WNBA Today, 09/07/2012: Dream hold off Fever in likely playoff preview, while it’s blowout-city elsewhere

Apologies for the lack of update yesterday – your WNBAlien correspondent was at the Paralympic wheelchair basketball, watching the USA lose to Australia in the semi-finals for a change. For the record, the women’s semi ended with the kind of screw-job by the officials that would’ve caused years of bitching and moaning from Americans, if it happened in a version of the game they actually pay some attention to. Fortunately for the referees in question, the Paralympics appears to be an even smaller blip on the radar in the US than the WNBA.

So, back to our regularly scheduled programming. In an effort to catch up, we’re going to discuss the one game from the last couple of days that’s worth talking about in detail, then Bullet Point Breakdown the remaining two (which were such consummate blowouts there’s not much to go into). So first up, the probable playoff preview from Wednesday night in Atlanta.

Indiana were the Dream’s visitors, and while nothing’s set in stone just yet, there’s a strong chance that these teams will be meeting in the first round of the postseason. Indiana had narrowed the gap with Connecticut at the top of the Eastern Conference to two games before this matchup, but it’s still going to take a strong finish to have any chance of overhauling the Sun. Atlanta, even while enduring the recent mess surrounding their coaching change and Angel McCoughtry, have continued to win enough games to comfortably hold off New York and Chicago in third. So there was a little extra spice to this game, because everyone knew going in that they were likely to meet again in three weeks’ time, in far more meaningful circumstances.

Indiana opened the game with the same starting five we’ve grown used to; Atlanta still had Angel McCoughtry coming off the bench behind rookie Tiffany Hayes, although Armintie Price regained her starting spot ahead of Cathrine Kraayeveld at the other wing spot. Inside five minutes, Price had picked up two fouls, leading to another sign that the Dream’s recent history is starting to be put behind them. When the same thing had happened a couple of weeks ago (while Marynell Meadors was still running the team), Kraayeveld came into the game as Price’s replacement, sending a message to McCoughtry. This time, McCoughtry subbed in. The franchise is trying to move on, and the only reason Angel is still a ‘reserve’ at this point is that Hayes has played so well as a starter.

Indiana were on top for most of the first half. They were moving the ball reasonably well offensively, creating and hitting enough perimeter shots to score a few points, but doing most of their damage on defense. Whether in their man-to-man – which involved so much switching that it verged on a zone at times – or this 2-3/3-2 combo-zone that they seem to have developed, their activity and work-rate on the defensive end had Atlanta shut down. The Dream tried firing away from outside, but everyone who even remotely follows this league knows by now that outside shooting is not Atlanta’s forté. When they tried to penetrate, either the defense kept them out, or enough pressure was put on the finishing attempt inside that the layup was missed. Second-chance points from offensive-rebounds were the only thing keeping Atlanta alive.

That pattern built a 32-21 Fever lead with a couple of minutes left until halftime, before Atlanta gave themselves some real hope heading into the locker room. Erika de Souza and McCoughtry had successive putbacks (the second-chance points continuing to pile up), then Hayes and McCoughtry had breakaway layups off a steal and a block. The Dream trailed only 32-29 at the break in a game they’d been losing badly for 18 minutes.

Atlanta kept their momentum rolling into the second half, taking the lead, but both offenses struggled for much of the third quarter. This had become a physical battle, with both sides upset at the whistles, but the officials finding it difficult to know what to call. When there’s that much contact on every possession, either you call everything and grind the game to a halt, or you allow at least an element of “let ’em play”. If these two do clash in the postseason, it’s going to be a war.

Inevitably, the main weapons for Indiana were Katie Douglas and Tamika Catchings. Douglas was the one that dragged them back into this game, drilling three triples in quick succession to help turn a 5-point deficit into a 3-point Fever lead. Then when Atlanta called a timeout to cool her off and instruct their players to shut her down, the extra attention on Douglas left others open for layups.

Besides falling behind, the other problem for Atlanta in the final seconds of the third quarter was that Catchings caught Sancho Lyttle with an elbow on a drive, leaving Lyttle dazed and out of the game. She wouldn’t return for the rest of the night, leaving Kraayeveld as the choice at power forward throughout the fourth quarter. For Indiana, Erlana Larkins played the entire fourth quarter in the paint, contributing more fight and aggression on the glass than Indiana had received from any of their true centers. The second-chance points had continued to accumulate for Atlanta in the second half, but at least Larkins gave them a chance inside. Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport had both been practically useless on the glass.

After a game where Indiana had kept their composure and moved the ball well without turning it over, they got dragged into playing Atlanta’s style a little too much in the fourth quarter. Besides the rebounding advantage that kept the Dream alive in this game, this is what will decide the likely playoff matchup between these teams. If Indiana can avoid turning the ball over and allowing Atlanta to run, while still finding open shots within their offense, they can beat the Dream. If Atlanta create turnovers and ignite their transition offense like they did in the fourth quarter of this game, they’ll run away from the Fever.

The other element that sealed this win for Atlanta in the fourth was the play of Lindsey Harding. As has been mentioned here several times, Harding has been quietly stepping up since the Olympic break, producing even while turmoil swirled around the Dream franchise. She had three pullup jumpers and a smart play where she followed Hayes on the break and was there for the putback when the rookie blew the finish. All of that happened inside the last three minutes of this game, while Indiana struggled to create good shots and Douglas finally started to misfire from outside. The only blemish to Harding’s closing stretch was when McCoughtry lifted her up just before the final buzzer – it cost Harding a turnover when Angel deposited her back on the ground before time ran out (going up and down with the ball is travelling, however it occurs).

This was a strong, hard-fought win for the Dream against a solid opponent. It’s the second time in a row that they’ve beaten a top Eastern Conference foe, and yet again they’re starting to look like a dangerous lower seed as we head towards the playoffs. McCoughtry’s scoring was important again, producing 6-13 for 15 points, and Harding finished 7-15 for 20, but it was the team-rebounding that played the central role all night. Atlanta ended up ahead 28-6 in second-chance points, as Indiana’s comparative lack of size and the aggressive defense which swung the Fever players out of rebounding position allowed the Dream to capitalise. Of course, much of an edge on the glass also comes down to desire and work-rate. This Atlanta team looks hungry again, with a desire to close out the season as strongly as possible. The playoffs could be very interesting.

Indiana did exactly what they need to do against Atlanta for most of this game. Moved the ball well, made some shots, played strong defense, and took advantage of their own chances to push the pace when they were available. There were just a few passages where they slipped up, allowing Atlanta to cling on and then sneak in for the win. The key question for head coach Lin Dunn heading into the probable playoff clash with this same team, is what she does inside. Larkins was the strongest option in this game to keep up with the Dream in the paint. She’s an energy and hustle player who can finish inside if she’s open, but she’s barely taller than Catchings. Given time to prepare for an entire series, the fear would be that de Souza and Lyttle would punish Indiana inside if they tried to use Larkins too much at center. If that happens, either Sutton-Brown or Davenport would need to play significantly better than they did in this game to allow Indiana to survive in the paint. Otherwise, it might prove a short playoff series.

—–

 

Phoenix Mercury 59 @ New York Liberty 87

  • Same night, same time as the game above, but a rather different kind of game. New York were ahead by 10 after less than four minutes, and stayed that way virtually all night. In fact, they led by double-digits for 35:53 of the 40-minute game. That’s not quite a WNBA record, but it’s not far off.
  • The starting lineups were as expected – Phoenix with Diana Taurasi continuing to start at small forward, New York once again opening with Essence Carson in the backcourt and Kara Braxton at center.
  • It was a sloppy start for Phoenix, riddled with turnovers and badly forced DeWanna Bonner shots. Bonner’s going to need some time to recover from being asked to carry this offense all year long. Next year, with a lot more talent alongside her, hopefully her shot-selection will improve significantly.
  • Phoenix started off in their man-to-man, switched to their 2-3 zone, and it made no difference whatsoever. New York were moving the ball well, creating whatever shot they wanted, and blew the game open early. It was 6 minutes into the contest when Phoenix coach Corey Gaines finally took a timeout to try to stem the tide, and his team already trailed 21-5.
  • The Mercury already looked like they’d rather be somewhere else when things got worse in the opening seconds of the second quarter. Rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis, one of the bright spots of their season, got caught up with New York’s Leilani Mitchell in the challenge for a rebound. Prahalis’s right arm got trapped somehow, wrenching her shoulder, and she immediately ran off the court in a lot of pain, clutching her arm to her body. She didn’t play again for the rest of the evening, returning only to sit on the bench with an ice-pack on her right shoulder. Hopefully there won’t be any lasting damage.
  • As anything resembling a contest, the game was over early in the second quarter. Nicole Powell and Cappie Pondexter hit threes over the top of the Mercury defense, Plenette Pierson scored however she wanted inside, and that was it. There was never even a hint of a comeback.
  • Charde Houston made her return from injury for Phoenix in amongst this shambles, by the way.
  • While it wasn’t hard to pick apart what passed for Mercury defense in this game, you have to credit New York for some impressive team basketball. They moved the ball well all night, with Pondexter in particular creating for others, but everyone sharing the wealth. They finished with 27 assists on 36 baskets, everyone scored, and in such a demolition even the likes of Kelley Cain and Katelan Redmon received a whole bunch of playing time.
  • After not calling a timeout for an age while his team struggled in the opening quarter, Gaines did call one with 46 seconds left in the game and his team trailing by 30. Out of that vital discussion, the Mercury ran a high screen that led to Bonner firing up a brick from three-point range over a double-team. Wow, that must’ve been a learning experience.
  • It was a nice confidence booster for the Liberty ahead of Friday night’s big matchup against Chicago, who they continue to fight with for the final Eastern playoff spot. Their key players got a lot of rest, too.
  • For Phoenix, this was a crash back down to Earth after two upset wins over Seattle and San Antonio, inspired by Taurasi’s return. She played barely 15 minutes in this game, which made sense considering it was out of reach so early. They’ll try to forget this game as quickly as possible.
  • Taurasi never even managed to pick up a technical foul, breaking her streak at two games.

 

Tulsa Shock 74 @ Seattle Storm 101

  • Starting point guard Temeka Johnson was missing once again for Tulsa, with what’s now being called just an ‘abdominal injury’ (apparently the ankle aspect has cleared up). Ivory Latta once again stepped in. On the bright side for the Shock, Kayla Pedersen finally returned after missing 7 games with ‘flu-like symptoms’, an absence so long that people had started to wonder what was going on. Seattle once again had all 11 available, and the same starting lineup.
  • Unlike the game we just looked at, this one stayed close for most of the first half. Seattle scored effectively from the opening minutes, with Lauren Jackson looking a lot more comfortable after a week of practice. She was also looking for the ball inside a lot more, and her teammates were finding her with quick entry passes, not messing around. The weakness of Tulsa’s interior defense helped, though.
  • However, Seattle’s own defense still has issues. And unfortunately, there seem to be more noticeable breakdowns when their key players are on the floor. That’s worrying, because when it comes to the crunch in the postseason, Storm head coach Brian Agler will rely on the players he trusts the most. It’s the starting five and a couple of key reserves who’ll play heavy minutes. So their rotations on pick-and-rolls, their communication when they’re switching assignments, their basic efforts to closing out on shooters – it all still needs work. Especially considering there’s a strong chance they’ll be facing Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. They’ll be pick-and-rolled to death by the Lynx.
  • Seattle started to take over this game late in the second quarter. They picked up their pace, added a little transition offense, and their points kept piling up while Tulsa started doing little other than jacking up ugly jump shots. Seattle were ahead 53-40 at halftime, considerably more points than a Key Arena crowd is used to seeing from their team in a half of basketball. They also had the pleasure of seeing Jackson score the final six on a pair of free throws and a pair of layups. Three-pointers might be pretty, but the Seattle fans are smart enough to know that you earn your money in the paint. Seeing LJ down there was definitely a positive, and Tulsa couldn’t remotely handle her inside.
  • The one bright spot for Tulsa in the paint this year has been rookie Glory Johnson, who’s increasingly starting to open up debate over whether LA’s Nneka Ogwumike is quite such a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. With little help inside, Johnson’s rebounding and defense has been impressive, and her offensive arsenal continues to develop as well. She was as helpless against Jackson and co. as anyone else on this night, but it’s still been an excellent rookie campaign.
  • The game continued to be blown open in the early minutes of the third quarter, and was swiftly over as a contest. Then it was just a matter of how many Storm records could be broken in one night.
  • Seattle finished the game with 29 assists (a franchise record) on 37 buckets, despite Sue Bird bizarrely finishing with zero in the assist column. It was an illustration that this game featured impressive team ball movement, inside and out, with everyone shifting the ball quickly to the open player. It was also simply a ridiculous shooting night – Seattle finished 14-20 as a team from beyond the arc.
  • Tulsa miss Temeka Johnson, and lapsed back into being that team that fires away from outside and does little else. One to forget for them, after several strong performances recently. This was a reminder that while they’ve improved, there’s still a long way to go before they can compete with the league’s best on a nightly basis.
  • Seattle will have been heartened by this performance. Jackson finished 9-12 for 23 points in under 15 minutes of action, and the week of practice seemed to have done her and the team some good. Now they’re off on a four-game road trip, and we need to see some consistency, and a little defensive development. Their playoff spot is secure (not mathematically just yet, but it’s there essentially) – the next couple of weeks is all about finding the rhythm to make an impact in that postseason.

 

Notes

For those who want to search around for internet streams (or maybe it’s on a TV channel wherever you are), the Paralympic women’s wheelchair bronze and gold-medal matches are tonight. USA-Netherlands for the bronze at 2pm ET, Australia-Germany for the gold at 9.15pm ET. The men’s equivalents are tomorrow at the same times, with USA facing Great Britain for bronze, and Australia playing Canada for gold.

 

Upcoming Games

Friday September 7th (today):

Los Angeles @ Washington, 7pm ET

Phoenix @ Connecticut, 7pm ET

Chicago @ New York, 7.30pm ET

Indiana @ San Antonio, 8pm ET

Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

—–

Saturday September 8th (tomorrow):

Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

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