WNBA Today, 08/31/2011: Postseason positioning still a perplexing puzzle

As you near the end of any regular season in a sports league, some games naturally don’t mean an awful lot. The WNBA is no exception, but thanks to tight standings in both conferences most of the teams are still fighting for something as we head into the final two weeks of the season. Still, there are certainly some games that aren’t as important as others right now, so even I’m intending to limit the depth of coverage on certain matchups. Of course, we’ve seen how that’s gone throughout the course of the season, so let’s just be thankful that there aren’t any Tulsa-Washington games left on the schedule. I’d probably have found some reason to write 2,000 words about it.

The key New York-Chicago contest from last night was covered in yesterday’s column, but taking place hot on the heels of that one was Indiana‘s visit to Atlanta. With the tip-offs only 30 minutes apart, Atlanta obviously didn’t know that Chicago would lose to the Liberty and drop two games behind them in the standings, so this was a crucial game for them coming in. Even given that Sky loss, Atlanta’s place in the postseason was hardly a mathematical certainty, so they need to keep fighting for every win they can lay their hands on. The Dream have also been on such a streak lately – 12 wins in 16 games – that they’ve crept up on the other Eastern Conference playoff teams. They entered this game just half a game behind New York, and 2.5 behind Connecticut. Rising above the fourth seed that seemed their highest target a few short weeks ago is no longer beyond the realm of possibility. Indiana have had some troubles lately, losing to LA on the road and then Atlanta on their own floor when these teams met on Saturday. Minnesota are almost out of sight for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and Connecticut have pulled within 1.5 games for the top spot in the East. More to the point, this Dream squad is a potential first-round playoff matchup for the Fever, and they’d lost both previous games against Atlanta this season. You don’t want to head into a playoff series with a dismal recent record against your opponent.

The starting fives were the same as Saturday, the same as they’ve been for both clubs for a while now. The intriguing aspect of the opening minutes was that Atlanta had clearly come out with an effort to ‘hide’ Angel McCoughtry on defense. She suffered with foul trouble in both of Atlanta’s previous contests with Indiana, and played limited minutes as a result, so the Dream had her on Tangela Smith and Sancho Lyttle stepping out to cover Tamika Catchings. It was a smart move by the Atlanta coaching staff, but not exactly a positive statement about McCoughtry’s ability to play smart or avoid trouble on her own. Considering Angel’s defensive reputation, you shouldn’t have to hide her on a more limited offensive player.

The most positive aspect of the early stages for Indiana was that Katie Douglas looked interested. Too often in the second half of the season she’s been passive and practically invisible, which leaves Catchings having to do far too much work carrying the Fever. With Douglas looking to attack and contribute offensively, they’re a far more dangerous team. Unfortunately for Indiana, just like Saturday, they found themselves being dragged into an Atlanta-style basketball game. They’re not quite Phoenix, but the Dream like to run and push the pace of games as much as possible. Indiana can run as well, but they’re much more comfortable in a slow-paced game where their defense can dominate and smother an opponent. Looking for quick scoring opportunities is good if they’re available, but not being used to the style, the Fever turned the ball over too much in the opening quarter and were behind 23-19 at the end of the first. Six turnovers in a period is way too many, especially against a team that thrives off opportunities to sprint back the other way.

While Catchings rested on the bench to open the second quarter, Jessica Davenport and Erika de Souza went to war in the paint. With Shavonte Zellous also giving the Fever help from the bench, injecting energy, speed and an ability to get to the free throw line into their lineup, Indiana had actually gained several points by the time Catch returned. With her back in the lineup and looking confident with her outside jumper, Indiana built a small lead, and held a 49-46 advantage at the break. The game was still moving a little too fast for the Fever to have complete control, but with McCoughtry held to 3-11 shooting in the half – and importantly shooting only two free throws – they were in front regardless.

Continuing to push the pace, Atlanta made short work of the Indiana lead in the second half. The starting unit of Lindsey Harding, Armintie Price, McCoughtry, Lyttle and de Souza has developed a level of chemistry that’s really helping them in the second half of the season, and they’re all prepared to run the floor and take every opportunity to attack in transition. They took the lead midway through the third when McCoughtry drove down the floor, took the ball behind her back, then converted a layup over Shannon Bobbitt (and drawing the foul in the process). Now Bobbitt’s about the size of your average pigmy, so we could argue about how impressive the move really was, but anyone rolling the ball around their back in mid-flow and completing the play looks pretty nice in the heat of a game. The crowd went wild, as did McCoughtry’s teammates, and Atlanta were looking good to press home their advantage.

However, with Erin Phillips and Tangela Smith providing solid scoring support to Douglas and Catchings, Indiana weren’t going away. With four minutes left in the third quarter, and the teams separated by only a point, it looked like the game might be swinging back in the Fever’s favour. de Souza landed on Davenport’s foot, twisted her ankle nastily, and landed in a heap on the ground in obvious pain. She had to be helped from the floor, and needed crutches to make it back to the locker room, so was done for the night (although later reports said x-rays were negative, and she should be ‘back soon and ready for playoffs’). With Phillips continuing her hot scoring streak, including knifing through the defense for a layup o the final play of the period, Indiana led 73-69 at the end of the third.

With Phillips coming off ball-screens and continuing to knock down jumpers, Indiana’s lead stretched to 77-71 early in the fourth quarter. Then McCoughtry nailed a couple of jumpers of her own, and the Dream were right back in it (they’ve fixed the LiveAccess archive video, by the way, for anyone who was left watching high school football at this point during the live action). For a couple of possessions Indiana were significantly bigger then their opponents, with Davenport, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Catchings making up their frontcourt, while Atlanta were going with a small lineup in the absence of de Souza. Unwilling to live with the mismatch and try to use it to their advantage, Indiana replaced Davenport with Douglas and created a much more even battle on the floor. The McCoughtry-Catchings matchup was back in place, only with both of them at power forward instead of their natural small forward spots. And by this point they were defending each other on every possession.

When Catchings followed two Douglas buckets by drilling a three with 2:18 left in the game, Indiana held an 88-83 advantage which looked like they may have taken a crucial edge, but back came the Dream in this see-saw battle. Harding attacked Phillips, and hit a jumper in the lane; Douglas lost her footing and turned the ball over; and then McCoughtry dropped in a rainbow three with Shavonte Zellous right on top of her. Tied game at 88, 1:39 to play.

Indiana had been running the same play over and over again in the closing stages – a brush screen for Douglas set by Catchings on the left side of the floor – but when Atlanta finally stopped it and Douglas gave the ball up to Phillips, she penetrated and hit yet another jumper for the lead. Only for Iziane Castro Marques to hit one of her trademark wild running jumpers to tie it back up at 90. Continuing to run that same two-man play with Catchings and Douglas, Indiana nearly turned the ball over a couple of times before Douglas found Catch wide open for three when both defenders followed her into the lane. Catchings’s attempt just barely rimmed out, and Sancho Lyttle was fouled during the fight for the rebound, sending her to the line with 30 seconds left in regulation.

Shockingly for a player who’s typically very effective in clutch situations, Lyttle missed both free throws, and Indiana had the ball back in a tied game with 28 seconds left. The Fever finally changed up their play a little, putting the ball in Catchings’s hands instead of Douglas’s, and setting the high screen with Sutton-Brown. Atlanta did precisely what they’d done to disrupt the play a couple of times already, trapping hard on the player coming off the screen. Caught in a Lyttle/McCoughtry double-team is not a nice place to be, and Catchings turned the ball over when she tried to make the difficult pass away from the trap. Armintie Price pushed quickly back towards the opposite basket, found Lyttle on the right wing, and she took one dribble in before putting up a floating jumper from the low block. It bounced on the rim, thought about it for a second or two, and fell through. Redemption for Lyttle after missing those free throws, and Atlanta led 92-90 with only 0.9 seconds left on the clock.

After advancing the ball with a timeout, Indiana inbounded to Phillips, who put up a turnaround effort for three that would’ve won the game. Given how she’d shot the ball all night, you almost expected it to drop, but the ball found nothing but air and Atlanta held on. After so many close losses early in the season, Atlanta had found a way to win yet another tight game. It’s becoming a habit lately, and not one they’ll want to break any time soon.

I’m not going to criticise anyone for how they played in this one, because that was just a hell of a basketball game. Two teams that won’t give an inch in any battle, led by their superstar small forwards, both of whom are being suggested as legitimate MVP candidates. Catchings shot 6-13 for 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. In support, Phillips finished 9-14 for 21 points (and seems to be one of the few players who relishes facing Lindsey Harding’s defense), while Douglas went 6-12 for 15. Smith and Zellous were both in double-digits as well. The only real issue for Indiana was turnovers, where they racked up 19 by the end of the game. It was largely caused by playing at the faster pace, which they’re not accustomed to. If these teams do ultimately fight it out in a playoff series – and after the last couple of games, I’m really hoping they do – half the battle is going to come down to what type of games they end up playing. If the Fever can somehow bring the pace down, and turn it into a halfcourt battle, they have every chance of winning; if the games keep being played at this frenetic speed, Atlanta might be the favourites even if they’re the lower seed.

Coupled with Chicago’s loss, this win just about sealed Atlanta’s playoff spot. Now 2.5 games clear with five to play (only four left for the Sky), and holding the tie-breaker over Chicago, the Dream can start printing those playoff tickets. The question now is whether they can move up. They’re right on New York’s tail, and playing better than the Liberty at the minute, and even Connecticut are within range. Who knows where they might end up by the end of next week. McCoughtry finished this game with 28 points on 11-21 from the floor (8-10 in the second half when her team needed her to step up). This team really started to move when they got healthy and found a settled lineup, but the take-off also coincided with McCoughtry’s noticeable increase in aggression and effectiveness. She’s the leader, even if she does have some pretty talented assistance. Harding, Price and Lyttle were all in double-figures in support, and it’s that starting five that has become the key group for the Dream, unlike last year when they relied on upwards of ten players. The health of de Souza is going to be paramount heading into the playoffs. Yes, the lineup with McCoughtry at power forward can work in certain situations, and bigs Alison Bales, Courtney Paris and Sandora Irvin can fill in from the bench in a pinch, but they need that five together. Photos of de Souza smiling and giving a thumbs up were nice to see – until you scrolled down and saw the walking boot that went with the crutches. Dream fans better hope it’s as minor as they’ve been making out so far.

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With those two All-East matchups covered, the most important remaining games featured the chase for the one playoff spot that is still in doubt. San Antonio and Los Angeles are locked in a battle for that remaining berth, and likely the dubious honour of facing Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. The Silver Stars entered Tuesday’s games with a 1.5 game advantage, but with a slightly tougher schedule to close the season and a key matchup in LA next week, so they had to start winning games. They’d found it tough lately, losing six in a row and 10 of their last 12, scoring a pathetic four points in the paint last time out against Minnesota. Their visitors for this game were Connecticut, who had their own battles on their hands. Trying to catch Indiana, and hold off New York and Atlanta, the Sun may have already clinched their playoff spot but they certainly couldn’t relax. Having lost their last game in Tulsa, of all places, they at least needed to respond just for their own peace of mind.

San Antonio coach Dan Hughes made a change to his starting lineup, inserting Jia Perkins for Scholanda Robinson. Perkins has been a scoring injection off the bench all season, but with the team struggling Hughes obviously felt his team could use her from the start. With Connecticut’s starting wing players both reasonably small and only occasional offensive threats, there was also less need for Robinson’s extra length or defensive ability at small forward. Early on, Hughes’s changes worked nicely. Perkins gave them extra drive and a more attacking mentality from the opening tip, and an extra player who’s always looking for her shot. When Hughes gave her a rest midway through the first quarter, it was another change to his usual pattern, because Danielle Adams was the replacement. That meant Adams and Ruth Riley were both on the floor at the same time, with Sophia Young sliding to small forward – not a lineup we’ve seen much of this season. I’ve maintained for years that Young’s a more natural 3 than the 4 spot where she typically plays, so it certainly seemed like a good move to me. With Adams and Young providing most of their offense, and Connecticut struggling horribly to create anything against San Antonio’s defense, the Silver Stars held a 21-14 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Little changed in the second. Connecticut sometimes have these performances where they just seem to be drifting, without looking particularly invested in the result or active on the floor. While San Antonio’s defense was obviously having a contributory effect and helping to cause it, this felt like another one of those games for the Sun. Tina Charles was notable only for her complete lack of involvement in the offense, barely touching the ball for long stretches. She struggled in the first meeting between these teams as well, so maybe there’s something about the defense of Riley, Adams and Jayne Appel that troubles her, but it’s hard to see why. The Silver Stars play good defense, but she should have a field-day against their atrocious rebounding. It just wasn’t happening, and her teammates were barely even looking for her. Meanwhile, San Antonio were actually cold from outside, shooting only 1-10 from three-point range in the first half, but for once producing enough from mid-range and via drives to the rim to take a lead. They were 38-28 in front at halftime – Charles was just 2-7 for six points.

It’s hard to tell you too much about the second half, because LiveAccess issues made much of it unwatchable (and that video hasn’t been fixed). An early 15-6 run from San Antonio stretched their lead to 53-34, and while the Sun had clearly been reminded to use Charles by coach Mike Thibault during the break, it still wasn’t working. When they could get her the ball, she was taking too many jumpers from outside rather than fighting for her offense in the paint, and most of the shots weren’t dropping. With Becky Hammon, Danielle Robinson, Perkins and Young all looking more active and effective than they had in several recent games, San Antonio still held a 58-43 lead at the end of the third.

From there, the result was never really in doubt. Connecticut made a few shots in the fourth, trying to gun their way back into the game from outside, but with their confidence high from the lead they’d built earlier in the game, San Antonio were happy to trade baskets. The gap never fell lower than nine points until the final minute of the game, by which time it was too late for the comeback to be pulled off. The usual procession of late-game free throws left us with a final score of 78-66 San Antonio, for a much-needed Silver Stars win.

It’s about time San Antonio came up with a game like this in front of their home crowd. There’ve been one or two shocking performances lately, along with an array of games where they just couldn’t close out at the end. There seemed to be greater desire in this contest, and a realisation that their season was slipping away from them if they didn’t break the losing streak immediately. They’ve been hurt all season in their losses (and even in some of their wins) by dismal rebounding and a lack of interior offense. In this game, they won the battle on the boards 38-33, and had 32 points in the paint (right around the league average). That’s more like it, and if they can replicate that they’ve got a good chance of holding off LA and making the playoffs. The other problem in recent weeks has been their stars failing to show up. Against Connecticut, Hammon went 5-11 for 16 points, Young 7-13 for 15, and they got double-digit backup from Adams, Perkins, and Danielle Robinson. Maybe they’ve finally turned the corner, just in time to keep the backdoor open into the postseason.

That was a pretty miserable performance by Connecticut, and another reminder that this team still has an ugly road record. It looked like they’d overcome their road woes earlier in the year, when they won four out of five on their travels after a dismal road record both this season and last. However, since then they’ve lost four straight in opposition arenas, including providing Tulsa’s third win of the year on Sunday and helping San Antonio break a six-game losing streak in this game. That’s not what you want to see heading towards the playoffs. More importantly, it’s putting the #2 seed under threat, which obviously they’ll need all the more if they can’t win away from home. Now just a game ahead of New York and 1.5 up on Atlanta, the last ten days of the season could scatter the Eastern Conference playoff teams in practically any order. Charles finished 5-17 in this game for 16 points, and considering the 2-13 performance she produced against the Silver Stars earlier this season, she’ll be happy not to have to see them again this year. Barring an unlikely WNBA Finals matchup.

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With that Silver Stars win in the books and the game concluding over half an hour before the nightcap in LA tipped off, the Los Angeles Sparks probably knew that they’d dropped two full games outside the playoff spots by the time their game started. With just five games left to play, and San Antonio apparently unwilling to just keep losing, LA had to start winning games if they wanted to keep their postseason chances alive. Their opponents were once again Seattle, who they’d lost to on Sunday in a nailbiting finish. After losing to Tulsa as well only a couple of days earlier, the Sparks needed a win to restart their push to catch the Silver Stars. For Seattle it’s about playoff positioning and the fight for second and third place in the West. Theoretically, San Antonio or LA could still catch them, but realistically the Storm and Mercury are in a fight for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Considering Seattle’s road form for much of the season, the result of that fight could make or break their chances against Phoenix.

Both teams started with the same lineups that began the game on Sunday, which meant Kristi Toliver at shooting guard again for the Sparks. After Sunday’s ugly game, there was never much hope for this one being a thing of beauty either, and there were no surprises. LA’s defense is still awful, as far as I can see, leaving shooters wide open and failing to rotate and help at the right times (or even know when the hell those right times actually are). But Seattle have made them look like the ’96 Bulls defensively in the last couple of games. They can’t hit shots. It’s painful, and a flashback to those terrible road performances that they were offering up earlier in the season. In this game, the turnover issues that they’ve had for much of the season cost them dearly as well, with endless giveaways throughout the first half. They were complicating everything too much, running their typical sets when they really weren’t necessary. A simple, straightforward cut or screen produces an open shot against this defense most of the time, but they were trying to make passes through gaps that didn’t exist, or running through multiple options and permutations before finding anything they liked. It was messy, and it didn’t work out well for the Storm at all.

Fortunately, their defense is still pretty solid, and LA took their time pulling away. Offense is where the Sparks have actually been decent all season, especially when Ticha Penicheiro is running the offense and with a significant extra boost now that Candace Parker is around to help out. After a narrow 17-15 lead after one quarter – only created by late threes from Toliver and Parker – the Sparks finally built something in the second. They were throwing in plenty of weak turnovers themselves, which restricted the run, but by halftime Parker had 12, and LA led 32-24. It was a pathetic first half from the Storm, and they would’ve been delighted to only be down by eight after that performance.

Still recovering from her injury, Seattle’s own returning superstar Lauren Jackson struggled in the first half. She didn’t seem particularly interested in setting up on the low block, where she drew fouls the couple of times she actually ventured down there. Instead she was jacking up too many threes, and they weren’t dropping. She finally hit one to open the second half, but it was a flash in the pan rather than a sign of things to come. A hard-fought but uninspiring third quarter followed, riddled with whistles and stoppages, and LA still led by nine with three minutes to go in the period. Then Seattle briefly seemed to get it. They ran a couple of blindingly simple plays, a straightforward down-screen breaking Katie Smith wide open to sink a three, before a couple of offensive rebounds produced a Camille Little layup and two LJ free throws. Seattle were back within four and we had a game, although a reverse-layup from Penicheiro pushed the LA advantage up to 51-45 before the end of the third.

However, with Seattle continuing to miss shots from every conceivable position and range – layups, mid-range jumpers, threes; it made no difference – LA held on to their lead. Their bread and butter play was very simple in the fourth quarter – feed Parker on the block, and let her go to work. Jackson’s one of the best post defenders in the game when she’s fully healthy, but that’s clearly not yet the case, and Parker’s a nightmare to defend when your lateral mobility is at 100%. Parker sank a gorgeous turnaround over Jackson with five minutes left in the game for a 58-50 lead, went over her again for the basket and a foul on LA’s next possession, then drifted straight past Jackson to the hoop for a layup on the possession after that. Le’coe Willingham was providing a little offense at the other end to keep Seattle hanging around, but without being able to stop Parker a Storm comeback looked unlikely.

A Sue Bird three with under two minutes left cut the scoreline to 65-60, and an illegal screen from Tina Thompson handed Seattle the ball back. Unfortunately for the Storm, Jackson followed up with yet another bricked three, her fifth miss in six tries from outside on the evening. When LA called a timeout seconds later, Storm coach Brian Agler actually benched Jackson for the final 63 seconds of the game. She’d already exceeded the amount of minutes he wants to play her as she works her way back from injury, but it was still surprising to see last year’s MVP subbed out with a minute left in a five-point contest.

After a Toliver miss, Seattle had a shot to make it a one-possession game and actually ran a decent set. A Willingham screen for Bird up top drew the inevitable switch from LA’s defense, leaving Ebony Hoffman on Bird and Kristi Toliver trying to deal with Willingham down low. Knowing she’d likely need to help on one of those matchups, Parker drifted in from her own defensive assignment, leaving Swin Cash wide open in the corner. Bird fed her, but Cash made a mess of it. Her recent shooting woes are clearly messing with her head and her confidence is shot, or she would’ve just risen up and taken the three. Instead, she pump faked, stepped inside the line and away from Parker flying out to recover, and badly missed the two instead. That was pretty much the ball game.

Seattle had to foul, Parker sank 1-of-2, and a messy Storm possession resulted in an off-balance three from Camille Little. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go in. Willingham’s putback and two more free throws from Parker closed out the scoring, and LA had kept pace with San Antonio for the night, winning 68-62.

Credit to LA for pulling out a win that they desperately needed, but most of all, credit to Candace Parker. Much of the game was about her individual abilities, and how hard they are to deal with regardless of the calibre of your defense. She finished 8-16 from the floor, including 3-5 with her significantly improved three-point shooting, for 27 points. Occasionally she tries a little too hard to take over on her own, but most of the time she’s just ridiculously good. Let’s hope she stays healthy (and non-pregnant) for many years to come, because she’s a joy to watch in full flow. Elsewhere, the offensive support came from Hoffman (5-8 for 11 points), and Thompson (5-9 for 12). Head coach Joe Bryant once again baffled us all with his moves, switching down to a seven-player rotation for this game after playing everyone and anyone for most of his time in charge this year. Jenna O’Hea’s gone from starter to DNP-CD in the space of two games, and Natasha Lacy and Jantel Lavender were both stuck to the bench in this game as well. Still, you can’t argue too much with the moves when they result in a win.

The last couple of games have been a little worrying for Seattle. It’s too much like the way they were playing early in the season before Jackson had surgery on her hip and missed 20 games. They’re not converting shots however open they might be, and there’s too much prancing around the outside rather than penetrating the paint. Yes they were on the road and LA are fighting for their playoff lives, but this Sparks team was still there for the taking. Even if you can’t stop Parker, you can still convert at the other end, and shooting just a little better than the 38% they managed would’ve been enough. Bird led the Storm scorers with 15 points, but took only seven shots in the face of all LA’s switching defenders. That style of defense often leaves her with a mismatch both facing her and for her post player, and the choice is to either beat the bigger defender off the dribble or feed the post. Being the natural passer that she is – and rarely deigning to drive these days – Bird’s choice is almost always to try to exploit the other mismatch. Sometimes, even with LJ back, the Storm need her to take the responsibility upon herself. Especially on a day when the starting frontcourt of Cash, Little and Jackson shot a combined 10-34 from the field. Playing like this on the road, it becomes even more important that Seattle somehow find a way to take that second seed ahead of Phoenix. Two games like this, and it could be a quick postseason exit for last year’s champs.

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Talking of Phoenix, their game finished before the Storm game even started, but was relegated here due to the way it played out. Considering they were playing in Tulsa, a few days ago the result might’ve been considered a foregone conclusion. Instead, the Shock came into the game on the back of their first win ‘streak’ of the season, having taken care of both LA and Connecticut in their last couple of games. They still need one more win to avoid the WNBA’s worst-ever record – because 3-31 would be worse than the 1998 Mystics’ 3-27 – so there’s still something for them to fight for, even after finally breaking that soul-destroying losing streak. Phoenix started the day half a game behind Seattle for second place in the West, narrowly trailing in that home court advantage race I just went on about in the section about the Seattle-LA game.

Bad news for the Mercury coming in, as All-Star forward Penny Taylor was ruled out with what was officially described as back spasms. We saw her hobble off court in the third-quarter of their last game against Washington holding her hip area, so who knows what the full story is. She didn’t look too uncomfortable sitting on the bench during this game, so I would presume that keeping her out of this one was largely precautionary. Even with the Shock’s last couple of results, Phoenix probably felt they could beat Tulsa without her.

And how right they were. Inserted into the starting lineup to replace Taylor, DeWanna Bonner showed that she can perform from the start as well. The likely Sixth Woman of the Year Award winner for the third straight season had a jumper to close the first quarter with her team up 22-15, then exploded in the second period. She had a three to open the quarter, and drilled three more of them before we hit halftime. By the break, Bonner had 21 points on 7-9 shooting, her team were a ridiculous 67% from the field, and had built a 51-30 lead. Even against the Mercury, Tulsa weren’t coming back from that.

Bonner relaxed in the second half, and the Mercury spread the scoring around a little more. Although why Phoenix coach Corey Gaines felt the need to play both Bonner and Candice Dupree nearly 32 minutes each in a complete blowout, I have no idea. The game finished 96-74 after a second half that was almost exclusively garbage time for the entire 20 minutes. Diana Taurasi shot 8-12 from the floor for 23 points, Bonner was also 8-12 at the end for 25, and fellow starters Temeka Johnson and Dupree had 14 and 16 respectively. Without Taylor, and against a team that should’ve been on the up after two surprising victories, Phoenix took care of business. As the Sparks and Sun have just illustrated, you can’t take any win for granted in this league, so it was a nice performance to kill the game off early. They also will have had the pleasure of watching Seattle lose to LA after sauntering to this win, which means the gap swung around and it’s now the Mercury who hold a half-game edge. The Storm-Mercury game in Seattle next Friday is still looking like it may well be the decider.

A return to Earth for Tulsa, who may have just started to believe a little of their own hype. Or they just encountered DeWanna Bonner on an unfortunate day. It did provide an opportunity for rookies Liz Cambage and Kayla Pedersen to see some playing time, after both have been lacking in opportunities lately. It’s always hard to gauge players when a large proportion of their minutes are taking place when the contest is essentially over (and against the Mercury’s idea of defense), but 7-9 for 16 points and six rebounds from Cambage in under 20 minutes of action, and 4-7 for nine points and seven boards from Pedersen is at least a start. Maybe they’ll earn a little more time in the last few games of the year, especially considering their development is central to the future of this franchise.

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Last up, the WNBA’s top team against its most dispiriting, as Minnesota hosted Washington. It was left to last primarily because it was meaningless to Washington, and with Indiana dropping games lately the Lynx are going to clinch home court advantage throughout the playoffs with ease. However, it also came last because the entire game felt lifeless. As with the last Mystics game against Phoenix, their opponents knew they were supposed to win, and knew that they probably wouldn’t need to go all-out to achieve it. With all the winning they’ve been doing this year, Lynx crowds have been growing in number, but they were all well aware that this was a poor team they were facing, and that it would hardly be the end of the World even if Minnesota somehow dropped it. Basically, the game didn’t have much meaning, and the basketball reflected that.

For whatever reason the mind of Trudi Lacey may have conceived it, she shuffled her starting lineup for this game. After using the same starting five for every one of the games that resulted in a 5-23 record, she decided to replace Kelly Miller with rookie Jasmine Thomas at the point, Marissa Coleman with Kerri Gardin at small forward, and Nicky Anosike with DeMya Walker at center. Thomas and Walker have been taking minutes away from the players they replaced lately anyway, and Coleman’s been annoyingly ineffective and inconsistent this year, but it seemed rather pointless to make the switches now. Thomas makes sense, because she could be your starting point guard in future years; the rest of them seem odd. Picking this game of all of them to bench Anosike seemed particularly harsh, considering it was her first return to the city she represented for three years, then left under a cloud. Given the way she’s played this year, and the fact that Minnesota received Washington’s 2012 first-round pick in return for her, it looks like the Lynx have come out on top in that deal anyway. A chance to start the game against her former franchise might’ve been nice, but who knows if Lacey even remembered that was the case.

Minnesota made the more spirited and energetic start to the game, unsurprising considering the respective records and confidence-levels of the teams. Behind the scoring of Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen, the Lynx broke out to a 17-9 lead, and it looked like the game might trickle out into an easy blowout. However, the Mystics have a little more spirit than that, and the Lynx were practically playing at half speed. Washington actually led after the first quarter 19-17, and Minnesota had only managed to create a 36-33 edge by halftime. Whalen was the only one trying to attack the Mystics and take over the game, scoring 17 points in the first half on a perfect 8-8 from the floor, with a series of layups and jumpers. Whether faced with Thomas, Miller or whichever player happened to be in front of her in Washington’s 2-3 zone, Whalen was finding a way to score. She had four assists by the break as well, so was also producing in other areas.

Washington actually took the lead again midway through the third quarter, 41-40 (or at least appeared to at the time – a Crystal Langhorne bucket was later reviewed and taken off the board for failing to beat the shot clock). From there, Minnesota finally imposed themselves on the game and illustrated their superiority over their opponents. A lineup of Whalen, Candice Wiggins, Monica Wright, Jessica Adair and Taj McWilliams-Franklin ran off a 14-0 run to close the third, and it became a 22-3 run once you added in the start of the fourth. More energetic Lynx defense had something to do with it, but the turnovers that kept handing the ball back to Minnesota during the streak of points certainly weren’t all forced. They were just typically Mystician.

Wright outside and Adair inside were the main architects of the push, helped out occasionally by several different teammates. Even big rookie Amber Harris got involved when she replaced McWilliams-Franklin late in the third quarter. By the time the run ended midway through the fourth, Minnesota had a 62-42 lead and the game was well and truly over. It petered out into a 73-56 Lynx victory, and the home crowd got to celebrate yet another win, even if it wasn’t necessarily the most exciting game – or the most taxing opponent.

Who knows what to make of this Washington team and franchise by now. You make all those lineup changes, and yet still only allow rookie first-round pick Victoria Dunlap less than three minutes of action. Lacey’s unfathomable. If she’s still in a job next year – and considering her appointment was essentially a cost-saving measure, I doubt she’ll be fired if it’s going to cost the franchise a single red cent – it’s hard to see where the improvement is going to come from. Maybe if Monique Currie and Alana Beard are both healthy – and both re-sign with this franchise – that can help them make a move. Maybe they’ll get lucky with the two first-round picks they have from Seattle and Atlanta (although Lacey will have to play them for that to work out). But with her still in charge, it’s hard to see what the plan is here.

Another ultimately comfortable win for Minnesota, and finally a game in which the bench played heavy minutes. Keeping Taj McWilliams-Franklin under 25 minutes in a game is an achievement for head coach Cheryl Reeve, who doesn’t seem to like taking the ageless veteran out of games. Whalen top-scored with 21 on 10-12 shooting, and the only other player in double-figures was Adair with 10. Shows you just how balanced they were in this particular game. With home court advantage throughout the playoffs now just one win (or an Indiana loss) away from being confirmed, expect to see a lot more of those bench players in the remaining Lynx regular season games. You don’t want to get too rusty before the postseason, but the main job now is to keep everyone in one piece and make sure they’re rested for the playoffs. Minnesota may not have been there in a long time, but this squad has a chance to go a long way.

 

In other news…

Bizarrely, with five games to go in an awful Mystics season, Monique Currie is expected to make her season debut tomorrow night against Atlanta. My best guess is that it’s in an effort to prove her fitness to potential employers in Europe, where she’ll want to play during the WNBA offseason. Otherwise, you have to wonder why she’s bothering.

 

Today’s Games:

None

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET

Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

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2 comments on “WNBA Today, 08/31/2011: Postseason positioning still a perplexing puzzle

  1. […] also has some profound pondering about the playoffs: Postseason positioning still a perplexing puzzle As you near the end of any regular season in a sports league, some games naturally don’t mean an […]

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