WNBA Today, 09/01/2012: Lynx Survive Shock Scare

The Minnesota Lynx and Tulsa Shock were in very different situations following the Olympic break. Minnesota had a rocky patch just before the hiatus, had several players returning from injury, and three more who’d been working for gold in London. But with LA and San Antonio hot on their heels at the top of the Western Conference, they had the incentive to keep fighting for wins to maintain the top spot and hold on to home court advantage in the playoffs. Tulsa, on the other hand, have been fighting for nothing but pride for quite some time now. They had only three wins in the first half of the season, and with the Griner lottery looming many might’ve expected them to be comfortable with piling up more losses. Instead, both these teams have continued to scrap for every last point and every possible victory since the WNBA re-started.

This isn’t the running joke of a Tulsa Shock franchise that we saw for the last couple of years any more. Gary Kloppenburg has worked hard with this group, and done a very impressive job, and even without much interior presence besides rookie Glory Johnson they’ve become a legitimately competitive team. They still don’t have the talent of a lot of other franchises, but this is an organised, professional WNBA team now. You have to prepare and show up in the right state of mind or they’ll take you apart. As they’d illustrated by winning three of their previous four games, beating Chicago, Atlanta and LA.

But this was still the reigning champs, on their own floor, with Tulsa coming in on the second half of a back-to-back. However improved they might be, Tulsa were always going to have their work cut out for them last night. The Lynx had their well-established starting five opening the game as usual, while the Shock were once again without Temeka Johnson (ankle/abdominal injury) and Kayla Pedersen (longest flu ever?). Once again, Ivory Latta filled in at the point, while Chante Black started in the paint.

The Lynx got exactly what they expected from Tulsa in the first half, but knowing what was coming didn’t help them to stop it. The game started at a high pace, with both teams firing away from outside and both making early shots. Latta picked up right where she left off the night before – when she had 21 points and 14 assists while picking apart LA – by first driving and dishing to Black for a layup, then nailing a three from behind a screen. There’s been some noticeable development from the little Tulsa guards as the season’s progressed. Earlier in the year, they either scored or missed at the end of drives. Coach Klopp seems to have got through to them that passing is also an option at the conclusion of those moves. It makes them far more dangerous, because you can’t just send endless help against the penetrator – they’ll give up the ball and find the open player you’ve left behind.

Even besides the guards, Tulsa have become a much better passing team. Confidence plays a big part in that, of course, but they’ve also just grown as a unit and learned where their teammates are going to be. There’s less guesswork going on now, and more surety behind the passing.

Joining Latta in putting Minnesota to the sword in the first half, rookie guard Riquna Williams was making plays. She’s lacked consistency in her first season as a pro, and her shooting percentage is still down at 34%, but in the games where she’s been ‘on’ she’s been mightily impressive. She drives hard to the rim, and constantly utilised high ball screens in the first half of this game before knifing through Minnesota’s defense for buckets. Even when she got cut off, she could still make plays, as one particularly pretty show the ball-spin back-shoot the fadeaway basket illustrated in the first quarter.

But it’s not like the Lynx were being blown out. They weren’t shooting well from outside – Maya Moore was brick-heavy from the perimeter, while Seimone Augustus was unusually anonymous – but they were pushing the ball whenever they had the chance, crashing the offensive glass, and at least hanging around. Although between the penetration of Latta and Williams, the interior finishing of Courtney Paris, and the poor Lynx shooting, hanging around was about all Minnesota could manage. A Moore three at the halftime buzzer excited the crowd going into the break, but it was ultimately ruled out on review. That left Tulsa with a 56-48 advantage at halftime.

The Shock shot 60% from the field in that first half, thanks partly to accuracy from outside, but mostly to the amount of opportunities they’d created at the rim. Some regression to the mean was inevitable in the second half, but it was down to Minnesota to realise that they’d need to step up their defensive intensity if they were going to win this game.

Like the champions they are, the Lynx responded right out of the break, and took the game to Tulsa. Rotations were sharper against penetration, Lindsay Whalen attacked on the offensive end, and Augustus finally started taking – and making – far more shots. They quickly reminded everyone that they’re the ones with the rings and the championship banner, and while the Shock might be improved, they’re still in a different league.

Tulsa completely lost their rhythm in the third quarter, and fatigue after the win over LA the night before might’ve been setting in as well. Williams and Latta were nowhere near as effective, and without Temeka Johnson in uniform they didn’t have anywhere else to turn on the perimeter. Minnesota also continued to overwhelmingly dominate the glass, with the dynamic Rebekkah Brunson inevitably leading the way. The Lynx only shot 50% in the third quarter, which wasn’t a huge improvement from the first half, but they beat Tulsa 14-2 on the boards. That led to a 22-12 advantage in shot attempts during the period. It took Minnesota barely three minutes to take the lead back on an Augustus three, and when Moore found her shot late in the quarter they began to take the game away from the Shock. The Lynx led 77-67 heading to the final period.

More buckets from Augustus and Brunson to open the fourth virtually killed the game, extending the lead to 16. Tulsa started firing away from outside in an effort to work their way back into it, and a few dropped to momentarily scare Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve, but there was little danger. The Lynx eased home with a 92-83 victory, but the Shock had made them work for it.

Being beaten in Minnesota is certainly no disgrace – that happens to pretty much everybody. Latta finished 8-14 for 19 points and 4 assists, while Williams was 7-13 for 21 and 3. Ultimately, losing 44-25 on the boards, including giving up 18 offensive rebounds to the Lynx, was too much for Tulsa to overcome. It’s unfortunate that the Liz Cambage situation fell apart – for this season at least – because it would be interesting to see what this squad could do with a true interior presence. Glory Johnson and Klopp’s machinations can only do so much. That first half, when Williams and Latta made the Lynx defense look utterly ordinary, was still very impressive.

Minnesota got the job done in the end, although they ultimately did it in the fashion we saw several times last season – entirely reliant the starters, with practically no help from their reserves at all. The starting five all scored in double-digits, while the only points all night from the bench was a late Candice Wiggins three. Besides some improvement from second-year big Amber Harris, it’s been a struggle for the Lynx backups lately. Monica Wright’s scoring has dried up, Wiggins has been in a shooting slump, and Jessica Adair and Devereaux Peters have barely been making it off the pine. For the first time in a while, Reeve tried Adair ahead of Peters in the rotation for this game, but they ultimately played less than 2 minutes between them.

Wiggins was the only reserve who saw any decent minutes in the second half of this game, as Reeve rode the players she had any remaining faith in. It’s disappointing, because the depth of the Lynx had started to look more legitimate in the first half of the season, with Wright flourishing, Wiggins hitting threes and Peters offering some youthful energy. Fortunately, their starters are so exceptional that Minnesota have won 8 straight anyway. Hopefully the others can rediscover some form in the final 9 regular season games, and come through in the playoffs.

 

Notes

In a preview of news that will be covered in tomorrow’s column, Sylvia Fowles returned to the floor for the Chicago Sky in tonight’s game in Indiana. Unfortunately, she tripped over Briann January’s foot early in the second half, and limped back to the locker room with a right leg injury. She wasn’t playing that well in her return, but that was still the last thing Chicago wanted to see in her first game back.

 

Upcoming Games

Saturday September 1st (today):

Washington @ New York, 4pm ET

Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET

San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

—–

Sunday September 2nd (tomorrow):

Connecticut @ Atlanta, 3pm ET

Los Angeles @ Chicago, 6pm ET

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