WNBA Today, 08/19/2012 (Part One): Catching Up

Yes, I know this is desperately late, but yesterday sitting in the pub and watching the start of the English Premier League season took precedence over writing about the WNBA (even though the first really important game isn’t until Monday). But just in case anyone still cares to hear my thoughts about Friday night’s WNBA games, here you go. It was at least a small step up on the three snoozefests that got the season back underway the night before.


Washington Mystics 69 @ Minnesota Lynx 98

  • Yep, we’re going to get the game only a mother or a blowout fan could love out of the way first. The Lynx reopened their season with their roster back in one piece, Rebekkah Brunson, Jessica Adair and Devereaux Peters all having recovered from their respective injuries over the break. Brunson returned to her customary spot as the starting power forward, alongside the three Lynx gold-medalists (who’d all somehow made it back from London in time to play).
  • Washington kept faith with the same starting lineup that lost in Indiana the night before (the schedulers sure weren’t kind to the Mystics – a road back-to-back against the Fever and Lynx to kick off the second half. That was never going to end well.)
  • Brunson came back from London with some seriously ugly fluorescent yellow shoes.
  • It didn’t take long for the vast gap in talent, chemistry, confidence, and everything else required to win basketball games showed up in this one. From the opening tip Minnesota were moving the ball well and stepping into shots with clear belief that they could make them, while also finding repeated holes in the Washington defense. The Mystics, on the other hand, looked tired and defeated well before the first quarter was over, with them already facing a 26-15 deficit.
  • While a home game against Washington was a nice way to ease back into the WNBA, there were no signs of Olympic hangover from the Lynx players we saw win gold only six days earlier. Seimone Augustus couldn’t miss with that pretty jumper (along with several wide open layups), Lindsay Whalen was playing her typical solid all-around game from the point, and Maya Moore slid right back into rhythm on the other wing. It was like they’d never left (after all, they closed the first half playing Tulsa twice – so those were comprehensive blowouts too).
  • The Minnesota bench kept things rolling as necessary as, although it was interesting to see Amber Harris as the first post off the bench, ahead of Peters and Adair. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve sometimes makes decisions like that based on matchups, so we’ll see if that rotation decision continues in future games.
  • Also interesting was that when Washington made a mini-run late in the second quarter, cutting a gap that had been as high as 18 points to 13, Reeve went to a lineup with Moore at power forward. It’s an idea that worked well in those games against Tulsa when she was forced to use it due to injuries, but which Reeve hasn’t looked comfortable with in the past. Here, she went to it to break Washington’s rhythm, inject some extra pace, and make sure her team held its lead. It worked. Now we have to wait and see if Reeve has the confidence to use it against opponents with more talent who actually offer up some decent resistance.
  • Already trailing 50-34 at halftime, Washington utterly capitulated in the third quarter. They just wanted to go home, curl up in the foetal position, and pray for the season to end. It was no longer just a talent issue – they were completely outworked and outhustled as well. They just quit.
  • Erin Thorn, Minnesota’s human victory cigar, played nearly 12 minutes in this game. That’s how comfortable it was. Moore led them in minutes played and was still under 25, while Augustus led the scoring with 20 points on 9-11 shooting. The most impressive stat was the 29 assists the Lynx recorded on 39 buckets. When they’re flowing, this team moves the ball smoothly and racks up points at will. Of course, there’ll be much tougher tests to come.
  • Most of this season, despite everything, it’s felt like the Mystics were still playing for Trudi Lacey. It was hard to believe at times. This performance made it look like those same players could barely believe that Lacey was still around after the break. They’re going to lose a lot more games before the end of this season.


San Antonio Silver Stars 89 @ Tulsa Shock 79

  • The gang was back together for San Antonio’s opening game of the second half, Becky Hammon returning from London medal-less but in time to take her place in their regular starting lineup. The Silver Stars were trying to extend the nine-game winning streak that they’d carried into the Olympic break.
  • Tulsa changed up their lineup a little for their first game back, inserting Roneeka Hodges on the wing, allowing them to bring both Ivory Latta and Riquna Williams off the bench as added scoring punch.
  • Both teams had injured players available again, with Tangela Smith back in uniform for San Antonio, while Jen Lacy and Scholanda Dorrell had both recovered from their knee injuries for Tulsa.
  • San Antonio made a strong start, led by the scoring ability of Sophia Young (one of the many talented players Team USA left behind). When the Silver Star gunners started raining in threes to support her, it looked like San Antonio might quickly run away with this one. They led 29-15 to end the first quarter, and Tulsa hadn’t been able to come up with any answers.
  • But in the second quarter, the worm turned. San Antonio lost some rhythm as key players were rested on the bench, while Tulsa started to heat up from outside. Williams and Hodges were both firing away and hitting from deep, which helped the Shock build some confidence and start pushing the pace. Then their transition game kicked in a few points, led by Latta and Temeka Johnson, and suddenly we had a game on our hands. It was tied at 46 at halftime.
  • Both teams struggled through the third quarter, San Antonio’s only reliable offense coming via the quickness of Danielle Robinson. At the other end, the Silver Stars came out in a 2-3 zone to start the second half, banking on Tulsa not being able to continue shooting as well as they had prior to the interval. No one could take command.
  • Much of what happened in the fourth quarter was about talent. It’s hard to ignore that San Antonio are simply a more skilled, deeper squad than Tulsa. But a lot of it was about experience, confidence, and knowledge of how to win. With players like Hammon and Young, and even supporting acts like Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams, San Antonio know how to knuckle down and grind games out when they have to. Tulsa haven’t learnt how to win yet.
  • While simply making shots was a key part, San Antonio also pushed the pace and attacked Tulsa at every opportunity in the fourth quarter, creating quick points and pressing the Shock into mistakes. In halfcourt sets, the Silver Stars always had the standard fallback option of Becky Hammon running the pick-and-roll, usually with Young, which invariably results in points. Sometimes you feel like they should just let Hammon run it on every single possession all night long, rather than using it primarily as their crunch-time play. It’s very, very effective.
  • So eventually, San Antonio pulled away and eased home relatively comfortably, to stretch their win-streak into double-digits. Young led the way with 20 points on 9-13 shooting, but the backcourt trio of Hammon (6-10 for 15 points, 8 assists), Robinson (7-12 for 15) and Perkins (5-9 for 17) were key. It was also one of the rare games where they won the battle on the glass, outrebounding Tulsa 34-25, which will have pleased head coach Dan Hughes.
  • That lack of interior game was yet another illustration of what the Shock are missing without Liz Cambage (and maybe Brittney Griner, if they finally get lucky in the lottery). Kayla Pedersen and Glory Johnson are doing their best, but on their own they’re not enough to compete at this level. It’s hard to win games with only perimeter scoring and some hustle points inside.


Atlanta Dream 82 @ Chicago Sky 76

  • After an ugly sequence of 8 losses in 9 games, the Olympic break had finally given Chicago time to see what they wanted on the floor – the return of Epiphanny Prince. She was playing out of her skin before breaking her foot, and in her absence a promising Sky season had deteriorated into another desperate struggle to try to make the playoffs. Now she was back in the lineup, it was time to see whether she could return to that outstanding level of performance, and help Chicago start winning again.
  • Atlanta had their own reasons to be thankful for the break. Angel McCoughtry was back, having impressed many with her performances during the Olympics. Alongside her, center Erika de Souza had returned after missing the first half of the season to train with Brazil (who were awful in London anyway – her time might’ve been better spent in Atlanta). Finally, this Dream roster looks something like the team that made the Finals in each of the last two years.
  • Prince, McCoughtry and de Souza all went straight back into their respective starting lineups. There was something of a surprise with Chicago going ‘small’ to start, sliding Swin Cash to power forward and keeping Tamera Young in the starting five to guard McCoughtry. Young’s a quicker option to stick with players like Angel, but the drawback is that Cash has to handle posts like Sancho Lyttle, while also trying to help on the glass. Small lineups haven’t worked out too well for Chicago so far this year.
  • There were positives for both teams to take from the early possessions. Cash knocked down a couple of shots from outside, the sort of shots that had been consistently clanking off the iron throughout the first half of the season. For Atlanta, de Souza fit in like she’d never been gone, taking high-low passes from Lyttle and dump off feeds from the perimeter players before converting in the paint. She gives them a big, physical, dependable option inside that they just didn’t have in the opening months of the season.
  • Sylvia Fowles picked up her second foul with two minutes left in the opening quarter on a McCoughtry drive, leading Fowles to be replaced by Ruth Riley. Atlanta immediately ripped off a 14-2 run, taking a double-digit lead. Chicago hadn’t been able to find Fowles much in the first quarter – a common problem that still hasn’t been fixed – but it was the defense which collapsed without her. It’s a lot easier for an attacking, penetrating team like Atlanta to score points when Fowles isn’t patrolling the paint.
  • However, without the need for Fowles to even come off the bench, Chicago fought their way back into the game before halftime. Primarily, they stopped turning the damn ball over. Even with McCoughtry playing her game and de Souza an extra option inside, Atlanta are nowhere near as effective if you just take care of the ball. Even if it makes your own offense slightly more ponderous, it’s a price worth paying if you can force the Dream into a halfcourt contest.
  • Chicago also switched from Riley to Carolyn Swords as the Fowles-substitute in the paint, and it worked much better. Riley might be more experienced and far more highly paid, but her slide down the pecking order in Chicago looks like continuing.
  • McCoughtry was an interesting mass of contrasts in the first half. She took a couple of shots that made you think she was delighted to be back on a team where she’s ‘the man’, and was delighted to have a green light to jack up any old garbage she feels like. But then there were plays which felt like glimpses of Team USA action, where McCoughtry has true confidence in her teammates and isn’t afraid to give the ball up and let someone else finish the play. The enigma of Angel is probably something that we’ll never entirely unravel.
  • It all got a little feisty in the second half. With Fowles back on the floor to complement Prince – who looked like she’d never been out – Chicago were putting more pressure on the Dream and taking control in the third quarter. They were also playing tighter defense, and poking their hands into the passing lanes, turning Atlanta’s own game against them. It swung a 44-40 halftime deficit into a 61-59 Sky lead after three quarters.
  • There was a barrage of points to open the fourth, neither team playing anything much resembling defense, before a crucial sequence with around 6 minutes remaining. Fowles and de Souza had been going to war in the paint throughout the second half. On one Sky possession, Big Syl ended up on the ground – Erika would claim she ‘pulled the chair’ and Fowles lost her balance; Fowles would say de Souza hooked her arm and dragged her to the floor – which didn’t draw a whistle. Fowles was mad, bitching at the ref all the way down the floor, before channeling that rage into a huge block on an attempted layup by de Souza. Unfortunately, Fowles was still pissed enough to follow that block with some more screaming at the ref, who’d finally had enough and called the technical. Sky coach Pokey Chatman came well out onto the court to make sure she got Fowles to the bench before she said anything else.
  • Fowles doesn’t often get angry, but de Souza has a habit of getting under the skin of opposing post players. Unfortunately for Chicago, it didn’t turn out to be one of those technicals that energises your own team. Atlanta simply executed better in the final minutes, and that’s what won them the game. Sancho Lyttle had two nice assists, firstly on a backdoor cut by McCoughtry who went to the hoop for a three-point play off Lyttle’s pass. Then, a pick-and-roll with Lindsey Harding led to Lyttle bullet-passing a feed to de Souza under the basket for a layup.
  • Meanwhile, Chicago were trying to find Fowles at the other end, but were ending up with more turnovers than field-goal attempts.
  • This was the sort of game Prince might’ve bailed Chicago out in during the opening stretch of the season, but it wasn’t to be in her first game back. With Chicago trailing 78-72 and barely a minute remaining, McCoughtry was dumb enough to foul Prince on a three-point attempt. But in maybe the only evidence of rust all night, Prince went just 1-of-3 at the line and that was pretty much all she wrote.
  • This game highlighted some of the fears that Chatman and Sky fans all will have held heading into the second half. Prince was good, shooting 5-11 for 16 points, 3 assists and 3 steals in just 28 minutes, but it wasn’t enough. Fowles was away with Team USA during the hiatus, so Chicago wouldn’t have been able to work directly on the key issue with this team – getting Fowles the damn ball. She only took 5 shots in this game, and while de Souza’s good, she’s not that good. I was hardly the only one saying it during the first half of the season – Prince’s return was never going to fix all the problems with this team. Although she might still be enough to hold off New York for the fourth Eastern playoff spot.
  • It was a solid start to the second half of the season for Atlanta, although coach Marynell Meadors rode her starting five hard to pull it off. McCoughtry led the way with 25 points (8-16 from the floor), 8 boards, 6 assists and 5 steals. Lyttle, de Souza and Harding all had at least 14 points apiece in support. However, playing a team renowned for coughing up turnovers was a nice way to re-start for the Dream. They may still have some work to do in order to consistently beat better teams who are more careful about taking care of the ball.


Part Two, featuring coverage of all Saturday’s games, is coming later today.


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