The Daily W, 09/02/2014: Sky need double OT, but battle past Fever to force Eastern decider

 

Indiana Fever 84 @ Chicago Sky 86 (2OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1.

 

Story of the Game: The early stages of this game were pretty dull and very even. Chicago got Sylvia Fowles involved, and got out in transition a little, which were both good signs for the Sky. Briann January and Shavonte Zellous weren’t shooting as well from the perimeter as they had in stretches of Game 1 for Indiana, but the Fever were already picking up offensive boards and second-chance points. It all balanced out.

 

Fowles hurt her own team with silly mistakes early in the second quarter – although Pokey Chatman’s scheme was arguably just as much to blame. As we’ve seen several times before, Fowles picked up a foul 30 feet away from the hoop trying to hedge hard on a screen, only to make too much contact with the ballhandler. That was her second foul of the game, and was immediately followed by an easy Karima Christmas layup for Indiana when Fowles let her go to avoid adding her third. Minutes later, Fowles hedged hard again, picked up that third foul, and spent the last 6:34 of the first half on the bench as a result. When you’ve got a franchise center who you desperately need on the court, it’s insane to have her using up her six fouls – and forcing herself to the bench – by hedging so hard a mile away from the basket.

 

Chicago were down by six when Fowles sat down, and that gap grew as high as 14 in the second quarter with her on the bench. The Sky’s help defense collapsed as Chatman cycled through Sasha Goodlett and Markeisha Gatling in the search for someone to fill the center spot, Erlana Larkins suddenly started scoring inside, and a tight game became one-sided. It also allowed Indiana to be even more obvious in sending extra defenders to stop Elena Delle Donne whenever she tried to attack Tamika Catchings, and slow down Chicago’s scoring even further.

 

Chatman went a little gimmicky with her lineup to close out the first half, using Gatling for the first time in the entire playoffs and going small on the perimeter with Courtney Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley all playing together. With Quigley hitting a couple of threes in the closing stages, it helped to give the Sky a small foothold back in the game, and pull within eight at halftime. Considering how the second quarter had gone, the amount of time Fowles had spent on the bench and the significant rebounding advantage Indiana had achieved, only being down eight felt like a win for Chicago.

 

It took just under three minutes of the third quarter for Chatman to realise something that had become increasingly obvious to everybody during the first half – that her best lineup on this particular night involved gluing Prince’s backside to the bench. She hadn’t been able to hit anything all night, whether on jumpers or layups, and considering her ability to create her own offense is the main reason to have her on the floor, that made her a liability. Quigley came in instead, and Prince wouldn’t return for a long time.

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The Daily W, 09/01/2014: Star trio hit the shots for Lynx to force Game 3 against Mercury

 

Phoenix Mercury 77 @ Minnesota Lynx 82

 

Lineups: Nothing changed. Neither of these teams was going to mess with something as basic as their starting lineup after the success they’ve had with their established groups. Phoenix did change their defensive matchups at halftime in Game 1, with Candice Dupree taking Janel McCarville and Brittney Griner switching to Rebekkah Brunson. They went with that from the start in Game 2, although essentially Griner’s guarded whichever opposing post hangs closer to the rim all season long.

 

Story of the Game: With their home crowd primed to explode and loving that Diana Taurasi was called for a push-off on the opening possession, Minnesota nonetheless got off to another awful start. They had no offensive rhythm, the ball was static once again, and they settled for – and missed – a lot of jump shots. They also saw Janel McCarville pick up two fouls in under three minutes, then Devereaux Peters sub in for her and do the same in less than two minutes of action. So not only were they falling behind, but two of their primary post defenders were already in foul trouble – and they hadn’t even picked the fouls up while defending Griner. The calls hadn’t gone Minnesota’s way, but it was still a horrible start and much of it self-inflicted.

 

The Lynx had at least managed to disrupt Phoenix’s flow a little with their defense. They’d extended out higher on the perimeter, making it harder for Phoenix to initiate their offense and get the ball moving. They were also mixing up the matchups, with Maya Moore often on Penny Taylor while Seimone Augustus (or Monica Wright, after an early sub) took DeWanna Bonner. The more straightforward matchup, which they stuck with for most of Game 1, was to have Moore guard Bonner. As Bonner was always guarding Moore, it made things easier to stay the same at the other end. But the Lynx cross-matched more in Game 2, and considering both Bonner and Taylor were much quieter than in Game 1, it ultimately had to be considered a success.

 

But in the opening period the Mercury were still racking up enough points to move into a double-digit lead. With a Lindsay Whalen driving layup the only Lynx success in their first 12 shots, the Mercury could hardly avoid it.

 

Minnesota finally started to pick things up in the second quarter. A few jumpers fell in for Whalen, Moore and Augustus early in the period to kick-start the offense, and there was a little more penetration and ball movement to create the space for those shots. McCarville’s minutes were once again limited by foul trouble, although the return of Damiris Dantas from overseas had at least given the Lynx another post that Cheryl Reeve was willing to use. The game got increasingly chippy in the second period as well, with Taurasi called for a technical after bitching a little too long and hard about the lack of a call on one of her missed shots, then Reeve adding her own tech after an argument with official Amy Bonner about staying in the coaching box. According to ESPN reports from the sideline, it was Taurasi who suggested to Bonner that she should keep an eye on Reeve’s movements, just to add an extra level to it all.

 

Phoenix responded to the Minnesota push late in the first half, with Taurasi nailing a pair of threes when left in too much space, and Dupree continuing to finish with her typical smoothness both at the rim and from mid-range. The Lynx forcing a few turnovers and hitting some jumpers in the second period was a good sign for the second half, but they still trailed by eight at the interval.

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The Daily W, 08/31/2014: Backcourt and defense carries Fever to hard-fought Game 1 win over Sky

 

Chicago Sky 70 @ Indiana Fever 77

 

Lineups: Both teams went with the same starters they used in the first round. On the bench, there was good news for Chicago with Jessica Breland dressed and ready to play a few minutes, albeit with heavy strapping surrounding her recently-injured right shoulder.

 

Story of the Game: It was clear from the opening minutes that I’d only been half-right in my preview yesterday when it came to the defensive matchups for Game 1. Chicago were keeping Elena Delle Donne away from Tamika Catchings as expected, with Tamera Young covering the Fever star. But rather than leaving the likes of Marissa Coleman and Karima Christmas to guard Delle Donne, Catchings took on that responsibility herself. As usual, Indiana were perfectly willing to switch on a lot of ball-screens, but their veteran leader – who’s built her career on defense and effort above all else – was the primary option to cover the Sky’s most dangerous weapon.

 

Indiana were the better team for most of the opening quarter, but without managing to pull away too far on the scoreboard. Point guard Briann January was aggressive offensively, hitting from outside and getting to the rim once or twice – although she let Courtney Vandersloot go by her a little too easily on the other end. The Fever were also running a lot of four-out, one-in plays, pulling the size of Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles out to the perimeter while posting up wings like Coleman and Shavonte Zellous, or Karima Christmas once she came off the bench. The Fever like to use Zellous in particular for those sets, because she’s usually got a size advantage on opposing shooting guards. Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley both give up several inches to her in this series.

 

Chicago stayed in it thanks to strong play from Fowles in the paint, running the floor hard and getting deep early position on Erlana Larkins. The Sky were also picking up offensive rebounds, partly because of the way Indiana’s defensive scheme works. Their bigs show so hard on screens to challenge the ballhandler that the Chicago posts were rolling into plenty of space behind them, and if the shot went up over the top, it was usually the Sky players who had interior position for the board. Also, with Delle Donne largely playing around the perimeter, Catchings was dragged outside leaving Larkins as the only Fever rebounder near the rim. Indiana led by just three after the opening quarter.

 

Bench-heavy lineups closed out the first quarter and opened the second for both teams, and scored reasonably well – although much of that was due to the respective defense of those reserves. Once most of the starters were back out, it was Indiana who closed the half strongly and established a lead going into the break. Larkins was in foul trouble thanks to her battle with Fowles and some silly swipes, leaving Krystal Thomas to play more minutes than anticipated. But she survived perfectly well – she’s done a solid job when called upon to guard the dominant centers around the league this season, while sitting on the sidelines for most other games – and Indiana did their damage from outside. Back-to-back threes from January and Zellous were key, with extra space offered up due to Vandersloot limping around the floor after being crushed by a screen her teammates failed to warn her about. Indiana had played with more pace throughout the first half, and it led to better rebounding in the second quarter and their own run of offensive boards. They led by nine at the break.

 

Both Catchings and Delle Donne were limited offensively in the first half. Delle Donne had a couple of early buckets and a couple right at the end, but wasn’t nearly as involved in the offense as Chicago would’ve liked. Catchings was having trouble converting anything with Young all over her. The Fever tried to post up Catchings on their opening possession of the second half – showing obvious intent to get her the ball inside where she could use her strength – but the entry pass was never on. The intent was there, but Young was doing her job.

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The Daily W, 08/30/2014: Mercury outwork, outhustle and outplay Lynx on way to Game 1 win

 

Minnesota Lynx 71 @ Phoenix Mercury 85

 

Lineups: The starting fives were as expected for Game 1 of this eagerly anticipated series. The only slight surprise among the available players was that Lynx post Damiris Dantas had recently returned from her personal issues back in Brazil, and was available again off the bench for Minnesota.

 

Story of the Game: The game started as much of it would go on – unfortunately for Minnesota. Buoyed by their noisy home crowd, the Mercury got out in transition early on and scored the first nine points of the game. They were challenging hard on all the jumpers the Lynx were tossing up, leaking out after making those challenges, and beating Minnesota down the floor at the other end. DeWanna Bonner also drilled a three in the opening 90 seconds of the game, which would be another bad sign for the rest of the night for the Lynx.

 

After an early Cheryl Reeve timeout to wake her team up, Minnesota came right back into it in the first period. Seimone Augustus was the primary driving force, making a couple of nice runners after early jump shots hadn’t fallen. But they’d needed to make some tough shots, and have Rebekkah Brunson come up with some offensive boards and hustle points, just to stay close. Phoenix were playing their natural game, moving the ball well and sharing it around the floor, and looked in control.

 

Diana Taurasi picked up her second personal foul for a push-off late in the opening period (right after being called for a carry, which itself was preceded by a defensive three-seconds call on Griner – referee Sue Blauch wasn’t doing the Mercury any favours). Then Brittney Griner was called for her second foul early in the second period on a Lindsay Whalen drive. But Minnesota weren’t able to take advantage. Taurasi came back in quickly, and played with the fouls without issue. Griner came back midway through the second quarter, and her team was still up by four. The Lynx have to be able to gain ground when those two are on the bench in this series, especially when they’ve forced them there with foul trouble.

 

Instead, Phoenix pressed home their advantage once their starters were reunited again. The Mercury’s team defense and energy level was winning the battle with the Lynx, with Bonner and help making Maya Moore a thoroughly peripheral part of Minnesota’s offense. Penny Taylor was offering lots of hustle work as well, tracking down loose balls and rebounds while always making the right pass to the next open teammate. With Griner always a target inside – and knocking down three mid-range jump shots just to make her even more scary – and the combination of Taurasi, Bonner and Candice Dupree producing elsewhere, Phoenix started to slide away late in the first half. Minnesota took a couple of bad shots, got beaten by Phoenix’s ball movement and basic work rate too often, and were down by 11 at the end of the half. The Mercury went on an 11-4 run after Griner came back in.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana Fever vs. Chicago Sky

 

Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 16-18) vs. Chicago Sky (#4 seed, 15-19)

 

Indiana

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.64, 5th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.76, 7th in WNBA

 

Chicago

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.00, 8th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 99.51, 9th in WNBA

 

Season series: Fever won 3-2

05/16 @Chi: Sky won 74-71

06/20 @Chi: Fever won 83-75

07/17 @Ind: Fever won 82-64

07/22 @Chi: Sky won 82-64

08/16 @Ind: Fever won 71-67

 

—–

 

While the Western Conference Finals matchup has looked inevitable for quite some time, the East has been an entirely different story. A whole morass of teams have been playing at similar levels all season, Atlanta deteriorated back to the pack, and ultimately two sub-.500 teams have arrived in the Eastern Finals. But none of that matters now. The Indiana Fever have been here many times before, and know exactly what it takes to battle it out in the latter stages of the playoffs. The Chicago Sky just completed their first ever playoff series win, with a morale-boosting and shocking comeback to finish off the victory. There’s a little history between these two as well, after Chicago’s strong regular season last year was brought to a crashing halt in the first round of the playoffs when the experienced Fever stomped all over them in a two-game sweep. So can Chicago gain a little revenge and make their first ever visit to the WNBA Finals, or will it be Indiana returning for the second time in three years?

 

As with yesterday’s Western preview, this piece will focus on the direct matchups between the two squads (more detail on their inherent strengths and weaknesses in the first-round previews here and here). Both these teams had rocky regular seasons. Indiana were without their leader and driving force Tamika Catchings for the first half of the year with a back problem, and have still been up and down even since her return. Chicago have had a variety of health issues all year, with Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot all missing significant time, before Jessica Breland suffered a shoulder injury in the first round of the playoffs to leave them shorthanded again. So cohesion and depth have been inevitable problems for both teams all season. The core of Indiana’s team has been together long enough that they’re reasonably smooth in working together at either end of the floor. Chicago are relatively healthy now, apart from the problem with Breland (which we’ll get to later). Part of the reason both sides have made it this far is that they came together at the right time.

 

Chicago’s offense is rarely the smoothest-running machine you’ll ever see. They try to use Sylvia Fowles in the low post, but their lack of ball rotation and Fowles’s own lack of range often makes it difficult to feed her. Indiana will have Erlana Larkins battling with Fowles inside and fighting for position, plus double-teams will come whenever Chicago do manage to get the ball into their big center. Then Fowles’s passing comes into focus, and she’s essentially terrible at it. Unlike someone like Brittney Griner in Phoenix, who draws double-teams and then shifts the ball away to open teammates, the play is usually over when Fowles touches it inside. She’s either going to score or turn the ball over.

 

That leaves Chicago heavily reliant on their perimeter scorers. Elena Delle Donne just illustrated in the charging finish to their win over Atlanta that she’s in solid health again and capable of carrying this team. She can score inside and out, is an expert at drawing fouls, and her size makes her a difficult cover for any opponent. Indiana have Catchings, a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, directly opposite her at power forward, but she’s unlikely to be the first option to guard Delle Donne. The Fever like to put Catchings on weaker offensive players so that she can maraud around the floor a little. If Indiana start what’s become their regular lineup, Marissa Coleman will probably open up trying to cover Delle Donne, with Karima Christmas seeing a lot of minutes as the alternative (just starting Christmas instead is also an option). Just as we saw Angel McCoughtry slide onto Delle Donne in the previous series, Catchings will probably take her turns when necessary, but it’ll be up to the Fever role players to do the best job they can on her most of the time.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Finals: Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx

 

Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Minnesota Lynx (#2 seed, 25-9)

 

Phoenix

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 106.21, 1st in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 93.89, 1st in WNBA

 

Minnesota

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 104.17, 2nd in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.68, 6th in WNBA

 

Season series: Mercury won 3-1

06/15 @Min: Mercury won 80-72

06/18 @Pho: Mercury won 92-79

07/31 @Min: Lynx won 75-67

08/09 @Pho: Mercury won 82-80

 

—–

 

Since the early weeks of the season, when the WNBA began to shake itself out for 2014, it’s felt like these two teams were on a collision course. In their three-year reign at the top of the Western Conference (and mostly at the top of the League), the Minnesota Lynx have had challengers. They’ve had occasional poor runs, or losses here and there throughout each season, along with the upset defeat to Indiana in the Finals in 2012. But with Sandy Brondello taking over in Phoenix, the 2014 Mercury have come together as a true WNBA powerhouse, and even took over Minnesota’s regular spot at the top of the Western standings. So here we finally are, about to begin a best-of-three for all the marbles in the West, between two superstar-laden squads who barely know how to lose.

 

We’ve been through the respective qualities of these teams in the past – there was plenty of detail on that in the previews for the first round here and here, if you fancy a refresher – so here we’re going to concentrate on the direct matchup between the two teams. Offensively, they share several characteristics. Both teams are fantastically unselfish, moving the ball smoothly around the floor to whoever’s open and taking the right shot. Superstars willing to take a back seat when it aids winning basketball, or give up a good shot for a great one, have made that easier in both cities.

 

Minnesota are a little more focussed on specific scorers. The majority of their points tend to come from Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, with Moore usually leading the way. Their posts will chip in here and there, usually on mid-range jumpers, and they might get an occasional burst from Monica Wright or Tan White off the bench, but Phoenix’s focus will be to stop those three. Phoenix have two key cogs in Diana Taurasi outside and Brittney Griner in, but with Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner the scoring is typically a little more spread out. Minnesota will try to stop Taurasi and Griner first and foremost, with Dupree a close third, and make someone else beat them.

 

Defense is where, over the course of the season, there was the biggest gap between these teams. They were the top two offenses in the league, and scoring points was rarely a problem. But with Griner constantly lurking around the rim, the Mercury developed a successful defense for the first time in years (and years, and years). On a surface level, it seems like Minnesota should have the perfect arsenal to nullify Griner, or at least minimise her impact. They have posts who can all play up high, acting as passers and fulcrums for the offense, rather than low-post threats. And they all at least have to be respected a little from 15 feet, so the likes of Janel McCarville and Rebekkah Brunson will try to drag Griner out of the paint as often and as far as possible. Also, in Moore and Augustus, the Lynx have two of the greatest jumpshooters the women’s game has ever seen, so they should be able to score fairly consistently from the perimeter without going anywhere near Griner under the basket. We’ll certainly see plenty of wide curls, pin-down screens and back-picks just to create a little space for those two scorers to fire away.

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The Daily W, 08/27/2014: Delle Donne leads staggering Sky comeback to eliminate the Dream

 

Chicago Sky 81 @ Atlanta Dream 80

 

Lineups: The starters were the same as in Game 2. Celine Dumerc was wearing warmups rather than street clothes this time, but never made it onto the court after the knee injury she picked up in Game 1. So Jasmine Thomas continued to deputise at point guard for Atlanta. Once again, Jessica Breland was out due to her injured shoulder for Chicago, leaving them short on the front line behind Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles.

 

Story of the Game: Atlanta dominated the first half. It looked a lot like Game 2, with the pace and energy of the Dream utterly overwhelming the Sky. It wasn’t all Angel McCoughtry this time, but with Thomas, Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza joining in, everything was working for Atlanta. They grabbed defensive rebounds and streaked immediately to the other end of the floor and directly to the rim. They drilled open shots on the rare occasions they were forced into halfcourt sets. They were dominating the offensive glass, so that when they did miss it typically ended up with a bucket anyway via the second chance. All the energy, all the hustle plays, all the momentum was in Atlanta’s favour. They were up by double-digits at the end of the first quarter, and by as many as 20 in the second period.

 

Offensively, nothing much was working for Chicago. Tamera Young was surprisingly effective making jump shots in the space Atlanta afforded her, but the Sky were never going to win a game behind the scoring of Tamera Young. They weren’t penetrating the Dream defense at all, constantly ending sets with perimeter jump shots. Delle Donne hit a few early in the second quarter, and she and Young combined to hit a couple more late in the period, but it felt like someone was going to have to get ridiculously hot from outside to shoot Chicago back into the game. They couldn’t find Sylvia Fowles inside, and even when Delle Donne posted up much smaller guards after defensive switches, they couldn’t feed her either. And it all ran together. The inability to score or penetrate led to long rebounds, which created momentum and speed for Atlanta’s offense on the break. The Sky trailed by only 13 at halftime thanks to those late jumpers, but it felt like a chasm.

 

There weren’t many signs of hope for Chicago in the third quarter. Atlanta started it with another burst of energy, fastbreaks and offensive boards, just to twist the knife a little further. From there, the Sky did manage to slow the game down, but their offensive opportunities continued to come from the perimeter, and the likes of Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley weren’t hitting. Atlanta had been mixing up their defenses on Delle Donne all night – a little Sancho Lyttle, plenty of Angel McCoughtry, some of that 1-2-2 zone we saw debut in Game 2 – to try to keep her off-balance, and she faded into the background in the third. Her help defense had also been a problem for much of the night. With Fowles frequently rotating over to help on penetrators or off screens, Delle Donne was often a step late with the second layer help behind Fowles, which left too much room inside. Atlanta were up by 16 heading into the final period, and there didn’t seem to be much hope for the Sky.

 

In fact, I checked the in-play betting odds between the third and fourth quarters, and Chicago were 22-to-1 to win the game (so bet 10 bucks to win 220, for the non-gamblers out there). Those are long odds in a two-horse race, and it still didn’t seem like enough. Which is all a prelude to saying that we witnessed one of the more remarkable comebacks you’re likely to see in a WNBA game in the fourth quarter.

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