WNBA Today, 09/12/2012: Dream stomp Storm yet again, while Sky excel to leash Lynx

Sometimes, history can be a wonderful indicator of upcoming basketball results. Sometimes, paying too much attention to the past leaves you looking like an idiot. Last night’s two WNBA games helped illustrate that nicely.

The first game was in Atlanta, where Seattle were the visitors. Since being swept by the Storm in the 2010 WNBA Finals, Atlanta have absolutely dominated this matchup, winning the previous three clashes by a combined 57 points. The Dream’s speed and athleticism on the perimeter, combined with their endless driving to the rim, has consistently proven too much for Seattle to handle. That said, this was the first time since those 2010 Finals that Lauren Jackson had been in uniform against Atlanta. This was Seattle’s chance to show that the two comfortable wins over Tulsa last week were down to their own development, not just the Shock’s weaknesses.

Both teams stood by their regular starting lineups, with the league’s leading per-game scorer Angel McCoughtry continuing to come off the bench for Atlanta. However, the two sides set up their defensive matchups differently from the start. The Dream were using Armintie Price on Sue Bird, while sliding point guard Lindsey Harding over onto Katie Smith. That allowed them to keep the pressure up on Bird, without tiring out Harding too much. Inside, Sancho Lyttle was on Lauren Jackson, while Erika de Souza started on Camille Little – Atlanta wanting their more mobile post defender on the player who’s more likely to shoot from anywhere. At the other end, Seattle were far more standard, with Bird on Harding, Smith on Price, Little on Lyttle and Jackson on de Souza. Both teams, as is their standard style, were perfectly willing to switch assignments when it made sense.

It’s interesting that Seattle rarely try to hide Bird on a lesser offensive threat. She has a reputation as a weak defender – and it’s pretty well-earned – but she’s gotten smarter over the years, and at least knows how to funnel opponents towards her help. Maybe they’d be more worried by what Price’s speed could do against her than Harding’s driving and distribution.

The early stages of the game were reasonably tight. Seattle were looking to Little and Jackson inside, and after firing an ugly three as her opening effort of the game, Jackson made sure her following efforts were from much closer. Without too many early turnovers or long misses from the Storm, Atlanta’s running game was being kept in check, and most of their scoring was coming from de Souza in the low post.

Then in the waning minutes of the first quarter and on into the second, Atlanta started to pull away. There was impressive ball movement to create open shots, the inevitable quicksilver breakouts whenever they could force turnovers, and the entry of a hot-shooting McCoughtry. There was even, inbetween a pair of three-point bombs from McCoughtry, the sight of Angel turning down an open three to make the extra pass to an even-more-open Tiffany Hayes. There’s a renewed team ethic about Atlanta’s play in the last couple of weeks, and things had started getting ugly for Seattle.

Part of the problem for the Storm, without wishing to spend too much time pummeling the dead horse I’ve kicked plenty already, were the substitutions in the post. Once Jackson and Little were rested by Seattle head coach Brian Agler, Tina Thompson and – in particular – Ann Wauters couldn’t keep up the momentum of the Storm offense. Suddenly the lanes weren’t as open for entry passes inside, and balls were being poked away where previously they’d enabled a Storm player to turn and shoot. Once you start missing and turning the ball over against Atlanta, they’re one of the best teams in the league at piling on the pressure and making sure it continues to roll. They also love to create offense from their defense. Momentum is huge for the Dream.

Jackson and Little both came back in for Seattle in the second quarter, but they couldn’t recapture the offensive rhythm. The Dream were flying, jumping into every possible passing lane, and Seattle’s offense had completely stalled. They trailed only 37-25 at halftime, but it felt like a lot more. The mere 12-point gap flattered the Storm.

To their credit, Seattle didn’t just accept that this team has their number and crumble in the second half. The third quarter was easily their best stretch of the game, and they fought their way back into the contest. Jackson and Little were inevitably at the core of it again, with the vast majority of the Storm’s points in their comeback coming from those two in the paint. The Storm also created some transition offense of their own, running the floor off Atlanta misses and occasional turnovers to create offense as quickly and easily as possible. Atlanta were starting to whine to the officials more and more – McCoughtry said one of the magic words and picked up a tech – and their frustration was building.

With Seattle having cut the score to 53-49 heading into the fourth quarter, Sue Bird made one of her few meaningful contributions of the night in nailing a three early in the fourth to pull the Storm within a point at 55-54. And then everything started to go wrong for Seattle. Jackson re-entered the game, and quickly picked up her fourth foul on a putback attempt by de Souza. Then Camille Little missed a very straightforward layup, before Harding charged to the other end, converting at the rim while drawing another Jackson foul. If LJ touched her, it was the barest of glances – there was a lot more contact from Shekinna Stricklen trying to help – but that was Jackson’s fifth foul and sent her back to the bench. More importantly, Atlanta had regained momentum and their confidence was returning. Sancho Lyttle even came down and hit a shot, after opening the game 0-10.

The Storm were pretty much done at that point. Jackson’s fifth foul had also been the team’s fourth in the period, meaning they were in the penalty with nearly 8 minutes remaining. So Atlanta kept driving, and kept converting either layups or free throws. The Seattle offense had stalled again without Jackson on the floor, and kept giving up rebounds and turnovers without much of a fight. Atlanta coasted home for a 77-61 win that continued their dominance over the Storm.

Barring the brief third-quarter resurgence, this was a disappointing game from Seattle. They don’t match up well with Atlanta any more, but they would’ve been hoping to compete better after the confidence-boosting wins over Tulsa. Bird is apparently feeling her hip again, which doesn’t help their chemistry or ball movement, and even with the Little/Jackson pairing in the post working well, they have to get some help. The fact that Wauters finished this game with a zero in the turnover column is hilarious – there were at least four occasions where her lack of effort and/or ability to receive a pass led to Atlanta takeaways. At the very least, Tina Thompson will surely become the third post before the playoffs, with Wauters as the fourth, but the question is whether that will be anywhere near enough. Seattle won’t see Atlanta again this year (barring a very unlikely Finals rematch), but they’ll be running into Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. That’s just as scary.

Atlanta once again pounded the Storm, with their typical defensive activity and aggression streaming right into their offense for most of the night. They created 21 turnovers which led to 32 Dream points, and that was the difference. Players like Harding, McCoughtry, Lyttle, Hayes – and really everyone else, to at least some extent – are constantly gambling for steals, or reaching their arms into passing lanes to create chaos. Just passing from the top of the arc to either wing, or the reverse, is a dangerous activity against Atlanta – someone is likely to be diving out to try to pick off the pass. Offensively, the leading lights were McCoughtry (8-13 for 23 points) and de Souza (9-12 for 20), but once again it was a team-built win for the Dream. This squad is looking dangerous yet again heading into the postseason.

—–

So the first game of the night made me mad that I hadn’t listened to history and put some money on it. The second had a pretty obvious favourite as well. Minnesota had won 11 games in a row before their visit to Chicago, already clinching the #1 seed in the Western Conference. They’d also beaten the Sky in their last three encounters. The only thing working against the Lynx was that leading scorer Seimone Augustus was still out due to her sprained foot, but Chicago could equal that with the loss of their own superstar – center Sylvia Fowles was on the bench in street clothes, with a giant boot protecting her injured left foot.

As in previous games, Monica Wright and Carolyn Swords were the replacements for their respective teams. While the first couple of possessions didn’t go well for the Sky – leading to Chicago coach Pokey Chatman harshly benching Tamera Young for Sonja Petrovic after less than two minutes – Chicago didn’t drop their heads. They’ve shown in recent games that with Fowles out of the lineup, they can actually play team basketball, move the ball, and penetrate defenses. Courtney Vandersloot was aggressive, both in taking jumpshots when they were available and in attacking Lindsay Whalen off the dribble. Her backcourt partner Epiphanny Prince joined in as well, and with Petrovic hitting shots from outside, Chicago were quickly on top.

In fact, by the end of the first quarter, the only concerning aspect for Chicago was that they led just 23-22. They’d contained the Lynx, and produced some solid basketball offensively, but hadn’t managed to pull away. That changed in the second quarter. Minnesota’s offense was static, and besides a couple of shots from midrange by Rebekkah Brunson, no one was hitting anything from outside. Chicago were constantly mixing up their defenses, switching from man-to-man to their 2-3 zone to keep the Lynx on their toes. Without Augustus – one of the options Minnesota depend on to break them out of any kind of offensive slump – the Lynx looked ponderous and tentative with the ball. Even late in the half, when a Whalen drive for a three-point play looked like it might ignite a fire under the Lynx, it was Chicago who responded. Vandersloot had a drive and pullup jumper, Petrovic hit again from outside, and the Sky went into halftime up 40-29.

Unimpressed with the ineffective performance from Wright in the first half, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve started Candice Wiggins in the Augustus gap for the second half. The third quarter that followed was a telling sequence for both teams. Minnesota showed their resolve once again, and their basic ability to start making shots. The offense revolved around Maya Moore, and the Lynx were making everything. In fact their first 8 shots all fell, including 4 threes (two each from Moore and Wiggins), and Moore also had 4 assists in that stretch. Suddenly there was greater quickness about the Lynx, as they moved the ball, drew extra defenders, and rotated to the open player to finish. It seems incredibly simple when it works.

In the face of this sort of onslaught from their opponent, the Chicago Sky that we’ve grown used to from previous years – and their long losing stretch this year – would’ve fallen to pieces. It would’ve been a string of turnovers and bricks, leading to a Lynx advantage of at least 10 by the end of the third quarter. But this was a far better version of the Sky. Led by Epiphanny Prince, Chicago repeatedly had an answer for the buckets that Minnesota were piling up. Chicago continued to move the ball, continued to make shots, and didn’t panic. They only had 4 turnovers in the third quarter, and still held a 61-55 advantage going into the fourth.

While she’s looked healthy and mobile since returning after the Olympic break, only in a couple of recent games has Prince truly started to resemble the star that she’d been for Chicago in the first half of the season. She was the bailout option-extraordinaire for the Sky in this game, picking her moments to drive and create within the offense, but also always there to make something happen if the shot clock was dwindling. After Moore and Wiggins opened the fourth quarter with yet more threes to tie the game at 61, it was Prince once again who led the Sky forwards.

Prince had a long jumper to take back the lead, a drive-and-dish to create for Young, then three free throws when Moore was silly enough to foul her on an attempt from long range as the shot clock expired. With Vandersloot driving and creating as well – she had a couple of worrying turnovers early in the final period, but didn’t let it affect her subsequent play – Chicago had the better attack in the closing stages of the game. Minnesota were back to struggling again offensively. When Brunson – who’d been the only consistent scorer for Minnesota all night – missed a couple of easy finishes inside, while Vandersloot had a strip of Whalen before two driving finishes of her own, the ballgame was over. Probably Chicago’s single-most impressive performance of the year had led to an 83-70 win over the reigning champs.

Even considering recent important wins over Connecticut, LA and New York, it’s been a long time since Chicago have played this well. It wasn’t that they necessarily did any one thing exceptionally – it was that they put all the pieces together, kept themselves under control, and refused to panic when they came under pressure. Swin Cash, for example, was 0-8 from the floor in the first half, but it still felt like she was playing well. They weren’t bad shots, and her activity on the glass and defensively was still contributing. When they came under fire from the Lynx’s long-range attack in the second half, the Prince/Vandersloot double-act did exactly what was envisioned when they were drafted as the long-term future of this franchise’s backcourt. They made the right plays, created points for themselves and their teammates, and carried Chicago home. Prince finished 7-15 for 25 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds, while Vandersloot was 7-13 for 17 points, 4 assists, 3 boards and 2 steals. They only had 4 turnovers between them all night. Defensively, this team is obviously better with Fowles on the floor, but they more than held their own without her. They did the same on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 31-24 against a team that’s been outstanding on the boards all season (these are the top-two rebounding teams in the league by a mile, but only one was playing without their starting center). Chicago are going to put up a hell of a fight for that final playoff spot on the evidence of this performance.

From Minnesota’s perspective, it was a disappointing performance, but winning-streaks have to come to an end at some point. They were beaten in points in the paint 40-18, which with the Lynx tends to mean they weren’t moving the ball – or moving without the ball – as well as usual. Credit the Sky’s defense for keeping them quiet, but the Lynx were too passive on the night and didn’t deserve to come away with the win. Unlike their previous game, Augustus’s absence was noticeable, purely because they were down a world-class scorer. It simply lowers Minnesota’s margin for error when she isn’t there to produce something out of nothing and get their offense in gear. Still, nothing to worry about for a team with little to play for until the playoffs get underway in a couple of weeks.

 

Notes

Rather surprisingly, the Phoenix Mercury announced today that they’d waived rookie post Avery Warley in order to make room to re-sign guard Dymond Simon for the rest of the season, while also signing Briana Gilbreath to another seven-day deal. While she isn’t much of an offensive threat, Warley’s quietly suggested this year that she has one elite skill – she can rebound the basketball. Simon, on the other hand, did nothing to impress in her four brief appearances for the Mercury earlier in the season. It suggests that starting point guard Samantha Prahalis is going to continue to sit out with her shoulder injury, so they felt that they needed a guard more than the extra post (plus Charde Houston has already returned, and Candice Dupree may well be on her way). But there are only 11 days remaining in Phoenix’s season. Retaining the rights to the better player for next year is all that really matters at this point, because it’s not like they care about winning games over the next two weeks. Maybe Simon showed a lot more in practice than in games – otherwise, it’s a strange move.

 

Upcoming Games

Wednesday September 12th (today):

Washington @ New York, 7pm ET

Seattle @ Indiana, 7pm ET

San Antonio @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Connecticut @ Phoenix, 10.30pm ET

—-

Thursday September 13th (tomorrow):

Chicago @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

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