Two games this Sunday in the WNBA, and oddly enough the one with the more lopsided final score was far more competitive. Sometimes you really do need to watch these things (or read WNBAlien) to get a good idea of how they went.
First up was Indiana’s trip to Atlanta. The two teams had already met this season, with the Fever easing to a fairly comfortable win on their home floor last weekend. However, Atlanta had looked far better in their second game, ripping New York to shreds, and now had center Yelena Leuchanka fit to play. Plus there was the addition of the home crowd behind them this time.
Both teams opened with the same lineups that had begun their previous games, Leuchanka now starting at center for the Dream and Tamika Catchings still the power forward for the Fever. The opening quarter went very nicely for Atlanta. Angel McCoughtry came out strong, attacking the Fever defense and providing early scoring, while the Leuchanka/Sancho Lyttle pairing in the post looked like offering much stronger resistance than Atlanta had managed in their last encounter with Indiana.
The key noticeable change-up in the Dream’s approach was at the defensive end, where they were dropping back into a 2-3 matchup zone when made buckets gave them time to set it up. With Leuchanka the beef in the middle, McCoughtry and Armintie Price on the sides, and point guard Lindsey Harding joined by the length and agility of Lyttle out top, it clearly gave Indiana some early problems. It was compounded by the way Atlanta were playing the zone on one possession, then man-to-man on the next, leaving the Fever confused about what they should do and how they should try to score. The extra speed added to their offense by moving Catch to the 4 has worked nicely early this season, but with McCoughtry scoring regularly at the other end there were no transition opportunities for Indiana. Instead the Fever were left largely with contested jumpers, and the smoothness of their offense disappeared. As a result, Atlanta led 22-13 by the end of the first quarter.
Indiana’s reserves gave them a boost in the second quarter, McCoughtry faded out of the game, and the Fever were quickly back in it. The likes of Sasha Goodlett, Jeanette Pohlen and Roneeka Hodges helped add some extra pressure, then Catchings came back into the game and picked up where they left off. Catchings wasn’t shooting that well from outside, but she was thriving on loose balls and driving opportunities, repeatedly heading to the free throw line. Similar to Candace Parker playing center in LA, Catchings has a quickness advantage over practically every power forward in the WNBA. Even Lyttle, with her long limbs and excellent mobility for a post, can’t really handle it when Catchings backs out to the perimeter, sizes her up and barrels towards the rim. Her aggression gave Catchings 19 points by halftime, and combined with the Fever’s greater depth swung the game around entirely – Indy led 39-35 at the half after a 26-13 second quarter.
Depth being a positive aspect of the Indiana Fever isn’t something we’ve been used to in recent years. It’s been a matter of riding Catchings and Katie Douglas as far as possible, playing tough defense, and hoping the other pieces could fill in with enough to get over the line. Through the first few games there’s been a different look to those role players. It’s seemed more like head coach Lin Dunn has enough options that she should be able to find some that work on any given night, rather than be desperately searching for anyone who can help out her stars. Of course, it’s early. We’ll see whether that pattern holds up.
Catchings attacking off the dribble and the increased activity from her teammates – her aggression can be contagious – had key Dream players in foul trouble. Lyttle and Leuchanka both had three fouls at the half, and both picked up another inside the opening three minutes of the third period. With Erika de Souza in Brazil, this isn’t a remotely deep post corps, and fouls forcing the starters off the floor hurt the Dream significantly. McCoughtry had also sustained a hip injury in the final seconds of the first half, and although she returned to play in the second she wasn’t at 100%. With Lindsey Harding having one of her quiet nights, the Dream were running out of options.
Indiana’s lead hit 17 in the third quarter, as Courtney Paris, Aneika Henry and Cathrine Kraayeveld proved poor substitutes for Lyttle and Leuchanka. It was a vicious circle for the Dream once things started going south. Without consistent scoring, they couldn’t set up their defense (or rotate between different defenses) to unsettle the Fever as they did in the first quarter. And without defensive stops, the Dream couldn’t ignite their transition game to create easy scoring opportunities, or find any offensive rhythm at all. It was hard to arrest the slide.
Dunn did offer up a bit of an opportunity, going to a complete lineup of reserves for the final two minutes of the third quarter and opening stages of the fourth. Dunn has a hell of a lot more coaching experience than I do, but it’s always hard for me to understand why a team with two offensive leaders – Catchings and Douglas – can’t find a way to rest them at different times. Still, the lead had only come down to 13 when Catchings returned, and was no lower than 7 for the rest of the game. Atlanta were never really in it after those two middle periods where Catchings and her supporting cast took control, and Indiana ran out 78-62 winners.
The especially good part about this game for the Fever – beyond beating an Eastern Conference competitor on their own floor – was that they eventually dominated the boards. Early on, the frontcourt of Catchings and Tammy Sutton-Brown looked small against Lyttle and Leuchanka, but as the game developed Indiana’s team rebounding took over. Catchings was the only double-digit rebounder, but Douglas, point guard Erin Phillips, and reserve posts Goodlett, Jessica Davenport and Erlana Larkins all had at least 4 apiece. They finished the game with 16 offensive boards, and a 39-29 edge overall. With a team that’s going ‘small’ from the start of games these days, rebounding was expected to be an issue. Even with Lyttle and Leuchanka suffering from foul trouble, dominating the Dream on the glass was impressive.
We knew already, but this game simply reinforced the feeling that this is a very shallow Dream roster. McCoughtry finished with 21 points, but after 11 in the opening quarter it felt like she disappeared (the hip issue obviously didn’t help). Harding eventually woke up and reminded everyone she was on the floor in the latter stages, but by then it was too late to do anything about the result. She has to impose herself on games from the beginning, not just wait around until she deems it necessary to start attacking. Because after those two and the starting posts, where are the Dream going to turn? Armintie Price is a defensive specialist who’ll only get points in the flow of a quick transition game. Rookie Tiffany Hayes is still acclimatising to this level of play. And the rest of the bench features players who are very much backups (although they’ll be hoping for more from Kraayeveld, who had a miserable four minutes of action in this contest). In most games, the starters are going to have to carry this squad, especially until Erika returns. This time around, they weren’t up to the task.
The late game looked like a mismatch on paper, and so it proved. Remember when the Seattle Storm were the benchmark team in the WNBA? Best defense around, finely tuned offense, capable of blowing you out or gutting games out down the stretch? Yeah, that was only two years ago. Nowadays it’s their Sunday evening hosts who are the measuring stick for everybody else. I tweeted during this game that the Minnesota Lynx shouldn’t just be trying to repeat – that the target maybe ought to going 34-0. That’s probably a little over the top, but with the way they’ve started 2012 you wouldn’t blame them for letting the idea cross their minds.
The really scary thing about this Lynx team is that it doesn’t feel like they’ve even stepped on the gas. And yet they’ve won their first four games by an average of just over 15 points. They had a slow start offensively in this one, with Lindsay Whalen in particular struggling to find her range, so coach Cheryl Reeve turned to Candice Wiggins, Monica Wright and Jessica Adair off her bench and they were off and running. Adair crashed the glass, Wright and Wiggins sped up the pace, and Maya Moore started raining in jumpers as the Lynx broke open the game late in the first quarter and through into the second.
Seattle, to be brutally honest, still look terrible. Obviously, Minnesota make a lot of teams look bad. But Seattle looked pretty defeated from the opening tip, the starting backcourt of Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright still can’t buy a bucket, and the offense doesn’t go anywhere. They’re so stagnant, and look so slow. The turnover total of 17 was their lowest so far this year, but there were several early ones on awful passes or forced efforts late in the shot clock after possessions went nowhere. It set the tone for the game, even if the raw overall numbers looked a little better by the end. They were 17-9 down at the end of the first quarter after shooting 19%, and trailed by as many as 19 during the second period. The gap went as low as 12 in the third, but this never felt like a contest in the second half. It was basically 20 minutes of garbage time, even if Storm coach Brian Agler continued to leave his starters in the game.
The leaders for the Lynx on the night were Moore, who scored 19 points on 7-12 from the floor (5-7 beyond the arc), and Whalen, who never got her jumper going but had 8 assists while picking apart the Storm. Some of Moore’s performances last year left you hoping her shot selection would improve. So far this season, they’ve been going in at such a rate that selection hasn’t been any kind of issue. If you can knock them all down, no one’s going to complain about them being bad shots. Seimone Augustus only had 7 attempts in this one, because there was no need for her to press the issue or score lots of points to help her team win. Amber Harris made her first appearance of the season after recovering from her ankle sprain, and Devereaux Peters had her best game so far as the rookie went 4-6 for 10 points. Minnesota absolutely coasted to victory in this game, and the final score of 84-71 didn’t remotely reflect the ease with which they won.
Seattle fans are worried, and understandably so. Their team jacked an almost unbelievable 34 three-point efforts in this game (they only took 32 shots from inside the arc) because the offense had run out of ideas. They ended up just firing away because they couldn’t work their way open for anything else. They got destroyed on the glass as well, despite playing against the Lynx reserves for huge stretches. This was after five days to practice and get game ready, for players like Bird, Wright and Camille Little to become more physically prepared to play, for Ann Wauters and Tina Thompson to settle further into the system – and they were no better.
Of course, on the road in Minnesota is just about the hardest possible place to try to kick-start your season. Agler played his usual rotation players for standard minutes, refusing to go to the end of his bench even with the game well and truly over long before the end. Presumably, that was in the hope that his important players could gain some chemistry and start working on their rhythm. Because with this aging squad, the traditional thing to do would be to grab them as much rest as possible when games are already decided. The Storm’s next game is at home to Tulsa on Friday. They couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to pick up a win and try to get themselves going. But the one central thing Tulsa have shown a talent for this season is playing pressure defense and causing turnovers. The Storm will have to deal with that, and cut down on the errors that have riddled their early performances. If they can’t even beat Tulsa, those fans’ worries will be turning into full-blown panic.
Still no official confirmation of who’s replacing Zane Tamane on the Mercury roster. Tamane’s back in Latvia, reportedly carrying an injury which may have influenced Phoenix’s decision to let her go.
Nothing much happened today – the league likes to go to sleep on Mondays.
Tomorrow (Tuesday May 29th):
Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET