the ball with a timeout, and tried to run a backscreen for Larkins with an alley-oop lob to the rim, but Washington read it and cut it off easily. Without the need to check results from elsewhere, the Mystics had made the playoffs.

 

  • It’s a heck of an achievement from Thibault and his team, who most people predicted to finish rock bottom of the East yet again. The turnaround from the last couple of years under Trudi Lacey, without the help of a star rookie or big name signing, has been truly impressive. Now they’re back to ‘nobody believes in us’ status again, because they’re going to be heavy underdogs in the first round whether they end up facing Atlanta or Chicago. Maybe results will end up going as everyone expects, but underestimating the Mystics has gotten people in trouble already this season. They’ll be primed to cause another surprise, and they certainly won’t make it easy for anyone.

 

  • It was a scrappy game for Indiana. The offense is still so desperately hit-or-miss that it leaves them prone to long scoring droughts, which allow opponents to hang around in games even when the Fever defense is doing its job. Their experience, defense and never-say-die attitude is going to make them a dangerous playoff opponent, but they’re going to need to have enough hot shooting nights to win two out of three games in each series. Right now, that seems less likely than last year.

 

  • In terms of the standings, this result cemented Atlanta as the #2 seed in the East, because they win any possible tie-break over Indiana or Washington (or both). The Fever and Mystics are tied right now, and Indiana win any two-way tie-break between the pair (Washington would hop above Indiana in the unlikely event of a three-way tie with Atlanta as well). It’ll be interesting to see if any Fever or Mystics players are rested in their remaining games.

 

 

Phoenix Mercury 80 @ New York Liberty 76

  • When this game began, New York still had theoretical playoff hopes, because the tip-off was simultaneous with the game above. But the Liberty apparently didn’t give themselves much of a chance, because star guard Cappie Pondexter took the night off with a bruised knee. She did crash into a defender in the last game, so the pain was undoubtedly legitimate, but I suspect Pondexter would’ve played if they’d felt the playoffs were a realistic possibility. Phoenix, for only the fifth time all season, had 11 healthy bodies available (they were 3-1 in those games so far, even with three of them taking place back in the Gaines era).

 

  • There was a nice pre-game tribute to Liberty guard Katie Smith, who’s retiring as a player after this season following an outstanding career. She seemed energised by the attention, and carried the Liberty offense through much of the opening quarter with deep jumpers (and one pretty behind-the-back assist to Plenette Pierson). She’s also smart enough to know that without Pondexter the Liberty needed offense from somewhere, so she had to be more aggressive in looking to score.

 

  • However, it was Phoenix who pulled away in the first quarter, with New York completely incapable of stopping them from scoring. Diana Taurasi had a couple of pullup threes, Brittney Griner was finishing inside, DeWanna Bonner was hitting from outside – the Mercury offense was flowing happily.

 

  • But amazingly, New York had 13 offensive rebounds in the opening period, showing they hadn’t quit on the season just yet. With that many extra chances, virtually any team could stay in touch.

 

  • New York had an interesting approach to dealing with Griner, compared to what we’ve seen from most teams over the course of the season. They basically let their centers handle her, straight-up. Double-teams didn’t come, with defenders staying home while Kara Braxton and Kelsey Bone did the best they could. It backfired once or twice, but in general worked out okay. The Liberty posts also weren’t afraid to go at the Mercury inside when New York had the ball, and while Braxton struggled early on Bone had some success later in the first half. Bone did most of her work against Krystal Thomas rather than Griner – which is a pretty ginormous difference – but still. With Alex Montgomery hitting a few shots from outside as well, and Phoenix’s offense stalling under the weight of missed shots and turnovers in the second quarter, New York trailed only 43-41 at halftime.

 

  • One of the primary highlights of the second half was that continuing battle down low. Some hints of Good Kara showed up, with Braxton looking up for the fight with Griner inside. Early in the third quarter the Liberty brought Braxton out high to set screens, dragging Griner into trying to defend the pick-and-roll. Then Braxton’s physical defense frustrated the rookie, and she even converted once or twice going right at Griner inside. The kid might have all the hype, but some of the league’s vets are still more than ready to stand up to her and go toe-to-toe.

 

  • Midway through the third quarter, Taurasi got herself in trouble again by throwing off Montgomery’s arm after the Liberty wing caught her in the face during the battle for a rebound. The eventual call was a personal foul on Montgomery, followed by a technical on Taurasi for her reaction. It might’ve been a little harsh, but when she constantly pushes off anyone who remotely touches her, and got away scot free with intentional elbows right into the gut of Angel McCoughtry and Plenette Pierson in the last two games alone, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Taurasi. It’s her ninth technical of the season and will result in another one-game suspension. Unfortunately, it means she’ll miss tonight’s nationally televised game against Chicago.

 

  • Penny Taylor made a couple of useful plays in this game, just her second since returning from her knee injury. She hit a jumper or two, and drew contact on drives several times to earn trips to the free throw line. She’ll probably remain on limited minutes, maybe even right through the playoffs, but she’s a significant step up from Briana Gilbreath as the Mercury’s additional perimeter player alongside Taurasi and Bonner. She could be an important addition going into the postseason.

 

  • Candice Dupree was the primary weapon for Phoenix in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter. They went to her on isolations and pick-and-rolls several times, and she delivered with soft jumpers over various Liberty forwards. For all the issues around her defense, and occasionally around her rebounding effort, Dupree can be an extremely smooth scorer. She’s a big part of the Mercury’s offense, and alongside Taurasi she’s been their most reliable option this season.

 

  • The game was still tight in the fourth quarter, but the basketball gods refused to allow Smith to provide a fairytale ending to the night where she’d been honoured. She missed a couple of attempts from deep, and Bonner punished some lax transition defense from New York after Smith’s second miss with her own triple, extending Phoenix’s lead to six with under three minutes left. Kelsey Bone helped pull the gap back down to two with a jumper and a layup (the latter on a nice feed from Smith), and misses from Griner and Taurasi gave New York the ball back with 9 seconds left, trailing by just two. Unfortunately Smith’s inbounds pass went directly into the hand of Gilbreath, who grabbed the ball and handed it off to Taurasi. New York had to foul, Taurasi made a pair at the line, and that was the game.

 

  • For New York, it’s final confirmation that they’re a lottery team, but that’s been pretty obvious for a while. Even when Pondexter was healthy and in the mix, they’ve not had enough to win games this year, especially from the perimeter. The loss of Essence Carson early in the season was painful, as was the fact that Cheryl Ford never even took the floor, and in the end it’s been a depressing year in many ways. But there were flashes of promise from both Bone and Toni Young in this game, reminding everyone of the promise that’s already there. This was also the Liberty’s final game in New Jersey’s Prudential Center, before returning to Madison Square Garden next season. With a lottery pick on the way, along with whatever other magic Bill Laimbeer can come up with in the offseason, Liberty fans will be hoping for better when they’re back home next year.

 

  • While broadcasters have been conspicuously ignoring the weak schedule Phoenix have played since he took over, it’s a fact that the Mercury are now 8-2 since Russ Pennell became head coach. The defensive effort is better, even if they still make plenty of mistakes at that end of the floor (and Taurasi’s still terrible defensively). Offensively, they’ve still got the weapons to frighten anyone on a given night. Maybe it’s a positive that they’ve performed so far below most people’s preseason expectations, so that they’ll go into the first round of the playoffs as underdogs. Even with all that talent, they can be a surprise package now. They’re still some distance from putting everything together, but we’ve seen teams ‘click’ for the postseason before. If it happens for Phoenix, they could still be very dangerous.

 

 

Minnesota Lynx 73 @ Seattle Storm 60

  • With the Mercury’s win earlier in the evening leaving Seattle’s chances of jumping to the #3 seed in the West even slimmer, Storm point guard Temeka Johnson took the night off to rest a heel injury. Considering Seattle had lost three times to Minnesota this season, in essentially three blowouts, their prospects for this game weren’t looking good. Noelle Quinn replaced Johnson in the starting lineup, with Tanisha Wright sliding over to take on most of the point guard responsibilities.

 

  • Minnesota looked sleepy offensively in the early minutes, maybe expecting this result to come without much effort considering previous games against the Storm, and once again the Lynx jump shots weren’t falling. But Seattle were struggling badly on offense, and coughing up some ugly turnovers when they tried to force passes that weren’t there against Minnesota’s hard-working defense. That translated into transition opportunities for the Lynx, and led to a seemingly inevitable Minnesota lead.

 

  • With the Lynx dominating the glass, Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus hitting a couple of shots, and Lindsay Whalen getting practically whatever she wanted off the dribble, Minnesota began to take the game over in the second quarter. Seattle’s heads dropped as the turnovers piled up and they couldn’t create anything offensively, so the number of perimeter shots that Minnesota were missing didn’t really seem to matter. The Lynx led 40-28 at halftime, but that 12-point gap was a chasm.

 

  • The second half felt like essentially a formality, virtually from beginning to end. Seattle didn’t seem to have any faith that they could even threaten a comeback, so the Lynx just rolled along in total control. Their lead was as high as 24 points, and the eventual 13-point margin at the end didn’t reflect the gap through the course of the game. It was a bigger blowout than 13 points would indicate.

 

  • This result confirmed the playoff spots in the West. Definitively, Minnesota are now the #1 seeds, Los Angeles are #2, Phoenix #3, and Seattle #4. The only things left to play for are home-court advantage in potential WNBA Finals matchups with Eastern teams, and momentum heading into the postseason.

 

  • This was another worrying game for Seattle, considering they’ll be facing the Lynx in the first-round when the playoffs begin in about a week. Maybe Brian Agler is saving a trick or two for the postseason, but the Storm haven’t looked capable of matching Minnesota in any of their four encounters this season. The Lynx have won them all by double-digits, with a combined margin of 69 points (and that’s despite Minnesota relaxing at the end of blowouts). It’s hard to see how Seattle could have any confidence going into that first-round series, and hard to envision how they could possibly win two-out-of-three. It’s been a solid, impressive season from Agler and his squad, considering they’ve been without Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson throughout, but it’s going to take a huge upset to extend it past one round of the playoffs.

 

  • For Minnesota, this was just another dominant performance over a team they’ve been dominating for a while. The last couple of games have shown that they can beat Seattle fairly comfortably even when their shots aren’t dropping, which is an extra level of confidence to add to their armour considering how well the Lynx typically shoot the ball. Complacency may be their biggest threat heading into the first-round. With everything bar home-court against Chicago already decided, it’ll be interesting to see how seriously the Lynx and Sparks take their final regular season encounter on Thursday night. Do you play hard for the mental edge over the team you may well face in the Western Conference Finals, or start resting players and running very basic sets to avoid giving anything whatsoever away?

 

 

Notes

The Chicago Sky waived backup point guard Sharnee Zoll-Norman today in order to re-sign post Avery Warley. As I pointed out when they released Warley, there was a 10-day waiting period to be able to re-sign her, and that’s exactly how long they waited before bringing her back. Zoll-Norman seems like the right choice as the player to release to make room. She hasn’t been particularly effective this season as Courtney Vandersloot’s backup, and Epiphanny Prince can slide over instead when Vandersloot needs a rest (or, if Pokey Chatman’s still slightly insane, they can use Allie Quigley at the point). Warley gives them a second backup post along with Michelle Campbell, and going into the playoffs with just one would’ve been a little risky. Quigley and Shay Murphy give the Sky bench options who have the potential to provide an offensive boost on a random night, which Zoll doesn’t offer.

 

 

Upcoming Games

 

Wednesday September 11th (today):

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. Bizarrely, Connecticut +6.5 actually tempts me now that Tina Charles is done for the year. The Sun team are more threatening as a pesky underdog with lots of role players playing for each other than they were with their superstar available. But the Dream need to pick up their play and their energy heading into the playoffs, and this is a good place to start. So I’ll take Atlanta.

 

Phoenix @ Chicago, 8pm ET. With Taurasi suspended, and Penny Taylor likely resting to avoid playing back-to-back nights, Chicago -8.5 isn’t enough to put me off. Especially considering Chatman was still playing her stars heavy minutes in their last game, which had the same minimal meaning for the Sky as this one. I’ll take Chicago to win and cover.

 

—–

Thursday September 12th (tomorrow):

Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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