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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The Daily W, 08/25/2014: Dream streak past Sky to extend series, while Mercury blow Sparks away

 

Atlanta Dream 92 @ Chicago Sky 83

 

Lineups: Atlanta were forced into a switch, after point guard Celine Dumerc banged knees with Courtney Vandersloot in Game 1 and didn’t feel it was strong enough to support her in Game 2. So Jasmine Thomas took back the starting spot that was hers for over half the season, after only playing three minutes in the first game of the series. Chicago’s starting lineup was the same, but power forward Jessica Breland was unavailable due to the shoulder injury she picked up two nights earlier. That left the Sky looking very thin on the front line, and Elena Delle Donne likely to have to play heavy minutes due to a lack of viable alternatives.

 

Story of the Game: For the first few minutes, Atlanta looked awful. Michael Cooper had made some tweaks to the defensive scheme, in terms of where and when they were switching or rotating, and his team looked confused. Chicago were also hitting a lot of tough shots, led by Delle Donne, which always makes things look worse whether you’re playing bad defense or not. The Sky were looking to get the ball inside to Sylvia Fowles, but when they couldn’t find room or create the right angle, hitting the shots that were left around the perimeter anyway.

 

But it didn’t take long for the momentum to turn in the Dream’s favour. Tamera Young picked up two fouls in the opening four minutes of the game, both while trying to stay tight to Angel McCoughtry, and that was a big problem for Chicago. She’s their only natural option to defend McCoughtry, and with Breland out she’s also Pokey Chatman’s preference as their backup power forward (although very undersized, especially against a team like Atlanta). Young went to the bench, Allie Quigley came in, and the Dream had even more opportunity to attack. And attack is exactly what they did well in this game. They played with speed and aggression, constantly pushing the ball in transition, and they drove to the rim. McCoughtry did her best to either post-up inside or attack off the dribble even when Young was in the game, and when options like Quigley were in front of her, she just ghosted right by and took the easy layup. Despite their messy start, Atlanta were up by two at the end of the first quarter and McCoughtry already had 11.

 

There was more of the coaching chess match that we saw play out in Game 1 as we went into the second quarter. Chatman was trying some unusual lineups due to Young’s foul trouble and the need to find Delle Donne at least a little rest, which meant minutes for players like Courtney Clements and Sasha Goodlett. Cooper had come up with a flimsy-looking 1-2-2 zone to cover Chicago’s base horns set, and the absence of Dumerc left him going deeper down his bench than usual as well, with even Matee Ajavon seeing some time (which was a bad idea, and didn’t last long). It all led to some pretty scrappy basketball, with too many turnovers at either end, but being played at Atlanta’s favoured frantic pace. They were only up by a point at halftime, but they’d made it their kind of game.

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The Daily W, 08/24/2014: Fever and Lynx pushed hard, but complete sweeps to advance

 

Indiana Fever 81 @ Washington Mystics 76 (OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1, where Indiana just barely scraped out a win at home. Sydney Carter was out for the Fever, so Layshia Clarendon became the backup point guard for those rare minutes when Lin Dunn risked resting Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: It was Indiana who made the slightly better start, but in a scrappy early period that didn’t mean much. As in the first game, Tamika Catchings couldn’t hit a jump shot for love nor money, but she seemed to come to a quicker realisation that she needed to drive instead, and produced some points through that approach. Washington were clearly trying to guide her towards the middle of the court, where plenty of Mystics could clog the lane and help Emma Meesseman deal with her.

 

Washington lost Tierra Ruffin-Pratt early in the second quarter, when her arm got caught up with Shavonte Zellous while fighting for a rebound and she walked off holding her wrist (although it was later reported as a shoulder injury). But it was the remainder of Washington’s bench players that finally dragged them into the contest. Stefanie Dolson hit a couple of mid-range jumpers, and generally made a more visible impact on the action than starting center Kia Vaughn had done at any stage in the series. Kara Lawson came in and hit shots, replacing the ineffective and very quiet Bria Hartley. And then Tianna Hawkins joined in, working hard and sneaking into space for hustle points. It was classic Mystics under Thibault – try enough of your options, and a few of them will hopefully step up and demand you pay attention.

 

However, Washington were still turning the ball over too much, and the defensive attentions of Briann January and hedging help off ball-screens had kept Ivory Latta quiet. So despite shooting 30% from the field, Indiana led by three at halftime. Washington had occasionally gone to a bit of an unusual twist to their defense, which we saw even more of in the second half. It looked a lot like a 2-3 zone – which is unusual from Mike Thibault to begin with – but was fluid enough that sometimes it just became a switch-heavy man-to-man. At times, Indiana’s ball movement beat it and created wide open looks, but in general the Mystics did a decent job of limiting Indiana’s offense. It made it a little easier for Washington to slide inside and cut off the driving lanes for players like Catchings.

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The Daily W, 08/23/2014: Sky steal one on the road while Sparks rue missed opportunity in Phoenix

 

Chicago Sky 80 @ Atlanta Dream 77

 

Lineups: Atlanta stuck with the same starting five that’s been their regular group since midseason, but Chicago made some changes for the playoffs. Elena Delle Donne came in for her first start since returning from her Lyme disease flare-up, which sent Jessica Breland to the bench (after starting in all 32 of her regular season appearances this year). Courtney Vandersloot also started after appearing in just two games before the end of the regular season since returning from her knee injury. The presence of Angel McCoughtry at small forward for Atlanta would’ve made it difficult for Pokey Chatman to start both Delle Donne and Breland, because neither is particularly suited to guarding McCoughtry. That was Tamera Young’s job for most of the night.

 

Story of the Game: Chatman and Michael Cooper were battling with each other to find any possible edge throughout the game. Chicago dropped into a 2-3 zone on their second defensive possession, just to set the tone from early on and hopefully begin confusing the Dream. Both Vandersloot and Erika de Souza picked up two early fouls, which also led to more lineup complications, although Cooper took the risk of sending Erika back into the game late in the first quarter, and got away with it.

 

It was Atlanta who were in front for the majority of the first half, with the game largely being played at their prefered frantic pace. Even with McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle missing a lot of makable shots, they led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. They’d been helped by an injury to Chicago’s Jessica Breland, who fell heavily on her hands late in the opening period, and appeared to injure her shoulder, possibly dislocating it. She’d played less than three minutes, and never returned. That forced Delle Donne into playing more minutes than was probably intended, but the Sky had few other viable alternatives. They’ve got three backup posts on the bench that Chatman doesn’t want to use, making Young the de facto reserve power forward with Breland out – except that they were trying to match Young up with McCoughtry as often as possible. Atlanta went big early in the second quarter with McCoughtry at shooting guard, Lyttle at small forward and Aneika Henry joining de Souza in the post. Chicago looked unprepared for it and were lost for several possessions, with Epiphanny Prince forced to try to guard McCoughtry – which didn’t go well for the Sky.

 

But importantly, Chicago ended the first half on a strong note. After some shambolic offensive possessions, largely featuring either dreadful attempts at entry passes to Sylvia Fowles or Prince bricks from the perimeter, everything improved with Vandersloot back on the floor. Finally they had someone who knew where to look and how to make a pass, which led to consecutive buckets for Delle Donne. She added another ridiculous jumper, McCoughtry played some awful defense on the final possession of the half to leave Prince wide open to drill a three, and somehow Chicago were back within a point at the break.

 

There was a little less playing around with lineups in the second half, as Chatman in particular realised how few usable options she had. Delle Donne got a grand total of 1 minute and 36 seconds of rest in the third quarter, because Atlanta were so quick to recognise that the Sky had gone small with Vandersloot, Prince and Allie Quigley on the perimeter, and Young trying to survive at the 4. The Dream scored consecutive post buckets, and Delle Donne was back in at the next stoppage.

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The Daily W, 08/22/2014: Fever and Lynx scrape by to open playoffs with home wins

 

Washington Mystics 73 @ Indiana Fever 78

 

Lineups: The starting lineups were as expected for both teams. Fortunately for Washington, Kara Lawson had recovered enough from her ankle sprain to be the first (essentially only) guard off the bench for the Mystics. In fact, the only slight rotation surprise all night was that Indiana went to Sydney Carter ahead of Layshia Clarendon as their backup point guard behind Briann January.

 

Story of the Game: The opening encounter of the 2014 playoffs turned out to be the bruising, intense clash that we’d expect from two closely matched Eastern Conference teams. Indiana got off to a hot start yet again, something we’ve seen from them a lot recently, with everyone apart from Tamika Catchings hitting shots and piling up points. January and Marissa Coleman hit from outside, Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous converted inside, and Washington were just trying to hang on in the early moments.

 

But while we’ve seen the Fever blow all kinds of leads this season, they didn’t even manage to hold on to this one until halftime. Late in the first quarter Lawson came off the bench to add some energy for the Mystics and helped them find a couple of buckets in transition. Then Emma Meesseman drove right past Catchings for a layup, before drilling a jumper over Catchings on Washington’s very next possession. That gave the Mystics something to build on, and when Indiana’s offense fell apart with their backups on the floor in the second quarter, the game swung around. Ivory Latta was the central figure for Washington, occasionally firing a little too quickly even for her own good, but drilling a series of threes that took her team into the lead. With Catchings still ice-cold, and her fellow starters unable to pick things up again when they came back in after brief rests, the Mystics led by six at halftime. Indiana scored a miserable eight points in the second quarter.

 

Once again Indiana were the team with better energy out of the locker room, but Washington responded and maintained a small lead throughout the third quarter. Catchings was continuing to produce the outstanding hustle and energetic rebounding that we’d seen in the first half – and throughout her career – but couldn’t hit a jump shot to save her life. When she attacked off the dribble she was slightly more productive, but those efforts were few and far between. As a team, Indiana were getting crowded out whenever they managed to get the ball inside. Most of the time they’d either blow the layup under pressure, or turn the ball over in traffic. But Washington also couldn’t produce the offense to take the game away from them.

 

With everything on the line, the game finally came to life in the fourth quarter. After a quiet third, Latta started stepping back up to lead Washington’s offense. But Indiana finally became the aggressors. They benefitted from almost every call in the fourth, with luck and the referees’ whistles definitely on their side, but they were the ones driving the action and forcing the officials to make calls. After barely hitting anything all night, Catchings subbed back in with seven minutes remaining, and immediately scored consecutive baskets by driving on Meesseman, rather than settling for trying to shoot over her. It was about damn time.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Phoenix Mercury vs. Los Angeles Sparks

 

Phoenix Mercury (#1 seed, 29-5) vs Los Angeles Sparks (#4 seed, 16-18)

 

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

 

Los Angeles

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.19, 6th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 97.24, 5th in WNBA

 

Season series: Mercury won 5-0

5/18 @LA: Mercury won 74-69

7/6 @LA: Mercury won 94-89

7/24 @LA: Mercury won 93-73

7/29 @Pho: Mercury won 90-69

8/16 @Pho: Mercury won 76-69

 

—–

 

Upsets happen in sport. Especially in best-of-three series, and where the underdog is a team with as much talent as Los Angeles who could randomly pull themselves together on any given night. But you have to try incredibly hard to talk yourself into believing LA will win this series. Maybe they can win it, if everything went right for them, if the Mercury picked up an injury or two, if Kristi Toliver or Candace Parker explode and light up the scoreboard. If we could play this series 100 times in 100 parallel universes, the Sparks would undoubtedly win a few of them. But talking yourself into believing it’s in any way likely in the one universe we’re living in? Good luck with that.

 

Over the course of a dominant season, Phoenix eventually ended up as statistically both the best offensive team in the WNBA and the best defensive team. They don’t play at the same breakneck speed offensively that we’ve seen in the past, but they’re unselfish to a fault and have so many threats around the floor that they’re just as dangerous as they’ve always been. Diana Taurasi makes them tick, moving the ball around and finding the open scoring option but always capable of pulling up to fire or driving to the rim herself. Brittney Griner has increasingly become a solid option to run the offense through, capable of finishing over anyone in the paint, but also a skilled and smart passer when opponents send extra defenders to stop her. Candice Dupree plays off both Taurasi and Griner perfectly, sliding into space for her near-automatic mid-range jumper or occasional dives to the basket. Penny Taylor has shown flashes of her old self this year, scoring from outside or on tricky drives to the basket, and even DeWanna Bonner sometimes remembers that she’s capable of hitting shots or attacking the rim if teams forget about her. Opponents might be able to pick their poison, but most of the time they’re going to get killed one way or another.

 

And it’s just as tough at the other end. Under Sandy Brondello, the Mercury’s defense has finally come around, with Griner the obvious centerpiece at the core. Her length and athleticism in the middle deters drivers from entering the paint, makes it difficult for posts to finish, and generally changes the way other teams have to run their offense. She also allows her teammates to play differently on the perimeter, chasing over screens because they’re not afraid of being beaten on drives. She’s not quite the finished article – she can still jump off-balance on pick-and-roll coverage, not quite finding the middle-ground between showing on the ballhandler and being able to recover back to the big – but that just makes her scarier for the future. LA will try to drag her out of the paint, but Brondello’s schemes have done a good job of allowing her to hang around the basket this year regardless of the efforts of other teams. And while all of LA’s posts can hit the mid-range jumper, they won’t be nearly as effective if they can’t find ways to create layups.

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WNBA 2014 Playoff Previews – First Round: Atlanta Dream vs. Chicago Sky

 

Atlanta Dream (19-15, #1 seed) vs. Chicago Sky (15-19, #4 seed)

 

Atlanta

Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.06, 7th in WNBA

Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 95.05, 2nd 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: Sky won 3-2:

5/24 @Chi: Sky won 87-73

6/7 @Atl: Dream won 97-59

7/13 @Atl: Dream won 81-79

7/25 @Atl: Sky won 79-75

8/10 @Chi: Sky won 80-69

 

—–

 

This is one of the more intriguing 1-4 matchups in recent memory in the WNBA playoffs. Taking the regular season as a whole, Atlanta were comfortably the best team in the Eastern Conference. They were dominant in the first half of the year, broke out to a huge lead, and finished as the only team in the conference above .500. But their second-half swoon was scary, losing 10 of their final 14 games of the season. While head coach Michael Cooper was absent for a little while dealing with surgery for tongue cancer, and the urgency for wins was removed by the big gap over their Eastern rivals, the drop-off in performance and energy was definitely worrying. Meanwhile Chicago spent the year scraping out just enough wins, and trying to get everyone healthy. Heading into the playoffs, it’d be a stretch to say they’re 100% again, but they do have all their key players back and available to play. For a team that won 24 games in 2013 when they were in one piece, that makes them a dangerous underdog going into the postseason.

 

Atlanta were once again the fastest-paced team in the WNBA this year, extending their lead in that category over the rest of the league from previous years. They love to run, and they love to attack. Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes are at their best in the open court, flying to the rim, although both can also drive and attack the basket within halfcourt sets. Erika de Souza is outstanding at running hard from basket-to-basket, contorting her body to take any kind of pass and finish at the rim. And with Sancho Lyttle’s consistency from mid-range along with more three-point shooting threats than they’ve had in the franchise’s history, they can still score when teams manage to get back in transition and slow them down. Turnovers have been a big problem, and the uncertainty at the point guard spot hasn’t helped that, but this is a team that can score in a variety of different ways. Sometimes McCoughtry or Shoni Schimmel get a little too focussed on just one or two of those ways – their own gunning – but when they move the ball and take what defenses are giving them, they’re a smooth and talented offensive team.

 

Which is only burying the lede to a certain extent. Atlanta do a lot of their best work on the defensive end of the floor. They’re quick and very aggressive, striving for steals, but also managing to stay solid and secure behind the gambling with de Souza, Lyttle and Aneika Henry in the paint. Chicago do try to feed Sylvia Fowles in the low post at times – they’re often not very good at it, but they do try – and her physical tussle with de Souza in the paint is going to be one of the main attractions in this series. Even beyond feeding the post, simply taking care of the ball is going to be vital for Chicago, because defense is where much of Atlanta’s best offense begins. Steals feed their running game, and just as importantly create momentum and get the Dream offense flowing. While Chicago would love to get some cheap points themselves on the break, slowing the games down will largely be in their favour in this series.

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