So here we go with the games involving Eastern Conference contenders from Tuesday night. I covered the West’s top-five yesterday, so this wraps up the first set of games since the All-Star break.
Connecticut took their 2-5 road record to Chicago to open the second-half of their season. Connecticut have had some ugly performances away from the Mohegan Sun this year, but the win in New York two weeks earlier suggested they might be turning that around. Chicago came in at 7-2 at home, which is a good thing because they’re even worse on the road than the Sun.
Sun head coach Mike Thibault stuck with the same starting five that had earned a three-game win streak heading into the break, while Pokey Chatman brought Tamera Young in at small forward for the Sky. Against Connecticut’s quick perimeter lineup, starting Young ahead of Cathrine Kraayeveld made a lot of sense. Both teams had new players in uniform on the bench, with wing Shay Murphy available for the Sky and backup post Jessica Breland now part of the Sun’s roster.
The early stages were positive for Chicago, because they were keeping the turnovers down and actually attacking the rim – two aspects of the game they’ve struggled with all year. Unfortunately for them, Renee Montgomery was illustrating at the other end of the floor that Courtney Vandersloot can’t even come close to guarding her at this stage in their careers. Chicago had a narrow 17-15 lead to end the first quarter.
The Sky broke open a lead early in the second because Connecticut were doing nothing offensively except clanking jumper after jumper off the rim, while the Sky were sharing the ball nicely and scoring as a team. Murphy came off the bench to give them a boost in her first appearance this year with her speed and aggression, and Chicago built a 25-15 lead. Then the old issues started to haunt the Sky once again. Poor turnovers that create opportunities for the opposition, forced low-percentage shots from outside, and snowballing errors that lead to heads dropping and momentum for the opposition. Meanwhile, Asjha Jones got hot for the first time in weeks and Chicago were in trouble. Only a tough Epiphanny Prince three in the dying seconds of the half ended a 15-2 Connecticut run, and cut the Sun’s lead to 34-32 at halftime.
That late second quarter run and how it leaked into the third turned out to be the pivotal passage of the game. No one besides Jones could hit anything much from outside for Connecticut all day long, but it didn’t matter. They were closing off the paint, making entry passes to Sylvia Fowles very difficult and forcing the Sky to beat them from outside. Chicago made a few shots but kept killing their own momentum with turnovers. The Sun simply looked the more composed, veteran team – which is precisely what they are. Tina Charles was getting her points in transition and occasionally down low in halfcourt sets, while forcing Big Syl to work her butt off for the scraps of offense she could find. Jones continued to knock down jumpers, and teamed with Connecticut’s defense that was enough. A 15-6 Sun run early in the third, fueled by Jones outside, Charles inside and Renee Montgomery’s quickness built a 51-39 lead. That was just about it. Chicago made the occasional push but too many misses, too much difficulty getting the ball inside and too many turnovers prevented a run from materialising. They never got closer than six the rest of the way, and the Sun coasted to a 77-66 win.
It was never exactly hard to work out, but teams have established how to beat Chicago and they just keep repeating it. Indiana and Connecticut played different styles of defense to achieve the same results in the Sky’s last two games, but they amounted to the same thing – make someone beat you besides Sylvia Fowles. You force Syl to work as hard as humanly possible for everything she gets – 14 points, 12 rebounds and a couple of blocks in this one – and close out as best you can on everyone else. It’s working. Chicago don’t value possession highly enough or pass the ball crisply enough, which leads to the huge turnover numbers (20 in this game). It’s why they’re giving up the most points off turnovers of any team in the league besides Tulsa and LA. They can’t shoot accurately enough to overcome those issues, even though their defense has been strong all season (as it should be with Fowles patrolling the paint). They’re getting caught by Atlanta in the standings, and right now it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to hold them off.
Connecticut stretched their winning run to four with this victory, and showed that they might finally be learning how to win on the road. Their defense is what’s propelling these recent wins. As a team they’re fighting hard to close off the paint, and they’re recovering well enough to challenge shots from outside. The offense wasn’t great against the Sky, but Asjha Jones proving that there’s something left in the tank pushed them over the line. Jones had 22 points, the first time she’s broken 15 since June and only the second time all season she’s made it to 20. It makes Mike Thibault’s life a hell of a lot easier when Asjha and her jump shot show up for games, because otherwise they’re down to Tina, Renee and praying that someone else gets hot from outside. Montgomery’s shot has disappeared lately but her quickness still created all sorts of problems for Chicago. Hopefully she’ll see this slump as a continuing reason to develop as a distributor, rather than an excuse to shoot herself out of it. She can still be very effective for this team even without scoring heavily. Charles just carries on dominating, with 21 points and 15 rebounds in this one, comprehensively winning her matchup with fellow Team USA center Fowles. Although Tina had a lot more help.
Atlanta opened their second half in Tulsa, looking to continue the three-game winning streak they’d taken into the All-Star break and claw their way back into the Eastern playoff race. Tulsa are just trying to build. Roster moves over the break had brought in youngsters Abi Olajuwon and Karima Christmas, jettisoning Marion Jones and Doneeka Lewis. The youth movement makes a lot of sense for the long-term, but it’s unlikely to make much difference this season. Still, they’re always ready to come out and fight in front of their own fans.
Ivory Latta returned from her staph infection for the Shock and went straight back into the starting lineup. Liz Cambage and Sheryl Swoopes were also promoted back into the starting group, ahead of Jen Lacy and Kayla Pedersen. I’ve given up trying to work out if there’s any pattern to the changes in the Shock’s starting lineups from game to game. Atlanta were still without Sancho Lyttle, so Alison Bales remained in their starting five.
The first half of this game was all about Angel McCoughtry. In fact, the whole game was pretty much about Angel, but let’s start with just the first 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly for a game between a Dream side that’s still searching for confidence and a Tulsa team that’s won once all season, the first quarter was sloppy. Lots of misses, lots of turnovers, and not a lot of execution. But Angel’s happy to play in that kind of game. She’ll maraud through the passing lanes, grab steals and get out in transition, forcing her way to the basket for layups or free throws. Either will do. McCoughtry had 14 by the end of the first quarter and Atlanta were up 20-12.
When Angel took a breather to start the second, Coco Miller filled in her role as the scorer and knocked down a series of jumpers of her own. Angel came back, picked up right where she left off and continued with her one-woman show. When she’s in this kind of mood she’s practically impossible to stop. Even her own teammates or coaches would probably have to physically tackle her, not that they’d want to. By the end of the first half, McCoughtry was 8-12 from the floor and 6-8 from the line for 22 points, and the Dream held a commanding 41-26 lead. Atlanta’s next-highest scorer was Miller with six, and the team only had eight assists in total. It was all Angel. Tulsa were their usual mess offensively, with only eight made baskets in the half, as opposed to 13 turnovers. It was ugly.
The third quarter was more of the same. The Angel Show reached 31 points, and Atlanta still had a 58-44 lead after three periods. The advantage was as high as 17 before everything started to fall apart for Atlanta. The problem with a one-woman show is that if she goes cold, there’s no Plan B. No one else had been involved in the offense all day, so when McCoughtry started missing in the fourth the Dream suddenly looked vulnerable. Cambage came back in and scored some easy buckets simply by running the floor and finding herself open under the hoop in transition. Amber Holt made a couple of jumpers. At the other end, repeated forced McCoughtry jumpers were clanking off the iron. A 12-0 Tulsa run made the game a realistic contest with 4:30 to play at 65-60, and Atlanta were looking nervous.
The Dream’s offense was awful at this point. No one wanted to shoot besides Angel, and she couldn’t hit anything. Fortunately for them, she could still get to the line. Twice the Shock lowered the gap to three points, only for a pair of McCoughtry free throws to stretch it back to five, and although she committed her seventh turnover of the game inside the final minute, by then it was too late. A valiant Tulsa effort came up narrowly short, and Atlanta clung on by their fingernails for a 76-68 win that never should’ve been that close.
You can’t blame Atlanta for riding McCoughtry when she’s hot. In full flow, Angel’s a sight to behold on the basketball court. But even when she’s flying they have to make an effort to keep the rest of the team involved. She’ll shoot you out of games just as easily as she can shoot you to wins. Angel finished with 37 points, but missed her last five attempts from the floor. It nearly led to disaster. 22 field goal attempts, 15-19 from the free throw line, seven turnovers and one assist tells the story. She had a hell of a game, but it would’ve been easier if they’d spread it around a little. The other four starters only had 18 attempts combined. But regardless of how they managed it, it’s a fourth straight win for the Dream and with Chicago’s loss a full game gained in their push to reclaim a playoff spot. That’s what really matters.
Tulsa can take a lot of positives from this one, even if it is yet another loss. They didn’t quit, and that fourth quarter run showed precisely why you don’t quit in these games. Cambage had 16 points in under 20 minutes of action, Tiffany Jackson had 11 points and 17 rebounds, and they only had four turnovers in the entire second half. That’s more like it. Something to build on for the rest of the season.
In other news…
Nothing much. There are four more games tonight; go watch some basketball instead of worrying about news.
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 12.30pm ET
Washington @ New York, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
Indiana @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET
Chicago @ Tulsa, 8pm ET