WNBA Today, 07/01/2011: Dream alive, Shock need CPR

Only two games in the WNBA last night, and only one that actually resembled a contest, so let’s focus on that one first. New York went to Atlanta off the back of two wins, but neither of the victories over Tulsa and LA had been particularly convincing. Atlanta were 2-7, had lost twice in their own arena in the previous week, and were still trying to get their season started. Suffice it to say that both these teams could’ve desperately used the win, and outside of playing Tulsa and Washington last night might well have been one of their easier opportunities.

The Dream were still without Sancho Lyttle, knocked out of EuroBasket in Spain but still too banged up to appear for Atlanta. New York had all 11 available, assuming you count that ghost wandering around in the #14 Liberty jersey as actually being Nicole Powell. The very first possession of the game was both a reminder of the issues New York have had this season and a taste of what was to come for the rest of the night. Atlanta won the tip, and Iziane Castro Marques lobbed a pass right over a fronting Kia Vaughn for a ridiculously easy Erika de Souza layup. The White Line defense isn’t so much a line in the sand, more a vague suggestion drifting in the air at this point. Still, after that initial failing, New York actually did pretty well early on. Some sloppy passing and lazy defense from the Dream helped the Liberty offense get going, and Atlanta couldn’t find any offense from anywhere besides Erika. However inept the defense or awkward the implementation, defending becomes a lot easier when you always know where the ball is going. Midway through the first quarter the Liberty lead was as high as 10, and a Pondexter three in Armintie Price’s face on the final play of the quarter pushed it back to eight, 24-16.

In the second, New York’s offense retreated back into its shell, Atlanta remembered that they were allowed to push the ball, and everything got tight again. Angel McCoughtry and Lindsey Harding finally got the Dream’s transition game going a little, that gave them some momentum, and the lead was down to four. However, outside of fastbreaks and de Souza layups they still couldn’t hit anything, which allowed New York to hang on in front. A combination of Cappie Pondexter attacking off the dribble, Leilani Mitchell finally rediscovering her jump shot and Atlanta just tossing up bricks gave the Libs a 44-37 lead at the half. The worrying thing was that Atlanta had a 22-10 advantage in points in the paint, and those are the kind of points that tend to be high percentage and repeatable as the game goes on. If you count on jumpshots from outside you’re relying on your team staying hot enough to keep hitting them. That’s risky.

The early stages of the second half saw little change from the first (except Nicole Powell hit two threes out of nowhere, which surprised everyone. Then she disappeared again). New York weren’t playing great, but they were effective enough to stay in front against a team that was clearly lacking in confidence and had no offensive options besides Erika inside and Lindsey Harding off the dribble (Lindsey appeared to have remembered just how much she enjoys being defended by Leilani Mitchell). Five minutes into the half, still down by nine, Angel McCoughtry gave up her fourth turnover and got benched for Coco Miller. Barely a minute later, Castro Marques was removed in favour of Armintie Price. Between them, Angel and Izi only played 23 seconds the rest of the game (enough for McCoughtry to get trapped on a drive, nearly turn the ball over again, and commit a loose-ball foul on a rebound). Finally, Marynell Meadors had discovered a lineup that was actually getting her somewhere. Even though Price finished the game 2-8 and Miller 4-12, the team had more drive and aggression with them out there (and significantly less bitching and pouting with McCoughtry sat on the bench). Harding was still going to town on Mitchell, Erika still making hay underneath, and Atlanta were quickly back into the game.

The Dream had the lead down to a point by the end of the third, and in the fourth New York’s stagnant offense finally caught up with them. The ball movement that had at least led to some decent shots in the first half disappeared, and I lost count of the number of times they ran ‘4-down’. It’s a play that’s in every pro basketball playbook known to man, where four players line the baseline down low and wait for their best player to break down the defense from up top, and sometimes it can work – especially when that player is as good as Cappie Pondexter. However late in last night’s game, defended well by Harding, Cappie couldn’t break her down consistently enough to create scoring opportunities for herself or her teammates. The slow, predictable play also killed any offensive momentum they might’ve had from earlier in the game. Meanwhile, Atlanta had found some rhythm at the other end. Harding was killing Mitchell so consistently that Coach Whisenant pulled her and put Essence Carson on Harding instead, but Lindsey had it going by then and just carried right on attacking Carson. She even stepped into a three with 3:20 to play and knocked that down – only her third triple of the season – giving Atlanta a 79-74 lead. New York never looked like bridging the gap from that point on, and the Dream held on for an 87-81 win.

Cappie finished with 24 points on 5-13 shooting and six assists. Her dribble penetration skills were vital to New York early on, creating several easy scores, but the heavy reliance on waiting for her to do something late on took the Liberty out of their game. Defensively, they continue to struggle with Whisenant’s system. Erika scored so many easy points inside, which deflates the team horribly when they see her scoring layup after layup. Atlanta won the points in the paint battle 46-22 and that was the key difference. Especially against certain opponents (like anyone with a post player the size and strength of de Souza), Whiz really needs to compromise his ideals a little. He doesn’t really have the personnel or the depth to run this system and get it to work against teams like this – and don’t forget that this was an Atlanta team without their starting power forward, and with their two leading wings having an off-night.

The Dream will be over the moon to snatch away this victory, after it looked like they were going to give up another one for much of the game. It could be a turning point for them (although I feel like I’ve said that a couple of times already this season). Harding was aggressive offensively through the whole game, not just the final few minutes, and that was huge for Atlanta. She finished with 25 points on 9-13 shooting, and had three assists to go with it. Lehning may still run the offense better, but this is what they brought Harding in for – someone who can score off the dribble and make things happen herself. She also played pretty strong defense on Cappie for much of the night. Erika finished with 27 points on 11-16 shooting and added 15 rebounds. A little more consistency from game to game would be nice, but when she wreaks havoc like this you remember just how good she can be. Final credit goes to Marynell Meadors and her coaching staff, who finally remembered how they won games last year. You go with what’s working on the night, use your bench when they’re playing better than your starters, and make the other team react to you – not the other way around. It was partly just the matchup that New York provides, but for the first time in several games, they resisted the temptation to put McCoughtry at the four and try to run out of that set. There were two true bigs on the floor for nearly every possession, and that eventually gave them the platform to win the game. Now they just have to try and do something they haven’t managed yet this season – win two in a row.

—–

The other ‘game’ last night was in Tulsa, where Minnesota came for a visit and didn’t behave very nicely towards their hosts. Well, I’m sure they were perfectly friendly, but blowing your opponent off the floor and ending the game as a contest before halftime just doesn’t seem like a nice way to act when you’re the guests.

There was a change in the Lynx starting lineup for the first time this season, due to Taj McWilliams-Franklin turning an ankle in warmups. Jessica Adair replaced her for the tip, but Taj was back into the game anyway after less than six minutes. It was still a game at that point. Tulsa even pulled within two at 18-16 with a couple of minutes left in the first, but that was the last time they’d be that close all night. Minnesota blew the doors off in the second quarter. Scruffy Tulsa turnovers, miserable Tulsa transition defense, static Tulsa offense – the list of issues and errors that helped build the Lynx lead goes on and on. And of course, Minnesota have more than enough talent to take advantage of a team that apparently wants to help them run. The Lynx won the second-quarter alone 31-12, resulting in a halftime lead of 54-30.

Let’s skip the second half. It was never a contest again, any fans who stuck around are either insanely dedicated or painfully masochistic, and it eventually finished 101-71. The only remote excitement I derived from it was shouting at Cheryl Reeve to actually let her starters get some rest.

Tulsa are bad. Really, really bad. I know I’ve been saying they’re better, but that’s only because they were unfathomably appalling through their first three or four games. I don’t know what the offense is, if there actually is one. I tried to count how many screens they set in the entire second quarter, and I think I saw four. In the whole ten minutes. That’s on-ball, off-ball, anywhere. And I think two of them were the accidental, “oh you’re about to run into me? I’ll stand here and slightly block your way then” kind of screens. There’s so little effort to get anyone open. That means the only way you score is if someone does something on their own, either showing the initiative to cut into space, beating someone off the dribble, or just managing to hit a tough shot in an opponent’s face. Screens aren’t the only way to get someone open, but there’s also very little movement. Players aren’t running and cutting, swapping positions to find space either. They’re just standing around, occasionally waving for the ball if they fancy having a go on that possession. It’s painful.

The defense might be worse. Their halfcourt defense is actually okay, just about, at this point. There’s enough trust, size and work rate there that they help each other and come across when necessary. It’s not good, but it’s bearable. Their rebounding out of that defense is horrible, but that’s a whole separate issue for another time. The problem is their transition defense, which is horrifying. Atrocious. Abominable. Aqepiuvbqp. I ran out of suitable descriptive words, so I had to make one up. They quit running the ’40 Minutes of Hell’ pressure-defense system that Nolan Richardson was known for a while ago, but it’s like in the back of their minds they still think they’re using it. So they don’t run back. It’s as if they’re thinking “Am I supposed to pressure the ball now? Oh no, we quit that. I guess I should just go back to the other end then. Oh damn, they already hit a layup.” It’s awful. Normally, I’d criticise the effort, because that’s what getting consistently beaten like that is usually down to. They’re also not helped by the lack of guards on the roster – you’re going to get beaten down the floor sometimes if the other team has three perimeter athletes running back and you have one guard and four bigs on the floor. But they just look lost. Sloppy, slow (mentally, physically, and any other way you can think of) and less talented as a group than their opponents – but most of all lost.

Minnesota just took advantage. The squad Reeve has this year loves to get out and push the ball, and as already detailed, this team gives you lots of opportunities. Whalen had 19 by halftime, Wiggins ended up with 18 off the bench and the team finished with a ridiculous 37 fastbreak points (third-most in WNBA history since the league went to the 24-second shot clock). Why Brunson played 27 minutes and Taj (on a noticeably gimpy ankle all night) played 29 I have no remote idea. Amber Harris, the #4 overall pick and a supposed key part of the Lynx future, played all of seven minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Charde Houston played under eight minutes as well. Your starting center is 40 years old and hurt herself in warmups, Cheryl. Might’ve been an idea to let her rest a little. Otherwise, a nice, easy, relaxing night for Minnesota. Maybe it’ll get their bench going a little, even once they’re back to facing real basketball teams.


In other news…

Semi-Final day at EuroBasket Women, where Russia stuffed the Czech Republic and Turkey upset France in overtime. So Turkey-Russia in the final, and the winner not only becomes European champions but also qualifies for the 2012 Olympics. The loser joins France, the Czechs and the winner of tomorrow’s fifth-place playoff between Croatia and Montenegro in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year.

The NBA lockout that started yesterday should not affect the WNBA, for anyone wondering. The collective bargaining agreements are entirely separate (it’s two years until we next go through this negotiating mess for the women’s league), so there shouldn’t be any impact. Ignore the few lazy journalists who’ll bring up dumping the WNBA as an example of how the NBA could save money. It’s a drop in the ocean.


Today’s Games:

San Antonio @ New York, 7pm ET

Seattle @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET

Chicago @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

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