Four games last night, and the first to tip off was one of two that turned out to be somewhat competitive, with the shorthanded Dream travelling to Minnesota. With Sancho Lyttle off playing for Spain for the next couple of weeks, everyone and their dog was predicting yet another big game for Rebekkah Brunson, and we weren’t to be disappointed. Atlanta went big to start, replacing Lyttle with 6-7 behemoth Alison Bales, and it was reasonably successful for a while – but it didn’t last. A fun back-and-forth first half between two teams that are happy to push the tempo ended up 39 apiece, but in the third quarter the Lynx made their move. With Whalen pulling the strings and Brunson racking up the rebounds, Minnesota went from 43-41 down to a 54-43 lead in the blink of an eye. Brunson made a couple of typically athletic plays, Augustus hit a pretty jumper, Whalen dropped in a couple of buckets and Maya Moore had a steal that led straight into a breakaway layup. That’s the scary thing about this Lynx team – they can hurt you from essentially any spot on the floor. Even when they go to the bench, you’ve got the likes of Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright coming in, but it’s that Whalen/Augustus/Moore/Brunson/Taj starting lineup that’s doing most of the damage. Stop one or two pieces, and they’ll just come at you from another angle.
That third-quarter lead was cut down to five at one point by Atlanta, but never got any lower than that for the rest of the game (and made it as high as 14 at one point in the fourth). That’s the other thing that’s different in the early stages of this season compared to previous years for Minnesota – they’re actually capable of closing games out. They lost so many close games last year it was getting ridiculous, but last night even when a Castro Marques bucket cut the lead to six with under two minutes to play, they stayed calm. Cheryl Reeve called a timeout; Whalen brought the ball downcourt under heavy pressure; the ball ended up with Moore on the left wing; Brunson came over to set a pick, rolled to the hoop and received the pretty bounce pass from Moore for a strong left-handed layup. After de Souza cut the lead to six again, an Augustus-to-McWilliams-Franklin pick-and-roll led to another left-handed lay in, this time by Taj. Two crunch-time plays, with all five players intrinsically involved in at least one of them – and the game was over. That’s composure they haven’t had in previous seasons.
Brunson finished with her now-expected double-double (18pts/14rbs), Augustus had one of her hot nights despite the length and athleticism of players like McCoughtry and Price guarding her (25pts on 14 shots), and Whalen continued her strong start to the year with 16 points and 8 assists. That’s 34 assists and just 7 turnovers for Whalen in total across the five Lynx games so far – great numbers for a facilitating point guard, especially one who’s giving you double-digit scoring as well. The potential issues several people (including myself) mentioned about this starting lineup before the season started (defense, perimeter quickness) haven’t manifested themselves so far. The length and strength of the perimeter players, plus the smarts of Taj and ridiculous athleticism of Brunson have comfortably covered any holes. They’re looking great so far.
As for Atlanta, it was another difficult night, but kind of what we expected with Lyttle gone. As a team they actually won the rebounding battle, but Minnesota were quicker to the ball and pushed whenever they could. The 27-17 advantage the Lynx put together in fastbreak points – against the quickest, breakingest team in the league last year outside of Phoenix – told the tale. Shorthanded, the Dream couldn’t keep up. On the bright side, McCoughtry’s looking increasingly effective offensively; on the not-so-bright side, Lindsey Harding had another ineffectual game. They’ll persist with Harding, because her quickness and penetrating ability is never going to be something Shalee Lehning can replicate, but right now Lehning’s better for this team. That’s why she keeps coming back in during crunch time, and why Harding’s minutes have been dropping precipitously. Also, man do they miss Sancho.
The other early game was in Chicago, and it was close until halftime. New York switched things up, with Leilani Mitchell reclaiming her starting point guard spot alongside Cappie Pondexter, moving Essence Carson back to the bench. That surprised me, because I thought the Pondexter/Carson backcourt could’ve exploited Courtney Vandersloot’s defensive weaknesses (whereas she’d happily guard Mitchell all day), but John Whisenant clearly felt he needed to shake things up regardless of the matchup.
The Libs started pretty well, forcing three poor early turnovers from Sloot and doing a solid job keeping the ball away from Sylvia Fowles in the paint. New York were up 19-14 at the end of the first quarter and maintained the lead to 36-31 at the end of the half, despite Fowles forcing her way into the game. Epiphanny Prince couldn’t find her shot (1-8 in the first half) which was limiting Chicago’s offense, but Cappie Pondexter was similarly blunt on the opposite side, continuing the shooting slump she’s been mired in nearly every game this year. Otherwise the Liberty would’ve been up by significantly more than five at the break.
As it turned out, that lead needed to be bigger. A lot bigger. Whatever Pokey Chatman had to say to her troops in the locker room at halftime worked a treat, because a five-point run had the Sky in front within 90 seconds of the restart. New York stabilised matters briefly, but a steady diet of Fowles and Snow when Chicago had the ball and the Liberty’s complete inability to find decent offense at the other end blew the game open. This game was tied at 43, just like the Lynx-Dream game, but by the end of the third quarter it was 63-49 and practically over. The Sky lead got as high as 21 in the fourth and the Liberty never threatened to turn it around, finishing the game with an 85-73 scoreline for their third loss in a row. It wasn’t really that close.
Whiz and the Liberty have some problems. Their opening two games made it look like they might be significantly better than anticipated this year, but they’ve looked very poor in the last couple. Cappie Pondexter got to start back at her more comfortable off-guard spot last night, and she was getting to the free throw line again, but 4-16 shooting from the floor continued her ugly early-season form. Some of that can be attributed to the defense of Prince, who worked hard to limit her all night, but last year Cappie was going off against any and every defender that was thrown at her. It barely mattered who. Nicole Powell’s disappeared again, making you wonder if those first couple of games were the fluke, considering how poor she was last year, and Plenette Pierson has been anonymous in the last two defeats. No car crashes to blame before this one, either. The Liberty are struggling to implement Whisenant’s system, and while Kia Vaughn and Essence Carson continue to impress offensively, that won’t be enough for this team to survive. Maybe Whiz will have to be the one to compromise his ideals a little if he wants this team to get back on track.
As for Chicago, their fans have to be loving this. A coach that appears to know what the hell she’s doing, and a team that comes out for the second half energised instead of confused. What a novelty after the years of futility. Prince really couldn’t hit anything last night, most of her scoring coming on steals that became layups the other way. She still got 17. Michelle Snow’s mid-range jumper was falling all night, providing the finishes to several of Prince’s 8 assists, and Big Syl put up 27 points and 11 rebounds on just 16 shots. She even got angry at one point in the third, requiring Chatman to step out and calm her franchise center down. No one on the Chicago side will mind seeing that – when their typically mild-mannered big girl gets mean, good things usually follow. The Sky are getting after the ball, moving far better than we’ve seen in previous years, and playing with a grit that we never saw under Steven Key. Keep this up and that first playoff appearance could finally be theirs – and it might well be at the expense of the Liberty.
I told you Seattle would be ready. After the Lynx beat them up on their own floor last week, Seattle had eight days between games to get ready for last night against Indiana, and this one was over early. Really early. Seattle’s offense continued to stutter, and MVP Lauren Jackson’s offensive woes so far this year rival Pondexter’s in New York, but it didn’t matter last night. Indy had a mere 10 points after the first quarter and only 19 at the half, making just 4 field goals at 19% from the floor in the opening 20 minutes. Seattle’s 37 points at the break wouldn’t normally be all that great, but on this occasion it meant an 18-point lead.
Katie Douglas’s hot streak through four games ran headlong into Tanisha Wright and Katie Smith, who with the help of traps and double-teams when necessary shut Douglas down for the evening. She couldn’t even get shots off for most of the night, never mind hit any. Without Katie bombing away from outside, Indy couldn’t find anywhere to go offensively, hence the four buckets at the half. Tamika Catchings hasn’t found any kind of stroke yet this year, scoring the points she has managed largely on hustle plays and breakdowns. You don’t get too many of those against Seattle, so the Fever were screwed. Seattle’s lead ballooned as high as 27 in the second half, and only a fourth quarter run when the game was long dead created the mildly respectable final score of 68-54.
It’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk – they’re green, they’re powerful, and if you have to face the Seattle Storm, you really won’t like them when they’re angry. The offense was pretty pitiful. Bird went 5-13, Cash 4-14, Smith 2-7 off the bench and LJ was a hideous 2-11 – but it didn’t matter in the slightest. They came out strong and physical from the opening tip and shut Indiana down with their trademark defense, leaving the scraps of offense they did manage as more than enough for the win. They won’t be too worried about LJ yet, and she looked more up for the fight in this game than she had in the previous two, but at some point they’ll need her to find her stroke. Hopefully she’s just shaking off the rust after her injury. Meanwhile, they can win a bunch of games playing D like this while they search for the missing offense.
It’s hardly the end of the world for the Fever – you kind of expect to lose at the Key, even after what Minnesota did last week – but there are some concerns. Some nights Douglas isn’t going to be able to bail them out, especially once teams start sending endless double-teams at her to force the ball elsewhere. At that point, they have to find scoring from other places. Despite her great numbers last season, Catch’s individual shot creation has never been her greatest strength, which means they need production from other spots. Jessica Davenport is playing well enough to threaten Tammy Sutton-Brown’s starting spot at center, rookie Jeanette Pohlen has looked useful lately, and Erin Phillips has had her moments, but it’s all been inconsistent. They’re depending on someone to show up on any given night, without any clue as to who it might be. When it’s no one, you get games like last night.
And finally, the shootout out West, with undefeated San Antonio looking to maintain their perfect record against Phoenix, who’ve yet to win a game. Played simultaneously with the Indiana-Seattle game, the first quarters were a stark contrast: 15-10 Storm over at the Key, while this one was a wild 32-24 to Phoenix after ten minutes. The Mercury got out and pushed for early shots, as ever, and for a while it was just like old times. The Merc lead was as high as 16 late in the half, and they went in up 51-37, with Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner all scoring in double-digits already. However, as we all know by now, no lead is safe in a Mercury game – whether it’s their own, or their opponents’.
San Antonio inevitably worked their way back into the contest in the third quarter, and the game was within three or four points either way for most of the fourth. An array of Hammon jumpers and trademark spinning layups, Danielle Adams continuing to show that she can score in this league, and Sophia Young scoring at will against Candace Dupree got San Antonio back into things – but they had help. With Temeka Johnson on five fouls in the third quarter (and Taurasi on four), backup point Ketia Swanier was in the game. She picked up fouls 4, 5 and 6 within the space of 57 seconds, fouling out before the third quarter was even finished. Miserable, half-assed defense is going to be the downfall of this team, and when the speedy backup point – who’s meant to inject some defense from that spot – is committing amazingly dumb fouls and forcing herself out of the game with over 10 minutes to play, it’s a sign of what’s wrong in Phoenix.
Despite their defense and some uncharacteristically sloppy turnovers, the Merc’s offense kept them in the game in the fourth. It was a two-point San Antonio lead with 23 seconds to play when the Mercury received a friendly out-of-bounds call and got the ball back. Taurasi entered the ball to Dupree, who had the ball out top near the three-point arc. She completely missed a wide open Kara Braxton on a backdoor cut to the hoop, and ended up giving it to DeWanna Bonner instead. Bonner turned that into a leaning, drifting, fadeaway jumper that missed the rim entirely and bounced straight into Dupree’s hands under the basket (San Antonio are an atrocious rebounding team, don’t forget). Dupree then made her second error in the final seconds, overshooting the point-blank putback and missing badly. The Silver Stars eventually corralled that rebound, and held on for the 101-99 win after making some free throws (Braxton hit a meaningless three at the buzzer).
This has to be a disappointing and dispiriting loss for the Mercury, in front of a big crowd for their home opener. Their defense is just as bad as in previous years, even though there’s more bulk now on the front line with most of Tangela Smith’s minutes going to Kara Braxton. They seem to have so little interest in stopping the other team, and this squad doesn’t have quite the same explosive firepower of previous Merc teams to just outscore everybody. Getting outrebounded by the little Silver Stars, who probably have trouble crashing the glass against themselves in practice, is pretty embarrassing as well. I seriously doubt that Mercury GM Anne Meyers would admit it out loud, but I bet in her head she’s at least considered who might replace Corey Gaines if she felt the need to make a switch at head coach. Going into this season I thought he’d just about last the year; it’s only been three games, but I’m starting to wonder if that might’ve been generous.
As for San Antonio, you can only beat what’s in front of you, and they’re 4-0, so nice job. At the same time, I’m still not entirely buying it. But I am coming around a little. They’re still going to have trouble against any teams that actually rebound, but this team is very, very clearly improved on last year’s. The rookie class of Danielle Adams, Danielle Robinson and Porsha Phillips looks like a great collection of picks for this squad. Adams’s bulk is still startling whenever you see her out on the court, but her shooting touch has translated smoothly into the pros. So far, she looks the steal of the draft by a mile. Robinson has injected speed and aggression (and much-needed youth) into the San Antonio backcourt, and Phillips, drafted even lower than Adams, looks like a useful backup for Young. They’ve had a helpful early schedule but they’ve definitely made the most of it, and Dan Hughes has them playing well as a unit. If they keep this up I’ll have to take back everything I said about not being able to win when you can’t rebound to save your lives.
In other news…
Late breaking news emerged as this piece was being edited, that Atlanta have signed former Oklahoma center Courtney Paris. Sancho Lyttle has been suspended while she’s in Poland for EuroBasket Women – the temporary kind of suspension that allows her to be reactivated, obviously – creating the room to add Paris. Courtney’s certainly another big body to help out that front line, but she won’t add any more speed than they already had from the likes of de Souza and Bales. She’ll give them more options though, and if she performs well enough there’s always the chance that it’ll be Irvin or Mazzante that gets cut when Lyttle returns. Paris has had several chances already at the WNBA and not stuck around, so she probably needs to make the most of this one. The opportunities are likely running out.
Washington @ Tulsa, 8pm ET