Just the one game in the WNBA last night, but it was a fascinating clash between a reigning powerhouse and a fresh new challenger looking to prove themselves. Of course, the bizarre thing is that it’s the Minnesota Lynx who now sit on top of the pile with a target on their backs, while the Los Angeles Sparks are trying to knock them off their perch. This is not your mother’s WNBA.
Both teams started as expected, Minnesota with their standard five and LA with Kristi Toliver keeping her spot in the backcourt. Center Nicky Anosike remains unavailable due to a knee injury for LA, and with Sharnee Zoll done for the season they’re currently working with only nine healthy players. Minnesota are at ten with Amber Harris still nursing an ankle sprain.
The opening stages were about what you’d expect, with the Lynx playing their typical efficient game and the Sparks riding Candace Parker for all she was worth. The first concerted run from either side came late in the first quarter when Minnesota’s bench and defense gave them a boost. Lindsay Whalen’s been struggling a little in the first few games of the season, but Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright have been stepping up to fill the gap. They bring extra quickness and often a more direct, aggressive mentality when they enter the game, and sometimes it helps makes things happen for Minnesota. The lead built to 30-19 by the end of the period.
From late in the second quarter on through much of the third, LA started to take control of the game. Many of the Lynx’s problems were of their own making. They had 13 turnovers by halftime, several of them when they were trying to push on the break and simply overthrew long passes. The good thing about those kind of turnovers is that they’re dead ball – they’re not creating breakouts the other way for the opposition. But it was still killing off far too many Lynx possessions that should’ve ended in easy baskets. LA’s defense should be given some credit as well – not all the turnovers were unforced. The Sparks much more active this season, working to go after the ball in passing lanes and cause as much mayhem as they can. New head coach Carol Ross has clearly tried to bring that mentality with her from Atlanta, and the signs are there that it’s starting to have an impact.
So LA led 47-44 at halftime, despite being beaten 17-12 on the glass, and with 3 minutes left in the third quarter they’d pushed their advantage to 65-58. The athleticism and agility of Parker and Nneka Ogwumike had been giving the Lynx problems all night. While Rebekkah Brunson can match up with one of them, finding a second to deal with the other was a bit of an issue for Minnesota. Parker’s been used a lot at the 5 so far this season (partly because Anosike’s injured and Lavender’s still raw, partly because it’s a damn useful option). Her size lets her compete at the spot, but her quickness gives her a significant edge over practically any other center in the world. She’s taken it right to both Ann Wauters and Taj McWilliams-Franklin in the last couple of games, and scored very effectively. She already had 23 points on 10-15 shooting in that opening 27 minutes of this game. Ogwumike was having her first really effective game as a pro, feeding off rebounds, loose balls and occasional post-ups to attack the Lynx.
However, early in the Ross Era, LA still have some issues to work through, and they reared their ugly heads in the final 13 minutes of the game. Firstly, Ross made a lineup mistake. With Parker, Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver the only effective offensive options on the night, she took out both Parker and Ogwumike. Both needed a rest, so it was understandable, but they never should’ve sat at the same time. The quickness advantage they gave LA in the post was key all night during the Sparks’ strong stretches, and removing both simultaneously gave Minnesota too much of an opportunity to gain a head of steam. When Parker returned briefly to end the third, it was as part of a weird lineup with April Sykes and Marissa Coleman at the guards and Parker as the nominal small forward. Seimone Augustus immediately broke Parker down off the dribble, feeding Devereaux Peters for an easy layup when defensive help had to come over and help.
But the reason Ross felt she had to make those subs is one of LA’s other problems – they’re distinctly thin right now. Down to nine players, they also have rookie Sykes barely being utilised, Alana Beard and DeLisha Milton-Jones both struggling to find their shot, and Ebony Hoffman and Jantel Lavender both ineffective (you could throw Coleman in there too). Ross is having to ride the big scoring options heavily and that will inevitably lead to them wearing down late in games.
The fourth quarter highlighted both those Sparks issues and Minnesota’s strengths as a champion. This Lynx team knows how to gut games out these days, and step up when they need to, and that’s exactly what they did. Up against Toliver and the LA reserves they attacked, creating easy opportunities and turnovers, and the game was tied when LA’s big guns returned with 8:33 to play.
Although they stuck around for much of the fourth, LA’s offense largely stopped working. Parker had some touches, including one or two in the post, but passed out of them or couldn’t get anything going. On several offensive possessions she drifted around the perimeter barely even looking to get involved, or just waiting to see if someone wanted to pass her the ball and let her try something. This is one of the few negative aspects of Parker’s offensive game. She has remarkable physical gifts, and all kinds of talent, but sometimes she forgets that she has a few teammates who at least know what they’re doing out there. Wandering around beyond the three-point line, waiting for a potential pass, isn’t the best way to involve yourself in the offense. She also finished the game with 7 turnovers, and most of them occurred when she tried to do too much herself (and nearly all before fatigue set in during the fourth quarter). Obviously, Ross needs to draw up plays and sets that put her in position to be effective, but a lot of it is Parker herself needing to make herself part of the collective effort. It’s 5-on-5, not 1-on-5.
All that said, Taj McWilliams-Franklin stepped up her game in the 4th. Parker attacked her all night, and at least once or twice Taj seemed to shrug at her bench as if to say “what do you expect me to do against this kid?” In the final period, against an admittedly tiring Parker, Taj (and team help when necessary – although that was rare) shut her down. On one attempted post up Taj forced Parker so far off the block that by the time she collected the ball she was at the three-point line. On another possession where Parker faced her up and tried to attack off the dribble, Taj stayed in front of her and forced a fadeaway 15-footer that clanked off the rim, igniting a fastbreak layup for the Lynx. Parker might’ve won the first three quarters, but Taj won the all-important fourth.
LA also had issues at the other end of the court, especially in the final period. The Sparks are switching a lot on defense. But that’s okay – many of the best defenses in this league switch a hell of a lot (Minnesota themselves, or their predecessors as champs, Seattle). But the second part of switching is recovering, and that gets especially hard when you’re tired. With the number of screens the Lynx set, and the number of pick-and-rolls they run, you’re going to be switching a lot if you don’t fight round screens or go under them and dare teams to shoot. But once you’ve switched, you’re often left in a mismatch until you can find an opportunity to rotate back to an appropriate matchup. LA aren’t quite there yet, because they’re still working on this defense, and some of the players are still getting to know each other. The rotation isn’t quite crisp enough against players who can exploit it, and that got shown up in the fourth quarter against the Lynx.
Sometimes, it also just comes down to players making plays. Augustus had several big shots late in the game, including a pull-up three on a broken play with under two minutes left that stuck a dagger into the Sparks. Maya Moore had three big offensive rebounds in the final minutes, all of which led to Lynx points, and nailed a ridiculously tough fadeaway jumper from the baseline. Candice Wiggins hit a huge three from the corner. And Rebekkah Brunson made a whole host of big plays, always staying aggressive when her team was looking a little short of options. There’s a reason this Lynx team won it all last year.
So the Lynx ran out 92-84 victors, maintaining their perfect start to the season, but this was still a largely encouraging performance for the Sparks. They put a hell of a scare into Minnesota, and the Ogwumike/Parker frontcourt went a combined 17-28 for 43 points, even including that fourth quarter where everything stopped working. If this team continues to develop, and perhaps becomes the primary contender to challenge the Lynx in the West, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve may need to come up with a specific plan to deal with that frontcourt pair. Rookie Devereaux Peters did a useful shift coming off the bench, and there’s still Harris to return from injury, but the likes of McWilliams-Franklin and Jessica Adair looked a little slow when trying to defend Parker in full flow. Maya Moore at power forward – an option Reeve has never seemed interested in – might be worth looking at to challenge the athletic Sparks.
Kristi Toliver continues to be a bright spot for LA as well, showing off some driving skills at times in this game rather than just firing away from deep. Despite not being a natural point guard by any means, she’s also far better at distributing and creating than she used to be, and made a couple of nice passes in this game that led directly to Sparks buckets. She and Beard still clearly need more backup, but it’s been a good start for them, even though Beard is yet to find her jumpshot.
Minnesota showed some guts to take this one, taking on the challenge when it was presented to them and rising to it. Augustus finished 11-17 for 25 points, and looks ludicrously smooth. Even on a team this balanced, she seems like an MVP candidate already. She’s bringing back memories of the Mone that had people drooling (including this writer) during her six games to open the 2009 season. Please don’t get hurt this time, Seimone. Moore, Brunson and Whalen were all in double-digits in support, as the trademark balance of this team helped them home. Three games in, the 2012 Minnesota Lynx look just as scary as the 2011 version.
Notes and Mini-Previews for Tonight
The Phoenix Mercury have waived center Zane Tamane, and will reportedly replace her with a re-signed Krystal Thomas (who they cut in training camp). Tamane didn’t look good in their opening game, and can now return to play for Latvia in their EuroBasket 2013 qualifiers. Why the Mercury think Thomas will be better now – when they picked Tamane over her a week ago – your guess is as good as mine. I’d have been tempted to look for a perimeter player, rather than another re-tread center.
Upcoming tonight are three games. First up is San Antonio @ Connecticut, and it’ll be interesting to see if Silver Stars head coach Dan Hughes sticks with his small lineups against a team with a legitimate post presence. You can go crazy-small against Tulsa and get away with it; trying it against Tina Charles and Asjha Jones is a whole ‘nother matter.
Next, New York travel to Atlanta, looking to turn around their early season form. It’s a game both teams will see as a strong chance for a win, with the 0-3 Liberty facing a team that’s still trying to work out how to play without Erika de Souza (or Iziane Castro Marques, or any dependable depth).
Finally, the Indiana Fever go to Chicago to face the Sky. The central intrigue here is how the new, smaller Fever with Catchings at power forward will cope with Sylvia Fowles on the inside. Of course, Ruth Riley (or even Le’coe Willingham) trying to cover Catchings is a wild mismatch as well.
Tonight (Friday May 25th):
San Antonio @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Indiana @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Tomorrow (Saturday May 26th):
Tulsa @ Washington, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET