The basketball gods offered up a little bit of a treat on Sunday. To make up for a few miserable recent days of basketball, we got four games, at least three of which were well worth watching. The schedulers even spaced them out in neat one-hour intervals so you could transition smoothly from one to the next. We here at WNBAlien will pay tribute to the gods’ generosity in our usual way – with detailed analysis of all the action. Chronological order (feel free to skip the Phoenix-Washington game if you’re only interested in potential playoff teams), Bullet Point Breakdown-style – let’s get to it.
- You’re going to have to excuse me for going all gushy about this game, because not only was there some excellent basketball played, but the chess-match aspects of the battle between head coaches Dan Hughes and Cheryl Reeve were fascinating as well. Just for those who want to hear about the basketball action and not the ins-and-outs of playcalling and rotations, there’ll be a Chess-Match Warning! posted before every entry related to little coaching intricacies.
- The teams opened with the standard starting fives we’ve come to expect. One long-term injury apiece, with Jessica Adair and Tangela Smith unavailable.
- Chess-Match Warning! Those with long memories – or who spend an awful lot of time at this website – may recall the twist San Antonio threw at Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs last year. They defended Maya Moore with the far smaller Becky Hammon, practically daring the Lynx to attack that matchup if Moore could come up with a post game. It worked shockingly well, and Minnesota rarely found a way to exploit it. But in the first regular season matchup between these teams in 2012, Hughes rarely used that tactic. This time, the Silver Stars went right for it. From the opening tip, Hammon was on Moore, Shameka Christon on Seimone Augustus, and Danielle Robinson on Lindsay Whalen. The Silver Stars weren’t messing around.
- At the other end the Lynx wanted it switched around – Augustus defending Hammon, Moore on Christon.
- Moore pulled down two offensive boards on the opening Lynx possession, suggesting she might be more prepared to take advantage of the Hammon matchup this year. But after Christon went off, with 8 points in the opening three minutes, Moore was benched for Candice Wiggins. Moore had lasted only 3:04 into the game.
- San Antonio went berserk offensively in the opening quarter. Hammon and Christon were hitting everything from outside, Jayne Appel and Sophia Young were converting inside, and San Antonio dominated. Defensively, they were protecting the paint, leaving the Lynx reliant on their midrange game. There was no penetration, and no transition game for Minnesota. It was all they could do to hang on to San Antonio’s coattails.
- Chess-Match Warning! I’ve mentioned this before – one of the few potential weaknesses of Minnesota’s defense is the three-point shot. They’re set up to prevent penetration and protect the rim, but if you move the ball well enough or curl off screens tightly enough, open threes are often available. Countless times during this game, Becky Hammon came around a screen, the defender was either caught on it or tried to go under it, and Hammon was left with a clean look. The post defender who’s matched up with the screener is primarily expected to cover the roll into the lane, not the shooter. So the posts often don’t ‘show’ hard on shooters, because that’s not their job. The problem is, San Antonio have been shooting the lights out from beyond the arc lately. They were revelling in those open looks, and more than happy to take them. They led 35-22 at the end of the first quarter (6-7 from three-point range, at that stage).
- Chess-Match Warning! Reeve went to a hell of a lot of 2-3 zone defense in the second quarter. In fact, I’ve never seen a Reeve team play this much zone in one game (partly simply because it was working, so she stuck with it). The weird thing is that people normally think a weakness of a zone is that you can just shoot over it. But because the change messed with the Silver Stars’ heads a little, and because the Lynx seemed to close out better on shooters from the zone than from their standard man-to-man, it helped them come back into the game. You can still break shooters open with screens against a zone, but it’s much more difficult.
- A couple of times, San Antonio seemed to recognise the 2-3 zone and attack one of its primary weaknesses – the gap around the free-throw line – but they didn’t stick with it for more than a couple of possessions.
- Taj McWilliams-Franklin being in foul trouble for much of the first half didn’t help the Lynx either.
- Chess-Match Warning! Hughes went super-small at one point in the second quarter, with a Robinson/Hammon/Jia Perkins/Christon/Young lineup. Calling any of those players a center would be ridiculous. It showed what Hughes thinks of the threat of Rebekkah Brunson and Devereaux Peters actually posting up down low – not much.
- The zone helped Minnesota narrow the deficit to 47-43 at halftime.
- The barrage of threes from Christon and Hammon began again in the third quarter. Moore lasted 4 minutes this time before taking a seat, and perimeter partner Augustus had already been replaced. It’s not often that you’ll see Minnesota so comprehensively outplayed at the 2 and 3 spots.
- Chess-Match Warning! That 2-3 zone kept popping up for Minnesota throughout the third quarter, but they mixed it in with the man-to-man to try to unsettle the Silver Stars. Occasionally it worked, but San Antonio were shooting so well that their flow rarely slowed.
- Sophia Young got involved in the action in the third as well, just to make life even more difficult for Minnesota. Always a versatile scorer, Young’s been attacking the glass with more determination this year. She’s always going to be undersized for a 4, but she’s putting up a fight for boards, and at the very least making opponents work hard to take them away from her. They need that aggression from her to beat teams like the Lynx.
- Reeve showed no interest in using backup post Amber Harris at all during this game (until it was over as a contest). Not a good sign for last year’s lottery pick, after a decent game against Phoenix last week.
- That’s despite McWilliams-Franklin picking up her fifth foul late in the third quarter, on a tough call when Perkins poked away a pass from Candice Wiggins and got caught up with Taj while chasing after it. Reeve went with Peters over Harris.
- Chess-Match Warning! Reeve even, very briefly, went to the oft-discussed-but-rarely-seen ‘Moore at the 4’ lineup in the fourth quarter. Maya Moore came into the league as a 3/4 forward, but has seen very few minutes at the 4 under Reeve. It was with her at that spot – and a Moore steal and outlet – that the Lynx cut the gap to 4 points with 6 minutes left in the game. But Reeve switched her right back to the 3 in the ensuing timeout. She still has no faith in Maya to play there in the WNBA.
- Chess-Match Warning! After barely using it all afternoon, San Antonio went to their own 2-3 zone for long stretches of the fourth quarter. It takes a ballsy coach to save a tactic like that for the closing stretch.
- It just wasn’t to be for the Lynx. They couldn’t force enough stops or make enough shots to hold on to a San Antonio team that have been playing very impressive team basketball lately. They’ve got so many perimeter scoring threats, and when those threes are falling it’s hard to stop them. If Young, Danielle Adams, and even occasionally Appel can provide something in the paint, they’re scary.
- Chess-Match Warning! Hughes obviously came out on top, because his team won the game. Minnesota need a fall-back plan to contest perimeter scorers better if that’s the main threat being posed by the opposition. The Lynx cover the paint as their primary objective because most teams can’t beat you from outside. There just aren’t enough accurate outside shooters in the women’s game, even if they’re largely open. But San Antonio finished 13-25 from three-point range, and scored plenty more on mid-range jumpers. Sometimes, the Lynx may have to switch or show harder on shooters and take an extra risk or two in the paint. Especially if San Antonio show up and start firing with accuracy like this.
- Huzzah! Trudi Lacey has obviously discovered WNBAlien, because 13 games into the season she finally decided to try out the radical suggestion offered here several times – starting all her best players. Monique Currie moved into the lineup in place of Noelle Quinn. Finally.
- Natasha Lacy was still in street clothes for Washington, and Taylor, Taurasi and Dupree were still missing for Phoenix. Center Nakia Sanford returned to action, but she was the lowest name on the list of the Mercury’s walking wounded. Any of the others would’ve helped their chances of winning significantly more.
- Always with the caveat that they were playing against Phoenix, the new starting group got off to a strong start for the Mystics. In general, Currie simply makes more things happen than Quinn. The latter has spent an awful lot of minutes on the floor this season doing very, very little.
- After doing a solid job shutting down Sylvia Fowles in their last game, Phoenix were having rather more trouble with the likes of Crystal Langhorne and even Michelle Snow. It was largely because Fowles always wants to fight for position on the low block, which allows teams to collapse and help. Players like Langhorne are more than happy to receive the ball in the high post, and attack from there. It’s much tougher to stop them getting hold of the ball in the first place.
- Lacey introduced another strange coaching tactic in this game – line changes. It was like a hockey game, with all five players being replaced by a fresh five virtually simultaneously. I guess the benefit is that the groups can play together in practice and develop their own chemistry, although you worry about where the offense will come from with Jasmine Thomas, Quinn, Natalie Novosel, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Ashley Robinson out there together for long stretches. Against Phoenix and the Mercury’s porous defense, it worked. Washington led 50-41 at halftime.
- Phoenix had three players providing any offense at all, pretty much throughout the game. DeWanna Bonner was once again the main player they relied on, with Charde Houston gunning away when she could, and point guard Sammy Prahalis chipping in. That was it. The others were basically filler.
- Washington, on the other hand, had at least one basket from all 10 dressed players by halftime. That’s impressive balance.
- As has become common for Phoenix, they were firing up a host of three-pointers. Going 1-10 from out there in the first half helped them dig the hole. The rain of threes continued in the second half, but with a couple falling in, the Mercury hung around in contention.
- Prahalis scored a string of points over and around Jasmine Thomas, who had no answer for her. Shannon Bobbitt replaced Thomas, and Prahalis was instantly shackled. Another sign that the switch from Thomas to Bobbitt as the starting point guard made a lot of sense.
- Phoenix ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. With only nine players in uniform, and Sanford and Andrea Riley barely playing, it was a short rotation. And they still only had three producing any points. Washington got a little from everybody, 22 points from Langhorne (Houston was often defending her, which made no sense at all) and a shocking 18 points from Quinn on 7-17 from the floor. Maybe coming off the bench will agree with her.
- It was also the best game so far for rookie guard Novosel, who’s struggled to find any consistent time under Lacey’s randomised coaching. 3-5 from the floor for 12 points, 6 boards and 4 steals was a nice night. You could see her being a useful bench guard under a coherent coach.
- Phoenix are still all fight and minimal talent at this point. A third road game in five days was too much for them with the restricted rotation. Riley was cut right after the game, so maybe another injured player is on her way back. Or maybe they’d just had enough of Riley.
- On the second night of a back-to-back after a dismal performance in New York, the Storm weren’t exactly coming in strong for this one. On top of that, starting center Ann Wauters was ruled out before tip-off thanks to a variety of injuries that needed rest (although you can draw your own conclusions as to whether that hindered or helped Seattle).
- Connecticut seem to have settled on Allison Hightower and Kalana Greene as their starting perimeter players alongside Kara Lawson, with Danielle McCray coming off the bench. Seattle replaced Wauters with veteran Tina Thompson.
- The Storm quickly turned this into their kind of game. It was a slow, halfcourt battle, without much happening in transition, and without a great deal of scoring.
- Thompson, Camille Little, and backup center Ewelina Kobryn were putting up a strong defensive wall against Asjha Jones and Tina Charles. They were using their bodies to make everything a physical challenge in the paint, and force the Sun posts away from the block. Connecticut started settling for too many jumpers, and missing as a result.
- On offense, most of the scoring for the Storm in the first half came from the posts as well. Kobryn provided a nice boost with her energy and midrange game off the bench, while Little and Thompson attacked in the paint. Forcing Jones and Charles onto the back foot at the defensive end was likely having an effect on their offense as well.
- This was another in a series of useful games from Thompson of late. She’s stopped settling for those insanely deep threes all the time – although they’re still part of her arsenal – and become more of a threat to score inside as well. It makes her a hell of a lot more dangerous and effective as an offensive player. Defensively, she was taking on Charles most of the time, and showing the youngster that there’s some life in the old dog yet. Nothing was coming remotely easily for the Sun center, who finished the first half 2-10 from the floor.
- Seattle had almost let the game slip away a couple of times, but clawed it back and only trailed 39-38 at the break.
- The worm turned late in the third quarter. Seattle seemed to notice that they were still right in the contest, and started playing with an extra belief that they might even win it. Tanisha Wright converted a couple of drives, Kobryn had another useful cameo off the bench, Sue Bird finally made a shot or two and suddenly it was the Sun playing catchup. Connecticut’s dominance on the offensive glass had kept them in control despite a lot of misses, but it was no longer enough.
- Still, the Sun weren’t going to give up a game on their own floor without a fight. The key scorers in the closing stages for them were Jones and Lawson, who both knocked down important shots.
- For Seattle, it was back to Thompson and Little again. Brian Agler drew up an excellent play in a late fourth-quarter timeout that swung Thompson open off a baseline screen from Katie Smith, and the resulting three tied the game with a couple of minutes left. Then Little crashed the boards to keep a possession alive, before scoring off the high pick-and-roll with Wright that followed.
- Connecticut tied it up when Allison Hightower simply attacked Bird off the dribble and hit a jumper over her. Hightower’s offense has come on in leaps and bounds since last season.
- With 30 seconds left in a tied game, Seattle ran that Wright/Little pick-and-roll again. This time, Bird came around on a baseline curl, received the pass from Wright, and drew the foul on Hightower as she rose to take the shot. Amazingly, Bird bricked both the resulting free throws. She did exactly the same thing two weeks ago against Minnesota. Seeing it once from such a clutch player was shocking; seeing it twice was hard to believe.
- That left Connecticut one last chance to win it in regulation. Again, Hightower went at Bird (and went right by her). She kicked it over to Jones, who put up a jumper from the right elbow, which bounced out. The ball went out of bounds to Connecticut with only 0.2 seconds remaining – only enough time for a tip, not a catch-and-shoot – and amazingly the Sun came pretty close with a touch-shot from Charles. It might not have counted on review, but as it didn’t go in no one worried about it. Overtime.
- Already 4-19 on the night, Charles was deathly cold by the time we hit the extra period. Her only shot in overtime was a baseline jumper that wasn’t even close.
- After a messy opening couple of minutes in OT, Seattle went back to that same high pick-and-roll with Wright and Little, and again Bird curled around from the baseline. This time she was a little further out, with more room to shoot, and she drilled home a three.
- Kara Lawson responded at the other end by drawing a foul on her own three-point attempt (Lawson leaned in and bought it, although Little had allowed herself to get slightly too close). She made all three foul shots.
- But even with just a two-point lead, Seattle felt like the team in control. Bird took over the point guard responsibilities, running that same play with Little again, and Little took the pass before making a gorgeous spin move around Charles before finishing in the lane. Connecticut looked like they’d run out of ideas offensively, couldn’t hit a shot, and that was all she wrote. A shocker of a road win for the Storm in one of the trickiest arenas to visit in the WNBA.
- This was an impressive win for Seattle, and it came out of nowhere after how poorly they’d played – against a weaker opponent – the day before. Little (10-13 for 27 points and 9 boards), Thompson (7-12 for 20 and 7) and Kobryn (5-8 for 13 and 4) were absolutely outstanding against Jones and Charles. They fought tooth and nail defensively, and they attacked and converted when they had the chance to score. It’s an interior attack we really haven’t seen from Seattle this year, even in their run of solid performances back home at Key Arena. It makes you wonder whether Wauters might find her minutes being cut back when she returns.
- The Storm starters are still being played to absolute death, however. And remember, this is the oldest team in the league, by some distance. Bird played nearly 42 minutes, Wright close to 40, Little and Thompson nearly 38 each and Smith over 36. Wauters and eventually Lauren Jackson will help out the posts, but the perimeter players must be hoping Svetlana Abrosimova gets up to speed quickly. They need some rest.
- Connecticut aren’t supposed to lose games like this. A weary opponent, who’s typically poor on the road, came in and stole a game in their house. And they did it by dominating inside, against the Sun’s strength. 10-38 for 28 points combined from Jones and Charles just won’t cut it, even with the 15 offensive boards the pair came up with. As is often the case when they have weak games, too many jumpers led to several miscues, but a lot of Charles’s attempts were from inside 10 feet. For this particular evening, she just got taught a lesson by the old hands of the Storm.
- The final game of the night tipped off with lineups as expected – the usual five for Atlanta, and Chicago reinserting Ruth Riley after the one game experiment with Sonja Petrovic starting ended badly. A loss to Phoenix and a -17 differential on the glass kind of badly.
- It was weird to see Aneika Henry defending Sylvia Fowles to start the game, with Sancho Lyttle on Riley. Maybe the idea was to allow Lyttle to freelance and help away from the far less threatening opponent. It only took a few minutes and a few Fowles layups for Lyttle to become the first choice defender on Big Syl.
- It was a scrappy first half, without either team taking any kind of control. Angel McCoughtry couldn’t get anything to fall, and resorted to whining at officials instead, which limited Atlanta’s scoring. Apart from those early buckets, Chicago couldn’t find Fowles, which limited theirs. In a sign of things to come, the Sky’s leading scorers besides Fowles were Petrovic and Le’coe Willingham with 5 each off the bench.
- The Dream seemed to be taking control early in the third quarter. A 14-1 run led by McCoughtry gave them a 45-33 lead and left Sky coach Pokey Chatman fuming on the sidelines. She made wholesale changes less than four minutes into the second half, replacing all four players besides Fowles.
- It took a little while for them to heat up, but that bench crew eventually fired Chicago back into the game. The key pieces were Petrovic with her perimeter scoring, and Willingham with her hustle and set-shot threes. We haven’t seen much from Willingham in her first dozen games as a Sky player, but this was the player Chicago thought they were acquiring – energy, aggression, and complementary impact when necessary.
- With the Sky waking up, and their crowd coming with them, Atlanta had completely lost their way. Their penetration had disappeared, leaving all their attempts to come from outside – and this is not the greatest perimeter shooting team in the world. The Sky momentum even continued when Fowles took a rest and was replaced by Caroline Swords.
- McCoughtry seemed to completely quit on the concept of driving or passing in the fourth quarter. She was just shooting away – and it’s not like they were going in.
- But Chicago aren’t the best at closing games out, especially without Epiphanny Prince available at the moment. A seven-point lead with barely two minutes remaining looked comfortable, but McCoughtry actually cut for a layup, and then banked in a lucky three from deep to make things interesting. Then she finally did pass the ball after running into a double-team, and Lyttle nailed a three from the corner. Somehow, Atlanta had taken the lead back, 69-68 with under a minute left.
- Then the Sky got a nice little assist from the officials. Willingham overthrew an entry pass to Fowles, which sailed out of bounds. At least half the time, that play’s simply called as a turnover and Atlanta ball. But on this occasion, the tiny bump from Henry on Fowles as the pass was made drew a whistle, and Syl hit the free throws to take back the lead for Chicago.
- McCoughtry drove again, and amazingly gave up the ball again, only for Henry to miss the baseline jumper. After Courtney Vandersloot went 1-of-2 at the line, Atlanta had 14 seconds to do something about a 71-69 deficit. McCoughtry never touched the ball. She tried to come around and get it, but a combination of Shay Murphy’s defense and disorganised Dream offense prevented the hand-off. With time running out, Lindsey Harding tried her patented spin-move-into-jumper, which hit the iron and bounced away. Cue angry shouting from Angel, and Sky celebrations.
- It was nice to see the Sky receive some useful contributions from unusual sources. Petrovic, Willingham and Murphy all played more than the starters in front of them, and all scored in double-digits while helping drag Chicago back into the game. This team does have a little talent besides Fowles and Prince, even if they don’t always show it. After failing to win a game since Prince’s injury, Chicago needed this one, and their reserves stepped up. Just four more games to go until the break, and now that they know they can win without Piph, maybe they’ll have more confidence for those remaining contests.
- Atlanta had very little rhythm all evening, besides that brief stretch to start the third quarter. Chicago do a solid job closing down the paint – led by the presence of Fowles – and it makes it difficult to score against them inside. That leaves the transition game for Atlanta, and with ‘only’ 16 Sky turnovers they couldn’t score enough on the break to compensate for their poor shooting. Well, largely McCoughtry’s poor shooting. She finished 8-24, and that was just a bit too much for the Dream to survive.
- Atlanta weren’t helped by the loss of starting guard Armintie Price in the first quarter. She was fighting with Swin Cash for position in the paint, and fell down when Cash received an entry pass. Then Cash’s leg smacked into the back of Price’s head as she tried to score. It was completely unintentional, but looked nasty, and Price left the game and didn’t return. Trainers and doctors are always especially careful with any kind of head injury these days, so hopefully she’ll be okay for future games.
As mentioned in yesterday’s column, today was essentially the deadline to cut players before contracts became guaranteed at the season’s mid-point (the mid-point is July 4th, but players have to clear waivers beforehand). So a few teams made moves. As discussed above, Andrea Riley is gone in Phoenix (although that was a hardship contract, so the deadline didn’t really apply). After that, it was a bad day for the Miller family. Kelly was cut in New York, and reportedly replaced with former Gonzaga forward Katelan Redmon on a seven-day contract. Coco was cut in Los Angeles, and news about a replacement is yet to emerge. Both Miller twins have looked pretty awful this season in their limited appearances, so neither move was a huge surprise. Either might get another chance in this league, but there’d be a certain poetic symmetry about their WNBA careers ending on the same day.
We also had an honest-to-goodness WNBA trade today, with the Tulsa Shock sending Karima Christmas to the Indiana Fever for Roneeka Hodges. They both play virtually the same position (they’re wings), so it’s practically a like-for-like move in terms of position. Hodges is a gunner, who gives Tulsa yet another player who’ll fire away from deep. Christmas gives Indiana a more defensive-minded perimeter option (and someone new for coach Lin Dunn to randomly play or not play on any given night). More to come tomorrow if I deem this move big enough for a ‘Grading the Trade’ article. Otherwise, take the lack of article as a sweeping comment in and of itself.
Today (Monday July 2nd):
Tomorrow (Tuesday July 3rd):
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET