WNBA Today, 08/28/2011: McCoughtry gets by with a little help from her friends

Just the one game on Saturday night in the WNBA this week, so you get just one game of coverage from me in this column as well. Which means tomorrow’s piece, featuring all five games from Sunday night, will probably be an epic about as long as War & Peace. We can only hope that I reveal a heretofore undiscovered talent for brevity. But somehow I doubt it.

So only a single matchup, but it carried plenty of intrigue all on its own. With seven games left on their schedule, Indiana held a 1.5 game lead over Connecticut at the top of the East. Minnesota are already worrying about home court throughout the playoffs over in the West, but the Fever have more immediate concerns before that’s even a consideration. You have to win your own conference before you worry about the teams on the opposite side. Visitors Atlanta have even more important issues to take care of. Their win in Chicago on Tuesday night went a long way towards sealing their playoff spot, but a late swoon could still put their postseason place in jeopardy. They’ve also crept right up on the tail of New York, giving themselves a chance to move higher than the #4 spot they currently hold.

Perhaps more interesting than any of those potential moves, if these teams stay exactly where they are until the end of the season, they’ll be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs. This was the first of three remaining meetings between the teams before the end of the regular season, and it was a potential opportunity to  grab a mental edge before they clash in the postseason. If nothing else, it was a chance to see Tamika Catchings and Angel McCoughtry go directly at each other, which is always entertaining.

Both teams went into battle with their well-established starting fives, and it was Atlanta who jumped out to a hot start. The Dream were pushing the pace, looking for quick points before Indiana could set up their stifling defense, and the Fever couldn’t get a call if their lives depended on it. So Atlanta broke to a very early 12-3 lead, with McCoughtry throwing in a transition three as part of the run. Out of the timeout that Fever coach Lin Dunn called to break Atlanta’s momentum, Catchings drilled a three right in McCoughtry’s face. The duel had begun.

Indiana swiftly tied the game back up, with Katie Douglas showing signs that her offensive game might actually arrive for once, but silly and uncharacteristic mistakes from the Fever allowed Atlanta to sneak away again. McCoughtry stole the ball from Indiana reserve Jeanette Pohlen practically underneath her basket, and then Jessica Davenport stupidly fouled McCoughtry while she completed the play and laid the ball in. Barely a minute later, after Catchings had completed a great spinning drive for a layup that should’ve been the last play of the quarter, Shyra Ely went barreling through McCoughtry as she tried to catch the inbounds pass. Catchings had scored with 1.1 seconds left, for crying out loud – there wasn’t much time for McCoughtry to do anything. But Ely ran her over, and after scraping herself off the floor, Angel sank both free throws with only 0.2s left. As a result, Atlanta led 23-18 to end the opening period. The Fever hadn’t received any help from the officials, but they weren’t helping themselves either.

The second quarter was filled to the brim with an awful lot of Indiana misses. While they were turning the ball over far too frequently, Atlanta had the game flowing backwards and forwards at their favoured high pace, and Indiana couldn’t slow it down or adapt well enough to the extra speed. Creating turnovers isn’t much use if all it means is you get to miss once more before Atlanta push the ball again. McCoughtry was, as ever, the centerpiece of the Dream attack. Often finding herself defended by someone like Shavonte Zellous, rather than the bigger and stronger Catchings, McCoughtry repeatedly drove straight to the rim. She certainly wasn’t hitting everything, but the points still began to pile up. With very little help from her teammates, Catchings did as much as she could, but Atlanta stretched their lead and held a 42-32 advantage at the half. McCoughtry already had 16 points, and the Fever were shooting a miserable 30% from the floor. If those numbers continued in the second half, Indiana were screwed.

The Fever emerged for the second half looking determined not to go down without a fight. Catchings started out the second half with the same approach as McCoughtry – take the ball, put your head down, and make for the rim. An upgrade in defensive intensity as a team also helped Indiana, as did the fact that every one of Catch’s fellow starters hit at least one jump shot in the opening minutes of the period. Finally she had a little support. A Tangela Smith three – on an opportunity created by Catchings cleanly stripping McCoughtry of the ball as she drove to the hole – brought the Fever within a point at 46-45. The game looked like a contest again.

After being inadvertently caught in the eye by Catchings, McCoughtry had to sub out midway through the third quarter. Although the Dream reserves battled manfully in her absence, eventually Indiana fought their way to a lead. For a sequence of several minutes they kept drawing within a point, only for Atlanta to respond with their own scores, but with Katie Douglas becoming a central part of the offense again Indiana finally tied the game up at 57 – the first tie since 16-16. Douglas has been so cold lately, she had to deny publically that she was in a slump. Whenever someone’s asking, that’s probably what it is. But with a couple of jumpers and a nice aggressive drive, Douglas was contributing in this game. A Davenport layup on the final play of the third quarter – after a lucky bounce that rebounded the ball back to her – gave Indiana a 61-59 lead heading into the final period. It was their first lead since 3-2.

With McCoughtry still on the bench to start the fourth, Atlanta had to look elsewhere for their offense early in the period. It came from Lindsey Harding, who was consistently knocking down that mid-range pullup jumper of hers, and Iziane Castro Marques, snapping out of her own slump for at least a few moments. When the two stars returned to the floor with under seven minutes to play, we were tied at 67. Catchings quickly gained an advantage, finding deep post position and drawing McCoughtry’s fourth foul on the resulting move. Seconds later, feeling McCoughtry riding her hip, Catchings drove straight to the rim and drew another whistle – McCoughtry’s fifth foul, with 5:20 still to play. Dream coach Marynell Meadors could’ve left her in, but with Catchings playing like that and McCoughtry not famed for her smarts in avoiding fouls, she sat her leader back down.

That should’ve been Indiana’s chance to take over the game, and briefly it looked like they were going to capitalise. Catchings produced the next four points of the game, while forcing Armintie Price into a terrible jump shot between her own scores. That made the score 73-71 Indiana, but Atlanta remembered they had a decent post player or two, and Erika de Souza tied the game on a gorgeous little hook shot in the paint. After Catchings once again bullied her way to the rim, made the basket and drew a foul, McCoughtry re-entered the game with three minutes left and her team trailing 76-73.

The strange thing about the final three minutes of the game is that McCoughtry was barely involved in the offense. However, because Atlanta knew that if she’d been guarding Catchings then Catch would’ve simply driven straight at her to try to foul her out, the Dream ‘hid’ McCoughtry on other players. Something that simple shouldn’t have caused any problems, but it seemed to confuse Indiana, and their offense suddenly got messy. At the other end, Castro Marques followed a pair of free throws with a big triple to give Atlanta the lead, and after Catchings overshot a layup attempt, Harding drove the length of the floor and attacked the rim for a layup of her own. With Angel nothing more than a decoy, Atlanta had broken out to an 80-76 lead with under two minutes to play.

After Douglas and Smith ran the two-man game to perfection for a layup and Sancho Lyttle handed the ball back to Indiana with a silly offensive foul, Catchings tied the game on a layup after receiving a nice pass from Douglas. Catch ran right into McCoughtry as she released the ball, but unwilling to take the basket away from Indiana or foul McCoughtry out of the game, the officials swallowed their whistles and let it slide.

Atlanta tried to go to their star on the next possession, but McCoughtry nearly turned the ball over by dribbling into traffic. Indiana’s Erin Phillips seemed to have the ball for a split second, but McCoughtry dove to the ground and snatched it away from her, somehow managing to toss the ball over her head to a teammate. From there, with the shot clock running down, Lindsey Harding took matters into her own hands and sank a tough fadeaway from 10 feet. These are the sort of plays they acquired her for, and she’d been knocking them down all night. Indiana were now down two with 38 seconds left. A dreadful attempt at an entry pass from Tammy Sutton-Brown nearly turned the ball over, but Indiana retained possession after the ball flicked off a Dream player on its way out of bounds. Catchings’s inbounds pass from under the basket found Erin Phillips, but she missed a floater in the lane. While bodies were scattered across the floor, Atlanta managed to corral the rebound and were looking good to hold on for victory.

But wait just a second. The ball had ended up with Harding, who Indiana had fouled immediately to stop the clock. While you like her on the drive looking for that pullup jumper, Harding has a history of repeatedly missing vital crunch time free throws, dating all the way back to college. She obliged, missing 1-of-2, leaving the Fever down 83-80 with 18 seconds to fashion a comeback. Catchings curled around from the top of the arc, looking for a quick two, but de Souza emphatically blocked her attempt at the rim. After posting up Sancho Lyttle on the ensuing play, Catchings spun around her and put an effort up at the rim with her left hand, but it didn’t drop. With only nine seconds left, that was the ballgame. Lyttle hit a pair at the line, and de Souza added another in the dying seconds to leave us with a final score of 86-80. She might not have scored a single point in the final six minutes of the game, but it was McCoughtry’s team who went home with the win.

While the story before tip-off might have been about the matchup of star small forwards, Atlanta won the game because McCoughtry had more help. She finished 6-14 from the floor for 20 points to lead her team, but with Harding 8-11 for 17, and Lyttle, de Souza and Castro Marques all in double-digits as well, the Dream won the game as a unit. Shooting 55% as a team against Indiana’s league-leading defense is no small feat, and illustrates that they were certainly more comfortable with the style the game ended up being played in. If they’d avoided turning the ball over quite so many times the game wouldn’t even have been close. With their 12th win in 16 games, Atlanta are looking a scary prospect for whoever they face in the playoffs, assuming they don’t collapse and allow Chicago to sneak past them. Playing like this, it seems far more likely that they’ll improve their seeding before the postseason, rather than fall out of contention entirely.

Catchings produced remarkably similar numbers to McCoughtry in the end, but her support wasn’t consistent or accurate enough. Shooting 7-16 for 22 points, with three rebounds and three steals just like Angel, Catchings was the central hub of Indiana’s effort, but couldn’t quite drag her team over the line. Tangela Smith had a rare offensive outburst in a largely inauspicious season, shooting 6-14 for 15 points, and 5-11 for 14 was more than Douglas has provided lately, but it wasn’t enough. A team shooting 39% is rarely going to hold on against an opponent hitting over half their shots. That’s the issue for Indiana in certain games – when they’re cold from outside, they occasionally look bereft of ideas. It ends up coming down to someone like Catchings or Zellous forcing their way inside and getting to the free throw line, or hoping that Davenport’s in the mood to score down low. But still, they’re probably going to win the Eastern Conference, and statistically they have the third-best offense in the WNBA, so something’s going right. If they do end up facing Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs, it’s going to be a war. As a neutral, I’m quite looking forward to it.


In other news…

I have five games from tonight to start writing about. No time for other news.


Today’s Games (already completed):

Minnesota @ San Antonio, 3pm ET

Connecticut @ Tulsa, 4pm ET

Phoenix @ Washington, 4pm ET

New York @ Chicago, 6pm ET

Los Angeles @ Seattle, 9pm ET


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