WNBA Today, 09/29/2012: Harding leads Dream to a steal; Lynx hold on by their claws

You often hear athletes saying that it’s a whole new season heading into the playoffs. Or that everyone starts over at 0-0. While true, there’s still the basic problem that the best predictor of the future is often the past. Sometimes you don’t have to look very far to find a reason to say “we really should’ve seen this coming”.

The Atlanta Dream went into Indiana last night for Game 1 of their playoff series with history on their side. The Fever had the better regular season in 2012, but Atlanta have reached the WNBA Finals in both the last two years from low seeds and without home-court advantage. They’d shown the ability to step up when the games really matter, including when they beat Indiana in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.

On the bright side for Indiana, their starting backcourt of Briann January and Shavonte Zellous were both passed fit to play, after missing the final games of the season due to concussion symptoms. They took their places in the regular Fever starting lineup, while Atlanta also had their standard group. This is the playoffs – any minor injuries players are carrying are pushed to the wayside due to the importance of the games.

It was all Atlanta for the vast majority of the first half. Indiana had too many unnecessary turnovers, either with dumb passes in transition or entry passes that Sancho Lyttle quickly stepped in front of to poke away. The Fever needed to be more aware of Lyttle, who’s been pulling that move for years. You can’t make the same passes when she’s the defender involved that you might force against other players. She already had 4 steals after barely 11 minutes of play.

While the turnovers would typically ignite Atlanta’s running game and take over the contest via fastbreaks, the Dream weren’t just dominating in transition. They were the more effective team in half court sets during the first half, repeatedly finding Erika de Souza under the hoop in the early minutes, and then finishing plays more consistently as the game progressed. Point guard Lindsey Harding was aggressive offensively and hitting her shots, Angel McCoughtry joined in after taking a little while to heat up, and Atlanta were in control. Continue reading

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WNBA Today, 09/28/2012: Playoffs tip-off with a snoozer and a shootout

After a long wait, finally the real games are underway. Last night saw the start of the 2012 WNBA playoffs, and after all the hoopla and horrified reactions to the draft lottery the night before, it was nice to get back to basketball. Let the games begin.

The postseason opened in Connecticut, where the 25-9 Sun hosted a New York Liberty team that backed into the playoffs despite a 15-19 regular season record. While ‘full strength’ might have been an exaggeration, both teams had all 11 players on their rosters available. Asjha Jones was in her familiar spot as Connecticut’s starting power forward, despite still shaking off the rust from missing a month due to her achilles injury. New York had Essence Carson in the backcourt alongside Cappie Pondexter, having only been cleared to play that morning after the leg injury picked up late in Saturday’s final regular season game.

The opening quarter was a sign of things to come for the rest of the evening. Both teams were living almost exclusively off jump shots. There was very little penetration into the paint, and few attempts to post up. New York were missing constantly, with Pondexter and Nicole Powell the primary culprits, but everyone joining in on occasion. Their only real success was coming on the offensive glass, where at least an occasional putback created a few points. Connecticut, however, were moving the ball a little better, and finding players in better position to score. It wasn’t all about creating their own shots, and the shooters had more space and rhythm to knock down their shots. The Sun have faced this Liberty team often enough to know where the holes are in the ‘white line’ defense, and kick outs or reverse passes were finding open teammates. Plus they were simply shooting better as a team, as they’ve done all year. The Sun led 23-13 by the end of the first quarter, and they’d really done nothing special to get there.

After the Connecticut lead reached 14 early in the second quarter, New York head coach John Whisenant called a timeout. Out of that break, finally, the Liberty fed the post, and Kia Vaughn had an easy layup. The next time down, Plenette Pierson drove for another straightforward finish at the rim. Apparently, Whisenant had reminded his team that you’re allowed to score from inside 15 feet. They also received a nice little boost from backup wing Alex Montgomery, with a steal and a three, which matched the energy Connecticut had gained from Tan White late in the first quarter. But the Liberty were quickly back to gunning away from the perimeter, and swiftly returned to being outshot by the Sun. That Connecticut led only 41-34 at halftime was down to Powell finally draining a pair of threes, and Pondexter actually drawing a couple of fouls late in the half.

The Liberty ask a hell of a lot from Pondexter, and sometimes it’s too much. She’s often the one standing around dribbling while whatever set the Liberty are supposed to be running plays out in front of her. Then she either gives the ball up and watches one of her less talented teammates miss, or is left with limited time to make something happen before the shot clock expires. But she also created many of her own problems in this game. With Allison Hightower, Danielle McCray or Tan White chasing her around the floor, Pondexter constantly settled for pull-up jump shots, usually while under tight pressure. In fact, she didn’t have an official shot attempt actually at the rim all night long (there were one or two where she drove and drew fouls, meaning the miss didn’t make the stat-sheet). That’s a credit to Connecticut’s defense, but Cappie’s one of the best offensive talents in the women’s game. She’s supposed to be able to create practically any shot she wants, whenever she wants it. An endless stream of bricks from outside isn’t going to cut it. Continue reading

WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Semi-Finals: Los Angeles Sparks vs. San Antonio Silver Stars

Los Angeles Sparks (#2 seed, 24-10) vs. San Antonio Silver Stars (#3 seed, 21-13)

 

Regular season series: San Antonio won 3-1

06/16 @S.A.: Silver Stars 98-85

06/24 @L.A.: Silver Stars 91-71

06/28 @S.A.: Silver Stars 94-80

08/23 @L.A.: Sparks 101-77

—–

For much of the season, the 2/3 matchup in the West looked like the most mouth-watering potential series. We had three teams all playing impressive basketball, with Minnesota, Los Angeles and San Antonio all winning consistently. Then it all rather drifted away in the final month of the season. Minnesota pulled away at the top, while LA had a horrendous road trip and San Antonio appeared to have forgotten how they built their 12-game winning streak earlier in the year. LA seemed to pull themselves together more convincingly before the end of the year, while San Antonio continued to struggle in all but a couple of games. The difficult question heading into this playoff series is which versions of these teams are actually going to show up.

When they’re rolling, both these squads can be scary offensively. LA have the speed, athleticism and natural ability of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the paint, a tandem that every other team in the league has trouble dealing with when they’re both fully invested. Parker had a series of quiet appearances after the Olympics, and appeared to be playing through a knee injury, but looked like she was emerging from that slump over the final couple of weeks. Ogwumike is a relentless rebounder, she’ll run the floor hard and she’ll fight for everything. On the perimeter, led by Kristi Toliver, they’ve got players who can shoot the lights out when they’re firing. Alana Beard’s offensive game has been improving all season as well, with her accuracy from outside returning, and DeLisha Milton-Jones can still score if you forget about her.

San Antonio have a different kind of attack. Continue reading

WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Western Conference Semi-Finals: Minnesota Lynx vs. Seattle Storm

Minnesota Lynx (#1 seed, 27-7) vs. Seattle Storm (#4 seed, 16-18)

 

Regular season series: Minnesota won 3-1

05/27 @Min: Lynx 84-71

06/06 @Min: Lynx 79-55

06/17 @Sea: Storm 65-62

08/21 @Sea: Lynx 86-73

—–

It’s been a long season for Storm fans. From very early on, thanks to the state Phoenix and Tulsa were in, a playoff spot was virtually guaranteed. But they’ve still suffered through a lot of messy basketball, multiple injuries (several of which are still lingering) and a lot of losses. In many ways, the Lynx have been even better than in their dominating 2011 Championship season. Their scoring average is up, with a higher team shooting percentage, while their opponents’ scoring has dropped several points. Maya Moore has developed into a more well-rounded player, while the other youngsters on the roster also have more experience under their belts. They’ve had one or two awkward periods this season, and yet still only lost 7 games all year. As with the Connecticut-New York series, examining this matchup from all angles ends up being an exercise in searching for ways to find hope for Seattle.

On the positive side for the Storm, their whole roster is at least healthy enough to play now. Sue Bird has been fighting through a hip issue, Lauren Jackson had a hamstring problem, Tanisha Wright’s knee has limited her, and most recently Svetlana Abrosimova sprained her wrist (she’s the only one that might still miss out in this series, although she’s expected to play). Having the band back together at least gives Seattle a puncher’s chance against Minnesota. Bird and Jackson have been a dangerous tandem for over a decade now, and they can still cause plenty of problems. Bird runs the show, and has a penchant for knocking down big shots when she has to. Jackson still has an offensive arsenal inside and out that can dominate. But they’ve had so little time to gain any rhythm and rebuild the chemistry since Jackson returned to the team after the Olympics. They’re deeper than they used to be, but the starters aren’t quite as effective any more, especially when injuries are still limiting what they can do. Continue reading

WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: Indiana Fever vs. Atlanta Dream

Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 22-12) vs. Atlanta Dream (#3 seed, 19-15)

 

Regular season series: Indiana won, 3-2

05/19 @Ind: Fever 92-84

05/27 @Atl: Fever 78-62

06/26 @Atl: Dream 70-58

08/18 @Ind: Fever 86-72

09/05 @Atl: Dream 71-64

—–

Where the other Eastern matchup might be the easiest pick in the first round, this is probably the toughest. Despite making the big, dangerous decision to move star player Tamika Catchings from small forward to power forward for this season, the Fever have had a strong year. There’ve been a few hiccups along the way, and they play a rather different style from what we’ve grown used to over the years, but they’ve continued to win games. In fact, most of the advanced numbers (points per possession both offensively and defensively, pythagorean expected wins/losses etc.) make Indiana – not Connecticut – the top team in the East this season. But after all the confusion and controversy in Atlanta around the exit of Marynell Meadors and the absence/suspension of Angel McCoughtry, the Dream have settled into a threatening looking unit. They look like a team again, have played well over the last month, and they’ve reached the WNBA Finals from a low seed in each of the last two seasons. Can you bet against them doing it again?

In the past, this matchup would’ve been all about pace – and frankly that’s still a central element. What’s changed is that Indiana aren’t quite as pedestrian and plodding any more. They’ll run if you give them the chance, using their own defense to create transition chances, and they’ve grown very fond of the three-point shot. In fact, while both of these teams play tough, aggressive defense – Atlanta were 1st, Indiana 3rd in the WNBA this season in defensive points per possession – the style of scoring is where we’ll see the greatest contrast. While Indiana do get some penetration from Catchings, Katie Douglas and their guards, and some occasional post offense from backups like Jessica Davenport, a lot of their offense comes on perimeter shots. They generate them via drive-and-kicks or solid ball rotation, and fire away. Continue reading

WNBA 2012 Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: Connecticut Sun vs. New York Liberty

Connecticut Sun (#1 seed, 25-9) vs. New York Liberty (#4 seed, 15-19)

 

Regular season series: Connecticut 4-1

05/19 @NY: Sun 78-73

05/20 @Conn: Sun 92-77

06/15 @Conn: Sun 97-55

08/16 @NY: Liberty 79-66

08/18 @Conn: Sun 85-74

—–

On paper, this is the most one-sided matchup in the first round. Even more than Minnesota-Seattle in the West. Connecticut have been atop the Eastern Conference virtually all season long, and despite some injury issues still managed to win 8 of their final 11 games. Based on most of the advanced metrics, New York shouldn’t even be in the playoffs – they were behind the Chicago Sky in practically everything besides wins. So in looking at this series, you almost inevitably find yourself searching for places to offer hope for New York. Because on the face of it, this should be a blow out.

One potential positive for the Liberty is that Connecticut have some injury issues where you’d expect to find their advantage – in the post. Asjha Jones has only played twice since the Olympics due to an achilles injury, and while she looked pretty good in those two brief appearances, she may not be ready to produce at her previous levels. Tina Charles only took one game off to rest multiple niggling injuries, and has otherwise continued to play through any discomfort. The Liberty post corps of Plenette Pierson, Kara Braxton, Kia Vaughn and DeMya Walker is going to have to fight hard and make it a physical contest with Jones and Charles, because based on consistent level of performance this season they’re outmatched. Charles is a legitimate MVP contender, a skilled finisher inside with range out to 18-feet, and she constantly piles up rebounds. Jones has built up a nice chemistry with Charles over the last few years, and they work well together. Jones gives them an extra scoring threat who can stretch the defense, and as long as she’s fully recovered a more mobile defender than backup Mistie Mims. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/23/2012 & 09/24/2012: Final weekend wraps up regular season

You can look at this article two ways. Either it’s a bumper edition to celebrate the conclusion to the 2012 WNBA season, covering a whole weekend of action all in one go. Or the games were so meaningless and such a constant procession of tedious basketball that I’m getting them all out of the way in the most expedient way possible. It depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person. Either way, below you’ll find (mercifully brief) coverage of all six games played on Saturday and Sunday this weekend, bringing the regular season to a close.

Check back over the next few days for WNBAlien’s postseason awards, and in-depth previews of all four first-round playoff series. Plus, of course, there’ll be the usual analysis of every playoff game once the postseason begins on Thursday night, right through to the WNBA Finals.

 

Tulsa Shock 74 @ New York Liberty 91

  • Plenette Pierson was back in New York’s starting lineup, after the one-game absence where she was replaced by DeMya Walker. The Liberty’s crack broadcasting crew provided no information on why she was benched, or showed any awareness that it had even occurred. Tulsa were unchanged again.
  • Based on their rotation, New York took this game surprisingly seriously. Head coach John Whisenant was essentially treating it like any other regular season game. Based on how they played for most of the first half, the players couldn’t have cared less. Their rotations were slow, they were beaten down the floor in transition, and the offense looked half-hearted. Tulsa were both 7-15 from three-point range in the first half, and leading in points in the paint. The Shock led 50-40 at halftime, but New York’s performance barely merited even that.
  • And then in the second half, the Liberty decided to play. There was much better defensive pressure on the ball, that led to some transition opportunities, and finally they were awake. New York also showed more willingness to play inside-out in this game than we’ve seen in several recent contests. They were channeling some offense through Pierson and Kia Vaughn, rather than constantly relying on Cappie Pondexter and Essence Carson to do everything from the perimeter. They won’t have a prayer against Connecticut in the first round without at least making the Sun’s posts work on the defensive end, so that needs to continue next week. Continue reading