Two games in the WNBA yesterday, both featuring franchises who reached the WNBA Finals last year. Each of them were facing conference rivals who have outperformed them so far this season, so there was a feeling of 2010 powers trying to cling on to the coattails of improved 2011 squads. Things can change pretty fast in this league.
The Eastern matchup featured 3-9 Atlanta hosting Chicago, who were sat at 7-7 and are potentially the most catchable team for the Dream to pass for a playoff spot. Already 1-1 against the Sky this season (in what will ultimately be a four-game season series), this wasn’t just a chance to pull a full game back on Chicago, but also to go ahead in the possible tiebreaker. After such a disappointing season for Atlanta so far, this looked like a big game going in. A loss would’ve left them four games outside the playoff positions, and while it’s still early, that’s a significant gap even before the All-Star break.
Both teams made alterations to their starting lineups. Chicago brought in Tamera Young for Cathrine Kraayeveld at the small forward spot, likely based on the idea that she’d be able to guard Angel McCoughtry far better than Kraay. McCoughtry was 12-40 from the field in her previous two games against Chicago, so they’d been doing something right in the prior matchups. For Atlanta, Coco Miller turned an ankle in practice and was ruled out of the game, so her place in the starting lineup had to be filled. After a one-game experiment with McCoughtry as the starter at power forward against New York (which worked last year in the playoffs, but failed miserably last Wednesday), Dream head coach Marynell Meadors replaced Miller with behemoth Alison Bales. So McCoughtry was back to small forward, Armintie Price to shooting guard, and the Dream were back to playing two true bigs. I still don’t understand why they made that switch against the Liberty in the first place.
Chicago were awful to start the game. Lots of turnovers, nothing but jump shots when they held on to the ball long enough get a shot off, and they inevitably fell behind. The quickness and length of Atlanta’s Harding/Price/McCoughtry perimeter, teamed with Bales/de Souza down low, was making it very difficult for Chicago to get anything inside, so they simply couldn’t score. Bales was racking up blocks whenever they got anywhere near her, and when the Sky put the ball up from outside it was nothing but bricks. It was 8-0 Atlanta when Chicago head coach Pokey Chatman called her first timeout to try to wake her team up, and that didn’t solve anything. It was 20-5 in the late stages of the first quarter, and had all the signs of an embarrassing blowout for the Sky. 14 total turnovers in the first period, nine of them by Chicago, gave us all the signs of a long, painful afternoon’s viewing.
The problem for Atlanta is that they can’t sustain play like this. Their offense disappeared in the second quarter once Chicago started taking better care of the ball, and the Sky started to work their way back into the game as a result. Their offense was still miserable, but Atlanta couldn’t score either and Chicago were dominating the offensive glass, so the game evened out. An ugly half of basketball was tied up at 33-33 when Epiphanny Prince drained a three in the closing seconds. All-square was about what both teams deserved.
Chicago had junked the initial plan quickly after that horrible start, with Young going back to the bench along with young starting point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Instead, Kraayeveld and Erin Thorn got most of their minutes, and the defense made do with lots of help and some zone. It worked a lot better. Chatman didn’t even bother to bring them off the bench for the second half, going with Kraay and Thorn from the start, and when the Sky jumped out to a 42-35 lead in barely two minutes of action, you could see why. However, Atlanta quite rightly stuck with their gameplan. It was Kraayeveld threes and Michelle Snow jumpers that built the Chicago lead, and the Dream knew just as well as anyone else that that was unlikely to continue being successful as the game wore on. Keep the paint closed and the Sky were going to have to beat them from outside, which they’re simply unlikely to pull off.
Chicago’s offense unsurprisingly dried up, and Atlanta eased their way back in. By the end of the third it was 54-52 Chicago, and an 8-0 run behind McCoughtry, Harding and backup post Courtney Paris gave the Dream a 60-54 lead. Chicago were hanging around, and they continued to try to find Sylvia Fowles down low, but they just couldn’t convert enough possessions into points to sneak in front. At the other end, Bales was having one of her few strong games this season, Erika de Souza was jumping around trying to energise the crowd and Lindsey Harding had remembered just in time that she can take Erin Thorn off the dribble whenever she feels like it. Fowles got Chicago back within three a couple of times in the closing minutes, but each time Atlanta found a response, and eventually held on for their fourth win of the season, 76-68. They really needed that.
The whole game, even when Chicago pushed in front to start the second half, it felt like Atlanta were that little bit more desperate for the victory. It was just a question of whether that desperation would give them the extra bump to win it, or force them into yet more mistakes that would hand the game to the Sky. Eventually it was the former. Just. Even though they gave up 17 offensive rebounds, Atlanta held the Sky to 22 points in the paint, which considering they possess arguably the best center in the women’s game is a significant achievement. Fowles had 20 points and 11 boards, but didn’t get enough help from her teammates. Michelle Snow and Kraayeveld were both in double-digits, but Epiphanny Prince went 4-16 from the floor for her 11 points. This team struggles to hit enough shots when you force them to beat you from outside, and that’s exactly what Atlanta did.
Offensively, the Dream relied heavily on their starting five, barely giving Harding, McCoughtry and Price any rest all day. While McCoughtry once again needed far too many shots (22) for her 24 points, Price proved worthy of her starting spot with 13 points, 10 assists and six boards. While she still can’t shoot, Price is very direct and very aggressive, and right now she’s far more effective than Iziane Castro Marques, whose starting spot she’s taken. Atlanta might actually stick with this lineup for a few consecutive games instead of messing around with it yet again. Unless Sancho Lyttle finally gets healthy, in which case they’ll happily make a switch at the 4. Fowles had eight blocks in this game, but all that illustrates is just how determined the Dream finally were to get into the paint for their points. That needs to be the M.O. for this team, because just like the Sky, they can’t shoot well enough to win while bombing away from outside. If they get back to penetrating, feeding their post players, and pushing the ball whenever possible, they’ll start winning some games again. And creeping up on those playoff positions.
It was a sadly typical game for Chicago. It took them too long to focus around force-feeding Fowles in the post; they turned the ball over too much; point guard of the future (and supposedly present) Courtney Vandersloot got benched again for Thorn; and Epiphanny Prince missed a hell of a lot of shots from outside. This continues to feel like a mediocre basketball team. They’ve got a lot of youth, holes at key spots, not enough people who can shoot, but one of the best players in the world at the pivot. That might well keep them somewhere around .500 basketball for most of the season – it’s just a matter of whether that’ll be enough to keep them in one of those four playoff spots.
The Western version of 2010 power vs. 2011 upstart was of a slightly higher calibre. Instead of a finalist from last year that could barely find a win, we had the Seattle Storm, who even without Lauren Jackson for most of the year had managed to claw their way to 7-5. Instead of a mediocre challenger like the Sky, we had the Minnesota Lynx, who were 8-4 and looking a serious threat to finally turn their talent into a championship contender. This was a bit more like it.
Unfortunately for Seattle, not only were they still without LJ, but her frontcourt partner Camille Little was missing for this game as well ‘dealing with a personal matter’. It later emerged that she was at a wedding, and not just any wedding – it was the marriage ceremony of LA Sparks backup center LaToya Pringle. So even when they weren’t involved in the game, LA were making things difficult for the rival Storm. Little’s absence moved Swin Cash to the power forward position, Katie Smith into the starting lineup, and left the Storm bench looking even more pathetic than usual. A post duo of Cash and Le’coe Willingham with Ashley Robinson the first option off the bench isn’t exactly how Brian Agler envisioned his team in preseason. The Lynx sent out their standard five for the opening tip.
This was not pretty. I feel like even the most pure of defense-loving basketball purist would agree with me on that one. Seattle’s offense in the first half was hideous, but they were doing just enough at the defensive end to make the game slow and pedestrian, and keep themselves hanging around within range of a comeback. But it was hard to see where they’d find enough points to make that comeback. The first quarter was an array of messy Storm possessions ending in forced shots that had little chance of going in, or just turnovers that saved them the indignity of another brick. Minnesota led 5-0 and 13-8, but Seattle’s defense really was doing a good job of making the game scrappy. A three each from Sue Bird and Belinda Snell – who Agler pretty much had to play in this one, given his lack of alternatives – provided a modicum of offense, and the Storm were only 18-16 behind at the end of the first.
The second quarter was worse for Seattle, because their offense went from awful to atrocious. As I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, Minnesota do a good job of keeping opponents from scoring inside, and with Cash, Willingham and Robinson as their post options Seattle didn’t have the size or talent to get anything done down low. That left them firing away from outside, and as we know, Seattle haven’t been able to hit anything much all season from the perimeter. A Cash jumper to start the period, two consecutive Bird threes that temporarily gave Seattle an unlikely lead at 24-23, and a Bird jumper on the final play of the half, were the grand total of scoring plays managed by the Storm in the second quarter. That’s it. The Storm were still playing reasonable defense at the other end, but Minnesota have too much talent to be kept out entirely. The Lynx went in at halftime up 35-26, at it was amazing that Seattle were within nine.
Bird was 5-10 at the half for 13 points, but had no help. Katie Smith wasn’t faring any better as a starter than she had coming off the bench, going 0-7, and Swin Cash was 2-6. Cash clearly knows that without Jackson this team needs more from her, and in some games she’s responded to that and produced. However in several games, including this one, it’s felt like she was forcing things because she knows the onus is now on her to be an offensive leader. She’s trying to go at the game instead of letting it come to her, and it’s resulting in a lot of misses and several turnovers. It’s a difficult balance to find.
The third quarter started bringing back memories of the first Lynx-Storm encounter this season, which Minnesota opened with a 22-0 run. A 12-0 streak to start the second half pushed the Lynx lead to 21, and last year’s champs were on the brink of being completely embarrassed, not just defeated. All Seattle seemed to be doing in response was clanking three-point miss after three-point miss off the rim, with an occasional turnover thrown in for the sake of variety.
Then somehow, Seattle started to make it a game. Anyone who’s followed this league for the last year or two knows that Agler’s Storm teams don’t quit, whatever the status of the game. So when a few of those threes finally dropped, and they created a couple of Lynx turnovers that they could turn into breakout buckets, the Lynx started getting just a little nervous. The lead was down to 52-38 by the end of the third, and 61-54 with around three minutes left in the contest. So it was hardly a charging comeback, but at least they forced Minnesota to stay awake and keep their starters in the game. Unfortunately for Seattle, they were never closer than six until a Snell triple made it 67-62 with under 30 seconds to play, and by then it was too late. A pair of Lindsay Whalen free throws rounded out the scoring on a Minnesota win, 69-62.
Without Jackson and Little, and with benchwarmers Ewelina Kobryn and Krystal Thomas clearly completely untrusted by Agler, it’s kind of extraordinary that Seattle finished within seven. The Storm bench is a running joke at this point, and you wonder if Agler is working behind the scenes to try to do something about it. The Storm have very little cap space, which ties his hands somewhat, but surely there’s someone out there that he could trust to play ten minutes a night. That’s really all they need for some extra depth. It’s not just the post players, either. Snell hasn’t played much, partly due to injury and partly because Agler doesn’t seem to have much faith in her yet, and Smith has barely hit a shot all season. Someone remotely reliable to spell Bird or Wright would be nice too.
I still believe that this is a decent team. Defense can keep you in games, and the Storm’s did that even with the horrible offensive display against Minnesota. But sheesh, they have to find a way to produce more offense. They ended up 9-23 from three-point range in this game, because they ran out of ideas about what else they could do. It’s been taking Bird out of her game lately as well, because she sees how much her teammates are struggling, looks for her own offense more as a result, and starts playing differently from her usual approach. Maybe they need to actively open the offense up more and try to push the pace, because that should result in easier chances to score. Agler has to do something somewhere to produce some points. Basketball teams cannot live on defense alone.
Apologies to Lynx fans for focussing so much on the Storm in this piece. This game just felt a lot more about Seattle’s negatives than Minnesota’s positives. The Lynx did what they had to do, kept the Storm out of the paint, crashed the glass, and hit enough shots offensively to win the game. Seimone Augustus had 19 points, Rebekkah Brunson 16 and Whalen 13. We’ll be seeing at least two of them named as All-Star reserves in a couple of days, and possibly all three (Brunson and Whalen should be near-certainties, Augustus is a possible). Once again however, the bench was invisible. Against a team that’s become known for its complete lack of reserves, the Lynx bench corps produced almost exactly the same as the Storm’s, in almost exactly the same number of minutes. Not what you hope for from what most consider to be one of the deepest teams in the WNBA. I don’t know what Reeve or the players have to do to get there, but it’d be nice if all these talented players coming off the pine for Minnesota could give them something. 9-4 is the best record the franchise has ever had after 13 games, so they’re obviously doing a lot of things right, but the lack of production outside the starting five is a weakness. Still, keep winning and no one will care.
In other news…
I know this was posted late. Blame the Sparks. More on that tomorrow.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Tulsa @ New York, 4pm ET
Indiana @ Connecticut, 5pm ET
Washington @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET
San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET