Two games in the WNBA tonight: an Eastern fight for playoff position, and a Western battle to simply reach the postseason. I’ve decided that the crunch game out West deserves its own column, so San Antonio’s attempt to seal the final playoff spot and confine LA to the lottery will be covered tomorrow. Here, we look at the latest installment of matchups that attempt to clear up the playoff picture in the East – and usually end up muddying it even further.
Connecticut came into tonight off the back of two blowout wins, and in the knowledge that victory over Atlanta would pull them even with Indiana at the top of the East. This time they’d be level for at least 24 hours, rather than the two hours they managed on Sunday. A win would also have confirmed the Sun as at least the #2 seed in the East, meaning home court advantage in the first round. However, standing in their way was a Dream squad with targets of their own. After a horrible start to the season that’s left them playing catch-up all year long, Atlanta are finally right among the challengers. A win over Connecticut would take them into sole possession of third place, and within one game of the Sun. If Indiana lose their remaining games, there was even still a chance that Atlanta could finish top of the East, which would be remarkable after their 3-9 start. Even ignoring all the mathematics and seeding equations, this game was also about sending a message for both teams. There’s every chance that these two could meet in the playoffs, and their matchups so far this season have been ultra-competitive dogfights. Whoever won the game tonight would add a little edge of confidence for a playoff series that might get underway about a week later.
There was good news on the health front for both teams, as Sancho Lyttle continued to start for Atlanta and Kalana Greene was back in the lineup for Connecticut. Lyttle went down with back pain late in Sunday’s game, while Greene had missed the Sun’s game against Washington on the same day through illness. Their recoveries left both teams opening the game with their favoured starting fives.
Atlanta jumped out to a quick early lead, but that was swiftly wiped away when Danielle McCray started knocking down jumpers and Tina Charles went to work. One of the highlights of any Sun-Dream contest is the matchup between Charles and Erika de Souza in the paint, but Charles illustrated one of the ways to gain an edge in the first quarter – beat de Souza down the floor. On consecutive Sun possessions early in the game, Charles ran the floor, and ended up being defended by Sancho Lyttle rather than de Souza purely because the ball was already on its way and Lyttle was the only post player in position to take her. de Souza was still plodding back down. Lyttle’s a good defender, but she doesn’t have the bulk that de Souza uses to make Charles’s life difficult, and Charles turned those two possessions into a nice assist to McCray for a layup, and a jump hook for a three-point play in the lane. You can’t defend what you can’t catch.
As ever in a Dream contest, much of the direction of the game was driven by Angel McCoughtry. She sank a three on the opening play of the game, and nailed another jumper during Atlanta’s opening run, then went cold with some poor shots that bounced out while Connecticut made a push late in the first quarter. Sometimes you wish she’d realise that other teams want her to take the three-point shot. Yes, they go in occasionally, and it seems like she makes them more often in crucial situations, but her percentage from out there is awful. It’s the drive that everyone’s scared of. Connecticut built a 20-15 advantage before McCoughtry’s fellow Dream wing Armintie Price converted a fastbreak layup and a pretty jumper to close out the period, tying it up at 20.
McCoughtry continued to lead the way in the second quarter, although she got some help. While Kara Lawson came in to make some shots for the Sun, the Dream responded with their running game and some reserves of their own. Coco Miller and Iziane Castro Marques both provided an offensive boost – Coco from outside, Izi on the drive – before McCoughtry took over late in the period. Atlanta were driving the pace of the game forwards as they always do, and while Connecticut like to run they don’t have quite the collection of athletes that the Dream possess. A running game is always going to favour Atlanta. Charles was doing everything she could to pull her team along, but with McCoughtry driving and the Dream pushing the ball at every opportunity, they managed to create a little space by halftime. Atlanta led 48-42 at the break.
The second half opened with a McCray triple to cut into the lead, but barely a minute later Connecticut coach Mike Thibault was calling a timeout in disgust. McCoughtry had driven into the lane yet again and weaved through every Sun defender on the court for a layup at the rim. Letting that happen is not going to get you on the coach’s good side. The central problem for Connecticut in the early stages of the second half was that they were taking too many jump shots. While it’s never good to rely on lower-percentage opportunities than can be found in the paint, it’s an especially dangerous proposition against Atlanta. Long shots mean long rebounds, and for the Dream that means fastbreak opportunities. As soon as the ball came off the iron, the likes of McCoughtry, Price and Lindsey Harding were looking to break down the floor, and find scoring opportunities before Connecticut had even had time to blink. The Dream lead was quickly into double-figures at 55-45, and that’s where the gap floated for most of the third quarter. McCoughtry even pulled off the old ‘inbound the ball into the back of the defender and collect it yourself’ move to add insult to injury.
The Sun just couldn’t buy a basket through most of the third quarter, as shots bounced away inside and out. Thibault threw out every lineup he could think of, and Lawson was the only one who made any impact. She hit two threes in the final minutes of the period to keep the Sun within plausible range at 66-55.
In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter Connecticut found some rejuvenation from even more unlikely sources. The bench post tandem of Kelsey Griffin and Jessica Moore are usually just asked to keep things afloat while Asjha Jones and Charles grab some rest, but they played key parts in dragging Connecticut back into the game. Moore drove from the high post for a layup; Griffin grabbed an offensive board and muscled in the putback; Griffin ran the floor and finished a Renee Montgomery feed in transition; and Moore found a mismatch on Harding in the post and took another Montgomery feed for a layup of her own. All in the space of less than two minutes. After sitting down with their team facing a double-digit deficit, Jones and Charles were able to re-enter the game down by just five, thanks to their backups.
But Connecticut could never quite sneak past Atlanta in the fourth quarter. When McCoughtry came back in and missed a couple of shots, Charles and Montgomery converted layups that drew the Sun within 71-67. Then Montgomery even made a ridiculous jumper, where she pulled up at the free throw line in transition, jumped and looked to pass to her cutting post player, realised the angle wasn’t there in midair and still managed to throw the ball at the rim and make the basket. That made it a three-point game with over four minutes left.
In an effort to stop McCoughtry’s penetration, which had been tearing the Sun apart all night, Thibault inserted Allison Hightower for Tan White to finish the game. I can only presume that Kalana Greene is still suffering from the illness that kept her out of the previous game, because otherwise it’s hard to see why Hightower would’ve been the choice. McCoughtry responded by taking Hightower down on the low block, and dropping in two turnaround rainbow jumpers that essentially iced the game with 2:30 left. Atlanta had an 80-71 lead and looked in control. When Connecticut came out of a timeout immediately afterwards and only produced yet another jumper for Asjha Jones – which didn’t fall, just like the vast majority of those that went before it – the game really was over. The Dream eased home in front of a jubilant home crowd, 85-74.
It’s safe to say that this game didn’t hurt Angel McCoughtry’s MVP claims. She shot 12-23 from the floor and 10-13 from the line, for a total of 35 points against one of the better defenses in the league, while throwing in five rebounds, four assists, three blocks and zero turnovers. At times her own teammates were spectators, which is never my favourite kind of basketball, but sometimes you just have to sit back and admire the level of performance when she takes over a game. She’s averaging nearly 30 points per game against Connecticut this season, so she probably wouldn’t mind seeing them again in the postseason.
If the playoffs started today, this would be the 2-3 matchup in the first-round – but they don’t. Thanks to this result, Indiana can seal the #1 seed in the East tomorrow night with a win over Washington, which would leave Connecticut, Atlanta and New York fighting over the next three spots (and Indiana potentially resting some players for their last two games against – you guessed it – New York and Atlanta). The Dream could steal home court in the first round, New York could get involved – there’s a whole variety of permutations. And would Atlanta be better off playing Indiana anyway, considering how the Fever having been performing lately? Regardless, Marynell Meadors will be delighted to have her team one win away from hitting the 20-win mark that looked very unlikely when they were floundering at 3-9. 16-5 since then, no one’s looking forward to seeing Angel and Friends in the playoffs.
Connecticut weren’t exactly poor tonight, they just never looked quite up to the level necessary to come out on top. Both teams were working so hard to challenge shots that they were leaving the glass open, which led to a huge number of offensive rebounds at both ends (14 for Connecticut, 19 for Atlanta). While the likes of Charles and Griffin took advantage of that for the Sun, it killed them at the other end. It’s hard to stop the Dream from running, but once they do you have to make sure possessions are one-and-done as often as possible. Otherwise they become even more exhausting to play against.
Fighting her way through de Souza, Lyttle and Alison Bales all night, Charles finished 8-19 from the floor for 17 points and 12 rebounds but didn’t receive quite enough support. Montgomery had a decent game with 7-9 shooting for 16 points and seven assists (although the six turnovers didn’t help), and Lawson, Griffin and Moore all helped from the bench, but Asjha Jones had an ugly night. 2-12 shooting for five points, it was one of the evenings where Jones’s jump shooting game came back to haunt both her and her team. Sometimes jump shots don’t fall, and often they create break out opportunities for your opponent as well. It’d be nice to see her help Charles out in the paint a little more, but we can hardly expect that kind of change at this point. Still, Connecticut will need Jones to shoot better if they’re going to have a chance to beat this team in the postseason. Should they run into them.
The Sun only have one game left, against New York on Sunday. By that stage other games will have made matters slightly clearer, but essentially a win makes them the #2 seed, while a loss makes things complicated. The Sun need home court. Like Seattle in the West, that #2 seed is vitally important to their chances of advancing, because they perform so much better on their own floor. Fortunately for Connecticut, that last regular season game on Sunday afternoon is back in Uncasville where the Sun feel so comfortable.
In other news…
Players of the Week were announced today as Connecticut’s Tina Charles in the East, and Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner in the West. Charles always seemed a likely choice, considering the ‘triple-double’ she achieved during the week, but Bonner was a little bit of a surprise. The gaudy numbers she produced during Penny Taylor’s absence from the Mercury lineup were good enough to make it a perfectly reasonable choice, though. It makes her the fourth different player from Phoenix to win the award this season (along with Taylor, Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree), which is a new record for any franchise in a single season.
The Tulsa Shock finally let everyone else in on the details of Ivory Latta’s injury today, stating that she’ll have surgery for a torn meniscus in her left knee. My guess is that she was probably playing through the injury for a while, but decided to have the surgery now to be ready for her overseas season as quickly as possible. It’s not like the Shock’s final few games mean an awful lot.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET