WNBA Today, 09/19/2011: Nightmare series ends for Sun; Lynx pushed to decider

Two more WNBA playoff games, two more teams playing to keep their seasons alive on Sunday in the WNBA. Once again it was time to step up or go home, because in these best-of-three series if you can’t bounce back quickly from a loss, you’re done for.

The proposition was a little different for Connecticut than our three other Game 1 losers. The only team to drop the opening game at home – and that after losing two home games in the entire regular season – the Sun now had to go out and steal a game back in Atlanta. Just like they proved last year, the Dream don’t necessarily need home court advantage to turn teams over, and a low seed couldn’t stop them sweeping through the East and heading to the WNBA Finals in 2010. Now if they could defend their own home court, they’d have an extra couple of days to rest before taking on New York or Indiana.

The same starting fives unsurprisingly remained in place. Atlanta may have made their key fourth quarter run in Game 1 with Angel McCoughtry on the sidelines, but they weren’t about to bench their leading scorer and driving force on the basis of that. The first quarter wasn’t pretty, especially for Connecticut. The very first shot the Sun put in the air was a 17-foot jump shot from Tina Charles, which just perpetuated their central issue from the previous game – their star center taking far too many shots from outside. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s first three shots were all taken by the opposing center – Erika de Souza – and her combined distance from the basket on all three would’ve come nowhere near 17 feet. Get used to me saying this because it was a theme all night – Charles was already settling for shots from too far away from the basket.

Sun coach Mike Thibault recognised how poorly his team had opened the game, calling a timeout down just 4-2 less than two minutes into the game. Charles was at least in the low block coming out of the timeout, but her short jumper after posting up and turning inside de Souza rimmed out. The couple of times she did venture down into the post in the opening period illustrated why she’d been so unwilling to try to build her offense from there during this series – even if she managed to fight off de Souza, Sancho Lyttle was sliding across to cover the gap behind her. That’s a very big, very long pairing to have to deal with in the post. The only real positive to come out of the first quarter for Connecticut was that they were only down 16-11 when it came to an end. The game was being played at Atlanta’s pace, Charles was still ineffective, and yet the Dream only had a five-point lead. When Charles finally managed to draw a call from the officials late in the period on a putback attempt, she even missed both free throws. It wasn’t a promising start for her.

However, once again, Angel McCoughtry was having a tough time producing anything as well. She was surprisingly uninvolved in the Dream offense, missing a couple of jumpers early in the game but otherwise looking unusually passive. She had a bizarre turnover late in the period when she caught the ball on the low block and tried to back down her defender, clearly travelling when she slightly lost her balance. Or at least we could all see that she travelled – there was no whistle, and the ball only went to Connecticut when McCoughtry tossed the ball to the referee and it dropped out of bounds. You could argue that the play said something about McCoughtry’s mental state, but I think mostly it just said something about WNBA officiating. Maybe we should just let players call their own fouls?

It continued to be a scrappy, messy game in the second quarter, just like Game 1. Atlanta seemed in control of the tempo, but as with the Sun posts, they were taking too many jump shots. And as anyone who’s followed this team for the last few years knows well – outside shooting is not Atlanta’s forté. In fact, it’s the one area where the Sun have an obvious advantage in this matchup, and after jumpers from Kalana Greene and Asjha Jones, a transition three from Renee Montgomery gave them their first lead of the afternoon at 27-26 midway through the second period.

While McCoughtry may not have had an obvious impact on the scoreboard, and her replacement Iziane Castro Marques had dropped in a high-arcing three soon after replacing her, the Dream seemed to lose their way without McCoughtry on the floor for the final six minutes of the half. The momentum of the game had flipped, with the Dream looking sloppy and giving away too many turnovers on dangerous passes, and failing to drive to the basket as much as their style of basketball demands. Even de Souza was settling for midrange jumpers, and that’s an even worse idea for her than it is for Charles. As a result, Connecticut held a 36-31 lead at halftime despite Charles shooting 1-6 for just three points. Jones was 5-12 for 10 to lead the way, and although taking a bunch of jumpers herself, looked more willing to fight for her offense in the lane than her star teammate. McCoughtry was 0-4 for zero points in barely 10 minutes of action in the first half, easily matching Charles’s futility.

It’s hard to call what happened in the third quarter a Connecticut ‘run’, because it took nearly eight minutes of floor time for it to develop, but their lead eventually reached 11 at 46-35. The Dream just couldn’t find the basket. Layups, midrange jumpers, threes, fastbreak efforts – everything was falling off, even when Montgomery’s lackadaisical passing created easy steals and running opportunities. McCoughtry was starting to force things a little in her effort to get on the scoreboard and help her team, which is never a good idea, but she did finally score with four minutes left in the third after grabbing a defensive rebound a driving the length of the court for a layup. A brick wall probably wouldn’t have stopped her on that charge. But in general, there was no rhythm or offensive efficiency on either side throughout the third, although the Dream did put together a 7-0 run late in the period to keep the score close. McCoughtry created a layup for herself by stripping Danielle McCray to finish that run, then hit a pullup on the next Atlanta possession as well. She only had six points and her team still trailed 51-44 heading to the fourth, but there were glimpses there of the Angel McCoughtry we’d expected to see in this series.

Charles got a friendly roll on yet another outside jumper to open the fourth quarter – that took her to what felt like about 2-50 on the night from out there – giving the Sun a nine-point lead. At that stage it was de Souza and Alison Bales in the post, so a huge blockade to threaten anyone who wanted to score inside. But still, it was consistently aggravating to see a 6-5 All-World center jacking up jumpers from 15 feet and beyond all night long. And if I was aggravated, I can only imagine how Mike Thibault and the Connecticut fans were feeling. Charles has a pretty good midrange game for a post player, but she shot 35% from 16-20 feet this season. She shot 60% from inside five feet. Plus, obviously, you’re a hell of a lot more likely to get fouled if you’re in the paint than standing around outside firing up jumpers. We’re not talking Andrea Riley-levels of screaming at my monitor, but considering this was a do-or-die game for the Sun, we were certainly getting there.

The Dream finally started to make a run in the fourth quarter. McCoughtry was part of it in the early stages, but after missing a running jumper with 7:30 left practically took herself out of the game. She headed to the bench before Dream coach Marynell Meadors had even looked to replace her with Castro Marques. But just as in Game 1, McCoughtry’s absence was no impediment to a fourth quarter charge from Atlanta. Armintie Price, Lindsey Harding and Castro Marques were starting to fly from one end of the court to the other, and knife into the lane even when they were forced to set up in half court sets. At the other end, whether it was Charles, Jones or one of the guards, all the Sun had to offer was a parade of endless bricked perimeter jumpers. There wasn’t much movement, and there was absolutely no penetration, so the Dream push continued. With 3:27 left in the game, Harding went past Montgomery far too easily and there was no help behind her, the resulting layup giving Atlanta their first lead since the second quarter. Montgomery looked tired on the play, and the entire Sun team looked like they’d been expecting the turnaround to happen and it’d just been a matter of time. That was how it felt watching as well, but it’s not supposed to be reflected in the faces of the team fighting for their lives.

My notes for this game have phrases like “so tired of watching Charles jack jumpers” and “get in the *bleeping* post” over and over again. Most frequently in the fourth quarter. It was ridiculous. You had to credit Atlanta’s defense, which double-teamed hard on the rare occasions Charles had the ball down low, but the visits were far too infrequent. Plus if she’s being double-teamed, someone is open. Kick the ball quickly, and someone who’s more likely to actually make an outside jumper might be wide open out there.

McCoughtry came back into the game with about five minutes left to play, and with barely two minutes left she drew a whistle on a putback effort and extended the Dream lead to 62-57 at the line. After Montgomery got to the line herself and went 1-of-2, and Harding showed a complete lack of court awareness to let the shot clock nearly expire before she flung a hopeless thirty-foot effort at the rim, the Sun had the ball back. They were only down four, with just over a minute to play, and sill had a chance. But when Jones fed the ball to Charles on the low block – yes, she was down there for once – poor spacing from the Sun brought a very quick triple-team. Desperate to provide some scoring for her team at this stage, Charles forced up an effort anyway that was well short – and even on that try she was fading away from the hoop from about five feet. The rebound broke to Harding, and she turned it into a fastbreak assist for a Castro Marques layup. 64-58 with 47.7s left in the game – it wasn’t completely over, but the fat lady was definitely poised and ready.

Kara Lawson hit a wide open three with 23 seconds left – wide open thanks to inattentive defense from McCoughtry, oddly enough – that cut the gap to four, but when she fired from well beyond NBA range on the next Sun possession and hit nothing but air, it really was over. Atlanta finished 69-64 victors, and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While they were facing a very good team in Atlanta, that was a desperately disappointing way for Connecticut’s season to end. Charles played nearly 37 minutes, and shot 6-16 for 13 points and 17 rebounds. After shooting just 10 free throws in four games against Atlanta in the regular season, Charles managed all of eight in the two playoff games (zero in the second half of either game, by the way). Lyttle, de Souza and Bales did a heck of a job against her in both games, but she made it easy for them. And Thibault helped as well, because she was so rarely in motion looking to get open down low. Pick and rolls or flash cuts or something different might’ve at least got her going, and led to greater success on the straightforward post-ups (and encouraged her to at least visit the paint more frequently). She just took far too many jump shots, and the rest of the Sun team wasn’t good enough to bail her out. Jones was 7-21 in this game for 15 points, and was largely settling for outside shots as well. Montgomery was the only other Sun player in double-digits with 10, although Lawson might’ve had more than the seven she put up if she’d been given more than 16 minutes. It was surprising that we didn’t see more of her on the floor during this series. The Sun are a young team, and with players like Sandrine Gruda, Alba Torrens and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota potential additions for next season they could come back even better. But if we’re back here in a year with these teams facing each other in the playoffs again, Charles better spend more of her time under the damn basket.

It wasn’t all that pretty in either game, and their star is still yet to impose herself on the 2011 postseason, but Atlanta advanced. That’s what matters. In the end, their defense and their balance is what got them there. Harding, McCoughtry, Lyttle and de Souza all finished the game with 12 points each, although none of them shot anywhere close to 50% from the field. It was a grind it out performance from a team that would much rather open things up and play end-to-end basketball, but they got the job done. The defense on Charles took away Connecticut’s primary weapon, and while they found offense difficult to come by themselves, the running game had just a little juice in it for the fourth quarter of both games. McCoughtry was 4-16 in under 29 minutes of action, and will be pleased to see the back of Kalana Greene and the Sun defense that was targeted on her.

Now Atlanta get to sit back and watch New York and Indiana fight it out for the right to meet them in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Dream swept Indiana 4-0 in the regular season, but they’d have home court advantage over New York, so there are positives either way. The only issue – which still doesn’t seem to have hit the mainstream media – is that Erika de Souza is in the Brazilian squad for the upcoming FIBA Americas tournament. Fortunately for the Dream, it looks like she’s leaving it until the very last minute to fly out to Colombia, and will play in Game 1 before leaving. But she’ll miss the rest of the Eastern Finals, and quite possibly the start of the WNBA Finals if they manage to advance without her. Alison Bales has had a couple of good games lately, but a heavy load is going to fall on her shoulders with de Souza gone, and they’ll likely need something from Sandora Irvin or Courtney Paris as well. It’s far from impossible, but losing your starting center for the most important games of the year – when she isn’t even injured – will obviously make things tougher.

—–

After coming desperately close to upsetting the Minnesota Lynx on their own floor in Game 1, San Antonio headed home for Game 2 confident that they could tie up the series. But after finishing the regular season four games clear of anyone – and nine games ahead of the Silver Stars – Minnesota were still the favourites to complete the sweep (according to Vegas, anyway). After running the Lynx close on the boards and keeping their scorers quiet for most of the night, San Antonio weren’t in exactly the same situation as New York and Phoenix the night before. They didn’t need big changes – they just needed to execute a tiny bit better and draw some belief from their home crowd and they’d be taking us to another Game 3.

Once again, the starting lineups were exactly the same for Game 2 as they were for the opening contest. The defensive matchups sent out by San Antonio coach Dan Hughes were the same as well – rookie point guard Danielle Robinson sliding over onto Seimone Augustus, Jia Perkins chasing around Lindsay Whalen, and Becky Hammon on Maya Moore. So we had another chance to see if Moore had realised that she has six inches and 30 pounds (minimum) on Hammon, and whether she could take advantage.

After barely winning the points in the paint battle in Game 1 (26-22, against the team who finished last in the WNBA in points in the paint in the regular season), the Lynx were noticeably trying to force the ball inside early in the first quarter. The problem is, that’s not really their game. Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin can both score, but usually within the rhythm of the game on layups or putbacks, or even the occasional perimeter jump shot, not on force-fed post moves. So the efforts to score inside went nowhere. Their offense started to work a little better when they went back to looking for Seimone Augustus as the first option.

For San Antonio, Jia Perkins was the key weapon early in the game. It seemed a slightly odd trade when Hughes acquired her before the season, sending away the leading rebounder (Michelle Snow) from a team that was already poor on the glass, in order to acquire another short shooting guard. But Perkins gives them a balance to Hammon, another offensive threat that prevents teams from focussing too hard on Hammon or Sophia Young. And if they sucked on the glass with Snow, they could easily suck without her as well. Perkins had eight points in the first five minutes of the game on a variety of jumpers, and with Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve going to her bench early in search of offense the Silver Stars led 18-14 at the end of the first quarter.

Moore had picked up two early fouls in the first quarter and headed to the bench, but she returned to start the second and finally began to do something with her matchup. She had a wide open three as the trailer to help her get going, then fought off Tully Bevilaqua – another player far smaller and lighter than her – for a layup. The next time she tried to set up down low on Bevilaqua she took a fadeaway jumper – a silly choice when you’ve got such a huge physical advantage – and the third time Danielle Adams rotated over on help defense and caused her to miss. That was pretty much the last time we saw Moore on the low block all night, ridiculously enough.

It was still Perkins leading the way for San Antonio, with a little help from Hammon and Adams. All three can light it up from outside, but Adams has done a good job in this series of looking for points on the interior. Minnesota’s choice to switch screens is giving her favourable matchups down low, creating either layups or free throws when they’re forced to foul her. After a season with so little interior offense, it’s huge for San Antonio that they’re finally finding a little at this crucial time. But it was still largely the perimeter shooting of the guards that built the 31-20 San Antonio lead in the middle of the second quarter.

Hammon took over from Perkins as the primary weapon late in the period, but with Whalen looking a little more aggressive offensively the Lynx finally began to answer. She hit three traditional jumpers, before an over-the-shoulder prayer from deep to beat the shot clock somehow dropped in the final minute of the half as well, and the San Antonio lead was just 40-37 at the break. Considering how dominant the Silver Stars had been for most of the opening 20 minutes, Minnesota will have been delighted to only be down three heading back to the locker room.

However, little changed in the early stages of the second half. San Antonio, with the crowd behind them and knowing that they had to win the game to stay alive, just seemed to have more energy. The defensive matchups were working even better than they had in Game 1, with Robinson chasing Augustus around as well as anybody can, Perkins making it hard for Whalen to penetrate, and Hammon doing enough on Moore. With Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin offering very little threat, the likes of Young, Adams and Ruth Riley were also always available to help on the guards if any of their teammates got beaten, not that it was happening very often. Largely speaking, the Lynx were settling for outside shots, and a string of misses early in the second half allowed San Antonio to build on their lead. They got out and pushed the ball on a couple of occasions to create easy shots – turning one of Minnesota’s usual threats against them – and Perkins was still firing away with accuracy from outside. Dangerously for Minnesota, even Sophia Young was back involved in the offense, after spending far too much of this season floating through games at the offensive end. She was posting up, sliding through the lane for layups, getting out on the break to finish long feeds – generally looking like the Sophia Young that we remember. San Antonio’s lead blew up to 16 midway through the third quarter, and with Reeve trying all kinds of lineups to find anything that might work they still led 64-50 at the end of the third.

Minnesota finished the third with four reserves on the floor as Reeve searched for a lineup who could score, but she went back to her starting five from the start of the fourth quarter. They made a little bit of a run, and by this stage they were overwhelmingly dominant on the glass, but so few of those rebounds were leading to anything. It was just miss after miss, and if they happened to grab an offensive board, they had a chance for an extra miss. With the loud crowd behind them and all the momentum, San Antonio weren’t giving this one away. Their lead never dropped below eight in the final period until inside the 30 seconds, and by then it was far too late for it to matter. The Silver Stars came away with an 84-75 victory that sends us back to Minnesota for the decider on Tuesday night.

San Antonio absolutely deserved that win. The passion and desire for their season not to end on Sunday was evident from the opening tip, and the gameplan was there for them to pull it off. She cooled off in the second half, but Perkins carried them early on, and ended the game 9-18 for 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals. After sitting at 2-5 for six points at halftime, Young finished 7-11 for 23, finally producing exactly the kind of performance this team needs from her. Brunson may be far too big and athletic for her to deal with on the glass, but if she uses her quickness and mobility and puts forth the required effort, she can produce as well. Hammon was only 5-13 for 18 points, but hit some important shots when her team needed her to keep them going in the first half. They were just incredibly scrappy, and hustled after everything. The Lynx killed them on the offensive glass in the second half, finishing the game with 21 offensive boards, but only had six second-chance points. So San Antonio were giving up the rebounds, but doing a good enough job contesting any second opportunities to prevent them turning into points. Another sterling defensive performance like this, and a hot shooting night from any combination of Hammon/Perkins/Adams/Young on Tuesday, and who knows what might happen.

For a team that only lost seven games all season, Minnesota look awfully vulnerable. The three-guard perimeter San Antonio are running with the vast majority of the time is managing to put up enough resistance to make offense hard work for the Lynx, and it gives them a quickness edge at the other end. Plus, while the lack of a natural post-up scorer hasn’t hurt Minnesota all season – they were third in the league in points in the paint despite that fact – it suddenly seems rather glaring. It’s presumably part of the reason why Reeve sent Jessica Adair into this game early in both the first and third quarters – because she’s a more aggressive and attacking offensive player in the post. But the Lynx surely can’t be relying on the low-post offense of Jessica Adair to help them through a playoff series, can they? Reeve is being thoroughly outcoached so far in this series, which isn’t helping. The cross-matching with the starting perimeter players is working for San Antonio; the high-low passing down to Adams or Young in the post is creating easy baskets inside on multiple occasions; and theoretically San Antonio are one basket away from having finished this series already (although presumably Game 2 might’ve been a bit different if Minnesota were the team 1-0 behind).

The Lynx still have the most talent – that’s their edge. It’s been their primary edge all season. But they have to utilise it better. If Hammon comes out on Moore yet again to start Game 3, get her the ball in position to do something better with it than chuck up yet another three. Go to the small lineup with Moore as a power forward as more than a desperation move. Hell, try Charde Houston for a few minutes if you need an offensive injection, instead of the consistently ineffective Amber Harris. If you asked me to pick a straight-up winner for Game 3, Minnesota would still be the pick with over 10,000 fans cheering them on to try to win their first ever playoff series. But Vegas say they’re still 8 point favourites. That seems a little bit generous to me.

 

In other news…

Coverage of all tonight’s deciding-game excitement will be coming tomorrow, I promise. It’ll give you all time to recover.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

New York @ Indiana, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 8pm ET

Phoenix @ Seattle, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 10pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

San Antonio @ Minnesota, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 8pm ET

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