We may have only recently passed the halfway point, but the brevity of the WNBA season means that you can already feel the intensity ratcheting up. At least in a lot of games you can. Sunday started out with the first meeting this season between the top two in the Western Conference, a game which inevitably carried a little extra spice as the teams fought it out to be top dog. The day continued with a hard-fought Eastern Conference battle played with the physicality and aggression of a playoff game. And then it closed out with a cross-conference matchup where one team quit after about five minutes. We’ll get to that one later. First let’s deal with the teams who deserve to be talked about.
The opening game featured Minnesota travelling to face San Antonio in Texas. By an odd quirk of the schedule, this is the first of their four meetings this year, and it’s going to be an interesting series between two teams that have proven themselves as strong contenders in the West. Each was without a talented member of their bench for this game, with Monica Wright still missing for the Lynx dealing with family matters (her father reportedly had a heart attack) and Danielle Adams out for San Antonio due to her foot sprain. Considering how little use Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has made of Wright this season, it seemed likely that Adams would be the more significant loss. Both teams started the same fives that have begun all their recent games.
The opening skirmishes seemed to favour Minnesota. Lindsay Whalen was penetrating at will and creating good scoring opportunities for both herself and her teammates, while San Antonio were firing up threes as their main source of offense. However good a shooting team you are, relying on threes to keep you in games is never a good idea. Late in the first quarter, however, things began to change. San Antonio went to their bench, and even without Adams it gave them their standard boost. The speed of Danielle Robinson, the scoring punch of Jia Perkins, and lately even the size and rebounding offered by Jayne Appel improve this team once they bring some of their ‘reserves’ into the picture. After being behind by as much as seven early in the period, San Antonio led 25-20 at the end of the first.
The run continued into the second quarter, and something was becoming clear about these sides. Minnesota have done a fantastic job closing down the paint this season. It’s hard to penetrate inside against them, and hard to score even if you can fight your way in. That’s been a key to their defensive success. But San Antonio don’t particularly want to score in the paint. Sure, they’ll happily take the occasional layup if it’s on offer, but most of their damage is done from mid and long-range. Any penetration is often just to draw defenders before kicking the ball back out for an open jump shot. That made the Lynx defense less effective in the first half than it had been against many other teams, because while they’re still good against outside shooting it’s not their prime defensive attribute. Their strength wasn’t matching up against San Antonio’s.
The Silver Stars’ shooting and their own defense, creating turnovers that they could turn into fastbreak points the other way, pushed them forward in the second quarter. By halftime it was 42-30 San Antonio, and the Lynx looked a little rattled. They’ve been beating up on teams lately and winning games as front-runners – now it was time to see if they could come from behind. For San Antonio, their star and leader Becky Hammon had done practically nothing in the first half, but it hadn’t mattered. Perkins was lighting it up from outside, Appel was crashing the glass and Sophia Young had managed a 10-point half for the first time in ages. This was a strong team performance without needing Hammon to bail them out.
Typically one of the better coaches in the WNBA, Dan Hughes may have made an error to start the second half. Usually he inserts one or two members of his bench unit right from the beginning, but for this game he stuck with his standard starting five to open the second half. The Lynx came out aggressively as soon as the game was back underway, and although it only took Hughes a couple of minutes to insert Perkins, Appel and Robinson, Minnesota were already right back in the game. Whalen was going to the rim at every opportunity, Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin were crashing the boards, and Seimone Augustus was firing away from outside. Barely four minutes into the half San Antonio’s 12-point lead was down to one.
Two streaks dominated the remaining minutes of the third quarter, and it was all about turnovers. First San Antonio responded to the disappearance of their lead by stepping up their defense again, earning steals and turning them into points. Two straight driving layups from rookie guard Robinson – who no one has any chance of catching in the open floor – had the Silver Stars ahead by nine at 55-46 with under two minutes to play in the quarter. But Robinson still has a lot to learn, and Lindsay Whalen has been at this professional point guard gig a hell of a lot longer. She attacked and took the game over in those final two minutes, and the period closed with two Robinson turnovers that became Lynx points. Whalen had six points, two assists and a steal in the run, and from nowhere Minnesota led 56-55 going into the fourth.
This was a heck of a game. You could tell that both teams felt it meant a little bit more, and knew just how well the other had been playing this year. I hesitate to call this a playoff preview in July, but it could easily happen. The fourth was nip and tuck all the way. The time for runs and streaks was over, with neither team able to forge ahead by more than three points at any stage. Most of the quarter was spent with just a one-point gap, the lead switching hands whenever anyone managed to make a shot. Some of the coaching moves were interesting, to say the least. San Antonio played the first five minutes of the quarter with both Appel and Ruth Riley on the floor, a twin-towers approach that you won’t often see from Dan Hughes. Reeve and Hughes both rested key players for that entire five minute passage of play, with Whalen and Young sat watching their teammates fight it out. It was also surprising to see Reeve favour Candice Wiggins over Maya Moore for key stretches in the final minutes, presumably because she felt Wiggins could guard Hammon more effectively than anyone else she had. That Lynx starting five has rarely been broken up in crunch time this year. Still, neither team could break away regardless of who was on the floor.
With just over a minute to go and her team behind by a point, Hammon took the bull by the horns and drove to the hoop. Wiggins might be the best option Minnesota have to defend her, but she couldn’t stay in front and Hammon drew the whistle. Her pair from the line put San Antonio back ahead. The Minnesota offense late in the game wasn’t exactly inspired. San Antonio are a strong defensive team, but the Lynx plan seemed to be to run handoffs and isolations for Augustus on every possession until the end of time. Seimone’s a great scorer, but it would’ve been nice to see something a little more creative than that, especially considering the superb game Whalen had been having all day. Augustus wasn’t hitting, and San Antonio ended up with the ball back, still up a point and 29 seconds to play.
Hammon drove, Augustus stuck with her and got some help from McWilliams-Franklin, before Hammon tried to make a pass through a gap that wasn’t there. It ended in a jump ball between Taj and Sophia Young, which Taj used her greater size to win. Lynx ball with ten seconds to play, behind by one. It’s hard to know exactly what the play call by Reeve was without being in the Lynx huddle, but to me it looked like Moore was hoping to pass off to Augustus yet again on the left side. Fortunately for Minnesota, that was blocked off by the defense, and Moore reversed her path and threw a skip pass to Whalen. Lindsay completed her outstanding game by taking two dribbles to her right, and nailing a 15-foot fadeaway jumper from the right baseline, with Jayne Appel’s hand right in her face. Cold blooded. With 1.5 seconds left on the clock, San Antonio advanced the ball via a timeout and found Hammon on a curl, but her runner was never close. Augustus and Brunson were right there defensively yet again. Minnesota pick up the win in one of the best games of the season so far, 70-69.
Well that didn’t disappoint. These are two very well matched teams, and the next three contests should be just as enjoyable. It took a hell of a day from Whalen to drag Minnesota to the win, as she went 10-19 from the floor for 23 points, six assists and seven rebounds. As you’d expect, the Lynx also dominated on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 43-28, but they didn’t manage many points from their post players against San Antonio’s smart defense. With their starting wings combining to shoot 9-26 and the bench practically invisible yet again, it’s a good thing that Whalen dominated. They’ll need more from the rest in future games against this team. Still, regardless of how they got there, this win moves Minnesota two full games clear at the top of the West, an unheard of position for the Lynx. Not just their first playoff appearance since 2004, but potentially home court advantage throughout the postseason is beckoning. Lynx fans must be pinching themselves.
San Antonio can’t be too disappointed with their performance, considering they would’ve had the game but for Whalen’s remarkable score at the death. They just need a little more help offensively. Hammon was alive in the second half, finishing the game with 15 points including 4-5 from three-point range, but she didn’t have enough help. After her 10-point first half, Sophia Young once again disappeared in the second, finishing the game with that same 10-point haul. Perkins had 18 and Danielle Robinson 10 but there’s such a heavy reliance on that bench to key their scoring. They’re playing great team basketball, but you need your stars to show up and produce – too many times lately, Young has gone missing.
Trying to follow that, Atlanta took their five-game winning streak to the Mohegan Sun Arena to face Connecticut. The Sun had won four of their last five themselves, but the loss was at home to Indiana on Thursday night, denting their previously perfect home record. A team that relies on their home form to maintain their record, Connecticut will have been determined to reestablish their dominance on their own floor as quickly as possible.
The surprise in the starting lineups was the absence of Atlanta’s leader, Angel McCoughtry, replaced by Iziane Castro Marques. The commentator speculated that it was for disciplinary reasons, but Dream coach Marynell Meadors stated after the game that McCoughtry had been feeling ill that morning. There was no mention of it being any kind of punishment.
McCoughtry has taken so many shots lately that her team looked a little lost through much of the first quarter. There was a “wait, am I supposed to shoot now?” feel to their play. Connecticut capitalised and with rookie wing Danielle McCray having one of her positive days offensively they built a lead. It was 21-12 by the time McCoughtry entered the game with three minutes to play in the first quarter. She didn’t look too ill to me.
McCoughtry was instantly in attack mode. By halftime the boxscore claimed that she had two assists, but damned if I could remember her passing the ball. Maybe they were giving her credit for when her misses became offensive rebounds and putbacks for Erika de Souza, who was the main sidekick to Angel in the Dream comeback. At the break McCoughtry had 11 points after taking 11 shots, de Souza had 10 in support, but the Sun were still ahead 45-42 thanks to their defense and balance. The most disappointing part of the first half was when Dream reserve point guard Shalee Lehning – a vocal leader for Atlanta and a lovely interviewee – crumpled to the floor holding her right knee. She had to be carried back to the locker room, but later emerged and sat on the bench holding ice to her injury. We can only hope that it wasn’t as bad as it initially appeared.
The game got even more physical and intense in the second half. Connecticut know how important home games are to their record, and Atlanta know how desperately they need wins to chase down a playoff spot, so they were both leaving everything on the floor. McCoughtry and de Souza got some help from a crazy-hot Coco Miller in the third quarter, while Renee Montgomery and Asjha Jones were providing some additional offense for the Sun. Connecticut have used their defense to create offense this year and they were doing it against the Dream as well, forcing turnovers on several occasions, but when they held on to the ball Atlanta rarely missed. With McCoughtry taking a brief rest on the bench after taking her personal total to 17 – wish I could play like that when I was sick – Miller took over and helped Atlanta stretch their lead to 10 with 44 seconds left in the third quarter. But remember how Lindsay Whalen took over late in the third of our earlier game? Well apparently, anything Lindsay can do, her successor as Sun point guard can do even better. Renee Montgomery had two steals inside the final 12 seconds – the first led to a breakaway layup, the second to one of the prettiest halfcourt heaves you’ll ever see. No glass, no rim, barely any net. Just straight through the hoop from 50-feet, crowd goes wild and the Sun had cut the lead to 69-66.
Not for the first time, the fourth quarter was all about Angel McCoughtry for Atlanta. A series of jump shots, layups and free throws took her to 19 points in the final period alone, while Connecticut clung on at the other end. Threes from Tan White, McCray and Kara Lawson (twice) kept them in touch, and an Asjha Jones bank-shot while being fouled put them in front 91-89 with under two minutes to play. Then Atlanta had to suffer the bad that sometimes comes right along with McCoughtry’s good. She forced up a three that never had a chance, missed another one seconds later, and then was called for a charge when she ran into Kelsey Griffin on a drive. In amongst all that, de Souza had picked up a technical foul for an elbow to Jones’s face. That stretched the Sun’s lead to three when Lawson sank the free throw, and after the charge call on Angel it was Connecticut ball with 47 seconds to play.
Lindsey Harding made a stunningly dumb play with barely 30 seconds left, playing Lawson far too tight defensively and being called for a foul out near halfcourt. The Sun offense was going nowhere, they only had eight seconds left on the shot clock, and Harding bailed them out. Once Lawson hit both free throws for a five-point Connecticut lead, it was all but over. A McCoughtry rainbow three made things a little interesting, but the Sun made their free throws and that was enough. Heck of a game, another dazzling offensive display from Angel, but the Sun held on for a 99-92 victory.
It’s no wonder that this Atlanta team is incredibly streaky. When you rely on gunners to such an inordinate degree, that’s going to happen. McCoughtry finished 14-27 from the floor for 36 points. Only three assists, but hell, if I were that hot and my teammates kept turning the ball over, I’d keep shooting as well. Miller was 8-12 for 18 points, and at least de Souza’s production showed that they were using their post players a little in this one, going 9-13 from the floor for 18 points. That was how the Dream were successful last year – McCoughtry and Castro Marques on the wings, but with their big post players providing a balance. These remarkable shooting displays are fun to watch – they finished 57% from the floor as a team, which is about as high as you’ll ever see from a losing side – but they do need a little more balance. Erika made Tina Charles work hard in this one, but their size and power inside can punish teams if they’d utilise it more consistently. Maybe they’ll return to that as Sancho Lyttle becomes more comfortable after returning from her injury.
It was hard damn work, but Connecticut will be delighted to come away from this one with a win. They were more balanced than they have been in a lot of games recently, with four starters scoring in double-digits and key points coming from the likes of Griffin, Lawson and even Allison Hightower off the bench. Lowering their reliance on Charles and Montgomery would be a positive move going forward. After a lack of playoff basketball in recent years, contests like this are just the sort of games that the Sun need over the remaining regular season schedule. There’s no time to acclimatise once you hit the postseason and are immediately thrown into a best-of-three series, so you better be prepared going in. Wins like this suggest that the Sun might be ready when the time comes.
After those two games, the third was a bit of a let-down. Well, I say ‘bit’. If you were expecting anything like the first two games, you were in for a monumental disappointment. Los Angeles went to Indiana as nearly 10-point underdogs, and I have to admit that I was tempted to bet on the Fever anyway. LA scrambled to a win in Chicago the previous night, but that was their first win in five and hardly impressive. So on the second night of a back-to-back, which was also their fourth road game in six days, the dysfunctional Sparks were facing the best team in the East who’d just won three in a row. Yeah, we really shouldn’t have been expecting much of a contest in the first place.
It was actually a game for about five minutes. Sloppy opening exchanges on both ends led to multiple turnovers and a 10-8 Sparks lead, before Indiana settled down and seemed to remember how much better they are than LA. A 19-5 Fever run resulted as the Sparks produced nothing but fouls, bricks and turnovers, while Indiana got whatever they wanted. Easy layups, steals and threes rained in and they were off to the races.
Sparks coach Joe Bryant went to his bench crew, who’ve consistently produced better basketball than his veteran starters of late. But Indy had too much momentum, and LA couldn’t get anything working regardless of who they sent out there. The Fever’s bench picked up where their starters left off, with the likes of Shannon Bobbitt, Jeanette Pohlen and Shyra Ely dropping in points from all angles while the defensive pressure remained too much for LA to handle. By halftime it was 53-30, the Fever bench had a collective 29 points, LA were 1-10 from three-point range (their typical main area of strength) and the game was done. It was hard to pinpoint an exact moment when the Sparks quit, but it was in there somewhere – and it would be decidedly generous to say they waited until the second half to give up.
Nothing worthwhile happened in the second half, unless you’re a fan of excruciatingly one-sided blowouts. Or a Fever fan, in which case I expect it was thoroughly enjoyable. The lead was as high as 41 at one stage, and the game ended 98-63. The only minor disappointment for the fans was that their team failed to break the century mark.
That was embarrassing for the Sparks, but at least this time there were reasonable excuses. An aging team is never going to look its best on the fourth game in six days to end a road trip, so the hammering wasn’t a surprise. Still, you never want to take a beating quite like that. I still say they should be looking to trade several players, but given GM Penny Toler’s traditional M.O. it’s probably unlikely. The positive angle is that they now head home for six straight games at Staples Center over the next few weeks, plus if everything goes to schedule, Candace Parker should be back sometime in the middle of that homestand. The negative perspective is that this team’s a mess, and Parker’s not going to be enough to fix that. It feels like they’re off-kilter, and just don’t quite know what direction to push or pull in. Veterans look out of sorts, kids out-perform them but start on the bench, and passes fly into the stands time and time again instead of towards teammates. It’s not good, and the demolition at the hands of the Fever illustrated that, however tired they might’ve been. One of those six home games is against Tulsa, but the other five are against good teams who’ll probably be favoured by the bookies. LA need at least a couple of upsets to keep their season alive.
That was a complete walk in the park for Indiana. Everyone on the roster played around 20 minutes, everyone got to score, and it was about as easy a day as most of these players will ever have on a WNBA floor. Tamika Catchings was the lowest scoring player on the team, bizarrely enough. You can’t read much into a game like that, but they’re always nice to experience and certainly can’t hurt morale. Next up on the schedule – Tulsa. LA should be even more embarrassed that the Fever’s trip to Oklahoma will likely be a significantly tougher test than they had on Sunday.
In other news…
Seattle made a roster move today, allowing Krystal Thomas’s seven-day contract to expire and replacing her with Allie Quigley on her own seven-day deal. Quigley’s a shooting guard who I actually thought showed some scoring ability in her brief stint with San Antonio last year. She’s also spent time with Phoenix and Indiana. Now that Ashley Robinson and Ewelina Kobryn are cemented as depth for the Storm in the post, head coach Brian Agler obviously felt some perimeter help might be more beneficial than Thomas using her 6-5 frame to hold down the end of the bench. Although knowing him, don’t expect Quigley to play much.
Players of the Week were named today as Becky Hammon in the West and Angel McCoughtry in the East. Both are worthy winners for their leadership and scoring over the past seven days. McCoughtry averaged nearly 32 points in her three games, which is always going to give you a pretty strong shot at PotW.
You may have noticed a slightly different look to WNBAlien today. The pink is in support of the WNBA’s Breast Health Awareness Week, which starts with tomorrow’s games. You’ll see players and coaches decked out in various pieces of pink clothing throughout the week, so I felt it only right that this site should show its support as well.
New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2
San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET